The civil parish of Charnock Richard, just a few miles from Chorley in a quiet, leafy part of West Lancashire, is an unobtrusive little place. You might even say it was unremarkable, notable only for its M6 service station. It’s an unlikely place, then, to go searching for some enlightenment, on a fresh Saturday morning in October. Trees and well-manicured gardens zip past the train window, but I hardly notice as I’m scouring the internet on a patchy 3G signal on my phone for some interesting nuggets of folklore that’ll reveal some of the hidden character of Charnock Richard. Two knights opposing the Earl of Lancaster were captured and beheaded here in the 14th Century, and the water mill at Birkacre Mill was the site of one of Richard Arkwright’s first cotton spinning mills right at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. But not much of note since then. Hmmm.
Thankfully, I’ve got an in with someone who has unearthed a bit of local history in the area, and has turned it to their own good. Paul Fleming, the Widnes-born musician behind instrumental ambient krautrock act BALTIC FLEET, now lives in Charnock Richard, and he’s successfully mined some of its history as inspiration for his latest album, The Dear One. Given the way Fleming expertly crafted his storming previous LP Towers from the feelings that his home town evoked in him, I was confident that his new abode would have just as much to say for itself. There was also talk of a diary, and a 19th Century love story. How could I resist?
When Paul Fleming meets me at the train station, he has with him a copy of the diary, but he’s keen to show me somewhere important before we get too lost in the book. Christ Church, the largest church in Charnock Richard, was built in 1841 by a man called James Darlington, a benefactor who was also responsible for the building of a nearby chapel and a schoolhouse, situated not far from Fleming’s house. Darlington, the author of the diary, wasn’t a native of Charnock Richard, but he was convinced to move and invest his money there because he fell in love with a local girl. It was this story that attracted Fleming to the diary in the first place, and which would ultimately get him hooked on finding out more.
“There’s one thread going through the diary, and it’s all about the relationship between the author and his wife, or his love,” Fleming tells me later on, leaning back in his chair as he thinks back to the crucial element that hooked him in. “He [Darlington] refers to her as ‘The Dear One’ all the way through, and then he calls her by her name – Frances – in the in last two pages, when she dies. And then he stops writing, he loses inspiration. He doesn’t write anymore, he doesn’t build anything else, his muse, his inspiration is gone. There’s a line in there that goes something like, ‘Now she’s gone, what is left to write? There is nothing left to write.’ And I just found that massively inspiring.”
Finding this tragic story was the catalyst that got Fleming’s engines firing again, and he set about poring over the rest of Darlington’s diaries for more words, names or stories to trigger further inspiration for his music making. “I’m totally intrigued by the love story, it’s what inspires the title and the core of the album.”
Bido Lito!: Did you find it quite easy to connect with the world James Darlington was writing about? Did you find yourself seeping into it a bit?
Paul Fleming: A little bit. When I found out through the church that there were these diaries, I thought, ‘Wow, this is going to be unbelievable, like years and years of diaries, there’ll be all sorts in here.’ And then when I actually got the diary, it was just loads of dates and facts and I really had to dive into it to find out things. You couldn’t read it back to front, it’s just not an easy read. ‘Miss Olivia on her way to a visit with Miss Dodd in London,’ that type of thing. So, I started making up these stories, and just used my own imagination to, almost, take these characters to another place.
BL!: Musically, how do you go about fashioning these stories that have arisen in your head into compositions, without using lyrics?
PF: It’s hard to explain, because you sort of go into a zone. Music’s a total escape for me, it’s an escape from everything in life, and it always has been, from being 12 years old. I kind of throw lots of things around and it’s kind of like this cauldron of conscious and subconscious influences: musical influences, stories, names, the place… it’s more about collecting inspiration. When I’m writing instrumental music, what I try to do is to anchor it to something and then just let my imagination play out. I started picking out interesting titles and phrases, like ‘a beautiful chant’, use it as a title and then take it somewhere else. And because it’s instrumental, I feel the need to just delve into that world, because I’m not creating a lyrical story, so I’ve got to… in my own mind, I’ve got to make it more imaginative and create the world.
BL!: Does having an over-arching theme help to channel these emotions?
PF: I think, as the albums have progressed, the process has been forced to get more artistic and, for me, more imaginative and interesting. For this album, not having something that’s so in your face as the towers and the industry that I grew up with, it was very easy to connect with that landscape because I just tapped into what was always underneath. It forced me to be more creative, to lose myself more than I’ve ever done really, so for me the music’s getting more interesting as I’m being more, almost, limited.
BL!: Would you say you’ve grown any closer to the surroundings of Charnock Richard through the process of doing this record?
PF: I wouldn’t say so, no. I’d say I’ve learnt more about it and I’ve looked deeper into it, so I suppose there’s a little bit more of a connection there. But I still feel a massive connection to the sort of wastelands between Liverpool and Manchester where I grew up, that’s what I connect with most. So, when I got to the top of the hill round here and saw the factories and the towers 25 miles away, that was something that I grabbed onto. And when I found out that the beautiful setting where the lake and the forest are, was actually the site of the start of the Industrial Revolution, I grabbed on to that. So, if anything, I’m connecting more to the industries that are maybe hidden. The North is all about industry and that’s still at the heart of what I do. In time, I might start tapping into the landscape a bit more and going more ambient.
The Dear One is an immensely rewarding listen, maybe because of the amount of content in there: you can keep coming back to it and enjoying different parts, and you’ll find your brain sparking off something new each time – a beat or a melody that will chime with a mood buried deep in your cortex. The best way to enjoy the LP is to treat it like one of the magic eye images, where you let your mind relax and fall into its textures; that’s when all the hidden imagery jumps out at you. If you allow your imagination to run away on the grooves and feel the meaning that pulses through the melodies, you’ll feel yourself charging blissfully along with echoes of Tangerine Dream, Gold Panda, Max Richter and New Order flitting in and out of earshot.
The intervening four years between The Dear One and its predecessor Towers could easily have weighed heavily on Fleming in making this one, but he seems to have coped well with the high acclaim and attention it brought him (Fleming played the Yoko Ono-curated Meltdown Festival at the Southbank Centre in 2013 after winning the GIT Award). Stylistically, Tuns is the closest track to that distinctive, marching Towers drone on The Dear One – but the new album isn’t content to stay there. Royving charges in on a great guitar hook like a runaway train, but it’s Angel’s Shotgun where Fleming really finds his groove, layering together shifting beats and burbling synths with an insistent guitar line to create an urgent track that’s underscored by an air of mystery and foreboding. And, crucially, at no point does the album feel over-processed, which is a key thing for Fleming. Keeping that organic, ‘live’ sound means it keeps that feel of being a personal journey.
“I relate it to if you bought something made out of wood from Ikea,” he says with a hint of a smile. “There’d be loads of stuff to bolt on and bits of plastic and three different types of wood; or, you could go to a carpenter and he’d create something out of a single piece of wood. And I’m hoping that honest approach to an artistic way of producing stuff makes [the music] last longer.”
There was also something a lot more personal at stake for Fleming in making The Dear One, which is best illustrated by penultimate track La Cygne. “So, this was a really weird one… At the end of 2014, my mum passed away – well, she got ill and then passed away quite quickly after. Her and my dad said that they were like swans, and there was always this big thing about the swan. And I found in the diary some references to ‘la cygne’, which is swan in French. Maybe I was looking too deep into things almost, finding these weird, tenuous links. But in my mind – and especially at the time – it all just came together. I kind of found some solace in the diary around that point. That was my story too, and it kind of got intertwined in this, and that spun me out for a little bit.”
No matter which way it comes out or what instruments are used, the best music is always a form of storytelling. And when you get those rare moments where both artist and listener are going on a journey, you get memorable music. You get music like The Dear One.
“I listen to music all the time, like most people do, and it does help your mood,” Fleming says as we’re wrapping up, and I’m preparing to leave quiet little Charnock Richard. “It helps you sort out your own thought processes and ideas. Music is a gift to us all: what would the world be without music? It would be a very boring, dry and grey world. So, I love music, and what it creates in everybody.”
The Dear One is out now on Blow Up Records.