Singer, lyricist and musician Callum Lury goes deep inside the process behind the title track of his band’s latest album
The Blue Highways are brothers Callum, Jack and Theo Lury. Based in North London, the trio have just released their second Out On The Line. The follow-up to their critically acclaimed debut, Long Way To The Ground, sees frontman Callum weave stories of love and woe around a lingering sense of existential angst. With a sound and style that will appeal to fans of Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, and the Gaslight Anthem, the music they make lands its punches whether listened to on record or enjoyed from the front of sweaty crowd.
Keen to know a little more about The Blue Highways’ songwriting process, we asked Callum to tell us all about the new album’s title track…
There’s a song by The Americans, a brilliant US Americana/Roots band, called The Right Stuff. It’s a phenomenal song in all aspects but I loved the actual sound of it – that earthy, raw, rough-hewn soundscape, conjured out of seemingly nowhere with little more than a loosely played jangly guitar, and a thumping bass and drums. Just that bit free-wheeling, not chained down, not too tight.
It also won’t come as much of a surprise to anyone that’s listened to the track or knows our music to hear that we’re big Bruce Springsteen fans. The storytelling style that Springsteen first started on Stolen Car, from The River era, really underlies a lot of the writing on the album. It’s not florid or overly descriptive, it’s straightforward, simple, direct and hopefully more honest as a result.
This is the title track for our new album but was actually the final track to be written. We’d got the basic bones of most of the music tracked and Jack, the guitarist in the band (and my older brother) felt like it was missing something. The album tells a number of stories from real-world events, and as such can be a little unrelenting in a sense of hardship and despair. But really that’s not the story we wanted the album to tell as a whole.
The album was really meant to be a celebration of the resilience of the human spirit, and so this song is basically that story told on an individual, personal level. It’s a simple enough story, about a man sitting on a train. Leaving a life that he had lived behind him. We’re not really sure why, there are a few hints here and there but it’s deliberately ambiguous, it almost doesn’t matter. He’s just looking for somewhere new to call home, for a second chance. And he’s in no doubt that it’s not going to be easy, but he’s willing and able to give it another go, to give it everything he’s got.
I had recently bought an MXR ’78 Distortion pedal and was messing about with a high distortion and tone setting but played pretty quietly without a pick, it had that slightly dirty, folky feel to it without being too muddy. I loved that simple guitar part in The Right Stuff and so was messing about with a simple strummed guitar part.
A lot of this album was written and arranged in a pretty detailed, ‘composed’ sort of way, I wrote a lot of the parts and constructed the songs little by little. This song was more like how the band tends to work though, I take a basic chord structure and then work with Theo our drummer (and my younger brother) on the groove. There was the possibility of more of a super simple bass drum on one and three, snare on two and four feel, big and thuddy, which can sound great, but the track didn’t move quite as much as we wanted. It’s set on a train, and I think that when Theo settled into that brushes on the snare, country-style groove, it felt right.
As I remember it, that little guitar lead line that sneaks in occasionally was the first thing Jack played over it. It’s a little odd, just an octave leap with a little slide in the middle, it’s not complicated, but just fills that little space in the music and pushes you on to the next verse.
IN THE STUDIO
We recorded most of the rhythm tracks for this album live in our parents’ house. We were working with a brilliant engineer/mixer, Lewis Fowler, who runs his own studio in Acton – Summerlands Studio. He does a lot of live work, and was completely up for the idea of working in a more unique, less treated space.
Jack and I played the guitars live in the kitchen, while Theo was in the living room on the kit. We love working in recording studios, it’s really part of the dream you have coming up listening to the sort of music we grew up with. But sometimes they can feel a little impersonal, a space you move into for a few days, work with people you don’t really know, and then move on from as someone else is coming in the door. Working in our childhood home, there’s a familiarity and connection with the space. Also, just having what is in a lot of ways an unideal space, it instantly gave the recording a unique sound, it sounded like a real room and felt relaxed and looser.
Once we had the drums, I tracked the main rhythm guitar and lead vocal at Lewis’ actual studio space, it wanted a bit more time on it, the vocal in particular wanted to sound natural but it’s quite a lot of lyrics so they still needed to be understandable. Because this track was so late on in the album process I didn’t have as much of a full arrangement for it, so a lot of the bells and whistles were added in post-production in my own home studio setup (rudimentary, but it does the job), with a transistor radio piano part, some simple vocal harmonies and a proper little rockabilly guitar solo that lets loose right at the end.
Lewis did a brilliant job mixing it, some big reverbs, and stripping away some of the extra parts at the right moment to let the track breathe. All pulled together by Mark Lord at Supernature Music who mastered it for us.
In the world we currently live in, of social media, 24-hour news cycles, and constructed culture wars, there’s a lot of talk over how far we should go in forgiving people for past mistakes. We all have friends and family that we love and that we also know have made mistakes before. If we’re honest with ourselves we know we’ve made mistakes too. This song was in part meant to be a reminder of that, and that we all deserve a second chance, another shot at leaving it all out on the line.