For all the best artists, the thrill of continued commercial success is at some point outweighed by the need to challenge themselves creatively.
After 20 stellar years with Feeder -including 8 gold and platinum albums and over 3 million album sales- for Grant Nicholas that moment came after his band’s sell out show at Brixton Academy on 23rd November 2012.
“When you have a formula which you know works it can be difficult to stop,” he explains with typical candour. “Feeder is a great band to be in, but it requires a certain head space. I wanted to clear my head for a bit and write some songs, and this album just came along. It felt so natural because there were no expectations.”
As with so many of his peers (Noel Gallagher, Damon Albarn) this lifting of the commercial burden sparked an outpouring of fresh music and ideas.
Recorded over fourteen months in various studios on both sides of the Atlantic, Yorktown Heights is that rarest of beasts- an album which evokes the carefree spirit of Laurel Canyon in the ‘70’s while also sounding bang up date.
Ambitious, largely acoustic, and full of head-spinning melodies, it’s also Grant’s most personal work to date. “I definitely had a 70’s vibe in my head for this record,” he says, citing Nick Drake, Neil Young and James Taylor as inspirations. “I love the fact they weren’t always the best singers, but their songs sounded so believable.”
Grant’s ability to match these songwriting legends is clear from opening track ‘Soul Mates’. A beautiful acoustic lament -which comes with a video shot in Queens Wood, close to Grant’s North London home- it’s a heartfelt hymn of mutual need.
“Even though it’s just an acoustic guitar and a vocal, it’s immediately got a reaction from people. It’s easy to criticise simple songs, but if you strike a chord with someone, that’s gold.”
A strident ‘Hitori’ reflects on life, loneliness and relationships. “It’s a combination of my own feelings and what my friends are going through- losing parents, divorces,“ says Grant of lyrics like: ‘Sorrow will find me everywhere I go.’ “I know it sounds awful, but as a songwriter I feed off of that.”
If the reflective ‘Father To Son’ is self-explanatory and the propulsive ‘Robots’ tackles technology’s insidious grip on our lives, gothic murder ballad ‘Joan Of Arc’ is a reminder that Grant is also in demand as a songwriter for both rock and pop acts (who shall remain nameless).
“That song is a mixture of influences- everything from Johnny Cash, to spaghetti Westerns to Paris itself. I think it would work perfectly on a film soundtrack. And I’m sure Nick Cave could do a decent version!”
‘Vampires’ is equally expansive, and acts as a noir-ish nod to his songwriting past. “It’s about a girl who feels she’s surrounded by the wrong people in the big city. She feels lost and awkward in society. It’s almost a love song.’
Fans of the euphoric, punch-the-air choruses which are Grant’s trademark, meanwhile, will be in raptures on hearing ‘Hope’ and ‘Time Stood Still’. “I’m not ashamed of being anthemic,” he says, citing Tom Petty as inspiration for these stadium-sized interludes.
“There’s a directness to his writing which I love. ‘Hope’ is about my memories of growing up near Chepstow, on the Welsh borders. When things go wrong in life, with friends or family, you can always go home, and I think everyone can relate to that.”
If Yorktown Heights’ lyrics offer up both personal insights and classy ruminations on modern life, its sonic character comes from where the tracks were laid down. While sessions at his own home studio (The Treehouse), Angelic Studios in Banbury and The Crypt (London) were vital staging posts, the album takes its name from the district of upstate New York where the songs came into focus.
“The bulk of it was done at Tiny Pocket in Yorktown Heights with Brian Sperber (Julian Casablancas, Dinosaur Jr) and Sam Miller,” he explains.
“It’s only about an hour directly north of Manhattan but you feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere.”
It was this sense of isolation -surrounded by nothing but woodland and the roar of passing pick-up trucks- which resulted in the sparse but beautiful textures of ‘Tall Trees’.
“When I first arrived at the studio it was deep snow,” recalls Grant.
“You couldn’t get out of the house. I was getting cabin fever after a while. ‘Tall Trees’ came from that. It’s not a redneck area but it’s got that feel, which I think is reflected in the music. In fact, that’s what I call it- redneck indie!”
The final piece in the jigsaw came with a mastering session in Los Angeles with Brian ‘Big Bass’ Gardner, famed for his work with everyone from Alice Cooper to Dr Dre. “I think he’s got a magic button under the desk which suddenly brings a new depth to everything,” says Grant with a grin. “He gave the record a real ’70‘s warmth, which is so important.”
It’s this attention to the smallest sonic details you’d expect from a master craftsman who worked as a studio engineer before Feeder took off. Future plans include intimate live shows, uploading full length visuals for every song online and a new touring band..Right now, though, it’s all about getting the songs a fair hearing.
“This record is very important to me,” he says, explaining that the album is also a family affair- the sleeve illustrations were hand drawn by his nine year old daughter. “I’ve spent a lot of time on it and I want people to hear it. And if it takes off, then of course that’s a nice problem to have.”
Don’t bet against it. After twenty years in the business, Yorktown Heights is proof that Grant Nicholas is only just reaching his peak.