Newton Faulkner knows all about invention.
When he emerged in 2007 he was the fleet-fingered prince of sparkling guitar pop. A graduate of Guildford Academy of Contemporary Music, the then-22-year old kid from Surrey had a million-selling, Number One hit with his debut album Hand Built By Robots. Singles Dream Catch Me and I Need Something were the festival sound of 2007 and 2008. As were his innovative covers of Massive Attack’s Teardrop and the theme from Spongebob Squarepants. This was a man who knew how to entertain, and to enthral.
Faulkner was the feelgood man of the season, the summertime troubador who brought the singalong vibes. As he says now with a laugh, despite his trademark rust-red dreads, he only seems to get recognised when it’s sunny outdoors.
“For some reason if it’s raining it can’t be me – but if the sun’s shining, then it’s definitely me! I’m completely affiliated with the sun. I get that now.”
For his second album, Faulkner had to dream it up all over again. With good reason: just as he was about to jump into the recording of the songs he’d been writing on the huge world tour in support of Hand Built By Robots, he broke his wrist while on a family skiing trip in France. (He wasn’t even skiing at the time, just walking out the door, a grimly farcical note that appealed to Faulkner’s healthy sense of humour.) A nightmare at the best of time for the work-hard, gig-hard muso. A disaster of cosmic proportions if you’re known as a virtuoso guitarist with a pop Midas touch.
Back in the UK, a crack team of crack surgeons repaired his cracked wrist. They “only” needed a metal plate and nine pins – a bit of cutting-edge sawbones tricknology that resembled, he recalls, “a washing-up brush”. Faulkner was soon on the mend and playing his beloved instrument once more. But not before he’d had to learn to ignore the feeling of his tendons sliding about inside his wrist... Hard to fathom, almost, that the resultant album, 2009’s Rebuilt By Humans (see what he did there?) was another joyous burst of sparkle-pop.
Songs like If This Is It, his celebratory anthem about the power of a performing wherever, whenever, once again propelled Faulkner around the world. He remembers the Great Icelandic Volcanic Eruption of spring ’10 keeping him stuck, en route home from another sell-out Australian tour, in a Hong Kong hotel room for a week. He idly checked out his Facebook page. To his surprise he found 35,000 fans lurking there. He’d had no idea. Having sought out the access codes from his record label, he posted his first message: “I’m so sorry! I didn’t even know you were there!” Two years on he has some 170,000 Facebook followers, and 30,000-odd Twitter pals. “I do feel a lot more connected now.”.
Two years, of course, is a looong time in the Twitterverse. In that time, Newton has, if you like, begat more, ah, offspring. He’s had an actual son, one year old Beau Henry Faulkner-Richards. “A massive name,” he beams. “But I like to think his second names are like a wrestling move – ‘oh, he’s got him a in Faulkner-Richards’. And, you might say, he’s helped usher in a new generation of singer-songwriters. Ed Sheeran, Ben Howard and Michael Kiwanuka might be stylistically diverse, but their have-guitar-will-travel approach surely flows from the trailblazing example of Faulkner.
Now, after all that invention, innovation, reinvention and creation, comes Newtown Faulkner’s third album, Write It On Your Skin. How has he reimagined things this time? This one-man band (in every sense) has opened himself up to the talents of other writers and players. Not, it should be hastily added, the latest Scandinavian pop hit-machine maestros. And not the best Los Angeles session vets. True to idiosyncratic form, Faulkner has squirreled out empathetic and unique talents to help colour out his always robustly melodic songs.
Enter, stage-right, his brother Toby. A former drum and bass MC, the older Faulkner has co-written a brace of songs on Write It On Your Skin. He’s been joined by Sam Farrar, sometime bass player in LA band Phantom Planet. Then there’s the Leeds duo who worked on Corinne Bailey Rae’s debut album. And there’s the production/writing pair Nexus, one of whom is X Factor alumni David Sneddon.
An eclectic bunch for an electric album. Infectious ear-worm Bricks, set to appear on a taster EP, wriggled into life on the first day of recording the album in LA. Yes, the hippy kid who’d previously worked in studio broom cupboards under stairs went to LA. But it’s not what you think.
“You say to me ‘let’s record in LA’, and in my head I see a big swanky hotel, a big swanky studio, really expensive producer and just all-out glossy LA style. Instead I was in a Holiday Inn Express and every day I’d walk to a guy’s garage.”
The guy was Farrar, and the garage was his studio. A hip hop fan, Farrar helped add the heavy beat to Bricks. The TeamFaulkner ‘n’ Farrar also wrote Clouds, complete with stirring mandolin intro, but this time recorded in Faulkner’s new home studio in east London.
The song Write It On Your Skin, meanwhile, was another collaborative effort, this time with a second pair of brothers who were former bandmates of Toby. Pick Up Your Broken Heart, an emotive ballad, emerged from the sessions with Nexus (also responsible for National Anthem on Lana Del Rey’s album). “I wrote it about my brother,” says Faulkner of a song that showcases his throatily soulful voice, “who was brutally dumped at the stroke of midnight at new year.”
Other songs came into life on a studio on a boat in the Thames, and – in the case of the gripping Longshot – in a house outside Leeds. And yet more were worked, then reworked, at the series of pop-up gigs (in houses, schools and village halls) Faulkner recently undertook. Ever a people’s artist, Faulkner used his fans as a grassroots sounding board. He watched their camera-phone footage of those impromptu gigs on YouTube, noted which ones went down best, and which ones sounded better off-the-cuff than they ever did in-the-studio, and tweaked them accordingly.
The result? An album bristling with spontaneity, the best kind of DIY imagination, and songs from unlikely sources but with very likely-lad appeal.
Take the track From The Bars, a rousing, carousing anthem. It’s not on the album – “I couldn’t make it fit anywhere” – but it is on that EP, which is called Sketches. It started off “as a Randy Newman-style cowboy song. Now it has a mildly Olympic feel.”
It is, no mistake, a tune and a half. But as Newton Faulkner wrote it in the bath, let’s not think too long about how he strummed that one into life…