With its peaceful isolation and Bohemian setup, Hebden Bridge has been a retreat for many artistic souls down the years. The proximity to both the picturesque landscape of the Calder Valley and nearby cities (Manchester and Sheffield are within easy reach) has made it the perfect spot for those wishing to escape the hurly-burly urban life, without having to travel too far off the beaten path. For LEE SOUTHALL, swapping Hebden Bridge for his home town of Hoylake was just the tonic he needed, sparking in him a purple patch of creativity that culminated in this year’s below-the-radar album of the year so far, Iron In The Fire.
Five years after last playing with The Coral, the band he grew up with, Southall struck out on his own, with a record of windswept Americana that was written, produced and released under his own steam. Now, Southall finds himself back in the limelight, with a headline Liverpool show at Folk On The Dock in August. We caught up with him to find out how difficult it was to get to where he is now.
Was writing and recording Iron In The Fire the fresh start you were looking for?
Recording-wise, yes. It was about taking the bull by the horns and getting the record out. I’m a single parent and time is pretty stretched but I realised I needed to work with what I had and move forward. It was a long process from writing to release date. Once it came out it was a relief, and I could start working on the second album.
How has Hebden Bridge influenced you? Did moving away from where you grew up help you appreciate home anymore?
It made me realise how structured my life was, musically, with The Coral. There are aspects of that I’ve come to appreciate more but I also appreciate the freedom I have in West Yorkshire. When you play together as a band for so long, certain ways of doing things become ingrained. This starts to loosen-up when you’ve been out of that context for a few years. There are clear shades of The Coral in Iron In The Fire, but the second album, which I’m doing demos for now, is something quite different.
There’s a sense of kinship with nature in some of the themes and approach to your music on this LP – and it’s something that Merseyside musicians are adept at. Do you notice this when you’re writing songs?
I live in a rural location and the landscape can be breathtaking, but also a major pain in the arse: snow drifts, floods and stuff like that. There are magical moments too. A few weeks back I went to the bus stop with my daughter and in the field next to us a foal had just been born. This was amazing for my little girl. We live high up on the edge of a steep-sided valley in the wettest place in England, so weather was a definite theme in the LP. The landscape and constantly-shifting weather seeped into the songs I was writing. I’m not sure if this is a kinship with nature, I’d say it’s more about the way place influences me creatively. I’m really interested in the way sound moves around up here. It can be difficult to pin-point the origin of a sound; because of the steepness of the valley, it bounces around in weird ways. Again that’s about landscape, not just in the sense of what it looks like but what it sounds like.
Is Iron In The Fire the album you’ve always had in you?
Only in the sense that those songs were shaped by the kind of music I’ve always been interested in. I was in The Coral for, like, 18 years and I was there as a guitarist. Back then I didn’t envisage myself making solo records but for me that transition has happened really naturally. If I’d stayed in Hoylake with the others it would probably be a different story. Had I done a solo album there then it’s likely all the other band members would have played on it!
Do you think working on these songs and playing live has opened the floodgates for you, musically?
It’s given me more confidence and creative focus. As a solo artist you need to work out your own way of doing things, and that’s taken time. The first batch of songs prompted me to develop a home studio for recording demos and that’s been a learning curve. The writing part now takes place out of the house and I’ve learnt the value of finding a space that works for me. Luckily a friend offered for me to share her writing space in a Victorian chapel up on the moors. It’s incredibly beautiful in a falling apart kind of way, but I wouldn’t want to spend the night up there. We don’t like to talk about floodgates up here in Yorkshire, but yeah, things are opening-up for me creatively, and I have a few project ideas on the go.
From our point of view, you’ve had a lengthy period away from music (since you left the band) – but have you ever really left music? And can you ever see a period when you ‘retire’ from it?
I’ve played guitar every day since I was a kid. If I haven’t picked-up the guitar by early evening I start to feel twitchy and the world seems slightly off-kilter. Music is part of who I am and it’s the only job I’ve ever had, apart from labouring work. So, no, retirement is not on the horizon.
Was there ever a point prior to the album coming out where you were worried it might never happen?
It was such a long process getting the first album out, and most of that was down to lack of money. I’m not the only musician who has to deal with that. My history with The Coral seemed to work against me a bit. Making the transition from guitarist in a band to solo artist is tricky; people like you to stay in the box they are familiar with. I was confident the record would come out but finding ways to make that happen was a slog. With Iron In The Fire, I was very close to the actual process of making a record. In The Coral, all of that was done by the label. This was the first time I had to sort artwork, including endless discussions about the weight of paper for the sleeve. I was stressing about getting the masters to the bloke who was cutting the vinyl on time, dealing with distribution issues as the record came out around Easter etc. So, yeh, I was really anxious because I was responsible for all this stuff.
What does the album mean to you, listening back to it?
It means a lot. There was no label or finance in place, no management etc. It was me, on my own, in the hills of West Yorkshire. Back in Hoylake everything is set-up, ready to go – practice room, other musicians. I didn’t have access to any of that. So, yeah, I’m really proud of what I achieved with the debut album.
Lee Southall plays Folk On The Dock on 26th August. Iron In The Fire is out now via Wonderful Sound, which you can find at wonderfulsound.bandcamp.com.