Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Stevie Jackson (of Belle & Sebastian) Talks "(I Can't Get No) Stevie Jackson"

Stevie Jackson is probably best known as the lead guitarist for the obsessively followed  and highly regarded Scottish band Belle & Sebastian. But with the release of his new solo album, (I Can't Get No) Stevie Jackson, the songwriter is stepping into the spotlight to deliver a richly enjoyable album that transverses the landscape between folk, pop, and rock.

Loyal fans of Belle & Sebastian have held Stevie's contributions very dear over the years, and rightly so. His songs are some of the band's most memorable,  including "Seymour Stein" and "Chickfactor" (The Boy with the Arab Strap), "The Wrong Girl" (Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant), "Jonathan David", "Roy Walker" and "Step Into My Office, Baby" (Dear Catastrophe Waitress), "I Believe in Travellin' Light", "To Be Myself Completely" and "Song for Sunshine" (The Life Pursuit), "I Took a Long Hard Look", "Mr Richard", "Long Black Scarf", and "I'm Not Living in the Real World" and "Last Trip" (Write About Love bonus track).

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Stevie regarding the making of his new album. As a longtime Belle & Sebastian fan myself, I am absolutely thrilled to share my conversation with Stevie with you.

You have been working on the record for a number of years around your touring and recording commitments, not only with Belle and Sebastian , but notably The Vaselines, Russian Red, Bill Wells Trio and God Help The Girl.

Can you discuss how some of these touring and recording experiences inspired and influenced the development of the songs for the album?

Stevie Jackson: Well, the songs from the album didn’t have too much to with all that activity to be honest.

It’s good to play a lot and I’m lucky that I get to play with all the people you mention as well as Belle & Sebastian. Playing in a band is a bit like being an actor I suppose. I’ve heard that actors get insecure in between films and always feel a compulsion to be working, and I feel the same way. I’m only happy when I’m working despite the fact that by nature I’m actually quite lazy.

Playing with these people is always a learning experience and I’ve learned a lot from Bill and the Vaselines especially. I guess getting this record together meant putting myself on the line and taking time out from all the other stuff I’d been doing, like playing other people’s music, there’s different kinds of work after all. I never had the confidence or the compulsion to attempt a solo record and suddenly I did, it was a good feeling and very nourishing, I can’t wait to make the next one.

(I Can’t Get No) Stevie Jackson features twelve songs, which have been written and recorded with a range of collaborators in Glasgow and Vancouver in the period since Belle & Sebastian’s 2006 album The Life Pursuit.

How did your work with Belle & Sebastian during this time influence the direction of the album (were you inspired to draw connections to Belle & Sebastian or did you set out to go in a new direction and distinguish the project from B & S)?

Stevie: Well there was no work with Belle & Sebastian during this time. After The Life Pursuit album and tour which ended at the end of 2006, all this free time opened up as there was an understanding that we were going to leave it for a while (and it turned out to be about 3 years actually).

I just had time on my hands and I got involved in lots of different things, like playing with other groups, doing Art projects and the like, writing songs with friends. Having fun basically. Some of this activity seemed to generate a pile of songs and I thought it would be fun to record them.

The experience was totally different from Belle & Sebastian as that’s a group and a process in itself. These songs were recorded in about 3 or 4 sessions over a year or two and as I’ve got a very short attention span, the method was more or less throwing a bunch of musicians in a room, showing them the tune, then getting it down as fast as possible.

It was all very rough and ready, which makes it all sound kind of unpolished- which is what I like. Belle & Sebastian records especially the later ones sound quite polished so there’s a difference right there.

What has been most liberating for you composing this album?

Stevie: Well it’s something new to me, and it is something I’d never attempted before. So it changes you, you become a subtly different person. Change is what life is all about, that’s always liberating.

Did you have a preconceived vision for the kind of record you wanted this to become?

Stevie: Not really. It feels more like a compilation out of a couple of years of my life. A couple of songs came from this project, a couple from that one. It’s got 4 different drummers on it which is not to say that it doesn’t hang together as an album, I think it does. The songs are all about something and it’s me singing them, I think that’s enough.

Can you discuss some of the artists and albums you were looking to and listening to for inspiration?

I think the inspirations are pretty obvious ones, to me anyway. As I am thinking through the tunes in my head these names tend to come out: Elton John, Mary J Blige, Velvets, Simon and Garfunkel, The Stones, Buffalo Springfield, Hues Corporation, George Macrae, Serge Gainsbourg, and Bob Dylan. 

What were some of your non-musical sources of inspiration?

Memory and coming to terms with memory. There’s a couple of songs about that.

A couple of the songs are specifically about the dream state or the dreamlike state. There’s also a couple about technology and communication and skewed perception because of it, specifically, writing love letters by email and telephones. There’s a couple of songs about movie directors like  John Huston and Kurosawa. I wrote a batch about movie directors but only recorded 2 of them. There’s also a song about living on a deprived housing estate. In a way though it’s all personal experience.

Can you share your songwriting process?

Stevie: Having fun! Nearly all the songs are collaborative even if it’s just someone in the room (usually Roy Moller) encouraging me. There’s a few written by "The Company" which is myself, Roy, and Gary Thom having a lighthearted songwriting workshop every week.

A song like ‘Press Send’ was made up on the spot, with all of us chipping in lines into a tape recorder (how old fashioned huh?). Roy and myself later on went through the tape arranging the phrases into an order, which seemed to tell a story.

My favorite way of composing though, is writing a lot of words down or a little story or essay or something and then sitting down, banging the piano until something emerges and then it’s just a case of grabbing lines from what you’ve written and then polishing it up a little bit. That was how "Pure of Heart" was put together and that’s definitely one of my favorites.

How does your writing, both musically and lyrically, feed each other?

Stevie: I generally like to have some words or quite a lot of words and then just pick through them once I get a tune going. It becomes like an editing job which I quite enjoy doing.

During the process of writing a song it’s much easier for me to get rid of words than make more up. It all depends though. Sometimes I can have a melody for a long time and no words. That happened with "Where Do All The Good Girl’s Go". I had that tune for years and then one day myself and Roy Moller were thinking about Serge Gainsboug and, using him as the inspiration, we threw something together using that tune. It was fun and it worked. It’s always gotta be fun, even when writing the sad songs.

How does this album connect to your own previous work, as well as your contributions to Belle & Sebastian?

Stevie: Well it connects because I’ve made a solo record and I’m a member of Belle and Sebastian. I’m the connection, the connection is me! Ha ha. In either scenario, I still have the same influences, talent, and whatever you wanna call it. I try and do a good job. I guess with a solo record I have the final say, that’s really the only difference. I'd also say that this album is definitely a bit rawer and a bit more spontaneous. That’s what initially comes to mind.

What was most challenging for you?

Stevie: I guess being the leader in any given situation.  I was also engineering quite a bit of it myself, which took nerve as I’d never done that before.

Most unexpected/ surprising?

Stevie: Well, I always try and go for the unexpected anyway. I never know what anything is going to sound like due to my, earlier mentioned method of throwing people in a room sticking a mic on them then hoping for the best.

I’ve been playing the tunes live with some friends and some of the songs have changed quite a lot. Recording is funny. I’ve always preferred playing live myself, I don’t know why. Maybe I like to live in the moment. I guess recording for me is like taking a photograph of a moment in time, in that way it’s always surprising.

In addition to featuring various members of Belle & Sebastian, the tracks recorded in Glasgow include contributions from long-term associates and collaborators including Roy Moller and Gary Thom (The Company), Bill Wells, Alex Neilson (Trembling Bells) and Katrina Mitchell (The Pastels), while the Vancouver recordings feature the New Pornographers’ rhythm section, Kurt Dahle and John Collins.

Can you discuss these contributions and collaborations and what has been most lasting for you?

Stevie: Well, my most lasting contributor is without doubt Roy Moller. He’s like my own personal musical therapist. He’s really helped me polish quite a few of my Belle & Sebastian songs and he made a huge contribution to (I Can’t Get No) Stevie Jackson.

As for the players, I’ve played with Bill Wells for years and it was great having him for most of the record on the bass. He really is extraordinary. I’ve always wanted to play with Katrina and Alex as well as they’re both stylistically completely original drummers and always came up with something unexpected.

As for the Pornographers I was in Canada and it happened, what can I say? When I think about it, all these folks are my friends so I guess that’s why they were, they were generous with their time, help and energy.

What have you been listening to lately that has been particularly inspiring and why?

Stevie: I saw a band called TeenCanteen and I was inspired by them. I don’t have any recordings yet, in fact I’m not sure if they have anything out. I think maybe it’s imminent. I sent them a fan letter today on Facebook.

I also worked on music for a play with Maggie MacDonald of the Hidden Cameras and in all honestly, I just really love listening to her demos. I think that’s the most inspiring sounds I’ve been listening too for a while.

Will you be touring the US for the album? What are your plans for 2012 and beyond?

Stevie: Well I’ll be doing some acoustic shows at some point, guerrilla style. I’ll also be recording the follow-up record in the autumn or fall as you say in America. We don’t have Thanksgiving in the UK, but believe me, I’m forever thankful!

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