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Tracking Live to Prove Brits Can Make Country as Good as the Yanks
Although England’s a nation that’s proven time and time again its love for folk and all things alt-country, it seemed that genuine country music had safely eluded the grasp of our compatriots across the pond. This no longer seems to be the case, and that’s partially thanks to one man, Michael Weston King.
King, who was the frontman of seminal British band The Good Sons, teamed up with his wife Lou Dalgleish, and took a step back in America’s history to record their debut album as My Darling Clementine. As much as anyone can recreate the past, these two have done it with their album of duets, for another country nonetheless. Their debut album, How Do You Plead?, might not bring classic country back to the mainstream, but it’s pretty clear that being as popular as NASCAR isn’t exactly at the top of this couple’s list.
How did you end up playing country music? What path led you here?
MWK: Very simply, Almost Blue by Elvis Costello. Lou and I were, and still are, huge fans of his and that album, courtesy of his immaculate taste in song choice and songwriters, [and it] opened up a new world of music for me. From there it was Harlan Howard, Merle Haggard, George Jones, and Gram all the way. It took Lou a little longer as she was still entrenched in more jazz and pop, but living with me she had no choice but to listen to country.
LD: Although my family background was steeped in a love of jazz, The Beatles and pop music, I fell in love with Patsy Cline’s voice at an early age. It was like a guilty secret, listening to music that was considered very uncool and rather cheesy, but there was something so pure and beautiful about the way she sang. I had no idea then that I would go on to write and sing country music myself. I was busy writing and performing within the “serious female singer/songwriter” genre. Then, when I heard Almost Blue, I realized that there was a whole other world of country music out there that didn’t have to be twee and embarrassing. As it turns out, writing and performing as My Darling Clementine is proving to be my most artistically inspiring genre. And a lot of fun.
Michael is known for his solo work and his time with the Good Sons; what other projects/musicians have you worked with in the past, Lou?
LD: Before I turned my attention to a career in music I was a professional dancer for several years. Most notably in Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom alongside Harrison Ford. Our daughter is just at the age to understand these things and loves nothing more than to watch mommy dancing in the movie. Although I loved being in musical theatre, I was becoming more inspired to create my own work. I wanted to be at the piano, using my voice and telling my own stories. I recorded four albums and toured extensively. I opened for a lot of big names including Brian Ferry and headlined at Ronnie Scott’s club regularly. My passion for Elvis Costello’s work took a nice twist when I was invited to perform with the Brodsky Quartet (his co-writers on The Juliet Letters) playing Costello’s role. It was a challenge to sing all the songs in his key, but of course it was a real honour [editor’s note – we’re gonna use the British spelling here].
How does My Darling Clementine differ from the Good Sons?
MWK: Well, it embraces an older, more traditional style of country music. Intentionally so. The Good Sons was much more rock, alt-country – call it what you will. We formed around the same time as The Jayhawks and Uncle Tupelo, and so we were mining a similar vein as them, taking our love of country and folk but melding it with rock, punk, etc. With MDC, we are going for a more specific way of writing, singing, arranging – rooted in older country with an element of soul, rock and roll, and rockabilly thrown in.
It has been a long time since I was in a band, and MDC, as a live act, is a 7-piece band, so I am just starting getting to grips with handling lots of personalities and needs again, just like in the old days. It is a whole lot easier being a solo troubadour, only got to please myself. But the joy and excitement of seven people playing together outweighs all the trouble and strife to get on stage. Right now, I am loving being back in a band.
Is the Dwight Yoakam feel intentional? Who are your major influences?
MWK: Not really…George and Tammy, Dolly and Porter, Loretta and Conway, Johnny and June were all in mind when making this album. Also, with my love of country-soul, Delaney and Bonnie, Dan Penn, Spooner, Oldham also influenced what we did, especially on the track “She Is Still My Weakness.”
LD: The Beatles were always the soundtrack to my childhood, along with Frank Sinatra, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. I hear a lot of their influences in my piano playing, the chords I lean towards and the finger work. Vocally, there is no one more technically greater than Frank, and he is my benchmark in terms of voice control and breathing. The Beatles taught me all my harmony work, as well as the importance of melody. Then Elvis Costello came along and simply blew me away by the intelligence in his writing. He is probably the most major influence on my own writing.
How has your relationship impacted you as musicians?
MWK: Being married, and being together for 12 years, there is definitely a sixth sense when it comes to singing together. It just happens without too much work, a natural thing I guess. However, we still find plenty of time to bicker about other things! Especially in the writing process …or about who is making dinner.
LD: There is always an interesting mix of harmony and down right disharmony in our kitchen (where we tend to do most of our collaborating). It makes for quite an interesting domestic situation as we thrash out who will win the battle of the chord or melody line.
Where did the idea for the duet project come from?
LD: Being two individual singer/songwriters in our own right meant that we hardly ever saw each other. When our daughter came along it meant that only one of us could really be doing the touring, so that tended to be Michael. As his writing started to ease away from alt-country into folk solo singer/songwriter, mine started to veer away from jazz-pop towards a more country folk feel. Our genres had begun to merge and it struck us that it might make good sense to work together instead of separately. We both immediately knew we had found our perfect musical partnership; it had been at home under our noses all the time! Next thing we knew, we were both dressed in polyester and taking domestic bliss and marital baggage on the road – for better or for worse. And our daughter came too.
What does your songwriting process look like?
MWK: With this album, I had most of the songs written already, either specifically for it, or from way back, songs that were too country for previous albums and bands. Lou wrote two great songs specially for the album; “The Other Half” is pure Patsy Cline, and we co-wrote one song, “I Bought Some Roses,” our take on a Jackson kind of track, a conversational piece, the man and woman despairing with each other. For the next album I think there will be more co-writes; now we know exactly what we are doing with this.
LD: Hey, don’t let him tell you he wrote most of the songs. Typical husband forgets about the wife looking over his shoulder and silently working him!
MWK: I think what has struck a chord with people on How Do You Plead? is the fact these are songs written by “older” people, for “older” people…people in their 40s and 50s who have been through life, and all its ups and downs.
LD: I am a great believer in avoiding using clever vocabulary when simple words will do. It’s often the placement of the lyric which can [determine] whether it works. And of course it is hugely important how those words sit within the melodic structure.
What did the recording process of the album look like?
MWK: Very live, all in one room together, very few overdubs – just some vocals and strings, the odd guitar or pedal steel overdub, but it was very spontaneous.
We wanted to capture a feeling, and emulate how records were made in the late ’60s and early ’70s, get in there and do it.
Also, the players involved come from that generation of not hanging around, a lot of them from the great English pub rock era (Martin Belmont, Geraint Watkins), so they knew what they were doing. They have as good a feel and understanding for country music as anyone I have met from here…. or the US. Neil Brockbank produced the album and that was his modus operandi – everyone playing together looking into each other’s eyes. Cutting live as much as possible. If you have got the players to do it then that always works best.
LD: Yes, but that meant Michael and I looking into each other eyes, too, which as you can imagine led to all kinds of trouble. Some of the time we even had our daughter there. She is used to being in the studio, as well as on the road, but somehow it added to the country vibe having our dear little Mabel, aged six, singing along slightly off mic.
Michael, what is your favorite guitar? Why?
MWK: I play a big old sunburst jumbo Guild JF65 acoustic – been with me for the past 13 years, traveled all over the world, over 2000 shows, and is starting to look as old as me. Never been able to afford a lot of guitars, most musicians can’t, it is dentists and doctors with all the vintage guitars hanging on their walls. I used to own both a Telecaster and a 12-string Rickenbacker – would like to have one each of them again. Maybe next year!
How does country music go over in Britain?
MWK: I could write a thesis on this, but won’t bore you. The British perception is still that it has to be American to be good, which is nonsense; there are as many bad country records made in America as there are good ones. But that is the battle anyone non-American who is making country or country influenced music has. I have been fortunate that I have worked with a lot of fine artists from the American roots world, so I have been endorsed in a way in the minds of the British public. But still, the mainstream country fan in the UK wont look much beyond Nashville.
There are a lot of British people who think that country music is all about line dancing, wearing Stetson hats and shouting ‘yee-haw.’ My Darling Clementine is about none of those things, and yet we are 100% country.
I think the Brits like the irony in the way we respect the real country music but deliver it without wishing we were American. And after all, Bri-nylon dresses and safari suits are available worldwide!
photos by Richard Battye