Interview: Lee Southall
Former Coral-man Lee Southall has returned to music a after a 5-year hiatus with new album, Iron in the Fire. In this time, he has raised a family, moved to deepest darkest Yorkshire and produced a folk solo album that deals with nature, transition and reformation of the self.
We caught up with Lee to discuss his new project, the work of Ted Hughes and schmoozing with Conan O’Brien.
Q. How has your time away from the music industry changed you?
The birth of my daughter coincided with the start of The Coral’s indefinite hiatus. Fatherhood has changed everything - exhilarating and exhausting by turns. The best thing I’ve ever done, wouldn’t have missed a minute of it. I certainly wasn’t prepared for the impact it would have on me. You’re never prepared, it’s impossible to be prepared. This tiny, beautiful creature arrives and you realise you’re her North star, the fixed point in her universe. It changes everything; perspective, priorities – everything.
Q. In previous interviews you have described your current home as being a fairly desolate "hill in West Yorkshire" and have come back in 2017 with a particularly earthy sounding record: Iron in the Fire. How much did your environment affect the musical sound of this album?
Well, I moved as far away from the sea as you can get [The sea is a common lyrical theme in Coral songs]. Where I grew-up and the place I live now are total opposites. I live in West Yorkshire on the lip of a steep-sided valley. The road up to mine is so steep my mum gets vertigo when she visits. Yeah, the album has been described as earthy, bucolic. And there is a tractor outside my house (it’s not mine).
The weather is a big thing in the album, there’s a lot about storms, skies, mist. I suppose it’s inevitable, the place you live gets under your skin, into your psyche. Here I can leave the dull valley, walk up the hill, pass through a layer of mist and emerge on the ‘tops’ to bright sunlight. I can look out over moorland and see storms rolling in; the weather’s physical up here. It can be extreme too. When it snows I can be cut-off from the valley and when it rains they are cut-off by flood waters.
Q. Iron in the Fire is the album title and the title of the album's opening track. Is this how you see yourself?
For a long time that track was instrumental, and I still play it like that in live shows. Eventually a really sparse lyric came along, ‘I am iron in the fire, I am lying next to you. I am iron in the fire, am I lying is it true’. It’s about transformation, being melted down, re-forged and whether that transformation is ever complete.
Bodie Cameron, a friend who did the album artwork, picked up on this in his drawings; which reference alchemy and symbols for chemical elements. Obviously, there’s the phrase ‘irons in the fire’, which suggests that things are going on. But I like the singular version and it seemed to fit with a debut solo project.
Q. A lot of the concepts in Iron in the Fire suggest a sense of transience. What is this journey and where is it leading you?
Originally the album was going to be titled 'Between two Worlds', and that’s transition, movement and change; physically, emotionally and musically. My daughter lives with me for half of the week, and when she’s here that’s where my focus is. The rest of the week I’m in my studio. Where’s it leading me? Hopefully to a point where I can sustain myself and make the kind of music I want to make.
Q. You have never been afraid to do things lo-fi and by yourself. What was the recording process like for this, your first solo effort?
In the early days of The Coral I had a Tascam I bought from Cash Converters. I loved it. Not sure what happened to it, probably got swallowed up in the Coral cave. As a band we recorded in some of the best studios (RAK Studios, Rockfield) and I went from that to my small home studio, where monitors and instruments share space with Playmobil and Lottie Dolls.
The early demos I did in there have something special about them. You can hear rain hitting the roof, Jackdaws calling and the sound of kids playing outside. I played everything myself on the demos, and I really got into the drum kit, and an old Church Harmonium I picked-up. The final album was recorded at a mates studio in Chorlton, Manchester at mates rates but I was really short of cash and we didn’t have much time. We all had kids too, so there was no chance of recording through the night; a luxury that was taken for granted in The Coral days. I’m working on home demos now, for the next album, and it’s part of the process I really like, because I’m not on the clock and I can get lost in it.
Q. I'm picking up strands of Trad. Folk revival like Fairport and The Pentangle, Appalachian Folk, Americana and even some old school Blue Eyed Soul in the tracks of Iron in the Fire. What are the records that make you want to keep making music?
Arghhhhhhhh. There’s so many amazing records out there it’s hard to come up with a list. There are sounds out there, unmistakable sounds which are familiar but still make the hairs on the back of your neck tingle; like early Studio One, or early Motown, or from some 1970s live recordings, like James Taylor at the BBC. I’m very interested in live recording at the moment, in how brave (or not) people want to be with it. I’m always gonna be making music, and there’s loads of music I haven’t even heard yet!
Q. You passed up the opportunity to work on The Coral's last album Distance Inbetween to work on Iron in the Fire, two remarkably different albums from each other in tone. What are your thoughts on the direction that your old band-mates took?
It was strange watching from a distance as my band, the lads I’d grown up with, went ahead and released an album. But the distance was good. I’d been part of that for something like 18 years and for the first time I was seeing it from the outside. I got lots of messages from fans, and I felt like I was one of them, watching something I loved change.
Obviously, there was a big change when Bill [Ryder-Jones, co-founder and former Coral guitarist] left, then another change of guitarist following a long hiatus. But I think the fans were just glad to have The Coral back, making music again. The new album is much heavier than what went before and the live shows have an intense light show and projection set. It’s so far away from where I am, stripped back acoustic performances. I started gigging about 2 years ago and it was just me, an acoustic – no guitar stand, no set list. Now I play with an informal ‘band’, 2 guitars, a cello and pedal steel. It’s still quite nimble. I can’t imagine myself doing the festival circuit with all that gear and the light show as well.
Q. Bill Ryder Jones made an album called If... in 2011 which is intended as a musical adaption of Italo Calvino's post-modernist classic If on a Winter's Night a Traveler. If you were going to make a musical adaption of any book, what would you choose?
Yeah Bill was obsessed with Calvino’s book. I don’t really get like that over books – films, yes, but rarely novels. I did read quite a bit of Ted Hughes’ poetry when I moved here. This is the valley where he grew up, and sometimes I pass the house where he lived with Sylvia Plath. Lots of Hughes’ poems are about this valley, these moors, the landscape I walk through every day. But I’ve never made a conscious decision to adapt anyone’s work. Having said that, there’s a line in one of the new songs that’s the title of one of his poems! I imagine it’s where you are in your life, what’s going on emotionally, that kind of stuff that locks you into a particular novel or film – or landscape.
Q. You've already had a long and varied career. What has been your most surreal and showbiz moment so far?
In the early days we did an American tour with Supergrass. We ended up on a chat-show with Conan O'Brien. It was all totally surreal, in a TV studio in New York on this chat show. I’d never heard of Conan O’Brien. We played at the end of the show, and all I can remember is listening back to the recording and the sound was unbelievably good. So much from that time is just a blur now. There was one time in Dublin we did a lives session in someone’s spare room; it was broadcast live over the radio – no idea what that sounded like.
Iron in Fire is available now on