Conchie have just released new album, Northumbria, which they say, ” it addresses the impacts of alcoholism and domestic abuse on those living with it, and it does so authentically and honestly: the way abusers and addicts rarely wear their true faces when we first meet them; the way the corrosive toxicity of both behaviours first hijack and then corrupt our ideas about home and family and love; and the reality that the road into and out of hell for survivors is long and hard.” The Fountain spoke with the band about the album and their plans for the remainder of the year.
TF: You have a new album out, what has the reception been like to Northumbria?
It’s been incredible. We released Northumbria with very little lead-up and no fanfare. That was a conscious decision by myself and Lisa (of Knight PR). There were no teaser trailers, no viral marketing, no pre-release sign-ups, no lead-off singles or video promos ahead of time. Rather than try and direct traffic, we thought it was a powerful and important album, so we wanted to put it out and let people react to it.
In the six weeks since Northumbria was released the response has been unbelievable – both in positivity and diversity. People are writing their own stories to it and making it part of their lives. I’ve had people contact me to say they meditate to the whole album while others say they use tracks like I Know What You Are to get them fired up. People are listening to it on headphones when they’re walking their dogs, and when they’re going to work. A lady from Shropshire has told me she plays it when she’s painting every evening, and I’ve had a message from a rower who says he plays when he’s sculling at dawn every morning. It’s incredible. I’ve had emails saying A Sense of an Ending nailstheir own experience of living with an alcoholic partner and Domestic Abuse charities in the UK saying it’s an important work that shows victims that they can be survivors too. As someone whose main instrument is the guitar, I also really dig that a bluegrass player in the Appalachian Mountains got in touch to ask how I was playing No Sailor Leaves the Sea (DADGAD, in case you’re wondering!) in the same week that a Folkie from Aberdeen, Scotland, asked me what tunings I was using (weird ones!). Worlds colliding!
The thing is, all of that has happened without promotion and without constant uploads of new content. Organically, people are finding their own way to Northumbria. What’s incredible to me is that whatever I thought Northumbria was when I was writing and recording it, it’s clear that it isn’t mine anymore. It’s become part of other people’s lives and stories. It’s theirs. I think that’s amazing.
TF: How would you sum it up in one sentence?
The response or the album!? The response: incredible. The album: A powerful, immersive set of songs and atmospheres that will take you on your own journey each time you listen to it.
TF: Where did you get your influences from for this one?
Great question. I was in an abusive relationship for eight years; and one of my ex-partner’s controlling behaviours was to stop me playing guitar and listening to music – it was a deliberate abuse because I’d been a working musician my entire life to that point. By the time I escaped, I literally couldn’t play the guitar anymore. The connections between my fingers, my ears and my brain had rusted away. I went back to Northumbria to recover. Northumbria has some of the wildest and most beautiful countryside and coastline in the world. While I was walking through it, I started hearing and feeling all of this music coming back to life inside me … but when I tried to play it, I found I couldn’t!
I ended up turning the tuners randomly trying to find the sounds I was hearing and feeling … It was like turning a key and unlocking the door: all of this music just started flooding out.
I had no equipment besides one microphone and a four-track TEAC reel-to-reel that had last been cutting edge in the mid-1970’s, but I didn’t want to make a ‘one-man-singing-while-strumming-an-acoustic guitar’ type album. There’s nothing wrong with those. I dig them. But I could hear this intense, dense rich atmospheric music pouring through me from the land and the sea; music drawing from personal and collective histories; shared experiences; stories from our pasts and presents and futures …
So, I went for it! It was a challenging experience not having any of the digital flexibility, plug-ins and options that we consider integral to recording nowadays. Every sound and note had to be felt and made. But it was incredibly rewarding.
As a musician, I can point to people who’ve used these kinds of tunings before: Davy Graham, John Martyn, John Renbourne, Martin Carthy, Martin Simpson, Tony McManus … it’s a long list, and they’re players and artists I admire.
I don’t think we use those tunings in the same way, though. I don’t hear the same cinematic, immersive overarching sensibility to their work – beautiful and inspiring though it frequently is.
TF: Is Northumbria a concept album?
No, not in the sense of early 70’s progressive rock wig-outs, no! Much though I love The Who, I’m not Pete Townshend – I’m not going to tell you what you’re hearing. The listener brings the meaning, not the author. If we get it right, the audience finds themselves in the music.
But yes, Northumbria is in as much as there are themes and layers and ideas that recur. Perhaps ‘soundtrack’ might be a better way of describing it. Not in the contemporary sense of the mega artist tie-in and the Disney soundtrack. In the way that when you listen to Vangelis’s Bladerunner soundtrack, for example, it conjures up the world it evokes. Northumbria is painting pictures in sound.
Remember: I only had one guitar, one mic, and four tracks to do this on – and I knew I had to do it myself, if only to prove that my experiences hadn’t destroyed me. My bass drum was a Cooper’s tea-chest with a cushion inside it! Those limitations and my own experiences are the only reason this is a solo release. I love collaboration; I love being part of a band; I love turning it up and hitting it hard. My taproots draw from all sorts of influences: I love music, not genres, so this is the start of the journey, not the end. I doubt I’ll go pure pop on the next album – although I have a love for it – and I doubt I’ll go full on death metal either – although I have a love for that too. What I won’t do is repeat Northumbria. You’ll still hear me in there, but you’ll also hear more elements of my personality – musical or otherwise. That’s the thing – all of us have more than one-dimension. We’re multi-faceted. It’s okay for the music we make and listen to to reflect that.
My one condition is it has to be real. When the music comes from a real place, that’s when it hits people, whether it’s Stormzy and Wiley speaking for themselves and their tribe or me speaking for mine. Personal is universal in the best way.
TF: What is your plan for the remainder of the year, after this album release?
I think Northumbria has a way to go yet. I’m not on Twitter or Facebook and I’m not active on social media so what’s happened so far has been a real word-of-mouth experience – a slow build. I sometimes think it’s had a great impact without any real push, would what happen if we did?
I thought visually when recording Northumbria, so I’d like to reflect that by producing video content for key tracks. I think the stories behind the tracks are interesting so I’m considering a track-by-track and a making-of … but against that I weigh the fact that extra content doesn’t always mean a better experience. It’s great for platforms, as they need artists constantly producing new content for them to survive. But extra content often doesn’t intensify the experience, it just dilutes it.
So, I might start getting active in the Babel – although a large part of me thinks that Northumbria now stands alone as its own statement, complete and whole and I should move on to the next project – which is already coalescing. Part of being heard is playing the game, though.
I guess in sum, I’d like to reach more people. It’s a real honour when music I’ve made becomes part of their lives. It’s great to hear their stories; and I’d love to hear more of them.