Neil Halstead is part of that premiere league of bearded men with an acoustic guitar, that, despite their rude aspect, possess a great deal of sentivity and delicacy that would make the strongest hair get on end. I am talking about a premiere league that includes names like Ray Lamontagne, Glen Hansard, Iron&Wine, Damien Rice or Angus Stone among many others. But Neil Halstead’s beginnings were not always like that. We have to change the folk-songwriter crystalline sounds for the reverb and atmospheric ones of the shoegazing. And his current lush beard for a callow and young face. This lush beard has grown and accumulated years of experience on the music world and eagerness to learn and explore into other genres. And that is precisely what we can find in his last album “Palindrome Hunches”: a beautiful compilation of folk-pop songs that make this world a bit more pleasant. After his experience in the mythical 90’s shoegazing band Slowdive and the Mojave 3 dream-pop project that came up with his ex-band colleague Rachel Goswell, he decided to try his luck on his own in 2002. And now, 11 years after, and with three albums, he has come to Centro Niemeyer (Avilés) to present this last work in an intimate space.
His warm voice and spontaneity turned that rainy and freezing night into a dreamy one where he made a tour by his solo career playing themes from his last album, from the previous ones and even some Mojave 3 tunes. “If you have any song requests, feel free to tell me. Even if they are Mojave 3 ones” said the English musician. And the audience did not hesitate to take advantage of Neil’s kindness and ask him to play some of their favorite songs. Although he was supposed to be accompanied by a pianist and a double-bass player, they could not attend the show because some trip problems. Anyway, we did not miss them at all. Neil’s voice and hands were enough to wrap us in a peaceful feeling. We had the chance to talk with him before the show and know a bit more about the work of this eclectic musician.
Here it is a sample of the concert. (Song: “Full Moon Rising” Album: “Palindrome Hunches”).
– Which was your first contact with music and how did it evolve until this current moment?
When I was a kid I listened to my parents records a lot. There was a lot of 60’s stuff and Beatles especially. Then when I was fourteen I started with The Smiths, The Jesus and the Mary Chain, Sonic Youth and those kind of bands that I think then defined my musical style. So Slowdive came up just like that. We were a group of friends that were really into that kind of genres. Then came up Mojave 3, which was quite different from Slowdive and had another clear orientation. And then, well then we arrive until this moment and my solo project.
– Which are your main musical influences?
I am into a lot of songwriter stuff like Gram Parsons or bands like Wilco, Cocteau Twins. I do not know…quite of different stuff. If I had to sum it up maybe I would say folk.
– What triggered your solo career?
Well basically Mojave 3 came to a standstill. We were having a bit down time and we were not doing so much and I have a bunch of songs so I decided this was the right moment to get into the recording of my first solo album. It just hapenned very quickly
– Is it difficult to detach yourself from all the reverb and atmospheric sounds of the shoegazing and change them for the clear sounds of the songwriter style?
Well, it took a while. But at that time I really wanted to do something different. Our last Slowdive record was really close to the technological elements, it was like techno-computer orientated. I just wanted something more organic, and the first Mojave record was like that. I simply wanted to write songs and to be a bit away from this last style. And then the evolution came gradually until my solo albums.
– What can we find in “Palindrome Hunches”? What is the theme? What does it sound like?
Well we can find lost songs about getting older, about relationships…I think all my records talk about time passing. I think it sounds like a dark folk record.
– How was the recording process? And what about the songwriting one?
I spent like a long time recording the songs in different ways. I wanted to be really happy and satisfied about the way they sounded. I did a kind bedroom record initially and it worked pretty well so eventually I ended up recording it with a band. My friend Nick Lowe produced the record and he introduced me to some musicians that he knew, so we ended up going to a Primary School and recording there very quickly, in 4 days. It is a very live record.
In relation to the songwriting process, there were songs quite old, like 4 or 3 years old. So I ended up compilating all these themes together for the album.
– Is there any trace of your previous bands that we can notice in this solo project?
I think this record has a quite similar vibe to Slowdive’s stuff, although it does not sound so much to Slowdive, but it has a similar atmosphere intention.
– Do you encounter any remarkable difference between your first solo album and this last one?
They are all quite folk orientated, but I think “Palindrome Hunches” is the most folk orientated one. Because of its live recording process. It is a very organic record. It is close to a traditional folk record.
– How do you get inspiration?
Well, everything really inspires me. Places, experiences from my life, stuff that happens around you, travelling… Some of the songs are really influenced by stuff outside my life, like for example the story of a pianist that lost his arm in World War I. I was really interested in History and some stories came up: families, war…
– Which artists would you like to share stage or collaborate with?
Well I like Sufjan Stevens, Jeff Tweedy…Actually a lot of people.
– I have read you are preparing new material with Mojave 3, but what about Slowdive? Did the new My Bloody Valentine’s album release made you miss those times with the band and think about a new meeting?
By the way, it is a really good record…I do not think we are meeting up again. We are still good friends, but I think there is not a massive kind of feeling between us about doing another record. When we did our last record I think we all knew it as going to be the last one, so I think it would be unlikely.
– Is there any new band you are really fan of?
Mmmm well, I like Peaking Lights last record. They play soft-pop. I like Real Estate too. Well, there are loads, I can not remember more now.
– How was the experience of recording “Oh! Mighty Engine” in Brusfire Records?Did Jack Jonshon work close to you in the album? Any plans of recording there again?
No, Jack did not collaborate in the album. He is the owner of the label. He is a good friend but he was not present at the recording process. It was a really good experience, but I do not know…Those are things that you do not really plan, they came up.
NEIL HALSTEAD’S RECORD SECTION:
– A record for a Saturday night.
The Beatles – “Rubber Soul”
– A record for a Sunday morning.
Anne Briggs – “Anne Briggs”
– A record for chilling out.
Talk Talk – “Laughing Stock”
– A record for a car trip.
JJ Cale – “Naturally”
– A record for doing sports/exercise.
Dinosaur Jr – “Bug”
– A record for making love.
Cocteau Twins – “Victorialand”
– Last record you have bought.
I can not remember…
– First record you have bought.
The Primitives – “Thru the flowers”
Photos: Nacho Iglesias