Embrace: ‘I don’t know that I’ve ever really been in love until now’

It might be a slightly rumpled looking Danny McNamara who greets The Yorkshire Post on Zoom to discuss the long-awaited return of his band Embrace, but he carries the air of a contented man.

Embrace. Picture: Ellen Benn
Embrace. Picture: Ellen Benn

Soon to be a father for the second time at 51, he’s been enjoying domesticity for the three years since the quintet from Calderdale and Bradford last toured to commemorate the 21st anniversary of their platinum-selling debut album The Good Will Out.

Work on the band’s eighth album How to Be a Person Like Other People began shortly after completing its predecessor Love Is a Basic Need in 2018, and intensified during the Covid lockdowns. “We couldn’t get together so everybody in the band sent me jams and ideas and demos and stuff they had, usually bits of music or chord sequences, and I tried to get lyric ideas over the top,” says the singer.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

By the time McNamara, his guitarist brother Richard, bassist Steve Firth, keyboard player Mickey Dale and drummer Mike Heaton had around 15 ideas for songs they were able to reconvene because the lockdown restrictions had eased. “They weren’t off, we all had to make sure we tested,” McNamara recalls. “Steve has got really bad asthma so we didn’t want to get together if it was going to lead to one of us getting Covid, we had to be careful about that, but we started working on ideas.

“It was a bit like the last one (when it came to recording), we had some really good songs already finished, whereas on previous albums we’ve gone in with ideas half ready and worked them out in the studio which I don’t think is as good. It’s better this way round because it keeps you really fresh and when you’re in the studio you’re really spontaneous and excited. If you do it the other way round, you can get ground down if you’re spending weeks on the same idea.”

McNamara admits the optimistic mood of the record has been influenced by his newfound family life with his partner of ten years, who is now his wife.

“We’ve written a lot of stuff (in the past) that’s about heartbreak and the death of a relationship and grief and all the sort of horror around all that, but the truth is I don’t know that I’ve ever really been in love until now,” he says.

“I just think probably the reason why those relationships didn’t work out is because it wasn’t the real thing for me, and you don’t really know you’ve got it until you’ve got it. I think you sort of accept that whatever you’ve got must be the real thing because you don’t have anything to look at to compare it to. This album is called How To Be a Person Like Other People (because) it’s sort of about rejoining the human race and my wife really showing me what everyone else has been enjoying all this time while I’ve been busy being a rock star and an artist. All the normal stuff. It’s difficult because my whole life I’ve never really had it.

“In lockdown one of the things everybody was missing was being around other people and the social aspects. I didn’t really suffer from that because I don’t really like being around people most of the time, I like being on my own writing, but the people who I want to be with are my wife and kid and maybe a few close friends but I don’t generally like being around other people. But then I saw how everybody else was really suffering from not being around other people it made me think I’m really missing something here, and that kind of made me sad.

“I wasn’t suffering as much as other people because it didn’t bother me that I wasn’t able to go out and socialise, and then I started thinking, ‘what am I missing?’ because there’s all this life going on that people feel ripped away from that I am not even mourning. It was certainly an eye-opener for me, anyway.”

The album’s title derives from the film The Joker. “(In the script), it says that Arthur watches a quiz show and he’s watching the guests and how people are, he’s watching how to be a person like other people, and I thought ‘yeah, that’s what you do when you’re a bit of an oddball and an outsider, when you don’t feel included, you observe, and you’re trying to figure out what’s different to how you do it’. My wife is a person like other people so I just asked her. She brings something every day with that stuff, drip by drip I’m gradually learning. Having a toddler, that really helps you get with the programme as well. If I start playing my guitar she’s going, ‘No daddy, shut up, put it down’.”

McNamara sounds quietly confident about the new record, feeling it rivals anything in their catalogue. “I think when you start out, there’s a certain amount of bravado about what you do because you don’t really know what you’re doing,” he says. “You have great ideas in your head but not really the ability to show anybody else. You can’t play, you can’t sing, you don’t know what a recording studio does, but after you’ve been doing it a while you know.

“Also you know the psychological tricks you play on yourself in order to tell yourself that what you’re doing is really good. It’s a coping strategy when you’re not getting the good stuff so then you also know when you’ve got it. It’s like 25 years of being a detective about whether you’ve got great stuff or not that stops you from falling for the fool’s gold and the stuff that’s good but not quite good enough. What that does is it raises the bar because with every album hopefully if you’re any good you’re introducing new stuff that raises that bar. There’s stuff that comes like All You Good Good People or Ashes, from the first album and the fourth album, that are like high watermarks, but on the last album it was All That Remains, that was another high watermark for us. On this album there are a couple that are like that.

“We won’t come back with an album until we’re there, and I think we’ve proved that when the (self-titled) album took seven years. We don’t go, ‘we need some money, we need to go on a tour and put an album out’, we work until we’ve got an album that we think is good enough and then the other stuff falls in behind that, and I think our fans know that.”

Like its two predecessors, this album was produced by Richard McNamara. “He’s just really good, it works really well,” says the singer. “We’ve learnt a lot from all the other people that we’ve worked with. Obviously Youth still really stands out as being particularly good at getting the goods out of us, all three of our number one albums were with him, but we didn’t necessarily feel 100 per cent ownership of the albums that we did with you because he almost had the final say. He was such a powerful personality. There’s still stuff on those albums I would go back and do differently, even though they were really successful.

“Whereas when we do it ourselves, there’s stuff that we do differently but it’s not stuff that you knew at the time. With the fifth album (This New Day) there was a load of stuff that I knew I wanted to change at the time and I still want to change it now. The argument was ‘when you go to number one you’ll be glad you did this’, but no, I’m not glad, being successful commercially isn’t the be-all and end-all of it.

“I’m not ruling out working with Youth again, because I love him as a person, he’s one of my favourite people on the planet, but at the moment, working with Rik is the right thing to do.”

The band set up their own Secret List scheme for patrons a couple of years ago. It’s an extension of the word-of-mouth system they used with fans through Facebook and their website. “We started doing it before social media,” McNamara says. “We were doing it when it was old school on forums, and we used to do secret gigs, hopefully we’re still going to do those, and we’ve done secret festivals (at Lotherton Hall near Leeds).

“This was an idea during lockdown where it would be an extension of what we did with the secret gigs and the secret festivals, except it would be everything that the band does. Whether that’s photo shoots, music, whatever it is, if you go on the Secret List you’ll see all the stuff before everyone else and you’ll also gets loads of extra stuff. It’s kind of a really cool use of Patreon, and a good way of keeping the band afloat at a time when the Government turns their backs our profession. The little bit that was left after the hedge fund gangsters from Spotify and Napster took that side of it was the live side, and now that’s totally gone with Brexit and the rest of it.

“The tiny bit that was left was if you form your own company and you take dividends. The money that everybody else got for being unemployed during Covid we didn’t even get that, so it was literally a way of being able to buy a loaf of bread at one point.”

While Richard has been busy with his duo Eevah, Mickey Dale has been recording new bands in the studio and Mike Heaton has his own drum company. Danny McNamara meanwhile has been writing television scripts. “I’ve got nine different TV shows in development at the moment,” he says.

How To Be a Person Like Other People is out on August 26. Embrace play Bingley Weekender on August 5 and at O2 Sheffield Academy on September 4. www.embrace.co.uk