Long regarded as one of the most elusive and enigmatic bands in Europe, Armstrong, in the person of singer/songwriter/arranger and multi-instrumentalist Julian Pitt, decided that the time was right to step out of the shadows and talk to Wales Arts Review. Up for discussion was the deluxe reissue of the band’s pastoral pop classic, Under Blue Skies, eagerly awaited new album Happy Graffiti and the chances of the Newport-born troubadour returning to touring sometime in 2018/2019. Kevin McGrath asks the questions.
Kevin McGrath: Is music in the family DNA?
Julian Pitt: I don’t have any knowledge of there being any song-writing or musicianship in my ancestry, but I grew up with the influence of music that my family members listened to. My Dad listened to Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, Elvis Presley, The Everly Brothers, Billy Fury, The Beach Boys and Bread, for example. My Grandpa enjoyed singing at his local club (he was a big Frank Sinatra fan) and was a creative person generally.
Can you trace your songwriting back to a childhood love of storytelling?
This is a tricky one, I wrote stories when I was a child but then I guess that’s something that all children probably do? I suppose when you’re young, you’re zapped by all kinds of influences, for example, children’s television music (listen to the music score of Mr Benn. It’s amazing).
When did you play your first proper gig? Did you have to serve an apprenticeship with a local covers band or did you step straight out of school and into Armstrong?
My first proper gig was when a few school friends and I entered a battle of the bands competition. I think we entered the competition before we even decided who was playing what instrument. We performed three songs that I wrote for the competition, “The Scent of Summer”, “Goodbye Love” and “I’ll Do My Crying In The Rain”. (Can you see the Everly Brothers influence in the titles?’). As a band, we were no doubt terrible but we felt like proper pop stars and this is a special memory for us all I’m sure.
During my childhood (and youth), I spent far too much time in the house writing songs and cataloguing them as ‘albums’. (Friends used to knock my door to see if I would leave the house as a joke, knowing that I wouldn’t). But I was very content, writing songs, playing music and doing my own thing really. Growing up as a child, I had a guitar and had classical guitar lessons for a bit, wrote songs for myself to sing. I would sometimes send demo tapes (recorded on old tape machines) to major record labels, thinking that someone would sign me up soon.
So when did Armstrong start to come together as a band?
It wasn’t until the mid 90s that ‘Armstrong’ formed as a 3 piece and then a 4 piece band. There was a big buzz in Newport at the time and the 60ft Dolls were a huge supportive influence on bands. They were very supportive of Armstrong and gave us support slots (the Coal Exchange, for example). It was around this time that I received a telephone call one cold January morning from the New Musical Express who told me that we were in their ‘Best Unsigned Bands Showcase’ for 1998 which raised our profile immensely. After a number of profile gigs in Wales and the kind of gigs you have to be asked to play in Camden, along with lots of radio interviews (plus a good review of an Armstrong single in the NME), we split up as a band. I think these few years (1995-1998) served as some kind of apprenticeship.
Did you resolve, there and then, that if you ever reconstituted Armstrong it would be strictly as a solo project?
When Armstrong was a band, as much as I loved it, I always struggled with the concept of rehearsing the same set of songs over and over again and felt I was perhaps too prolific a songwriter for that. Also, I often wrote songs that were not really ‘band’ songs. When the band split, I became apathetic about music and a bit lost. I felt, for a long time that it was probably the end for me musically. I naturally continued to write songs but did not consider that they would be heard by anyone ever again. A few years after the band split, Mike Cole (60ft Dolls) knocked on my door and suggested that we should record some of my songs but I still wasn’t sure that I wanted to. The songs became Under Blue Skies and the rest is history as they say. Armstrong was definitely then going to be a solo project but I wanted to retain having a ‘band’ name to allow for any possibilities.
To one degree, or another, singer/songwriters document their own lives on record. Is it always clear where you should draw the line when writing about people who are close to you?
I don’t think it is always clear where you should draw the line, but I write lyrics in a very detached way, focusing on things that are or have been personal in my life and, in the same song, I may draw on other peoples’ lives or things I’ve seen or read. Songs About The Weather (2009)had direct, story-telling kind of lyrics and I felt that this was a very personal album whereas on the current album I’m finishing, Happy Graffiti, my lyrics are less obvious and I play around with words. I have lines like ‘the wisdom’s at the seams of the lost and found’ which may not make sense but then it kind of does also.
Many legendary songwriters, from those that worked on Tin Pan Alley to those at Motown, wrote in partnerships. Have you ever written as part of a songwriting team?
I’ve never really worked as part of a song-writing team, but when Armstrong was a 3 or 4 member band there was a lot of freedom for band members to have their say in certain aspects of what we did. The problem I think I have (and did) is that when I write a song, I usually have a strong feeling and opinion of how it is supposed to sound. This is when it becomes difficult for me to compromise and work in a partnership. Possibly the closest I’ve been to recording music in a partnership is when I recorded Under Blue Skies which was produced and engineered by Mike Cole (from the 60ft Dolls). Although I wrote and arranged the songs, it felt like a natural partnership because our combined ideas about how the album should sound were slightly similar and slightly different but fell on a common ground. Under Blue Skies felt like a very easy, smooth process of working and we both enjoyed recording it. We always regret not recording more songs but Mike says we will be recording Under Blue Skies 2 when we reach the age of 70!
How easy is it to tell when a song is finished? Do you subject your songs to endless revision?
I usually have a very good idea how a song should sound as a finished recording before I’ve started recording it. Once I have the melody of the song, I run through it over and over in my head for a while and I’m able to expand and arrange it (to my best abilities). I can often write guitar riffs or string arrangement sounds in my head but sometimes I also write them during the recording once I start the recording process. Having gaps for extra melodies/riffs to write when you record is also really exciting, things just seem to happen out of the blue and very often you have a personal feeding frenzy of ideas.
I therefore instinctively know when a song is finished but there is always an issue in that I’m never entirely satisfied with my vocals. There’s always something in the recording with my voice and how I sing the song that I know could be better. I have a rule now that when I record a vocal that I feel is good, I must not go back to the recording until 2 or 3 days later. If I do decide to go back to a vocal take in say, 3 or 4 hours later I will always be dissatisfied no matter how good it is. That’s just the way it is. That’s just my insecurity about my musical ability, lack of confidence, mind and my ears playing tricks on me. I would also like to be more proficient with final mixes of songs and this is another skill in knowing when you need to finish. I could spend the rest of my life mixing a song if I’m not careful.
Is trying to recapture the feel of a song in the recording studio invariably a frustrating experience?
For me, the writing and overall arrangement of a song is the easy part. But to keep the magic of the recording of a song, I feel it is important to get it right quickly otherwise the magic can disappear. I only have a basic 12 track recording studio to work with but once I have the headphones plugged in, I’m pretty much immersed in this vast expanse of ‘anything’s possible’. My musical instruments, microphones and recording equipment are old and basic but it’s all down to me and what I can do with the imagination and energy of the music. Recording a song that you’ve written to your own satisfaction is such an amazing experience and if you know all the right elements have come together (lyrics, song, arrangement, vibe) – it’s such an unbelievably great feeling. That’s as good as it gets with music I think.
Under Blue Skies is being re-issued by The Beautiful Music later this year, will there be any alternative versions or additional tracks included on the re-release?
I’m really excited about the release of Under Blue Skies. Yes, there will be extra tracks. Wally Salem at Beautiful Music has about 25 4-track recordings that I’ve given to him and I leave it in his hands to decide which songs should be the extra ones on any releases. Wally has chosen a mixture of alternative versions of tracks already released on the label along with some new songs (4-track versions that I probably won’t record again). I think there will be a guitar and vocal version of “My Resistance”, a 4-track version of “Baby, You Just Don’t Care”, along with 4-track songs never before released, such as “Underdog” and “The World I Created”, plus an actual ‘proper’ studio recording of a song I once recorded called “October Song”.
I wanted to ask about some of my favourite Armstrong songs, starting with “Gratitude” from Under Blue Skies. There’s a particularly beautiful line – “I look up to the sky with gratitude / but thanks is such an understated thing”. I just wanted to ask if there was a religious or mystical dimension to the lyric?
“Gratitude” was written really quickly and then recorded on the day after a Boxing Day afternoon and completely finished in a few hours. All the string arrangements that you can hear were written on the spot during the recording so it must have been one of those special days.
Regarding the dimension to the lyric, I was writing from the perspective that it doesn’t really matter where you live, who you are, how much money you have or whether you have a religion or not. Basically, we all share and have the same sky and stars to gaze up to. Whatever happens in your life, there will always be people who will care for you, whether family, friends or strangers in whatever capacity that is. I’m a very lucky person in that I’ve grown up and live in a free country, I had a happy childhood, I have a loving family, a roof above my head, food on the table etc. Therefore, it’s good (and really important) to look up to the sky (and stars), and appreciate your life and be grateful!! I’m sure we’re all very aware that bad things have happened and still happen to people throughout the world. For me then, “Gratitude” is about me putting my life in perspective and remembering to be grateful for the simple (but really important) things that I have had and still have in my life.
There is a handsome ballad, toward the close of Songs About The Weather, “On Gellert Hill”, where you combine a personal love story, a discourse on the mystery of life and a “Waterloo Sunset” vibe.
“On Gellert Hill” is a very personal song and the lyrics are very real and true. I think I got the line about the Danube being blue in colour from the film Goodbye Mr Chips (with the fact that if you saw that the Danube was blue in colour, it meant you were in love). I suppose the song is very close to “Gratitude” in that I’m reflecting how special life is around me. However, I’m also acknowledging in the lyrics that life can also be tough and cruel sometimes. It’s a compliment to me that you mention “Waterloo Sunset” in your question (what a song!!). When I recorded “On Gellert Hill” for Songs About The Weather, I didn’t think that it fitted within the album at all and nearly left it out of the 12 songs completely. (But pleased that I didn’t).
On the ballad “Perhaps it’s Time We Said Goodbye” there’s a romantic reference to ‘walking through the rain swept streets alone / Like Bogart’s lost his love Lauren Bacall’. Is cinema a great passion of yours?
I do like films and cinema and I have my favourite films (and TV and comedy) that I watch again and again. I like Humphrey Bogart and I relate to his character in some of his films such as Casablanca or The Maltese Falcon. When there’s chaos and drama around him, he never seems to really want to get involved and simply wants to be left alone, but he eventually always does the right thing in the end (and I can relate to or would like to aspire to that). Songs About The Weather was written during a time when I was very influenced by Frank Sinatra and Scott Walker. I wanted to write a songwriter, crooner kind of album.
With Under Blue Skies I would often see how high my voice could go. With Songs About The Weather I wanted my singing voice to be lower in pitch. Back to your question…… “Perhaps It’s Time We Said Goodbye” is written with the Sinatra sound element but also the ‘Film Noir’ vibe in the lyrics. It’s a personal song to me and it envisages me walking home on a cold, dark, rainy Saturday night in Newport and I’ve fallen out with my ‘sweetheart’. I was also aware that the title of the song is kind of close to the title of the song “Every Time We Say Goodbye” which I would associate from around the time of Bogart or Sinatra.
What can we expect from the new album? Do you see Happy Graffiti as a continuation of, or departure from Under Blue Skies and Songs About the Weather?
I see Happy Graffiti as both a departure and continuation of the other two albums you have mentioned. Happy Graffiti is perhaps not as ‘light’ an album as the other two and has caused me great difficulties during the recording process as I made things too complicated for myself (especially with the fact it’s just recorded on a 12 track machine). It’s got lots of good songs, though, and I try and ensure all songs are strong. I’m excited to think it will be released soon. It’s funny but I’ve been writing songs and recording them for years but the whole process makes me very nervous and I always feel that I’m back to square one (a complete beginner) when I start recording a new album again. It feels as if I have to re-learn everything that I do.
When you’ve finished an album do you feel joy, relief or emptiness?
I feel all three emotions. ‘Joy’, when I feel in my heart that I’ve made a great album, ‘relief’ because it’s finished and I know that I can move on to a new batch of songs (with an album which can have a new personality) and ‘emptiness’ because I then go through the process that the songs I’ve just recorded are simply not good enough, could have always been better and that I must do better next time.
You can read more about Under Blue Skies and The Beautiful Music here.