What was the initial impetus to start the My Darling Clementine project, was it the possibility of working together or some other factor?
We both felt it was time we joined forces, rather than doing our own solo things. Lou had been out of the scene for a while, mainly due to being a Mom (though she still had found time to do a UK tour with The Brodsky Quarter and front the They Call Her Natasha stage show) but she had not made an album for quite a while and so working together seemed an good way of getting Lou back in the saddle. I was looking for something different too I guess, and I had toyed with the idea of making a duets album before, but using different singers for each song. But, in my opinion, I am married to one of the best female singers in the country so I just used her for them all.
After a fruitful solo career and playing with The Good Sons did you feel it was time to try something different?
Quite simply I wanted to get back into show business! Essentially I had been troubadouring for a long time, since The Good Sons split, and boy, it gets very lonely out there. I also wanted the excitement of being on stage with a full band again, and even though some MDC shows are just Lou and I, more often than not it is the full 7 piece band which is so exciting when in full flow. I also looked at artists like Richard Hawley and Imelda May, who were having contemporary success with essentially non-contemporary music and felt MDC could do the same with the country duet
How easy was it to tap into that traditional mode of country and write songs that could easily have been recorded by the likes of George and Tammy?
Not too difficult, as I have been writing songs like that for a while but often they did not get used simply as they were too country, certainly for The Good Sons. And then when I started making solo albums, I was actively trying to move away from country so they did not fit those albums either. So, some of the songs on the MDC debut, How Do You Plead? had been lying around for a few years but, I also did my homework too. I listened to a lot of classic country back in the 80’s and I went back and listened all over again, and it was marvelous to hear how that music (Hank, George, Willie and Merle, Loretta and Porter and Dolly) still sound so bloody good.
Are the songs in that genre more easy to write, I suspect from a craft viewpoint they take as much work as any of your songs?
Very much so. You are writing for two voices so that immediately is a different discipline, and in the great tradition of the classic county song, you are looking at 3 minutes in length too (even though we have stretched that on occasion) To say what needs to be said, to tell a story succinctly, clearly and poignantly in just 8 or 12 lines is very hard, that is why people like Hank Williams, Harlan Howard, Merle Haggard should be so admired. They are the masters of that. It’s much easier to ramble on over 10 verses. It is much harder to get to the point.
Was the country music of the 50s and 60s a strong influence and how difficult was it to make the songs relevant to a contemporary audience?
We went into the studio (Gold Top in Chalk Farm, where Nick Lowe had made has past few “quiet” albums) with the remit of making an album as if it we were in 1969 Nashville, and try and cut it just like a George and Tammy record. We handpicked the players who we knew totally got what we were doing and who understood the genre as good as anyone, and probably a damn sight better than most current Nashville sessions players.
We did not really think about the audience we were aiming for at the time, we made the album initially for ourselves and we were we are at, both musically and in life as a married couple. Some of the songs on How Do You Plead? were scenarios we have made up, or been made aware of 2nd hand from watching other couples, but a number of the songs reflected what had been going on in our own lives. And we certainly continued that theme to a greater extent on the 2nd album The Reconciliation.
The themes of the great country duets are timeless and apply to all people, especially couples of a certain age. Couples in their 40’s nowadays are essentially dealing with what couples in their 40’s had to deal with in the 60’, 70’ and 80’s.
The “bickering” couple is an entertaining construct and I’d imagine you are both able to draw inspiration from around you and from you own life. We’ve all been there at some time but how do you find translating those emotions into song?
Worryingly, a little too easy! When it comes to being on stage, yes we play it for laughs at times, but some times, if we have just had “a moment” before we go one, than those barbed comments are delivered with a real genuine feeling. We have not yet had an actual bust-up on stage but we have come close a few times. With the writing it is different because even if you write when in an angry frame of mind towards each other - it tends not to last so your feelings may well have changed when completing the song. The angry songs, the songs of regret are maybe little vignettes based on other peoples lives rather than ours.
How serious then do you see the songs being, how firmly is the tongue in your collective cheeks?
Lou often says that we take our music deadly seriously but not ourselves. I would tend to agree, but even the songs that may rise a wry smile such as I Bought Some Roses, No Heart In This Heartache are harking back to songs like Jackson, or We Ought To Be Ashamed, songs that were a little tongue in cheek but still fabulous songs, poignant too. There is a long tradition of ‘funny’ songs in country music so we do embrace that as well as the darker stuff.
A song like Ashes, Flowers and Dust is much rawer and emotional. Is it important to balance the apparent humour with that deeper message?
I think so, it gives the albums an emotional variety that keeps the listener interested. But at no point do we think “oh we had better write a song like this, or like that.” Ashes, Flowers and Dust just had to be written. We had both recently lost a parent and as songwriters you are naturally going to reflect a huge moment like that in a song. And to some extent, No Matter What Tammy Said also. Domestic violence has been around for years and thankfully there now seems to be a real focus on trying to highlight it, and reduce it. It is discussed on the radio, in the press, on-line etc. and again, as a song writer Lou reflected something she/we felt strongly about.
The fact we are working in a the classic country idiom then yes, we can follow a song on such a dark subject, with a light hearted kind of tounge-in-cheek song such as Leave The Good Book On The Shelf which is influenced by such early George Jones songs as That Ain’t Right. It makes for a nice juxtaposition on an album.
The two albums have been very well received critically and with your audience and have made inroads into the mainstream. Was that something that surprised you or did you feel it would be welcomed at a time when country music is in a constant flux?
I always felt these we would maybe reach a bigger audience than my solo work. These songs are very instant and very accessible so we found we could play a whole set of brand new songs to an audience that had not heard any of them before and they really got them immediatley. The songs are also high on melody, something which I am very passionate about so again, a strong melody sticks in peoples minds and connects immediately.
You have played at the Americana Music Association festival in Nashville what was the reaction of the “coals to Newcastle” dimension of playing in the heart of the genre?
It was fabulous, but there have been many before us who have gone there and sung their own music back at them. Just a matter of it you do it well or not. We played one show at The Station Inn, one of the older, more trad. venues and we chose to end our set by singing She Thinks I Still Care which really could have gone badly and seen us bottled off. Thankfully it didn’t and we left the stage to a standing ovation. Maybe they were just applauding the song!
You are planning to record a third album next year and in doing so using a new producer and set of musicians. How does the change of players and producers affect the direction the recording will take?
He/they will have new and different ideas, may well have a new approach as to how we record, even what instrumentation used. Even though the MDC ethos is all albeit great players playing real instruments and the use of classic country instruments, I would like to break away from the steel /fiddle/acoustic guitar set up for the next one. I was really pleased with how we used horns on the 3rd album and most definitely want more of that on the next one. That deep south Muscle Shoals kind of horns.
Is there anyone you would like to work with?
As a producer, Joe Henry and hopefully we will have him on the 3rd album. I would also like to get Elvis out of “production retirement”, we could make a great album with him. Cowboy Jack Clement also, but sadly too late for that now.
You have both released solo albums. Have you both put that option on hold to pursue My Darling Clementine for the time being?
We have. As I mentioned, Lou was on something of a hiatus anyway, but she is now back in the game totally as one half of MDC and not looking beyond that at the moment, but who’s to say she wont make a solo album again - maybe when she finally leaves me she will. For the past two years I have been syphoning away songs that will make up a new solo album at some point. I would like to record it in 2015 and I have plans for where and how. Two of my favorite albums of the past year or so have been Robbie Fulk’s Gone Away Backward and Guy Clark’s My Favourite Picture Of You, and I think I would go down that simple, spare route for the next MWK album, certainly the new songs would suit that same approach that Guy and Robbie took on those albums.
The state of country music in the UK with acts writing, playing and recording original material seems pretty healthy at the moment. Why do you think that is?
Country music, mainly in the guise of Americana, has now become acceptable and accepted, by a younger audience. It has inspired UK artists to emulate rather than copy. For years UK bands just played covers to keep the line dancer’s happy, There is a different circuit now and folk clubs have become acoustic music clubs which have embraced Americana, and roots music, and country influenced singer songwriters too (singer songwriter is also no long a dirty word, well two). I don’t go to line dance places/country clubs were folks dress up but I guess there are still bands churning out hits by the likes of Georgia Florida Line,what have you, but there are more turned kids being influenced by the likes of Ryan Adams so, like him or not, that has to be a good thing.
Music stills seem to be your passion, have you ever lost that urge to write, play and perform?
Sometimes, for sure. It is a frustrating life at times, and it can often be a battle to carry on but I love playing and being out on the road - it has been my life. When there is a break , the thought of going back out can seem daunting but once out there and you play a great show, and are all in the bar at the hotel after, then you remember why you love it so. I love seeing new places. I get restless. Next month we are touring Austria, Germany and Switzerland and the month after that the west coast of the States. It is a lot of work and hassle and head scratching to keep it going, to make it happen, but you can’t buy experiences like that. It isn’t a job, it’s a vocation. Just like to Lou, I am married to music, for better or worse, for richer or poorer
What are you hopes for the future of My Darling Clementine and beyond?
Short term, that we get the deal and consequently the funding needed to cut the next album the way we want, where and with who we want. That we keep improving as writers and musicians and make a album better than the first two. Then for that album to build on what we have done so far, reach a newer and bigger audience and just keep on doing what we are doing, in a general upward direction
We are also busy with this new ‘music and spoken word‘ collaboration with best selling crime writer Mark Billingham, who has written a short story based around 7 of our songs. It’s called The Other Half - it is set in a run down bar in Memphis, and tells the tale of various couples who frequent the bar as seen through the eyes of the faded glamour, aging waitress, Marcia. Mark reads, we play and the show is presented with great back projection images of the deep south and Memphis in particular.
We kicked it off last November with 4 performances which went very well. The last one was at The Crossing Border Festival in Den Haag. Mark could not make that one so we had Graham Parker reading there. We were thrilled as GP long been a musical hero of ours
We have now cut an album of The Other Half which features Graham and also the fine actor David Morrissey. The album will be out in May, released by the publisher Little Brown. We are launching it at the Laugharne Weekend in Wales in April, taking it to Edinburgh for a week in August and touring it on and off from May - October.
So, I am excited to see how people react to that, and the album in particular - The album is in the spirit of those great Terry Allen albums, like Juarez, or that play he did with Joe Ely and others called Chippy. Maybe someone will make into to a TV drama or film, who knows. It is about time one or two of our songs made it into a movie.
Interview by Stephen Rapid Photography by Ronnie Norton