If anyone wanted to celebrate the UK in Americana UK, you could do a lot worse than listen to My Darling Clementine’s new album ‘Country Darkness’, their album of Elvis Costello country and country soul style covers they originally recorded as a series of 3 vinyl and download EPs with Steve Nieve and members of Richard Hawley’s backing band. Michael Weston King and Lou Dalgleish bring their own interpretation to Costello’s songs that honours that great UK lineage of music that was formed in the pubs of early ‘70s London. MDC have developed their own take on pure country, inspired by the likes of Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, Harlan Howard and George Jones and the great country duet acts of the past which they bring to some of Costello’s less well-known, but no less well-written, songs and so, in a strange way, bringing these songs full circle. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Michael Weston King to discuss the long gestation period of the album, his love of Costello the songwriter, the impact of COVID on what is essentially a touring band, the influence of The Band on pub rock and his plans for a solo album.
How are you, I hope you and your family and friends are all OK and coping with the challenges of COVID?
We are OK thanks Martin, all well and so too is everyone we know. Can’t say the same for our working life sadly, but like most people, trying to keep busy and pro-active, even if not always motivated to do so!
I hear you have a gig in December in Manchester. How much arranging did that take to make it happen under the COVID restrictions that the North is experiencing?
We DID have a gig. The announcement this week of Manchester going back into Tier 3 means we will have to reschedule it, again, to early in the new year. It has been hugely frustrating to keep re-arranging, as it does involve a number of factors and people, especially as the show was to be live-streamed too. The majority of our shows from earlier in the year, the European and US tours, were simply moved back 12 months but we did want to try and do something, even a one-off show, to commemorate the album release and get in front of a live audience at least once more this year. Alas, it is not to be.
‘Country Darkness’ is a celebration of Elvis Costello’s more country type songs. Was this simply a COVID-based exercise or was it planned earlier?
Nothing to do with Covid, we had the idea at the end of 2018 and then work began properly in March last year, when we first got together with Steve in France. It has been quite a long drawn out process due to a number of factors (geography and money mainly), but we did also work on it throughout the lockdown, which has been a form of creative sustenance. The last 4-5 songs were recorded in April/May.
Apart from the self-penned track, ‘Powerless’, all tracks have been released before on a series of 3 EPs. What is the rationale for releasing music effectively twice and is it proving a successful marketing exercise?
It wasn’t done for marketing purposes, it came about simply because we cut 4 songs initially in the summer last year and we were keen to get something out to our audience. We like to release an album every 2 years if possible. Our last album, ‘Still Testifying’, came out in 2017 and we didn’t have a full album ready to go so hence we went with the EP idea. I am not sure people are buying the music twice. Vinyl buyers and CD buyers are, in the main, two separate camps I think. Of course, there are always some completists. We love those guys! We have tried to make the EP’s as desirable as possible, not just musically but with really high-quality packaging and then offering a sumptuous card slipcase with Vol 3 for collectors to keep all 3 volumes in. It is a nice thing and people have really appreciated the effort, and cost, that has gone into it. We are still a long from charging £250 for expanded reissues of earlier albums!
The tracklisting on ‘Country Darkness’ is different from that on the individual EPs. Why didn’t you simply repeat the EP tracklisting?
We tried that but it just didn’t flow. The running order of each EP was chosen to suit those specific 4 songs. Going from the closing track on Vol 1 ‘I Felt The Chill’ to the opening track of Vol 2 ‘Either Side Of The Same Town’ just didn’t work. The tempos were too similar. Same with the closing song on Vol 2 and opener of Vol 3. I drove myself a bit mad trying to figure it out. I spent a lot of time going through various permutations. We were away in a small cottage in Wales in August and I had the song titles spread out on the kitchen table for days and kept going back and rearranging them. We also wanted the album to be its own thing, to stand alone. Yes, it’s a compilation of all 12 songs but by adding a bonus, original track and having the songs in a different running order, it gives the album its own identity. And most people will be buying these songs /this cd for the first time, having not bought the vinyl.
How do you go about selecting 12 songs from Elvis Costello’s enormous songbook?
It started as a bit of fun, something to pass the time. I decided to put together a playlist of what could loosely be described as all his country and/or country soul songs. Initially just for my listening pleasure, but it sounded like a great album so we decided to go and make it. I have to admit I was also suffering from writer’s block and I wasn’t coming up with anything I was very happy with, and certainly not an album’s worth of songs for a new MDC album, so this also resolved that problem very nicely.
Country was always part of Elvis’s influences right from Clover backing him on ‘My Aim Is True’ and ‘Stranger In The House’ being left off that album because it was too country. ‘Almost Blue’ is still one of my favourite Elvis Costello albums and shows his singing chops probably for the first time. The covers were heavily influenced by George Jones and Gram Parsons, how much did this album influence you?
It was hugely influential. Many friends and contemporaries of mine only got turned on to country music because of Almost Blue. I was a lad from Liverpool who’d just kicked a feigned interest in Prog rock to discover the joy of Dr. Feelgood. Then I got completely blown away by punk and New Wave of which EC was my main man. Naturally, I bought everything he released, so when ‘Almost Blue’ came out, of course, I had to have it (despite the C&W warning sticker)! If at first there was confusion or even outrage at the choice of genre, it was actually a Road To Damascus moment for me. Without that record, I wonder how long it would have taken me to discover George Jones, Merle Haggard and Harlan Howard. Even Gram Parsons was not on my radar at that time!
Steve Nieve is also all over that album in a more sophisticated way than he had been on earlier albums. What was it like working with him on the covers project? Very enjoyable, and educational. He is a remarkable musician, who hears things in a very unique way. A number of the songs sound like they do because of certain arrangements he suggested. ‘I’ll Wear It Proudly’ is a good example. Originally I was all for doing it in the classic Johnny Cash “boom chikka” style but Steve’s suggestion was to give it the Bruce Springsteen ‘Streets of Philadelphia’ treatment. I think we nailed it. Steve’s idea really did take it somewhere else.
Steve Nieve, Lou Dalgleish, Michael Weston King
‘King Of America’ was also a special album and at the time fit right into the emerging alt-country genre. What did this album of Costello penned songs mean to you?
A little like ‘Almost Blue’, it also highlighted a musical direction I wanted to follow. It immediately became a firm favourite and I’d still say it is in my top 5 EC albums, maybe top 3. Every song is fully formed, really top quality songwriting, no half ideas or things thrown in. After the 80’s sounding albums of ‘Punch The Clock’ and ‘Goodbye Cruel World’, it was a welcome change of direction. It was also a change of producer to T. Bone which had a lot to do with it. There are 3-4 absolute Costello classics on that album. Yes, the timing was right. I was just starting to get into the new country thing coming along then, Dwight Yoakam and Lyle Lovett’s debut albums and the Paisley Underground scene too, many happy nights going to see the likes of Green On Red, Jason and The Scorchers and Rain Parade.
How did you go about coming up with the arrangements for the songs?
The tracks began with Steve putting down his piano part to a click track and then sending it over to the UK, where Colin, Shez, Dean and I would then build the track. Very often, what Steve did, led us into the direction we took, in terms of style and made arrangements quite straightforward. On some occasions, Lou and I would have one idea and Steve another, but it was pretty organic and the right options were pretty clear to see. It was important too that we approached them as if they were our songs. The band did not hear the Elvis originals so they played with an open mind, which in turn very much led to us getting the songs to sound like us, not just us covering Elvis.
You have gone very deep into Elvis Costello’s songwriting. What did you get out of that journey?
His influence as a writer is writ pretty large across my own song catalogue. There are certain songs of mine that are 20, 25 years old but when I hear them, I know exactly what I was listening to when I wrote them. All songwriters have major influences and EC is certainly one of mine. I like the fact he does not conform to a fixed structure. If he wants to add an extra few bars because he is still saying something then he will, even if it makes that verse, chorus etc different from the previous one. Many of EC songs sound quite straightforward but they are hard, really hard. He is always looking to go somewhere the listener does not expect, not choosing the obvious route or chord change, and I have taken a lot from that.
Have you thanked AMAUK for announcing that Elvis Costello will get a Lifetime Achievement Award as part of AmericanaFest UK 2021?
It’s not my place to do that. Elvis has, I think, and that’s all that matters. I’ll thank them when they give me one. I must admit, as much as admiring the people who have been honoured with Lifetime Achievement awards (EC, Nick, Richard Thompson etc) I do wonder if it is their high profile that has lead to them being chosen, just as much as their undoubted achievements. Having the likes of them attending the awards helps the profile of the event and the credibility. If we are just talking about americana music, or alt-country, roots music etc, there are many artists who have given their whole careers to the genre, not just dipped in and out. The likes of Hank Wangford, the recently departed Terry Clarke, Wes McGhee. Less well-known, lower profile and arguably less hip or credible names. Maybe the AMA board are not very familiar with them, but they are people who have put in a “lifetime” to pursuing this art form, even if they have not had the same success.
My Darling Clementine are often classified as country. Is this a help or a hindrance in developing your audience?
The dreaded “C” word. I have been battling it for 30 years, and it is arguably more a hindrance than a help, especially being British. Having spent 10 years fronting The Good Sons in the 90’s, when the term alt-country was kind of established, that was a tag that was good and it separated us from the woeful UK country scene in the same way I guess it did for The Rockingbirds, or bands like Easter House, but once most people hear the ‘C’ word, they envisage the cliched, obvious thing. Then I was ten years solo, making records that you could not describe as alt-country, they were more singer-songwriter albums in the vein of Roddy Frame, Ron Sexsmith, though there were still occasional country elements to it. I was quite happy to not be associated with the “tag”. When we started My Darling Clementine it was with a view of doing something totally country, no grey area, no “alt” or “americana” (that term was becoming much more prevalent by then) I felt that the bandwagon was pretty overcrowded. I felt it was time to do something that was pure classic country, channelling the influence of the iconic country artists and in particular duos. Lou embraced it and got me back into “show business”. We achieved what we set out to with our debut ‘How Do You Plead?’. To be honest, I thought it would be a one-off, and Lou and I would go back to our solo careers, but it was very well-received and has been our focus, and career now, for 9 years. Since the debut, we have developed what we do. We didn’t want to keep making the same record so we moved more into country soul as that was what I have listened to the most of any genre in recent years. As with anything though, whatever you are known for when you start, is what you are stuck with. So yes, MDC are called a country band. I think EC is still called the “angry young man of New Wave!”.
You worked closely again with Richard Hawley’s band on ‘Country Darkness’. How much did it help working with an established band that you had worked with before?
It is a great help. We know each other so well now, and we fully understand each other’s ways of working. We have found a kind of formula that suits us all. It is not the first time though, that we have hired ‘a team’. On our first album, we pretty much took Nick Lowe’s band (and producer) It works well. But so does the fact they are all very fine musicians. The secret to most good records, hire great players.
Will he lend you his band when you can tour again, or will you have to get a different set of musicians together?
I don’t think his approval is needed. Colin and Shez are their own bosses and arguably, working with Richard is only a small part of what they do, even if it is possibly the highest-profile thing. Had COVID not changed the touring landscape, there would have been some live shows with the line-up that made ‘Country Darkness’. Dean, Shez and Colin, plus Steve. A horn section too. They would have been killer shows and maybe they will happen next year. The MDC touring band has changed and evolved over the years depending on various circumstances and where we are touring. We have musicians we use ONLY when we go to the US or parts of Europe. Currently, the regular line-up is drummer Dean Beresford (Richard Hawley) bassist Al Gare (Imelda May) and guitarist Preben Raujnsberg (James Burton, Scotty Moore). Been a while since we last played together, probably this BBC TV show in January . To view click here.
You have worked with Nick Lowe’s band in the past. Bobby Irwin and Neil Brockbank are no longer with us but why do think the pub rock scene was able to produce such supple musicians that were an ideal fit for americana?
Two words, I think. “The Band”. So many of the pub rock guys were influenced by them. They were doing something so timeless and free of any trend. So organic, they were quite brilliant musicians who were influencing the likes of George Harrison and Eric Clapton as well as Brinsley Schwarz, Nick Lowe and Martin Belmont. I think also those pub rock guys, they played and played, they really learnt their trade the hard way, the proper way, like the early 60’s bands before them. They were listening to a lot of rock ’n’ roll, country songs, short, 3-minute songs, no long noodling or over-indulgence. They were raised on that music and consequently became damned good at playing it. When I sat down with Neil and Bobby and Martin Belmont to discuss the debut album, they knew exactly what I was talking about and exactly the best way to go about getting those results, without us having to leave Chalk Farm.
Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello were both big influences on Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale. Any plans to get ‘Country Darkness’ in front of an American audience when the conditions are right?
We were due to be touring the States there in April. 18 shows on the East coast and midwest. That tour has been moved to April 2021 and we are hoping to add shows on the West coast too. So, the answer is “yes”, very much so.
What has the COVID experience done for your own songwriting?
I tend to write a lot when I am on the road. In hotel rooms, on buses, at soundchecks etc, soaking up influences, events, towns we play in, countries we travel through. I have not had that this year, and have found it very uninspiring staring at my own 4 walls. That said, I have started on a solo album, using songs that have been around a while and have found time to finish them during lockdown. These are songs I have had for a few years now but are not suited to My Darling Clementine. I have tried very hard to avoid writing about COVID. Although the government’s behaviour towards it is and those on the front line is certainly a topic for debate. I wrote a song about the treatment of NHS staff and the hypocrisy of The Tories called ‘No One Comes Close To You’. Then there has been the US election of course. The obscene behaviour of Trump has been hard to ignore, and hard not to comment on. I was particularly appalled by the bible-waving photo-op outside St John’s church, and the way peaceful protesters were barged and chased, violently off the street. That was particularly grotesque, even by his standards. I put pen to paper about that, written from the point of view of a black cop who voted for Trump and ends up being one of his escorts that day.
Who have remained your life-long influences?
“Life-long” is hard to say as I got turned on to different people at different times and some of them, even ones I only got into in my 30’s or even 40’s, although not “life-long” have been huge influences. But here are some. Ones I dug in my teens and ones that shaped my writing when I discovered them later; Marc Bolan, Pete Townshend, Buddy Holly, The pub rock scene, Motown, The Band, Hank Williams, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, both Elvis’s, Phil Ochs, Tim Hardin, George Jones, Gram Parsons, Townes and Guy, Nick Cave, the country soul of Dan Penn and Donnie Fritts, the Fame studio recordings, the songs of Jimmy Webb, Glen Campbell. The list could go on.
What do you hope to be doing in 2021?
Touring. As much as possible. It is how we make our living and it is how we feel fulfilled. You cannot beat the connection between a live audience and performer, the immediate response to the music, the rapport. It is infectious. You certainly don’t get it down a live stream. I also want us to try and make the ‘Country Darkness’ shows happen with Steve. Maybe even a show where we play the full album. Also, personally, I’d like to see my solo album completed and released. Aside from work, some more time away, with my children.
At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?
A Girl Called Eddy ‘Been Around’. This is the album that I will always associate with lockdown 2020. It accompanied me on many lonely drives when I’ve needed to get out and just drive and find a change of scenery in lockdown. It’s a mix of classic soul and orchestral pop, articulate and ingenious songwriting a la’ Prefab Sprout, with some Steely Dan and Todd Rundgren in there too, plus the best song The Pretenders never wrote. It is a gem and by far my album of the year
Terry Allen ‘Just Like Moby Dick’. A new Terry Allen album is always a treat, mainly because they are so damned infrequent. This is right up there with some of his best. I particularly love the song he co-wrote with Dave Alvin ‘Death Of The Last Stripper’.
Bob Dylan ‘Rough & Rowdy Ways’. What is it about Bob, he just keeps on delivering? No marks to me for originality in choosing him but this is a brilliant album and a musical highlight of the year. For him to still be writing songs that can arguably be hailed as classics, ‘I Contain Multitudes’ for example, is just incredible. There is Bob, and then there is everyone else. Also special mentions for the new albums by Dan Penn, ‘Living On Mercy’ and Bill Callahan, ‘Gold Record’.
Finally, do you want to say anything to our readers?
If you are able to, please keep supporting all the musicians and artists that you love, or even ones you just “like”. Many people and industries are suffering right now, it is not just “artists” but it is true, that everyone who is involved in live performance has had their income, their livelihood, their careers decimated. So, where possible, please keep buying from their web sites, donating when they live stream, and even if not able to do that, just some words of support, or kind words of praise for what they have done, the joy they have given you at a show or on record, or via a song that has connected with you. It all helps morale at a time when it is badly needed.
My Darling Clementine’s ‘Country Darkness’ is out now on Fretsore Records