Ali Lacey has always been profoundly independent.
Moving away from home at 16, he journeyed across the Atlantic, working for a summer in upstate New York.
It was here, amongst the incredible beauty of those endless landscape, that his teenage infatuation with rock and metal feel away, leading to something more pensive, nuanced, and acoustic.
Returning to the UK, these experiences sparked Novo Amor, with the Cardiff songwriter at first operating alongside Ed Tullett before striking out as a solo endeavour.
Gorgeous new album 'Birthplace' comes just as Autumn draws in, with the leaves curling, and the air beginning to crisp.
Clash caught up with Ali Lacey a few days before the album was released, and found a songwriter in full confidence...
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The album is about to come out do you feel nervous?
Not really! I’m going with the flow, really. I’m on tour for the next 48 days so that’s where my focus is. It’s come round super quick! I’ve got no time to be nervous, to be honest.
When did you finish the record?
I probably finished it in April. We put out the first song – ‘State Lines’ – before I’d even finished the record. A year ago I moved into a new house, this detached coach house, and I renovated it into my own studio. I took out one of the bedrooms, the living room, and I spent 12 months filling it with instruments, and recording religiously. After 12 months I had what I wanted and was ready.
What was that process like? Did you set out with an idea in mind of the record you wanted to make?
It was very, very freeform. It was a case of too much freedom, in a way. I waited so long to make this record because I wanted to be in the right space. Physically, and mentally. I don’t live with anyone else, and I have a studio in my own home. It’s almost a case of too much freedom, because you wake up, walk in, and there are so many instruments to choose from. I sit down and make things, and if I like it then I turn it into a song.
There were some ideas that I knew I was going to use, but a lot of it was written in the last 12 months. Some of it was when I was preparing for a tour, building the new live band, and the release of ‘Heiress’ which was the last album with my collaborator Ed. Because of that a lot of the ideas we had written together ended up manifesting themselves in the record. There’s a lot of him in there as well, but it’s still a very personal record for me.
It’s a strikingly personal record, certainly.
Yeah. For example, the end of one of the tracks – ‘Seneca’ – was completely taken from a demo I made about two years ago, and then I pitched up the whole thing and maybe recorded one or two vocal parts over the top and used that. I think if something sound good, it is good. You don’t have to re-record things.
I like to capture the moment. Sometimes you can overdo that by spending too much time recording. And that’s what a lot of this record was, it was making a tonne of mistakes, trying to get the best sound… but it’s so unnecessary.
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It’s a very fresh sounding record – do you think the specific sound of the record is also part of its overall meaning?
Definitely. The sonics of this album are the best I’ve done so far. I’ve really put my mind to the processing of the instruments and the production. Getting other people in to play strings and brass, and having ideas of Ed stuck in there. I used to be really into the idea of everything being about myself, but I’ve come round to the idea that collaboration is good – it’s good to let people in and expand your ideas. Otherwise I’m sat on my own.
That’s a sign of confidence, as well.
For sure. The reason for making music has changed since I started Novo Amor six, seven years ago. I don’t want to regurgitate the same things, the same reasons for making music, or the same song ideas.
Things change, and I’ve no idea what the next record will sound like but I’m always going to care about the sonics. I’m more of a producer than I am a performer or a songwriter, I think. The sound of something can really make a huge difference. It was move people in another way, that lyrics maybe can’t – and both together is great.
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It’s just hard to be completely happy with what you do...
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There are some wonderful songwriting moments on here as well. Is that something you could comb over, being fastidious over each lyric?
Definitely! I mean, some things come super easy. There’s a song called ‘Repeat Until Death’ which is one of my favourite songs I’ve ever written. It’s so simple, and not necessarily a great song, but it’s a very personal one for me, and it was written very, very quickly… in an evening.
There are other tracks which contain parts that are two years old, and I struggled with the lyrics of them. There are still some lyrics on the album that I don’t really like necessarily… it’s not that I don’t like them, it’s just hard to be completely happy with what you do.
It’s about letting things lie, isn’t it? If it’s effective, then that’s the right answer.
I’ve never worked to a deadline with music before. I gave myself 12 months to finish the record, knowing I was doing this big tour. I knew I could do it in 12 months, and I’m happy about that – some of the stuff on the record I might not have chosen to put out had I kept on going, and I’m really happy with everything that’s on it. I’m thankful I gave myself that challenge.
How does it feel to move from such personal circumstances of creation into facing an audience on tour?
The touring is the biggest challenge for me… ever! In my whole life, I think. I love to move around and do new things, I feel like I’m pretty independent – I mean, I left home just after I turned 16, so it’s always been an easy thing for me to do. But to stand up in front of 500 people and sing songs is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
When I started this back in 2013, when I played my first gig, I didn’t think nerves were going to be a thing but I absolutely crapped myself! I remember my first gig I drank a bottle of wine before I got onstage because I was so nervous and messed it up completely, despite there only being 10 people in the crowd anyway. I’m growing with it, and I’m learning so much about controlling my voice, building a band, and having fun with it. It’s such a big part of my life, I want to take it as seriously as I take the music.
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Many songwriters start with a set idea in mind – have you learned over time to appreciate Novo Amor as something more nebulous, evolutionary?
It all spurred from a summer in upstate New York, 2011. It felt weird for me to write about anything else. I feel like I achieved what I wanted to achieve back in 2014. There didn’t feel like much of a reason for me to carry on but I wanted to keep making music. The songwriter just kept coming.
All the songs came from the same vein as that time in New York. There’s a lot of that on ‘Birthplace’ and that’s seven years later. So much has changed, but so much is derived from that space, and it always will – that place is the birthplace of Novo Amor. It’s got such a deep relevance, because it spawned where I was from.
You mentioned your work rate – are we to assume that a lot of songs didn’t make the record? Will they be used in the future?
I probably made about 14 tracks for the record, and obviously 10 of them made it. I didn’t finish all of the 14. It was very stressful… I found myself in the middle of the night, sitting on the floor screaming. Working on a song for two weeks, waking up one day and listening to it, thinking: I hate this song… I’ve ruined it! Every few weeks I’d go through this, and I’d be terrified of fucking up the record, and the idea of a deadline was scaring me so much.
I had to make a lot of the record at night because towards the end of the record they started building 53 houses at the end of my street. It’s been terribly noisy, 9 to 5 everyday. All the vocals were done at night, which I think helped as it’s a more calming period of time.
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I recorded a lot of found sounds, in terms of what was happening around me at the time...
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Does that twilight feeling come out on the record?
I think so! I recorded a lot of found sounds, in terms of what was happening around me at the time, and because I was recording at night – to avoid the sound of building work – I was capturing… I was recording on Bonfire Night, and all these fireworks started going off outside, so I recorded it – I stuck a microphone out the window! They’re in there on the breakdown on ‘Anniversary’ as it leads into the next section, and there’s sounds of my neighbours down the way having a party… which I clearly wasn’t invited to! And seagulls on the roof… things like that!
Have you always been open to those moments of chance?
I like the idea of things feeling natural, and not too clean. It’s tough because a lot of these things are accidents and you end up leaving them in because they’re good. It’s hard to fake these moments and be like, oh I want to have these weird sounds! Sometimes it’s best to just record the piano track with the window open and see what comes in.
It’s something I’ve been exploring more – caring less about how it sounds, and letting it sound better… or at least different. There’s a lot of different ways to do it. I feel like if I made this record in a top class studio it would sound completely different. I had to make it on my own, and scare myself into doing it differently.
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I’ve got music which I can say is solely mine, and I poured my heart and soul into.
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Would you ever work in one of those big studios, or does Novo Amor exist in that rather more personal space?
No, I like the idea of branching out and working with other people. I’ve got music which I can say is solely mine, and I poured my heart and soul into. Life is long, and I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t love the idea of working with a big producer in a big studio, but I’d love to try a different space, so I could record different things. Maybe go away, record some stuff, and then come home and add to it. I don’t love the idea of me behind the glass while someone else pushes ‘record’ for me… it would be weird.
Did you go through periods when making ‘Birthplace’ of purposefully shaking things up?
Definitely. ‘Anniversary’ is a song where none of the parts repeat, it’s different sections and those sections changed so much during the process. I changed my mind so much during that. On the song ‘Birthplace’ I was sat at the piano and started playing with the mics on, and rather than figure out what I did I just took it, chopped it out, and laid it out how I thought it would work best. It ended up sounding more sample-based, and actually sounded better.
It’s a big experiment, really. If it sounds good, it is good. It’s doing something, and then seeing how it turns out.
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'Birthplace' is out now.
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