Stephen Fretwell Interview
Scheduled to meet Stephen Fretwell at the Barfly venue on the eve of his Birmingham show, and the second date of his UK tour to boot, I'm directed instead to a pub on the corner of the road. Upon entering, I find Fretwell in a booth with his guitarist and tour manager, the remnants of a full English residing in a plate that can only be described as a boat and a few empty pint glasses dotting the table. Taking my seat, the immediately amiable twentysomething Manc apologises that he's hungover. Needless to say, he orders his next pint of Guinness a moment later.
The first date of your UK tour was yesterday [09.10.07]. How did it go?
The show last night went really well. It's funny because different crowds like different things, a bit like women I suppose. I change the setlist every night, if anything just to keep it exciting for myself.
Are you excited about touring the new album, and what has been the reception to the new songs?
Yeah, the new songs are going down better than the old ones which is quite nice. I always expect people to just want to hear old songs but they seem want something fresh, y'know, especially in Birmingham I find. I've played the Glee Club a few times; I supported KT Tunstall there and Athlete. From doing those gigs, I seem to have quite a big gang of people in Birmingham who always come and watch me play, so it's always nice to be here.
When you play in Manchester, does it feel like a homecoming?
Manchester's a tough gig because all your mates are there. You just get ridiculed for every move you make with your guitar.
How was it supporting KT Tunstall? Did you find yourself tailoring your set for her audience?
She was doing some pretty big gigs when I was supporting her. KT's audience are pretty musical, actually. I mean, I've done tours with Keane and the first five rows would be thirteen-year-old girls with illuminous sticks. I was stood there thinking, 'What am I doing here?' But KT Tunstall's crowd are all proper music-heads.
You spent over a year of your life promoting your debut album, Magpie. Has this affected the way you feel about the songs on that album?
I still enjoy playing them but songs are so personal that the second that you write them... those five minutes of anticipating what's going to come next as you're writing something, as soon as that's done, I think later on in life you look back and you're kind of embarrassed by what those songs represent. Some of the songs on Magpie, I just think they sound a bit shit really. Emily I can't stand, and that's probably because I've played it so many times.
Speaking of Emily, that song garnered the most radio exposure you've ever had back in 2005. This was the same time James Blunt was achieving initial chart success with You're Beautiful. Were you, or indeed are you, ever wary of being categorised by the mainstream?
I've just got over that now, to be honest. I've just managed to start feeling like I'm not in that category of people, and that I've not been misunderstood as being that kind of artist. It was really hard at the time because everybody was like, 'Oh yeah, there’' James Blunt, Daniel Powter, and this kid who isn't as good as them called Stephen Fretwell. He hasn't achieved as much as them.' And that's never where I wanted to be. You can piss and whine all you like though, about where you’re placed in the scheme of things. But I never set out to be like James Blunt.
That's a good thing. Do you find it a fine line to balance, trying to garner some mainstream attention without compromising your music?
Well, I'd like some money, y'know. [chuckles] That’d be nice. And I think that's the only way you do it, is by going into the mainstream. While I'm young, I can handle just doing it for the music. I've always set out to be like Elliott Smith but I don't think he ever made any money, and he ended up dead.
Would you consider Smith your main influence then?
Yeah, maybe. I can't really think of anyone else. I like that guy Matthew Jay. He killed himself as well. I’m not going to, though.
Are there any contemporary performers who inspire you or you perhaps feel have the same outlook on making music?
Maybe Johnny Bramwell from I Am Kloot. I like Elbow a lot, and Stephanie Dosen. Yeah, that's a tough one. I'm really hungover by the way.
[Cut to us discussing booze for a good couple of minutes. Not for your eyes, I'm afraid, dear CD Times readers]
You recorded the new album Man on the Roof in New York...
I lived there most of last year just to get away from England for a bit, really. It was great and I just ended up making the record there.
A few of the songs, such as Coney and San Francisco Blues, reference America. How did living in the country affect you?
San Francisco Blues was written in the UK, y'know, just like New York from the first album. Being in America just made me think more about Britishness, our little turns of phrase and colloquialisms.
Did you find you were writing about different emotions or simply just different experiences and people?
I never really think about it too much. It's weird talking about it, actually. I don't want to come across as someone who finds doing interviews difficult because it’s something you expect when you get into music.
Is the interview process something that you find takes focus away from the music?
When I was a kid and was stood with a tennis racket in front of the mirror, I'm not saying I didn't fantasize about doing interviews one day but it's weird when it actually happens. They're weird things, aren’t they? It's just weird talking about yourself. I'm always on guard at first. The worst question is, 'Do you want to tell me a little bit about yourself? Your new album? How would you sell yourself to me?' What the fuck are you going to say to that? 'I'm fucking great!'
You could put that on a sticker on your album.
[laughs] Yeah, I could quote myself.
When on the road, away from the gigs and promo work, do you find time to write prospective tracks for the next album?
I'm trying to write songs at the moment but it's tough to write. Once you've written them, you can look back and think they're rubbish. It's a totally surreal process.
The album features songs that are quite sparse (Darlin' Don't, The Ground Beneath Your Feet) next to songs that have a more layered production (Scar, She). Do you consider the album versions the definitive take on the songs or just one interpretation?
I can't do She live as it is on the record. On this tour, we've got bass, drums and electric guitar, as well as me obviously. I try to play around with the songs in a live setting but it depends how much I've had to drink. The last gig here was ace. Everytime I play at the Glee Club, everyone just sits and watches. The best gigs I've ever played, I honestly believe, are with friends really late at night when they've forced me into playing. I find myself thinking, 'That was really honest, I really meant it.' The flipside to that is, when I'm doing 'proper' gigs, I sometimes think, 'What am I doing here, am I just showing off standing in front of all these people or am I actually doing something for them, entertaining them?' Sometimes I wonder if you play better when you're not in a gig environment.
You've spoken highly of Man on the Roof's producer, Eli Janney of Girls Against Boys. Would you like to produce other artists?
Yeah, I'd love to. I'd like to produce something different, something that's nothing like me.
Girls Aloud, perhaps?
[laughs] No, I couldn't do that. I think production, after arrangement and all that business, is more about being a nice person. I see it as being able to get people to do things musically they wouldn't necessarily do otherwise. Watching Eli was pretty fascinating.
You've experimented with painting and writing in the past. Would creative ventures in these mediums be something you'd like to explore in the future?
I've always liked painting and design, stuff like that. I've never really been any good at it, though. I'd still want to do something like that but I just can't. It's a case of ambition versus talent. And I think singers get more chicks than painters do!
Funny Hats concerns a past lover whose song you hear on the radio. Do you know if you've been the impetus for a song and, if not, what would your reaction be to hearing such a song on the radio?
I don't know, I'd be flattered I think.
Saturday was an improv recorded in the studio that ended up on the record. Why did you decide to include it?
Yeah, Saturday was sort of an idea in the studio. The producer just liked it and that's Eli’s voice at the end of the track.
What is the meaning of William Shatner's Dog? There seems to be no out-and-out reference to Shatner in the lyrics.
The idea is that the character who is singing the song, the relationship between that character and the woman who is the recipient of the song, there's some kind of private in-joke about William Shatner having a dog that's unknown to the listener. I don't know myself what the in-joke might be but it's the idea that it's never mentioned, and it provides such a weight on the song, this thing that only the guy and the woman know about.
Are you a William Shatner fan?
Yeah, I love William Shatner. He's a legend. I don't know if he's heard the song but I'm sure someone will mention it, what with his name in the title. That would be nice.
Any chance of a duet?
That would be my dream collaboration. The highlight of my career!
The remaining dates of Fretwell's tour are as follows:
11 Oct - Digital, Brighton
13 Oct - Zodiac, Oxford
14 Oct - Thekla, Bristol
15 Oct - Cadogan Hall, London
16 Oct - Rescue Rooms, Nottingham
18 Oct - Barfly Theatre, Liverpool
19 Oct - Leadmill, Sheffield
20 Oct - Academy 2, Manchester
22 Oct - Classic Grand, Glasgow
23 Oct - Northumbria University, Newcastle
24 Oct - Irish Centre, Leeds