‘Song lyrics have to stab you in the face!’
Interview by Philip Moss and transcribed by Stewart Cheetham
Deep in the bowels of Manchester’s Night and Day Cafe, Secret Meeting caught up with Ian Felice before the first night of his UK tour to discuss his decision to go solo, the inspirations behind his new, critically acclaimed album, In The Kingdom Of Dreams, and working with Conor Oberst.
Secret Meeting: You’ve previously gone on record stating that you weren’t interested in doing a solo record…
Ian Felice: Really?
SM: Yeah, we read that you hadn’t planned on doing a solo record.
SM: Is that not true?
IF: I don’t remember saying it, but it’s definitely probably true.
SM: In any case, what was it about this set of songs that made them feel more personal? Why did you decide to make it as a solo record, as opposed to doing it with your brothers?
IF: Just when I was done writing the songs, they just felt like they were done. I didn’t wanna put them through a process. I just wanted them to be as raw as possible – I thought that would be the best way to serve the songs.
SM: Did you then have to have a conversation with your brothers and say, this one’s mine?
IF: No, they didn’t care. My wife was pregnant – I’d just learned that my wife was pregnant – and they were about to go on the road with Conor Oberst because we made a record with him in 2016. They were gonna be on tour all year, but I wasn’t gonna be able to tour because I had the baby. So, I was basically like, yeah, I need to make this record for myself- just to explore some things about myself.
SM: In terms of the recording process, were you doing that at home before you embellished it with the band? Is that how it worked?
IF: I just wrote all the songs in my house, at my desk, and then I went to my brother, Simone’s, studio and I recorded them all. Me, live – and then I had my brothers Simone, James and Christmas come and overdub some stuff. It was like a four day process.
SM: And then it was done?
IF: It was done, yeah.
SM: Brilliant. I think that really comes across. Like you say – it’s very stripped back.
IF: It was like the first take, kind of (motioning out with his hands- ‘bash, bash, bash’)… it was really easy and fun- I just wanted to have fun; I didn’t want to stress.
SM: One song that I think really stands out, lyrically, is Road to America. There is very vivid, but negative, imagery of America…
SM: You’ve got the burning white picket fences, riding storms alone, the gates of wrath. Pretty grim stuff…
IF: That was lifted from William Blake!
SM: Right, okay. My question is- if that’s the America that exists now, what does the America you are searching for, along the road, look and feel like to you?
IF: It was just a surreal absurdist’s view of America from pop culture- and different angles. I just wanted it to have a twisted Disney kind of…
SM: Yeah, there’s lots of Disney references!
SM: Like Donald Duck!
IF: (laughs) Yeah, that was a jab at Trump.
SM: I was gonna say- was this just before the Trump thing?
IF: Yeah, it was right when Trump won; then I wrote these songs a couple of months after that.
SM: Right okay, so it was right in the aftermath of that?
IF: Yeah, I was in shock about how horrible America was turning out to be.
SM: I heard you say how you hoped a lot of good music would come from that aftermath?
IF: I hope so. Some good has to happen from all this shit!
SM: You generally get reactions to things don’t you – musically and artistically – to negativity; and, hopefully there’ll be more to come?
IF: Yeah, hopefully people start being vocal about their opinions, instead of all these bubblegum love, pop songs – y’know, there’s just too much!
SM: You’re from the North East side, aren’t you? Catskills?
IF: Yeah, New York.
SM: You’ve got Mount Despair on the record and that phrase comes up a couple of times, which is obviously West Coast – Washington state.
IF: Yeah, Mount Despair is in Washington.
SM: So, what’s the reason for that?
IF: It’s more for the name. It was more like a symbol – an image – a symbol for just completely trying to climb a mountain of sadness (laughs); I mean I’ve never been to Mount Despair – my Mount Despair’s not the one in Washington – just the one in my brain.
SM: You’ve also just released your first poetry collection, and your art work is on the front of Conor Oberst’s record, Upside Down Mountain. Another mountain metaphor there! How do you, in terms of the poetry, determine which sets of words stay in the poetry book and which ones become songs- because there’s crossover, isn’t there, from the new album and the poetry?
IF: Yeah, there is.
SM: How do you go – right, this one’s staying as a poem and this one is becoming a song?
IF: A lot of the times I write melodies- like guitar and vocal melody parts. Certain lines of syllables fit better, y’know, within the structure of the melody, but generally I want the songs to be more concise and it’s easier to be ambiguous in poetry because someone is actually reading and thinking about it. Where as with music, it’s just not always the same.
SM: I read you said something about line breaks. Was that enjambment you were taking about? That idea idea of one line rolling in poetry…
IF: Yeah, how it stops and moves on, but is not necessarily the end of the thought. I just think, I started writing poetry because I wrote a lot of lyrics and I was just trying do something with this extra lyrics, but then I started I started actually really enjoying writing. Song lyrics have to stab you in the face – where as, poems can be more subtle and nuanced.
SM: In regards to your art work- when you had the idea of bringing out a solo album, did you consider using any of your own art for the record cover, or was The Race Track always going to be on the cover?
IF: No, I just found that painting and I really liked it. I was going to put one of my paintings on, but I didn’t have any that were really perfect for it.
SM: What did you like about The Race Track image?
IF: Just the atmosphere of it- I guess, the figure kind of reminded me of that song, Ten to One, on the record. And, the fact that it’s Albert Pinkham-Ryder – this old American from near the area where I grew up (Pinkham was born in Massachusetts, but lived and died in New York).
SM: You mentioned Conor Oberst earlier. How was that experience, working on Salutations?
IF: It was really fun. We got to play with Jim Keltner, you know him? He’s a legendary drummer who’s played with John Lennon, Neil Young and Bob Dylan. He’s the drummer on Knocking on Heaven’s Door – he said that was the only song that, whilst he was recording, he started crying during the session because it was so powerful. That was the best part – just getting to know him; he was a really sweet guy. And just being in Malibu (laughs) that was pretty fun- it was just beautiful!
SM: Was that different to how you would normally work?
IF: (laughs) It was very different. It was an actual, nice studio- not like a fucking garage in the winter with no heating!
SM: Do you think that’s something you’ll do again?
IF: I hope so!
SM: So do we – they were both great records, yours and Conor’s, so hopefully there’s more to come.
Ian Felice’s new record, In The Kingdom Of Dreams, is available now on Loose Records.