Steve Mason is one of the most reliably absorbing songwriters at work in the UK right now.
Right from those initial Beta Band EPs his voice has grown and grown, with his current run of solo albums perhaps representing the most consistent, mature, and straight-forwardly enjoyable work he's ever put out.
Recently marrying and becoming a father for the first time, Steve Mason began to approach his work from a slightly different angle.
A consistent schedule - three year gaps between albums, no more and no less - dictated that something was due, but he wanted outside voices to compliment his own.
Involving his live band with each aspect of the recording process, the Scottish-born, south coast based songwriter recruited the vastly experienced figure of Stephen Street as producer.
The results are out now, with new album 'About The Light' gaining huge praise for its depth, its melodic attack, and what Steve himself terms its "soul power".
Clash meets up with Steve Mason outside London's Rough Trade East to discuss family life, the Beta Band, and of course his fantastic new LP...
- - -
- - -
The new album finds you incorporating the live band - surely they'd had some involvement before?
No, not in the slightest. I usually write everything myself, demo everything myself. It’s my decision whether it lives or dies. But I’ve had this live band for three albums, probably about six years, and I just wanted to get them involved because they sound great live.
It required an adjustment in my head. I’m not a control freak, but I do want something pure, something that comes from me. I don’t know if it’s an age thing, but you’re almost doing them a disservice by not involving other people. And also I guess just the fact that as you’re putting the songs together you’re actually playing them and there’s a big difference between hearing them and playing them and feeling them while sitting recording a demo in the studio on your own. A huge difference.
You really get a sense of if they work or they don’t work, if they’re fast or too slow. Whatever it might be.
Was there a song that changed dramatically through that process, then?
Well, the only one really was ‘About The Light’. That started off as this campfire type song, and it was a little bit obvious, really. When Stephen Street came down – it wasn’t my idea, or the band’s – he said, let’s try a one drop beat on that. I really wasn’t sure at first, but he was completely right, and it just took it to a whole different thing. It made it much more up tempo, much more lively. It didn’t sound like 45 year old man around a campfire, basically. I mean, who wants that?
But the rest of them… not really. I still have a strong sense of what I want them to sound like, and to be, and where I want them to sit. Barry is on the record, so we had him working out his bits. My keyboard player, Darren, just working out his bits. Trying things out. It’s quite basic stuff, but it’s stuff that you just can’t do when you’re on your own writing a demo.
Barry is a great stylist, he really has his own voice on guitar.
I tried not to push him in any direction but I think his default setting is what he’s done, and where he feels most comfortable is probably him. I wanted him. I didn’t want him to be anyone. The way he plays is just stunning, there’s so much emotion in it. It’s classic but it’s not dull classic. It’s fresh and exciting.
- - -
- - -
Stephen Street has incredible experience, was that something you wanted to tap into for the record?
Yeah because in 2017 me and my wife found out we were going to be parents. So that puts a rocket up your arse! We weren’t married at that point, but we decided we wanted to get married. It wasn’t a forced thing, but we thought it was be nice to get married when our daughter was born. Then my step mother died of cancer. And in between all of these things I was writing and recording the album. It was a really frantic year.
I wanted someone that would come in and be really strong. I didn’t want to co-produce, I just wanted to focus on writing the album. Usually my thing with co-producing is getting the sound from my demos, and because there weren’t really any demos this time – it was just rough recordings on a phone, with the band playing them live – my bit was kind of done. I just wanted to concentrate on the performance, and – as I say – there was an awful lot going on, good and bad.
I needed to focus quite strongly on a lot of different things. I’m not very good at it, and I’m not used to it. He was brilliant regardless of that but I needed someone with a super strong character.
Was it quite focussed in the studio itself, then?
It was spread over the course of 2017. Me and the band did four one-week sessions, working in the rehearsal room. By the time we got into the studio we were ready. All that stuff was pretty quick. We just recorded the basic backing tracks. After Christmas I went in and did my vocals, overdubs, did the backing singers, and the horns. It was roughly finished about this time last year.
Can you hear that quickness in the recording?
I think so. It’s got an urgency about it. Even the slow songs seem exciting somehow. Again, I think that comes from it not being all about me. It’s taken me a long time to realise that when you’re making music, that you obviously want human beings to listen to, I think sometimes the more human beings you have involved adds more humanity to it. Somehow!
- - -
- - -
How much free rein did Stephen Street have in the studio? Was he there to challenge you?
No, because we chatted about a few records beforehand. So he knew exactly what I wanted, which was basically a guitar record, then with gospel backing vocals and a horn section, which adds a very different feel to the whole thing.
You’re taking that dull, white male British sound and adding – hopefully – some kind of flavour of American soul and gospel to it. Not so it’s obvious, but just a little flavour, that completely changes the dynamic of some straight up guitar songs. I didn’t want to make a straight up guitar album because it’s boring, I wanted some soul power, really.
It’s like Little Barrie’s guitar playing – it could sound too classic, but it doesn’t because of the context, and the spirit.
Definitely. The backing singers performed with me at the Barbican a couple of years ago, and they just sound great together. It adds something that I certainly can’t do with my voice. I was trying to push my vocals on this record, which I have never really done before. I was always afraid to do it because I thought it would sound crap, so I’ve always backed off, sang softly and layered the vocals. It took a bit of confidence, and a bit of re-assuring from friends, but I’ve got there, and I’ve learned to use my voice a bit more.
I realised that in order to pull all that stuff out you do have to push more than you think you do. You think that you’re pushing but then you listen to it, and it doesn’t sound like anything. You’ve got to go even further than you think you can. It’s all relative, y’know – I’m not Otis Redding or Aretha Franklin – but pushing well beyond what I’ve ever gone through before.
Are you still discovering aspects of being a vocalist?
I’d like to think so. It crossed my mind the other day to go for singing lessons, just to see if I could get more out of it. Sometimes you worry that you’re not doing it right, and you could fuck up your voice.
Are you going to do it?
I might do! I’ve got a lot on my plate at the moment but I might do. Get some opera lessons!
- - -
- - -
Are you going to tour this album as heavily as you did the previous record?
Absolutely. I’ll play anywhere given the chance. Because it’s a great record, and when you’ve got that you feel super excited to get out there and play it. This’ll be the first time we’ve played it out tonight, and I feel pretty excited about that.
You’ve developed this three year timetable between albums…
Yeah! I tried to get it down to two years but then we had a baby and I wanted to be there for the first year of her life, to be around all the time.
It’s an incredibly focussed run.
Completely. I’ve still got a lot of ambition. I want to be more successful than I am, and I want to keep pushing. I think I deserve to be more successful than I am, and I think I’ve got the songwriting capabilities to be more. So it’s just exciting to keep pushing, and see what’s going to happen. Especially after this record because I’ve realised what I’m capable of. There’s no reason not to keep going.
You had the Beta Band re-issues at the end of last year, which I assume you had some involvement with…
To a small extent.
When you listen back to those songs do things strike you? How much do you feel you’ve changed?
To be honest I didn’t listen to them. And I didn’t listen to them back then, either. But I remember a while ago listening to ‘Inner Meet Me’ and it is what it is, and it’s the sound of someone that’s terrified. I’d lost Gordon (Anderson, co-founder) – he’d unfortunately had to go to hospital – and he was the main songwriter. We were supposed to be a songwriting partnership, but he’d written 100s of songs – like, amazing songs – and I’d written about two.
Suddenly we sign a five album deal with Parlophone, and it’s really high pressure. Terrifying. And I wasn’t used to singing at all. I didn’t know what to do with my voice, I had only recently started to sing. It’s just the sound of someone who is absolutely terrified.
Well, that’s certainly a contrast to the new record. Do you feel this is the most confident you’ve ever been in your own work?
Probably, yeah. I’m always confident about it, but I think working with somebody like Stephen gives you confidence as he’s the first producer that I’ve worked with who I actually own records by. He’s obviously got a proven track record of making massive hit records, so it sharpens your mind a bit. And also just the idea that he would want to work on this record makes you think that it must be good, but he doesn’t have to do anything. That gives you confidence.
It just sounds the way I wanted it to sound – it has the elements that I wanted. It’s not complicated. It’s simple but it’s soulful. They sound like tracks to me that will stand the test of time and I think that’s important as well.
- - -
- - -
'About The Light' is out now. Catch Steve Mason at London's EartH on February 7th.
Photography: Rachel Lipsitz
Join us on Vero, as we get under the skin of global cultural happenings. Follow Clash Magazine as we skip merrily between clubs, concerts, interviews and photo shoots. Get backstage sneak peeks and a true view into our world as the fun and games unfold.