Interview: M G Boulter on why Southend-on-Sea is key to his music

From Southend-on-Sea to the Albert Hall opening for Paul Heaton, touring with Simone Felice and back to Clifftown.

Surprisingly, Southend-on-Sea has had a disproportionate influence on British music starting with Procol Harem in the ‘60s and providing impetus to London’s pub rock scene in the ‘70s with songwriter Mickey Jupp, The Kursaal Flyers and Eddie and the Hot Rods and it continues to have a vibrant local scene to this day with folk and americana artist M G Boulter the latest in that long line of Southend musicians. Southend is not only M G Boulter’s home it is the inspiration and subject of his new record ‘Clifftown’. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with M G Boulter to discuss why Southend is so important to his songwriting, why he set up ‘The Clifftown Podcast’  to explore themes from his record further, what it was like working with Simone Felice, explaining for the first time why he is called M G Boulter and getting his musician friends such as Bellowhead’s Pete Flood, Sam Sweeney, Richard Warren and Lucy Farrell to guest on the recording sessions.

How are you? I hope you and your family and friends are all OK and coping with the challenges of coronavirus?

Hi Martin, yes, we’re all well here thanks for asking. We have our health and that’s the most important thing. I hope you and yours are keeping safe too.

What is it about Southend-on-Sea and British music, why has it produced such influential bands as Procol Harem, Eddie and the Hot Rods and that great pub rock songwriter Mickey Jupp, not forgetting Dr. Feelgood were formed only 10 miles away in Canvey Island? 

It’s a hard thing to tie down but if you have ever visited or lived in Southend you will know it has an otherness about it. You have this huge stretch of beach which gives off this big nature feeling and we’re sticking out 40 miles or so east of London pretty much on the mouth of the Thames so you really have to make an effort to come here from any other part of the country.  Everyone makes their own entertainment and when this is mixed with the residue of the typical British seaside “good-time place”, you get some interesting cultural things happening. There are still lots of bands here – it’s quite an eclectic scene.

How do you manage the macro aspect of americana and folk with the micro aspect of the local details of Southend, if you follow the analogy?

My primary aim has always been to write a good song, something that people can connect with and something I can relate to as well. If I don’t it feels fake to me. So, putting those everyday observations in my lyrics seems very real, natural and honest as a songwriter.  We all do everyday things that seem mundane but there’s eloquence in those day-to-day occurrences, that’s what I’m trying to get to. The little things reflect the bigger themes of life, don’t you find? In that sense I think the micro of the mundane goes hand in hand with the macro of the genre you work in; it’s all part of the same stream! It seems a natural marriage to me.

Where did you get your love of americana and folk from and how did you hook up with the Felice Brothers?

It’s hard to drill down to the source of my love for this music. Good question. I started learning the guitar when I was eleven with the express purpose of hanging out with my mates in school who were forming a band. I really caught the bug for playing and Americana and Folk is very natural “go-to” music for guitar players; it’s soulful music, it has messages and humanity in it and I think that has always appealed to me. I remember when libraries first started loaning CDs when I was about ten, I borrowed a “Best of” Dire Straits CD and I have a distinct memory of being beguiled by those country guitar bends and pedal steel licks in some of those songs; one of my first “how do you do that?” moments.

I first met Simone Felice in Cardiff in 2011/12. I was playing lap steel with a band called Deer Park and Simone spotted me and asked me to join him for a few shows. Within a week I was headlining in his band at the Green Man Festival and then various UK, US and Canadian tours. We had great fun and I have lots of happy memories and tall tales to tell! Maybe we’ll save those for another interview….

You have never been short of musical supporters as you have built your career. Why do you think you have been able to get the support of other musicians?

I really don’t know why but I am very grateful for it. The people I work with have always been very kind and gracious and maybe it’s more a reflection on them than me! Paul Heaton heard the song “Clifftown” and liked it so much he invited me to open for him at these huge shows in 2018, including the Royal Albert Hall. His band and whole crew treated me with so much respect all based on him liking one song – what an experience that was.

‘Clifftown’ could be seen as the summation of your career to date. Why is Southend-on-sea such an influence on your artistic output and why is there a big  ‘50s feel to ‘Clifftown’?

‘Clifftown’ has certainly been developing for some years in the back of my mind. I live in Southend, I am from here and it’s what I know and I very much wanted to get my take on it onto record, to convey the magic and frustration and joy of living here. It’s interesting you pick up on a 50s feel. Perhaps that’s the seaside magic coming through, the dance halls and day-trippers!

Do you see your songs as being more story or poetry-based?

I would love to be able to write a novel but I don’t have the patience. Likewise, I wish I could write poetry but when I do it never compares to the poets I watch locally, so songs/lyrics is where I can say what I need to say to my ability. I’d like to think my songs are novelistic, that the listener gets absorbed in the environment and details and wants to keep listening because they want to know where it’s going or what happens next.

You worked again with Andy Bell. What does he bring to your music and how did you originally hook up with him?

Andy is a great producer and friend. We resonate very well together. He’s engineered the likes of Teenage Fan Club and Seasick Steve and won a BBC Folk Award for his production work. What I like about Andy is that he cares about what he’s doing, he’s always listening, always making suggestions for all the band. He has ideas and vision and he challenges me on my performances but encourages me when I need it. When we first started working together I was really protective of my songs and the whole experience was quite a trial by fire, changing keys and chords, speeding things up, slowing things down –  we had some battles but I trust him implicitly. We originally met while I was playing a session on Neil McSweeny’s ‘Cargo’ album and he was producing. Our friendship blossomed from there.

What is it like being an artist on Hudson Records?

Hudson is a really cool label. I liken it to a co-operative, all the artists are really close and we regularly have zoom meetings to catch up on each other’s personal lives and the business of the label. It’s very much a team and very supportive.

There are a number of guest artists on the album. How did this come about and what do they bring to the songs?

Working with other musicians is key when you’re a solo artist because they bring different approaches and sonic arrangements to your music. For ‘Clifftown’ I worked with a core band made up of members of my touring group (Paul Ambrose and Lizzy O’Connor) and studio musicians who I have worked with over a number of years (Tom Lenthall and Helen Bell). Pete Flood from Bellowhead joined us on drums and the six of us worked on the arrangements. This was then supplemented by a host of friends who I have worked with on numerous projects over the years including Lucy Farrell, Sam Sweeney and Richard Warren. Everyone was so open to playing and lending their talents. It makes the album more interesting I think.

The album cover is very evocative and you have a series of podcasts around ‘Clifftown’. Who did the album art and how popular have the podcasts been?

The album cover is a photograph of one of the arcades on the seafront and was taken by a local photographer Steven Collins (who also happens to be behind the bands The Owl Service and Greanvine). Simply put, he takes these wondrous photos of buildings at oblique angles which highlight their unique beauty. I look at most of his photos and wonder where on earth they were taken and then you realise that it’s the ice cream shop at the top of the road that you’ve walked past for the last thirty years.

I started a podcast as a companion project to the album and it’s turned into an all consuming passion. I’ve been creeping around graveyards looking for disgraced Victorian poets, unearthing the mysteries of Houdini’s Water Torture Cell and whether it originated in Southend and tracing the history of the three witch trials that happened in the area. Locally it’s created quite a lot of interest because people relate to it and they all have extra bits of knowledge they want to contribute. It’s turned into a bit of a community project. You can listen to it on this link here.

Would you view ‘Clifftown’ as a concept album or is it simply a collection of themed songs? 

I would say a collection of themed songs only because I never set out to curate a concept with a distinct direction. The songs dictated the theme, not the other way round. People can take what they want from the songs and make their own judgement about Southend as a place. Hopefully, they pick up a mood, a sense of place.

Credit: Jinnwoo

What impact did lockdown have on the recording and release of ‘Clifftown’?

The album was recorded in 2019 before the pandemic, so I was lucky to have had something recorded and ready when the lockdown happened.  Another upside was that some of the guest musicians had no excuse to avoid sending their contributions in time because they were all housebound! Of course, the lockdown impacted on the release. ‘Clifftown’ is a year late but it’s OK; patience is a virtue they say.

How did you use the down-time lockdown gave you?

There was a lot of pressure to create during the lockdown. Did you find that? Social media was full of people making things and getting fit and kicking the garden into shape. I really sweated over some new songs which came to nothing because I was trying to force it. When I relaxed I did write some better ones. My inspiration comes from seeing people, observing life so staying indoors didn’t inspire me much. I read a lot of books, I shopped for family members who needed protecting and I watched a lot of Netflix. I wish I had done more yoga…

Who are your go-to influences and why are they important to you?

There are so many so I won’t list them all here. I’m drawn towards great songwriters, classics like Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Patti Smith, but more recently Iron and Wine (his early songs are like short stories) and Conor Oberst. I supported Conor Oberst with Simone Felice some years back and he was a lovely man. I’m inspired by authors too; the reportage fiction of Truman Capote and Joan Didion have had a great effect on me.

Music streaming is a hot topic, particularly regarding artist royalties. How do you view streaming as an artist and what do you think it may mean for how some listeners will consume ‘Clifftown’?

I don’t get many plays on Spotify etc. and I make very little money from it, maybe enough to buy a pack of strings or a pint each year. I don’t think it’s fair that a business model which makes billions of dollars a year doesn’t spread that more fairly. I imagine big acts like the Beatles to Taylor Swift have better arrangements in place with these companies to get a fairer percentage, but they hold the power of course due to their popularity. My focus as an artist is not to get more plays on Spotify because it doesn’t benefit me financially and even if I reached the dizzy heights of say 300,000 plays, I’m not convinced that would translate to people actually following what I do beyond the musical wallpaper Spotify provides perhaps. If someone hears me on Spotify and loves it to the extent they seek me out and buy an album or come to a show, then that’s good enough for me.

You are viewed as an artist’s artist by some. Do you agree with that and how are you going to break through to a wider audience?

I’m proud to be known as an artist’s artist, it reflects that my craft is hopefully taken on its own merit by others who practice it. Hopefully, it isn’t shorthand for unpopular! I find the best way to reach other people is to play live as much as I can and through the chances like this to explain and discuss what I’m doing. If you have any other leads or suggestions to reach more people, let me know.

Do you have any plans to take ‘Clifftown’ to America when such things are allowed again?

I would love to. Touring the States is really expensive (visas, distances, petrol) so unless a US promoter is keen to help me I doubt it will happen in the next few years. I am touring the UK this autumn (fingers crossed) and plans are afoot to develop a special “Welcome to Clifftown” show for early 2022. Watch this space.

At AUK we like to share music with our readers. Who are your current top three artists/albums or tracks on your personal playlist?

I love these sorts of questions. Recent purchases which I have been enjoying are Buck Meek  ‘Two Saviours’, Itasca  ‘Spring’ and Bonny Light Horseman  ‘Bonny Light Horseman’. My local record shop is called South. They’re great and do mail order here!

I have to ask, why M G? 

No one has ever asked me this, it’s a first. Using my initials gives what I do with music distance from me as a private individual. M G Boulter isn’t necessarily Matthew Boulter (that’s me also). I also think it keeps tradition with the likes of J D Salinger, C S Lewis, H G Wells etc.

Finally, is there anything you want to say to AUK readers?

Radio, magazines and websites like AUK are vital in keeping music varied, interesting and alive. People who support and engage with them are really appreciated, so I’d say thanks for keeping the faith….and if you see my name on a local venue soon, do come and say hi. Me and my band like meeting people and we’ll be far from home and will need to see some friendly faces.  

M G Boulter’s ‘Clifftown’ is available now on Hudson Records

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About Martin Johnson 406 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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