“There’s no scientific process to writing, I don’t really know how it happens.” Martin Callingham is talking about the recently released Tonight, We All Swim Free and is explaining how most of the writing was done while he was in Italy on a short tour. “I guess a lot of the reason why I tend to write more when I’m away is that I get time to myself, an my time isn’t full of the day to day stuff,” he continues and I suggest, “Mundanities.” He laughs and says, “We’ll I’d hate to have to admit to my daughter in a few years time that I ever described her as a mundanity,” which is indeed a very fair point.
It’s about not having things and people competing for Martin’s attention, however, and the point is that it’s a break from the norm that tends to generate the space to free up the creative flow. The Italian trip gave him exactly that sort of time as he explains, “I had four gigs and was there for seven nights. Also after my show in Rome I had a five hour train ride to the next city, so there was lots of time to think.
I ask whether that perhaps also explains why the songs are peppered with references to his adopted home City of Bristol and he admits, “I suppose you think about home, but many of the ideas had already started to take shape before I set off. Anyway I don’t write fantastical songs and my songs are very much about my personal experience and most of that happens in Bristol so it’s only natural that certain landmarks are going to appear. It’s not like I sit down to write about something though.” He takes it further, “In fact when and if I ever do sit down and think I’m going to right something now, quite often nothing will happen.”
I press Martin though and wonder if there are themes that start to work their way into a set of songs. In my review I commented on the recurring references to the sea and water, but Martin isn’t sure telling me, “It’s not something I’m conscious of, I mean I have no nautical past and there are no sailors in the family.” Again he laughs, “I do have a few chunky knit jumpers that look a bit like the things fishermen wear, but I’m a vegan so it’s not like I’ve ever caught a fish.” We both have chuckle and when we’ve calmed down, he continues, “I wish I had a clever answer as to why these things appear, but I really don’t. Songwriting is strange like that. Sometimes it’s a real surprise.”
The other thing that I highlighted in my review was that he tends to write in impressionistic lines that suggest rather than tell and he agrees, “I don’t write dramatic songs, I’m not one for telling stories. I suppose I like to leave it up to the listener anyway to decide what the song is about.” I tell him that that’s a recurring theme in interviews, even with people who write in more straightforward narrative lines. He considers, “I suppose in a way I go into a dream state when I’m writing, I don’t really know how it works.” That seems to have hit the nail on the head for me as lyrically, the songs on We All Swim Free, seem like the fragments from a dream that you recall when you awake.
We talk about the recording of the album and Martin explains, “The album was recorded at Toybox Studios in Bristol.” It’s somewhere that he’d used before as he reveals “I’d recorded most of the Joyce The Librarian record myself in a space I hired for a while with a pretty cheap and simple set up. Drums and a few finishing touches were then added at Toybox where the album was also mixed.”
During previous sessions he built up a relationship with Toybox founder Ali Friend and Martin tells me, “Ali has a great ear and is really easy to work with. He’s honest about what he thinks works and what he thinks doesn’t.” But there were other advantages too as he explains, “ Recording at Toybox this time meant that we could concentrate on playing together as a group of musicians and I had to worry less about the technical aspects of recording individual parts with the only half decent mic I own. Using Toybox and having Ali co-produce has resulted in a much better album.”
Explaining the preparation Martin told me, “There was a fair bit of rehearsal with Anna Kissell and Anna Strudwick, the string players and guitarist Tom Van Eker, getting the core of the parts right.” Having got the basics they then called in Helen Stanley (piano & trumpet), Stevie Hawker (drums) and Andy Smith (bass) and Martin continues, “We all rehearsed two or three times before going in to the studio in May.” Not everything went to plan, however and he confesses, “I’d planned to record the whole album in three days, but this proved unrealistic so we had to wait a few weeks for the studio to become available again to get it finished. It can be tricky and a little frustrating managing everyone’s availability along with that of the studio.”
I asked Martin to tell me a little about the other musicians involved and starting with the string section he told me, “I’ve been playing with cellist Anna Strudwick for about two-and-a-half years now. She’s an extraordinary musician who plays in an incredible quartet and about three other bands. She’s a lovely human and very easy to make music with. Anna Kissell, however, answered an ad I put on Gumtree for a violin payer. She plays really well with Anna Strudwick. I had no idea that she could sing until we went in to the studio and I asked Anna to try a backing vocal. She was so good, she ended up singing on as much of the album as I could reasonably get her to. She will release her own songs at some point and they will be great.”
The most familiar collaborator is guitarist Tom Van Eker and you can hear that in the way that he and Martin mesh. Martin explains, “I’ve been playing with Tom for the longest. Maybe four years. Tom and I have a great understanding musically. I sometimes have his parts down and he plays them brilliantly. But mostly he just knows what works and comes up with the sort of subtle nuggets that just make a song.” Martin also delivers a light-hearted admonishment as he reveals, “Tom is also a great singer and writes his own songs. They’re all wonderful but written at such slow pace and at such long intervals, I’m not sure an album will be forthcoming too soon.” He concludes optimistically, “I hope so though.”
The rhythm section is made up of Stevie Hawker (drums) and Andy Smith (bass). The former is a fixture at Toybox as Martin explains, “Stevie has a workshop at Toybox. He has set up and fixed up my guitars for a while and when I saw him playing drums with the Fantasy Orchestra it made sense to ask him to play on the album. Stevie is great but is dangerous to visit, he’ll often have a beautiful and weird guitar or two on the wall of his workshop that he’ll have just finished rebuilding and will let you have it for a price that seems too reasonable, although you’re skint, you’ll end up buying one and being more skint. Andy was in the Weary Band and when Tim, who wrote the songs for the Weary Band, moved to Norway, I stole Andy because he’s very good.”
The Fantasy Orchestra connection comes up again with Helen Stanley (piano, trumpet and voice) Sas Payne (flute) and Matin tells me, “Helen is in an amazing instrumental surf band called brilliantly named The Rumble-Os as well as The Fantasy Orchestra. They’re a community orchestra who are in equal parts chaotic and ace. She also teaches piano and is involved in several other musical projects. Sas was also plucked from the Fantasy Orchestra and came in, played incredibly, even after having had a pretty fiddly part badly sung to her. I gave her a laptop case by means of payment. I haven’t seen or spoken to her since and I’m now worried about what I might have left in the laptop case.”
There’s a significant guest on the album too with Gareth Bonello singing and playing guitar on Build Us A Path. Martin reveals, “I’d met Gareth at a few gigs and festivals where we’ve ended up on the same bill playing before or after one another. We toured in Germany together in April, which was about a month before I starting the recording of Tonight, We All Swim Free. Gareth played guitar and sang with me during my set in Germany and Build Us a Path worked so well as a duet, we decided to record it together. Gareth performs as The Gentle Good. His last album – a stunning Welsh language concept album about an 8th century Chinese poet – was nominated for the Welsh Music Prize.”
Martin also notes the contribution of another friend Andy Fung, although he’s restricted to backing, “Oooohs,” in the song On Your Mark, but he credits, “Andy has two incredible bands Cymbient and No Thee No Ess. We’ve played and drunk together a few times and his ridiculously good falsetto was perfect for that song.”
Finally we talk about what Martin has lined up and he’s in the midst of organising some dates and tells me, “I’m playing the How The Light Gets In Festival in Hay On Wye twice towards the end of May and also have a London date at The Harrison near Kings Cross. I’m also looking at something in Manchester, so there may be some other dates to fit in around those.” Full details will of course be on Martin’s website in due course, but the Harrison date will offer a chance for me to see him live, something I’m very much look forward to.
Interview by: Simon Holland
Photo Credit: Dylan Kissell