In Conversation: Luke Sital-Singh

The returning songwriter is relishing his independence...

Luke Sital-Singh wanted to change everything.

The songwriter released his debut album ‘The Fire Inside’ back in 2014, but – truth be told – he didn’t enjoy the process.

Switching his major label home for an arrangement where he maintains complete independence, Luke decided to head to rural Ireland to focus on his next album.

Working with complete control and no distractions, the results are a joy – new album ‘Time Is A Riddle’ is incoming, and it’s the sound of a talented songwriter enjoying every second of their own artistry.

Produced by Villagers’ own Tommy McLaughlin, it’s a deft return, one that strips Luke Sital-Singh’s music down to the core before building anew.

Clash gets on the phone to the Bristol-based songwriter to uncover more.

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This sounds like a record you enjoyed making…
Yeah, big time. I think for a lot of reasons. It was just very relaxed. I wouldn’t say we made it leisurely, as there was a fair bit of time constraints, to some extent. It was only made over 10 days, I think, to record it all. But it was all in the same space, at the same time, with the same musicians… and everyone knew each other quite well. It was a nice, relaxed, simple record to make. I guess that was intentional as well – to not overthink too much, and just play to the songs. It was a really enjoyable time.

Are these songs that had been around for some time, or were they written in the studio?
Mostly pre-prepared. Mostly had all the songs done before. I’m a bit of a last minute panic kind of worker in general, and I think there was a lot of finishing off songs a couple of weeks before the session. But then there was a few… there was a bit of editing in the room – if a middle eight wasn’t really working then I’d kind of chop ‘em up a bit, tweak a few things. Mostly it was all done before, which kind of meant… one of the reasons why it was fairly relaxed and fairly easy to record was that we had all the blueprints there, really. They’re fairly simple songs, so we knew we didn’t want to go crazy on ‘em. Just let the song dictate what we did production-wise.

It feels like a very natural record in that respect. Was that informed by the decision to head out to Donegal?
I’d never been to Donegal before Tommy McLaughlin – who produced it with me – is one of the touring musicians in Villagers. And I’ve toured with him before, and Tommy was always talking about his studio. It’s one of those things where you just go ‘yeah, yeah, yeah’ but when it came time to decide where to do the record I was listening to the SOAK album, going ‘this sounds quite cool – who made this?’ And when I looked it up it was Tommy who had produced that one. I thought, OK this Tommy dude is probably quite legit after all!

And from there I pursued it, and looked a bit more extensively at his place. It’s just this really amazing studio that they self-built right in the hills, with big beautiful windows all round the live room. That’s one of the things I look for in a studio. I don’t really like that dark, dank, in there for 24 hours a day feel. I like a bit of openness. His studio was perfect, he was really up for it, and it suited the music. It was a really nice environment to be in, as well.

It all sounds very zen.
I guess it was zen for me in that it was rainy and kind of windy… but that speaks to me. I’ve always enjoyed that feeling of being in a warm space looking out on a storm, there’s something that I find really poetic about that feeling. And that’s all over the record. You can hear the rain on the roof on some of the songs. There’s lot of that going on. I find it quite relaxing and I think it spoke to the music, as well.

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How did you pick the musicians who came into the studio with you?
The musicians were basically people who Tommy had worked with before. The drummer and the bass player are both also members of Villagers – they’d recorded in that studio a lot. Michael Keeney who played keys is also a producer who works a lot with Tommy on different projects. Basically, it was a bit of… if Tommy’s studio had a house band these guys would be it. They’ve worked in that studio a lot, so they know the room. It all made it relaxed and fun.

I’d toured with them all. That was really how we picked them. I knew we could all play together. That was another important aspect. Most of it was recorded live in the one, big live room, with a lot of feeling, trying to record the songs all the way through. In single takes. We needed a band that had played together a lot, and they’d obviously toured the world together. It all worked really seamlessly in that way.

You’ve used words like ‘comfort’ and ‘trust’ – is that imperative to the studio experience, do you think?
I think so, yeah. I guess you could argue that maybe a little bit of fear and unknown is good as well, for that kind of energy. But I think for this album and what I needed to do – and what I needed to prove to myself, as well – as just that I could make an album that I wanted to make.

I wasn’t really trying to take any crazy risks and look back on it and go ‘oh, that was a mistake’. I wanted to make all the decisions. So in that sense, being comfortable with the musicians, trusting them, knowing they’ll do what I said… that was important on this one.

Did you feel a little scarred after your experiences with your debut?
Scarred maybe feels a bit too strong, but it was the classic experience of where some of the control gets stripped away from you and you start compromising a little bit. It was maybe a death-by-papercuts kind of thing where I didn’t really notice it as it was happening, but looking back it isn’t necessarily the album I wanted to make. Some of it was fun, some of it I enjoyed, but when I look back over the whole picture I don’t really recognise myself in that music, particularly.

But you also move on. I mean, I’m older know – I don’t know to blame in some extent, but I didn’t enjoy it that much. And obviously, this album is independent – me and my manager have set up a smaller venture together, and it feels completely different. I’m completely in control, which has been great.

This is only my second album, but every time I come to do one I think, if this is the last… I’m maybe a realist, to the extent of being pretty pessimistic, but it’s difficult to maintain a career in music. So every time I get the chance to make another album, since it’s a pretty privileged thing to do I’m always thinking – this could be the last one. Not my choice, necessarily. But if this is the last one, is this the final word I want to put out there?

So when I look back at the first one I can see I needed to do a second one as I wasn’t sure if I felt proud of it enough. I feel a lot more… Ask me in two years I’ll probably be just as embarrassed about this one. But as it stands I’m way more proud of it – I got a lot closer to what I was intending, so if this was my last thing then I’d be OK with it at the moment.

The debut would have provided skills you can take in this, more independently-focussed, record.
Definitely. I’m a big believer that some of the more uncomfortable things that happen in life are also the most useful. Pain teaches you more than happiness does. I’m definitely grateful for a lot of the opportunities and the things I learned… I don’t think I would have been quite as controlling over this second album if I hadn’t had felt that I’d learned a lot from making the first one. I’m probably a bit more of a passenger on the first one, just going with it – whereas this time I was like, well I tried that and it didn’t work!

Tommy was a sensitive collaborator on everything. I think we both understood what the songs needed. I don’t remember any points where we really came to blows and disagreed with anything. It was all, like, we understood each other from Day One. I definitely learned tonnes.

In some ways I lost a lot of confidence on the first album, but I also gained a lot in other areas. So I definitely think it was an important step. This is why I wouldn’t be quick to say I regretted those decisions, because who knows where I’d be if I hadn’t done that. I could be in a worse place. You never know!

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It seems like you’re in a very positive place! No wonder the record only took 10 days to come together.
It was recorded in 10 days. We had mixing time on top of that, but yeah – 10 days in the one space. And predominantly full takes. It took a few takes to get some of them, but 90% of the record is all the band members in the same room just sitting there playing from start to finish. So that made it fun. I think you can hear that on the record, the live, raw feel of some of the tracks.

Is the rawness of the music reflected in the lyricism?
I think so. They’re all from the perspective that they should work solo. I mean, I do my own shows, and I’m a big believer that songs should be approached from the point of view of being compelling on their own. Whether that’s the piano or guitar or whatever – I feel quite purist in that way, that a song should work in that sense.

So I’m never really thinking about the surrounding music when I’m writing a song, but the emotions, the sentiment is always baked in. So when we were recording it, it’s all based around me and my performance of it, and then everyone else was playing towards that, and not taking anything away from the vocals or the sentiment of it.

And you’re going to have a series of short films running alongside the album?
Yes! I’m really into the whole makers movement, this new breed of people that make with their hands, and make nice things. The old school way. I’ve met a few people that do that kind of thing, and I’ve always been inspired by that. I guess it’s partly the process – I’m more into watching something being made than the finished result. I like knowing things are made well, and that gives stuff an extra value to me. Knowing that things are made intentionally, by hand, or by a human being, with a story to tell.

So I wanted to visit some people who I know and explore their process a bit more, hear what they do, interview them, and then perform a little song in their workshop. So that’s what we did. We did these three pieces and it explores that kind of thing, and connect it back to my craft as a songwriter.

It’s an interesting thing. It can be frustrating with songwriting – it can be a bit of a vapour, like when you write a melody it just floats away. I don’t make anything with my hands in that sense. That’s why when you have a vinyl record it becomes a physical souvenir. That’s why I did this – it’s trying to bring that side of it into my music. And I get my wife – who’s a print maker – to design the artwork, which is all carved out by hand. I like that aesthetic, and I think it lends itself quite well to my style of music.

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'Time Is A Riddle' will be released on May 12th. Catch Luke Sital-Singh at the following shows:

9 Tobermory Isle Of Mull, An Tobar
10 Inverness Eden Court Thur
11 Ullapool The Ceilidh Place Fri
12 Aberdeen The Lemon Tree Mon
15 Edinburgh Teviot Debating Hall Tue
16 Glasgow Oran Mor Wed
17 Sheffield Picture House Thu
18 Leeds Belgrave Music Hall and Canteen Fri
19 Bristol The Lantern Sun
21 Nottingham The Bodega Mon
22 Manchester The Deaf Institute Tue
23 London Union Chapel Wed
24 Brighton The Hope and Ruin Fri
26 Exeter Exeter Phoenix

For tickets to the latest Luke Sital-Singh shows click HERE.

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