MF Tomlinson: There’s Freedom in Folk Music

There can be something strangely freeing about solitude at times; the moments where you are limited by where you can go and who you can see can invoke the wildest bursts of creativity and imagination. While freedom may seem within touching distance, we’ve craved a method of escape from our all-too-familiar surroundings, with our only comfort being the sudden sparks of inventiveness that have befallen us.

For Michael Tomlinson, the freedom has been found in folk music, and the result of this freedom has been his astounding debut album, Strange Time. Despite the name heavily implying that this is a ‘lockdown album’, the truth is that much like our long-term stints indoors, the theme was never the intention. There is confusion and anguish that runs through the lyrics of the six compositions on the record, documenting the peaks and troughs of mental health we’ve experienced, or the world in sociopolitical turmoil that unravels outside. Despite this, there is a sense of warmth to the musical elements, which are rich with orchestration from horns, cellos and flutes and demonstrate something far more lavish than most would be expected to produce on their debut outing.

While it may be the first album recorded under his own name, MF Tomlinson displays a sense of maturity you would expect from someone who has been around the block a few times, and seems both delighted and humbled in equal measure by the praise he has begun to receive. There is certainly a lot to digest on this record, but where many emerging acts and contemporaries emerging from London (where Tomlinson now resides) would channel their disillusion and ennui with the world into something far more chaotic and unhinged, the approach taken on Strange Time is expertly considered and deft in its touches. The arrangements on tracks such as the truly gorgeous ‘Spring’ and the folk-pop beauty of closing track ‘Thursday, 8pm’ are measured perfectly, with every whistle and bell resounding at the perfect moment. On the other hand, single ‘Them Apples’ is an otherworldly odyssey of many movements, as much reminiscent of the psychedelia of Andy Shauf as it is the mastery of Jim O’Rourke.

The influences are a large point of discussion with the Australian-born artist, along with the methods of developing the album in lockdown with a vast ensemble of collaborators, and finding a sense of comfort having finally arrived at the sound that works best for his compositions. MF Tomlinson has found his freedom, and is truly relishing it through his art.

Firstly, how have things been from a productivity angle – I don’t really know how long ago you started actually working on the album and whether it was mostly done during this difficult period or not?

I started the album probably coming up about a year ago. When the first lockdown hit, I was furloughed for three weeks, and in this time, I basically began recording the album. Over the subsequent month or two, I got my studio and I brought it all home. I would demo the parts, send them out to all my collaborators and then wait for the parts to come back and put them together. At the same time, the engineer that I work with, Arie [Van Der Poel], went back to New Zealand, so he was waking up as I was going to bed and putting the finishing touches on these bits. When I woke up, it’d be different and at one point, it was like a 24-hour cycle of just like all these files flying in. It was really fun, and it really helped me to throw myself into it. It was a lot, and my way of coping with it was to just start writing and start making music. It also allowed me to have all these great chats with everyone that I was working with, so it was a really great thing to do, even though recording an album in a tiny flat when your wife is working in the next room is not a good thing for you. Luckily, we’ve got a good marriage.

I mean, as long as she can you appreciate that you’re going to be making a lot of noise, that’s fine. Was any of it done in person at all?

There was a couple of things that we did at the end of 2019 – we recorded the drums for ‘Them Apples’, but none of the drums were recorded at home. It was weird, because that song has the lyric “so every day was the same”, and obviously your brain sort of creates narratives and whatever, but it did feel like these were the perfect songs to have beds for. The last song, ‘Thursday, 8pm’, where there’s just percussion – that’s recorded remotely. So, the actual drum kit is the only thing done in person.

Is that a method of collaboration that you feel comfortable with – doing everything in a virtual world?

I’m an artist that produces, but I wouldn’t oversell myself as a producer. I still need all my collaborators and people like Arie, to mix the record. I like to go to the studio, have my laptop and keep working on files until I hear the song. For me, collecting things bit by bit was pretty normal, and it was so much fun because you know when you’re doing a session and like you’re like, ‘okay, we’re gonna try this and try this’, but with this it was just like ‘this is the idea’. I just got to listen to a first take and think ‘oh, that’s fucking great’.

How does it work with so many people working on it and playing all sorts of different instruments? How do you manage to get it to gel when you’re all doing it virtually?

That’s what I love about making music with other people. We’re living in a world where you can sit down at the computer and make a whole song by yourself, and you’re kind of encouraged to do that. It kind of makes sense, and you’re rewarded for creating something all by yourself. That’s how I made music for a really long time; you’ve got to provide a very good demo and a clear set of parameters. But then what the individual players come back with is the best thing, because that’s something that enriches it. I guess it comes down to the fact that I’ve been working with these guys for quite a while now, like a couple of years, so we understand each other.

Are they roughly the same as the live setup?

Yeah, when I first started recording the MF Tomlinson project, first there was Angus James, the guitar player, and Ed [Grimshaw], the drummer. I mean, everyone just wanted to play in the band, so it was really fun. It’s just naturally developed into a bit of a scene around the project, which I am very, very lucky to have.

Now that you have been sat on it for a little while, what are your general feelings about the album? Do you have any things that you’re especially proud of, or things that you hope people will notice about it?

I’m looking forward to people sitting down listening to the whole album, like, all the way through. For example, Marcus Hamblett has these beautiful cornets and stuff on ‘Spring’, or the guitar solo in ‘Them Apples’, the flute playing on ‘Thursday, 8pm’ or like, little cello mistakes – it’s just like, all the contributions, they’re my favourite bits. I hope people listen to the lyrics as well; I guess it comes from a place of me sitting in my room thinking about how everyone else is doing and putting all my experience into the song. I agonise over that, just trying to get that precisely right just in case anyone felt like that too.

There’s always stuff like that you’re considering when you’re doing music, and I thought that when I started this project, with the EP, that it really kind of crystallised. I’d taken all the pressure off myself, and I really found at the core what my expression was. Then I started putting out music, and I realised I had a long way to go in terms of discovering even deeper who I am. With this record, I’m especially proud of it, because for the first time – with no possibility of anything ever happening – I made this very quiet, folk record. I think I’ve found a new level of freedom in this recording process, so I hope people like it.

You want it to resonate with people, I guess.

The best way I can explain my songwriting is that it’s kind of like this book by Alan De Botton and John Armstrong called Art as Therapy. In the book, there’s this picture of a painting, and it’s black, and it has all these scratches in it; it looks kind of menacing and intense, and then the caption says, ‘this painting is what an inner feeling might look like’. It’s a great caption, and besides being precise, this painting is what someone feels like inside, and they were able to put it outside, and then someone else was able to feel that too. So, my songwriting is like, I have the need to put the feelings that I have inside into songs, and then there’s chance that people may also understand what that experience was and relate to it. They don’t have to – that’s not the point – but yeah, that’s kind of the idea.

When did you discover that and start using that as being your ethos for the way that you want to get things across in lyric writing?

I’ve been writing songs in bands since I was 18 years old, and I’m 34 now, so somewhere along the way I finally figured that out. I’ve always been inspired by, for example, Lou Reed’s New York, or Purple Mountains by Purple Mountains. I like that kind of no frills – like talking to someone through your song. That storytelling element has always been my connection to music over music itself. But reading I encourage everyone to read that book. I think it’s very good because sometimes, as an artist, it’s very hard to remember that you are making a contribution when you like, sort of indulge yourself constantly. It’s really good to have some really smart motherfucker tell you that you’re doing a good job.

I do appreciate the fact that your lyrics are not overly complicated, but they do go in depth. There’s not really much repetition as you would get in a lot of songwriters’ lyrics, and you decide to carry on and continue with theme rather than going back over things unnecessarily. It sort of ties into what you were saying about hoping people listen to the whole record – it feels to me that you have carefully considered it as being a full-length thing to listen to, rather than diving into their favourite songs.

I mean, I’m really happy if they just want to listen to one song on Spotify. To be honest, I actually really don’t like that model that we that we currently live in, and that’s why I wanted to do an album over an EP, or even any singles. I kind of don’t want to ever release a single again, because I feel like the song’s kind of dead in the water. With all this stuff, like skip rates, it’s really depressing to be honest. I’m trying to say that, I don’t think anyone who loves music would like to think of the song having skip rates and all that shit; it leads to an unhealthy culture. But it’s quite similar, I guess, to 50s and 60s radio culture, like how in ‘Suspicious Minds’ how there’s a fade out and fade back in. It had to fade out on the radio – it’s nothing new.

I think that when we got a record player, after a long time of not having a record player, that was a game changer. I thought that this is the format that I want this music to be heard, and that’s what it’s for. It was nice to remember who the audience is for this recording and where is it being played – it’s not on Spotify or whatever – it’s in your living room. That was liberating.

Are there any other records that you feel capture that same thing that you were inspired by?

I mean, I can only list the records that I that I was listening to when I was writing this album, which is going to be some lofty references. I was listening to lots of Bill Callahan – Apocalypse and A River Ain’t Too Much to Love by Smog, Miles Davis’ Porgy and Bess, Bobby Gentry’s Ode to Billy Joe, Leonard Cohen’s New Skin For the Old Ceremony. Chris Cohen is a massive influence; he’s just the best, and I love Reward by Cate Le Bon. It’s those kind of things, but I’m much too do earnest to ever be like any of those artists. I also listened to like a lot of compilations; I love the Numero compilations and the Light in the Attic compilations. Tate did this great one called Soul of a Nation.

I wanted to know a little bit about your musical upbringing, whether you had a background that encouraged you to take this particular direction – what are your early experiences?

My dad was very passionate about music – he used to go and get a new CD every Friday, and we’d blast it in the car. There was music in the house and we were encouraged to play, but I guess the thing that really pushed me into doing music was because I was very unpopular at school. I found myself going to the music block and playing guitar with my friend, Charles, to escape getting picked on basically. Eventually, Charles became the guitarist in the band Yves Klein Blue that I played in for five or six years. Then I joined a punk band because then I had some friends, and everything was great. I was just screaming into this mic so nobody could hear me. I just became the singer because I couldn’t play anything but after about three years it turned out that I can actually sing. That’s how I started off playing music and then we got signed when we were basically just of out of, we won like an MTV competition, went around the world and played SXSW and lived in England. That’s why I eventually moved to England, but yeah, that’s kind of the story.

How do you feel you arrived at this particular project, though – why have you sort of settled for what you’re currently making now as being the thing that you want to focus on rather than any of the other avenues that you’ve explored in the past?

I didn’t think that anyone would ever want to hear a 70s singer-songwriter album, that style of thing. It just never occurred to me that anyone would ever want to listen to that, as I’ve always been in bands that had to be ‘indie rock’, or something. My grandfather is a poet., and there’s a lot of writers in my family, so I guess I just always felt like this was the music that I should make, I just wasn’t good enough to do it until now. Also, I had the right people around me to actually execute something that was of the calibre that I couldn’t execute on my own. I guess one day, I just realised that I was good enough to do it. It took a lot of work to get there, but I thought ‘you have to do that before suddenly something makes you stop making music, you have to do it now’.

When you began having these realisations, were the songs these grand, lengthy compositions that you’re making now? Were they fully formed with all the whistles and bells, and do you immediately think of a song in terms of all of the orchestration that goes around it?

Yeah, basically as soon as I start to write the song and record the demo of the song, I’m beginning to hear everything. I always make everything too complicated, that’s my problem. But, then when I when I try to make it less complicated, it’s just not as good. People will be like, ‘oh, I don’t know about that Michael’, so I need to be extra. I’m very extra as a person.

I really like that the style though. I’ve always been kind of drawn to things that I guess are quite maximalist – records that have all sorts going on. I also love the fact that it’s just so thought out and that it is all there for a reason.

Yeah, it’s very much that it’s just like, I know who’s going to smash their part. I’ll get Ami Koda or Gail Tasker [flutes] and I’m going to get them to bring something – and I know kind of what it is I’m after, but I’m not writing it all out. It’s very much due to the collective skill set, of which my skill is just to collect – to keep going and keep collecting until the song plays back. That’s my only skill really; to be obsessed and have talented friends.

Where do you see yourself heading next, and is there anything you want to explore in the future of the project?

I’m already recording bits for the next album now, and frankly I wish I’d got this record out a bit sooner. It’s kind of a teething process to get your shit together, and you’ve always got to reinvent it. I guess in using my own name now, I’ve got to keep going and evolving in my process. I’ve really embraced the ‘sad’ on Strange Time, but I’ve always got things going on that are somewhere between this pop classicism and a more experimental side. Just to make an honest record that resonates with people and isn’t fucking boring, that’s my goal I think.

Words: Reuben Cross // Photos: Emily Underhill

‘Strange Time’, the debut album from MF Tomlinson is out now and can be streamed and purchased via his Bandcamp page.

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