“City life was really kicking us in the balls,” says Alex Highton, as he sips a cup of tea. I wince and nearly choke on my toast. I’m sitting at the singer-songwriter’s kitchen table in the tiny village of Wooditon near Cambridge, and he’s telling me how he left the grime of north London for the rural existence and, in the process, kick-started a musical career he never thought he’d have.
Highton’s first album, Wooditon Wives Club, was released in 2011. Crowdfunded after he started publishing demos online, with no promotion other than Highton’s knack for getting his message out through social media, it nevertheless sold well. Its pared-down, elegant arrangements and warm folk-inspired sound, not to mention Highton’s wry lyrical vignettes, gained plaudits from the BBC’s 6Music and London’s Time Out magazine.
He’s now recording the follow up, Nobody Knows Anything, in the tiny studio next to his house, which is due for release in the spring. He’s already released a couple of works in progress online, as a taste of what’s to come. “It Falls Together” is a quirky, poppy number, driven by a choppy piano riff and off-kilter rhythm. “Shame,” meanwhile is lush, melancholic fragments. “Shame takes you home / You never know when it’s gone,” croons Highton as George Martin-style strings arc behind.
Yet this all came about almost by accident. Highton had actually given up music once already after his first attempt at the big time—a stint in avant pop outfit Mohanski—faltered when the band’s album flopped. “People who reviewed it gave it five stars, but everyone else ignored it,” he says, succinctly. Mohanski fell apart and Highton stopped looking for the limelight.
One thing he didn’t give up, however, was the rock’n’roll lifestyle. After a while, fast living and good times started to take their toll. “I was in quite a bad way,” he explains. “My mental health wasn’t particularly great and I had some kind of breakdown. Not like me crying on the street, but certainly finding life very anxious and difficult.”
Somewhere around that time, though, Highton picked up his guitar again. Playing was more therapeutic than anything else at first, but the songs soon started to flow. Soon after, Highton and his young family left London for Wooditon, without quite realizing it, Highton’s life and musical career were back on track.
Wooditon Wives Club contains songs written in that period and honed in the months following. It’s mellow like a glass of single malt on a cold autumn night, Highton’s fluid, Davey Graham-inspired acoustic guitar playing complemented by his mellow Liverpudlian brogue and lyrics that take in country living (“Village Life”), warm hearted observations of family life (“A Song For Someone”) and even elliptical social comment (“On The Corner”).
Now it’s full speed ahead for the sequel. Nobody Knows Anything is crowd-funded again, via the PledgeMusic funding platform, and hitting its target much sooner than expected. This time, he tells me, he wants to move things on. “It’s a completely different sound [from Wooditon Wives Club]. More experimental. Interesting sounds, weirder. But it’s still all songs, because that’s what I do.”
He’s already started road testing the new material too, at warm-up gigs around London. There are fuller tours planned in the spring and autumn to promote the new record.
THE BOMBER JACKET: Can we start by talking about the new album, Nobody Knows Anything. What are stage are you at with it?
Alex Highton: I wrote the album over the last couple of years, so all the songs are ready. All the demos were done by the end of last year. At the moment we’re doing some sessions in the studio to try and finish the record, and some people are sending us some strings and some trombone from America.
So it’s recorded in your studio here?
Yeah, well I say studio—it’s more like a room with a computer in it, and some bits and bobs. I’ve got a massive band of people playing on it. So, Bonnie [Dobson] and Laura [J. Martin]. There’s also a guy called John Howard, a brilliant singer/songwriter from the 1970s. He was supposed to be the next Elton John, he got in touch with me and he’s playing on one of the songs.
Even the dentist from next door is on it, he’s playing a bit of sax. And there’s a girl from the next village, she’s playing the violin.
An acoustic version of “Kills” from Highton’s new album, Nobody Knows Anything.
You’re going for a different sound…
Yes, I could have just done a pared down Wooditon Wives Club Part 2, but I didn’t want to do that.
So many people are asking me, why are you doing something different, you had a good thing going on. But I just want to make a great record. It might still be an awful record! I don’t care about having a good career arc, I don’t care about having a good single on the record. I just care about making the record I want to make.
If people like it I’ll be so made up [Liverpool slang for happy], especially for the people who have supported me with pledges.
Another new song by Highton, “You Don’t Own This Life.”
You need to follow your vision. Fleetwood Mac could have made another Rumors but they made Tusk instead.
What a crazy great record that is! It’s mental! I mean, no one really gives a toss, right? It’s not like there are a load of people out there saying it’s some great Dylan moment when Alex Highton did something different.
So I’ve got the freedom to do this through the crowd funding, by having no U.K. label. I have the freedom to do what I want, so why wouldn’t I?
What kind of things are feeding into the new album? What are you listening to?
A lot of Joni Mitchell, I listen to a lot of older music, Kraftwerk, there’s a band called Clor I really like. Lyrically, David Ackles, I’m a massive fan of him, Randy Newman too. Those guys inspire me because they don’t write straight down the line, there’s always something in there to spark your interest.
Are you still listening to a lot of Harry Nilsson?
Oh yeah, the thing about Nilsson is that he was an artist, he did whatever he liked. That’s been an inspiration to me. The guy’s on a major label and they’re throwing millions at him and he just doesn’t give a stuff. He’ll write hits, but the first record after his massive album, “Nilsson Schmilsson,” the first song goes “You’re breaking my heart, you ‘re tearing me apart so fuck you!”
And that’s just after he just had that big hit [“Without You”]. He just does whatever he wants.
You seemed to have nailed social media as part of the new album campaign. Was that a deliberate strategy?
I don’t deliberately try to do it. I have learned a bit more about how social media works. I just find it easy to talk to people. I’m not precious about anything, so I just talk to people, people like chatting, I’m happy to chat to them. I’m genuinely flattered when people think something is good or whatever.
And that’s it, really, I don’t know why it’s worked so well. You’ve got to be willing to put the effort in. You know like you get millions of emails, and it’s hard to answer them all? You’ve gotta be willing to answer your emails.
Is that part of why the crowd funding has worked so well? You’ve built the trust?
Definitely. You’ve got to build the trust. It’s not so much that people get ripped off, they get let down by flaky musicians promising things they’re not going to do, or the record never gets made. I mean I don’t think they think they’ll get 10 grand and then we’re gonna spend it, it’s just it’s hard to keep track of it all when you’re a band.
I am genuinely amazed all the time that people I don’t know are willing to back me in massive ways and it gives me an added spur to make a better record. People like that connection with someone making music, and they like helping, I think.
I imagine the things you’ve got to do are: you’ve got to make alright music, you’ve got to not be a dick, and you’ve got to do what you say you’ll do.
It’s harder when you do your first one because you’ve got nothing to build on. You’ve got to make the story yourself. A lot of the time when I’ve spoken to PR people, they say you’ve got to have a story. My only story, because I’m so useless, is the truth, because I can never keep to a story…
When I get up on stage I have no idea what I’m going to say. That doesn’t mean it’ll be funny or interesting, but I can’t have a spiel or whatever, I probably couldn’t remember it if I did have one. My mind is too addled from years of abuse!
Do you have a set list when you play?
No! Sometimes I have to write all the songs down because sometimes on stage my mind goes blank. But I never have a set list. I just play whatever comes along, and chat to the audience.
Can we talk about Wooditon Wives Club?
Well, it was a document of the move here. The songs were helping me get through a really tough time. I’ve always lived in cities, so I wasn’t prepared for the countryside. I got here and I was like, “Wow this is great, fresh air, it’s not crazily expensive to live, everyone knows each other…”
Some of the songs are like stories, “Village Life,” for example.
Some of the people in the village seem to think that it’s real! I went into the pub the first time we got here, and I went for a run, and as I was thinking about the barmaid in the pub—not in a sexual way—but I was thinking about her and this story just came into my head.
There’s a lot of stuff that goes on in these villages you know [laughs] but it’s just basically a bit fun, y’know?
“On the Corner” has a much darker feel. Is that an experience you had in Wooditon, or in London, or is it completely fictional?
That was my experience of living London in that song. I don’t tend to write straight up confessional stuff can’t think of any songs on that album, maybe “I Left The City,” that are a straight-up description of what happened to me.
“On The Corner” was just came into my head. I was wandering around Manor House [in north London] and I was looking at these buildings and I just thought friggin’ hell, this is rough round here.
I know those areas well, I’ve spent a lot of time in the less salubrious parts of London in my life. I just started thinking about it, about someone just topping themselves [committing suicide] because they just couldn’t take it anymore, they were so crushed.
I never wanted to do something straight, “oh I live in a place…” you know, because these people have got real lives. They’re not just stereotypes. I wanted to write about a person who had this terrible experience.
On the other hand there are songs that are incredibly tender, like “Song for Someone.”
That was written for Molly, my eldest daughter. I have a song for my other daughter, Rosie, but it’s just a demo at the moment. She’s different to Molly so it’ll be a different song.
Those are the bits of the album that I can imagine the hip crowd saying “ooh I just want to vomit,” you know? But that was the state of mind I was in at the time, not all the way through, but when I was writing it. My family were a what kept me going when I was not great at all.
I’m fine now by the way! [Laughs] But they saved me. So the record is a love letter to them. The song called “Little Rocks,” that’s one of the few songs I’ve written for my wife. I haven’t written that many for her, but I only wanted to put something down that really reflected what I meant.
Have you got any plans to tour this album?
I’m gonna do as many gigs as I can. Wooditon Wives Club got released in Europe, so I’ll definitely go to Belgium, Holland, Germany. I’ll probably do a tour in April and September. I’ll play whatever festivals I can get on and I’ll play any gigs that I can get to.
I want to do some London shows with the full band, and I might do the album launch in [my local] pub and in London. I want to do the launch in London with as many of the musicians who played on the record as possible.
When’s it due for release?
All of the recording will be done by the end of January. It should be mixed and mastered by the end of February, then out to the pledgers and a release in April or May, maybe released abroad in September.
It’s a really weird situation for me to get thrown into this career that I never thought would happen at such a late stage with kids and a home and everything.
I think the new music world, where people don’t earn that much money, has allowed me to do this. No cool record label or PR people from the “old” music industry are gonna pick up a guy in his mid-’30s who lives in a village in the middle of nowhere and put him in a studio and pay for him to do it.
But this new world has allowed me to build this following. It’s allowed me to go on tour, even though I’ve got kids to look after.
So I’m on this amazing adventure in this really weird situation. One minute you’re playing a music festival and everybody’s lining up and buying your music and then you get home and you’ve got to bathe the kids, y’know? But it’s all good.
Alex Highton covers of Elliott Smith and Harry Nilsson songs: