Face to face with Neil McSweeney

Neil McSweeney

Sheffield-based singer and songwriter Neil McSweeney definitely should be on your radar if he still isn’t. His subtle and elegant acoustic rock can’t fail to draw attention and impress with the way it’s crafted with genuineness of a real artist free to do things in his own way. Neil self-released his first two albums ‘Remember To Smile’ (2006) and ‘Shoreline’ (2009) and now he’s preparing his new brainchild: May 27th sees the release of the singer’s new EP ‘The Seventeen’ prior to the release of the third record ‘Cargo’ in autumn. Want to learn more about Neil and his music? Read on to what the man himself has to say. 

Q1. May 27th sees the release of your new EP ‘The Seventeen’. How would you introduce it to the listeners?

It’s a Summer record. Which for me is a first. I kind of think of my first two albums as being Spring (Remember To Smile) and Autumn (Shoreline). They’re both transitional in their moods, I reckon. The EP was recorded with a lot more immediacy, much less painstaking reflection. And it consequently has its own distinct feel. I’m really happy with it and I think I’d like to do more EPs in future.

Q2. There’s also the release of your new full-length ‘Cargo’ down the line in September. Is the EP release a certain taste of things to come from your third record?

The EP has been recorded by the same ace producer, Andy Bell. It also features one of the main contributors to the album, Sam Sweeney. And they’ve both been mastered by the marvelous, Dean Honer. So the same instruments, mics, recording spaces and ears have been used. The sound of both records has a kind of weight and solidity in common. But if The Seventeen is Summer, then Cargo is Winter. It’s not literally a winter record, there are songs about drinking in the hills around Florence for example, but even these ones have a nostalgic quality – as if they’re being remembered beside an open fire.

Q3. Your previous album ‘Shoreline’ was released in 2009. How have you changed as a musician since that time?

I’ve become more interested in playing with other people. The experience of music making for me up to the release of the last record was pretty insular. I recorded with my good friends John Sephton and Paul Harris, who were also my rhythm section – I was lucky to have ‘em. We basically worked a lot of it out together and got very comfortable playing with one another. But, I suppose improving as a musician involves playing with as wide a range of people as possible. I’ve had the opportunity to play with some world-class people in the last couple of years. Firstly, this highlights the weaknesses in your own playing and then it inspires you to get better. And if you’re paying attention, it can also suggest ways you might be able to do this.

Q4. You self-released your previous records. Are you going to stick to DIY ethics in the future? Where do you see ups and downs of self-releasing albums and basically going DIY?

Yes, I’m pretty settled with this way of doing things now. And it has many advantages I think. In the past, you were either ‘fiercely’ independent or angling for a bigger deal. I think these days it can be more of a default setting. I still use professionals for design, distribution, recording etc it’s just that these guys are increasingly freelance and happy to work with artists at any level. I don’t have a decent budget and that is frustrating, but the lack of budget is because I’m not prepared to get massively into debt to fund things – which, after all, is what a traditional deal involved – borrowing tons of cash from a big company. If I did want to take out a bank loan, I could, and at least I wouldn’t have the bank manager telling me which font to use on the cover art or which track was the single. However, perhaps I would have benefitted along the way from some tighter deadlines and the attentions of a stylist.

Q5. There are some live shows ahead of you. What can your audience expect from those shows?

Well, it depends whether they’re coming to see the band or me play solo. Either way they can expect a fair bit of stuff from the EP and the album, plus a handful of my older songs. The band is a selection of some of the people who played on the record and includes Matt Boulter, the aforementioned Sam Sweeney, Lucy Farrell and Andy Seward. Each of these guys would be worth the ticket price on their own – in fact this is about the cheapest you’ll get to see them play for. We did a couple of shows together in January (The Lexington in London and the Library Theatre in Sheffield) and I had a great time. If it were logistically possible I would love to have brought everyone out who played on the record. People like Jock Tyldesley, Vera van Heeringen, Brooks Williams the list goes on. But buses that big don’t come cheap. My solo show is also very enjoyable for me (at least), though. Playing smaller rooms with people right up close is great.

Q6. How did you begin your way as a musician?

Like many musicians, I began listening to my dad play his guitar and picking up his and my mother’s enthusiasm for the music they loved. I took a bit of a wrong turn in learning the violin as a kid, which ended up putting music in the same bracket as other school work. I managed to wrestle it back onto my own terms in my teens. Since then it’s been a long process of figuring out who I am musically. What felt natural as a kid was to copy the sound of other musicians. That feels forced now. It’s the same with other facets of your personality, you create yourself very gradually.

Q7. During your career you’ve worked with a lot of different musicians. How did you like working with them and what new things did these musicians bring into your music?

As mentioned above, most of the musical variety has been in the last 3 or 4 years. I find watching other musicians (ones I admire) endlessly fascinating. Actually, the more I watch and pay attention, the more I find to respect even in musicians whose music I’m not right into. This second fact is perhaps the most interesting revelation. We’re pretty used to making snap judgments about whether we like something or not – whether it’s our kind of thing. If anything, this is even more the case these days. We’re surrounded by, bombarded by music – successful as well as poorly executed. You have to reject most of it, including a lot of the successful stuff (I mean successfully executed not commercially successful). But in fact, if you live with something for a bit – as we were perhaps more inclined to do after the weekly trip to the record shop to buy a record – you discover the layers in it. I’m naturally attracted to music that apparently contains little artifice – substance over style perhaps. But I’ve found a respect and an interest in the way even ‘authentic’ artists who are respected for their integrity need to weave a web out of strands of truth as well as plain bullshit in order to create a persona that helps people to engage with their music. I suppose I respect it because I think I’m a bit half-arsed at that side of things. I buy clothes once a year, for example, and primarily look for comfort and affordability.

Q8. What’s the most unusual thing that’s ever inspired you to write music?

Both of my kids are unusual. Aside from that, there’s a song on my new record called Happiness, which was inspired by a ‘scientist’ who claimed that the first person to live to a thousand years of age had already been born. It made me reflect on the extent to which I envied that hypothetical person.

Q9. What do you think is the best atmosphere to listen to your music in?

I like to think that the function of my songwriting is to help people connect with life’s bitter-sweetness. Some people might call the songs melancholy, which is really another way round the same idea. To me life is beautiful and valuable precisely because it is finite. This rule holds true for everything within life too. Fragility, loss, impermanence: these are the things dreams are made of.

Q10. What’s your most favourite past music memory?

Performing ‘Wonder In The Making’ for the first time to a very small private audience. Playing a solo support set for Richard Hawley to two and a half thousand people, including my parents, at the Royal Festival Hall in London. Writing ‘In A Dream’ while my three-year-old splashed and laughed and played.

Q11. What albums have you been listening to recently?

The last album I really fell for was Ravedeath, 1972 by Tim Hecker. I listened to it non-stop for a month. It turned me a bit weird.

Q12. Apart from releases and touring, what are your other plans for the future?

Aside from the gigs and the records, I’m setting up a little musical collective, details of which will emerge later in the year. I’m going to casually run a little label, January Records, which will do limited physical runs of EPs only. I’m going to write in a few disparate styles (mainly for my own amusement). Other than that I’m going to keep on keeping on and try to look for ways in which I can move outside music to practically help my community and the society in which I live. In other words, be a bit more of an active citizen. I think the times call for it.

2 Responses to “Face to face with Neil McSweeney”
  1. Jamie says:

    Excellent singer and fascinating interview.

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