Following the surprise success of debut album ‘Thirst For Romance’ 2007, the Ivor Novello award winning Simon Aldred and his occasional band, occasional solo project Cherry Ghost could certainly not be accused of being ruthless careerists – two long gaps have produced two very different but equally critically acclaimed albums, the latest of which ‘Herd Runners’ was released this week on Heavenly Records. Ahead of the release of the album, Louder Than War’s Fergal Kinney caught up with Simon Aldred about ‘Herd Runners’, songwriting and why the new Cherry Ghost album will be their last.
In 2010 you said you’d like to get a new album out within 6 months, I know you’ve been busy with ‘Out Cold’ in between but what led to such a delay?
It doesn’t really feel like I’ve taken a breath to be honest, I’m certainly not one to be sitting around, I like to treat each day like a normal job, I get up early-ish and then work straight through 9 to 5 Monday to Friday, I try and keep it like that and keep it fairly disciplined .It doesn’t feel like I’ve taken any time off. This record was finished probably the back end of autumn last year. I did the Out Cold thing and kind of had a bit of a crisis of not wanting to play guitar for a while and getting a bit bored of – you know- what I was representing as an artist. I took a bit of time out as I guess if you’re not excited by what you’re doing you can’t expect anyone else to be. So I wanted to keep it interesting really and push myself, do something that wasn’t in my comfort zone. Out Cold took a long while as it was quite a steep learning curve, I produced it myself, I recorded it myself and I had to buy all the equipment. That took probably twelve months which was longer than I would ordinarily take to do something. That kind of took a big chunk of those three years. And I guess I was just living my life and doing a lot of co-writing, which seems to take up more of my time than Cherry Ghost to be honest. So yeah, the turnaround for this album has been as rapid an album as I’ve ever done really, it was recorded and mixed within 6 week. Obviously the writing aspect, I demo everything within an inch of its life before I go into recording so there’d not really been a band there, just me, if you want to do something that’s a bit fuller production-wise it just takes more time.
It seems listening to the album that it’s a lot more direct than ‘Beneath this Burning Shoreline’ which was quite brooding and atmospheric, how conscious was that?
Well, that was more a result of the environment it was made in really – a lot of the songs on Beneath This Burning Shoreline are in a minor key and I know there’s no songs on the new one that are, so the key and the pace of it obviously has a bearing on the mood of it. This album has been recorded almost exactly like the first one, it was demo’d by me almost entirely then we went into the studio, where the second album was very different because it was kind of constructed around the sound of a band in a rehearsal room so the space within the songs was more as a result of the players that were involved with it than the songwriting. So in a songwriting sense the second album was a lot looser and gave it a lot more scope for the atmospherics, whereas this one had to be a bit more succinct and direct. I did set out with the idea of writing something that was a bit more old fashioned in its concept, kind of very old school Jim Webb style strings, and when you’re doing that kind of thing there’s not a lot of flab on those tunes, they’re economical and quite efficient, generally under three minutes, so the template was really set by the style of the songwriting I guess.
What was the recording experience like this time round?
I was much more in charge than I would generally be because I had to give everybody a very clear idea of what they needed to do before they started, it was a case of a week with the band then the rest was a week in a room with Colin Elliot, who did Richard Hawley’s album. It wasn’t much fun in the sense of being with your mates and dicking around a bit but it was very efficient and in the seven years since I made the first one I’ve obviously learnt a trick or two in terms of what works and what doesn’t. When you make your first album you can spend a lot of time farting around on things that might be enjoyable but don’t get the job done. I had a clear idea as to how I wanted it to sound, it wasn’t as open ended as potentially the second one was – which took ages, like two years. The other reason why I wanted this one to be quick was because the second one took such a long, long time and that was largely because I’d chosen to write it with a band instead of on my own. So I was just determined, almost as an exercise of proving to myself that you could make an album in six weeks. It was fun, I mixed it with Dan Austen who did all the other albums and that was really exciting, that was the fun bit, I like the mixing bit more than the recording. My two favourite parts are the songwriting and the mixing, the recording of the album, especially if you’ve demo’d it before, can just be re-constructing what you’ve already done and can feel like putting a jigsaw back together a little bit. It can feel a little clinical, I’m not mad on the recording process.
There’s some beautiful imagery on the title track Herd-Runners, could you explain a bit about that track?
Yeah, well it’s kind of a feeling I had at school and as a kid, the need to fit in. It relates to me but it applies to anyone who feels they don’t necessarily run with the herd. It harks back to not wanting to conform or fit in. I wasn’t an outsider as such, I had friends and things, but with all my songs there’s a part of it that’s – you know – artistic license, it’s rooted in some form of reality but my imagination runs away with itself. That was particularly set in schooldays, growing up, adolescence, wanting to kind of conform, run with the herd, but getting the sense of being quite proud of your individuality as you get older. That’s the kind of idea of it, the loneliness that’s associated with that but as you get older you see it as something to be proud of rather than run away from.
Something you embrace rather than shy away from…
Yeah exactly, it’s always there…I grew up and was kind of unsure about my sexuality, I’m gay, and obviously as a young chap you’ve got to kind of play the game of being interested in girls and all the rest of it.
Especially in Bolton…
Exactly, it’s not really a hotbed of gay activity is it.
I saw you at St Peter’s Church in Ancoats just before Christmas and you spoke about what inspired the track ‘Drinking For Two’…
Yeah, basically I was out on a night out and I find that if I’ve got the title first – like ‘People Help the People’, that started out as the title – then I can construct the song around the image or concept and I spotted a pregnant woman boozing in a particularly rum part of Manchester city centre and I remember saying to a friend of mine “Oh, she must be drinking for two”. It was kind of a light bulb moment where I had this idea of a Tom Waits style frozen-in-time song…it was late night city centre where I set a lot of my songs and it was the idea that these two people had met the week before and arranged to meet again at the same place and the same time and this one person, be it female or male, was waiting in the bar and had bought two drinks waiting for the other person to join them and they didn’t turn up. So yeah, the first verse is that person waiting in a bar as they’re sweeping up. It’s an old school Sinatra-esque song really…
I don’t think Sinatra ever mentioned Spar…
No! I thought I’d just get that in, I don’t know what the equivalent is. He wasn’t really rooted in reality was he…It’s probably one of my favourite songs on the album actually.
As a songwriter you’ve always appeared quite introspective and perhaps drawn to the more serious sides of human emotion, what is it about the darker aspects of people or even yourself that you find so compelling to return to?
I think probably growing up as a kid I was quite inward and spent a lot of time being anxious and worried about things, and as I’ve grown up I don’t pay much attention to how people see me, we all edit ourselves so much with Facebook and things, you present a version of yourself that is somehow more palatable – here’s me on Instragram looking attractive with friends at a bar, check this out – and you give them this version of yourself that isn’t necessarily true. And rather than connecting you with people it puts barriers between you and people as you edit yourself to such a degree that you don’t ever connect with anyone. I quite like the thoughts that people have when they’re alone, in the privacy of their own home orat 4am in the morning, that kind of thing, people are at their most vulnerable and at their most interesting then. Everyone’s frightened of that but people really are quite similar, they have a lot of the same anxieties and the same neuroses and things. But it’s something that people don’t talk about particularly. I find that more interesting than just talking about superficial stuff. I think I do have quite a dark side to me, not as much as when I was younger, but that part of the human condition is something that’s interesting and writing songs about it kind of dignifies it a little. Apart from ‘Herd Runners’ this album’s quite playful as oppose to the second album which is quite full on, like ‘My God Betrays’ which is fairly kind of hopeless, and where I usually try and put a happy ending in there that one doesn’t even have a happy ending. It’s a bit more loved up in that sense…if that’s possible. I find other people more interesting, generally, than myself so I usually try to observe and watch and listen in to conversations and things like that.
I think that does reflect in the album. I really enjoyed the album you did as Out Cold but it was probably the least Cherry Ghost thing you could have done, what prompted that kind of departure?
I remember the specific time – we’d just spent two years on an album that whilst critically very well received, radio largely ignored it, and it sold very respectably but it wasn’t going to change the world or make me a rich man. And I felt that if I just carried on in the same vein I’d have just rather given up. I remember we all had a rehearsal after the album and I just stood there and I didn’t have the heart for it, I had nothing to give at all, and if I’m not engaged in what I’m doing at all I can’t expect anyone else to be. So I kind of had a bit of a crisis for about 2 or 3 months. I had a bit of a think about what I want to do next, and I’m not the kind of person that wants to keep knocking out the same album really. I won’t name names but I think some bands do. I’m sure it sells well because you market yourself as something people are familiar with but I find it very boring…I’m quite selfish; I’m not bothered about doing it. So as a result, I thought I’d just do something that challenged it. I did Maths at University, which is obviously quite a difficult subject, and as most people progress in their jobs they give themselves challenges, whether you’re a builder or a surgeon, and you’ve got to give yourself new things, and musicians – particularly indie ones – are quite lazy. When I’ve been doing the co-writing, people in the pop world properly graft like nothing else because they’re so competitive. It’s not enough to be a band member and prop up a bar in Big Hands and rattle on about what you’ve done. I’m not the kind of person to get up at lunchtime and just fart around. So basically I went and bought a load of synthesisers and drum machines and thought “I’ll make an album with that”. In retrospect I like maybe half of it but it kept me engaged, and probably for my career the most sensible thing would have been to then quite quickly make an album similar to the first one with an epic torch song on it and then go back out again, but I can’t really think like that.
You mentioned before your sexuality, on Out Cold was the first time I can remember you properly addressing it, on the track ‘All I Want’, was it something you consciously wanted to address in a song?
Well, the thing is, even though in the 80s as a kid I was seeing people like Boy George and George Michael, and even amidst the camp of 80s pop music things were still on the down low, as they say, nobody ever sung about that and if they did it was quite guarded. You never use a man say “he” as oppose to “you”, and I’m not sure that I’ve ever done that, I might have done it once, but yeah, I just thought, I’m in a relationship and it seemed like a good opportunity. I didn’t want to do it in a depressing way, I wanted to do it in an upbeat way and the nature of that music felt like a good way to frame it, I didn’t want to make it gloomy because I was over that, it felt like a good opportunity. But yeah, people generally – I’ve worked with other artists that are gay – and they’re quite reluctant to do it, and I’m sure record labels are reluctant to put out songs by gay men that address another “he”, so it’s generally brushed under the carpet. But it’s perfectly valid, and it’s something that I should have really got off my chest on the first album but I probably wasn’t equipped enough, I was too negative about it…that’s probably kind of the reason why I focused on other people’s lives than my own.
On this album your voice has a much more soulful quality about it, and I’d seen in interviews you say that you felt uncomfortable with your vocal on the first album, have you got more comfortable with your voice as time has gone on?
I have, I’ve always fine tuned it, I quite like my voice on the second album and I’m more comfortable now. I’ve kind of got two voices, a falsetto soft thing and a slightly more manly voice, and I kind of use them as and when I need to. The first album I find it a bit whiney and there’s a couple of Americanisms in there that I find a bit cringey, but yeah I’m always tweaking it and listening to it back. I can listen to myself sing no problem, in a studio, and I’ll do six or seven takes, when a lot of singers are very unwilling to listen back to their own voice sometimes. A lot of people find it really excruciating, but I think if you don’t listen to yourself properly without autotune or without reverb you’ll never ever be able to improve really.
You’ve been critical of the first album itself before, I think you’re probably the only person I’d listen to criticise that album, what is it that you find difficult about that album?
(Laughs) I find it…erm…schizophrenic. They’re all songs from different periods of maybe three or four years prior, so I find it a bit confusing, not particularly cohesive, which is why the second one would, it had a bit of a film noir, moody atmosphere to it. I couldn’t really make my mind up whether it was an indie band thing or a songwriter’s thing, there’s a couple of songs on there that I find a little bit silly…I like the singles, I do really like the singles, I don’t really listen to ‘People Help the People’ anymore because it’s so catchy and so kind of epic that you can’t really access that on a day to day basis
I can understand that
Do you know what I mean? It’s a bit odd, it’s a nice song, it’s quite catchy. Since Birdy covered it, which sold about a million copies and did really well. I’m totally indebted to the girl but…4AM I like, Mathematics I really like, I can keep singing that and it doesn’t really bore me. Couple of the ones I find a bit silly on there are Mountain Bird and Alfred the Great
I’m not having you slag off Alfred the Great, I really like that one!
Ha, it’s really popular, it’s impossible to play actually; it’s so fast and confusing that it’s just impossible to do. It was a bit of an ode to Wilco that one, like songs on ‘Summerteeth’ which was one of my favourite albums, so it’s a bit of a Wilco style tune. To be honest I listen to stuff back and I think that I dislike it more than I do, I was listening to ‘Here Come the Romans’ the other day…for whatever reason…and I thought it wasn’t that bad so maybe I’m just a bit fucking miserable. I find the production a bit…someone said it was quite glassy and quite harsh sounding. It’s cool, it just jumps around a bit too much for me, it has its moments…
Finally, Maxine Peake directed and starred in the video for ‘Clear Skies Ever Closer’, how did you come about working with her?
Well I went to school with her and I’d watched what she’d done since and never really connected with her, and then I did a 6music thing and Mark Riley mentioned about her, I said I went to school with her and he texted her so basically she came in next time I was doing a session at his at Salford, and we got chatting, and kind of have met up again, I went watching her at the Royal Exchange and a couple of other things, and I just asked her basically if she fancied doing it. So yeah, it’s nice. Me, Maxine Peake and Sara Cox all went to the same school in Bolton so it was an odd one…she’s obviously brilliant and really, really talented. She’s massively into music and very cool. It was really good fun, I thoroughly enjoyed it, so we’ll see. To be honest I think this might be the last Cherry Ghost album I’ll do, I was going to say I’d get her to do more stuff but for now I feel like I’ve concluded what I wanted to achieve…in the sense I started out seven years ago, I don’t want to keep making the same albums. I kind of feel its run its course to some degree – not that I’m ending on a down note, I feel that it’s a really good album – but I think I’m ready for the next step, to do something else. So after these gigs, I’ll probably wrap it up.
What will be next then?
I think I’ll probably do some more kind of electronic stuff, but I’ve spent like every week with some new artists, I’ve been writing with Sam Smith, and the last few months I’ve just been working with other artists. I really enjoy it, I kind of like taking a back seat, it suits my attention span as I kind of get bored of my own music, but with this you’re doing something different every week. So I really enjoy it, I like working with young people, and I quite like – although this makes me sound very dull – the domestic life of brewing up, feeding the cat, listening to Radio 4, it doesn’t appeal to me at all to get in a van, eat shit sandwiches…I feel like I’ve served my time basically! So I think after this one I’m done. It feels like a positive decision, I don’t want to be clinging onto this and it all becomes a bit Alan Partridge. I don’t want to be this sad fucker sad at a bar talking about an Ivor Novello, I’d rather move onto the next step whilst I feel good about it. I’ll struggle a lot to write songs for myself, so maybe in a different guise, something a bit more…darker, more soulful, getting away from the guitar thing a bit, we’ll see, we’ll see. But for now, it feels like it’s a good time to bow out.
‘Herd Runners’ is out now on Heavenly Records