By Jason Barnard
Mark Nevin’s career will always be marked by his time as lead songwriter for Fairground Attraction and as Morrissey’s former songwriting partner. However, over the last twenty years his solo material has provided an outlet for his most personal songs such as ‘The One I Love’, ‘A Ghost Of Summer Past’, ‘The Right Place’ and ‘Beautiful Guitars’. His new album is no exception so Jason Barnard spoke to Mark again to uncover the stories behind ‘My Unfashionable Opinion’.
When we talked about ‘Beautiful Guitars’ you said you were hesitant about recording another album.
I feel like that every time I make an album! Ever since Fairground Attraction, I’ve thought I’m just going to do this one record and that’ll be me done. I heard that Frank Zappa said that when he did his first album, he thought he would never get the chance to do another one, so he did exactly what he wanted. That’s a good attitude to have in a way. But these songs came very quickly partly because of David Bowie dying. For my generation he was such a hero, and it was like “wow, this is urgent”, I used to be worried I would run out of songs, but now I know there is a bottomless well of ideas, now I am more concerned about running out of time.
It’s quite a lyrical record but the melodies are still strong.
Yes, I always liked proper tunes, but a lot of pop songs have rubbish lyrics, why not have both?. Also, I read a lot of books about writing, like ‘On Writing’ by Stephen King, ‘Bird by Bird’ by Anne Lamott and a few others and I wrote these songs in a different way. I have to give credit to Beth Nielsen Chapman, the Nashville songwriter, who set me on a new path. I wrote a song with her in Glastonbury last year. I’m a massive fan and was so excited about having the chance to work with her. I used to think “I’m going to write a song about x, y and z” and then set about it. Beth writes very differently. She just makes noises and sounds and lets the song be discovered, it’s there waiting under the surface and you just have to let the song that wants to be written emerge. I did more of that with these songs. This was the quickest record I’ve ever made, I like to record that way too. I think this album has a freshness, not overproduced. We recorded on to 16 track analog tape with the great Phill Brown engineering and I co-produced it with Simon Edwards. Simon is a fabulous musician and such a solid energy, he also knows me and what I am about so well, it was such a pleasure to do it with him.
The title track, ‘My Unfashionable Opinion’ is right on the zeitgeist, the mob view.
It’s such a weird time we’re living in, the political stuff going on. People are so angry, there is a lot of hostility.
We now have alternative facts!
So often on social media people are either posting pictures of kittens or pure vitriol. You can say the smallest thing and it might be taken the wrong way. Sharing an intelligent informed opinion with an uninformed idiot… no thank you. It’s black or white, people don’t read it if it’s long. Everything is dumbed down.
Yes, whole thought seems to have declined. The second track is ‘Only Dreamers (Live The Dream)’, is that about your childhood?
I was doing a gig down near where I used to live as a teenager in Bristol. Some people who I hadn’t seen since school came, it reminded me of living in that area, at that time. One of the women said “I remember that you said ‘I’m going to go to London and be a songwriter and become famous.’ And you did!” It was funny. There was a stream near our house, I used to sit there and daydream. It was thinking about the journey I’d made from then to now, I did follow my dreams.
Was that similar to the ‘Curly Wurly Boy’? That’s another of the tracks.
It was all in the same era. I left school at 15. My 16th birthday was in the summer holidays so I could. I went into the careers officer and he said “What do you want to do Mark?” I said “I want to be a songwriter.” I might as well have said I wanted to be an astronaut. He said “Oh, no no. You can’t do that, looking at your results the best thing for you is to do is some kind of factory work” Where we lived the local factory was the Cadburys chocolate factory. So that meant being a Curly Wurly Boy!
There’s a wider world out there.
Yes, in those days there weren’t the music and ‘media’ courses and all that stuff they have now. Although we did have one of The Wurzels living on our street!
Is ‘Clown’ about the mask that someone puts on?
Yes, that song was written so quickly. It took about as long to write it as it takes to play. It’s about the personas that we all have and it dovetails with my work as a psychotherapist. People come to me and sit down and have these defences that they have developed, whether it is being a clown or whatever else. Gradually over a period of time they feel safer and the mask slips, who they are is gradually revealed. It’s very touching to go through that process with them.
It’s also about taking myself seriously. My family were all jokers. It was a good laugh but after a while endless jokes can get a bit tiresome.
‘Sing Anyway’ seems to link back to what we were talking about the start. It’s your raison d’être, what you do.
We recorded the album in two batches. I wrote Sing Anyway after the first batch. Like anyone going through the creative process, one day you think “wow, this is great” and the next day the same thing sounds like total crap, then at other times it’s ‘What’s the point?’ particularly given the way the music business has changed. I was having one of those days thinking “Making another record… what for? People aren’t buying records”, all that stuff. But then I thought,
“You know what? I’ll sing anyway.”
The horns work really well.
The Kick Horns are always amazing. Simon Clarke did the arrangement. It was funny, I thought “I want the horns to be like a Sly and the Family Stone record.” But I didn’t say that. Then when I went down to their studio he said “I’ve done it ala Sly and the Family Stone” it was perfect. Roger Beaujolais plays marimba on this too (and a couple of others), it gave it a different texture from his usual vibraphone. I also think that Richard Marcangelo shines on this track, he’s a great drummer.
There’s a cluster of songs looking back at your childhood from the present. ‘Punching Above My Weight’ is one of them.
In the same week I wrote ‘Only Dreamers’ I wrote ‘Punching Above My Weight’ and ‘Clown’. ‘Punching Above My Weight’ is also about going back to Bristol, I was always one of the little kids in school, playing the fool and literally one of the little ones in the rugby scrum, as well as metaphorically as child number 6 in a family of 8 children. The song is about the tension between faith and doubt. Are you punching above your weight or are you reaching for the stars? That’s a healthy place to be. Creatively we should always be slightly out of our depth, it’s the right place to be. If your feet are too firmly on the ground it’s too safe.
‘Forgotify’ is about the songs that have never been played on Spotify.
Yes, I read a story about that, was it four million? I thought “That’s so weird, all these forgotten songs, deserted. There must be some great stuff people have never heard.” So in the song it’s “Down the shaft here I go, with my Davy lamp, deep into the cyber cellar so dark and damp.” Who knows what you might find down there? It’s a little bit scary. I liked that, it’s a funny idea.
And James Hallawell provides some brilliant spooky organ, he’s an extraordinary Hammond player and is all over this album.
Moving to the song ‘Uncertainty’, it seems self explanatory.
Yes, last year was a year of uncertainty. It’s another song that resonates with my psychotherapy work. People often come to therapy looking for some sort of certainty, especially if they are anxious. But the job is to help them survive uncertainty, because that is all we are ever going have.
It’s got that line “if there’s something I know, it’s that I don’t know”.
Yes, it’s “But I know that I don’t know and if I know that I don’t know, well ain’t that something?”
If you know that you don’t know, that’s all you can know. When people say they are certain of something or want scientific proof it’s all over. Carl Jung said “The question isn’t or isn’t there a God, but is he any use to us?” I think that’s a better way of looking at it. If all you have proof it’s limited. Like I say at the end “I’m in the church I’m on my knees for holy guarantees, the money’s in the tray, to keep the night away. Or I could put it on a horse, it might stumble on the course or be the horse that won, wouldn’t that be fun?”
‘The Stars Align’, sometimes things click, sometimes they don’t but you keep working.
Yes, that’s a song another song I wrote after Bowie’s death. The way he was creative right to the end was so inspiring. Originally we had horns on this track too, we did quite a big arrangement but ended up taking them off. Instead I added a stylophone and mellotron which gave it that Ziggy, Starman feel. My little nod to Bowie. Did it ever occur to you that the melody of Starman is ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow?’ – someone pointed that out to me the other day, it really is!
‘Don’t Be My Echo’, is that a love song that basically says I want you to be you?
I read Frankenstein for the first time quite recently. I was really amazed by Mary Shelley’s story and how profound it is. It’ s much more than a horror story. Dr Frankenstein meant well but the being he created was alone and furious. It had all these appetites but was without the means to express them. He couldn’t find a mate because he was the only one, but even then he was so ugly people were scared of him. Everything went wrong.
In relationships you see that people have the best intentions living with somebody else. With echo I’m referring to Narcissus’ echo. Echo was a nymph who loved Narcissus but she couldn’t tell him, she could only repeat what he said. So she was trapped in this echo chamber and he was trapped with his narcissism.
‘Cold War’ reminds of my relationship where you love each other but you fight. You want to drop all that and focus on what’s important.
I think it’s the story of all relationships. Some years ago Paul Simon had a best of album called Negotiations and Love Songs’. When I saw that I thought it was a weird title but now I understand it. Relationships are negotiations and love songs. It can’t be all love songs. You’re in the constant state of negotiating and renegotiating to develop and grow together. Sometimes that feels tricky and difficult and it can feel hopeless. Sometimes it becomes impossible and couples break up, sometimes perhaps they shouldn’t have. It says “I don’t want to talk about it. There’s nothing we haven’t said. I don’t want to fight about it. I never want to fight again.” There is a point where we just need to get back to the feeling.
I also went to Berlin last year. I was walking along where the Berlin wall used to be, walking between East and West Germany. It brought that era to life and how crazy it was. When you see integrated Germany now, building walls like Donald Trump wants to, it’s not a good idea.
Is ‘I Can Hear You’ about communicating without words? You can just read each other.
Yes, when people know each other it’s the most profound communication where nothing is being said but everything is being communicated. It says “I touch you with a question and your answer has been heard.” I borrowed that Corinthians bit from The Bible “When I was a child I thought like a child, I talked like a child” and added “but now I’m a man. I walk like a man and I can hear you.”
It’s about walking the walk not talking the talk. Going back to ‘Cold War’ it’s about not talking about it, it’s doing it. It’s the feeling that’s going to take things forward.
It’s interesting seeing the new album cover against the Fairground Attraction cover, their similarities, in black and white.
Yes, it’s the same artist. Laurence Stevens. He did the original First of a Million Kisses sleeve. It was redone by Paul Bevoir for the Cherry Red re-issue.
Indeed, Cherry Red have released an expanded version of ‘First of a Million Kisses’.
Yes, they’ve been very respectful and worked with me all the way.
I like the live in Japan tracks.
Yes, on the second CD. That’s the interesting stuff. I love those live tracks. They are the best recordings of the band, a taste of what the next album would have been.
How did they get involved?
I heard from Paul Bevoir as he’s an old friend of mine that he’d got the job of redoing the sleeve. I rang up Cherry Red and asked if I could help.
They said yes and it led to additional tracks being included, tracks that only I had recordings of. It feels quite cathartic getting the old things out, clear out the cupboard.
You now have the space given you’re in a rich vein of songwriting.
Yes, it’s been amazing. This time I don’t think it’s the last one, I think for the first time in 30 years I’ll be like Woody Allen. Finish a record, start another one. My relationship with the guys in the band has been established over quite a lot of years now, a good team.
Talking about the band, are you doing any more shows?
Yes, the album launch is at St Pancras Old Church on March 20th. The place has got quite a heritage, it’s small and beautiful inside. I’m enjoying playing live now more than ever.
We’ve got a handful of shows and are putting in more for after the summer. You’ve got to keep working until the stars align!
For further information on ‘My Unfashionable Opinion’ see Mark Nevin’s website.
The ‘First Of A Million Kisses: Expanded Edition’ by Fairground Attraction is available from Cherry Red.
Copyright © Jason Barnard and Mark Nevin, 2017. All Rights Reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced without the permission of the authors.