Due on July 7 from Substantive Recordings is the latest eclectic release “Alterations” from Berkshire alt-pop/electronic artist/composer Mark Northfield. Inspired by the likes of Kate Bush, Radiohead, This Mortal Coil, and Bjork, Northfield is not the typical ‘paint-by-numbers’ type when it comes to his musical approach. The material on “Alterations” is complex and intellectually stimulating, not to say that’s it isn’t fun. In fact, it’s more boundless in its enthusiasm than most mainstream music you’re likely to hear. “Alterations” features quirky, intelligent and arty British pop sung by a variety of vocalists. It bursts with finely orchestrated beauty and piano-led melodicism.
If you’re like me, you’ll be feeling the urge to sit yourself down with this release for multiple listens, and we have the perfect solution for folks such as yourself. Mark Northfield has the full album streaming on his Soundcloud page (www.soundcloud.com/mark-northfield) in advance of the slotted July 7 release date. His back catalogue is available through Bandcamp and CDBaby. Recently I had the chance to pick the ever-busy brain of Mark Northfield and fire off some questions about this ambitious release as well as some of the themes in his music.[youtube AK2Ba6GNevI nolink]
Mark, I really enjoyed your ability to wrap intellectual or meaningful messages in infectiously catchy songs like “Nothing Impossible”. How do you typically set about balancing what you want to say and what you want to hear? Or do they naturally go together?
Thanks. The world is full of people writing pop lyrics with variations on the theme of being in/out of love and/or having a good/bad time. That’s fine as far as it goes, but I think there should always be room for thoughtful outsiders to prod and point at less obvious topics in the context of a tuneful radio-friendly song; ‘difficult’ lyrics shouldn’t have to be set to ‘difficult’ music.
I don’t know about the US, but two or three decades back it was perfectly possible to have catchy melodic pop hit singles (number ones in many cases) in the UK dealing with nuclear war, teenage soldiers, Vietnam, Joan of Arc, the concept of sin, unemployment, riots, alcoholism, stalking, famous murders, classic literature etc. What changed? If one looks through the past few decades you find pop music as a whole becoming more narrowly focussed in its lyrical content as well as its musical side (more use of repetitive chord progressions/those oh-so-dull one or two note ‘melodies’) even as sonic tricks and compression techniques have contrived to make it all SEEM more exciting. I don’t think this shift is because of a lack of talent or subject matter available.
It can hardly be a coincidence that the visual image (and to a certain degree dance choreography) has come to dominate pop music promotion so utterly: it skews everything in favour of major labels and their large marketing budgets, and by their very nature majors prefer to play safe to maximise profit. At least YouTube now gives indie labels and DIY artists a chance to compete to some degree, though the scale, slickness and special effects of pop videos still don’t come cheap.
But I digress (bit of a habit)… I don’t see it as a balancing act: either the song says what it needs to or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, I’ll ponder awhile and rewrite, and take my time as necessary. A song often develops from a piano improvisation, but I have also made up stuff whilst out travelling somewhere (as with the chorus of “The Death Of Copyright”, for example) or written words by themselves (as with Nothing Impossible’s spoken counterpart from the album: “Reminders, Remind”).
“Good Money” uses a phrase I’ve heard many times and have even used myself – You could make good money. Please share with us the intentions behind the song and your thoughts on the Occupy Movement as well as its after-effects.
Here in Europe the news is regularly filled with talk about the Eurozone crisis, which is just a further chapter of the global financial crisis. Ever since 2008, I’ve been reading with considerable fury and astonishment about the widespread idiocy/criminality (take your pick) within the financial system: the insane leveraging of debt-based ‘wealth’ from comparatively miniscule assets; the expansion in tax haven use (and parallel relaxation of corporate tax abuse investigations, in the UK at least); and the coup de grace of sovereign states being forced to take the strain when the improbably big debt bubble begins to deflate, under the guise of ‘Too Big To Fail’.
Essentially, nothing significant has changed since 2008, except that the majority of people in Europe are now being persuaded to accept drastic cuts to public benefits and services, along with a freeze to paypackets except at the very top levels (got to attract the ‘right’ people, eh?). Golem XIV (David Malone) is probably the best blogger in the UK writing about this, but the books Whoops! (John Lanchester) and Treasure Islands (Nicholas Shaxson) both proved accessible and enlightening.
Being such an important issue, I felt the need to try to sum up this complex situation with a concise and suitably angry overview. I had written a less focused song about consumerism some years previously and never released it; Good Money is a complete reworking of the lyric but with the same hook. That hook has a twist, in that it carries the phrase’s usual subversion of the word ‘Good’ to mean ‘as much as possible’, but it is also a direct call to those involved to acknowledge the social harm they are perpetrating and change course.
The Occupy movement has achieved something useful in its first incarnation in that it woke up a significant number of people up to the immorality of what has been – and is – happening, and the importance of not just sitting around and waiting for change. No improvements for common people have ever happened by us simply waiting for them.
As the crisis continues to evolve (it will: the bubble of worthless debt is still far too huge and the price of oil will pile on the pressure) more of the middle class will see their modest prosperity chipped away toward nothing. Plenty more people will come to question the concept of debt creation by banks, why the fantasy of perpetual ‘growth’ on a planet with finite resources in an era of climate change is not politically challenged (except by Greens), and why exactly global corporations – banks especially – are allowed to transfer so much of their ‘profit’ to places where all they have is a desk with someone sat behind it.
The danger, always, is that tough times lead disillusioned and frightened people to turn to unhinged, strong-arm leaders, with war and scapegoating serving to shift attention. We need coherently argued and peaceful ways of reforming the financial system: a debt jubilee, bank assets marked to their market value (they’re not currently, they’re marked to ‘models’ created by… Yep, you guessed it: themselves. Genius!), insolvent institutions allowed to fail as needs be, accounting transparency across all jurisdictions as a pre-requisite for doing business etc. And that’s just the start.
These kind of changes will not happen easily; there are very powerful interests vested in the status quo. All the more reason to be engaged with the public discussion the Occupy movement has initiated and not be disheartened by the sweeping away of a few tents.
Why do you think that celebrity culture is bigger than its possibly ever been? I’m sure you see it in the music industry. Have we always been like this?
There has always been an interest in the famous: that definitely isn’t new. I think the overwhelming prevalence of it is simply a reflection of the modern age’s visual and information overload most of us in the west have come to accept as normal, along with the proliferation of magazines whose sole purpose is the concept of celebrity.
Sure, there’s an element of dumbing down too, because celebrity ‘news’ is mind fluff. We’re encouraged to gawp at the glamour and ignore all that depressing economic or environmental stuff, cause we all love a bit of escapism, right? This essentially serves the corporate/political agenda, because the end result is a more docile, easily distracted and less informed population. Like many drugs though, it’s not the substance that’s the problem, it’s the dose.
What is also different these days is the prevalence of software to create images that are abnormally perfect, slim, muscled, whatever (look up ‘Fotoshop by Adobe’ for a wonderfully satirical ad). This is more about advertising than celebrity, but the two go hand in hand. These days, a celebrity is often thought of as a brand and marketed accordingly. It is hard for people to over-ride their evolutionary-hardwired desires with the knowledge that what they are seeing isn’t actually real, and this translates to a slow dissatisfaction with reality. It’s subtle and insidious.
How do you promote an album like “Alterations”, in your opinion? I would assume that, with an album that is so artistic like this, you get it to circles where people still look for art in their music instead of throwing it to the mainstream, so to speak.
The world of DIY music promotion is full of simplistic boxes in which to put yourself to reach ‘your’ audience (ha! as if listeners can be so neatly categorised…) and, funnily enough, Alterations doesn’t really fit any one of them, even though it makes perfect sense on its own terms. It’s unfortunate, because this genre purism then discourages fusion and experimentation, as well as making it harder for listeners to find music that deliberately blurs boundaries.
My previous album Ascendant was possibly even tougher to push, partly because I was starting from scratch, and partly because it was a melancholic downtempo classical/theatrical crossover song-cycle; not exactly the most obvious sell in a world of shortening attention spans. The people who loved it though, REALLY loved it, and I think that’s the most important thing: I’d rather have 100 people going ‘WOW!’ than 1000 going ‘Mmmm, OK’.
Mainstream or art? Artists like The Beatles, Kate Bush, Radiohead or Rufus Wainwright (to name but four whom I admire) have happily straddled that divide. I think the majority of people are open to complexity as long as there are some accessible melodies and arrangements involved. How many people appreciate classical music in the context of a film without ever buying a ‘proper’ classical recording? How many have had their musical horizons broadened and enriched because they bought an adventurous album that happened to contain a catchy single or two they liked? The latter is one of several reasons why I’m a big fan of the album as an artform, and why download selection isn’t always a good thing.
I chose to do an album of five ‘almost-pop’ songs altered into five ‘almost-classical’ ones through the cunning redeployment of musical themes, not just because it was an interesting project for me as a musician, but because I wanted to hook people with some catchy stuff and then challenge them to find the connections in the second half. Listening is an under-appreciated art, especially when there’s so much to distract these days. I want people to practise that art and not let music simply be wallpaper whilst something else is happening. Hearing is not listening.
(Btw, the in depth album explanation is on my website marknorthfield.com: look for ‘alterations revealed’ in the main menu.)
Gigging the whole album is not very practical at present: the numbers of people and cost involved ensure that. Some of the tracks work in a more stripped down setting with me singing them, so smaller acoustic sets are on the agenda. The video projects are another important aspect, of course, especially for the majority of listeners further afield. But the main lesson I learned from the previous album was simply: don’t try and do everything yourself, get experienced PR people to do the work! So, I budgeted accordingly and have a good team pushing this album for me. I’m trusting their expertise entirely.
What aspect of the album release are you most excited about?
As I tend to take my own sweet time completing projects, just getting it released is pretty exciting for me. It would be great to get some higher profile reviews this time around, because I think Alterations really does have something unusual to offer a broad range of listeners. I’m not claiming it’s the most wonderful thing ever created (far from it: I’m acutely aware of my shortcomings) but I can safely bet you won’t hear many other albums like it released in 2012, if any.
Who or what inspired you to become a musician?
Tricky to answer because I can’t ever remember not being one. My Dad has always been more of a guitarist, but when I was very small he had got himself a piano and was attempting to learn. I’m told that I clambered up on the stool at the age of three and simply got on with it, somehow relating the dots on the page put in front of me to the keys. He gave up shortly afterwards, apparently.
I had a very fine piano teacher for the best part of ten years who certainly instilled in me an enduring love for the instrument, and composers like Beethoven and Chopin. The piano was such an important part of my childhood that there was never any question in my mind about my career: it was going to be music-related, it was just a question of in what way. Luckily my ability to improvise and sight-read has paid the bills ever since, and this has enabled me to pursue my recording career in the fair amount of free time I get every year.
Who in music today do you listen to often and perhaps admire?
I presume you mean artists still working and producing things? Well, the aforementioned Bush, Wainwright and Radiohead, certainly (though King Of Limbs was disappointing by their standards). Stephin Merritt is a lyrical genius; Tom Waits likewise. Gavin Bryars (modern British classical composer) writes some jaw-droppingly beautiful works. Uri Caine is a recent discovery for me who takes classical repertoire off at some interesting angles (his Goldberg variations are fairly bonkers). Pink Martini are a superb bunch of musicians interpreting music from all over the world. Wilco and Field Music both make intriguing and thoughtful guitar stuff I like very much.
At the poppier end of the spectrum, Royksopp are wonderful (Junior was a massively under-rated album) and Scissor Sisters are consistently entertaining. Appreciating Gotye at the moment, but that’s pretty new so we’ll see about the longevity of it. I was also enjoying Robyn, but she’s in my bad books for allowing her publisher to stymie my cover of ‘Dancing On My Own” (incorporating the theme from Electronic’s “Getting Away With It”). I can’t even post the bloody thing online for people to hear. Grrrr.[youtube UD7O-R2xsgg nolink]
Your music videos are quite creative and insightful. Will there be any more video projects this year?
Absolutely. I really enjoyed doing the animations, even though they both took about 30-40 hours each. A real labour of love. The response to them has been fantastic though. I intend to make another one once the album is released, for a third digital EP I’m planning later in the summer.
In the meantime I have a couple of other videos to shoot in the coming weeks for a couple of the album tracks. One is my first lip-sync video (for a song on the album I don’t actually sing) and this will involve a bit of drag and zombie make-up action. The other will be a duet involving some very colourful hand puppets I’ve just bought, with finger puppets for the backing vocals. I’m on a steep puppetry learning curve at the moment!
There may also be some computerised 3D wordiness for the song Good Money coming along, as I have a friend who is a bona fide Doctor of Virtual Reality (I’m not making this up) and he’s promised to help me out. Not actually sure what the end result will look like yet, but it’s more about helping to convey the message than anything else.
Speaking of money, some of the tracks from the album are being used in a documentary about giving money away at random, made by up and coming comedian/writer Nathan Cassidy. These are going to be shown at fringe festivals in the UK this year, including Edinburgh.
What comes next for Mark Northfield?
Apart from the aforementioned third EP, there may well be an Alterations mark two sometime because it was such a fun concept to explore. However, I might go off in another directions first. I’m aware that many of my songs are quite long, so I’ve toyed with the idea of an album of 3 min 30 sec offbeat pop nuggets, just to prove I can (it’s the ideal pop single length, according to the sarky folk at Popjustice). Or maybe I’ll give in and finally write a musical. Who can say?
Whatever it is, I won’t rush it. Steady perfectionism is the Northfield way.
By James Moore – firstname.lastname@example.org