How relocation fuelled his triumphant solo return...

At some point we're all going to have to admit that Steve Mason is one of the country's finest songwriters. Sure, The Beta Band retain a cult presence, but the cumulative impact of his solo catalogue is simply shattering. And as if any more evidence were needed, new album 'Meet The Humans' is a stone cold triumph, a wonderfully creative gesture in a career dominated by wonderful creations.

Not that Steve would pay heed to any of this. Resolutely un-fazed by hyperbole, his down to earth manner is matched to a sharp, dry wit. 'Meet The Humans' is a transitional record of sorts, marking his farewell to Fife, and his entrance to his new home of Brighton. “Probably 70% of the album was written before I moved here,” he explains. “It'll probably be the next album that's 'The Brighton Album'. But yeah, I was just sick of living in the woods today in the middle of Fife, on my own. So after about ten years of that I decided to re-introduce myself to polite society. So I decided on Brighton.”

“It's close to London but it's not London,” he says. “It's a nice place, it's a really nice part of the world. It's full of musicians and artists of all kinds. It's a friendly, relaxed place at the moment. You're near the sea – I grew up in St. Andrews, so I'm used to the sea, and I like a bit of that. It's just a nice place to be. It's relaxing, and it's quite easy to get things done here, there's a lot of people doing interesting stuff.”

The record was, though, largely written on his own. Solitude seems to bring out the best in Steve Mason's songwriting, but 'Meet The Humans' does mark a broadening of sorts in his career. “I write everything on my own,” he observes at one point in our conversation. “Apart from two songs on this album, where I collaborated for the first time in 20 years.”

The material itself was laid down at Salford's Blueprint studios, a huge room that Elbow have utilised to enormous effect. “Blueprint was a great place to record because the room is huge,” he states. “It's almost like an 8-900 capacity venue, a really, really big room with high ceilings and natural daylight. It's a very unusual place to record, there's not many places like that.”

“Even just the natural daylight thing brings a different complexion,” he adds. “Most of the time when you're a musician it tends to take place in the dark – whether it's a gig, or you're writing. I tend to write most at night. And then in the studio there's not much daylight in the studio at all. So it has a big difference. I wanted a bigger sound. If you want a big sound then you tend to need a big room.”

Sessions were high tempo, with Steve Mason continually pushing himself further. “It was good,” he exclaims. “Really intense, but that's kind of the way it should be – there's a lot to do.”

“When you're a solo artist there's a lot to think about. I take the demos up to quite a high standard, and on the demos I play all the parts... everything. You've got to think about every single detail of every single instrument. There's a huge amount of think about on an eleven track record – each song in its composite parts has to be exactly how you want it to be. So you have to look at each part individually and then each part as a whole and then the whole album as a thing, whether it hangs together or not. But that's the way it should be,” he reflects. “I like that. I like that you're living within it for six weeks, or whatever.”

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Anything that comes easy means that you're not trying hard enough, I think...

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The challenge, it seems, is what keeps Steve Mason coming back. “You've got to keep your energy up because you can't really have a day off – you need to be focussed, 100%. And keeping that focus up is quite draining, but in a good way, because you feel like you're doing something good. It's quite an experience making an album, it really is.”

“Anything that comes easy means that you're not trying hard enough, I think,” he argues. “It's a bit of a cliché but I think it's true. You need to push hard and make sure everything is as good as it can possibly be. And then when you feel like you're getting the results that you want, then you're validated in that mentality.”

'Meet The Humans' has certainly been worth the effort. Whereas Mason's previous solo record 'Monkeys' Mind...' was an explicitly political affair, this is a rather more personal album – one that is sometimes darker, sometimes lighter, but always fascinating. “Pretty much everything I do is a king of reaction to what I've done before, definitely,” he demurrs. “You can't really keep mining one vein, one outlook of thinking. You have to move around. That's what you should do as an artist. A lot of musicians don't like to call themselves artists, but I think they're a bunch of wimps. I like to be called an artist, and I feel like an artist. I feel like it's an artist's duty to react to their own work, in varying degrees. Sometimes I've done it in quite an extreme way, and sometimes I've done it in a more subtle way. This is more of a subtle way.”

It's certainly a record packed with subtlety – from those careful string arrangements to the rare dashings of synth, 'Meet The Humans' picks its hues carefully and uses them sparingly. The process of actually searching out these colours, though, is rather haphazard, as the songwriter admits. “I think it's really hard to break it down like that – you basically just mess around,” he chuckles. “You mess around until you find something that you like. Whether it's a guitar sound or some kind of bass sound or an electronic thing or whatever it might be – a drum pattern, or a drum sound. You're just dicking about, really. You're just dicking about until you find something that makes you go: 'wow, that's good'. And then you move on to the next thing and you do a bit more dicking around. That's really how I write. Just an awful lot of dicking around.”

As he readily admits, though, to even get to the stage of being able to dick around without worrying where your rent will come from is a position that fewer and fewer artists are able to be in. “It's really, really difficult,” he sighs. “I don't think a lot of people outside the music industry realise how difficult it is for musicians and artists these days. It's difficult for everyone, that's the thing. Nobody likes to complain about it, and I'm certainly not complaining about it, I'm very, very fortunate that I can still make a living out of what I do. But you're living hand to mouth. I mean, who really wants to be a big fat millionaire, really? It sounds fun, but I bet it isn't.”

Secluded on the south coast, embracing new surroundings and able to present a bold new album to the world, Steve Mason is – to use a Scottish phrase – on rare form. “It's taken me so long, to be honest, to get to a place where I'm mentally happy. And now I actually feel like that. So I'm able to appreciate everything that I do have, the fact that I feel generally happy on a daily basis. And that's a big thing for me. So I can't afford holidays or anything like that, but I've got a great album, I'm rehearsing with my band and I can afford to pay my rent and I feel happy! So it's alright, at the moment, for me.”

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'Meet The Humans' is out now.

Catch Steve Mason at the following shows:

24 Manchester Academy 2
25 Leeds Belgrave Music Hall
26 Edinburgh Liquid Room
28 London Electric, Brixton

Photo Credit: Brian David Stevens

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