Easthampton, western Massachusetts, population 30,000, has been home to Lloyd Cole for the past 11 years. A few hours drive north of New York, a couple of hours from Boston, it is both close enough to, and far enough away from, the big cities to provide the British-born singer-songwriter with options regarding quiet or clamour.
Those familiar with his canon, which began in 1984 with the release of Lloyd Cole and the Commotions’ Rattlesnakes and has continued with last year’s laid-back, country-tinged Broken Record, might think Cole’s more recent lifestyle is fitting: certainly, his songs are often a deft balance of calm and intensity.
However, ask Cole if he’s enjoying life and the answer is somewhat pensive.
“Perhaps you’re picking the wrong day,” he says via phone from his Massachusetts home a couple of weeks before he is due to pack his bags for a New Zealand and Australian tour that includes a concert at Dunedin’s Glenroy Auditorium on Thursday, February 3.
“We are snowed in right now … I do hate the weather where we live. In the summer it is too hot and there is too much snow in the winter – I’ll be out shovelling it, just like I did yesterday.”
Cole points out he’s got better things to do. Since removing himself from the “major label rat-race” in 1997 when he asked to be released from his contract with Polygram, he has rebuilt his career to the point where, following a decade as a solo “folksinger”, he now heads a thriving cottage industry that involves reissuing older albums, maintaining a website, marketing, recording and, as ever, writing songs and performing them.
“I’ve been at least as busy, if not more, than I was in the mid-1990s when we were selling a lot more records. If there is one weakness to the independent artist model, it is that there is always too much for one human being to do, regardless of how much help you have. I’m constantly playing catch-up,” says Cole, who has lived in the US since 1988.
“I tell the guys in my band that it’s a pain in the neck when things go well, because you never have any time on the road. When things aren’t going well, you arrive in a town, have lunch, do a sound-check, have a break, play a show, then go out for a drink. When things are going well, you have to deal with things like television crews [but] you can’t really complain about it.”
Although Cole has made four solo visits to New Zealand since 2000, this will be his first Dunedin visit. And he won’t be alone: joining him on tour will be The Small Ensemble, comprising multi-instrumentalists Matt Cullen and Mark Schwaber.
With a set-list spanning nearly three decades (“We play quite a lot of songs from Rattlesnakes and at least one song from every album”) and including several tracks from Cole’s latest record, the forthcoming shows will involve a stripped-back approach comprising guitar, banjo and mandolin.
“We’ve arranged all of the songs based on what it is we do as a band. We don’t try to play rock songs; we are a folk-country ensemble.”
The process of reducing songs to their essence is something Cole has long enjoyed; removed of any studio trappings, they are a litmus test of both lyrical and melodic quality. Yet, his chameleon-like shift from frontman of critically acclaimed outfit The Commotions (note: not the Irish-soul film-band) headlining European concert halls in the 1980s to a folk singer playing small clubs a decade later was more necessity than artistic choice.
“Yeah, the first couple of years after leaving Polygram I was more of a folk singer …
Some nights, I feel like I’m talking more than I’m singing. A song that might be three and a-half minutes on record might only be one and a-half minutes once you’ve cut out all the instrumental bits.”
Along the way, Cole also found pleasure in performing live, something he had previously regarded as a means to an end.
“I didn’t ever really enjoy live performance until The Negatives, the last band I was in before I became a folk singer. They made me realise touring could be fun. Prior to that – it’s not that I didn’t have any fun – it was more that my idea of touring was something I would do in order to let people know about the record I had. I always thought about concerts as a necessary evil.
“As a younger person I was recycling the songs rather than performing them. But when you find yourself on stage on your own with just a guitar and a bunch of songs, you can’t escape from the necessary theatre of the situation. I found I enjoyed the challenge of it.”
Cole turns 50 on Monday, his half-century arriving some time, somewhere on the flight path between Los Angeles and Auckland.
“Turning 50 is just an excuse to have a party, really. But having made music for 26 years and not really having a single record that I would say I wish I hadn’t made, I feel all right about that. There are one or two I’m close to wishing I hadn’t made, but none that I would like to disown.”
Songs such as Lost Weekend, Perfect Skin, Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken?, Jennifer She Said and Like Lovers Do have helped Cole’s albums reach the UK top 20 five times, while other tracks, including the hedonistic My Bag and introspective Mr Malcontent, have secured him a reputation as a lyricist able to adopt a range of personas.
“To be honest, I’m not interested in the universal,” Cole says.
“Concepts like human nature, I think, are a waste of energy. But I think there are themes and scenarios that can certainly unite people with certain empathy.
“In order to make those songs work, they need signifiers within them that make them seem real. It might be the kind of language that the character uses. I certainly felt in the first couple of years of my career that all my characters used my own vocabulary and I thought that was a weakness and attempted to change that.
“I think the detail is, I don’t know, my trademark I guess. I try not to analyse my work too much, but detail is important to me.”
Cole adopted an increasingly popular method of financial support for his latest album, Broken Record, asking 1000 fans for an up-front payment of $US45 to allow the project to commence.
“The songs I had written didn’t fit the previous template; they seemed to be asking for a band. My feeling is if you are going to go there you have to commit to doing it the best way you can. The quandary that left me with is, I realised I didn’t have the sort of money you need to record a band.
“I like to think of instruments as different colours in a painting. I try to put the right ones together. A lot of times in recent years it has been just me playing those different instruments, but this time it was about finding the personalities that would work best together and giving them the right space to work in. I’m a believer in the Picasso concept – that all of your favourite colours go together well.
“I put together a shortlist of musicians I wanted and they were keen to do it and contacted Tapete Records in Germany. They said they wanted to do it but wouldn’t be able to fund it completely, so I went to the fans and hoped they would come up with it. If they didn’t I knew I’d be in a hole. They came through.”
Asked if that fan funding put him under any pressure, Cole barely pauses.
“To be honest, not really. Before we started, I knew the record would not be a stinker. The pressure for me was, again, another example of me not having enough time to do all the things I wanted to do. I thought that the last few lyrics would be easy for me to finish but they ended up being incredibly difficult.”
Thus while other members of his studio band were relaxing, on coffee breaks or elsewhere, Cole was furiously scribbling down ideas.
“I finally finished the last one on a bus in London on the second to last day of mixing. The pressure on me as a songwriter was unpleasant but, I have to say, it’s not the first time and it probably won’t be the last.” Take a look at Cole’s website (www.lloydcole.com) and it soon becomes apparent he is a stickler for jotting down ideas. The journal he provides on the recording sessions for Broken Record comprises dozens of pages…
“I think it is probably the way I think about things. I don’t like to wing it,” he explains.
Given he has turned his hand to journalism (for which he recently received a travel writing award) such a trait could come in handy.
“I’m trying to see if I can be a writer. I don’t think I’ll want to write songs my whole life. I think it is natural that at a certain point you’ll run out of songs.
“It appears I have some sort of voice which is not worth dismissing just yet, worth persevering with … I’m almost open to anything. I have some ideas up my sleeve, most of them involving me being in the first person, a story about me going somewhere and doing something and finding out how it might work out.
“I’m usually a fish out of water in my work. I may be comfortable here in my office, but other than being on stage, they are the only two places I’m really comfortable.” Significantly, Cole forgot to mention the golf course, another place in which he flourishes. He plays off a five handicap, albeit a “scratchy” five, he adds, modestly.
“One of these years I’m going to have enough time to get my game back together again. I’m on the fringe of being good enough to compete on a state level. Turning 55 is my goal; that’s when I’ll be eligible for senior amateur golf at state level.”
Publication: Otago Daily Times
Publication date: 29/01/11