|Interview MICHAEL WESTON KING
May 2004 (by E-mail) www.michaelwestonking.com
During a visit to Germany, one of my friends there pushed a CD in the stereo and played a few tracks. "This guy really has guts," she said, "he sings very frankly about child abuse." It was an album by The Good Sons, the guy turned out to be Englishman Michael Weston King, but that was something I learned much later.
This friend has the original habit to send me a compilation of songs as a Birthday- or Christmas-present. Not just another compilation, she picks the songs fitting me and my life. In that way I found myself listening again to The Good Sons, four impressive tracks long.
When I found out that Michael Weston King had gone solo, as a singer-songwriter with acoustic guitar touring The Netherlands, I made some efforts to see him live. On a bloody hot evening in the middle of the infamous Summer of 2003 Michael played a concert in Hollandsche Rading. It was very good, no doubt about that and most of the funny stories inbetween the songs would have done well as material for a stand-up comedian and Michael was a really nice guy too. Still I expected a little more... When I received a mail offering an interview with Michael, I immediately thought it would be a perfect opportunity to get that little more! Like a few good statements for instance... Please, read on!
Johanna: Michael, as I'm simply named after my grandmother, anybody with a good sounding name intrigues me. That "Weston" does it, is that your middle name or part of your last name?
Michael: Weston is my middle name. It is a family name, my father's full name is called Keith Weston King, my grandfather had a fabulous full name of Austin Seymour Weston King, and my first son is called Benjamin Weston King. However, all the family don't go by their full name, my dad just answers to Keith King and my son to Ben King, but I really like it and so, for all my professional musical career, I have used my full name, Michael Weston King.
J: The sound of your latest album "A Decent Man" shifted a bit from your former alt.country work to a more poppy sound. Was that for a particular reason or did it just happen while recording?
M: The world of 'Americana', 'Alt Country', 'No Depression' or whatever else people want to call it, is a very over-subscribed area these days. There is far too much of it, and far too much crap! When I started The Good Sons it was with the intention of combining my love of the great songwriters (Townes, Tom Waits, Dylan, etc.) with the new bands that were doing something interesting with both rock and country music (Uncle Tupelo, The Jayhawks etc.), and I started the band as a British counterpoint to what they were doing. I have, and will always love country music, but I feel that I showed my take on country music back with the first and third Good Sons albums, and now I don't want to do that anymore. When I recorded "Happiness", and again with "A Decent Man", I just wanted to make a melodic, articulate, well produced pop / singer-songwriter album, and I feel that is what I have done. I love the work of people such as Ron Sexsmith and Roddy Frame and Nick Lowe, great songwriters making good, timeless records, that are not rooted in any one genre. I love pop, rock, soul, folk and country, and I think that shows on "A Decent Man".
J: The CD is produced by Jackie Leven, you know Jackie for some time alreday, right? How did you meet?
M: I have known Jackie for about 7 years. We would run into each other at gigs and festivals, be on the same bill, often staying at the same hotel, and we just immediately hit it off. He and I did a festival in Scotland with Will Oldham, maybe that was where we met, or at the Ole Blues festival in Norway. I can't recall exactly, but I do remember him telling a rather lewd and disgusting story, very loudly at breakfast once, in a hotel in Bergen, and the other diners being rather offended and had to ask us to save "that kind of talk for the bars". I knew then we were destined to work together!
J: How hard is it to be an Englishman and play the prominently American dominated alt.country music?
M: I don't find 'playing' it hard at all, it is just music that I like and it is what I do. Sometimes it was hard being accepted doing it, but then only by certain factions in the UK, where there is an initial immediate doubt cast by the press that if you are English how can you understand country music, which to me is just ridiculous. It has been said before a million times, but "music is either good or bad", that's all, doesn't matter what it is or who plays it. The great thing about music is there 'are no rules', but some people seem to prefer things to be pigeon-holed to make life easier. But, like I mentioned before, I really feel that me as an artist, working in a specific American music form is over, I am a singer and a songwriter, and I will produce the records however I feel best suits the songs, irrespective of genre or style.
J: You have been touring in The States, what kind of reactions did you get there?
M: A great reaction, not one person has said anything about an English guy playing an 'American style of music'. To them I am just an English singer-songwriter. They like the songs, they like the voice, and they like the stories, especially those that refer to 'back home'.
J: We understood your song "The Englishman's Obsession With America (part 2)" is about the music press and "Always The Bridesmaid (Never The Bride)" about the music industry more in general?
M: Not really, I have a much more direct song aimed at certain parts of the music press, a song called "Beautiful Lies" (which is on "God Shaped Hole", and also "Live... In Dinky Town"). That song deals with how a number of older journalists (usually writing for MoJo) seem pre-occupied with the halcyon days of the 60's and write huge, long-winded articles about meaningless moments and attach huge significance to them. I have taken on introducing "The Englishman's Obsession With America" (mainly because of the song's title) with a bit of an attack on certain parts of the British press and indeed the British music industry generally, because it seems that they will praise and respect any half-assed artist from America proffering "Alt.Country", just simply because he or she is American, and perhaps hails from some backwoods in Arkansas and makes bad sounding records. So they are the ones with the "American Obsession"..... not me any longer. The song "Always The Bridesmaid" is about not quite achieving what you hoped for from your career but still keeping going in the face of adversity. Coming to terms with the fact that maybe you are not ever going to be as big as Neil Young but still happily (just about) making a living from being a working musician, and gaining all the 'other riches' you get from not quitting.
J: By the way, what happened to part 1 of "The Englishman's Obsession"? ;-)
M: I just started with Part 2. Part 1 was my growing up and being obsessed with America, Part 2 was me letting go that obsession.
J: You're occasionally recording a cover, "Straight To You" by Nick Cave, with The Good Sons and on "A Decent Man" it's "Love In Mind" by Neil Young and "Blue Red & Grey" by Pete Townshend. How do you choose these covers from all the great songs out there?
M: Well, there are so many great songs out there but I choose ones that I think will fit in with the other songs and moods on the album. The lyrics are very important to me. On "God Shaped Hole" (my debut solo album in 1999) I covered "No More Songs" by Phil Ochs, and "Annie" by Ronnie Lane, both are great songs, but more importantly, they both said something that was very appropriate for the album, and covered an area I had not covered with the songs I had written for the album. "No More Songs" is a 'good-bye' and an 'apology' and was perfect for what I wanted to say at the start of that album. Some of the themes on "A Decent Man" are about finding fulfillment and contentment, either with life, or with your partner, and "Love In Mind" and "Blue, Red & Grey" have that same feeling. Plus they are written by two of my all time, songwriting heroes and I like to let people know who has influenced me.
J: I like the photos, used in the lay-out of the album very much, you and your hat... Is the hat your trademark?
M: It has become so, although a lot of musicians wear hats, and many wear the pork pie style that I favour but it is a very congested world out there in the music industry and if the hat helps people remember me, then great. I buy my hats from a thrift store in Cincinnati, Ohio, only $3 each. I had planned to buy a whole bunch and add an MWK logo to them and sell them at shows, but I could never get enough of them, the shop only seems to stock about 10 at a time!
Thank you for comments about the photos. The excellent Birmingham photographer Richard Battye took those shots. Usually I don't like pictures of myself on albums, and certainly not on the cover, but when the label saw them they insisted and in hindsight I am glad they did as Richard did a great job. Thanks Richard.
J: I'm always curiously reading all the liner-notes of a CD. I noticed that you're thanking some friendly faces (I know photographer Peter Pricken and his wife Helma, I agree with you!) How important is it for you to see people in the audience that you know? Do you feel less comfortable with all strangers and how do you make contact then?
M: Being a solo artist, and traveling a lot on my own, as I do, it can be pretty lonely at times, and then at other times I really enjoy the solitude. There are a number of people who come out regularly to see lots of shows and I am eternally grateful to them. And it makes for new friendships and I really like that. However, it is not a problem if I play a place and I don't know anyone, I am more concerned that they know me, or at least they do after they have seen my show. When I play to a new audience, I usually try and bring in some local reference I have found about the town, or area, or venue, something that they can immediately relate to. After that, hopefully they like me and my personality, it is then down to the songs... and hopefully they end up leaving the show liking them too.
J: Your very nice, sweet-voiced way of singing and also your show, full of jokes and stories are somewhat deceiving (I don't mean that in a bad way!), as your lyrics can be very dark sometimes. I was wondering, are you bringing the songs this way, so they have more impact?
M: I perform live the way I would like to see a solo artist perform if I was watching them. I just think, if I was sitting in the audience what would I enjoy. And what I enjoy is great, dark, melodic moving songs sung by a good singer who also has some charisma, who can tell a good story and who I can have a connection with. I learned quite a lot of that from Townes, who could have an audience in tears with his songs, but then have them in hysterics with his jokes and comments, Jackie (Leven) also does a similar thing on stage. The in-between humour changes the mood so hence the dark side of the songs has more impact when performed. If it was all doom and gloom, the show would be very one paced I feel.
J: You don't avoid subjects that are avoided by lots of singer-songwriters, like Alzheimer's in "The Girl That Got Away" and abuse in "The Wooden Hill", just to mention a few. With The Good Sons you recorded "In Her Father's Bed", which was among the first songs I ever heard of you. It got me interested as I feel strongly about this subject, I think it's courageous. More power to anybody who brings child abuse under people's attention, as it destroys lives! Michael, can I ask you why you write about these subjects?
M: Thankfully I have never experienced child abuse first hand (or not that I can recall) but it is a subject which is prevalent on the news and TV these days, and so hence I felt strong enough about it to try and write about it. As a father myself maybe that made the subject is a little more personal to me. I also have a song called "Broken", which was on "The Kings Highway" (the 2nd Good Sons album) and is now regularly back in my live set, which is a song about Liverpool women who marry too soon, and end up with the wrong guys (guys who drink to forget and take their frustration out on their wives) but for whatever reason, whether it be the poverty trap, or the kids, they just can't escape and those early dreams that they cherished, and their hopes for a better life, are all just shattered.
"The Girl That Got Away" was a song I wrote for my Grandfather, who had worked hard all his life, and was looking forward to a decent retirement and some quality time and travel with my Grandmother, but instead he spent 4 years watching her deteriorate due to Alzheimer's, until she finally reached the point where she did not even recognize him, and would lash out at him... this man she had loved all her life. It was hard on the whole family, as we all would visit and she could barely work out who was who, who was her daughter, who were her grandchildren. Very sad.
J: Both David Olney and you wrote a song titled "God Shaped Hole". I asked David, he thought it was an expression first used by "one of the French guys". You said Kierkegaard, right? Please, tell us about your "God Shaped Hole"?
M: I have a close friend who is a teacher, and a part-time philosopher (usually when drunk!), and we often go to bars and have deep and meaningful, and often meaningless, conversations, but he told me about this phrase, coined by Kierkegaard, to symbolize that we fill our lives with meaningless, material things when we should really be looking for some form of higher spiritual salvation. He maintained that we all have a God Shaped Hole in our lives, but instead of filling that hole with God, we fill it with more easily attainable but eventually less satisfying things, such as money, cars, sex, drugs, etc. etc. During my life I have veered from having a strong faith, to being a doubter, and at times to being a none believer. When I wrote that song I had found (and still have) real happiness with someone despite a lot of criticism from other people, and so hence my God Shaped Hole was filled by her. Maybe I had not found God, but it was pretty damn close, and felt great to me!
J: You recorded a track with Townes Van Zandt, you're playing a couple of his songs and "Lay Me Down" is about him. When I heard you in concert, you were telling about Townes, with an awesome line: "Amazing how many records he made from beyond the grave, but then he was genius." I especially like that great story about the video of the funeral... Could you please tell it again for all these readers who don't know it yet?
M: Townes died late on New Years Eve, or early New Years Day (same as Hank Williams), but I did not get to hear until Jan 3rd or 4th as I was away and only heard the message on my answering machine when I got back. So as a result, I had no time to make arrangements to go to the funeral. However the next time I was in Austin, three months later, Townes' old tour manager had a video of the funeral and asked me if I would like to watch it! I was rather shocked at first but my curiosity got the better of me and so I sat and watched it. As you can imagine it was attended by many great musicians and artists from the world of country music and American folk music. It began very beautifully, as one by one Townes' friends and admirers, got up to pay their respects and play one of his songs... people like Guy Clark, Steve Earle, Nanci Griffith, Lyle Lovett, Townes' son J.T., and so on. But this went on for what seemed like an eternity, until nearly everyone in the church, irrespective of their closeness to Townes, or their musical ability, were getting up to play a song, and in my opinion, they were perhaps getting up to glorify themselves rather than anything to do with honoring the passing of this amazing man and a genius of a songwriter. To me, it made what was a sad event all the more sadder. So hence, from sitting in that Austin apartment, watching that video, came the song "Lay Me Down".
J: You toured in England with Chris Hillman, opening for him. He's an old hero of mine, do you have any good stories about him?
M: Well, he is a gentleman for sure, and someone I feel I can call a friend now. I have done many shows, and tours with numerous great artists from that area of music and that generation, some heroes of mine, some others that I just admire, but a lot have been affected by whatever they did (and took) over the past 30 years. Whereas Chris is a real straight ahead person, no bullshit, still loves his music, and his show is really good. He does not trade too much on the past, 'playing the hits' or crowd pleasing, he plays what he loves and shares that love and enthusiasm with his audience. He told me some great stories about the 60's and hanging out with The Stones and The Beatles (ones I can't repeat here!), and also one or two Gram stories, but that is a subject he does not like talking about too much, and who can blame him, as everyone else in the world keeps talking about it, (and making bad movies about it)! I first toured with Chris in 2000, then 2 years later I was on tour in America, and played his home town of Ventura. Everyone who is into music who lives in Ventura, knows Chris lives there, but they also know that he NEVER goes out to shows. So when he walked into my show heads turned, and it did my ego the world of good, everyone suddenly thinking, "Who is this English guy that Hillman has turned out to see!" That was really nice. We also decided that night to tour together again in Europe, which we did in 2003... and it was great fun, so it looks like we will be doing it again in 2005, and hopefully coming together to Holland this time. The last tour together went only to UK, Ireland, Norway and Spain.
J: Do you like to share a favorite quote (from a book or a movie or a song) with us?
M: Well, I have many but my favourite (on a personal note), is not from any of those things but it is a quote from Townes. When I expressed my frustration to him about the lack of recognition or success I was getting at the time, he just said, "Stick around Michael, just stick around". And I have been trying to 'stick around' ever since, through all the ups and downs with the band, and now into my solo career, I really am beginning to feel a sense of acknowledgment, and that my music and the songs are finally getting across to people and that things are starting to grow... and that is very rewarding. Maybe if Townes hadn't said that to me, I would have called time a while ago, and I am so glad I didn't, as I would have missed out on so much, so many places, and new people, and I would have missed out on improving my craft. I guess my other favourite quote is from an English soccer commentator when he said "and Solksjaer has won it for Manchester United", referring to the extra time goal that won United the Champions League in 1999. From the sublime to the ridiculous!
One current favourite quote / passage, I almost forgot to include, but one that I really love, in fact it will appear somewhere on my next album sleeve: "He was never without a sure confidence, yes a certainty, since he was garanteed that he would achieve everything he desired and nothing would ever be impossible for him, nothing that is of this world and only of this world; he was preparing himself to find his place anywhere, because there was no position he wanted, but only joy, and free spirits, and energy, and all that life has that is good, that is mysterious, that is not and never will be for sale". (Albert Camus)
Interview by Johanna J. Bodde, previously published on Real Roots Cafe, The Netherlands