Hayden Thorpe had been a member of a band for so long he had almost forgotten what it’s like to be alone. Singer, frontman with Wild Beasts, he helped form the band as a teenager, and helped take them round the world, touching countless lives in the process.
But with new solo album ‘Diviner’ he really is alone. The band played their last ever show in 2018 at London’s eventim Apollo, a cathartic, transgressive, but hugely emotional event. In every sense, it left Hayden Thorpe stripped bare.
“Everything was up for grabs, everything was up for question,” he tells Clash over the phone. “Home. Relationships. Work. There was a question mark over everything. Because there had to be. Sometimes - and I hadn’t anticipated this – the most safest feeling is to be assured of nothing. And I guess I was scouting for possible different lives, because we are multiple selves – the self we are today is just a concoction of the place and people were are amongst.”
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Returning to his solo life felt akin to a fisherman searching through an old tackle box – reel upon reel tangled into one, almost impossible to discern object from object. He continues: “I guess when you’re in a band you have other people’s organs within you. You transplant one another. Suddenly it was me returning to my own blood and it was a bit of a shock.”
“At least I had the craft to metabalise it,” he muses. “My emotional kidney was a piano. And it made for good fodder, that’s for sure. If I don’t spend that much time alone again in my life I’ll probably be grateful for it. It was a bit extreme.”
“If your work life starts at 15 then aspects of your persona are cryogenetically frozen to serve the band, and I wouldn’t say a band is the most functional of working tiers. It felt like I was moving through the O Zone layer, and I was hoping I wouldn’t burn up on re-entry. I had to leave the world and kind of re-enter it.”
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Using music both as a crutch and as a lens, Hayden Thorpe began to take his first stumbling steps, feeling out his songwriting legs as if using them for the first time. “It’s a form of divination,” he says. “It’s a form of calculating the best way forward.”
“I guess human nature demands that we seek patterns. We look to the past as a way of navigating the future. That can obviously lead to a lot of difficulties because it doesn’t necessarily work like that – only the past is real, the future isn’t real. The future is really a metaphysical concept. So in terms of trying to divine a future, divine a future self, I did actually have to project outwards.”
It’s this process that fuels ‘Diviner’. Stumbling steps become more confident, emotional chances become daring leaps; opening with the piani-led grace of the title track, it surges into pensive electronics on ‘Earthly Needs’, or the sensual introspection of ‘In My Name’. There’s a familiarity here, but also something new – it’s the sound of something shedding their skin, but retaining vital elements of their identity.
The songwriting process took Hayden Thorpe from his home in London to the sun of Los Angeles; from the glare of the United States to the privacy of rural Cornwall. Through this journey, though, he needed a root, an anchor, and he found it in the form of the album’s central instrument, the piano.
“The piano for me became a totem for the record, just because of the gravity of it,” he gasps. “The sheer weight, the sheer demand of the object meant that I was tethered to it, I had to stay with it. It’s also an object of a lot of balance – you use your left foot, your right foot, your left hand, your right hand – it requires your entire physicality. In that way it’s collaborative. Every piano has its own character, and becomes a serious player in the plotline once you begin to use it.”
“The piano to me is endlessly mystical and fascinating because it’s such a standardised sequence of notes,” he says. “And within that very orderly sequence are an infinite number of tunes and songs and expressions. And the order of the sequence of notes was reassuring during this moment of chaos and change that I’ve been under.”
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Through this chaos came a semblance of order. Piecing ‘Diviner’ together – some songs took months, others mere moments – Hayden then entered a Hoxton studio with producer Leo Abrahams, whose assured musicality helped bring the material into sharper focus.
“I think he was totally essential,” he states. “Both on a pragmatic level – my production skills have receded to a point of embarrassment – and also his vision and skill as a producer and a musician I really think are an old world craft.”
“Neither of us were concerned with making something sound vintage. We wanted to make something modern sounding. Both a blend of… I guess, I wouldn’t say I wanted it to sound futuristic – I’d say I wanted it to sound both ancient and futuristic, which actually requires someone to have a very wide breadth of skill.”
Working with someone else forced Hayden to emerge from his cocoon, to let each song have its place in the world. “They only became songs - in my head - when Leo came to hear them, because otherwise… is a song really a song if it’s just you who knows it exists? A song needs multiple ears to become a song! So the first acid test for any song is playing them to Leo, in order to get them into a habitable state.”
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Each song inhabits a different world, from the breathless grace of ‘Stop Motion’ to the glittering promise of finale ‘Impossible Object’. It’s a defiantly individual vision, something that has been expressed at a series of intimate Spotify-backed shows – just Hayden, his voice, a piano, and a tiny audience. No microphone, no PA, and no Wild Beasts.
“On your own, the intention of the song is so pivotal, so you actually have to meditate on what you want the song to feel like from the start. That’s the main difference, really,” he explains. “I can’t passively perform it. I actually have to fully submit to the song’s requirements.”
“I actually felt really privileged to know that my voice was loud enough, and that what people were hearing was a very true reflection of what I sound like. And to remove that distance, and to remove those mannerisms - which really exist to sustain the artist’s ego – felt very freeing. I wouldn’t say I felt vulnerable, I felt strong in it.”
Moving ahead, he wants to continue along this path, and perhaps deepen it in the process. “I doubt I’ll play Wild Beasts songs again,” he admits. “Those songs exist, and if they matter to anyone then you can’t take that away from anyone. That’s the beauty of music. That it can’t erode, they won’t decay. But certainly, from my point of view, it wouldn’t be a nourishing thing to do.”
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This naturally leads to our final question: what’s next?
“I think the greatest achievement of any work is how it enables another piece of work, so I’m hoping that having already completed this piece of work I feel enabled as to what comes next,” he comments.
“I’d like to make a Lake District record. I’d like to make a record in full in that space and to allow the awe and the perspective of the Lakes to seep into the record. To become an adult and to grow up I had to distance myself from it, but it definitely feels like I’m ready to belong again.”
A journey of belonging that takes him from London, to Los Angeles, and Cornwall, ‘Diviner’ ends where it started: with Hayden Thorpe contemplating his craft, his role, and the Lakes.
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'Diviner' is out now.
Photo Credit: Rachel Lipsitz
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