First he brought us #OneSongAWeek… and now here comes his debut album proper, ‘Songs To Make Life Slightly Less Awkward’
Back in 2012, a young singer-songwriter from St Ives, Cambridgeshire had an idea. Frustrated by the lack of success met by a string of self-released singles and EPs, he decided to eschew traditional release formats entirely, instead keeping his fans happy by releasing one song digitally, every week, for an entire year.
And then something unusual happened. Ed Sheeran came across the #OneSongAWeek project and mentioned it in a magazine interview, and what had been an extremely low-key project born out of frustration on the young singer-songwriter’s part began to take on a life of its own. Sheeran made a guest appearance on one of his tracks, soon followed by other name artists such as Newton Faulkner and Lauren Aquilina. iTunes picked the track featuring the latter, Flaws & Ceilings, as a Single Of The Week and it went on to sell 100,000 downloads, while the end of the year saw an album, Best Of #OneSongAWeek, go to No 1 on the iTunes chart.
That young singer-songwriter was, of course, Frank Hamilton, who’s since gone one to sell out two UK tours and appear at festivals such as Great Escape, Secret Garden Party and British Summer Time. He’s also toured with Scouting For Girls, but releases have been thin on the ground… until, as they used to say on Tomorrow’s World, now.
Released on 30 September (and trailed by a single, Lovedrug, back in April), Frank’s second album, Songs To Make Life Slightly Less Awkward, is quite a different proposition from his earlier work, with the bare bones voice-and-guitar stylings of the #OneSongAWeek project now developed into a more traditional, band-like indie-pop approach, with a little help from producer James Earp, who’s also worked with Nina Nesbitt, and mastering engineer Robin Schmidt. But we think the many fans Frank acquired during those heady days of 2012 will love it all the same.
Accordingly, this seemed like a sensible time to get him on the phone for a chat!
Tell us a bit about your background prior to #OneSongAWeek…
“I was putting out EPs and singles off my own back, trying to get a bit of radio, but it wasn’t really working and I wasn’t sure what to do next. But then #OneSongAWeek happened. I’d always had quite a strong connection with my fanbase online – I started on MySpace, actually, which makes me sound quite old! – so I just figured if a record deal wasn’t going to happen, I should try to do something to get noticed, and to make sure there was regular output for people who wanted to hear the songs.
“So that’s how #OneSongAWeek started, which was a flash-in-the-pan idea I had on the 2nd of January. I had this one song I was working on and I knew it would be a challenge, but I was like, ‘Y’know what, let’s just go for this’.”
Writing a song a week is indeed quite a challenge! Talk us through the mechanics of that process?
“Every week I’d release a song at midday on a Friday – or as close to midday on a Friday as I could manage – and then I’d get in the bath and start thinking about another one. That was my weekly routine. So I’d think of the ideas Friday-Saturday, demo them Saturday-Sunday, start recording them properly Monday-Tuesday, finish them up Wednesday-Thursday, post them on the Friday, see what the internet thought of them and start all over again.”
“I MET CHRIS EVANS AND ENDED UP SPENDING SIX DAYS GETTING DRUNK”
And this was all via iTunes?
“No, it was just on my blog and Bandcamp, first of all. Then we started doing monthly EPs on iTunes, which is what started getting the traction, and then it was around week 30 or so that Ed Sheeran saw it and mentioned it in an interview. That’s when I got in touch with Ed to see if he might get involved, and eventually he did. And that’s when things started spiralling, and Newton Faulkner got involved and people started paying attention.”
There’s two ways you could look at that, aren’t there? On the one hand, it shows it is still possible for an unknown artist to break through. On the other, it evidently helps if you have Ed Sheeran in your camp, which isn’t a luxury most aspiring artists have…
“Yeah, and if I’m honest then there’s no doubt as to which of those carries the most weight in this commercial world that we live in! But actually, the fact is that while Ed and Newton getting involved helped hugely, the thing that really helped the most was when iTunes gave us Single Of The Week. They’d heard about the project, they loved one of the songs, and it just so happened to feature a vocalist called Lauren Aquilina, who they’d featured previously as a Single Of The Week, so it was a perfect fit and perfect timing.
“That week, when the single came out and we dropped the album the next day, my Twitter followers went from 1,500 to 6,000 in three days! The whole thing went mental for a week. So those sort of pushes are the ones that really make the difference. Obviously Ed Sheeran’s nice to have on your biography but he’s not going out selling my records.”
So since then… has life turned into a one long, giddy celebrity whirlwind?
“Not particularly, no! It’s swings and roundabouts, really. Post #OneSongAWeek was really promising, I did a couple of sold-out tours and started making a record with a really big producer, but the deal never came, the money never came – and when you work with those sort of producers they want three or four thousand pounds a track. For an artist like me, I just can’t afford that. So that fell apart, which was a real shame, but I dusted myself off and started making the record on my own, with the help of my good friend James Earp.
“We finished it last year, then we got a little label services deal and a little bit of money to work with. But it’s tough still: you still need those little pushes, like the iTunes thing, or the time I met Chris Evans and ended up spending six days getting drunk at his pub! Those things really help.”
Let’s talk about your actual songwriting. There must have been times during the #OneSongAWeek era when you didn’t feel like writing anything?
“Oh yeah, 100 per cent! But I’m deadline-driven, so if I say I’m going to do something I generally do it. Obviously there are times when you’re feeling less creative than others, but I think I know myself pretty well, and that’s half the creative process. By week 20, I knew exactly when to stay up till 5am, power on through and get the job done, and when to sack it off and go to bed because it just wasn’t happening.
“The collaborations also helped, being able to pull in different people and take onboard different ideas and different influences over the course of the project.”
Has the process changed your songwriting or your songwriting technique in any way?
“I don’t think it’s changed the method, no. I was always quite constricted by having a laptop, guitar, one mic and no money, so that dictated that I had to write songs the way I always have, which is with a guitar, simple production. Since then I’ve been able to buy a few more bits and have a bit more fun and experiment – and have the time to experiment – with production more. There’s not really time to experiment when you’re doing a song a week – the few times I did go off on a bit of a tangent, I always found I came back quite quickly because there just wasn’t time.”
So how do those changes manifest in the music – what’s different with the new album?
“Sonically, it’s nothing like the first. The first is essentially a collection of singer-songwriter demos, the second is electric guitars, drum machines, much more of a groove. An indie, upbeat groove. I’ve always wanted to make a record that’s a bit more upbeat, something people can dance to. I grew up on pop-punk and stuff, but I found myself loving lyrics and getting into The Smiths and folk music, so that’s kind of where the first record went. But there’s always been a bit of me that just wants to play pop-punk songs and dance around onstage, so I guess this record’s a little bit of a nod to that.”
Would you say, then, that you see this really as your debut album?
“Personally, yes, I do. If I’m honest, I had a long struggle coming to terms with the idea that #OneSongAWeek a week was seen as an album at all. I still struggle with that, because there are some songs on there that I think are fantastic but never got a proper chance because the project happened so quickly. There was no PR for the project, I don’t think it ever even had a review anywhere, so that’s a bit of shame.
“So yes, in a commercial sense this is definitely my first proper album. It’s also the first one where I’ve been able to sit down, tweak little bits, work out the perfect track listing and generally take my time over getting it right.”
If there’s a change of musical direction, is there a risk of alienating people who bought into the #OneSongAWeek project?
“Well, there’s always a risk when you mix things up, isn’t there? But I don’t think that much has changed, really: it’s still me writing songs, and the way I write songs hasn’t changed. It’s still me trying to write about something a little bit different, something that’s relatable.
“And let’s be honest as well, it’s not that big a change in direction. It’s not like I’ve gone from pop-folk to death metal! I’ve gone from pop-folk to indie-pop with a few drum machines, so it’s not that huge a leap and I hope people who liked #OneSongAWeek will still enjoy it. I know that when I play live, the kids often say ‘I wish the record sounded like it does live’, because there’s a bit more ‘oomph’ to the live shows, so hopefully this album will tick that box, too.”
You mentioned writing on guitar – is it always exclusively on guitar?
“It changes, but guitar is where I’ll always feel most comfortable – in my bedroom at 4am with a guitar and a notepad. The piano I love because it’s so visual – I’ve got an upright piano in my flat these days, which is amazing – and, as you get older, you try new things. On this record, for the first time in my life I’ve managed to write a song without having the lyrics and the topline first – I’ve been able to write those to the track afterwards and be happy with it, which I’ve never done before.”
So traditionally it’s been lyrics first, but now it’s more music-first?
“Well, there’s still only two or three tracks on there where the music came first and the lyrics slotted in after, but I guess I’m coming round to that way of working. With this album, there’s definitely more emphasis on groove, melody and instrumentation, because with the best will in the world, people don’t care about lyrics as much as I’d like them to! All I really care about is lyrics, and saying things to make people think or smile, but it’s music, it’s not just lyrics, so I’ve focused on that a little bit more with this record.”
“I’VE ONLY BEEN PAPPED ONCE IN MY LIFE…IT WAS MORE OF A NOVELTY”
What are your hopes for the album? Is the goal full-on pop superstardom, or would you be happy just to make a living?
“Honestly, like everyone else probably says, I just want to be able to make enough money to carry on doing it without worrying! Actually, I guess that’s kind of where I’m at now, so that’s great, we’ve ticked that box, but I’d like to get to the stage where I could realise my ideas properly. I’ve got so many cool ideas for videos and little projects I’d like to do, but in the absence of money it’s always a struggle. World superstardom would be nice, but let’s be realistic, the world is a cold and brutal place!”
Would world superstardom be nice, though?
“Well, when you get to the level of the Beyonces and the Ed Sheerans of this world, maybe not! I mean, someone like me would never say no to it, but you might regret it once you were there. I wouldn’t want to be followed around by paparazzi everywhere… although that said, I’ve only been papped once in my life so it was more of a novelty than a nuisance.”
Of all the big names that guested on #OneSongAWeek, do any of them return on the new album?
“No, I actually made a decision to stay away from features and collaborations with this record. I have some friends singing on it, but not big names from the last album. That said, there’s Dodie Clarke, who’s one of my friends: she’s a bit of a YouTube star and she’s incredible. But other than that, no.”
And lastly, the title of the album is Songs To Make Life Slightly Less Awkward. Where did that come from?
“Well, there were a couple of options, and I nearly went with Buy This Record If You Want Another One, but I think we decided that was a little bit too blunt!
“So with this title… I guess the last record, without really meaning to, has touched a nerve with a lot of people. It’s hard to say this without sounding like a pompous idiot, but I got given a book by one of the street team people on the last tour, which was 250 handwritten letters from kids across the world talking about the songs of #OneSongAWeek, and how they made their lives better or got them through hard times.
“That’s just incredible, because it’s not something you really think about when you’re just sitting there writing songs. So with this record, I guess I thought about it a little bit more. And also, I was going through a bit of a crap time when I was writing it, so some of the songs are a bit motivational, about me needing to sort myself out a bit. So that’s where it came from.”
Interview: Russell Deeks