Society of Sound: The Lake Poets

The story of The Lake Poets is of a global experience, but one that’s rooted in a sense of belonging and emotionally investing in the people around you. A loose collective based around the formidable talents of singer/guitarist Marty Longstaff, The Lake Poets’ self-titled debut album was recorded in just three days in Nashville.

That Longstaff recorded enough songs to seriously consider releasing a double album is testament to his dedicated work rate. That the 11 songs to make the final album are sparsely beautiful and set to see Longstaff mentioned in the same breath as John Martyn and Richard Thompson are credit to a startling ability to pare his finger-picked guitar playing to the bare essentials, just right for Longstaff’s shimmering, pure vocals. Although made at Nashville’s Blackbird Studio, a place where countless American music legends have recorded, Sunderland-born Longstaff’s voice echoes with the unadorned distinctively North East tones of Paddy McAloon and Martin Stephenson & The Daintees.

A trained schoolteacher, Longstaff was at work when he got the invitation to record in Nashville from local legend Dave Stewart. “I ignored Dave’s email at first, thinking it was my mates taking the piss,” recalls Longstaff. “I hadn’t noticed that Dave had begun following me on Twitter a month earlier. He said ‘I really like your music. How about we work together on something?’” By February, Stewart was producing The Lake Poets in Nashville with musicians including drummer Chad Cromwell (Neil Young, Mark Knopfler), pedal steel guitarist Dan Dugmore (James Taylor, Bob Dylan), bassist Michael Bradford (Ringo Starr, Stevie Nicks), plus Academy of Country Music Award winners Mike Rojas (keyboards) and Michael Rhodes (bass)!

Within three days, 24 songs were recorded. “Nashville is a long way to go fuck up,” laughs Longstaff, an effusive and innately inquisitive soul whose Master’s degree in Linguistics can be detected in his love of using words to great effect both in his songs and in conversation. “I worked as hard as I could. I thought ‘I’ve got an opportunity in a world-class studio here.”

Sessions were engineered by Blackbird’s owner John McBride, who has previously recorded everyone from Bruce Springsteen and The White Stripes to Taylor Swift and The Black Keys at his studio. “I was tempted to release all 24 songs as a double album,” says Longstaff. “I knew that would freak people out, and I like getting freaked out by artists I admire. But ultimately I wanted to keep the first album easy for people to access.”

“People are interesting and they’ve all got good stories. If you listen to them, you always learn something.” Marty Longstaff, The Lake Poets

The Lake Poets is certainly an album that’s easy to get lost in, drawing listeners in with intimate songs rich in painting the big picture about love and mortality by way of a keen eye for the vivid small details of life. ‘1996’’s tale of a doomed childhood friendship is vivid enough for a novel; so too the crisp anecdotal thrust of the lilting ‘Edinburgh’. “All of my songs are autobiographical,” says Longstaff. “It’s overwhelming whenever someone says ‘I understand that, it’s what happened to my Mam too.’ There’s nothing better than creating music that connects with people and it’s what spurs me on to keep doing it, and to get out of bed in the morning.”

As autobiographical as The Lake Poets’ songs are, Longstaff excels at social realism too, as in ‘Vane Tempest’’s story of how the miners strike affected his father. “There’s regional pride in that song,” nods Longstaff. “I’m so proud that my Dad managed to keep going and work hard in such difficult circumstances. My Dad is quite stoic, so he just said ‘Thanks’ when I played him the song, but afterwards my Mam said that he cried a bit. Though she also said ‘Never, ever tell him I told you that.’”

The decimation of the North East and family struggle is also writ large in ‘Shipyards’, a worthwhile successor to Robert Wyatt’s ‘Shipbuilding’ about the death of Longstaff’s grandfather. “That was the first of my songs I was aware of having an impact on someone,” the 26-year-old recalls. “I played it in Newcastle and a man was crying at the back of the club. I thought ‘Oh no, I must be really crap tonight.’ He said to me afterwards ‘You could have written that about my Granddad.’ I realised then the power my songs could have.”

Longstaff was surrounded by music from childhood, devouring his mother’s vinyl collection of Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell and Crosby, Stills & Nash before discovering pop-punk and post-hardcore as a teenager. “I played guitar in shouty school bands influenced by Black Flag, At The Drive In and Fugazi,” he smiles. “In my very first demos, I sing in an awful cod California Valley accent to try to copy Blink-182. You can hide a lot more playing louder music, but I stayed with the acoustic troubadour music too, and I felt more comfortable playing that. You have to keep people engaged and draw them in so they’re hooked.”

Immersing himself in musicians such as Martin Simpson, Longstaff began attending local open-mic clubs “where it was folk singers aged 18 to 70 and the only importance was ‘Can you tell a good story?’ rather than how cool your haircut and your jeans are.”

Taking the name The Lake Poets from a poetry collection he read at University, Longstaff began honing his talent for cathartic, intense emotions, partly inspired by hearing much-missed Australian folk-rockers The Middle East’s searing anthem ‘Blood’. “That song wiped me out,” Longstaff enthuses. “I thought I was doing alright in life, but when I heard ‘Blood’ I cried like a baby and thought ‘Fuck, where did that come from?’ I want to write big, heavy songs like that which kick you in the nuts. If you can move people like that, it’s wonderful.”

There’s also anger there in the album’s most vitriolic song ‘Friends’, which Longstaff calls his version of Dylan’s ‘Positively 34th Street’, about “the type of people you encounter who just hate you and you can’t do anything about it.”

If that paints The Lake Poets as a bleak listen, don’t be fooled. First single ‘Your Face’ is as romantic a song as you’ll hear all year. Unusually for the usually perfectionist Longstaff and centred on a John Martyn-style riff he’d been practicing for some time, it was written in just 20 minutes in Nashville while missing his girlfriend. “A couple of friends had said ‘Your songs can be pretty miserable.’ Well, yeah, fair enough. ‘Your Face’ is happier than anything I’ve ever written before, but it’s still a bit miserable. Working out the running order on the album was difficult, but it starts with a song about domestic abuse and ends with one about pointlessness and suicide. The two love songs ‘Your Face’ and ‘See You Tonight’ are in the middle as light relief.”

Having starred at festivals including Glastonbury, Kendall Calling and T In The Park, and supported Ben Howard, Jake Bugg and Daughter, The Lake Poets’ live experience is equally as intense as their album, which can be attributed to Longstaff’s desire to constantly change his shows in a quicksilver manner Dylan would approve. “I’ve been in traditional guitar/bass/drums bands and I wanted something more fluid,” he explains of the collective’s loose line-up of friends and family. “I started The Lake Poets when I was teaching, to take my mind off a 9-5 job. I didn’t want this to be another job. I’ve had plenty of shit times, so why create more shit times for myself? It should be fun, for me and the people I’m playing with. I can’t think of anything worse than being in a band that plays the same songs the same way every night for 50 years. They might be rolling in money, but it’s boring. There’s nothing more I enjoy than turning round on stage to see my mates having fun playing these songs.”

An avid Sunderland fan (“I’ll release my happy album if Sunderland ever win the Premier League”), Longstaff enthuses about wanting to work with Feist, an ambition that deserves to pay off, given the scale and drama contained within The Lake Poets. “I want people to hold my songs in high regard and to get positive experiences from them,” he summarises. “My songs are sometimes melancholic, but even the darkest songs have an element of hope to them.” It’s a seed of hope that’s already carried him to Nashville. The rest of the world won’t be too far behind.


Marty Longstaff of The Lake Poets by Ian West.

By Online Editor

Published on Thu, 20 August 15

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