Interview: Dan Michaelson
With a new album out, we chat with the songwriter about its creation and the problems he has with memory
Dan Michaelson and The Coastguards have recently returned with their new album Memory, the follow-up to 2014’s Distance and the final piece of a triptych of albums which began with Blindspot. Though instantly recognisable due to Michaelson’s creaking baritone, Memory is bursting with colour and ably assisted by his regular bandmates and guest musicians, including Romeo Stodart (The Magic Numbers) and Johnny Flynn.
The Northampton-born Michaelson initially made his mark on the world of music as the singer for makers of sumptuous melancholy Absentee and has continued his penchant for soul-searching ever since, both with his solo album Sudden Fiction and his work with The Coastguards.
We caught up with Dan in his local pub, on the fringes of East London, to talk about the new album, his failing memory and that incredible voice…
You must be really pleased with the initial reaction to the album?
“Yeah I’m chuffed. I’ve been slightly surprised but I’m very happy that people are interested.”
Memory is described as the final part of a triptych of albums, was that always your intention?
“It just showed itself through the practice really, over a three or four-year period that’s just finished with the release of this record.”
Were they written as three separate albums?
“They were definitely written as three separate albums. I always work in quite a tight block of time. I let it all build-up for a while and then try to get everything out. In terms of the writing, I do it all in a very considered period so hopefully my brain doesn’t move on.
“I find that if you write over long periods you’re three different people in that time. I like to only recognise one person throughout the length of a record. It’s really subtle and I don’t think anyone else would notice. It’s just a personal thing, where I notice vague shifts in language, style and feel. I’m one of the last remaining people who really care about the concept of an album as a whole and so those tiny little things seem so important to me.”
How do you think Memory differs from the other two?
“Instrumentally it’s a lot different from the other two. It’s a bells and whistles record. I tried to put a lot of different colours into it through different players and instruments. Writing-wise I think it just comes from a slightly different place. I think the language is a little bit removed, which is weird considering that the last record was called Distance. Maybe I should have called this one A Greater Distance.”
You’ve mention in the press material that the album was inspired by your own appalling memory.
“It’s something you get more aware of as you get older. I’m becoming more aware that my memories have become like folklore or Chinese whispers. Nostalgia is a big part of that but every time you retell or rethink about something you tweak the facts a little bit to suit where you are at that moment. I was aware of that and wanted the songwriting to come from a place with a certain amount of fiction in it. Sometimes that is intentional and sometimes it’s not but I was aware of it as a way for the songs to take on story qualities”
[cc_blockquote_right] WHAT REALLY HELD ME BACK WAS THINKING THAT I HAD TO BE A SINGER [/cc_blockquote_right] Do you like that quality?
“In a way I’m happy that it became less real, but it’s also quite worrying. My memory is like a dodgy VHS player that I’ve recorded one too many episodes of Countdown on and has gone a bit squiggly round the edges. I realised recently that even when I do cover versions I always do the version that I remember rather than going and getting the sheet music and going through the lyrics and getting it right. It’s never the correct version, which is a bit insulting to the people who spent so much time writing it in the first place.”
Are there any specific memories portrayed on the album which you know have changed over time?
“I tried to make it more about the idea rather than specific events. The song Memory is very literally about the sensation and is me writing about the idea of memory as a function. It’s me saying to my memory ‘what do you think you’re playing at, this is all nonsense, where’s my life?’ That’s another thing in the jumble of different things within these albums. I feel like I’m writing about a super big experience from the last twenty years, rather than this one thing that went terribly wrong at some point.”
Do you keep a diary to help with your memory?
“Weirdly I don’t do any of that, but I think most of that is the fear of someone ever finding it. For some reason I’d feel really humiliated in that context but in the context of my music I don’t.”
Especially as some people will interpret everything you’ve ever sung as a form of journal anyway.
“Maybe I just don’t need to. It’s all out there in one form or another.”
When you’re starting to write a song how does it begin to form?
“There’s two ways. One is that I think a lyric that I think rings true in a nice way. If those come early I just write down that line and don’t think about it again until I’m sitting down in a proper session. The other way is that I just play a lot. If something comes up I’ll grab that thing and I’ll follow it.”
Do you write on guitar and piano?
“It’s mostly guitar, I like playing the piano but I’m really bad at it. You know when you see a grandad typing on a laptop using one finger very slowly, that’s how I play piano. Nothing much gets done then.”
You mentioned the bells and whistles on Memory, is that the influence of the band or your decision?
“I just got more excited about the idea of the potential in terms of actual music rather than just lyrics. At one point I went through a phase where I really wanted to get back to the basics. I wanted to go back to that very pure ‘what’s the least we can do to make the song as powerful as possible’ place and since then I have slowly arrived at the point where I ask the reverse, ‘how fully can I express this idea?’”
Is that a democratic process?
“No that’s all my idea and then it’s about seeing what stuff suits. With this one I really wanted to get back into brass and strings and those exciting instruments. I don’t really have any idea about that stuff so I end up moronically humming tunes to well qualified musicians. Sometimes they think I’m not very bright and sometimes, like with the guys this time, they are completely wonderful and understanding.”
How do you decide who to bring into the band? Did you purposefully seek out Romeo and Johnny?
“Romeo was actually in my very first band and we’ve constantly dropped in and out of each other’s lives in a musical sense. He’s a very good translator of music and can do anything well, it’s effortless and he’s also a very nice person to have play on your record.
“Johnny invited me to work on something he was doing a few years ago and since then we’ve worked together. We did a co-score for The Detectorists. He brought me in just before the first season and we did both the first and second season together as scorers.”
What do you think they bring out in your own music?
“I think they have a fresh perspective. I love when people hear something for the first time and react to it in a way that you wouldn’t necessarily have thought of. Johnny certainly does that with his violin playing, he comes out with stuff that I would never have dreamt of and I like to embrace that element.”
The other thing we have to talk about, and that everyone always mentions, is your voice. Do you have to be careful that it doesn’t overpower the music?
“If my voice is too quiet you can’t hear it and if it’s too loud you can’t hear anything else. I have to stick it where it fits and bully it into place. I’ve never been careful with my voice in any respect. It’s not an instrument as such. What I do on record is slightly more than talking. Essentially you just have to listen to some bloke talking with a little bit of melody, it’s hard to come up with a description for it.”
What’s the best thing you’ve ever seen written about it?
“My label once sent me a really bad review that said ‘This guy is trying to do an impression of Tom Waits, what the f**k is wrong with him. No idea!’ That’s one way of describing it.”
When were you first aware of having such a distinct style?
“Quite late I guess, it took me quite a while to find my feet in terms of what a voice is and what it can be. I’d started by trying to emulate certain singers and really trying to sing but then I went back to some of the records that I love and realised that those people weren’t really singing. Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed and even Bob Dylan were really influential in terms of me thinking it was okay for me to do what I wanted.”[cc_blockquote_right] MUSIC IS PEOPLE WHO ARE DESPERATE TO EXTERNALISE SOMETHING INTERNAL [/cc_blockquote_right]
Did you have to overcome any shyness?
“Yeah and I’m still trying to get over that in the live world. To be honest though because it felt natural it felt alright. What really held me back was thinking that I had to be a singer and whenever I heard anything played back it made me feel deeply uncomfortable, I guess because I knew it wasn’t coming from an honest place. Ten albums in I’ve now made my peace with it.”
But less so with regards to singing live?
“Yeah it’s weird. I enjoy it once it happens but in the run-up I generally feel terrified. I’ll see how I take to our upcoming shows and if I’m feeling good then I’d like to expand it a bit more in September. I’ll dip my toe in first.”
Now that the album is out and there’s no big tour lined up, what’s next?
“I am working on another record but I also have a job as well and do other things on the side, so I keep myself busy.”
Do you enjoy this post-release period?
“It’s always nice to reach the finish line and it feels good to get to that point. Like I said before, I’m a big believer in the idea of an album. I see it as a fully formed package holiday, you go in one end and come out the other end and it’s been its own little world. It’s something that I hold very dear to me, so it’s a really great feeling when I’ve finished one and it’s out there.”
Finally, what are you lasting ambitions as a songwriter?
“When I’ve made that album I’ve always wanted to make I think that’s when I’ll retire. I think you’re always trying to define yourself through your creative or personal endeavours, but you’re also always changing. At some point you might think you’ve mastered it but then things move on and you need to establish what it is again. Music is people who are desperate to externalise something internal that they can’t express normally – it’s communication. There are lots of things I still want to communicate and even if it’s the same thing over and over again it will always be different.”
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Dan Michaelson’s new solo album, Memory is out now on The state51 Conspiracy. For more information go to: danmichaelsonandthecoastguards.co.uk/