If you could co-headline a tour with any artist, who would you pick, and why?
I’d have to say Patti Smith. Musically, she might be quite different to me, but I love everything she’s about. She’s one of our great living artists, and she’s got this wildness about her – I think she’s very committed to honouring her artistic urges. Her music really connects the dots between social justice and the empowerment of people and standing up to government. She’s all about freedom, and I love that – I flatter myself to talk about myself in the same context as her, but Wake Up Now is all about freedom as well.
It certainly strikes me as a diverse album. What sort of stuff did you find yourself listening to when you were writing Wake Up Now?
Most of the inspirations were things which also influenced my first album. That would be stuff like Paul Simon, as well as Caribou and Four Tet from the electronic side, and the way they mix live music with electronics. Another contemporary influence for this record, in terms of giving me the courage to approach the themes, was ANOHNI’s album Hopelessness. But what my head was absorbed in most of the time was really the teachings of this influential American teacher called Ram Dass. He’s an amazing guy – definitely worth checking out.
I wanted to ask you about your song Myela, which is obviously quite a determined stance on the refugee crisis. I’ve recently noticed that many songs which might initially be regarded as political often aren’t seen that way by their writers. When writing Myela, did you mean to create a political statement, or was it more of a personal expression of empathy?
It’s a good question – I think this is one of those cases too. To me, it’s not political – it’s humanitarian. It’s an expression of sorrow, and I just needed an avenue to express the sadness I feel about it, as well as some of the anger and the confusion I feel about the willful inactivity of our government. It’s got to the point where it doesn’t even look like willful inactivity anymore. It looks like coercion, or as though they’re actively trying to create this situation. Obviously the wars we’ve started have played a crucial role, so there’s a lot of anger, but the song is more like an expression of feeling.
I don’t know the extent to which you’d characterise your music as folk music, or as a derivation thereof, but obviously a lot of modern folk has its roots in early work songs and protest songs. Do you think it’s incumbent on contemporary artists to speak their minds and be more vocal about the issues they care about?
There are a few elements to that question. First of all, as an artist, it’s not my job to define my music. Staying alive to the creative urges means I have to be careful of defining myself. I’ve always sat between different styles, so I’m not sure how to define my music in a sentence, and I think most artists would say the same.
Of course it’s important for music to be relevant. I hold entertainment and bringing people pleasure in the highest regard, but music has to do all of these things. In non-literate cultures, music functions like newspaper and becomes this vehicle to communicate information. I think politics is too important to be left to the politicians. I think that’s what we’re all learning from Brexit and from Trump coming into power – we have to be active in our own lives. If we create a vacuum of inertia, it gets filled by the darker sides of our nature.
I also think it’s been really interesting to explore the idea of a protest song when my songs are all about self-inquiry – all the stuff that was never really talked about when I was at school. The fundamental questions are almost embarrassing to ask, like what is it that’s looking through my eyes and feeling through my touch? To what do my senses report? Most of us walk around and don’t think like that, but ignorance of self-understanding is fundamental.
The point is that the formless awareness underneath my labels is the same formless awareness which looks through everybody’s eyes. So, fundamentally, there’s no us and them anymore – there’s only us. We’ve got one planet, so it really doesn’t matter if the reds win or the blues win. So what is the role of the protest song in an era beyond ideas of us and them? My songs are protest songs, but they also explore the notion that we only have ourselves to break down and to evolve beyond.
I wanted to get your take on the issue of ticket scalping. Former culture secretary Sajid Javid once described scalpers as ‘classic entrepreneurs’, and claimed that those who took issue with the practice were nothing more than ‘the chattering middle classes and champagne socialists’. I was curious to hear your stance on the matter, and to ask how you would feel about someone scalping tickets at one of your gigs.
I should know more about it, because a friend of mine worked undercover for a Dispatches episode (The Great Ticket Scandal) and got a job in Viagogo – one of those companies that did a lot of huge resales for tickets. He was at the Christmas party and he got this drunk guy chatting whilst he had this little camera in his button.
I… pass. I think it’s really interesting and I’d like to present a fully-formed answer – I’d like to know more about it. That politician there sounds like a scumbag; the idea of the ‘chattering middle classes and champagne socialists’ is such a dismissive tool which people in power use to discredit opposing views. ‘Oh, you’re just a champagne socialist – get back to your cushioned life.’ None of us are cushioned, even if there are different degrees of wealth.