Springsteen may cast his shadow, but girl pop singers also provide inspiration.
Regular readers of Americana UK, and most fans of americana, will be aware of the sometimes debates about what does and doesn’t constitute americana, generated possibly by the now significant history of the music that could be classified as americana. The Blue Highways are a band of London-based brothers, Callum, Jack, and Theo Lury, who are beginning to make waves on the UK americana scene and have just released their second album, ‘Out On The Line’, which has added to the interest surrounding the band. Being a young band, they are not encumbered by any sense of history surrounding americana, and they play the music they want to without getting too bound up with the genre. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson chatted with primary songwriter and storyteller Callum Lury about how the Blue Highways dealt with the difficult second album challenge with ‘Out On The Line’. He also discusses the band’s disparate musical influences over and above the well-documented influence of Springsteen, which includes modern girl pop singers and classic soul divas. Callum Lury also discusses his sense of Britishness and how it influences the band’s lyrics and music.
How are you and where are you?
I’m good, and I’m at home in London.
‘Out On The Line’ is your second album. How easy was it to record, given the challenges around second albums?
It wasn’t that it wasn’t tricky. I guess it feels like it came a long way from the previous album, which was just an exploration of a lot of the interests we had at the time, and trying to work in a new studio environment and playing more live in the studio. We were also quite new in the americana world, and we were trying to develop a sound that paid homage to things we liked and find a spot within that that we liked. Whereas, with the new album, it was more about trying to find a sound that was uniquely us, trying to push the boundaries of what we were doing within americana, and thinking may be a bit less about americana and trying to think more broadly about just making the sounds we wanted, bringing in a lot more influences from elsewhere.
What are the dynamics within the band, particularly with three brothers?
It has its moments, but for the most part, it does work well. Basically, I write the music in terms of the basic song structures and then take it to the band, and everyone plays. I have a bit of an idea of how the song should go, but it is really a group writing process after that initial construction. With this album, I suppose I took more of a lead role. I demoed much more extensively than I had done previously, and I took on a main production role, I guess, I had much more of an idea of what I wanted the thing to sound like. Band members still have a lot of say in terms of what is happening, and there are lots of opinions. The way a lot of bands that are democracies work is that while there is someone who leads the band because it is difficult not to have someone who makes decisions and pushes things on, there are constant opinions, advice, thoughts, and arguments to try and get the sound to where we eventually want it to be.
What is it with the Lury family that all three of you have embraced the americana genre, even if it is at a wider spectrum?
It probably originates back to my dad’s music taste. My dad was a massive Springsteen fan, and as anyone who has listened to the album will tell you, there is a lot of Springsteen in there. It is hard to get away from when it is so embedded in you. That was the start of it, there was a very big Springsteen influence very early in our lives, and we all took that on quite a lot, me and Jack particularly, and we’ve seen Springsteen all over Europe. I think to some extent, we stumbled across the americana scene in the UK, and to some people, Springsteen isn’t even americana, even though there are americana elements to his music, because previously we had played in a much more upfront rock & roll band. That was about six years ago, and if someone had asked me then what is americana in the UK, I honestly couldn’t have answered the question. I’d listened to plenty of the music within what it is for years, but I’d never really thought about what genre they may be. I just thought of them as rock which is how I saw 90% of the music I was listening to. I still tend to think that music doesn’t need heavy classification. It is broadly rock, with some of it having more of a country influence and some having more of a folk influence, some of it is more modern with contemporary instrumentation and stuff, but you can get into the weeds a bit with it.
Who else, apart from Springsteen, have been fundamental influences on the band?
One of the other really big influences, unusually, was Prince. We listened to a lot of Prince when we were growing up, a lot of Queen, a lot of John Fogarty, all this was when we were younger, and as we grew up, there was a fair amount of pop stuff. Even now, I think individually, the band listens to a lot of Taylor Swift and particular modern types of pop. Between us, we like a lot of female lead pop stuff, which is probably off the back of stuff we listened to when we were growing up. We listened to a lot of Motown and soul, a lot of Martha Reeves, Aretha Franklin, and Etta James, which I suppose kind of makes sense with a big modern ballad singer like Taylor Swift, who may be less that kind of singer but does bring the rock americana side of things.
Which songs are you most proud of, or surprised by, on ‘Out On The Line’?
As ever, it would change on a daily basis, and I’m sure if you asked Jack or Theo, they would say something completely different. I think, as a whole, we are really proud of how the title track came out, ‘Out On The Line’. The sound of it, and one of the specific influences on that song, was a band called The Americans, and they had an album, and there is a track on it called ‘The Right Stuff’, a brilliant song, and that sound was something I wanted to see if we could make it feel more broadly speaking, British, particularly through the lyrics. So that song was something we were really pleased with the way it came out, and the other big one is ‘Rio Grande, which we’ve been playing live for a long time, and it is a bit of a big set piece when it is live, something like ten or eleven minutes long with different parts and a big introduction. I not only wanted to keep the references for it, but also I wanted to make something new that sounded like us, and I do believe it has something unusual about it. It is quite heart led, but it still has a big washy sound. It does sound like classic rock, but I do hope it has quite a modern feel to it. It is lyrically driven, as is a lot of the album, which is something that can get lost in big production numbers. I like to think that with something like ‘Rio Grande’, it managed to retain some of that because it is still very much a story song.
You have been reported as saying the record was inspired by “The enduring spirit of the individual”. As society becomes more fragmented and tribal, how easy is it for anyone to be a true individual?
I think there is still hope for the individual, and I’ve never really thought of it like that, it makes me sound like some form of libertarian or something, everyone for themselves, which I’m not, but I know what you mean. I think it is about the enduring strength of individuals within a society, and everyone is operating within something broader and bigger, but often that system means there are people operating on the peripheries that don’t fit in and won’t fit into any of the categories being made for them, whether that is socially, or in more extreme cases, politically. For people to have the self-resilience to keep going in the face of all those things is something I wanted to write about and explore because it is the idea that despite the difficulties people face, they still do more than the nod if you look for it on a daily basis. The fact that people keep going is an amazing thing in itself, simply the act of continuing is a sign of resistance and resilience., and that is one of the themes I wanted in the album.
You’ve mentioned Britishness within significant American influences on the band. How much Britishness do you think you will be able to keep going forward?
I think musically, and it is difficult to say nowadays, the music is probably referencing more famous American artists and American music, but a lot of that music was influenced by British artists so it is kind of difficult to say at what point who gets to claim it as their own. So, musically I think it is a bit arbitrary, but lyrically I do want it to retain something of the Britishness because I want it to feel, for lack of a better word, more authentic. I want it to sound like something I could feel and understand what I’m writing about. However, with the album, I like to think that a lot of what I’m writing about isn’t about me, it has aspects of me in it, obviously, but it is about other people in other situations and their experiences, In that sense, I feel I want to write about someone who is in Britain or is in America, or as one of the songs is about someone in Afghanistan. It is not so much about the place so much as it is about the person in the situation. Maybe that is one of the things I was talking about before that ties people together across borders is that, on an individual basis, people are trying to do the same thing. They are trying to lead a good life, and they are trying to lead a good life by the people they love, find security, find safety, and find a home, which is what binds people together. So, I suppose I always want there to be a British aspect to it because it feels more personal to me, but I don’t think it has to have that for it to be able to speak to people.
You’ve been playing live. How are you finding the live scene post-pandemic?
It definitely hasn’t got back to where it was yet, at least at a grassroots level. It is getting there compared to a year ago when venues were quiet, and you are getting more people coming out. We’ve played some great gigs, particularly the ones you are not sure about. We’ve played quite a few gigs across the country at town and village halls where you are not sure when you get there if you are going to get ten people or not, but more often than not, they have been packed out, and the people who are there are pretty up for it and appreciate it. We have had really good support across the UK for the shows we’ve done this year, and we’ve played places we haven’t played before, even places you thought we would have done, we did our first shows in Oxford and Birmingham, for instance. So as well as playing smaller places and venues, we’ve also played bigger places and bigger venues. So, it is nice to feel we are establishing a fuller circuit where we could have a route to mount a full-scale UK tour.
Are there any plans for the Blue Highways to go to America in the future?
I wish. Honestly, Europe looks much more likely than America, with the exception of getting one of the showcases, a tour of America is just unfeasibly expensive for a band like us with no support. Unless someone smiles down on us, it is not going to happen any time soon, however, we would love to tour there. Europe seems much more likely, even if it is more difficult post-Brexit, and though the music is American, there is a huge audience for this kind of music in a lot of parts of Europe. Though it is very hard to judge, as far as we can tell from the viewing figures off Spotify and YouTube and the sales figures for the number of things we’ve shipped across, we probably have as wide a fanbase in Europe as we do in the UK, even though apart from a few sporadic shows, we’ve never played there. So, I believe there is something there if we can get out there.
At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists, albums or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?
Unsurprisingly, I’m listening to some Springsteen, but I’ve been listening to a lot of his live stuff off the back of our shows as I’ve been looking for inspiration. I’ve been listening to Ike and Tina Turner’s ‘Natbush City Limits’, I’ve been listening to quite a lot of high-energy rock & roll recently, and Tina Turner has such a wild voice. I’ve also been listening a fair bit to Sam Fender’s most recent album, ‘Seventeen Going Under’. I have mixed feelings about it, but I do find it interesting, and I can hear influences, and it did influence the album in some ways. It is interesting to see what can be popular if it is done in a certain way, I suppose, things that sit not a million miles away from our genre.
Finally, do you want to say anything to our readers?
Thanks to everyone who has already listened to ‘Out On The Line’. If you haven’t listened to it, it is available for streaming, and on CD and vinyl, we just want people to hear it and come and see us live. We will be touring again at the end of this year, if not the beginning of next year, extensively, and we would love to see anyone and everyone out and about.
The Blue Highways’ ‘Out On The Line’ is out now as an independent release.