While much of the music industry might have found itself in a state of limbo during the coronavirus lockdown, Tim Burgess has been busier than ever.
The 52-year-old singer’s Twitter listening parties, begun a few years ago as an occasional means of celebrating albums by his band The Charlatans with fans on social media, have mushroomed into nightly events featuring some of the most celebrated names in British music, including Oasis, Blur, Paul Weller, New Order, The Specials, The Chemical Brothers and Suede.
Among Yorkshire’s representatives have been Pulp, Kaiser Chiefs, Embrace, Heaven 17 and The Cribs.
Amid everything, Burgess is releasing his fifth solo album, I Love The New Sky, hailed as his most confident and vibrant to date.
The record started to develop after The Charlatans went into hiatus following two albums close together, 2015’s Modern Nature and 2017’s Different Days, he explains.
“We just felt like we’d had a lot of activity after no activity, so after the last date of the tour for Different Days we thought we’d take a bit of time off.
“A Record Store Day thing happened where I released a solo album [As I Was Now] that I’d recorded ten years earlier. I thought of it as an archive piece. None of the album was mixed and some of the songs were unfinished but I put it out and people loved it and we did three pressings of it and then I toured it in January 2019 as part of Independent Venue Week and on that tour I just felt, ‘That’s what I’m going to do next, I’m going to do a new solo album and I’m going to spend time on it’.
“I always seem to find myself doing solo record in between Charlatans albums, I had to finish them quite quick. But there were no plans [for The Charlatans] so I thought I’d spend a year writing and recording and just enjoying making an album for real. It sounds a funny story considering I’ve been doing it for so long, but there you are.”
The diverse range of influences on show, from gospel to krautrock, 10CC to the Velvet Underground are, he thinks, emblematic of the organic process in which the album came together.
“I love all kinds of music, I don’t think about what things should sound like,” he says. “People have mentioned The Cure’s Boys Don’t Cry [as the inspiration] for Empathy For The Devil but [those influences] are superficial, in a way. I thought that the chord structure was similar to Boys Don’t Cry but if I put that intro on I smiled, it was quite jokey. The song is very multi-layered, I think, and has lots of meanings. Maybe it’s a nod to Robert Smith but it’s The Cure meets Todd Rundgren, really, with a little bit of Scarlet Rivera in there – she was the fiddle player for Bob Dylan when he was making Desire.
“There’s little bits of all kinds of things but nothing in particular. I didn’t want it to sound like anybody but I wanted it to sound like everything.”
The songs were written on acoustic guitar then transposed to keyboard by Burgess’s friend Daniel O’Sullivan of The Grumbling Fur. “My whole vision for this album was my voice and piano,” Burgess says. “Then everything else was quite organic, things fell into place. When the piano was recorded, it was drums next.”
Having settled in rural Norfolk with his partner Nik Void and young son, Burgess finds he can write without distractions. “There’s nothing really that distracts me now apart from school runs and a little bit of wrestling in the garden and Lego at night, but apart from that it’s very distraction-free and quite silent, in a way. It’s just a small village. It sounds idyllic, and it kind of is, but I have to go an mailine electricity from a major city every once in a while.”
While there are hints of autobiography in songs such as Timothy and Sweet Old Sorry Me, Burgess says: “It’s kind of reflective and autobiographical without being schmaltzy, I think. It creeps in there but I like songs to move around between fact and fiction anyway, it makes for something original.”
Unlike Burgess’s previous solo records, which came out on his own label O Genesis, I Love The New Sky is will be released by Bella Union, run by former Cocteau Twins bassist Simon Raymonde, with whom he became friends after doing an event to promote his second memoir, Tim Book Two, at Raymonde’s record store in Brighton. Burgess reciprocated by asking Raymonde’s current band Lost Horizons to play at the Tim Peaks programme he curates at Kendal Calling Festival.
“They were amazing and again we kept in touch and the Sunday spot at Tim Peaks has someone else curating and I thought it would be great if Simon curated it. He agreed, that was nine months ago. Then I was making my record and it just kept occurring to me that it would be amazing if this record had other people involved. The more people to hear it the better. On the day that he and the Bella Union team came to perform I thought ‘I’ll give him the record there’ and he said, ‘what are your plans?’ I said, ‘If you like it, great. If not I’ll release it on my own label.’ He called back a few days later and said he loved it and asked where do we go from here?
“Again, it just felt like the right thing. If he’d said no it would’ve been fine. I wouldn’t have gone looking just anywhere, it had to be with somebody that I really liked.”
With so much up in the air at the moment due to the Covid-19 crisis, Burgess felt it important to stick to plans to release the album this month. “It was in motion anyway,” he says. “I handed in the record in October and plans are made. Some got pushed, like South By South West [festival in Austin, Texas], but I did manage to go to New York and there’s some excellent footage knocking around, so I’m glad I went there.
“When the lockdown started it I think the option was there to maybe not release it but it seemed even more important, in a way.”
It might also help record stores when many other releases are being postponed. “I don’t know how many are being postponed, it’s up to the artist and the label. But I’m really glad it’s coming out when it’s coming out, whatever happens is going to happen. People hearing it is an amazing thing in itself. I still get a massive buzz that people get to hear something that I’ve been working on.”
Burgess says that “without a doubt” the #timstwitterlisteningparties have helped to fill the void of not being able to perform live at the moment. “I knew how much people enjoyed the listening parties when I held them for Charlatans anniversaries or releases, or my solo records, so I knew that they would bring some joy to people,” he says. “Maybe I felt like I was being helpful, I definitely figured that I would need something to occupy my time too.
“I went about just doing one and then as soon as I planned it Alex [Kapranos] from Franz Ferdinand reminded me that he bought [the Charlatans album] Some Friendly when he was 17 and I thought, ‘well, why don’t you do one?’ And a similar thing happened with Dave Rowntree [of Blur] on that day and all of a sudden it just became a thing.”
He feels it “important” that the parties have managed to attract a wide range of artists. “No one’s left out of the club,” he says. “People have suggested other ways of doing it – ‘wouldn’t it be great if you had Facebook Live or Instagram Live or Zoom or whatever?’ I think one of the major reasons it appeals is nobody can see you while you’re doing it. You can just play the record and watch the tweets or if you’re involved in it you play the record and you write the tweets. There’s no cameras on you or fiddly tech stuff going on, it’s just so simple. The power that you feel when the record is going through a certain chorus or a middle-eight section of a particular track and a major player involved in the making of that record has just tweeted something like ‘oh my God, this section makes me cry’, it’s so emotional.
“When Bonehead said ‘this is Liam’s best vocal I’ve ever heard him do’ at a particular time it just comes in, it really takes off.”
Burgess is planning a listening party for I Love The New Sky on May 27, at 10pm. “I guess it might encourage people to get a copy, before or after,” he says. “It feel likes the right album.”
I Love The New Sky is out on Friday May 22. Tim Burgess is due to play at Brudenell Social Club on October 20. For details on the listening parties visit timstwitterlisteningparty.com