“I think it’s radical to write a simple song. Hardly anyone is doing it…” - hmv.com talks to Travis’ Fran Healy
Back in 2017, after they’d completed their touring commitments in support of 2016’s Everything At Once, Travis had a decision to make.
The 20th anniversary of their all-conquering LP The Man Who was coming up in 2019. This was the album that shot the band to the top of festival bills, into areas, and, more crucially, into almost three million living rooms in the UK alone. It would need a real celebration.
So, they decided to celebrate it then and there. They re-released the album and played the record in full at a series of shows across the UK and Europe. Then the celebration was done, for there was a new album to think about. And it arrives this week in the shape of 10 Songs.
For the first time since the band’s 2003 album, 12 Memories, every song on the LP has written by frontman Fran Healy, something he did after he was spurred on by his young son, Klay.
Recorded at RAK studios in London, the album was co-produced by Healy and Florence and the Machine knob-twiddler Robin Baynton, with a slew of special guests, including Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle and Susanna Hoffs of The Bangles.
With the album in stores now, we spoke to Healy about how the album came together...
You’ve said in the build-up to this album that you had four years’ worth of writing and 10 albums’ worth of material, how did you end up with so much?
“It’s like digging holes. You have to dig hundreds and hundreds of holes. There’s a lot of dirt to shift. 10 albums’ worth of material is like looking at a desert and just seeing molehills everywhere. For me, 95% of songwriting is very, very manual, it’s not creative at all. 95% is just digging. Every so often one of your songs has a pulse and then you leave it and you come back to it six months later, then either the song has a stronger pulse or it’s dead. Then a year later you might have a heartbeat and you can start to give it more life.”
Hence it took you a while to get everything together…
“I’ve had four years to air a lot of songs and give them space to grow. I told management, I won’t rush this album, every single song on this album has to have a heartbeat. It’s given us our strongest record for a while. As well as that, I’ve been concentrating on being a Dad for the past 14 years. My son actually said to me that he wanted me to do the band. He let me off the hook.”
Was there any pressure from management or a label to get things done?
“Nobody’s banging down my door. I’ve never had that. Maybe in the very early days. You have to be responsible for yourself and get on with things. We’ve been a band for long enough now. We can be our own bosses.”
You celebrated 20 years of The Man Who early in order to focus on this record, was that a process of clearing the decks before you could move on?
“I wouldn’t put it like that. We did The Man Who when we did because we had free time. We knew we wouldn’t have the time in 2019, because we’d have a new album to think about. I’ve got no problem celebrating that record.”
Having spent a lot of time digging holes, when did you know that you’d done enough and you had an album?
“End of summer. I went into the studio with nine songs and I knew I could get one more. You can’t put out a nine-song album. I like 10 song records. The Man Who was a 10 song record. I wrote ‘A Ghost’ in December after we’d started in the studio and it turned out great. I had a day off to do it, and, if there’s enough pressure, you’ll write a song.”
You did the album with Robin Baynton, how did he come into the picture?
“Our management looks after a guy called Isaac Gracie and Robin had worked with him. He really impressed our manager and he thought we’d get on really well. He was right. Robin was amazing. He’s fast, but his sonic skills are really high and that’s a great combination. He kept the sessions brisk. I’d go in, play the band the demo, we’d rehearse it maybe twice and then I’d tell Robin to start recording. We got them all done within three takes. It was very fast and very uneventful.”
Was that what you were looking for after such a long period of gestation for the album?
“No. I’ve always found going into the studio to be very nerve-wracking. I always worry you get in the studio and discover the songs are s***e and you got to spend your time polishing a bunch of turds. But it turned out to be very different. It’s the most workmanlike we’ve ever been. We knew we had to work quickly and we were done before we realised we were making an album.”
You did the album in London, you’ve worked at various times in recent years in Berlin and Norway, why did you settle on London? Was that where Robin was?
“It was the most economical. I live in Los Angeles, but the rest of the band and Robin were in Britain. I did look in to do it in LA, but it was easier for me to go over then everyone else to come to me. It was very fast though, so no hanging around.”
You’ve got Jason from Grandaddy on the record, how did that come about?
“I did a project with the guys from Midlake. Me and Jason and one of the guys from Mercury Rev and Alex Kapranos all did it. We all had two songs each on this record and we went on tour with it in 2017. I met Jason there. People have an impression of me and it’s never what it actually is, I don’t think it’s a positive one. He was a bit sceptical of my presence there. But we ended up getting on really well and becoming fast friends. I had a section of that song which needed a cool moment so I asked him if he would do it. He sent it back and it was absolutely perfect.”
Susannah Hoffs from the Bangles too…
“I met her on Twitter. She posted some video of her singing ‘Eternal Flame’ and I just told her I love her voice. Two weeks later, she wrote back to me. I don’t really go on Twitter, but I did that day! I screengrabbed that. Then about two years later, I needed someone for a duet and I just thought I’d ask her. She was great. Her voice is so wonderful.”
When did you decide that the record title would be as simple as 10 Songs?
“It’s a bit of a Ronseal title, isn’t it? We kicked a few others about. I just kept looking at the list of songs and the title crystalized. I don’t hear a lot of songs these days, people aren’t really writing songs.”
What do you mean?
“Not in the same way they used to. A song, for me, is something that moves you. You hear it in the car and you have to pull over. You have to really feel something. A line that makes you smile, a melody that touches you. I don’t get touched that much. I think it’s radical to write a simple song. It’s a radical act. Hardly anyone is doing it. You don’t hear it on the radio. At the moment you’ve got producers writing songs and they can’t write songs. They make things sound amazing, but they don’t write.”
“You have producers who get amazing singers in who can make the back of a cereal box sound wonderful. Doesn’t give you a song. There’s no rough diamond in there. I live for hearing a great song and I don’t hear many. The radio is just background music. These songs are proper songs. It’s someone sitting with a guitar trying to drill down and really find something, not 10 guys sitting in a room, writing by committee. Songwriting like that is a dying trade.”
How are things shaping up to promote this record as you can’t tour?
“We’ve put a tour on sale for April next year. I’ve got no idea how tickets are going. It’s a very interesting time in our business. We’re in the live business really. That’s how bands earn their wages. Getting on a bus and taking your music out there. All bets are off for at least a year. I don’t think this pandemic has really hit yet. A vaccine for anything will take at least four years to work. That’s the quickest it’s ever been done. This is just the start. Our business is going to get f***ed. We’re just lucky we can still put music out.”