The history of British musicians finding their own voice and reflecting their own back yard in a contemporary manner is a fraught one. Few have done it with any success, Ray Davies, Alan Hull, Richard Thompson, Bob Pegg, Billy Bragg, Squeeze, Runrig, The Tansads/Merry Hell, Chumbawamba, all notable achievers. (Fill in your favourites.) Punk at least taught musicians how to sing in their own vernacular and not rely on America for inspiration. As the afore mentioned Richard T. once said, isn’t it natural for a British musician to sing in an American accent. So welcome Serious Child and Andy Ruddy who with ‘ Talk About The Weather,’ celebrate the minutia of every-day life in the U.K. using appealing melodic form. Simon Jones tracked down the Serious one ( real name Alan Young,) to discuss the whole endemic thing and try not to mention the forecast.
- Is being a singer songwriter a good life in 2021?
It’s a lot better than the alternatives. Obviously the times are not great, but now that I’ve found song writing, I don’t think I could stop writing any more than stop eating.
- What were you in another life?
Before I was reincarnated as a singer/songwriter, I was an IT guy, working on technology projects for the likes of the BBC and the NHS. It would possibly be cooler to say that I’m much happier as a songwriter, but I really enjoyed my IT work too. Before I was reincarnated as an IT guy, I was a mathematician, doing research into computational physics.
- What was the spur which made you pick up a guitar?
Playing an instrument wasn’t an option when I was a kid for various reasons. However, I was completely obsessed with music, and sang anywhere I could from choirs to bands. Roll forward to working in an office in my late 20s and I’m having a performance review with my line manager, Bill. Bill says “have you ever thought of playing the guitar?”. I say “I don’t know, I’ve never really done it”. And Bill offers the best advice I’ve ever had “All you ever do is talk about playing the guitar. Buy a guitar. Get some lessons. And shut up about it.”
- Which comes first when writing the idea or the melody?
That’s hard to say. I write lyrical ideas down most days, and I also sing melodies into my phone most days. So when I sit down to write a song, it could be to work up a lyric and then add a melody, or to develop a melody and find a lyrical idea that sits with it.
- Is a decent lyric key to a decent song? Can an excellent lyric function without a decent tune or is it blunted?
I love a good lyric, and I’m much more likely to continue to listen to a song that has a great first line. Just this morning, I came across a new Billy Nomates song called “Supermarket Sweep” that started with the first line “Clean Up in Aisle 7!” and I was hooked.I’d like to say that all my favourite songs have great lyrics, but that’s not true. There are loads of great songs with lyrics that are completely unintelligible or nonsense. But when I write, I aspire to write great lyrics even if I don’t achieve it, and my regrets in songs I’ve released are typically where I didn’t get one word quite right. In terms of melody, it is disappointing how many tunes start and end on the same note on every line. That can sound great with the right musical texture, such as rap or blues, but for my own songs, I’m more interested in a melody that actually goes somewhere.
- Have you ever written a song that was effectively about nothing in particular?
What a great question. I’m not sure I know how to write a song that was about nothing in particular. Even if I wrote lyrics that were more about texture and tone, they’d still be about something. But now you’ve said it, I’m going to have to try just to see what happens. But I doubt it will be anywhere near as good as, say… Hanson’s ‘Mmmbop’. See, I shouldn’t have said that. It will be in your head for hours.
- Are you in essence a story teller?
I think so. I typically think of songs as short stories, with a beginning, a middle and an end and a narrative arc. When I write with other people who are more stream of consciousness, I find it quite difficult to switch off the storytelling.
- Are your songs written with a hint of Britishness about them or does the root go deeper?
British. There’s a word. I’m reading Gavin Esler’s “How Britain Ends” at the moment, which making me think a lot about Britishness. I’m definitely British, with a smidge of Irish, and I’m much more drawn to music from the British Isles than, say, American music. I know that there’s a huge crossover between the two, but my song writing inspirations are more this side of the Atlantic. I’m also more interested in everyday detail, and the detail that I understand is here. I don’t dream of being somewhere else, I’m just writing things down as I see them exactly where I see them. As a result, I’m more likely to write like Ray Davies or Chris Difford or indeed Charlie Dore, although as a result of writing with Andy, I have a new found respect for Paul Simon.
- Though I’d prefer the plain term music would you fight shy of the term folk?
I’d never fight shy of the term folk. The folk community has been hugely welcoming and supportive of me. The first ever song that I co-wrote that was released* was a proper folk song about road building, and I’ve found it a great source of inspiration in the three albums I’ve made. And a lot of the most exciting modern music in the last five years in the UK has been in folk. Folk’s a great place to be, if you’ll have me. You also used the term “breezy folk pop” about my previous album, ‘Time In The Trees,’ which I loved and which seemed to fit like a glove. We’re more popp-y this time around with ‘Talk About The Weather,’ but there are still no electrical guitars, and plenty of harmonium and dulcitone. I haven’t fallen too far from ‘The Trees.’
* “The Cinder Track” by The Changing Room, co-written with Tanya Brittain, Sam Kelly & Ronan Fitzgerald.
- How did you meet and then decide to do a duo album rather than just play on each other’s solo efforts?
We met at a Boo Hewerdine gig*, where Andy was playing support, and I was really impressed and booked him to play a small festival that I was working on. We ended up chatting back stage at that festival and made tentative plans to get together and try and write a song. We did that fairly quickly and wrote ‘Roper Lane’ in a couple of hours which was loads of fun, but there definitely wasn’t a plan to do an album. It was almost a year later, just as the strict lockdown came in, that we got around to writing more, because, let’s face it, there wasn’t much else to do. We wrote every week on a Thursday, and it was really easy and enjoyable. After about three weeks, we wrote ‘Talk About The Weather’ and it felt like we were onto something special as a duo, and we just… kept going.
* Boo was kind enough to produce my first two albums.
- To what extent did the pandemic impact on your plans?
I don’t think the album would have happened without the pandemic, so in that regard and in that regard alone, it was a blessing. We wrote everything in Zoom calls, playing instruments and singing at each other on the other end of the line, and using Google Docs so that we could both write lyrics at the same time. We recorded vocals, guitars and keyboards at home and then sent them in to Chris our producer in his studio. Neither of us had proper acoustic treatments for our rooms, so I wrapped the furniture in duvets, and Andy sang in his wardrobe.
- If there hadn’t been Covid would the album have been different in any major way?
Of course. It would have been completely different, and not just in subject matter. We really got to know each other well writing every week, and we started to trust each other more to write about riskier things and to write happier songs. Our appetite for introspection had run out and we wanted to be unashamedly cheerful.
- How did the writing share work out?
All our songs were written together and it felt absolutely equal – a true collaboration which was just fantastic. It wasn’t a case of us bringing our own songs to the table, it was a case of building the table ourselves.
- The studio and Chris Pepper in particular seemed to have played a major part. Tell me about his contribution.
Chris Pepper is a genius. He deserves to be famous and will no doubt be one day, but for now, I’m glad we can still afford to work with him. This was my third album with him, and each time he gets better and better.
We sent our home recordings to him, and he mixed them with bass and drums and also new instruments in the studio. We then worked on the songs from home, and sent them back to Chris, and this loop went round until we were all happy. It wasn’t the most efficient way to work, and we’d have preferred to go to the studio, but it was all we could manage.
Good evening here are the headlines…..
15. There is a decent spread of inspiration on the album, I know you like to tell the stories behind the songs so guide me through the standouts.
Thank you. That’s really kind. In writing all of our songs, we had two rules. Rule 1 – the topic had to appeal to both of us, as younger and older characters. If it was interesting only one of us, it was off the table. Rule 2 – we had to be kind. We could address difficult issues, but we wanted to do it from the point of view of listening to the characters in the song and letting them speak.
The reason that we chose ‘Talk About The Weather’ as the title track was that it had that universality about it. We all do it, we talk about the weather, whatever age we are or background we have. When Andy suggested it, I loved it and asked if we could look at it like a Dickens novel, writing about all the people behind the doors in a block of flats. When we put the two ideas together, the song more or less wrote itself, although we had a heck of a time editing down the number of verses. I’m not a fan of long songs. Say what you want in two or three minutes and then get out of Dodge.
‘All My Friends Are Famous’ was the last song we wrote – our end of term song, where we allowed ourselves to do anything we wanted. Neither of us is very interested in celebrity culture, but we wrote it as if we were on a talk show and talking like celebrities do, which is… all about their famous friends. Also, Andy got to write an acceptance speech for an award that we’d never win and I managed to persuade him and Chris to let me have a kazoo solo. It was a happy day.
‘Turn The Music Down’ was another clash of two ideas – when your friends and family try to be helpful with career advice, and then the Government gave us the gift of Fatima the ballerina and asking her to rethink, reskill, reboot for a job in Cyber. This song became more about two generations arguing with each other, and being told to settle for an unartistic life. We had so much fun with the video for this song, even getting a professional ballerina to join us.
‘Queen Of The Castle’ is made up snippets from Andy’s niece, Alice, who was two at the time. Andy’s brother had sent him lots of videos of Alice and her brother Rory as Andy couldn’t visit them, and he made a list of all the things she said, and we shaped it into the song. What we did notice was that we couldn’t fake the way she spoke. Two year olds have perfect internal logic which makes no sense at all. So just using her real words was much more fun.
‘As Good As It Gets’ is the story of a neighbour of Andy’s family who gave up smoking and then decided it wasn’t worth the effort for not feeling much better, and then took up smoking again. This was one where we really didn’t want to judge him, despite the fact that neither of us likes smoking, and so we spent our time imagining what that cigarette would be like.
- Some of those are social comment songs even if you dress them in alternative clothing.
Neither of us are massively political creatures, but we write what we see. And if that’s social commentary, that’s got to be a good thing, right?
- You seem to fit together harmonically very well. Were the vocals tough to figure out?
The vocal fit was immediate, from the very first demo of ‘Roper Lane.’ I think that’s what encouraged us to write more than one song, as much as the song itself. But we did take quite a lot of care over harmonies, and wrote them as musical parts like you would in folk. Andy is really good at writing different vocal lines, and would encourage me to do a lot of low Mms almost as an instrument, which added some lovely texture and which became a feature of our work.
- You’ve just finished a tour, is what we hear on the album what we hear at the gig?
We do use quite a range of instruments and technology in playing live to give us a fuller sound, but some instruments on the album such as drums and cello, haven’t made it into our live set. For some of our gigs, we’ve had Kirsty McGee join us on flute, which she played on the album, and on glockenspiel and musical saw, which were new to us. And for a couple of the live songs, we’ve had fun stripping them down to basics to step away from the studio sound, making them more like busking.
- Does the age difference between you help the writing?
It helps the writing be interesting. But writing with Andy has been one of the best things I’ve ever done, irrespective of our age difference. He’s just a great writer, and now a great friend.
- Tell me what your immediate plans are for world domination.
Our plans for world domination? Cue evil laugh… muahahahaha! Andy’s just started a master’s in Music Therapy which is having to take priority over us touring for the next few months, and I know he’s also writing a musical. I do hope we get to do a few more gigs together next year as a few got postponed and we’ve had some lovely offers to come and play new places. In the meantime, I’m also planning a European tour next Autumn with Kirsty McGee, where we swap roles, and I get to be her sideman and support act. And I’ve already started writing the next Serious Child project, which may be a little more folkie again. Or maybe not. These things change.
Details of the weather and all matters Serious Child/Andy Ruddy can be located at seriouschild.com & andyruddy.com