Being a singer/songwriter comes with all sorts of baggage these days.
And it’s not always clear who’s responsible for it – the press or the songwriters themselves, some of whom think their affected, self-important musings will make them a pretty packet.
Stephen Fretwell is well removed from such trappings. From the moment our interview begins it’s clear there are no frills and graces with him, just straight down the line talking and a genuine love of music and the role he plays within it.”I seem to be getting a lot of good reaction at the moment” he says, “but it makes me a bit suspicious when people are really nice to me and tell me that I’m great. It’s harder to tell if they’re genuine, whereas I just prefer people to be honest.”
At the time of our chat Fretwell is busy doing the radio circuit, promoting the single Why? Taken from the successful second album Man On The Roof, it’s gradually winning over the pluggers. “That’s what I’ve been doing so far this year, and I’ve got some gigs too – one in Manchester and one in London. It’s a good way to start the year, like New Year’s resolutions really”.
Not everybody enjoys the promotional grind, and for Fretwell while it may not seem like a chore the impression is he’d rather let his music speak on his behalf – or at least, he’s a bit happier talking about other people’s music. It’s a kind of unspoken modesty that means our discussion of the second album falters a little – not helped, to be fair, by a busy schedule that means he’s barely come up for air.
We digress – back to the album, recorded in the space of two weeks in New York. “I’ve spent a lot of time there over the last couple of years”, says the Scunthorpe-born singer, “and I’ve got a few friends over there. You can make an album anywhere I guess, but New York’s a nice place. There’s a real lot of activity all the time, and something for everyone!” Was it influential on the album’s style or content? “I don’t know if it did make a difference, to be honest, and the songs were all finished by the time we came to record.”
The juxtaposition of Scunthorpe and New York is difficult to pass without comment, but then I discover Fretwell no longer lives in his home’ town. “I’ve been living in Manchester for nearly ten years” he confirms. Does he feel anything of a pull at the heartstrings from Scunthorpe though? “I’ve never really thought about it to be honest. People and places and things – I don’t know how much they contribute to the writing of my music really. I can’t really say I’ve been influenced by it at all, though having said that I write a lot about Manchester at the moment!”
“There was a broken piano there, and we threw it down the stairs in order to get a better sound out of it!” – Stephen Fretwell guitarist Martin Noble recalls unconventional recording techniques for the band’s new album.
A prolific songwriter, he also has a high quality threshold. “I always like trying to write the songs with words and music together whenever I can, I’ve always found it a fun thing to do. The majority of the songs I write are terrible, though, and for the most part they get dumped.”
The second album’s producer Eli Janney agreed with this sentiment when the two first met, proclaiming that one song was good, but the rest were shit”. Perhaps surprisingly, Fretwell warmed to this approach immediately. “It was a pretty weird time, that, but it’s nice when people are objective and don’t try to lick your arse. I try not to take most people’s comments too seriously, because if people say nice things you have to take them the same way as the criticism. It’s a kind of anomalist dichotomy.” He pauses. “What does that mean?!”
He has a wry sense of humour, and the longer we talk the more this becomes evident. Self deprecation is also easily come by as we discuss his style of writing. “They’re all so miserable, aren’t they, the songs?! I do like the idea of schadenfreud’ though, the German idea of taking humour from other people’s misfortunes. There’s a lot of that in my writing.”
William Shatner’s Dog is a good examples of Fretwell’s humour, the title alone sparking interest. There’s more than meets the eye on the album’s closing song though. “The narrator of the song, he’s singing to the other character, and the dog is an in-joke between the two, rather than being the subject of the song. It’s the characters having a shared, inside moment.”
I suggest to him that he taps into an Englishness within his songwriting, and as soon as the name Jarvis Cocker is mentioned in conjunction with this idea he lights up. “I loved those Pulp lyrics from the 1990s. There’s a song on Different Class called I Spy, where he sings about ‘skilfully avoiding the dog turd next to the corner shop’ on his bike.” He picks up the thread. “All those songwriters that have a British sensibility to their writing, you can trace a line through these artists back to the Kinks, Scott Walker and even further back to Noel Coward. It’s the weird, Britishly colloquial’ style of songwriting.”
We move on to discuss the recording process of the album, a concentrated, Trans-Atlantic affair. “I managed to pull a band together at the last minute, which was just as well as I had the studio booked for two weeks. I tried out a few people and it all came together just at the last minute.”
Fretwell secured musicians of an impressive calibre. “It was pretty weird getting James Iha, and him asking me for directions in the music! I also got Dan Hickey who plays drums for They Might Be Giants. It was a really good group.”
Does he think they’ll play together again? “I think it will probably be a one-off. It’s really tough to track musicians and to get them to stay in a room without wandering off, that’s quite an achievement! They’re funny people, musicians”
Listening to the results nearly two years on, Fretwell can proclaim himself satisfied. “I got a bit drunk with a friend a few weeks back and he said “let’s put your album on”, so I listened to it for the first time in full since 2006, pretty much since we recorded it. It was really satisfying and brought back some great memories of those two weeks. Since then though I’ve written all these songs and I don’t know how I’m going to put them across! I was thinking maybe a psych-folk approach, a bit like Pentangle. We’ll just have to wait and see, but I hope to start recording soon.”
Time’s up – and the singer and his manager have another radio station to visit. It will be interesting to see Fretwell’s presence on radio in the course of 2008, and if that propels him into the mainstream or keeps him hovering just on the edge, his freedom of unpretentious expression giving him a popularity his contemporaries can only aspire to.