Forcing the Southport singer-songwriter back to his hometown, lockdown gifted time for reflection. Now he’s back with an arcade’s worth of new material as well as new-found confidence.
The years have not been kind to Southport, it’s fair to say. Its cracked, salt-crusted frontage faces away towards the Irish Sea. Stoic but defeated, it looks almost ashamed of what’s happened behind its grand, faded façade. There is a sad magic about the demise and decay of a seaside town with such a grand and illustrious history, especially in the cold, quiet months. It has long been a town free of investment. The cranes of greed have yet to make it up the coast, and so Southport is left to make the most of itself by trading on its past.
The seagulls who foolishly remain here on a breezy but bright October Monday do battle for the scraps of what’s left of the summer, strutting and certain, almost as if they, like this provincial seaside town itself, think they deserve better.
Funland is open. Funland is always open. Tucked away in a pub garden behind, a singer, tightly wrapped against the cold, promises a scattering of elderly day-trippers a Bruno Mars song, like they know who Bruno Mars is. It’s all a bit Phoenix Nights meets Coral Island. But this isn’t the product of somebody else’s sense of humour or the vivid, romanticised seaside of another’s imagination. Astles grew up here in Southport having left Liverpool at the age of six. “We were sort of the wools of the family.” From boy to man to musician and back again, ASTLES has always called Southport home.
Nobody else is on this pleasure walk. It’s just me, those cocky bastard gulls and the ghosted memories of my youthful adventures. The colourful cast of giant fibreglass swan-shaped pedalos here gathered look inward with indifference, tightly chained nose to nose in protection against the oncoming winter and attacks from bored, guffawing, balloon-wielding teenagers with little else to do for fun on dark nights.
We make whatever fun we can, after all, and growing up in a town such as this offers precious few opportunities for youth to flourish, the assumption perhaps predictably being that they’ll grow up and move away soon enough. And they do. Astles did. And as with many artists, lockdown brought him home to these sand dunes, these charity shops and candy floss stalls.
And there he is, silhouetted alone on the bridge crossing the boatless boating lake, arms raised to the salty skies for the camera as though in triumph. Like he’s gone all Rambo on us. Not exactly the sort of pose we’ve come to expect from what was once, at least, a most personal and introspective songwriter and performer. Astles’ early shows saw him spotlighted alone on the stage, a very singular, almost timid but charming presence. The Astles we see today seems different, more confident and settled in his own songwriting skin.
Hunched over coffee in a confused looking building at the end of the pier, we talk of his songs, the writing process and the unwitting effect he found in returning home to Southport and the splendid isolation of lockdown.
“There was that moment of stop. For me that was very therapeutic and helpful towards my songwriting. It felt like it advanced it. I could breathe and I could think about things that had been bothering me and consult them in songs. I started writing a lot more about things I had written about before. My relationships with my parents and my brother, and with my uncle.”
Astles never knew his uncle Joseph, but that man’s legacy and influence on him is strong and lasting. Growing up in an all-boys school in Birkdale where “you were either into footy or you were a nerd”, he was neither. Or perhaps both. In terms of finding his musical tribe at school, “There was the metal heads and the jazz band and that’s it.” Clearly, Astles ticks neither box, and so he embarked on his road of musical discovery very much alone.
There was no group of friends with similar interests, no tribe for him to find, and nobody prepared to let their guard down and admit the same desire to release their thoughts through music and song. Nobody to gaze in awe with at the unaffordable, out of reach guitars in music shop windows on a Saturday afternoon.
“It just felt like it was my thing, really. Even in the family, nobody was much into music. It was isolating, but in a nice way, really. Growing up in Southport, people don’t really have their own thing, so to do it that way was good. You get there at your own pace, in a way. Like, my favourite Liverpool songwriters, people like Mick Head and Bill Ryder-Jones, if I’d have had someone telling me about them early, they wouldn’t have the same effect on me as they did when I discovered them for myself.”
Inspiration eventually did make its way to him, courtesy of his uncle Joey’s old record collection. From his mixtapes and musty, treasured copies of the NME. From precious gig tickets and reviews he’d written. A treasure trove of memories.
“That was kind of the only thing I had, from beyond the grave…there was this one mixtape called ‘Soundtrack For The 21 Bus Home’ and it’s just amazing. Through that I discovered the Bunnymen, Radiohead… he’d put these mad interludes in, Kerouac reading poetry or a lesson in how to say ice cream in French. But it still felt like I’d discovered it myself, because he wasn’t there saying, ‘Get on this, get on this’. I was looking through all this stuff one day and found a record with a banana on the front and Andy Warhol written on it. I put it on, and it changed my life. I probably had terrible music taste until I was 16.”
Working, too, with someone he admires so very much in Bill Ryder-Jones, is an undeniable thrill, but for Astles and songwriting, it’s the connection which is worth just as much. Where he may have found his own music “a bit wet or whatever, not cool” – such is the insecurity of every writer – Bill begged to differ. “The things I was insecure about, that was the stuff that Bill really liked.”
“I’ve loved Bill’s music for ages and all of the band has as well. It’s things like, when I’m doing my vocal and thinking Bill’s listening, and he says, ‘Sounds amazing, I love that’. Well, if he says it sounds good, then I believe that. He’s so good as a producer. It’s people like Bill and Sophie Ellis, who we recorded with in London. It’s those people who you actually respect as musicians. When they’re telling you they like what you’re doing, it helps your confidence indefinably. It’s sort of worth more than how many streams you’ve had. It’s them connections.”
So, while early releases and appearances by Astles were always a strictly solo affair and he still mainly writes alone, he now lives with his band in true Monkees fashion, the house a rehearsal space, a recording studio and a micro-community where Astles finds himself at home. And that’s the point. Today, Astles feels at home. With his band, on his own, in his writing and in his music, he’s at home with himself and confident in what’s to come.
“You do it to learn about yourself. That’s what it is with songs for me. I don’t really reflect on things, I can’t really, but then I’ll write a song and then recognise that that’s how I’m feeling, because that’s how it’s come out and how the words have put themselves together. That’s how I use songs. I’m more honest in my songs than I am in normal life.”
Next year will see more than its fair share of the fruits of the songwriter’s labours at Ryder-Jones’ Yawn studios and more besides. A full-band December headline show at Ullet Road Unitarian Church and future releases will testify to an Astles that is settled, happy and confident. Much like the seagulls in his hometown, except he doesn’t go around stealing people’s lunch.
Astles play at the Ullet Road Unitarian Church on 11th December. Like a Child/ I Said Hello To Someone I Thought Was You is out on 12th January via Eggy Records