Earlier this year a strange, evocative name started appearing on festival posters.
A Blaze Of Feather played only a few shows at first, before deciding to release a full EP.
Slowly, piece by piece, the puzzle came into focus - Ben Howard's band was evolving into something different, spearheaded by long-time guitarist Mickey Smith.
The project's self-titled album is out now, the stark, folk-hewn songwriting rendered in warm, gilded tones by subtle, highly organic arrangements.
The band will play Citadel festival this weekend, with A Blaze Of Feather headlining the Clash stage in Victoria Park.
Clash dialled up Mickey Smith as the debut album dropped, to sketch out a little more detail on this fascinating endeavour.
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So what’s it like to finally present this to the world?
I’m really excited! Pretty spun out and excited at the same time, I guess.
You’re perhaps best known for being a guitar in Ben’s band. What are the roots of this current project?
A lot of these songs came about through us all playing together. I’m always writing stuff on my own, and it’s usually lots and lots of words. I don’t sleep too good so the early hours of the morning I’m usually up writing, trying to keep myself sane. So I had a lot of material to draw from, and it just evolved naturally with the music we’d written together. It’s pretty free-flowing.
Is there a slight hint of that twilight feeling in the record, d’you think?
Definitely. It touches on quite a lot of different things, especially the kinds of things that can creep into your mind at that time of day. For sure, yeah.
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I’m usually up writing, trying to keep myself sane...
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The name itself is so evocative – where did it come from?
I guess the first time I heard that name said was when I was drawing with my daughter – she really likes drawing magical creatures. We were talking about a phoenix, and that was just a phrase she said in passing. It really struck me, so I wrote that down.
While we were writing all of these tunes we never really had a focus, we didn’t realise it was an album until quite late in the day. We were just kind of creating and then I was looking through my book of words and notes and I found that phrase and it just really struck me, thinking about that existence that we all share here on earth. It’s a nice metaphor for that, I thought: the cycle of life, death, and re-birth. It seemed to fit.
Is this album, then, a form of creative re-birth?
I guess, in a way. It’s more like exorcising demons, for me, personally. And also simply being able to play music with these people.
Have those close relationships with each musician really helped the record to come into fruition?
Yeah. We’re a really tight unit, and I feel really, really privileged to play with them every day. They inspire me constantly.
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We were meeting up there, rehearsing and playing around and creating stuff.
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I’m told the record was made on the west coast of Cornwall.
Originally Nat – one of the guitarists in the band – his mum and dad own a barn up on the west coast. We were meeting up there, rehearsing and playing around and creating stuff. That was the first space we worked in. Then we said, maybe we should try and get some of this down before it disappears into the ether. So then we rented a house and cleared out the living room, put our stuff in there and went to work.
Have you done something that immersive before?
It’s definitely pretty immersive working with Ben – he really goes in deep and then you come out the other side in the wilderness. That was definitely our approach here, as well. We left nothing behind and came out not really knowing what had happened.
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Was the material complete before you went in, or was there a lot of work done in that cottage?
Lyrically, a lot of work had already been done but musically a lot of it was done live, with little bits of tracking. It was all live performances of everyone playing together in the room. It was a really creative time. Pretty mind-blowing for me.
‘EP1’ led the way, what made it work so well as an introductory document?
I guess the EP came about more from… myself and my family were living in the west coast of Ireland at that point in time. We’ve got a little shed there, and the guys from the band were coming and visiting us and staying in the shed and those songs came about through that time. It was a heavy winter of weather with a lot of things going on. That was the first inkling we had that we were going to approach something different from what we usually do with Ben’s music.
From the west coast of Ireland to the west coast of Cornwall! Do deeply evocative places like that have a bearing on the music?
Definitely. I’m really effected by the spaces I’m in. The energy of those places… I’m drawn towards wild and raw places, that’s where I feel really comfortable.
There’s no hiding places in those landscapes.
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I’m really effected by the spaces I’m in.
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A lot of the record is very personal, is one of the benefits of working with close friends is that you can achieve that level of intimacy?
Absolutely. I never really imagined any of this writing seeing the light of day, and it wouldn’t have if I didn’t have that relationship with the guys in the band. They just carried me through it, to be honest.
As a songwriter do your songs tumble out fully-formed, or are you a tinkerer?
Different times. I mean, early hours of the morning things kind of happen… with me, anyway! My mind goes a million miles an hour at that time of day. Things happen quite quickly and I don’t really know what’s going on, to be honest. I just have to surrender to it otherwise I start going mad.
Do you find yourself in the grips of a creative rush at those points?
Totally. I call it ‘the witching hour’ because it’s literally like being taken over. If I try and resist you end up being a mad person for a few days. I’m better off trying to not do that, and hopefully end up being relatively sane for my family in the morning!
Is there a song on the record that you feel marked the evolution of the project? A point where it came into its own?
Yeah. I mean, ‘Six Years’ probably the first time we had the direct connection to exactly how we feel when we play together and that song is covering some pretty raw personal territory for me. That was the most honest reflection of what we were doing at that point. We felt like we might be creating something that we different from what we normally do. ‘In The Wind’ as a live performance just felt like we were hitting a new level of our live connection together.
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That was the most honest reflection of what we were doing at that point.
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The shows at the start would have presented audiences with entirely new and unheard songs. What’s that like as a musician?
I do see it as an absolute privilege getting to do all these things in my life. It feels like I’ve lived a thousand lifetimes! I just feel really fucking grateful for all of this stuff that we get to do. Especially with these guys. I’m really excited.
What do you have in store for us at Citadel?
We’ve been rehearsing this week, trying to figure out what we’ll be doing live and it’s just kind of evolving again. I guess it’s taken on new shapes. It’s going to be honest and raw and full of energy and hopefully people will be into it. We’re going to give it everything we’ve got, anyway. That’s the way we do it – we wear our hearts on our sleeve.
So is your focus for the rest of the year going to be this album and the tour, or will you press ahead once more?
I think we’ve got summer ahead of us and then we’ll try to make sense of it after that. It’s all happened so quickly, really. We didn’t even know we were doing this at the turn of the year, so we’re just running with it and trying to keep pace. See where we end up. Everyone’s writing stuff individually, so I’m sure we’ll be working on all kinds of other stuff.
You’ll be back in the witching hours once again.
Yeah! There’s no escaping it!
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'A Blaze Of Feather' is out now.
Citadel Festival takes place on July 16th.