The male half of My Darling Clementine talks about his singer songwriter influences and the joys of recording in rural Wales.
For the past decade Michael Weston King has been primarily one half of My Darling Clementine, the husband and wife team who have rebooted the art of the country duet on a series of albums and who, most recently, reinterpreted the “country darkness” in Elvis Costello songs with their three EPs of the same name. Now he is poised to release his first solo album in ten years, ‘The Struggle’. Recorded in a remote Welsh studio, the album finds Weston King in an introspective mood, influenced he says by his listening to classic late sixties and early seventies singer songwriters. It’s a gentle yet stimulating listen with Clovis Phillips, who runs the studio, playing most of the instruments while a host of others added their parts remotely.
In the run up to the album’s April release, Michael Weston King spoke to Americana UK about the songs and some of the inspirations behind them.
It’s been around ten years since you last released a solo album so what prompted you to record this one?
Well obviously I’ve been busy with My Darling Clementine and I wasn’t desperate to make a solo album but, over the years I had a lot of songs building up which weren’t appropriate for the band and, with the lockdown, it was really an attempt to stop me going insane. I’d mentioned this to a friend of mine, Jeb Loy Nichols, and he told me about Clovis’s studio in Wales so I made a visit and fell in love with the place. It was an opportunity to get out of the house at long last and to do something creative, better than staring at the same four walls all day long. So, it was as much for my health and well-being as it was an urge to make a new record and I’m delighted we did it now.
You’ve called the album ‘The Struggle’. Is it a “pandemic” album?
Not really. Everyone seems to have recorded what you might call a pandemic album and you could look at this one that way but, even before the pandemic, life was a struggle for a lot of people. The title is actually about a place in the Lake District, a hill walk called The Struggle. I was there some years ago and I just liked the idea of using it as a title for an album. In the liner notes for the album, I’ve put some geographical information relating to the climb but I’ve also put the Oxford English Dictionary definition of struggle in there, so it really has two meanings for me. It doesn’t solely pertain to the fact that we’ve had two years of Covid to endure but more the struggle of life which we all have to battle through. A lot of the songs reflect the things that we of a certain age encounter as we get older. Folk might think that the title of ‘Another Dying Day’ is about Covid but it’s actually quite an old song. I used to have a neighbour who was a very keen gardener and his garden was always immaculate. He was quite a happy and chipper kind of guy, always waving and saying hello over the fence while I sat among the weeds being a miserable singer songwriter type. So, the song is about the contradiction between his life and mine really and also, on a more serious note, on trying to avoid that situation where you just cancel the day, go to the pub the minute it opens and just stay there all day. I’ve felt like that on some occasions so the song’s about not falling into that trap but being more constructive with your time.
You mentioned writing about getting older and I was quite struck by the song, ‘The Old Soft Shoe’. It’s a wonderfully melancholic waltz that portrays a widower living with his memories.
It is a kind of sad song but at the same time his fondest memories of his partner or his wife, whoever it is, are of them as a dancing couple and they are happy memories. Despite the fact that he is now on his own he still dances, remembering them both being together. A lot of the songs on the album are influenced by singer songwriters I’ve admired and on this one in particular I was thinking of Jesse Winchester and in particular, a performance when he appeared on Elvis Costello’s TV show Spectacle and sang a song called ‘Sham-A-Lama-Ding-Dong’ which just floored me. You can see it on YouTube. He is singing about listening to old songs on a jukebox and thinking about his wife when they were younger and I used a similar theme only I went for dancing.
On a personal note, you sing a fine valedictory to Lou’s mother on Valerie’s Coming Home.
You’ll probably know that Lou had written ‘Ashes, Flowers and Dust’ about her dad and my mum several years ago. It wasn’t that I wrote this as a kind of response but shortly before the pandemic, we lost Lou’s mum and a that brought back a lot of memories and the song just tumbled out. It’s about her last few days in a care home and fortunately, we were still able to visit before all the restrictions came in. There’s a line in it about a person called Frank being told to close a window he’s opened which might seem a bit out of the blue. But, even although I’d known Valerie for 23 years, she always called me Frank. We were visiting and the room was really warm so I opened a window and she told me off for letting the heat out of the room.
Is this the same Frank who features in the following song, ‘Me & Frank’?
No, that is purely coincidental. ‘Me & Frank’ is about an old school friend of mine who was called Anthony, which I didn’t think was an interesting enough name to put into a song, so I called him Frank. It’s an attempt by me to write a ‘Nebraska’ era Bruce type of song, or a John Prine story telling song. When we were teenagers in Southport Anthony always had these money making schemes and one of them was bagging up grass seed we collected from the beach to sell door to door to people for their lawns which is mentioned in the first verse. Anyway, the song then went off into different tangents, some of which are true, some made up for dramatic effect.
Speaking of Springsteen and Prine, you said earlier that much of the album is influenced by classic singer songwriters. Who in particular were you thinking of?
My original idea was to make an album which sounded like Mickey Newbury in the seventies, but unfortunately I couldn’t stretch to having a full orchestra on it. ‘Another Dying Day’ was the starting point as I tried to write in a Mickey Newbury style and arrange it that way as well with strings and nylon strung guitar and so on, but then some of the other songs didn’t really suit that treatment. I was thinking of folk like Jesse Winchester, Dan Penn, Bobby Charles and John Prine, late sixties, early seventies singer songwriters and even early Van Morrison. It’s a step away from the country sound of My Darling Clementine into a more singer songwriter space. I don’t think it’s what you would call an Americana album although no one really knows what Americana is anyway.
There is a touch of Americana in ‘Sugar’, a song you wrote with Peter Case.
That’s the most American sounding song because, percentage wise, it’s more Peter’s song than mine. I was at a songwriters’ retreat in Lafayette, Louisiana a couple of years back and wrote it with Peter. I like that it’s not necessarily about sugar, it can be anything, drugs, drink, anything you can become reliant on. You can see some of that in the video which was directed by a Glaswegian called David Dalglish. He had done some videos for Steve Wynn and The Long Ryders and I really liked them, and so I approached him to do something for me and he came up with this quite psychedelic, almost Yellow Submarine like animation. He also did an earlier video for ‘Weight Of The World’.
There’s another co-written song on the album, a posthumous collaboration with your late friend Jackie Leven, on ‘Theory Of Truthmakers’.
Jackie and I had this mutual friend, Alan Black, an artist, and Jackie had used a couple of Alan’s paintings as album covers. So, when I was working on ‘The Wanderer’, the tribute album for Jackie I released a few months ago I asked Alan to do the cover art. When we were working on that Alan told me he had some lyrics Jackie had written when they were on a train together and which Jackie had given to him. He never used the words in any of his songs so I reckoned I could put them to music and put it on the tribute album. As it turned out the recording wasn’t finished in time for the ‘The Wanderer’ so I thought I’d put it on this album. It’s nice that something which Jackie had written but had lain dormant for all these years eventually saw the light of day. Alan was good enough to share Jackie’s handwritten lyrics with me and they are in the liner notes.
It’s a great song and I really like the arrangement, especially just towards the end. There’s a soft string backing and an acoustic guitar solo which I thought gave the song a Jimmy Webb touch to it.
That’s Mike Cosgrove on the strings there, and if you listen to Jackie’s records he had a lot of these string effects and they were all done by Mike. I asked him to do a similar thing just to evoke Jackie really. It’s not really the normal kind of chord progression that I would write and on the chorus I was trying to write something that someone like Scott Walker would sing. It’s not really a chorus but when it changes, that uplifting bit, I was really just trying to evoke some of the sounds that Jackie would use on his records.
You recorded the album in Wales.
As I said, I was talking to Jeb Loy Nichols about making an album and he told me about Clovis. He’s a lovely guy and an incredible musician and he has a small studio in what I suppose you would call a dell just by a river just outside of Newtown in Wales. The idea of getting out of the city appealed to me, I wanted to get away especially as we were still in a semi lockdown situation. So I went down there and rented a little cabin nearby. I’d go to the studio, sing the songs and Clovis played most of the instruments. If we needed any additional instrumentation, we sent the tracks off to people like Steve Nieve who would add their piece. It was a really enjoyable experience and the place itself was gorgeous. And in keeping with the Welsh aspect of it I used a painting, ‘Coalface’, by a Welsh artist, Dan Llywelyn Hall, for the cover art and I’m very pleased with the way it looks.
The album opens with a political song, ‘Weight Of The World’ which is about Donald Trump.
Well, it’s about some of the appalling things that were happening under Trump, especially that day when he had a Washington street cleared of peaceful protesters so he could go and wave a bible in front of St. John’s church, it was one of the most grotesque things I’ve ever seen, I couldn’t believe it. So I wanted to write about it but at the same time I didn’t want to write about it from a personal point of view because, well, I’m not an American for a start and even though I’ve been to Washington and stood on that spot I wasn’t there when it happened. I thought it would be more interesting to write it from the perspective of a police officer, somebody who voted for Trump, maybe because of peer pressure, and who just happens to be on duty as part of Trump’s entourage that that day.
‘Weight Of The World’ not only opens the album but is also the last song on the disc in a remixed version.
The remix is by a guy called Mark Brend who goes by the name of Ghostwriter. He’s a musician and an author and he did a remix of ‘I Didn’t Raise My Boy To Be A Soldier’ from my last solo album. On that one he took sound bites from the First World War and added them to the song and on this one, he mixes in newsreel sounds and such. I just like what he does with those things and I thought it would be nice to have it on the album as a bonus track.
Strangely enough, the remix definitely has a Dan Penn sound to it via the keyboards.
Mark’s a bit of a retro boy and so, there’s a drum machine on there but it’s like a real old-fashioned seventies drum machine and the keyboard has that vintage sound. There’s quite a lot of Wurlitzer on the album which I thought was quite evocative of Penn but maybe it’s more prevalent on the remix.
You and Clovis Phillips will be launching the album in Liverpool, do you plan to tour with it?
We had a trial run through recently in Biddulph, a place I have a long association with and it went well, I like the idea of playing the whole album from start to finish as the songs seem to fit quite well together so I’m hoping that we do some more shows once the ongoing My Darling Clementine dates have ended.
Finally, can I ask if your new look, the lockdown hair and beard, are set to stay?
Well, for the sake of my marriage they might have to go eventually! But in the meantime I’m sticking with it. Who knows, maybe in the summer the sideburns will come back.
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