Singer/songwriter Dan Bettridge can be a hard man to pin down. If the Welsh troubadour isn’t jetting off to the USA to play the SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas or recording a new session for the legendary music broadcaster ‘Whispering’ Bob Harris, then he’s burning the midnight oil at Cardiff’s Musicbox Studios applying the finishing touches to his long overdue debut album, Asking For Trouble. Thankfully, as summer wore on, the stars finally aligned. Kevin McGrath asks the questions.
It’s been four years since the release of your Darker Days EP, why has it taken so long to get your debut album over the line?
It’s been a while since last releasing something, so I guess from the outside it looks like I’ve been sitting, waiting to do something, but the truth is I was writing that whole time. I built a cabin at the end of the garden as a little demo studio and writing space. It was once I got in the studio that I started getting frustrated, because things were going so well and I was so proud of the work I was doing that I really wanted to get it out and show people but there was no chance I was about to jump the gun on this project. I’ve always wanted my debut album to be as true a representation of me and the most complete display of what I have to communicate with the skills I currently have as possible and I think the steady pace really helped that come to fruition.
Asking for Trouble weighs in at a whopping 16 tracks, so in effect it’s a double album. Debut double albums are a rarity in rock ‘n’ roll and it has to be said something of a gamble. Did you have to think long and hard about whether to embark on such an ambitious project?
I wrote twenty one songs for Asking for Trouble and it did take me a while to cut that down. Every time I chose a song to remove it felt like it took something from the overall arc and feeling of what it would become – that’s when I decided I couldn’t just release it in a normal way. In the past I think releasing a debut album of this length would have definitely been a risk but things have changed for music so rapidly in such a short space of time that nearly anything goes now. I’m one part artist and one part consumer and at times I’m also guilty of dipping into a Spotify playlist and finding a song I love and only going on to find out a negligible amount of the artist’s other work – this is how the music industry is now and instead of trying to fight a giant machine and wasting otherwise useful energy, I decided to swim with it. I couldn’t stand the thought of over two years of writing and six months solid recording, not to mention the curating of the videos and photos and art so that it all tied in, just being forgotten the week after release. So, that’s when I started to think about releasing it in waves, bite-size chunks, people would be able to listen to the songs uninterrupted, they’d be able to listen to them on the way to work, they wouldn’t be hit with a big wall of ideas and sounds and words. You’d be able to consume and relate at your own pace. It’s all about communication after all.
I don’t think so. I mean, I can only speak for myself and I have had good feelings about songs in the past but you can never one hundred percent know what people are going to relate to and want to hear. By the time Wave Two came out the songs that I thought would be more popular were getting less listens than some of those that were quieter and more contemplative which I thought would take a little longer for people to get into. If you skip a song after a few seconds and don’t finish, streaming companies take that on board. Despite all of this, it would be a real shame to let any of it affect your vision and what you want to say, then all we’ll be left with is regurgitation. Luckily there’s never been a shortage of artists wanting to write good songs, I don’t mean necessarily commercially successful songs – although it’s a joy to see when it turns out that way – I mean true songs, helpful songs, songs of evolution, revolution.
Can you tell us a little about the musicians who worked with you on the album, and why you chose to involve them in the project?
There are a whole bunch of great musicians on this album – there are three different drummers! The majority of them I’ve been introduced to by Charlie Francis, my producer and friend. Then there are others like Lloyd Jerwood who plays guitar on the album who I’ve known for a long time, we went to school together but it’s only recently through music that our paths have really crossed. I’m finding it easier and much more fun playing with more people, experimenting and sharing ideas off the cuff without any anticipation or fear of judgement. It’s liberating which can only be good for the work. It’s like being 5 and being in a sandpit again – what does this do? How can I break this down in a cool way? Do these go together?
Where was the album recorded?
Recording was done partly in Musicbox Studios in Cardiff and part in Charlie’s loft where he does the majority of his work. All the ‘loud stuff’ as I like to call it, the drums, horn sections etc. were done at Musicbox but one hundred percent of the vocals, any overdubs, textures, backing vocals, were all done at Charlie’s place. It’s a really comfortable environment for the both of us to interact, where we can experiment with sounds and ideas and have no cares whether it’s a keeper or not.
How has your partnership with Charlie Francis evolved over the years?
Charlie and I first met in 2013 by chance at BBC Radio Music Day at the Radio Wales studios. I’d just gone on stage and Charlie had just finished a meeting and walked into the room where the performances were being recorded (in a pretty sharp suit I might add). After my set Charlie approached me to say hi, congratulated me on my performance and asked if I had anything that needed recording. Within a couple of weeks I wrote the songs that made up Darker Days and got in touch with Charlie, I guess the rest is history. I cherish our relationship very much and I feel very lucky to have Charlie in my corner, as a producer and a friend. We have a great relationship which means that when we enter the studio we’re able to, if needs be, leave our friendship at the door and get down to business. There’s no ego, no artistic pushing or shoving, we both want to serve the songs as best as possible and I feel what comes out is the very best of what we can do together.
Did you have an overarching vision, before entering the studio, of just how Asking for Trouble would sound?
I found a sheet of paper recently that had my initial ideas for the album on it. It had things like instrumentation; electric organs, synths, electric guitar textures etc. and as a genre I’d written soul/rock/hip-hop – I feel like that vision came through pretty well.
Did you have to jettison some strong songs in order to keep the ship sailing on the right course?
There is one song that I do wish had made it onto the album. It’s a song about a very good friend of mine. It just wouldn’t have fit with the rest of what was going on, and plus… sixteen is enough, right?! I haven’t banished it forever though, I still have it and plan on re-working it and releasing it in the future.A real joy of being a music artist as opposed to say being a painter is that you can’t strip the paints off your canvas and pack them away again to use for later. As a songwriter you can chop, rework, move, reuse lyrics and melodies, nothing is ever lost.
Anybody who sees you as just a guitar-toting troubadour might be surprised to discover the range of instrumentation and equipment that you were able to adapt your songs to. Was it always in your mind to use up-to-the-minute technology to strike out in different directions?
Absolutely, I think anyone who seeing any musical artist as bound to their primary writing tool might be a little short-sighted, or at least misinformed. The guitar is my favourite instrument for sure, not least for its ease of transportation but its range of sound and versatility is huge – and a lot of my musical heroes wield axes. They’re by no means the most efficient writing tool though, the piano is the Monarch of all musical creation, it’s a musical calculator.
You decided to release Asking for Trouble in four separate tranches, available through your social media outlets and Spotify etc. As a fully paid-up member of the ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ school of thought and as someone who loves the thrill and anticipation of buying an album unheard, what did you see as the advantages of that approach?
I think it is broken. I’ve seen so many of my favourite artists, big and small, release full length albums compiled with a year or more of hard work and dedication only to be swallowed up a week later because yet another pop banger has come out on a streaming platform. Although pop bangers aren’t exactly my main competitor, I am after all one part consumer and one part artist and I understand that when someone brings out an eleven track album these days, let alone sixteen, there is an enormous slice of the market that simply hasn’t got the time or the attention span any more to listen through that album in its entirety in one sitting. The world is a louder place than ever now and by releasing these initial songs in smaller EP-like form it means that everyone can consume in their own way, no interruptions, on their own terms – all I want to do is communicate in the most efficient way. I believe in these songs and when it comes down to it all that I want is for them to be given the time that I think they should be given. And for the others with a more traditional taste for music releases, they can ignore the waves and pre-order the album as normal and wait for it to arrive on their doorstep. I’m proud of the strategy and the way it’s encompassed everyone and it’s worked well.
Many decades ago a couple of my very best friends were part of a busload of Dylan fans travelling to London to see the great man play at the Hammersmith Odeon. One of those friends, to the shame and embarrassment of the other, played a tape of Highway 61 with the songs in the wrong order – a cardinal sin which very nearly caused the bus to veer off the road, apparently! Music is consumed in a different way these days, but did you spend a lot of time considering the sequencing of the songs?
Ha ha! That is a great story! Well I did sit down and listen through the songs and contemplate how they’d be most coherent. There were a few different permutations of the track listing. I sent what I thought flowed best to close friends to ask their opinion. I tried not to over think it though because I knew I’d just keep changing it forever. When the idea for this album first came in my mind I had ideas of splitting it up into what would be like acts, I have drawings of the album being split into; Birth, Life, Death or Heaven, Hell.
Presumably, it was important to set the scene for the album with the right opening track. Why did you kick things off with ‘Blame’?
I started with ‘Blame’ because it felt like the best opener. It wasn’t necessarily that it communicated best the overall arc of the album or anything. I imagined myself putting the CD in the car and what I’d want to hear right off the bat and a strong beat and direct lyrics were that.
As the recording process was unfolding, did it become clear that certain songs belonged together tonally or thematically, perhaps?
Absolutely! Even though the album never ended up being split into acts, it’s still split into three different representations of me, or at least my view on the world. There are the more traditional songs like ‘NYC Midnight Train’ and ‘Destiny Row’ which are where I come from, what started the wheels moving and the more down-to-earth side of me. Then the more contemporary songs like ‘Blame’ and ‘Some Things’, they’re the sounds of the right now, a headspace I was in during the recording process of the album, relationships I was involved in and things I began to release within myself. Third but not least are the experimental, contemplative, dreamlike songs. Things like ‘i/i’ and ‘17thDream’ are what I can only align with the feeling of being in a writing trance. A mutual understanding with something else that there is something to say and you’re going to be the one that it’s said through. Those songs feel special to me, calming.
Are there certain songs that lose their way in the studio? Did you have to go back to square one on any songs, with the arrangements or the instrumentation for example?
Not yet! But there are many that found their way. ‘Metagirl’, that was written on an acoustic guitar as a very folk, Tin Pan Alley kind of song. It was the first one that we tackled when I went into the studio and whatever was happening in my head that day transformed it into what you hear now. Charlie showed me a new little toy, a Korg Mini Kaoss Pad and I was away! That was liberating as hell. ‘Hello Caroline’ was a similar deal, it was towards the end of the recording process and for some reason I asked Charlie to find the most 90’s sounding electric drum kit he could find – there was a lot of work done on feeling.
Which was the most troublesome song to nail down in the studio?
‘Undercover’ was the hardest for me – which made it harder for us all I’d say. It was the very first I wrote for the album so it had been knocking around my world for a while. I’d performed it many times both solo and with the band so it had a preconceived idea that was dragged along with it which never helps when it comes to recording. We really worked hard on that one, went back and recorded drums twice and ended up stripping stuff off it. I’m happy with where we finally got it to. It was a big lesson.
How much input does the band have during the recording process?
I come into the studio with the songs on an otherwise blank canvas and whoever is in the studio will have a listen once through and the second listen we’ll record to catch any initial feelings or ideas – it normally builds that way. For things like the horn sections, Charlie, myself and in this album’s case, for some of the songs, Steve Black (Sweet Baboo) will sit and listen through for places where horns could slot in and benefit the song. A lot of the horn arrangements are done by Charlie alone too.
How long were you cooped up in the studio?
Recording started January 30th, 2017. I think we were working solid for a good six months and it was joy from start to finish, I love recording.
You come across as a pretty chilled out person, but did you feel under pressure at any time – debut albums are an important landmark in an artist’s career after all?
I’m calm on the surface but my legs are kicking like crazy under the water! A lot of the time anyway – my brain never sleeps, it’s a pain in the ass sometimes! But while recording I was completely content, I mean, I’m currently without a record label, no-one hanging over my shoulder and working with friends, it’s the safest place to be musically. It’s a chance to try every crazy idea that comes into your head, devote yourself totally to the benefit of the songs with no interruption.
I understand that you co-wrote a number of the songs on the album with another Welsh artist, LVR, how did that partnership come about?
I did, it was my first real co-write experience, it was over two days and we wrote ‘Blame’ and ‘Some Things’. It was pretty organic, my manager and friend Charlotte Final was friends with Dan Evans (LVR) and Dan and I had crossed paths quite a few times at festivals and events when he was in his old band. Dan pitched the idea to Charlotte and we were away.
With a song as emotionally charged as ‘Heavenly Father’ just how difficult is it to summon up the passion that first inspired the song when laying down the vocals in the studio?
I find it pretty easy to perform ‘Heavenly Father’ which I thought wouldn’t be the case. I remember crying as I wrote it and doing so again and again as I played it to myself while I was away in the cabin. It’s a song that’s come from an aspect of my life that over arches my every day. It’s something that has shaped who I am and how I act and the song for me was a very small acknowledgement of that, a step on the road to recovery as it were so singing the song is almost empowering.
In amongst the “confessional” songs that are very much a singer/songwriter’s stock in trade, is there also a message that you wanted to convey with Asking for Trouble? You’ve taken the time and trouble to seek permission from the JFK Foundation for the Kennedy speech that you sample on ‘i/I’.
Writing ‘i/I’ was powerful. It came out at supersonic speed and immediately made sense to me. I recorded the song on an 8 track recording studio app, designed by the son of the man who was the pioneer of the original 8 track desk and the famous Trident Studios in London. I’d already recorded the song, loved how it sounded and knew it had to go on the album. I did a bit of research and found that any recordings that are released by a Government body are in the public domain but out of courtesy and a little bit of fear (who wants to fall out with the American Government?) I emailed them and they got straight back with a full, high quality recording. It’s one of my favourites off the album. The title ‘i/i’ is actually meant to be two people with a barrier between them. Lloyd Jerwood my guitarist had a really cool vision of it though, he thought it was called ‘Overload’, the two ‘i’s meaning input/input as opposed to i/o (input/output). I thought that was pretty cool.
A theme that reoccurs throughout the album is how lonely life on the road can be – characters in Asking for Trouble give the impression that they are constantly checking in and out of hotels, motels and each other’s lives. On ‘Blame’ you sing ‘Loving me ain’t easy / I’m only ever leaving’, a mood and a mindset reinforced on ‘Some Things’, particularly the lines ‘Late nights and cigarettes / I don’t sleep on hotel beds / you ain’t missing out on much / the high life is pretty low / and babe I hope you never know / what it’s like to feel alone’. Interviewing Courtney Marie Andrews last year, she described a life of endless touring as having left her feeling ‘road-worn’ and ‘detached from reality’. Is that an emotional reflex that you empathise with?
So far in my career I’ve really only done two real ‘tours’ – by that I mean a string of shows that are all under an umbrella name, but I feel like being a musician who plays live means you’re basically always on tour to various degrees. The first tour I ever did was during a pretty dark time in my world. My best friend was my tour manager and I had friends who were filming and driving the van and they kept me going. The second tour was with Allman Brown and his band and that was nothing but a pleasure – the further we got into it the more energised I felt. Things were easy for me because I was playing solo and was the opening act. A real aim for me is to get a large tour support, I want to be able to hit the road solo or with my band and play to as many people a night as possible, really show what we can do. Those lyrics you quoted are meant to be more damage control. It’s a message to a friend or lover. Being away for long periods of time tends to have more of a negative impact on the person who’s left behind – in my experience anyway. While I’ll be out on the road, having fun and seeing new things, making new friends whoever is left at home is still in their daily routine, whether it’s one they love or not it’s hard to see someone you love, away making memories without you.
Running alongside the theme of loneliness in these songs is a quest for spiritual understanding. On ‘Heavenly Father’, the line that hits home is ‘I lay here most nights / the Devil on both sides’. On ‘Metagirl’ the themes overlap ‘Had a friend not long ago, the Devil dealt his hand /The joker and the jack of hearts make for a lonesome man’. It all culminates in the question which you pose to the listener ‘Is this the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end’?
It’s something I think about day in, day out. Whether it’s being brought up going to Church, having an Irish Catholic family I have no idea. I’m not religious but certainly spiritual – I’m a big believer in something bigger, bigger than us all, a cause. That cause may change from generation to generation, it may not and there isn’t just one either. It may not necessarily be cosmic but we are bound together. The butterfly effect is a very real thing. I’m very conscious of my actions and want nothing more than whatever I create while I’m here at least conveys a message to people that they’re not alone – it’s a never ending journey and that’s okay. As for ‘Is this the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end’ – I think ‘it’ is always beginning and ending, constantly, everything, that was me just pondering on which was happening right at that moment, ecologically, politically, musically, personally.
‘Third Eye Blind’ has been a highlight of your live set for a few years now and I was half afraid that you might consider the song too long in the tooth for inclusion here. It’s a gorgeous song and one that seems rooted in your love of Van Morrison, even down to the name-checking of Sam Cooke, something Morrison was prone to do on soul workouts like ‘Real, Real Gone’?
‘Third Eye Blind’ was one of those cosmic gifts, without sounding too hippy about it. I remember turning on my amp and cranking up that Vibrato, pulling that first chord and the song came out in fifteen minutes, pure unbridled creation. Every twist of turn of the lyric seemed as though it was already there and I was a pavilion on a gramophone – just delivering what already existed. As soon as I wanted to find a rhyme it wouldn’t just come alone, the whole line would immediately come flying down the tube with it. Whoever delivered it, I’m eternally grateful. As for Sam Cooke, it was a direct reference to ‘Real, Real Gone’. My mum and I used to go for long drives when I was younger and we needed to get out of the house and that song is what we’d play on repeat on full volume, it means a lot to me.
Presumably, the remainder of 2018 will be given over to touring Asking For Trouble?
I’d like to be on the road as much as I can this year, that can be hard to do though. Booking festivals and shows can be difficult without a budget or an agent. I do have a line up of gigs and festivals this summer that I’m really excited about! Some with my band and some solo. The aim by the end of this year is to be on board with a booking agent which would mean I could have more live shows all over and really get stuck in and take this show on the road as it were! As it stands I’ve also been writing again. I have a bunch of demos that I’m really enjoying working on and hopefully not long after the album is out I’ll be bringing out more music.
Dan Bettridge’s Asking for Trouble is released on the 6thJuly