Interview - Newton Faulkner: Hair today – and in it for the long haul

"You know those Chinese metal balls you roll in your hand? How do you get them to roll around without touching each other?"

It's an unexpected opening to an interview with the ginger dreadlocked guitar-playing singer songwriter Newton Faulkner.

And from there it gets gradually more surreal.

"I'm at my mum and dad's house, the balls were on the side counter and I've just picked them up. How do you get them to not touch each other?" he continues to ask.

I explain that, as far as I know, the balls are supposed to roll against each other, isn't that the point?

"No, they're definitely not supposed to," says Faulkner.

Really?

"Honestly, I knew this drummer once and he used to carry some around with him and they didn't touch each other. Mind you, he had massive hands."

Anyone who has seen a Newton Faulkner concert will not be all that surprised to hear his ramblings. His concerts are notable not only for Faulkner's melodic voice, but also for the surreal chat in between songs.

Our interview, which takes place a couple of hours after originally scheduled, over-runs by half an hour and only comes to an end because a car is coming to collect him a few minutes later.

This slightly haphazard, laidback attitude, ever present in his music, is one of the reasons why Faulkner, on the release of his debut album in 2007, was adopted by the surfing community of the south coast.

Apparently, he explains, this is a key demographic in winning over your market.

As surprising as it is to hear Faulkner talking about Chinese balls, it is equally surprising to hear him discussing demographics and marketing.

"Well, it's actually all very strategic," says Faulkner, before giving an answer that is stunningly honest and almost unheard of in the music scene.

Faulkner is a big fan of stand-up comedy, Bill Hicks in particular. The late comedian used to rail against musicians and other artists who compromised and put sales before artistic integrity.

Faulkner says: "I produced my first album with this independent arm of Sony. Actually, that doesn't make sense, you can't have an independent arm of another company can you? It was a boutique label. Either way, I was signed to a smaller part of Sony and I doubt anyone in Sony had ever heard of me.

"Then Dream Catch Me was a big success and the album did really well. After that happened I was called in to a meeting and was given a really interesting proposition. A bunch of executives told me the way I should go with my music. I explained that wasn't what I was about and they said if I did what they told me, then it would be a way of being very successful. I said, 'Can I have a month to think about it?'

"I decided okay, I'll do what they tell me and make the music that perhaps isn't exactly what I want to make, because if I do that for a couple of years, then I can spend the rest of my life pursuing the sort of stuff I want to do.

"The fact is that I want to still be out gigging and playing my music when I'm 60, so this compromise now, for total artistic control in the future, was worth it."

To say it's the sort of admission you rarely hear from a musician is an enormous understatement. How could a Bill Hicks fan, and clearly an intelligent individual, make this kind of compromise?

"Believe me, it took a long time to square that circle in my head, but for the sake of a couple of years now for artistic freedom for the rest of my life, it felt like the right decision."

This doesn't mean, however, that the music Faulkner has put out with his second album, Rebuilt by Humans, is something of which he is not proud.

"Oh no, I haven't completely compromised, I couldn't do that, I wouldn't be able to go out and play music that I hated. It's just that there is music I write for the album and the record company, and music that I make just for me," says Faulkner.

Faulkner's 2007 breakthrough album, Hand Built By Robots, included a cover of Massive Attack's Teardrop, which, along with Dream Catch Me, was one of the year's most loved songs.

Rebuilt by Humans, released towards the back end of last year, is a reference to the fact that Faulkner slipped in France and broke his wrist. He was flown back to England and underwent extensive surgery which saw metal plates put into the back of his hand.

It was an agonising time for the musician, whose signature style of playing his guitar involves creating percussion by slapping the body of the instrument.

"It seems to be working well, I can do all the things I used to do, so that's cool," says Newton.

If only he could master those Chinese balls.

Newton Faulkner plays Leeds O2 Academy on March 4, 0113 389 1555 and Sheffield City Hall on March 7, 0114 223 3740.

NEWTON FAULKNER

The impressively-named Sam Newton Battenberg Faulkner was born on January 11, 1985 in Reigate, Surrey.

He began playing guitar when he was 13 and attended the Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts where alongside developing his musical skills he also grew his trademark dreadlocks.

Faulkner moved on to the Academy of Contemporary Music in Guildford where he spent two years under the tutelage of Eric Roche. The adopted Irishman, who died from cancer in 2005 at the age of 37, influenced Faulkner's distinctive playing style.

His first band was a Green Day cover band, in which he played bass guitar.

Since signing to Sony BMG records he has supported James Morrison and Paolo Nutini on tour.

With an eclectic taste in music, he cites his main influences as everyone from Tom Waits and The Rolling Stones to Joni Mitchell

and Pearl Jam.