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‘Love Is Here’: Starsailor Talk Their “Golden Era”
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In Depth

‘Love Is Here’: Starsailor Talk Their “Golden Era”

Defining the ‘New Acoustic Movement’, Starsailor’s debut album, ‘Love Is Here’, is ‘the start of our journey’ says frontman James Walsh.

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In the early 2000s, Starsailor appeared to be that rare kind of band: seemingly arriving fully formed, they ignited a bidding war between major record labels before even releasing a single. By the time their debut album, Love Is Here, emerged, in the autumn of 2001, the group had come to exemplify everything NME had in mind when the paper coined the phrase “New Acoustic Movement”, a catch-all term for a growing breed of introspective bands – Travis, Doves and Coldplay among them – who were spearheading British rock music’s turn away from the boisterous braggadocio of Britpop in favour of heart-on-sleeve lyrics, tightly crafted melodies and, above all, a commitment to the purest fundamentals of songcraft.

“We felt a kind of kinship that there was something happening and building,” frontman James Walsh tells Dig! of the scene in which Starsailor came to prominence. “It felt like a really exciting time.”

“It basically all comes down to having good songs,” bassist James Stelfox adds. “That’s what we all shared.”

Listen to ‘Love Is Here’ here.

“Stripping it back to basics gave us discipline”

“As soon as me and James met each other, we had this ambition to write songs,” Stelfox recalls of Starsailor’s formative years. The pair met just a couple of months after Walsh’s 16th birthday and immediately set out to realise their aspiration. As Walsh recalls, their early material sounded like the sum of their influences.

“I was still absorbing music, so listening to a lot of Oasis, Bluetones, Shed Seven, Charlatans – a lot of our early songs had that sound to them,” the singer says. “Gradually, Stel introduced me to Nick Drake. I started getting into Jeff Buckley and stealing my dad’s Neil Young records. The more influences we absorbed as we carried on developing the writing, the more original the sound became.”

Naming themselves after an album by Jeff Buckley’s father, Tim Buckley, made the group’s new influences clear, though it was Jeff that had the most profound impact on Walsh.

“Vocally, he’s a massive influence,” Walsh acknowledges. “I think he’s the first singer I really heard that sang like that – who was so controlled and emotional in his delivery, but without the flamboyancy of David Bowie or Prince, which is unique to them. He wasn’t completely hiding in the shadows, and he had a stagecraft, but it was more reserved – like half-Elvis, half-reluctant, which was easy to relate to.”

When Starsailor officially formed as a four-piece in 2000, after the two Jameses were joined by keyboardist Barry Westhead and drummer Ben Byrne, fellow-students on the music course at Wigan And Leigh College’s Parsons Walk Campus, their own sound fell into place.

“We stopped trying to write big songs to please the crowd,” Walsh says. “We had played with lead guitarists, but the core sound is me, Stel, Ben and Barry. Stripping it back to the acoustic guitar and the piano meant that the songs had to hold their own, instead of hiding behind guitar solos and a big sound… Simplicity was always important to us, to make sure that every line and every little bit of melody, whether it’s vocal or instrumental, really enhanced a song. It brought it back to basics and gave us that discipline, first and foremost, to write great songs.”

“It was finally coming. We were ready”

“We really wanted to get to that next level of being approached by a label and getting gigs in London,” Stelfox recalls of the months that followed. Thanks to a superlative review from NME, who caught one of the group’s earliest shows in the city (“… here was a band who were genuinely special, blessed with a singer whose voice thrummed like an emotional telegraph wire… and were clearly in love with rock’n’roll and all its possibilities”), Starsailor realised both of those goals almost overnight.

“All of a sudden the bidding process began,” Stelfox marvels, “and we were like, ‘Fuck. This is gonna be great.’”

“It sounds ridiculous when I say it now, because we were all still in our early 20s,” Walsh adds, “but it felt like we’d worked towards it and put the graft in… We’d been to music college and we wanted to be musicians when we were at school, so it’s something that we’d been waiting for for a long time. And it felt really exciting that it was finally coming. We were ready.”

EMI emerged victorious, signing the band and shipping them out to Rockfield Studios in Monmouthshire, Wales, birthplace of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody and Oasis’ (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? With their stockpile of carefully honed material, Starsailor relished being able to enjoy their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to record their debut album away from the hotbed of London’s music scene.

“It was creatively good for us, all being together like a camp”

“We went a little mad in Wales. We were single lads working long hours, and then we’d go to the local pub,” Stelfox says. “If we’d have been in London, it might have been a slightly different record… Rockfield’s quite dated – it’s not really changed much since the 70s or 80s, so we definitely got a vibe there. It was creatively good for us – it was the first time for us all being together like a camp.”

In their new surroundings, the group wrote fresh material, among them the songs She Just Wept and Way To Fall, while producer Steve Osbourne, who’d made a name for himself on Happy Mondays’ Pills’n’Thrills And Bellyaches album, and as DJ Paul Oakenfold’s remix collaborator at trance label Perfecto Records, taught them new tricks.

“We’d been in studios and recorded demos in Liverpool and Manchester,” Stelfox continues, “but that’s the first time we had a producer come in with a headmaster mentality, where we were definitely the students and he was the boss. But his ideas helped to form the album and set the sonics as well.” Encouraged to add nuance to their songs’ arrangements, the group found themselves using slide guitar for the first time, and realised they could place a mic inside the piano in order to record the sound of the instrument’s strings being plucked.

“We wanted to make a very organic record and just play live in the studio and get that across,” Walsh adds, but Osbourne “really helped with the textures. Because, prior to that, we’d never think to use a slide guitar on a track.” Unsurprisingly, too, for a producer with a dance-music background, “Steve was quite disciplined about the rhythm and the drums, and it really suited a song like Good Souls, to have it right on the beat.”

“I’d love to have gone a little bit more down the Happy Mondays, Charlatans vibe on that,” Stelfox admits. “It’s turned into that live – it’s a bit of a monster now.”

“It needed that next crop of bands to do something different”

With Love Is Here’s release still months away, the first the public heard of Starsailor’s work was in February 2001, when the group released Fever as a single. So strongly did it capture their sound, they left it in its demo form. “That was one take, maybe an overdub on guitar with Jim, but the rest is just in a room, live,” Stelfox says of the recording, which predated the Rockfield sessions. “Steve just said, ‘I think we’ve already got this. Why redo it when it sounds great?’”

With its loping beat, reflective keyboards and James Walsh’s unashamedly vulnerable lyrics – “Man, I must have been blind/To carry a torch/For most of my life/These days, I’m hanging around/You’re out of my heart/And out of my town” – the song was one of a crop of Starsailor tunes which signalled that British pop would not be afraid to show its scars in the early 21st century.

“I love Oasis and Blur and Pulp, but there’s a bravado attached to those bands. They didn’t wear any kind of sensitivity on their sleeves. Everything was seen through a wry, humorous – or, in Oasis’ case, ego-driven – microscope,” Walsh says. “It was great. It was a really exciting time in music. But it got to a point where everyone was trying to emulate that. And those bands were too good to emulate. It needed the next crop of bands to do something different and get back to a more earnest and sensitive kind of music.”

When Love Is Here was released, on 8 October 2001, that’s exactly what many critics heard, with NME, who had started that bidding war mere months earlier, praising “real emotional depth” delivered with “an alluring assurance”, and The Guardian considering Starsailor’s commitment to the purity of songwriting as “both throwback and a peek into the future” on their “intricately produced tempest of an album”.

“Being in your early 20s, there’s so much emotional turmoil to process and pour into songs… There is a lot of loss and angst in the lyrics,” Walsh concedes, reflecting on how the optimism of Love Is Here’s title isn’t always apparent in the mood the album conjures. “But I think ‘love is here’ is the reassurance, the conclusion. Because the song Love Is Here is about trying to stop yourself from constantly reaching for something you don’t have. And remembering what you’ve got and cherishing that. It’s a reassuring song that says, however bad you might feel, things could be a lot worse.”

When Starsailor wrote it, however – and the other ten tracks that make up the record – they couldn’t have imagined that it would eventually appear in the wake of a tragedy that would call into question everything about that hoped-for reassurance.

“We were completely shellshocked”

A month before Love Is Here hit the shelves, 9/11 rocked the world. “We were due to fly to America the day after it happened, to play with Coldplay,” Walsh reveals. “We were just completely shellshocked.”

With Love Is Here subsequently gaining praise back home, it seemed questionable whether Starsailor would be able to take their music across the Atlantic any time soon. When the album finally did see release stateside, in January 2002, with the group touring the US throughout that month in support of The Charlatans, their live shows became cathartic for both the band and audiences alike.

“The first time we played in New York, it was really emotional for everyone, and songs like Good Souls really resonated,” Stelfox recalls.

“Obviously there were much bigger artists that helped people through, like Bruce Springsteen,” Walsh adds, “but, generally speaking, music was a real tonic for people who were going through a horrible time… Good Souls became more powerful and took on a new meaning – like, ‘Thank goodness for the good souls.’ It was a good message at a time when a small number of bad people had had such a terrible effect on a city and a country: it’s good to remember that, for the most part, the good in the world – and the good people in the world, who try and help each other – can have just as powerful an impact, in a positive way. And we saw that from the people in New York and the wider country – how they came together. In New York, especially, they didn’t rise to the racial tensions that some people were trying to invoke.”

Meanwhile, US bands were taking the stripped-down approach to music-making in another direction. Rather than focus on melody and soul-baring lyrics, the likes of The Strokes and The White Stripes spearheaded a garage-rock revival which the UK press sought to position as a direct rival to the “New Acoustic Movement” they’d recently championed.

“It was brilliant when The Strokes and The White Stripes came out – that was another exciting musical movement,” says Walsh. “But one thing that always gets misreported – or misremembered – from that time is when they say, ‘Oh, they needed to come out because music was quite introspective and boring before then.’ It’s basically slagging off bands like us and Elbow and Turin Brakes. But I remember the crowds at our gigs going absolutely mental. They were as enthused about what was going on as the Strokes and White Stripes fans that came afterwards. It wasn’t an us-and-them kind of thing – it was just different. The kids who came to our gigs were buzzing to be there and to be part of that. They weren’t standing around going, ‘When are the American bands gonna come and save us from this dreary music?’”

“It was bollocks, to be fair,” Stelfox adds. “It was like saying music was in a bad place. But it was in a great place.”

“I need to produce your album”

One industry figure who knew a thing or two about great music was 60s and 70s hitmaker Phil Spector – then largely still seen as an eccentric recluse before being found guilty, in 2009, of the second-degree murder of actress Lana Clarkson. Love Is Here’s penultimate single, Lullaby, caught Spector’s ear, however, leading to an unlikely situation where the “Wall Of Sound” innovator (see The Ronettes’ Be By Baby and Ike And Tina Turner’s Proud Mary) and onetime Beatles producer came out of hiding in order to offer his services to the young British upstarts.

“It’s a weird one to talk about now, so many years later, because of what happened – those events are unbelievable, and we can’t in any way, shape or form comment on that,” Stelfox asserts. “But I think we can speak about our time with him before then.”

When Spector’s daughter, Nicole, collared Stelfox after a show at new York City’s Bowery Ballroom and told him her dad was “a huge fan”, the bassist, enjoying a few post-gig beers, “didn’t equate” her surname with her father’s. When she put her dad on the phone, however, “I thought, Oh fuck,” Stelfox laughs. “I kind of sobered up. He goes, ‘I fucking love that song. I need to produce your record.’ And I had a good chat with him on the phone for about 20 minutes, about the first album and how he loved James’ voice. He loved the sparseness of the arrangements and the songs Lullaby and She Just wept.” Work with the producer on Love Is Here’s follow-up, however, “unfortunately petered out”, Stelfox says. “It just wasn’t working at the end. Which was a shame because we all did get on with him.”

“‘Love Is Here’ is the start of the journey”

The album the group eventually released in the wake of Love Is Here, 2003’s Silence Is Easy, featured two of Spector’s final ever productions, White Dove and the title track, and ended up matching its predecessor’s No.2 peak in the UK while also building on the group’s success in Europe. For Starsailor, that album’s roots – and the roots of all their best work – still lie in their debut album.

“We might have evolved a bit, but you can see that Love Is Here is the start of our journey,” Walsh says. “We’ve not gone massively far away from that core sound. We’ve evolved it and enhanced it, but it’s still the emotive lyrics, the emotive voice, the great bass playing and rhythm section.”

“It’s cheesy,” Stelfox adds, “but it’s a golden era for me. “It’s got a glow around it.”

‘Love Is Here’ has been reissued on vinyl. Buy it now, at the Dig! store.

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