"Putting a cello on an album with next to nothing on it was a bit like pulling a gun out..." - hmv.com talks to Stephen Fretwell
Any fans of the hit sitcom Gavin & Stacey will no doubt recognise at least some of Stephen Fretwell's work; James Corden was reportedly such a fan of Fretwell's songwriting talents that he used his song 'run', featured on his 2004 album Magpie, as the show's theme tune.
Another album, Man on the Roof, arrived three years later in 2007, but since then all has been very quiet. After parting company with his previous record label shortly after the release of his second LP, Fretwell took time out to help raise his young family, but as the years went on it began to seem as if we might have seen the last of him.
However, after many years in the wilderness and largely thanks to developing a productive creative relationship with producer Dan Carey - who has worked with the likes of Kae Tempest, Grimes and La Roux, to name a few - this week sees Stephen Fretwell's long-awaited return as he delivers his first new album in 13 years.
Busy Guy arrives in stores today (July 16) and ahead of its release, we caught up with Stephen to talk about the long and sometimes difficult journey his third album has taken...
So this is your first album in 13 years – that’s quite a layoff. What was it that prompted the long break in the first place?
“Yeah, well, it’s obviously been the main topic in the interviews I’ve been doing at the moment, and it has kind of led me to think about it much more. I don’t know, things are complex aren’t they? It’s not just one thing, but I suppose the best way I can precis it is that I got dropped from my label after my second album, because I’ve never been a very lucrative or big-selling act, and I was on a major, so it just didn’t really add up. And it was a very amicable split, but that sends anyone into a spin in life. No matter what spin you put on it, you are still not doing what you were doing, and there’s a loss of something."
"My manager was like: 'Let’s get a wiggle on and get a new album together, we’ll go and meet this guy I know called Dan Carey, you’ll really like him.' We went to meet Dan and we started thinking about making an album, and then I kind of just started to think, do I really want to do this? Is this not a good chance to put a band together or do something different? I think I was 27, and I’d started the singer-songwriter thing when I was 17, so I kind of thought that maybe the trick is to change and do stuff you like listening to at the moment."
How far did you get with that?
“So I tried to put a band together, messed around with that for a bit, and I was just really lost for a year or so. And then my girlfriend gave birth to our first son, and it just kind of felt wrong for me to prioritise creativity. So I thought I’d muck in with all that for a couple of years, then get my shit together and do a new record. But after that I just lost a bit of confidence I think, and then we had another son. So it was like, there was enough going on, I wasn’t just sat around. If I had been, I probably just would have picked my guitar up. So that just went on and on for ages, and I lost of bit of confidence and didn’t really know if I could do it anymore."
“Then our house got broken into and all our stuff got stolen. I didn’t even have a guitar for about four years, because I just couldn’t really prioritise spending money on a new guitar when I wasn’t really even doing much. And then in about 2017 I just thought: ‘Right, I’ve got to get on with this now’. I went for it, and then I just bottled it at the last minute. The songs didn’t seem good enough, and I thought ‘maybe you just need to go to Uni. I did a crammer course, got a part-time job, and as I was doing that I thought: ‘Alright, come on sunshine, time to pull your finger out.’ So in 2018 I went for it again, and then we finally made the album about a year ago, and it’s just been canned up until this week.”
A lot of artists go on hiatus while they raise a family, but usually, there’s a sense that they’ll return to it at some point. It sounds like you really struggled with that. How did you go about rehabilitating yourself and starting to write again?
“It wasn’t really a hiatus as such because it wasn’t planned. But I do think it’s had the benefit of a hiatus because everything is completely fresh. When I came back to it it was almost like taking up a new thing, and it was very difficult because I had to re-learn everything, how things worked. It was tricky, but the good thing that came out of it was that freshness. There were no residual feelings of ‘This needs to be a follow-up to that’, it felt like making a debut album."
“Because I hadn’t done it for so long, and although I’ve discovered now that there are people that are still interested even after all this time, at the time those people weren’t around me. I just was just a guy on my own trying to do something. which is quite a big thing if you’re not in that world. The idea of ‘I’ll go and get a record deal, then make an album and do loads of interviews’, it all seemed otherworldly to a guy driving around in his car with his kids in the back.”
What changed to prompt a return?
“One I had a body of maybe about five songs that were pretty much there, I started to go to the library every day from 9:00 until 2:00 and just focus entirely on moving the words around, re-writing it, ripping it all up and starting again and seeing what that did. And eventually, the songs started to look like they had some muscle to them, you couldn’t really argue with them. And then more came, and the last song ‘Green’ came to me in one go about two days before the recording session. I’d had the riff before, with totally different words, and then it just came to me in one flush, I stayed up all night, and the next day we recorded it.”
Dan Carey has ended up producing the record – at what point did he re-enter the picture?
“When we get older we probably end up with about four or five people we’d call our best friends, and I think Dan is certainly one of those in my life. But professionally, I suppose occasionally if we’d been out for dinner with friends or something the conversation might turn to songs and he might say ‘Have you got anything together?’ And I’d send him some snippets, and he’d go ‘That’s really good’, or ‘I’m not sure about that’, and I suppose that went on in fits and starts for about 10 years."
“So he has kind of always been there, and he’s someone who I definitely trust to never be afraid to say ‘I think that’s rubbish’. I’m sure he wouldn’t care if someone disagreed with him, but he’s someone who can very politely give his opinion, and I like that I can measure things by that.”
Was the album title of the record intended to poke fun at yourself a little bit?
“That was kind of an in-joke between Dan and me, he calls me Busy Guy because I always used to go to a pub in Brixton in the morning, ostensibly to work, I’d have a coffee and then maybe later have a pint. But I’d always have a notebook, a newspaper and some pens. He asked me why I always had them with me, and I remember saying to him that if you’ve got those things and you go to a pub in the morning, you look like a busy guy instead of an alcoholic."
"So I put that into a lyric to make him laugh, because it was the last song and I didn’t even know if that song was going to make it onto the album. And then at the end of the sessions, he wrote ‘Busy Guy’ on the tape box, and that was it. Nobody would let me change it.”
It’s a very understated, very subtle album, there’s very little going on besides guitar and voice…
“I think I sort of wrote the record with Dan. Even though he wasn’t there, I wrote it with things in mind, things he would suggest or not encourage in the arrangement or the style of the songs, because we’d spent a lot of time talking about it and we wrote a lot of songs together when we were younger, so I know how he works. We talked bout how it would be lovely if it was a nylon-stringed guitar, rather than a steel-strung sound because it would bring something different to it."
“So I wrote on a nylon-strung guitar for the whole album, and we talked about the idea of having a sort of phantom bass sound that follows the bass notes on the guitar, and we’d then sync it up so that’s it’s indistinguishable, but it’s a frequency that’s there so when you play it in a pub or somewhere where there’s a lot of chatter it covers that. So then we started thinking that if we’ve got that low frequency, and the guitar and the voice in the middle, then if we add one more frequency to take it up higher, and if all the songs are strong enough to carry themselves within that space, then I think we’ve done what we need to do."
So that 'extra frequency' is all the textural stuff bubbling around what you’re doing, essentially?
"Yeah, after the session Dan took the tapes back home, and it was lockdown so I couldn’t really go, everyone was still being careful. But he rang me and said he’d got everything running trough the desk and he’d set up a Minimoog, a Moog, an electric guitar and a bass, and he said: ‘I’m just going to play and react to what you’ve done over today, we’ll talk later’. And at the end of that day, what he’d sent is basically the album, except for the cello."
"We put the cello on it, and we talked about how putting a cello on an album with next to nothing on it was a bit like pulling a gun out in a film. So we picked four moments on the album we thought we could pull that gun out. And again, it wasn’t advisable for me to go down to his studio as well, so he got the cellist in, showed him the four places we’d picked, and he just reacted to it and had a few passes at it, and that was the album, really.”
Was the intention to keep it minimal always there from the outset?
“It’s funny, it seemed to get louder the less we put on there, and quieter the more we put on it. When it was just the guitar it almost had more impact, and it was like we were putting the other bits on there to soften it a bit. Because the lyrics are so fast and there are so many of them that it started to sound weirder."
"I did try and cut the album with a band the year before, we went there for three days with my old live band, and as soon as the drums would go in I realised that there were so many words in there that they were landing in the wrong places, against the beats. I just realised it wasn’t going to work and I was gutted, actually, because it cost a fortune and I thought ‘we’ll cut this in three days, and then maybe Dan can do a string arrangement’. That was the original idea. Can you imagine? A full band and a massive string arrangement on top, compared to what it is now? It’s the polar opposite.”
Now that it’s done, do you feel like you’ve got another album in you?
“I didn’t stop once I’d started. I read Howard Jacobson in an interview about getting nominated for the Booker Prize, and he said that when he heard about the nomination he was already halfway through the next book. He said: “You finish one book, you start the next book.” Just like that. And the next day after that studio session I had everything set up and I just kept going. There are 12 songs on my whiteboard at the moment."
"They’re not finished, but they’re at a place where they’re almost there. It’s not a blank page situation, there’s a lot of lyrics that need working on, but I’d like to try and make that in October so it’s done and I can get on the road again. I’m actually surprised at how gutted I am about not being out on tour at the moment.”
Obviously, that’s tricky under the circumstances, but live gigs are starting to happen again – do you have any plans to tour? Will you take a band out with you or do it solo and keep it minimal like the record?
“There’s a tour in November, and it’s just five nights at the moment. And even when we were booking those, the insurers were still wary. But I’m thinking about finding a singer in each town, and maybe get to see if I can pay them a fee to come on and do two or three songs, so that it’s not just me and there’s something different each time. I always think it’s quite a big ask of an audience to just put up with one guy and a guitar, but I’d like to see if we can make something interesting happen at the end of each gig.
“So that’s the plan, I just hope there are more gigs soon. I really thought I’d be sick to death of it by now, but I did two nights recently in Newcastle and Manchester and it’s just so nice to walk out onto the stage as an older person, not having to worry about being cool, it’s nice to just walk out there and play the songs.”