When Newton Faulkner first toured Australia, he was surprised anyone knew who he even was. With five hit albums under his belt and a new one about to drop, when he returns to our shores in April for the 29th Bluesfest in Byron Bay alongside other artists including Robert Plant, Lauryn Hill and Seal, there’s a fair chance everyone will know exactly who is. I caught up with him to chat about his upcoming gig at The Gov, his new album, nostril gazing and Adelaide’s legendary ‘19th man’.
After five hugely successful albums, including two UK No1s, you’d think Newton Faulkner would be fairly damn satisfied with the music he’s pumped out to date, but apparently not. His latest album, Hit the Ground Running, is the first time he’s ever been truly happy with his sound.
“It really is the sound I’ve been searching for, for a long time” he explained. “I found bits of that sound on ‘Studio Zoo’, (his 4th album released in 2013), and bits of it on the record after, (2015’s ‘Human Love’), but on this album it’s finally my sound. It’s a bit wonky, it’s not heavily edited, it’s not bang on the grid, and it’s not auto-tuned. And I’m really, really proud.”
It also happens to be his first independent release which, he says, played a major role in shaping the sound and gave him the freedom to really go for it. Even if in the past, he didn’t really know how to get where he wanted to go.
“This album is how I’ve always wanted everything to sound, but didn’t know how to create it and get from A to B. It’s always gone too far or not far enough – I hadn’t really hit the spot.”
Which is a pretty big call when you consider his audiences seem to think he hit the spot just fine.
“I always either over complicated or under-complicated it. Being an independent release made a huge difference to my whole approach. This time I was just doing it for the people who like my music. There wasn’t anyone else saying ‘Can you make it sound more like this because this is what they’re playing on the radio’. This is what I do and how I do it.”
Without a record company to please, it came to down to feedback from his friends to see if he was on the right track. “I played a few songs to my friends and they said ‘This is kind of what we’ve always wanted you to do’. And I said, ‘yeah, this is what I’ve always wanted to do too’.”
Armed with a bunch of songs he’s finally completely happy with, what exactly can we expect on his upcoming tour? Newton assures us there’ll still be plenty of past hits, along with, of course, a good dose of new material. And with the new album hitting any day now, you’ll have plenty of time for those new tracks to become firm favourites by the time he takes to the stage in April.
“It’s quite a good set” he says, referring to his latest UK tour. “It’s certainly the best crowd response I’ve ever had. The new songs are my favourite to play live.”
And he believes that’s in no small part due to the rules he set while working on the album.
“I had a lot of rules to keep me in check, and one of them was that to begin with I wasn’t allowed more than four sounds per track and I had to be able to sit and play it on the guitar and it still had to sound good and make sense acoustically – and that’s something I haven’t always done. In the past there were songs that needed the stuff that’s on the album to make them work live.”
But this time around, he says the songs translate perfectly to stage just as they are, although he’ll be relying on the Adelaide crowd to really make them sing. So to speak.
“One thing I’ve realised is I need freedom. The previous album was very band oriented and it demanded a band to make it work live. I learned so much having a band for a few tours. But I also learned why I didn’t have a band before, and it’s about freedom. The freedom and the directness of the communication. This time it’s just me and you guys. I love the fact it’s a team effort and we all work together. The crowd is like an extra band member, although I’m the only one getting paid and I feel a bit bad about that” he laughed, not at all apologetically.
I suggested it was perhaps not so different to the Adelaide Crows’ ‘19th Man’ philosophy where the crowd is considered enough a part of the game to be the equivalent of an extra member of the team, and after a quick explanation of AFL, The Crows, and the dynamics of Adelaide Oval, he agreed it probably wasn’t a bad reference point. “I love that idea” he said.
I had to wonder though, having played massive festivals like Glastonbury and Isle of Wight, and as he gets set to take to the Bluesfest stage where the crowd will be significantly larger than capacity at The Gov, how was he going to feel hitting the stage where the slightly more modestly sized crowd will be close enough to look up his nostrils. It turns out he’s pretty pumped. (About the proximity of the crowd, not specifically the nostril gazing.)
“I love the closeness of the crowd. I find playing these venues really exciting. It’s a different kind of challenge. I like people being close enough to see what I’m doing because what I’ll be doing is really complicated, and if you can see what my feet are doing it it makes it even more fun if you can work out where all the noise is coming from. I’m sure there are people that have no idea. Probably even more people who just don’t care.”
Having toured Australia before, Newton has quite a soft spot for us Aussies, thanks mostly to the surprising welcome we gave him when he and his red dreads first broke through in 2007. A welcome he found surprising, as he assumed he’d be largely anonymous when he first visited.
“Australia was the place that took off after the UK and I found it immensely confusing. It started going well in the UK, and that was mental, then I got on a plane and flew as far away from home as is physically possible” he says of his first trip Down Under. “Then when I got here, people would ask ‘Are you Newton Faulkner?’, and I’d say ‘Yeah, but how the fuck do you know?’ I was so surprised that anyone knew who I was – it completely freaked me out. It hadn’t happened before outside of England. I thought I’d be starting from scratch. I definitely didn’t think I’d get recognised on the streets at all.”
I assured him that while the NBN is a bit shit, we do still have the internet so it really shouldn’t have been that surprising we’d heard of him all the way over here, especially when his first record went Platinum here in Australia.
Having had such early success with his first three albums, two of which hit the number one spot on the UK charts, (the second album ‘only’ made it to number three), I had to ask, was he feeling any pressure with the imminent release of ‘Hit The Ground Running’? Now I should explain that in real life, Newton’s a pretty laid back guy, so it was probably a bit of a dumb question to ask, but thankfully he still humoured me with an answer. And it was a characteristically down to earth and authentic answer that shouldn’t have surprised me in the least.
“The most important thing for me is that I’m proud of what I’m doing,” he said. And while some artists may churn that out as a wafer-thin bullshit excuse of a sound bite, I had no doubt at all his answer was the real deal. “I mean it and it’s mine. That’s the most important thing and I think if I do that, people will like it more because they can feel that level of honesty. And even if people don’t like it as much, you don’t care because you’ve done exactly what you know was the right thing to do. If you don’t compromise and you make the album that you want to make, people that are into you as an artist will feel that and appreciate it.”
You can appreciate Hit the Ground Running from February 2 when it’s released. And see him in April at Bluesfest or The Gov when he tours. Make sure you get up close so you can see what his feet are doing. And look up his nostrils.
Newton Faulkner will be at The Gov on Friday, 6 April. Details and tickets available here. He will also be at Byron Bay Bluesfest with runs 29 March to 3 April (the Easter long weekend). Details and tickets for the Bluesfest available here.