In Conversation: Stephen Fretwell

How fatherhood and Speedy Wunderground's Dan Carey fuelled his new album...

Stephen Fretwell’s songs have a magic touch.

And as the songwriter returns to the public eye, following a thirteen year hiatus, he can feel safe in the knowledge that his magnificent, haunting new studio album ‘Busy Guy’ is complete, set for a glorious summer release.

Growing up in Scunthorpe, the musician and songwriter, who is now 39, moved to Manchester in the early nineties. Living and breathing music in and around the Northern Quarter, his choice of city showed his desire to establish himself as an artist, while engaging with the tremendously influential music culture.

Featuring songs like ‘Emily’ and ‘New York’, Fretwell’s debut album ‘Magpie’ came out in 2004, followed by ‘Man On The Roof’ in 2007. As much as performing alongside bands such as Oasis, Elbow, Keane, and playing bass with The Last Shadow Puppets, his song ‘Run’ was part of BBC1’s sitcom Gavin and Stacey, where it became an instant classic.

Considering the commitment to caring for his two sons, and not feeling his career was taking the direction he wanted, he took the decision to step away from music, and focus on family.

Encouraging, gently pushing him to release, regular conversations with close friend, producer Dan Carey, of Speedy Wunderground, helped to build confidence in the songs he was writing.

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What’s it like to return and have made a record after thirteen years?

There’s a positivity. It’s enjoyable to think that I’ve done something that people are interested in, it’s like a muscle memory permeates in the brain. It seems novel, and I can enjoy it without feeling too self-conscious. When I was young I used to ‘die’ of embarrassment, in an interview I’d just be completely monosyllabic, I didn’t wanna give the game away, I was just a geek musically. But now, I don’t want to hide any elation that people like these songs, it’s lovely.

Would you say an event prompted your comeback, or was it a gradual process?

My natural stage is someone who wants to make things, I think maybe I should write a novel, get some canvasses and do some painting or write a song. When my children were born that overtook the mentality of I should be creative, I should do something, and I focused everything on them. When they got to school age and didn’t need as much focus I started to think about what to do.

The music industry you return to is different to than the one you left, do you see that too?

I don’t really see it, I look at the whole thing very fondly and uncritically, with a sense of awe compared to when I first got into it as a young kid, when you’re careful, you don’t know left from right. I look at music, everything creative these days as just positive, the world that we live in it seems that I think there’s going to lots of amazing things that are going to come out of this period that we’ve been locked. I hope people have been forced to look at themselves and assess themselves in close quarters and create things.

Dan Carey plays a key part in your music journey, tell me about the relationship.

Dan’s someone, who has challenged me and questioned what it is that I do, what the point of writing music is. That’s the constant point of conversation I’ll have with him, of him questioning whether something is needed, whether it’s worthwhile, if it needs to be re-thought, and that’s difficult to go up against, sometimes. Honestly, he’s probably the most important person creatively that I ever came across in my life.

How did you and Dan shape the conversations around this album?

For ten years we talked about what a record would sound like, in a casual way, we’re close friends, he was supportive without being controlling. I didn’t really know how to make a record or what to do, I kept making recordings, setting the microphone up, recording songs and sending them to Dan. We would talk about it. Then one day, around mid-May, I set a microphone up in the room, and I recorded what I thought was the album from start to finish.

I sent it to Dan, and he called the next morning. He said, this is it, we need to make the record now, and I phoned Soho Studios. This record is authentically written, it’s a true record in the subject, but also the craft that went into it, Dan encouraged me to focus on the art of songwriting, he said, I’m someone who can do this. I didn’t really believe I was, I thought I was a pretend Ryan Adams, I thought I was a phoney.

‘Busy Guy’ belongs to a certain type of record that doesn’t get made anymore. Being encouraged, did your sense of freedom grow?

That is true, I wouldn’t dare to have made a record like that if it wasn’t for my manager Ian McAndrew and Dan Carey both telling me that it’s ok. I’d have thought, I’m going to business with all these people, I need to make Radio 2 A-list singles, it felt as if it would have been rude to stand up and say I’m going to make this acoustic record, but my manager and Dan protected it and steered me away from doing anything that wasn’t authentic, so I feel very privileged.

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That comes across in the song ‘Almond’, how was the writing process?

I wanted to create something that moulded in with themes across the songs, there’s a lot of birds and coastal activity. That song took me the longest. I gave up smoking when my first son was born, and I left London. It started out as a love song to London and cigarettes, because they were the two things I really missed, but I ended up back in London, and I started smoking again. It almost became a project that ran beside the other songs.

Every morning when I started digging into one of the songs, when I got stuck I’d go to ‘Almond’. I was trying to talk about the relationship I had with my wife, we were friends, we met at university, she was a philosopher, I was studying English, I moved on to something else and later dropped out. But she became a really good friend, the song is an attempt to take in different scenes of that relationship.

The album tackles the breakdown of your marriage, how did you know things had taken a bad turn?

My wife started to say she wasn’t happy about things and asked me to give her some space, and that’s when I started focusing on the record. We’re still very good friends, we have our two sons, they are nine and six. In lot of ways I fucked my marriage up because I wasn’t working, and I ended up washing pots in a JD Wetherspoons on West Street in Brighton, it wasn’t the most attractive look after being an international songwriter, which I was before I was a pot washer. That’s why I wanted to go to university, I thought, I can’t live the rest of my days being one of these musicians that sit in pubs talking about supporting Dodgy in 1996.

How much do your sons know about your music background?

My music career and my sons is a funny situation, because I never said anything about it for years. We moved to Brighton when my younger son was two years old, and everyone there’s a musician. When he was seven he said “dad, I’ve just seen you on someone’s phone playing on a stage with a guitar.” I asked him what he thought, he said “I can’t believe it’s what you do”, I said, it’s what I used to do. Then he walked into the front room, turned back and said “you never told me about Gavin and Stacey!”

Describe when you took a step back from music. What initiated it or was it gradual?

I didn’t feel that the music I was making was right, I got dropped by my label. Is there any point if you‘ve not got anything to say, if you don’t feel compelled to create something and believe in it. Because I’d never made that much money out of music, I was never a very lucrative artist, I couldn’t just flex the muscle and go on tour, I would have done that because I had responsibilities for my children. When they were born, it seemed as though music meant having to give so much to something that probably wouldn’t be lucrative, I wouldn’t be with my sons, it didn’t seem to make any sense to say ‘I’m a poet, I’m an artist, and this matters more.’

You played alongside Oasis, Keane and Elbow, and John Squire.

Yes, one of the first gigs I ever did was supporting John Squire, when he came back after The Stone Roses. If you can imagine the crowd, walking into a Stone Roses crowd with an acoustic guitar, everyone’s just throwing plastic cups, shouting about wanting The Roses. But I was always a music fan, when I wasn’t playing I was just wanting to talk to people about music, I think that’s what made people ask me to come on tour.

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Were you proud when Arctic Monkeys covered your song?

Yes, that was a big turning point in my life, because I know Alex Turner – he has the same manager. I met him and Miles Kane in New York, and I ended up playing bass with them, so I knew them from The Last Shadow Puppets. But when he covered that song, it was a big deal, it really did spur me on to take it seriously.

What do you feel you gained from playing with TLSP?

Oh man, that was unbelievable, it was like hanging out with The fucking Beatles. I remember going to Paris, and people were chasing them down the street, it was hilarious and quite overwhelming, the kind of gigs I’d normally do, there was no distance between the fans and you, when you walked off stage, you went straight into a room, if someone wanted to come in, they just did. It was fantastic to work with Alex, I think he’s one of the finest songwriters.

You were living in Manchester at one point. It’s a terrific city, what was your reason for selecting it?

I didn’t do very well in my A-Levels in college, because I have ADHD, I messed my coursework up. I was put forward to go to a top university to read English, but I didn’t go to any exams, I had an E in English language and a D in English literature. All my friends were going to Manchester University, I called Salford University and asked if they would take me based on these grades, I explained I had had a bad time, the admissions tutor let me in. I just wanted to be with my friends and get out of Scunthorpe, I thought, I’ll get to Manchester, and I’ll somehow make it as a musician.

How well did you know Guy Garvey? How did the relationship develop?

I bumped into Guy Garvey at an acoustic night, I didn’t know, who he was. I played a couple of songs there, and Garvey and Craig Potter came up and said they really liked my music, would I consider coming to Liverpool and record some songs? I just stood there looking at these two weird guys trying to make me go to Liverpool with them, and I ran out of the place. About three weeks later a mate called to ask if I’d heard of Elbow? I started playing their record every day.

I had moved to a flat on Oldham Street, across from Night & Day Café, I thought this is where it happens, this is where I’ll be able to make it. One day I saw a guy walking down the street, I went over and asked if he was in Elbow. I told him, I liked the album, and he just said “all right, cool”. I couldn’t work out why he was being off with me, he said I’d been rude the other day when they asked me to come and record songs, and then he walked off. I couldn’t believe it was him, I spent about five weeks trying to explain the situation.

But he eventually came around. How immersed were you in Manchester’s music culture?

Garvey became the biggest supporter of my music throughout Manchester, inviting me to support them at Shepherd’s Bush Empire, that was a big deal. When you come back to Manchester after doing something like that, everyone’s talking about it. I met I am Kloot, Alfie and the Twisted Nerve label. I met Badly Drawn Boy – Damon Gough – he’s one of my best friends. I got into that world and became part of it, it was amazing. The place’s focused on creativity. There’s a Mark Radcliffe quote about how people in Manchester think a table is primarily for dancing on, there’s not a truer quote about that place, it’s focused on energy of enjoying yourself in a wholesome way.

How do you see your music career evolving?

I’d like to make another record. Left to my own devices, I’m always trying to create stuff, but whether that’s any good, and anyone wants to know about it, is another thing. I hope that I can keep making things, but I’m not necessarily someone, who thinks those things should be shared, it’s a truth that I’ve learnt about myself that I’m job dodger, constantly trying to dodge, trying to get a proper job, that’s the best way to describe it.

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Stephen Fretwell will release new album 'Busy Guy' on July 16th.

Words: Susan Hansen
Photo Credit: Holly Whitaker

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