Music Interviews

Tim Burgess: “I just dream, and that’s how songs come now” – Interview

With his new album I Love The New Sky out this week, the sometime Charlatan talks Twitter, isolation and the post-pandemic world

Tim Burgess

Tim Burgess (Photo: Cat Stevens)

The musical climate may have changed so much for so many over the last two months, but one man is busier than most. Tim Burgess, lead singer with The Charlatans, not only has a new solo record out, but he is also responsible for one of the most inspiring musical stories to come out of the coronavirus pandemic. Tim’s Twitter Listening Party – or #timstwitterlisteningparty, to use its operational name – has been a social media phenomenon, uniting fans, new listeners and artists as they listen to an album together in real time. Burgess has secured some memorable guest appearances from the likes of New Order, Pulp, Róisín Murphy, Sparks, Paul Weller, Oasis and The Breeders, as well as exploring his own solo and band output.

When we talk, however, he is standing out in the wide-open Norfolk countryside. “It’s quite close to Fakenham, in a small village – and there are a few places where it’s good to take my little boy,” he says. “There’s a certain pace here, and you feel like you are always racing a little bit. It’s like London pace in Norfolk.”

We start by discussing I Love The New Sky, Tim’s fourth solo album. “It’s an unusual time to be releasing a record, but I feel that it’s still gonna hold in there, because it feels like a good one. Obviously you can’t tour at the moment, but maybe people will have time to sit and listen to a record, and I think it’s the perfect record for that.”

By his own admission it contains his most adventurous songwriting to date, with unusual structures and harmonies that never lose sight of a good melody or lyric. Does he worry that he is sometimes overlooked as a daring songwriter? “Hopefully, that will change,” he says in a carefree tone that includes a smile, “but I don’t worry about not getting credit. If it comes then it makes me smile, you know? I wrote it all in a white room in Norfolk with not much going on around me, and because of that a change just had to happen throughout the songs, without it being jarring. The chord structures had to be interesting, and the changes had to happen quite quickly, but there had to be subtlety as well. A lot of that comes from the players on the album.” He laughs. “It also comes from the good songs, of course.”

On the new record Tim explores the further reaches of his vocal register. Fans of The Charlatans will recall his falsetto singing on 2001’s Wonderland, but I Love The New Sky explores the lower end. “I normally go for the mid and higher register, especially with Charlatans stuff because I’m battling guitars, keyboards and drums,” he explains, “but on this one I sang quietly in my room, and presented the demos to Dan O’Sullivan, and to Thighpaulsandra. They all liked that lower voice and encouraged me to use that. Daniel said it reminded him of Kevin Ayers, which I thought was fine.”

Violinist Peter Broderick makes an appearance, with two contributions. “I met him during the making of this album,” says Tim, “and he had been doing a side project which Daniel was involved in. He plays fiddle on Laurie and Empathy For The Devil. I thought his skills are incredible but also his personality fitted into the band that I wanted to take out and play live, so he joined, and we played four shows in New York. I feel so lucky that those shows happened. There is a recording on the internet which is good to have. Everything has stopped now but I’ll always have New York.”

It is incredible to think Burgess has now been making music through five decades, having started The Charlatans just before 1990 – and it is a career worthy of the dreaded ‘j’ word. Could he have envisaged writing the music he does now? “I hate to say this too… but good question! ‘Journey’, it’s a big word. That’s 30 years ago, and I didn’t see anything except the end of my nose, you know? I was always interested in music, and I thought that started around the age of 13 but my parents told me I was always into it. I think there are many ways to listen to music. People listen in depth or on the surface, people listen with an eye on the melody or the beat. I found Throbbing Gristle to be quite scary when I was younger, but then in the ’90s I found them quite relaxing! It depends how you look at stuff, and the way I look at music these days is different. I write really happy pop stuff when it’s freezing cold because I think of LA and how beautiful it is there. I just dream, and that’s how songs come now.”

“I’m a young almost 53-year old, and I think that’s OK. I feel younger than I did when I was 18.”

A big part of Burgess’ approach is a greater conviction with his craft. “In my mid-20s I would have been too nervous to write something so sunshiney pop, but I really love gleaming surfaces – something plasticky or shiny. The song The Mall, off the new album, reminds me of a twinkling thing, and there are so many layers – darkness as well. It’s trying to build it all in, and that can only come with age I think. I’m a young almost 53-year-old, and I think that’s OK. I feel younger than I did when I was 18.”

Even before we discuss the listening parties, he talks of a voyage of musical discovery. “I’ve just recently got into 10cc and Roxy Music, and I only got into those records because Thighpaulsandra said this album reminded him of those bands. I listened to Sheet Music by 10cc for the first time in my life about three months ago, and so it’s a new record to me even though it was made in the 1970s. It doesn’t sound old; it just sounds great. I remember as a kid hearing The Small Faces for the first time and that was what I wanted to sound like for a bit. I’m always finding new stuff even if it’s old.”

Tim’s Twitter Listening Party has been running for two months now, and one of its choice moments was when Burgess himself forgot that The Charlatans had headlined Reading Festival. He is also unlocking memories of making the albums themselves. “I prefer listening to them like that,” he admits. “and that’s quite common with people, I think. If it wasn’t for the listening parties I would never listen to these records of mine and The Charlatans. I have to say I prefer listening with people. Alex Kapranos from Franz Ferdinand said that as well, he said it was the first time he’d heard their first album since he put it out.”

Like many, he finds it a therapeutic aid to isolation and staying at home. “Yeah. I listened to The Breeders the other night, and Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque, and I got so much pleasure listening with other people too, looking at what people are saying. Everyone has a favourite track and that’s really refreshing. I’ve got a new one now, Pet Rock by Teenage Fanclub, that just became my favourite of that night, and I wondered why I hadn’t paid as much attention to that instead of What You Do To Me. I love people meditating on an album and letting it play the whole way through, rather than putting a track on a playlist.”

The value of albums has been reinforced. “Exactly. I think you realise it is a lot of work, making a record. Using Teenage Fanclub as an example, that album has a lot of people on the same wavelength, a lot of people in the same room, chatting and making music, really doing something fantastic and believing in stuff, being inspired.”

He is candid with his own struggles for creativity. “I’ve not written a song at all, not a single thing. The listening parties have become the thing – if I said I was working 10 hours a day on them I think I’d be undercutting it.” The sky is the limit, too. “We’ve done a festival now, and films with Clint Mansell. We’re doing a Moshi Moshi festival with Hot Chip and we have The Streets and Dexys Midnight Runners on the same night which will be amazing. We had people dancing around the room to The Chemical Brothers the other night, that was proper raving.”

The parties have their own ‘catch-up’ service too, with listeners able to replay the albums they missed. “Being able to listen back to it in real time too, I can say that’s genius. Two guys came to me in the first week, fans of The Charlatans and big fans of what we were doing. I’d never met them before, and obviously still haven’t, but we DM each other all day and they work tirelessly all day for nothing, to make it the best thing they can do.”

Meanwhile home schooling with his son continues. “We’ve covered wrestling, volcanoes, coronavirus, hurricanes, tornadoes and sharks,” he laughs. “He doesn’t like any of the real stuff – the stuff he’s supposed to be doing. I think it’s hard enough for anyone to be doing anything anyway, and I don’t know what people expect. Do you have to be able to sit your kid down and tell them everything? He’s seven tomorrow, and he just wants to play out.” He is, however, on the new album. “That’s right, on Comme D’Habitude, he does his debut saying the word ‘framed’.”

“I think we’re all going to learn to have more consideration for people.”

There is enough musical material for the listening parties to last if they are needed. “I’m not actively looking for people, but they are coming in. There are lots of younger bands getting excited, and it’s exciting for me to share newer music to the audience. We’ll see how it goes. The hardest bit is scheduling, I’ve double booked people about five times, just because that’s not what I do. I’ve got into a rhythm with how I spend my days, and what I do at night. I’ve got into a pattern and I’m sleeping a bit better, getting five hours a night, which is good.”

It has been a difficult time for Burgess, whose father passed away in early April. While we do not address that directly, it has clearly left a mark along with the current situation. “I’ve had my moments, just like I’m sure everybody has,” he says, “but then I know that I’m so lucky to be where I am. I’m in a village, so at any time there’s not many people. I can go outside at any time, and I feel so lucky about that, especially when you think of people in London in flats, with three kids. Dad’s going to work, the kids can’t go out – so I feel lucky. But it is difficult, yeah – it just is. I think a lot of my friends are getting drunk though. A lot of them are going to bed at 8 O’Clock, just smashed.”

We discuss what we as a human race might learn from the pandemic once it has passed. “I think ‘the times’ were getting on top of us,” he says. “With some leaders of the world – and I don’t want to get into the political debates – everything was just verging on insanity. When the virus came everybody had to stop, and people who didn’t think they had to stop were taken down by it, so they had to stop too. I think we’re all going to learn to have more consideration for people. When we’re all told that we can go out and behave normally again, hopefully people will have some trepidation and not just go out and get straight back to the way it was. We’ve just taken it too far. It’s awful about the deaths, but it’s a massive warning sign. The climate, global warming, plastic, it’s all gone too far.”

He has another coping mechanism up his sleeve. “I’m a meditator, and meditation is so amazing now because it’s so quiet. It’s all about getting back to nature, and I think it’s a really powerful time for nature at the moment, because there are no emissions. It’s a replenishing time and we should take that for what it is, nurture it in the future as opposed to whacking it over the head again.”

Tim Burgess’s album I Love The New Sky is out on 22 May 2020 through Bella Union and can be ordered here. Tour dates and further information can be found here.

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