How to live the country life in London

By Neshy Denton

Share: Share:

Today we embark upon Alan Caruso’s emergence into the country-folk scene within London’s burly landscape. He has just released en EP under the name of “Songs Are Spells”, knocking us loose with his satiric dance and divine bluesy tones in his own introspective manner. Whether this music scene might questionably be dying in the Big Smoke or he considers his music to be a wild bat, Caruso’s take on his musical journey is a promising one. 

It is to my knowledge that you are a Covid-born musician. – If you fancy yourself a different description please tell me – What journeys have brought you to the creation of music?

Alan: I am 100% a Covid-born musician. I wish my origin story was a bit more romantic, but there you go. I actually tried for years to be a filmmaker, and even had a short film in Cannes a few years ago, but obviously the pandemic put paid to that for a while. But I needed to do something, so I decided to try and write some songs instead. Maybe it’s a bit pretentious of me to say I took something of a cinematic approach to songwriting? But maybe that’s true? I really wanted to tell stories in my songs, and I think I do that to a certain extent…

I should say that I’ve always loved music, and it’s always been one of the most important parts of my life, but I never really thought I could do it… I only really know a few guitar chords and I’m not the greatest singer in the world. But I wanted to put the old adage that you only really need three chords to write a song to the test… I’ve got close to fifty songs now!

Where do you consider your musical journey to be heading now?

Alan: Because I didn’t start writing music until lockdown, I didn’t really get the chance to perform live until last year. To begin with, I wasn’t even sure that I ever wanted to play live, but since last year I’ve done quite a few gigs and it is fun. I’ll definitely keep doing it. But my main thing is to record as much as possible. So far I’ve done three EPs and two singles, but I’d love to do an album… That’s the dream. I have everything written, so it’s just about finding a label, I suppose.

I really like the bluesy tones in your music alongside the folky spoken word. Your vocals seem to playfully dance on the line between satire and sincerity. Could you help us understand what your lyrical means are? 

Alan: That’s such a lovely thing to say and it makes me very happy. Someone also told me once that my lyrics are in the “unreliable narrator” mould and I loved that. That’s one of my favourite literary devices and I really wanted to apply something like that to music. I get a kick out of packaging sincerity in something more satirical and cynical… Or is it the other way round? It’s like a Trojan horse of sentiment, in a way. Pithy pathos. Life is tragicomic, I think, so it reflects that.

You have just released your new EP “Songs Are Spells”. What influential differences can you describe compared to your last release?

Alan: I don’t know if I necessarily set out to do something different from last time, to be honest… But I suppose I knew I should kick this EP off with something more downbeat as the last two EPs both had quite chipper opening songs. The second song ‘Not Innocent’ was definitely me trying to write a kind-of Pavement-y thing… Pavement are probably my favourite band of all-time. And then we got some piano on the third song ‘There Be Darkness’, which is something I always wanted to do and hadn’t done until that point.

As your music carries a very distinctive style, how would you describe the sound of this EP, do you feel it represents an evolution in your artistic expression? 

Alan: I think it’s just me carrying on doing folk-y, country stuff at this point. Hopefully my singing is getting a bit better… I should probably stop going on about not being able to sing, it seems a lot of people actually like my voice and I should be grateful for that. When I play live, people always come up and say I sound like Lou Reed or Bill Callahan or Johnny Cash. It’s always really flattering. I definitely don’t really like the sound of my own singing voice too much, but maybe no one does?

Whether or not I get to make an album, I’m definitely going to keep making EPs, and the odd single here and there. EPs are amazing and a bit of a dying art form, maybe? Putting just three songs together feels really special, somehow… It’s a great number of songs to have flowing into each other and almost telling a little story together. I used to love EPs by bands like Belle and Sebastian and Stereolab that had a life away from their albums. Like little islands between albums.

What was your favourite part about creating “Songs Are Spells”? 

Alan: I really love writing songs, so that was the best part. When you come up with the initial idea, like a title or a riff or a lyric, and then keep developing it and building on it until you’ve got a song. That’s such an interesting process. Also recording it was great. I record everything with the incredible Ed Deegan at Gizzard Studios in East London.

If you could embody this EP as a wild animal (forgive me for the random question). Which would it be? 

Alan: That’s an incredible question and one that I have given much thought to answering… This EP would be a bat. Bats are terrific. On the one hand they’re almost like mythical creatures, linked to vampires and all kinds of supernatural motifs, but on the other hand they are just mice that can fly. Maybe my music’s a bit like that?

You are currently based in London, what is the blues-rock/country scene like there? Would there be anything you’d change about it? 

Alan: Maybe I’m getting old, but I’m tempted to say that it’s not as good as it used to be. I grew up in Northern Ireland, where country music is wildly popular… A lot of bad country music, but a lot of great stuff, too. I grew up listening to Hank Williams, George Jones, Glen Campbell… But I had no idea that people were still making that kind of music, or music like it. When I moved to London, my best friend Richard introduced me to a lot of alt country stuff that blew my mind. Bands like The Handsome Family, Silver Jews, Smog. There used to be more clubs and things playing that kind of music, I think. Mind you, some of them are still going… Come Down Meet the Folks is still going. I should go to that again. I’m glad you reminded me.

I suppose what I should change about the scene is that I should go out and look for it more.

A lot of musicians in this scene take great inspiration from the classics. Do you have any pioneers you take your influences from? 

Alan: So many, and it probably wouldn’t surprise anyone who’s heard my music to learn that I love Leonard Cohen and Lou Reed the most and probably listen to them more than anyone. I’m also heavily influenced by Daniel Johnston (I’m definitely a bit outsider-y), Jonathan Richman, Judee Sill, Lee Hazlewood, Serge Gainsbourg, Ted Hawkins… Nebraska by Bruce Springsteen and Tapestry by Carole King are two albums that mean the world to me. Tapestry is perfect. Corky’s Debt to His Father by Mayo Thompson is probably my favourite album of all-time. He was in the psychedelic band Red Krayola, but he made one solo album that’s just this odd, amazing shambolic country-folk thing full of the most incredible songs. My favourite lyricists are people like Hal David and Stephen Merritt who both have an astounding turn of phrase and a keen eye for making the mundane heartbreaking and moving. The country singer-songwriter Tom T. Hall is really underrated, as far as I can tell… He has a song called ‘Tulsa Telephone Book’ about him trying to find this girl… The opening line is “have you read any good telephone books lately?” To me that’s the gold standard of lyric writing. Michael Hurley, Dave Van Ronk, Tim Hardin, Hoyt Axton, Josephine Foster… There’s loads of people I love and that inspire me. 

Have you got any plans to play live in the near future, following this EP’s release?

Alan: Yes. I’m playing at Biddle Bros. in London next month, supporting The Grasping Straws (the band of Jeffrey Lewis’ bassist). Then I’m supporting Jessica Lee Morgan in Reading in October and back to Reading in November to support the legend that is Lawrence and his band Mozart Estate. Forever Breathes the Lonely Word by Felt is another one of my favourite albums of all-time, so I’m massively chuffed to be playing with him.

You haven’t struck any collaboration releases yet. If you could choose anyone to make a track with, who would it be? 

Alan: Faye Webster. I think she’s amazing. She’s the best songwriter in the world right now. I don’t know how we would sound together, but I think it could be good! I saw her three times last year and she blew me away every time… Her lyrics, her voice. There’s something really profoundly cute and sad and Patsy Cline about her. Her songs are unbelievably good. I probably wouldn’t be able to collaborate with her… I’d hide.

We have confirmed the drawing rumours of Alan’s shows coming up this next month, in October and November. As quoted by the musician himself, consider yourself lucky to catch two enigmatic geniuses for the price of one. Details below. 

Follow Alan Caruso