Forced apart by lockdowns as they started writing their fourth album, Fatherson have embraced the new normal, working remotely to find new textures in their sound and create their smartest collection of songs yet.
Getting right in your face with guitars parked at the front of the mix, Fatherson amped things up on the driving rock of 2018’s ‘Sum Of All Your Parts’, which later saw them step up to support compatriot Lewis Capaldi in sold-out enormodomes across Europe. That album took their songwriting to its rawest extreme, the Scottish trio stripping things back to essentials and tracking their parts live, so something was bound to give when they came to make a follow-up. “We released a reimagined EP [in 2019] that had four tracks from ‘Sum Of All Your Parts’ on it,” bassist Marc Strain says. “Which opened our eyes to a different way of working instead of only writing music in a noisy room together.”
As circumstances would have it, for the first time in over ten years, Marc, guitarist Ross Leighton and drummer Greg Walkinshaw would be unable to get together in a room to jam for months and were forced to take their writing sessions for new album ‘Normal Fears’ online. At home in Kilmarnock, Ross was able to connect virtually with some big-name collaborators, including Rich Turvey (Blossoms, Courteeners), Seton Daunt (Kylie, Amy MacDonald) and Amber Run’s Joe Keogh on the heart wrenching ‘Honest to God’.
“I love music,” Ross says simply of the sessions. “In all its shapes and sizes. It was amazing to step into a new realm and learn a lot. For years, collaboration and co-writing in a band was almost taboo. I think they’re missing the whole point! Working with other people makes you better at what you do, so why limit yourself?”
Diving into the first of these sessions, with Daniel Morgan-Ball (Jimmy Eat World, Feeder), Ross surfaced with ‘Normal Fears’ opening one-two; the breezy optimism of ‘End of the World’ and the moody synth-pop atmospherics of ‘Love for Air’. “That song is really about facing up to situations that can be seen as apocalyptic but realising that things move on and everything will be alright!” Greg says of the former. “Life can be really hard sometimes, but it’s important to know that however difficult it may seem, you can and will overcome its challenges.”
“At the end of the day, everyone just wants to hear great songs,” Ross explains of his work with co-writers. “I love writing songs with new people; it genuinely inspires me, hearing other people’s stories and listening to their ideas. Long may it continue!”
For a group of childhood friends that have been writing, recording and performing together non-stop for over a decade, spending time apart was a shock to the Fatherson system. The remote method of piecing arrangements together from individual fragments defines the sound of ‘Normal Fears’, loops and artificial instrumentation playing a big part in anchoring the songs and the band peppering the record with subtle production flourishes that dip out of the mix as quickly as they flit in. “There’s a couple of spots on the record where we chose [musical] phrases to mimic the lyrics,” Ross explains. “In ‘Normal People’, for example, there’s a lyric in the second verse: “but singing the blues won’t help you find it”. I just thought it would be cool to put a blues piano run in the space between the vocal melody. Which is totally out of context of the song, but I think accentuated the point that I was making.”
“On the rest of the record, we were just conscious of things overstaying their welcome,” he continues. “We were heavily influenced by Bon Iver’s ’22, a Million’ album where there are hints of different instruments and melodies that were so intriguing and make you listen over and over. Sometimes a great idea only has to happen once to be effective, and I love that we managed to make that a theme of the production on the record.”
Released as a taster with the album announcement late last year, single ‘Normal People’ went down a storm at Fatherson’s run of autumn shows, and epitomises what works so well about this record. “Don’t watch the news, don’t read the papers,” Ross advises over thrumming acoustic guitar, swiping at the exclusionary nature of top-down current affairs reporting, later lamenting on the soaring chorus: “When they talk about normal people, they never talk about you and me”.
“It was one of those songs that came together in about 30 minutes,” Ross remembers. “Rich Turvey and I had a blether for like an hour, and he’d been watching the show [of the same name], and I thought that’s a great title for a song and a great concept to write about. What is normal? And does anyone ever really feel normal? It’s written about just being bombarded with information all the time and feeling like none of it is really aimed at you, the classic tale of the outsider.”
That they’re able to pack references to the TV show, verses dealing with political disengagement and a catchy-as-hell love song chorus in under three minutes of pop-rock speaks to the precision to which Fatherson have honed their craft. At the other end of the spectrum, the sparse ‘Honest to God’ sees Leighton bare his soul behind a piano. “It’s basically about feeling so distant from yourself and how difficult I was finding the isolation of everything. To see how it connected with people who had gone through similar experiences or were currently in the middle of them really cemented to me that the song needed to be shared,” he affirms. “We tracked it the first day we went to RAK [studio], and it wasn’t touched again. Lightning in a bottle, for such an important song. I’m very pleased that it’s out there.”
The album’s jewel is the euphoric lift of ‘Dive’, expertly releasing the tension of its eerie verses in an infectious burst of optimism. “I think it’s a pretty universal fear to take a leap of faith, whether that be to falling in love or changing career, or even just doing something small you’ve been putting off for ages,” says Ross of the song’s massive chorus, which he belts out in sub-zero temperatures perched atop a lilo in the North Sea in the accompanying video. “It ties into the idea of the title ‘Normal Fears’. It’s normal to be afraid of change, but unless you go into it with open arms, then you’ll never see what great things could happen if you just dove in. It’s normal to fear those things, but that fear almost always holds you back.”
Now those fears have been resoundingly beaten, left defeated in the rear-view mirror, and the LP is finally out there, thoughts inevitably turn to getting back on tour with the new material in their arsenal. “It was the longest we had gone without playing music live together since we were about 14 years old,” Marc remarks of the seemingly endless void before their celebratory October 2021 tour. “The first show back was a very special one. I’ll be honest, it was all a bit of a blur – having been pretty out of practice and a bit overwhelmed.”
“Ultimately, at the heart of ‘Normal Fears’ is still a three-piece rock band who love making loud guitar music and hitting the drums as hard as they possibly can,” Greg reassures. “It’s a piece of work that we made during an incredibly difficult time about going through a really rough patch in life. We made some choices in the studio to find a different way of approaching these songs that made us feel super excited, but don’t worry- when you come see us live, we will absolutely smash the new songs just as hard as our older material!”
“With this record, it was all about pushing ourselves, collaborating and not settling until we were completely happy that something was the best we could make it. We weren’t sure exactly what we would end up with,” Marc admits, “but I think it worked out pretty well. Hopefully, everyone else does too.”
“It was the most fun we’ve ever had making an album, and I hope you can hear it,” says Ross. “It’s also a lesson to ourselves. We’re best friends in a band. Life is more than alright.”
Taken from the March issue of Upset. Fatherson’s album ‘Normal People’ is out 1st April.