“I made an album that I was mostly proud of. But the process was hard and process matters to me. It colours the final work with a subtle significance. So now I look back with a bemused frown. Because all I remember is the process. And the process was too hard. When it came time to move on, things needed to change. I wanted control of the process back. I wanted to be small again. Big can be good, but big can be brittle. And small packs a punch when you can be nimble.”
So wrote Luke Sital-Singh in July 2015. He typeset his words using metal type and an old printing press, each sentence on a new line, no full stops required. It was a pause, a moment of reflection on the events of the preceding couple of years, specifically the release of his “compromised” debut album, The Fire Inside, the slightly bitter fruits of an ill-starred major label relationship. It was also a personal manifesto, a quiet, internal rallying cry. And it was a nice bit of writing, thought through and pored over and carefully presented. That’s how he rolls. He rolls his own.
Eighteen months on – he wasn’t going to rush – comes Time Is A Riddle, that second album Sital-Singh was determined to make solely on his terms. No interference, no scheduling issues, nor elaborate musicianship, nothing big or brittle. Just care, and effort, and time well spent – values he shares with the Slow Movement to which he subscribes, and with the crafts people up and down the country with whom the musician has some special projects planned. It’s a lovely record of self-written songs, a crafted distillation of the ideas and tastes that have been percolating through Sital-Singh since he was a teenager in suburban southwest London, listening in awe to Damien Rice, since he was a rapt fan in the audience at a Ryan Adams gig in Brighton.
Recalling the music that made him, Sital-Singh – a singer with both soul and grit in his voice – says: “There was something about acoustic, singer-songwriter music that seemed more meaningful, and beautiful. I only like music that I feel like I can call beautiful. And to me that’s slow music, and more downbeat music. It’s a running joke amongst my friends that I’m a grumpy git,” he admits (and admits cheerfully). “But I’m not actually depressive. I’m just fairly introverted, quiet and pessimistic – but I’m happy being that. And songs are always the things I’ve been interested in, not the bells and whistles around the song. It’s purely about the song in its simplest form, and trying to craft that with just a guitar or just a piano. I’m obsessed with that.”
Sital-Singh is a student of words. “I was brought up in a fairly religious family, and there were quite a lot of philosophical, theological discussions around. So there was always this thing in me about exploring inner things. So before the songs there were woe-is-me, slit-your-wrist poems,” he smiles. And he’s a student of notes, the youngest of three musical brothers. He was first a childhood violinist then an adolescent guitarist who attended BIMM Brighton music college before graduating from the London open-mic scene. Self-released EPs led to Proper Record Deal led to Difficult First Album. “Spent too much money, lost too much money,” the now Bristol-based musician recalls without rancour. “This time I was determined to do the complete opposite.”
Having written a brace of songs – simple songs that moved him – Sital-Singh followed his long-held artist’s dream: he escaped to a remote studio, Attica Audio, in Donegal, with nothing on his mind other than making the record of his life. The studio’s owner, producer Tommy McLaughlin (a member of Villagers’ touring band, who Sital-Singh has opened for) pulled together a small group of musicians. Well-used to playing together, the band slotted together effortlessly for a series of recordings over ten days.
“There were big windows looking over the hills of Donegal, and it was raining the whole time, which was perfect for me. We were playing and singing at the same time in this lovely big live room, with so much bleed, just the way records used to be made. So much fun. These were simple songs that just need to be recorded nicely and played well with a good band with nice instruments in a nice room. We don’t need weird stuff going on. We needed me to feel inspired by the performance to sing a good vocal. And that’s what I was.”
Time Is A Riddle opens with ‘Still’, a song Neil Young might have left behind on Zuma Beach. “It’s a song about wanting to remind everyone that I’m still here – and also reminding myself that all this shit goes on, but it can just blow past, and you’re still here. It’s not quite ‘I’m Still Standing’,” he smiles of the Elton John belter. “But I hate our obsession with newness and following trends. So the idea of someone still there, still doing their thing, I think is a nice sentiment to start the record with.” Another cornerstone track is the album’s title track. “I was listening to a lot of Feist and thought she was great,” he says by way of explaining a song with heavy chords and quiet drama. “And that’s what her music is: quiet drama. Some of the production is quite bombastic, but there’s a gentleness around it as well. That’s what I was trying to get to.”
Then there’s ‘Innocence’, a song glowing with echoey wonder. “It’s fairly up for me,” Sital-Singh grins with typical self-deprecation. “I’m really proud of that one. That was a song that took as long to write as it lasts for. I was watching telly with my guitar and it just came out, pretty much fully formed. I’m not entirely sure what it means, but I guess it’s about this idea of being born, losing innocence, people coming in and out of the world, changing as they go.” The first taste of Time Is A Riddle is the heart-shivering, spine-tingling ‘Killing Me’, accompanied by an evocative, home-made, typically personal video.
“It’s me singing as my grandma, and addressed to my grandfather, who died ten years ago. She talks about him every day. When I think about it too much it just breaks my heart. So one day I just sat down at the piano and it’s probably the most emotional song I’ve ever written. I almost didn’t include it – I thought it might be too much to release. It’s so sensitive and so close to my heart. Then I thought maybe people will connect with it…
But then when it came to the video, I definitely didn’t want to be singing this song, prancing around in slow motion. Then by coincidence I took delivery of these digitised cine films that my wife’s late grandfather shot in the Seventies. They were only sent to us because her parents were in the process of moving to Vancouver. And when I watched them, the nostalgic nature and the parallels with both our grandparents, it just felt tonally right, and a little note of serendipity. So I just edited them together and that’s what we’ve got. It’s definitely the most personal song on the record.”
Then again, personal is stamped on and through everything Luke Sital-Singh does. Head to iTunes to listen to the very funny ‘Idiot Check’ podcast, recorded by him and a couple of mates (don’t worry, it’s free). Head to Spotify and you’ll find a lovely selection of covers of songs from films, including Radiohead’s ‘Exit Music (For A Film)’ from Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Sound Of Silence’ from The Graduate and The Shins’ ‘New Slang’ from Garden State. Storied songs by storied bands from storied movies, but he makes them all his own. Likewise a new selection of covers recently uploaded to Soundcloud: songs as diverse as Toto’s ‘Hold The Line’, The Faces’ ‘Ooh La La’ and Kate Bush’s ‘This Woman’s Work’ sound reborn and rebooted.
What it all has in common is care, effort and dedication. It’s Luke Sital-Singh’s way. It’s what makes his music breathe and his songs pulse. “I like things that are well made – things that love has been put into. And not throwaway shite. It’s why I like the Slow Movement. It’s why I like vinyl.” It’s also why he likes Hannah Cousins, his wife (although presumably that isn’t the only reason). She’s the artist responsible behind the vivid sleeve artwork for Time Is A Riddle. “Hannah’s an illustrator and printmaker, and we’ve worked together on most of my artwork. She helped set the tone for the initial three EPs, which then Parlophone bulldozed over for the album art for The Fire Inside.”
The image on the new cover began as a photograph of a wind-bent tree in Donegal, “which wasn’t just the place I recorded the album – it became a symbol of escape and refreshment”. Cousins, a skilled linocutter, then set patiently to work. “The lino process is one of painstaking craftsmanship, where an image is carved in reverse in a linoleum sheet, which takes hours and hours. In this case it took Hannah two days. She then carefully inked the lino with an ink roller and pressed it onto paper, using an Albion press from 1881.” In the same spirit, Sital-Singh is finessing a series of special filmed performances in the studios, workshops, foundries and ateliers of a host of crafts people he’s connected with up and down the country. Watch this (bespoke) space for collaborations with a ceramicist in Glasgow, a knife-maker in Derby and a stained glass designer in Devon.
But for now, here’s Time Is A Riddle. A record where you can smell the graft, see the joins and hear the sweat on the frets – and the occasional live-recording misstep. It’s that real. Luke Sital-Singh wouldn’t have it any other way. As he said in that summer ’16 letter, “the effort was justified. Like a long run up a steep hill. “I’ve reached the top now. I’m catching my breath. My heart is pounding. And as I look back down, I am proud of each and every step that it’s taken.”
He may wield an acoustic guitar and write achingly beautiful universal truths, but Ciaran Lavery couldn’t be further from the sensitive singer-songwriter archetype. In 2014, Lavery’s Kosher EP and Not Nearly Dark album went global, with the tracks ‘Shame’ and ‘Left For America’ leading the charge racking up more than 60 million listens on the Spotify streaming service and inspiring a raft of renditions from other countries.