Allman Brown, a Hong Kong-born, British singer-songwriter, has a new album coming out later this month, Darling, It'll Be Alright, on New York's Orchard record label.
While the album makes use of a large sonic palette, it represents a return to a more organic approach after his previous release's dip into electronica. A good example of the album's expansive vibe is "Lonely Hearts, Los Angeles" that you can stream now on Popdust, which explores not only big city loneliness but the artist's struggle with tinnitus. He spoke to Popdust from London, where he lives with his wife and daughter.
So you have this new album coming up, Darling, It'll Be Alright. I'm curious: how has your experience in the studio changed over the years since [2013 single] Sons and Daughters?
The main thing that's changed is my confidence level. The first time I was in a studio I felt like a bit of an imposter. Now I feel like I'm on more stable footing.
How about in terms of style? Where has your music gone in the last few years?
Good question. The first album [2017's 1000 Years] was a bit of a hodge-podge of songs written over a few years. This album is more cohesive, composed over the course of just one year. Stylistically, with the Bury My Heart EP that came out before this album, I was experimenting with electronica and synths, trying to marry an organic singer-songwriter approach to a more electronic style...which is really hard to do, as it turns out! A few people can really pull it off, and while I'm proud of those songs, I don't think I really nailed it. So this is a return to my roots.
It does seem to be a trajectory that many artists are following. For instance, I recently reviewed Benjamin Leftwich's new album and then listened to his previous work. He seems to have gone that route: from analog indie-folk to more electronic textures.
It's a seductive route. If you listen to Bon Iver or Sufjan Stevens, you think, "Oh yeah that sounds awesome, I wanna try that out!" But its really hard! It's a lot more complicated than it sounds.
Is Darling, It'll Be Alright your first collaboration with Ian Barter?
No, so Ian produced a bunch of tracks on my first album, including "Sons and Daughters," "Sweetest Thing," "Foolish Love." So he's a great friend. Recording with him is just a lot of fun.
Did he have anything to do with your shift back to a more organic sound?
Not really. I was playing live the whole year [prior to the album's release] and working on these more organic songs, and people were responding to them. So I said, "Why don't I just embrace that?"
Could you describe your and Barter's working relationship in and out of the studio?
We spend about an hour having theological debates [laughs], mainly about the Catholic Church, and talking about our trials and travails in the music industry. Then we look at film trailers for about an hour and then we get started.
I don't like messing around too much in the studio, second guessing myself. And he works incredibly fast, a total savant. He'll do things in 30 seconds, things that take other people 10 minutes.
Going back, describe your background a bit.
I was born in 1984 in Hong Kong and lived there until 1997 when it was handed back to the Chinese. I grew up in the end-of-the-British-Empire bubble, a charmed existence. In '97 we moved back to London, and I've lived there ever since.
What was it like growing up in Hong Kong?
We had a lovely flat and a maid, Margie. It always seems sunny in my memories, besides the typhoons. The colonial thing kicks in in the sense that there was a tight-knit group of people, mostly British and sometimes American. It's an interesting blend of an eastern city with influences from all over.
Did that affect your music at all?
Not really, no. I only really started to write and make music after university. I had always been in choirs and things, but in terms of the music we heard, it was the same as anywhere else. All western artists were being played in Hong Kong. My dad loved Glenn Campbell and my mom liked Neil Diamond and Lionel Richie.
And then when my older brother hit puberty he stopped playing with me and got "super cool" and started making mixtapes of Nirvana and Pearl Jam. To this day I can't listen to those band without feeling slightly pissed off.
The sound of betrayal?
[laughs] Yeah, pretty much. If I hear "Better Man" I'm like "Fuck you, brother!"
When I was in my teens in London I listened to a lot of Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and, sad to say, Ryan Adams. It's made his subsequent downfall quite sad.
Is it officially a "downfall"?
Yeah. I mean, he's had three albums pulled, a world tour pulled. We shouldn't expect artists to be perfect, but it seems he's been deeply, deeply hurtful to a lot of people.
Do you have any main influences as a lyricist?
Hmm, it's more about things I CAN'T do that help me. I listen to Bon Iver, for instance, but I realize I can't do lyrics like that, esoteric, erratic lyrics. But I listen to a lot of Feist, and she's incredible. Also my wife: she's a tough crowd. She'll be like, "That's a bit bad."
That sounds very British, that kind of brutal honesty.
Yeah, we're 11 years in now. She'll let me know when I'm repeating myself.
Moving to "Lonely Hearts, Los Angeles": tell me a bit about how that came about.
Yes, I was staying in an Air BnB in Los Angeles. I've been to a lot of places, but LA is a weird place, with such a distinct identity. Everything about it is strange: the geography, getting around, the ambiance.
For Europeans, it is very strange, for sure.
Yes, that's a key distinction. The song is an attempt to marry my experience in this hotel alone with this mythic idea of LA, the romance, the glamour of the film business - which is simultaneously glorious and beautiful and also quite sad. You need a lot of resilience there; 90 percent of the entertainment is rejection.
So you were sitting in this hotel feeling woebegone, and added to that was your tinnitus?
It's not fun to have. It's happening in my life all the time, so it found its way into this particular song. Especially at night, when everything's quiet, it can be very loud and all-encompassing. But after a while, you adapt to it. It's quite interesting, actually: people hear different things, and it spikes at different times.
There's a lovely sense of space to the track.
I was keen to have that level of space from the beginning. That vibe of being awake at 3 am, and you can hear the whole city.
It builds nicely towards the end, too. It reminded me a bit of Sigur Ros.
That's a wicked comparison. They're not a direct influence, but the idea of creating a soundscape as they do, especially when they play live, yeah. Embracing the idea of scale. I wanted to really sit in the big bit at the end.
Having a family and being a musician is kind of a bitch, or so I've heard. What's been your experience as a married man with two daughters?
[laughs] I mean for me it's been amazing. The only bad thing is when you're on tour. But when I'm not touring I'm home 24/7.
Your tour is starting soon, correct?
Yeah, in May we'll be all over America and Canada. East coast, west coast, flyover states. We're trying to hit as many places as possible. This'll be my third time there.
Do you have a regular band you tour with?
Oh yeah [laughs]. They've been groomed over the course of years. My drummer Mike Worthington, he's been with me since the beginning. He's a great friend, the Jay to my Silent Bob. I love him. If there were a zombie apocalypse, I'd choose him to back me.
Any other instruments besides the guitar in your own arsenal?
I've learned two songs on piano now [laughs]. So I'll be breaking that out. But I try to keep my set up as simple as possible. Whenever I see somebody setting up a laptop or something, I just feel bad because it looks like a fucking nightmare.
Some people thrive on it!
Yeah. I saw Radiohead recently, with Jonny Greenwood in the corner with like 25 guitars and four pianos, a mad genius. But know your limits: I'd probably get confused by a tuning pedal.
Where would you like to see your career go at this point?
I mean, my dream is that this is my job for the rest of my life. The idea of being a global superstar, that's not what I'm aiming for. I wanna play all over the world, though. I just did a tour of Asia and it was so much fun. I was in Columbus, Ohio and this lady in the audience offered me a free tattoo! You meet all these interesting people. I guess I just want to be an artist with a body of work.
Preorder Darling, It'll Be Alright here.
Allman Brown US Tour Dates:
05/02 - Nashville, TN @ The End
05/04 - Columbus, OH @ The Basement
05/05 - Pittsburgh, PA @ Club Cafe
05/07 - Boston, MA @ Great Scott
05/08 - Brooklyn, NY @ Rough Trade
05/09 - Philadelphia, PA @ Boot & Saddle
05/14 - Chicago, IL @ Subterranean
05/15 - Minneapolis, MN @ Turf Club
05/17 - Denver, CO @ Lost Lake
05/18 - Salt Lake City, UT @ Kilby Court
05/21 - Los Angeles, CA @ Hotel Cafe
05/22 - San Francisco, CA @ Rickshaw
StopMatt Fink lives and works in Brooklyn. Go to organgrind.com for more of his work.
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