Entering Newton Faulkner’s dressing room at the Leeds Beckett Student Union, the man himself immediately makes me feel welcome by dismissing my proffered handshake in favour of a hug and welcoming me inside. As I get settled he makes friendly conversation about the tai chi he’s currently learning to help control his breathing and the boxing training he’s been doing with the driver of his tour bus. Despite the success he’s achieved over his past decade in the music industry, it’s obvious that he’s remained down to earth.
Welcome back to Leeds! How does it feel to be back up in this part of the country?
It’s lovely. I just love touring, I don’t really mind where I am. I’ve been in a lot of places already. I’ve done Europe and Ireland and the Highlands and islands of Scotland. Been to Shetland, which is as far as you can go without being in Iceland.
It’s much more scenic up there.
It’s beautiful. It’s an amazing place.
Have there been any highlights of the tour so far?
Gig wise, I think it’s Dublin and – I’ve forgotten. I’m starting to mix them up in my head. It is a very long tour, this one. I’m out until the 4th December. This is one of the bigger gaps, it’s four-on, but normally it’s three on – two off. Otherwise you can massively wear out your voice.
Is there anything special that you do to maintain you voice whilst you’re touring? b>
I do so many things. That’s the only thing that makes touring not fun, is not being able to sing to the best of your ability, and I just – I’m on my last antibiotic, but in terms of working around things I’m pretty good with general preparation. If I’ve got a gig, the first thing that I think when I wake up is – I warm up before I talk. Because talking’s actually quite bad if you’re doing it wrong, and I naturally do it wrong. So I have to retrain myself every morning to talk in a way that isn’t going to damage my voice, then I do loads of warm ups. Most of the day, I constantly try and find ways of improving it. Because it seems that I’ve got the stage now where singing is fine. It’s the stuff that goes around it. I’ve got my old asthma and things like that. And just breathing wise, like hiccups, random things like that really affect what you’re going to do, so I constantly try and find ways around it. Even digestive stuff like burps get in the way, so I’ve ended up going right into everything.
This album is the best vocally by quite a lot. At one point, I was overtraining and over- warming up, so by time I did the gig my voice was tired. It is surprisingly easy to do I think. I did that for a while, then when I was doing Human Love, because the album was generally higher, I had to really think about how I was going to do it and I found almost another whole octave of chest that I can control. Then after that I did the same for Head Voice and I got up to the highest notes in ‘Hit The Ground Running’.
That is pretty high.
It’s crazy high. It’s a terrible idea (laughs). Singing has been the strangest part of the journey. Because guitar for me, I just instantly was like, “oh this is really fun!”. I’ve done everything I can to push it. One thing that I set out to do when I first started was to try and keep everything at the same level – keep the singing at the same level as the playing on the same level as the writing, because there’s just not that many people really that I think have done that, so it’s a challenge that I set myself. Guitar took over for a bit, then I tried to massively dig into singing and try to take that up a notch. It’s probably about time to go deep into guitar land again and that will take over.
Also, I’ve added production, that’s become as much a part I do as anything else. I’ve produced [all of the songs on] this album, apart from 3 tracks.
Is that in your home studio?
Yeah. Which is quite a major leap for me.
You were saying about challenging your voice. Would you say on this album you challenged yourself more than on previous albums?
Yes. Definitely vocally. Guitarwise, there are some very tricky bits, but I just do that naturally. I don’t think, “oh, I should make this harder,” I just keep going until I think, “oh shit, this is actually really hard!”
Do you think that’s important as an artist, to keep on pushing yourself?
Definitely! Otherwise, you can go stale fast. I’ve seen people go stale within 2 albums, and it’s my sixth. They have all been really different, none of them really played by the rules (laugh) which is fun!
That’s the best way to do it.
I think so. I think someone came to the gig and didn’t actually know the stuff that well, they were brought by a friend. Then they went back through everything and they were like, “this is a really strange collection of stuff!” (laugh). Which I like, I’d rather do that than have released six albums that sound exactly the same without taking any risk.
Speaking of the new album, how has the response been so far on the tour?
It’s been amazing. The response to the new material, including live and recordin,g has been the best I think I’ve ever had. Definitely going by the hardcore fanbase, they’re really happy. And I’m really happy, I think it’s the sound that I’ve been searching for for a really long time. I like playing sounds that sound like someone played them, rather than stuff that is so heavily edited it dehumanises it. I think with this it sounds human enough and it’s polished enough for it to make sense.
Production wise, there are loads of little noises dotted around, which is just enough to make it sound like it was made last year and not ten years ago. If you’re just recording guitars and vocals, there’s no way of making that sound futuristic, because everything that can be done has pretty much been done. So it’s the little production elements – I mean I used pretty weird synths. I didn’t want to use any of the normal stuff because everyone knows what it sounds like, so I was digging up weird little boxes. It was great.
You mentioned your fans. You’ve said before that Smoked Ice Cream is on the album because the fans wanted it on there?
Yeah! It’s one of the first things that came up when the pledge campaign started. I asked, “what do you guys want on this one?” and I think that song came up more than any other.
Would you say they have a lot of input in what you do?
Yeah, I like it being open. I’ve done pretty much everything I can to make every part of the process transparent. Studio Zoo maybe took it too far.
That’s completely unique.
I was on camera for five weeks. It was mental. It’s still the first album ever to be made live, which is quite a weird mantle for me to hold (laughs). It doesn’t make sense. Yeah, it’s a strange one. But I think that took that almost as far as you could possibly take it. Next album I might do that a bit more. I might do one day a week and basically save up all the fun stuff. I’ll do all the boring stuff without people watching, then be like, “right, we’ve got this, this and this” and do it like that. That could work.
My favourite song from the new album is All She Needs. You’ve said that you broke your own rules when making that song – what did you mean by that?
Thank you! In terms of production I put way more on it. Every other track, there’s like 5 things and nothing else, I wouldn’t allow anything else on it. I felt like it responded differently to the treatment, so everything we added made it sound better as opposed to overcrowding it. Every little guitar thing – everything we added into the chorus made it bigger and bigger and bigger so we kept going.
The guy that mixed it did an incredible job.
It’s an incredible song. You said you’ve been going for six albums – ten years – now. What would you say is the most important thing you’ve learnt on your journey over the last decade?
Just do what you do and really try not to care too much about all kinds of things. I think if you’re just true to what you do, then you don’t really care what happens after that. I think the only times I’ve been frustrated as an artist is when I’ve compromised because someone promised me something would happen if we lean it this way, and then we’ve done that and it hasn’t happened, and then I’m stuck with something that isn’t what I wanted it to be in the first place. Whereas if I do exactly what I want, then I don’t really care what happens after that. It’s like I’ve done it, I really like it, see what happens.
Actually it’s done quite well this one; number 13 at the moment is amazing, as an unsigned, independent artist. But it is hard and the system is going to be encouraged by the upper echelons of pop, because it kind of increases their stranglehold. It is those pop playlists which are dominating the top 10, which doesn’t quite make sense. I analysed the numbers because I wanted to understand. On sales, I was on number 9 I think, which is nice because that’s people actively buying it, and it’s mainly streams from playlists that pushed it out of the top 10. The playlist thing is strange because it’s not a choice. They’ve chosen to put it on the playlist and haven’t chosen the tracks on it, and I feel like that’s kind of a different thing. It’s like listening to the radio or it’s a more passive thing than buying a record. 100 streams equals a sale.
Is it that many?
Yeah. It’s the playlist thing that throws it off making sense. Because if you add it to a playlist that’s got 30 million people on it, suddenly all the charts just go – (he waves his hands energetically). It’s interesting. There must be a way of making it work, I don’t think it is working as well as it could. But it’s all new.
That’s the thing, it’s always moving forward so the industry has to move with it. b>
Also artists have been outraged forever. We’re really good at being outraged. We were outraged when sheet music was invented. We were all really angry. And when I found out about that, I thought, “oh, that’s embarrassing, we should sort that out”. It’s embarrassing. Classical composers were furious because they were like, “hang on, that means people can just play my stuff.” Before, they were being paid to go and play stuff to the very select few. They were being paid a huge amount of money, and then sheet music
came in and other people could learn their material. They were outraged about that, and then obviously fast forwarding massively, with cassettes everybody was outraged about that because you can copy the music. Then we were outraged about all of the online stuff – yeah. I kind of get a bit bored of our constant outrage (laughs).
We have to just make it work. We have to make every single stage work as best we can. The only time it’s bad is if you can’t make a living out of music. I think that’s a real shame. It should be a possible career. I know a lot of people who have had to stop and get jobs and it sucks, because they’re really good. Obviously gigs are good, they’re solid, they make sense. Songwriters have been hit really hard because they don’t have gigs.
Final question: do you have any plans for 2018 that you can tell us about?
I have possibilities. No solid plans – I want to get back in the studio, which is weird, I don’t think I’ve ever said that this soon. I loved making [the new album], it was so much fun. I had a great time. Especially with tracks like ‘All She Needs’ where I got to use everything in my house, literally all of the guitars. I’m hungry to get back in, which is a new emotion for me.
Thank you for your time.