Interview Othello Woolf: Casting Away Old Demons

The man himself spills the beans about his debut album - from conception, to playing live.

You may have noticed, but this week we’re quite excited to be streaming Othello Woolf’s self-titled debut album exclusively here on DIY. No, really - we are. You can have a listen here. The full-length won’t be released until next week, so it’s a bit of a sneak preview. In preparation, not so long ago we tracked down the man himself to find out a bit more about it. You might want to make yourself a cuppa before reading much further; it’s a long ‘un!

Hello Othello Woolf. How are you today? What’ve you been up to?
I’m goooood thanks, usual thing working on music combined with procrastination. I did play live a couple of days back, which was great. Got to play out a track for the first time called Cold In Flesh & Bone off an EP that came out a few months back. Sounded real nice with five of us….I kind of wish I knew how it would sound live before I recorded it now! What else….I’ve got a remix just wrapped up for Man Like Me’s new single so looking forward to people hearing that - it’s an attempt at a modern take on early house stuff like Mr Fingers and Frankie Knuckles, I’ve been listening to lots of that recently. Cool that there’s some other new artists like Azari & III making tracks influenced by that kind of sound again. I’ve got their debut album on repeat right now, love it. And of course I’m gearing up for my own debut, but you knew that already!

So, your debut album is out in a few weeks time. The press release we have here says ‘these songs reflect the ins and outs of failed love.’ That doesn’t sound very cheery?
It doesn’t does it. The thing is, I think when people hear the album they’ll find it really uplifting. Doing the album has been a therapeutic process, like casting away old demons, so the music itself definitely reflects that relief and euphoria. On the flip side, some of the lyrics are pretty naval-gazing, but that’s just how I was feeling and I wanted to put it down in words.

It must be quite exposing, putting material like that ‘out there’…
Yes it is, and perhaps that’s partly why the songs are swamped in a sound and production that doesn’t necessarily play up to the idea of heartbreak and pain. It’s almost like armour surrounding some of the lyrics - if all of the songs were recorded with just a piano for accompaniment then it would suddenly be more obvious what I’m singing about - there’s less distractions. ‘Stand’ for instance, is about sticking up for your man so that he’s there for you when your parents die because it’s quite possible no one else will be there. But if you listen to that song, that emotion is buried deep within or just diverted by everything else that is going on in the song. Think that’s the kind of person I am, I don’t really like to talk about my feelings but I love writing songs and somehow it seems an easier way to deal with your own thoughts. It’s kind of the coward’s way out from that perspective.

How was the record conceived? Was there a point you sat down and thought, ‘right, I’m going to write an album’?
When I sat down to record ‘Orion’ (that was the first song I finished) there was no grand scheme for an album. I didn’t have the confidence to believe an album was possible, to be honest. But what I do remember is that I had a burning desire to fulfil a nagging feeling of underachievement - this idea that I had been writing songs and playing music with a bunch of different people over the years but that nothing had really felt right… and that I still hadn’t created something I could stand proud by. I knew I had it in me somewhere deep within to do something better and that now was the time.
As more songs started to fall into place, it’s only then that I began to believe this was going to be an album. But then after I had finished about half the album I hit a brick wall and totally lost confidence, not recording anything for like a month or two. What got me out of that was listening for the first time to that massive interview John Lennon gave around the time of he Plastic Ono Band album. Think it’s like 8 hours long, and he’s enraged the whole way through, firing off accusations and put-downs at the rest of The Beatles and whoever else, like saying they all used to sleep with whores and stuff. But what stood out to me was his utter self-believe on those tapes - like he literally just did not give two fucks what he said or what anyone thought of him. No glimmer of self-doubt whatsoever. That’s what picked me up again and I told myself, fuck it, you can do this. That’s what I wrote ‘I Am An Artist’ about - just trying to have self-believe like John Lennon. It’s also why I double-tracked the lead vocals with some tape-slap in the chorus, John Lennon style - a tribute in awe of the man himself.

Did you record the album in the same way as your previous material?
Yes, I did. I don’t want to generalise, but generally you only tend to need a big studio if you’re doing live drums or want to record musicians playing together. I use drum machines and overdub each part of the arrangement at a time so it made sense for me to be in the comfort of my own place doing that, not on anybody else’s clock.

How much of the process did you take on yourself? Did you get many people in to help?
Everything on the record is just me - writing, playing the parts, arrangement, production. Right at the end though I asked a guy in New York, Chris Moore, to mix the album as it definitely needed a set of fresh ears and I loved his mixes on the last couple of TV On The Radio albums and that Scarlet Johanson album of Tom Waits covers. We mixed it on NY time but I was in London and he was in the studio in Brooklyn, so considering it was a song-a-day, I lived on US time for 10 days whilst in London. That was a strange experience! We did it over iChat, so every few hours he would send me revisions and I would have a few comments each time until eventually each song has a final mix.
Then the final stage was getting it mastered, just that final polish, which took a day and i chose Mike Marsh at the Exchange in Camden because he’s basically the don. He’s been working out of the same room since like 1985 and mastered all of Depeche Modes albums, Massive Attack’s first couple of albums, lots of Bjork stuff, newer records like Empire Of The Sun and Hercules And Love Affair. Oh and some random ones like Be Here Now, but still, that record has great sonics. So yep, enough said! And he does it all in his socks.

How much does the musician playing the music affect the feel of it, do you think? When you play live with a band, for example.
As I was saying about that song we played for the first time live, it can totally transform the dynamics of how a song comes across. Even more so for me, because we’re using live drums, so the difference between that and a drum machine on the records is vast. I like both. It’s one of the best parts of working on music, seeing how a recording translates live or vice-versa. Always surprising, and the guys (and gal - Charlotte on keys) add in their own style of playing and other ideas so sometimes the songs veer off into new territory.

We hear you’ve been working on a few interesting collaborations recently too, with the likes of Bullion and photographer Fabien Montique?
Fabien is a photographer from New York who mainly does fashion but he’s also very close with Kanye West and has shot him for the cover of iD and many other things, along with shooting other musicians in the NY area like John Legend, Mos Def. But he’s also really interested in British music and he was in London recently so we did a shoot in some old working mans pub on Essex Road. From the glitz of NY to Essex Road…nice. Out of that shoot came both the cover-art for the debut album and also the cover art for the previous Cold In Flesh EP. He’s the best photographer I’ve ever been lucky enough to shoot with so far, no doubt.
With Bullion, at one point we were working on a version of my album for Young Turks but it never really all came together for one reason or another. It was a great experience though, I feel like we learnt a lot from each other, and since then we’ve recorded a brand new track called ‘Gold Star’ that will hopefully see the light of day soon once we get round to doing another song for the flip-side so it can be a 7’ single.

Finally: what’s the one thing everyone should know about Othello Woolf?
I feel like I’ve said way too much already, so to anyone that gets this far down the page, they should know that I’m very thankful to them.

Othello Woolf’s self-titled debut album will be released on 5th September.

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