Newton Faulkner - going against the grain
NOTHING ABOUT Newton Faulker is orthodox; neither his guitar style, his route to the instrument, the path that led him to become a songwriter, nor the making of his last album. It has done no harm though - the Englishman one of the most visible acoustics guitarists of recent years.
The guitar skills and the songs which have made his name will be on display in Galway next month when Newton plays a ‘Róisín Dubh presents...’ concert at the Seapoint Ballroom, Salthill, on Saturday February 8 at 8pm.
Feels like home
Although he has been a London resident for most of his life, Newton’s hometown of Reigate, Surrey, in the English ‘Home Counties’ (“I went to a nice school in a small castle in a field, there were always countryside vibes,” he recalls) has proven a considerable formative influence.
Music played a prominent role in Faulkner family life, but surprisingly, even to Newton, the guitar was not his first instrument of choice.
“I started drumming first and then keyboard lessons,” he tells me during our Thursday morning interview. “Only later I got into the guitar, which was weird as there were always guitars lying around the house. There were only nylon strings, no steel. Dad taught me how to play ‘Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay’ and bar chords, which was really weird as bar chords are really hard!”
The guitar was still not central to Newton’s musical ambitions at this point - it was simply a means to an end. “The bass was one of the main reasons I started playing,” he says. “My friend had a band with two guitarists and a drummer so if I wanted in, I had to play bass.”
However a trip to Eric Lindsey’s music shop in Reigate’s West Street, provided Newton with a ‘Road to Damascus’ moment, setting him on a course, not just to play acoustic guitar, but to develop his own, unorthodox, style.
“I was in Eric Lindsey’s one day playing bass and picking out things on guitars, when I saw an Ovation,” says Newton. “It looked really weird, looked like it had been designed by people who built spaceships, and it had all these series of sound holes, instead of just one. I played it and something really clicked. I though ‘This is really fun.’”
His interest in rhythm, and the percussive skills acquired from bass and drums, gave Newton a wider vocabulary to bring to bear on the new instrument.
“I thought I could use bass techniques like slapping and popping, ‘cause nylon doesn’t slap, and bring them all together on acoustic guitar,” he says. “That was the beginning of using those techniques.”
Newton’s mixture of percussive slapping, string popping, fingerstyle, over the neck playing, and syncopation - often all at the same time - is a thrill for any guitar enthusiast to watch, and gives his songs an extra dimension. The Englishman though has a charming self-deprecating humour, as revealed when describing his style as being “born out of a weird laziness”.
“I was sitting around with other guitarists one day outside college, I was at the Academy of Contemporary Music College in London, and they were all playing things that were very clever but really normal, conventional, techniques,” Newton says. “So I did something weird, a pattern of slapping, popping, and hammer-ons, and all the others guys starting saying ‘Wow! That was awesome!’ To play normal really well you have to be exceptional but if you do something weird people are really impressed, so I took advantage of taking a short-cut! So my technique was really born out of a weird laziness!”
If Newton’s journey to the guitar and the development of his style were unorthodox, so was his route to songwriting.
“I didn’t start off in the conventional way, like being into Neil Young,” he laughs. “My earliest attempts at writing were putting lyrics to the music for Sonic The Hedgehog! Then, years later I got asked by a Japanese band in Tokyo to play with them on TV and their bass player was the guy who actually wrote the music for Sonic.”
Newton admits “computer games have played quite a big role in my career,” and he was recently asked to compose music for a new computer game and voice one of the characters. “I can’t say the name yet, it’s top secret, but I think I’ll do more of that in the years ahead.”
Live on stage
Newton released his debut album Hand Built By Robots in 2007, and followed this up with Rebuilt By Humans (2009), Write it On Your Skin (2012), and Studio Zoo (2013), all of which have reached the British Top 10 and won many positive critical responses. Perhaps though it is as a live performer that Newton most comes into his own, and he speaks with relish about ‘life on the road’.
“There nothing I don’t love about it,” Newton enthuses. “It’s bizarre and confusing to me when I hear people who don’t like being on the road. I’m like ‘No, no! It’s great!’ A lot of people can’t sleep on buses, but I sleep better on a bus than I do on a bed. In the studio or doing press, in my head I’m in my own reality TV show! And it’s my main source of income.”
There is also the challenge of the live show and interaction with audiences.
“There’s is something very powerful about standing on stage, on your own, in front of big crowds,” he says. “If anything goes wrong you are completely exposed and you are the only person to blame. I also don’t like it when there is a barrier and you can’t talk to the audience. I never like gigs if they get too serious and it looks like a job - don’t treat it like that! i like talking to auudiences. My favourite reactions are when shows become really intimate. You can’t create that. I can’t put my finger on how it happens but it does seem to follow me around.”
That knack for creating intimacy with a large audience was also seen during the creation of Studio Zoo which was broadcast live online from his home studio in London.
“It started out as a small idea, not conceptually, but physically,” Newton says. “It was going to be one camera in the corner of the studio. We set up the mics and did the songs. It was a way of showing that you can, it was that thing of removing the barriers. It was fun and grew to four cameras filming live for five weeks.
“No one knew what the implications would be - would everybody be sick of the songs with me having to play them over and over again? It was a big experiment and a personal risk, putting yourself out there, so I just completely focused on the work, recording and playing the songs, as that was when it felt normal to have people watching, staring at the back of my head. My brother was behind me and musicians were coming in and out.
“It was such a unique thing to have - an album watched while being made. It created an on-line community, all talking to each other afterwards and chatting about what I was doing.”
Would you ever record another album in that manner? “It was the first time it had been done. So what do you do next?” he replies. “I really enjoyed it. I would be up for it but in a slightly different form.”
Studio Zoo was also Newton’s most confessional and personal album. “It was an incredibly difficult time in my life and it came across on that record,” he says. “It was a new area for me to explore. I try to be uplifting as that’s what I feel music should be but I wanted to get things off my chest and feel a million times better.”
So after the current tour concludes, what are Newton’s plans for the future?
“I might go bigger sounding, and have guitar with a cello and a double bass,” he says. “The criticism of my previous records was that they were too shiny and produced. I want the next one to be really rough around the edges. I just like experimenting.”
Support is from Sam Brookes. Tickets are available at www.roisindubh.net, the Ticket Desk at OMG Zhivago, Shop Street, and The Róisín Dubh.