Interview with Justin Sullivan - February 2003
On the release of his debut solo album - Navigating By The Stars
What was the reason for making a solo album?
I've always been very wary of getting stuck creatively in one place. I'm very proud of the fact that all the NMA albums are so different. Music and song-writing to me are an onward journey and it's really important not to do the same thing over and over. I had been thinking about making a solo record for a number of years and already had some songs written that didn't really fit on an NMA album, so it seemed right to group them together in one collection.
Is there an overall theme?
Well, at least half the album is made up of songs about the sea. I have always loved being by, on, or in the ocean. I think it's partly the sense of infinite space (as I also love deserts and being at the top of mountains, while I don't really like the closed-in feeling of being in forests) but it's also a visual thing - the movement and never-ending play of water and light is the most beautiful and inspiring sight that I know.
So it's not a political album?
No, not really. Coincidentally, I'd just begun demoing ideas for the album in September 2001, when my friend Ed Alleyne Johnson called up and told me to find a TV, as something was happening in New York. Like everyone, it took me quite a while to recover from watching those events and taking in the aftermath. However, strangely, I didn't feel like writing an angry song. In some ways I'd already written so many songs about September 11th before it happened, that I wanted to do the opposite. In a world where so much anger, cruelty and ugliness had just boiled to the surface, my instinct was to go the other way and to make something beautiful. It seemed, at the time, the most logical response to what was happening. If there is an overall theme to the album, I hope that it is one of beauty. Of course I had a political reaction to such terrible events, I am and always have been interested in politics as everyone knows, but I didn't find that reflected in my music at this time. It's hard to explain . . .During the bombing of Afghanistan (a country I've been to and loved), I was standing with friends and colleagues in Bradford City Square handing out anti-war leaflets; but on the same day, I returned to the studio to make music which spoke to me of a different world.
Hope and optimism?
Yes, I think so. NMA albums are usually filled with a mixture of light and darkness; songs of love, pride and resistance. To me, everything I write is about hope, and the innate ability of humanity to create as well as destroy. This album is not so different. There's a lot of intense, emotional work - but also two or three tracks filled purely with beauty and light, for instance the single, 'Twilight Home'.
So what are the main musical differences between this and an NMA album?
There are almost no electric instruments on this album and where there are drums or percussion, they are at a bare minimum. But having said that, it's deeply layered, rich music; it's not by any means just me and a guitar. I wanted to create a really human, organic sound and to concentrate fully on writing lyrics which I consider poetic in the best sense - expressing emotion, beauty, spirit.
Was part of your motivation the opportunity to work with different musicians?
I wanted to be as flexible as possible so I could decide specifically what each song needed and arrange it accordingly. Firstly, I asked my friends Michael Dean and Dean White to contribute because, as they've shown on the acoustic tours this year, they are both wonderfully flexible and creative musicians. I had decided early on that I wanted to have an acoustic upright bass and the obvious man for this was the legendary Danny Thompson, who has played with so many great artists from the early 1960s onwards. It was through contacts made doing the two Van Morrison supports in the summer that I finally got in touch with him. He is a wonderful musician and a very genuine and generous man (who also shares my romantic view of the sea) and after I sent him a CD of the songs and he'd sat at home and worked out ideas, we put down his seven tracks in a day. And, of course, my old friend and harmonica genius, Mark Feltham came up and played on a couple of tracks - no solo album of mine would be complete without him. As all fans of NMA, Nine Below Zero, Rory Gallagher, Oasis and countless other artists will know, Mark is an incredible musician. Both these men have unique sounds and ways of playing which extend beyond just the command of their instruments. It's a matter of soul. If you hear a song they've played on, you know that it's them immediately. Finally, I decided that I wanted a trumpet to play the solo on 'Sun On Water' to enhance a lonely, far-away feel and my co-producer Ty Unwin knew Bryan Corbett, a excellent jazz flugel player. He listened to the song and knew instantly what to do, it was an enormous pleasure working with him.
Can you tell us something about Ty Unwin and how you came to work together?
We've all heard lots of his music without realising it, as he is a specialist TV and film music writer and producer. He does a lot of work for the BBC, Discovery Channel and others. We met a couple of years ago in the Manchester workshop of a guy who fixes keyboards and we stayed in touch. Ty is a classically trained musician and composer and, at the same time, is a master of modern music technology - which worked very well in the context of this album. As for the way in which we created the record, I did a lot of the recording myself (assisted by Michael Dean) in our Bradford studio while Ty visited and after listening to what I'd done, came up with ideas and arrangements. Then he wrote and recorded further keyboard ideas, arranged orchestral parts and finally mixed and mastered in his own studio.
Why has it taken so long?
The old question! It's partly because I'm a perfectionist on the creative side of things and also I've done a lot of touring this year with Michael and Dean. Also, Ty has been swamped with other work during the year. (In order to finish this album, he's had to turn down project after project, I am very grateful to him for this dedication to our project).
Talking of the Justin Sullivan & Friends tours, how have you enjoyed them, and does the album have that kind of sound?
I really loved those tours and hope to do lots more in the future. It was a chance to perform my songs in a completely different and flexible way and although our sound doesn't have the big production of NMA, in many ways it's even more intense. This isn't only because the venues are more intimate but also because our arrangements, which we spend a lot of time perfecting, are stripped down to make the absolute most of the songs. I have total respect for the way in which Dean and Michael were able to contribute and all in all, it's been creatively, a very satisfying year. However, 'Navigating By The Stars' has a very different sound to the acoustic trio as it's much more orchestral and oceanic.
How do you think NMA fans will react?
To be honest, although obviously I hope people appreciate and enjoy the album, when I'm writing and recording I never think about anything like that. I suppose once I'm into the creative process, I'm in a world of my own. I've always believed all artists should be true only to themselves, to their personal vision. Although this album sounds very different to an NMA album, it has the same feeling of honesty, emotionality and soul. In between the power and politics in NMA, there has always been a strong sense of mysticism and spirituality and it's that which is the central core of this album.
© New Model Army 2003