Interview by Journalist, Nicole Hanratty
Friday, September 21, 2012*
Nicole: Hi Mike, it’s Nicole.
Nicole: How are you?
Mike: I’m very good, thanks. How are you doing?
Nicole: Great. Thanks for letting me call you …I see that “All The Little Lights” hit number three on the Canadian iTunes Singer/Songwriter chart. Congratulations!
Mike: I know. How ridiculous is that? I couldn’t believe it.
Nicole: It’s very well deserved. It’s a great album.
Mike: Oh, thank you very, very much.
Nicole: Your songs are super witty; they are definitely sprinkled with sarcasm and humor, and I love that. I’m wondering if you can maybe tell me about your upbringing and what fostered your sense of wit and humor?
Mike: Yeah. I think it’s really important to keep some of it light. I think the genre of singer / songwriter can be very slow paced at times and taken so very seriously. So I think, although a lot of the subject matters are sad or serious, I think it’s definitely important to keep it kind of witty and silly at times as well. I guess also growing up in England. There’s a pretty dry sense of humor over there, quite self-deprecating. I guess just growing up in that environment, really when it comes to the music.
Nicole: Are you still living in England? Is that still where you’re from?
Mike: I guess so. Yeah, I mean, to be honest the last three or four years have been pretty nonstop just traveling all over the place, busing and touring, and mainly around Europe and Australia. America kind of will be an exciting new chapter, really.
Nicole: The “I Hate” song is so funny and I think you wrote that it’s the crowd’s sing along favorite.
[“I Hate” song lyrics: “And I hate pointless status updates on Facebook, ‘FYI’, we were never mates.”]
Nicole: One of the lines that you sing is “I hate the X Factor for murdering music. You bunch of money grubbing pricks.”
Nicole: I’m curious, because you’re actually out there working and touring and I’m wondering how you feel about the people who do come through a reality show like the X Factor and just have an instant fame. How do you think that changes the music industry? In particular how does it effect people like you who are really doing it the grass roots way, where you’re doing the tours and putting the work in?
Mike: Yeah. I mean, look, you know I say I hate in the song because it’s funny and, like I don’t watch it and I don’t particularly like the music that comes out of that show, or those kinds of shows. But I think it’s a very different theme. I think, to me, like I’ve always written songs that are much more subtle than a lot of the kind of mainstream pop music. It was never even an option for me. I wouldn’t have ever considered it. I think for some people, with a great voice, but maybe not so much of a vision of what they want to be doing, they might have songs and styles and be kind of molded by record companies, I think it’s fine. I worry that it’s a very short term thing for people and they get swept up in something…for three months only for everybody to have forgotten about them and they’re on to the next thing. I think it’s dangerous. It can be quite dangerous to get involved in that kind of thing. I’ve been doing this for ten years, busking on the street and playing small gigs. For me it’s more important…to have opportunities to be really in love with what I do and really get it, and really listen to every word. Does that make sense?
Nicole: It does, especially because your lyrics are so well thought through. I mean honestly, [especially] your song, “Let Her Go.” It starts out with this happy intro, it almost reminds me of “Here Comes the Sun,” the way it sort of starts out instrumentally. By the end what you do with the lyrics is so genius. It’s nearly tear jerking in the end. Yes, I do see it in your music. Paying attention to the lyrics is really important. Was there someone that that was written for?
Mike: I think what makes a good song sometimes is if you take a personal experience and make it for everyone. Put it in a song in a way that everybody can relate to it, and they can put their own personal experience to it, you know? It’s a fine line between being too self-absorbed about your own situation without kind of considering your audience. I think if you can tread that line of saying something about what you can choose and also offering it to other people to kind of sort their own past experiences. I think that could make for a really powerful song.
Nicole: Who would you say is your most powerful influence when you are writing a song?
Mike: I’d say Paul Simon; he’s a massive influence to me. I grew up listening to him a lot. My dad’s a massive fan. I think as far as word play, and phrasing and all of that kind of stuff goes I think I definitely take a leaf out from his book.
Nicole: Who are you listening to now?
Mike: That’s a good question. I’ve really been getting into this English singer called Michael Kiwanuka. He’s this sort of, yeah, English soul singer who released a record maybe a year or so ago, and it’s just phenomenal, I love it. It sounds like it’s made in the ‘70s. And it’s just got so much heart, and it’s so encouraging. To hear that kind of music being made in 2012 is really awesome.
Nicole: I’m curious, one of your songs on the “All The Little Lights” album is “Things that Stop You Dreaming.”
Nicole: I’m wondering, have you figured out which things stop you from dreaming?
Mike: I think when I was writing that song I kind of had in mind all of those reasons why you don’t follow a dream, whether that be somebody’s advice is not to do it, or to try, and it’s very hard actually to throw yourself into whatever it is you want to be doing. In today’s society everybody is so obsessed with banking, investing, and getting your mortgage paid and doing all this kind of stuff. And I think that was the line I was trying to play with in that.
Nicole: You didn’t go that traditional route. For you things are a little bit different.
Mike: I dropped out of school when I was 17 and, yeah, I was working getting odd jobs for four or five years while I was gigging and doing music on the side. Then just started the whole busking thing, and it’s amazing, I funded all my records from it, and funded all the touring. I haven’t got any money, but it’s still making it work, and I’m eating and living, and playing music and that’s all you can ask for really, you know?
Nicole: So really, you’re living your dream.
Mike: Mmm. Living the dream, exactly. (laughs)
Nicole: (laughs) The tour with Ed Sheeran, how did that come about? I noticed that you said somewhere that you’ve seen him in concert several times. I couldn’t tell from that. Are you friends with him? Or were you just an avid fan?
Mike: Years ago–I think he was about 15 or 16–and I think we just played a gig together in a basement in Cambridge, in front of about 12 people, and we just really, I think we just had a mutual respect and love for each other’s music and we got on really well and had a few beers. Ever since then we’ve kind of stayed in touch, and if it works we’ll do a couple of gigs here and there. Obviously a year or two ago he just blew up and exploded. Ever since then he’s been just amazing to me, offering me support slots. It’s a very sort of wonderful and very organic relationship. It’s one of those lucky things really.
Nicole: When you are growing the way you are, and now coming out on tour with him, how do you sort of keep yourself grounded and connected to your roots?
Mike: I think, yeah, keeping yourself grounded, because I’ve been doing this for the best part of ten years now, and it’s been quite slow for me, you know, it’s been such a slow build. But, I’m 28 and I think, in a way, like although it’s been frustrating at times that it hasn’t moved quicker, but I look back at it and think that actually that’s been a real bonus. You know the fact that it’s just burning slow and naturally, and I’ve had time to kind of adjust. I haven’t been an overnight sensation, far from it. I think just years of experience it’s just doing the hard yards and playing those gigs for four people and all of that kind of stuff really does help you for when it does start to work. It really puts you in a good sort of mental state for dealing with it, I think, you know?
Nicole: Do you have a favorite song on the album “All the Little Lights?”
Mike: Do I have a favorite song?
Nicole: Yes. (laughs) I know it’s hard.
Mike: Oh, I don’t know, like I think it’s funny, when you make a record and you spend months on it, and you mix it and you end up listening to it so many times that it almost becomes something different from music. You don’t really hear it as songs anymore, you hear it, you get very super analytical about it. I mean “Feather on the Clyde” is a real favorite of mine just because every time I sing it or hear it I remember where I was and remember how I felt when I wrote it. Yeah, it’s one of those songs that really takes me back there instantly.
Nicole: Do you want to share where you were when you wrote it?
Mike: Yeah. I was up in Glasgow, and I go there every year to, well, for the last three or four years I’ve gone there every year to play a show and to busk and I’m usually there for a week or two. It’s a funny place, Glasgow. You get there and it’s quite a rough place, quite industrial and quite working class. It’s quite edgy, and the first time I went there I wasn’t too comfortable and the more you go back there the more you fall in love with the place. The people there are just incredible. I don’t think there are many better cities to play. I mean they’re just such a passionate bunch of people. It’s turned into one of my favorite cities now. I was just, yeah, that song, I just wrote it, one night I went down to the River Clyde and just sat and wrote it. It’s kind of about that juxtaposition. It’s kind of cold and edgy on the surface, but actually it’s got real warmth and real heart as well, and then kind of moving into my own sort of personal feelings as well and trying to intertwine the two things, if that makes any sense at all.
[“Feather on the Clyde” song lyrics: “Well God knows I’ve failed, but he knows that I’ve tried. I long for something that’s safe and warm, but all I have is all that is gone. I’m as helpless and hopeless as a feather on the Clyde.”]
Nicole: It does… I know you’re busy and you’re wildly touring, but is there anything that you’re going to be working on and coming out any time in the future soon?
Mike: Yeah, definitely. I’ve actually been tracking another record. I don’t think it’s going to come out for a while because we’ve only just released this album in the States and there’s still quite a lot of touring to do for this campaign. I’ve got the next record well and truly underway and written. It’s just a matter of time before we can pop it out into the universe.
*Date this interview originally appeared on lifeofarockstar.com