Jack Garratt: ‘This isn’t an album of pop songs that neatly end after three and a half minutes’

Singer and multi-instrumentalist Jack Garratt’s long-awaited new album is out now. He talks candidly to Duncan Seaman.

Jack Garratt. Picture: Jake Wangner

2016 should have been a crowning year for Jack Garratt. As well as a BBC poll predicting he would be the ‘sound’ of the coming 12 months, he also won the Brit Critics Award.

Phase, the singer and multi-instrumentalist’s debut album, reached the top three in the UK and made inroads across Europe, Australia and the US. He also toured internationally.

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Yet behind the apparent success lay a nagging self-doubt that spiralled into depression as he struggled to create a follow-up. Only with a complete break and therapy was he able to rediscover his creative confidence and peace of mind.

“I don’t think anything could prepare anyone at that age for that sort of a career in any regard,” the 29-year-old reflects today, as we discuss his finally finished new album, Love, Death & Dancing.

“As much as I potentially knew what I was signing myself up for when I started my career as an artist or as a musician, I don’t think anything could prepare me mentally for the turbulence that I went through in 2015, 2016 and into 2017.

“There’s way too much of an expectation and there’s far too much pressure that’s put on artists at that age, especially artists going into the pop industry. I think we expect them to be fully fledged artists by the time they’re releasing their first album and that’s not the point.”

Phase was meant to be “an act of growth”, he says, from a musician and songwriter finding his way in the public eye. “I was dissected for that, and I think that’s unfair,” he says. “I’m able to talk about it now with some understanding and acceptance but at the time I had to run away from it. I didn’t know how to deal with it.”

Looking back, Garratt thinks there were warning signs that things were going awry, but “they’re hard to spot now because of how distant they are”.

“I also think the biggest problem with the red flags that might have been there was I was drawn to them,” he says.

“I got a dog recently and she’s an interesting metaphor because she’s a hound. When she’s facing the wind she’s blind to anything else, she just wants to get all the information that she can from the wind, but it means that she can’t hear me when I call her name, she can’t see me without me walking up to her because her other senses are distorted by what she’s focused on.

“I think for me at that time the red flags that may have been around me I was simply blinded, my senses were distorted, I had my nose in the air because the only thing I could comprehend was the wind that was blowing in my face. Nothing trains or teaches young people coming into this industry to deal with that. Unfortunately a lot of the lessons you learn, you learn because you have to, not because you chose to.”

The moment of realisation that he was “way more into depression” than he’d credited happened on a trip to New York with his American wife, Sarah. “The way that trip revealed itself to me was I was in this magical city with a woman that I loved at Christmas time. We were doing all of these amazing things and I came home to our Airbnb where we were staying in Brooklyn and I remember feeling nothing. I didn’t feel anything for the city or the evening that we’d had or for my wife even, and that was the scariest thing. I felt numb and that was a really horrible place to be because I should have been elated. All the signs were pointing to being in a state of euphoria and yet there I was, not even sad or disappointed or angry; I felt nothing. The reason why it was so overwhleming at that point was I realised I felt nothing, and that’s what I’d been feeling for about a year.”

While touring Phase Garratt had taken “a travelling rig of equipment” on which he intended to write songs, but nothing emerged. “Ultimately I wasn’t writing anything,” he says. “I was just passing the time or distracting my brain about the real issues I was going through at the time.”

It was only when coming off the road, getting married and moving first to Chicago then back to London that things began to improve. “That numbness started to subside, then I realised that writing doesn’t have to be this terrifying thing that I can’t do; it actually can be this incredibly wondrous and challenging thing that I love doing,” he says. “Where I’ve been in the last two years writing Love, Death & Dancing has been in that world. Writing songs should be emotional and I’m glad I’ve been able to realise that and encourage myself to feel those things without letting those emotions then become overwhelming and crippling.”

On his manager’s suggestion, Garratt went to see Garret ‘Jacknife’ Lee in California. He says the producer’s encouragement “unlocked the door” for him. “It was the same for a friend of mine, James Flannigan, who I also worked with,” he adds. “The thing I learnt from him was genuine love for myself. I would sit in the studio with him and do a take of something and I woudl think it was so-so and he would sit there and praise me for what I’d just done. He was able to hold up the mirror to myself and that mirror not being hyperbolic. Instead he held up the mirror of honesty and encouraged me to appreciate my talents, and Jacknife did the same thing.”

The songs on the new record are written from a place of “honesty”, he feels. “On the first album I think I hid behind a lot of things that I thought were immediately impressive. I could hide a badly written song behind an overly performed vocal take, for example. I was hiding a lot of my talent behind what I thought was immediately more sedating for an audience to lisen to. On this record I wasn’t going to let myself get away with that.

“I love Phase. I’m very aware that sometimes when I talk about it people maybe get the wrong impression that I don’t like that album. I love it but I have issues with it. I will have issues with Love, Death & Dancing one day but when I was writing there was one thing that was abundantly true and I could only expect myself to write from honesty. I didn’t want to hide behind elaborate metaphor or overly performed vocals. I wanted to expose myself as completely honest and truthful. I wasn’t sure how it was going to go down with an audience, but people have responded to it with such fervour, such an aggressive wanting for more, it’s proven to me what I was doing before, the hiding I was doing, wasn’t working as I thought it would. The exposing myself that’s what makes me an artist.”

Of the album’s main theme, he says: “I think what my album is attempting to do is to have the conversation about mental health be a natural part of our entertainment. To not overly sensationalise it, to not overly dramatise it, to instead offer it as a daily part of our maintenance. In the same way that we need food and water to survive, we also need to talk about our mental health. It can be destigmatised and in some cases normalised, and should be. I think that’s going to help a lot of people.

“This isn’t an album of pop songs that neatly end after three and a half minutes. These are songs that take their time to get through the message that they are talking about. My job isn’t to give the answers, it’s to ask questions of myself.”

Love, Death & Dancing is out now. www.jackgarratt.com