Newton Faulkner is a rare commodity; an acoustic musician who has enjoyed massive mainstream success – his debut album Hand Built By Robots has been certified double platinum, topping the UK Album Charts on its release in 2007.
Since then, Faulkner has completed a series of studio album recordings, and toured regularly to huge acclaim.
Following the release of his latest studio album The Interference (Of Light) in 2021, Newton Faulkner guested at The UK Bass & Guitar Show in April this year, and AR’s Andy Hughes enjoyed an in-depth chat with him.
You have had phenomenal success as an acoustic musician, which is not a genre known for producing huge sales. Your first album is double platinum, do you have any thoughts on what your appeal is?
I have thought about that a lot. When something goes well, it is quite hard not to try and pin down what it was about that song, or that musical style, that made it work for so many people. What I have come round to understanding, is that you need to do what you believe in for yourself. If you know that you have done something you feel good about, then it matters a lot less if it’s a big success in the charts, or if loads of other people like it or not. You have to like it and believe it, then you can enjoy playing it in concerts.
When you first broke big as an artist, did you find it difficult to establish a style for yourself, something that would make you identifiable?
When Dream Catch Me was released, I wasn’t too sure exactly where it fitted in to what I was doing then. I was keen on emphasising the more technical aspects of my guitar playing, and then along comes Dream Catch Me, and people are thinking, what’s going on now? He was playing technical stuff and now he’s just going dang dang dang! What’s all that about!
I think at that time there were singers, and there were musicians who played quite complex arrangements on acoustics, but no-one really seemed to be doing both of them together and I saw that as a particular niche I could fit into.
You are known as a musician who is very keen to push boundaries, to be an innovator. But does that make it difficult to develop, without alienating your core audience?
It comes back to what I said a moment ago, about doing what I believe is right and works for me on a personal level, and sticking with that. I know that if I take something out on tour and play it to my audience, they have an inkling of what is going to be coming down the line when the next album arrives.
I am aware of the limitations of having an appeal for a certain sound and style can put onto any musician, not just me. But on my last album, I think I went quite a long way down roads that I am not entirely sure I was supposed to go down. I think that was partly the effect of the lockdown, which isolated everyone, and I couldn’t go out and play gigs. The last tour I did, I was shouting down a megaphone and playing electric guitar, and looping masses of PDX sounds and doing things like that.
Do you ever find that a song you were not sure about, finished up working better than you thought it would?
I have, and the song is Killing Time. I remember working on it, and I played it to my fiancée when it was partly written, and she said she didn’t like it. I told her it would work out when I finished it. So, I finished it, and played it to her, and she still said she didn’t like it. But when I took it out on tour and played it as part of my set, she told me that it was her favourite song of the whole evening by a long way, and I was right and she was wrong and she was very sorry!
It was different when I was putting it together, but when I first played it live, I could really feel the vibe it created in the room. I ran it through a mini-rig, and it goes through the SY1000, and it changes tuning all over the place. I layered it through the Headrush Loop Pedal that I use, and I really went to town on it. It was one of those times that felt like it was a massive risk, but it really paid off and I was delighted with the way it went down on the tour.
The appeal of the acoustic guitar is timeless, have you any thoughts on why it still works for so many people?
For me, it’s the versatility of it. You can grab sections and tune them up and down as you play them. I have done songs where I do that, but it does take a lot of rehearsal because it’s something can’t risk getting wrong.
I love the intimacy of an acoustic guitar. It feels as though, because of the way it’s designed, that you are playing for whoever is there listening. The way the sound hole carries the music forward to the listener, I think is very appealing. It’s virtually the opposite of the violin, where the sound hole is next to your ear, almost as though you are playing for yourself.
I think the percussive aspect of a guitar is incredible as well. If you give a small child an acoustic guitar, they don’t start plucking the strings and seeing what sounds they can get. Their first reaction is to hit it, and hear what sort of a sound it makes. That’s what kids do instinctively, and I love that. I love that I still find new sounds and experience new feelings all the time, and I wonder why I never found that sound or that feeling before. That’s an endless enjoyment for me as a musician.
What’s your writing process, is it music first or lyrics, or does it vary?
It’s literally different all the time, and that is absolutely intentional. Sometimes I like limiting myself to see what happens. I wrote a load of material using only bass pedals. It’s limiting because you can only ever play two notes, so I sat down with a notepad and waited to see what would develop.
I find the same thing with altered tunings. If I try and write in standard tunings, I find myself ambling down the same paths all the time. But with altered tunings, I make a real effort not to remember what works, so I can avoid that same trap of going the same way all the time.
Does it work?
It does yes. Any writer will tell you that when you find a certain chord or sequence, you start to put them together in a certain way – this note follows that one, and this chord leads here, and then there, and then there, it’s instinctive, so you have to make yourself find ways to avoid doing it.
What’s your quality control – how do you know when a song is finished, and when one needs more work and it’s not ready yet?
I do have trusted people around me that I can bounce ideas off, and get honest opinions, and that is very useful for any writer.
I really recommend recording ideas as you write, because when you hear something back, you get a ‘listener’ view of it, from the other side. I can write something and think it’s all fine and finished, and when then I pay it back, I can hear that this bit sounds exactly like that bit, and this chord doesn’t actually fit with that one like I thought it did when I was putting them together. So, I do advise any people new to song writing to do that, record yourself and listen back objectively to what you are hearing.
What about playing back something to get a feel and an idea for lyrics?
That’s a really good point. If I write a complex guitar part for a song, I can’t really put my mind to the words because I am too busy keeping the guitar line going. If I record it and then play it back and listen, I can think separately about the lyric that’s going to fit and work. It engages a different part of your brain, and you need to have each part free to do its best work.
Do you write a song with your mind on how it’s going to sound in concert when you play it for an audience?
Sometimes, but not often to be honest. I rarely write thinking about how it’s going to sound when I perform it, but I do absolutely concentrate on how it’s going to feel.
When I wrote the song Killing Time, I had in mind that it would be me and a full band playing it, and each part would be covered by either myself, or one of the band playing it. Then when I had to actually work out how to do it all on my own, it become something of a challenge! The erratic drum part I evolved into a percussive guitar part, and the bass line was out through a phaser, but yes, it was a bit of a struggle to get it to sound how I thought it should without the band to play it with me.
How good a technical guitarist are you?
The honest answer is, I don’t actually know! Let me put it this way, I can do loads of really complex things on a guitar that not many other people can do, but there are loads of really simple basic things that everyone else can do, and I can’t! So I’m not too sure if that just leaves me somewhere in the middle. I can do really difficult and complicated things that as I say, most players would struggle with, but ask me to play something like Wonderwall, and I can’t do that. I do find that after a layoff, I have to rehearse pretty hard to get the complex stuff back up to the right level again.
How did the lockdown influence your writing, did you slow down, or do more?
I just became a studio person, for a time. I spoke to someone and said I had made most of the new album on my own, in the studio and he thought it was just going to be me and a guitar, pretty much a Nebraska-style of album, and when he played it, he came back and said he was amazed at how huge it was! I spent four months just working on one song at one time. I went much more deeply into production and technology, which is why my new deal signs me as a producer as well as a writer and recording artist. It’s not what I planned to do, it’s come about by necessity. I have had to learn to do these things, and now I can, and it has led to all kids of spin-off projects that I am looking into.
I have done some writing for other artists which I have enjoyed, and I have done some film soundtrack work and enjoyed that, so there are areas there to explore. I think now it’s about finding other ways to make money that don’t involve touring constantly. I do earn most of my income from touring, but I do get a reasonable income from PRS payments, when my songs are played on the radio and television. But it is about maximising the new skills I have picked up and putting them to good use.
Do you have any other projects in preparation at the moment?
One thing I am really excited about, is starting up my own Guitar Academy and doing online education.
As I mentioned, I can do loads of stuff that other people can’t, and not do stuff that other people can, and that was a result of my education. I was all for picking up something that I felt I needed, and then just ignoring something if I thought I didn’t really need it, or see myself needing it in the immediate future, so I would just skip those bits.
I do think that the standard model for guitar training is kind of a ‘too much too soon’ kind of approach. I want to get people straight into the enjoyment of playing the guitar. I think there are shorter ways of doing that. So I want to get from picking up a guitar for the first time, to learning to pick things up by ear, which I think is actually undervalued, and then picking out songs you can hear on the radio. It’s rather like getting the basic building bricks of what you need to start playing, and then you can go back and build up the rest of those bits of you need them. My approach is to making learning to play the guitar as much fun as possible, from the start. I was given exercises that I thought were really boring, so right away I’d find a way of making it more fun and more enjoyable for me to do. When I started practising scales for example which is not much fun, I did them with a swing rhythm, which is much more interesting and enjoyable. One of the ways I have always pushed my guitar paying forward, is to write stuff that I can’t play, and then figure out how to work it out, and get to there from here. If you can hear the finished article in your head, and then figure out how to construct it so you can get to play what you can hear in your head, that’s a great way to write songs.
Tell me about ‘Frank’?
‘Frank’ is an electric guitar built by Nick Benjamin who builds all my acoustics, and I am still only scratching the surface of the things I know it can do.
It has a dedicated mini-rig for the bottom two strings, and it has mini-triggers on all the threshold points where I usually hit it. It has a pickup system that he’s designed for playing fingerstyle. It has one setting which is half of one pickup and half of another. It’s impossible to do on other guitars, but it’s ideal for playing guitar with acrylic nails. It lines out some of the sound impurities that you get paying with acrylic nails. Recently I put a GK3 pickup on it and made it fully Midi as well, so it has Midi triggers and Midi notes, so just the things you can do with those things is incredible.
It also has an acoustic neck on it, which is quite wide, so it means I don’t have to adapt my style of playing too much to use it. I was asked for a request one night, and I said I don’t have the correct guitar to play it, but I’ll try it on this, and it sounded absolutely amazing, like a completely different song. It went from being a dinky polite pop song into a full on dirty in-your-face blues noise, it was wonderful and I played it every night from then on to the end of that tour.
The guitar is called ‘Frank’ because it’s a Frankenstein, it’s a monster of a thing. There’s probably a whole tour just in that one guitar.
I am planning an acoustic and vocal EP to go with the Guitar Academy stuff, which will force me to play guitar and sing for a while and not get sucked into the whole production thing.
What’s one song that would work as a good introduction to your work?
That’s a really good question. I think every album has a sort of ‘acoustic troubadour’ style song in it, which is a big part of what I do. I think the songs There Is Still Time from the Hit The Ground Running album, and Here Tonight from the latest album Interference (Of Light). Start there with those two and kind of work your way out from there.
I think in a way, I’ve become quite hard to understand, so the very best thing you do as an acoustic player, is come and see me on tour, and watch what I do, and work out how I do it. That should give you some ideas to work with.
Newton Faulkner’s “Feels Like Home” 2022 UK Tour with special guest Sam Richardson runs from September 17th until October 18th.