Michael Head’s role as one of the country’s great unsung talents is by now complete.
More than 20 years of exceptional music, the patronage of other, bigger selling artists – step forward Noel Gallagher – has turned the Scouse songsmith into a living, breathing cult phenomenon. What’s lesser stated, though, is that his new album ‘Adiós Señor Pussycat’, his first in 10 years, is one of his best to date, the work of an artist who isn’t particularly enamoured to sit still.
Clash spends days trying to track the songwriter down. “He’s in the studio,” sighs the PR, when Michael Head evades his grasp for the eighth time. When the call finally goes through, though, we’re greeted by a warm, vivacious voice, someone who relishes being able to talk about music, about the changing of the seasons, and the fulfilling role art plays in his life.
“It took about 12 months to make, record and mix,” he tells Clash, as we look back to the origins of the new record. “We basically started doing the backing tracks at the weekend so it’s like a live album, really, where it’s bass, drums and guitar.”
“It took about a year but the songs stretched back… there is one song that is 25 years old, so song-wise it was finished but recording-wise it took about a year, which in Michael Head land is good, really.”
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Able to draw on a raft of material, he flicked through his material, locating a few that sounded right, that felt right. “I tend to put songs to one side until I’m finished,” he explains. “I love writing and I write all the time, you know, just pissing around!” he says with a wry laugh, “but if I haven’t finished it I just put it to one side and move on. I get excited with new songs really, so I never dwell on ones that aren’t immediate. If they need a lot of thought on it I just put it to one side for a while until it works itself out.”
Some people are naturally able to run long distances, so they become athletes. Michael Head is able to pour out new ideas, so he became a songwriter. Searching for inspiration isn’t a chore, exactly, it’s just a part of his daily routine – or even his nightly routine.
“A lot of my songs are truly formulated in dreams,” he insists. “When you break it down it’s good for me, it’s good content for lyrics because you get a bit of surrealism, you get a bit of fact, fiction, and you can mix it all up.”
“Our songs are formulated in the rehearsal rooms, a lot of our songs are sketches, for lack of a better word, there is a lot of freedom and expression… which I believe is called jazz!”
Constructed with some trusted collaborators known as The Red Elastic Band – whose number include co-producer Steve Powell – the process behind ‘Adiós Señor Pussycat’ involved a lot of faith in both the songs and each other.
“There is a lot of trust that goes round in the songs,” he affirms. “A lot of the time I’ve got set ideas that I want to put to them to try out. If it works, then it works and if it doesn’t, then it doesn’t. It’s all about the song at the end of the day and I’m all ears as well to new ideas. I’m not really that precious. If someone’s got an idea and it works then it stays, really.”
Michael Head seems to relish the immediacy of recording, the impact a certain environment can have on recordings. “I think it’s whatever mindset you’re in at the time,” he says. “You know, I’ve been doing albums for 25 or however many years and you notice a difference as you get older; you’re in a different environment, climate, orbit, all that. I depends what mindset you’re in.”
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Stylistically, ‘Adiós Señor Pussycat’ is sheer Michael Head. From the title down there’s that wry wit, allied to jangling guitars that recall The Byrds and Arthur Lee, with added flourishes of Autumnal strings. Working with those initial live band recordings, he patiently placed different elements, subtly contrasting hues on top.
“I made the mistake in the past a long time ago,” he recalls, “we had set all the bass and drums on something and you get the strings on the songs and they sound fantastic but something’s wrong: it’s the drums, they’re out of time and you’ve got to start again. It was important for me personally to get the bass and drums down and to utilise the time.”
Working quickly, there’s a breakneck daring to ‘Adiós Señor Pussycat’. “We said all along, there was no kind of intent to the album. Steve Powell said: do you want to make an album? The studio’s there.”
“There was no real sitting down and thinking about it. I’ve got to say, personally, I was in the right mindset to do an album but the band’s excitement and exuberance made me think, well it’s definitely worth giving it a go.”
“In a way, it was on everybody’s terms,” he continues. “We did say early doors that we were going to work around each other, so there was a lot of understanding of last minute calls if they couldn’t make it. It was a great environment - created by myself, in a way - so it was on my terms.”
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It all feels remarkably simple. “It fell into place on this album,” he says. “We decided we weren’t going to be to precious on it but we didn’t even have to make that decision because the songs were kind of mixing themselves. It was a joy to do, really.”
It’s also a joy to listen to. A refreshing, enlivening, bold return, it’s an album that will delight his legions of fans, people who have stuck with him through the lean years. “People appreciating your songs is always fucking good, no matter who they are,” he gushes. “It’s down to appreciation of music. You put your soul on the line sometimes as well when you’re writing songs.”
“Like, somebody stopped me on the street the other day, and all he said was ‘well done for the album’ - just some scally walking past me - and I thought, ‘nice one lad, thank you’. It meant loads to me, you know what I mean? It was just short and sweet.”
Michael Head makes music that people tend to develop intensely personal attachments too. It’s funny that we’re speaking in Autumn, I remark, given that his music is so often compared to rusty leaves, to that encroaching chill and the comforts surroundings can offer.
“Just personally, I love Autumn,” he says. “I love all of the seasons obviously for different reasons. My favourite, if I had to pick one, is Autumn. I think it’s quite emotional, Autumn. For me, it’s got quite a lot of different facets to it. A lot of different strands. It’s important as well. I suppose it comes from that really.”
It strikes me that he could almost be describing his own music, and his superb new album.
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‘Adiós Señor Pussycat’ is out now.
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