Jon Fratelli can’t say he didn’t warn us.
Talking about the creation of the last Fratellis album, In Your Own Sweet Time – a stomping tour de force released earlier this year – he flagged his “short attention span.
“I can maybe keep a thread going for a couple of songs,” he noted late last year, "and each new song is usually a reaction to the last one. A good example of that is the fact that even in the middle of these songs, I had a real need to go off and sit at a piano and just play quietly. I needed something that was the opposite of these songs. And out of that I ended up writing a whole other record…”
Equally, it’s not like the singer/songwriter/guitarist/pianist doesn’t have form in being restlessly creative. Alongside five band albums in the last 12 years, the Scotsman has also released a collaborative album under the name Codeine Velvet Club and, in 2011, a solo album, Psycho Jukebox.
But for this next trick, the musician might have exceeded even his impressive standards. Yes, his second solo album, Bright Night Flowers, is coming little more than six months [CORRECT?] after the release of In Your Own Sweet Time. But more than that: Bright Night Flowers is brilliant, a selection of exquisite songs, largely written on piano that, in all the best ways, have something of the night about them.
Soul-noir, country-gothic, The Big ‘O’ meets The Big Easy, the Heart Of Saturday Night meets the West End of Glasgow… call it what you will, Jon’s second solo “joint” is a masterpiece, and a refreshing change of pace from the last band album.
“At least half of these songs came about from the need to have something that was removed from the writing of In Your Own Sweet Time,” he explains. “But there’s really no way of accounting for that. On the one hand you could say that there was this need to have two different threads going at the same time. But on the other hand, songs arrive when they decide to rather than when you do. It shifts on a moment-to-moment basis for me."
As for the speed with which he’s crafted this new set of songs, Jon adds, “it’s completely song dependent. I wasn’t angling to make a record of my own at all. I just found myself with a bunch of songs that I really liked. The honest reason for recording them is that I was curious. I just wanted to see them through and sit back and have a listen.”
It’s about making things interesting and fresh for himself, and for listeners. The songs on the last Fratellis album largely began on a laptop, in a briskly spontaneous fashion. With this second solo album, Jon found himself sitting at an instrument he hadn’t played in a while. His renewed love affair with the piano is its most transporting on gorgeous, strings-coloured ballad After A While.
“Almost all of these songs were written on the piano, which is fairly obvious on first listen. Given that the writing for the last band album wasn’t done in that way at all, it seemed like the most natural counterpoint: to move at certain points away from fairly loud and colourful songs – some of which were built from mash ups of various ideas – to something gentle that rolled with a bit more fluidity.”
There was, too, he admits, a practical consideration.
“Given that I was writing the band’s album at the time I really hadn’t been playing piano very much. I also had some health issues at the time so sitting down and playing something quiet held some appeal. Even though I go through long periods where I don’t play piano, I always seem to just be able to slide back into it quite naturally. I learned to play when I was young and even though I’m not that technically gifted at it, I can play around on those keys in a fairly natural way. Writing songs on that instrument almost feels more natural than doing so on a guitar.”
The album begins with Serenade In Vain, a beautiful song that manages to be intimate and epic. Opening with a lovely string overture, it slides effortlessly into six minutes of prairie blues. Then, Jon’s hypnotic croon: “I don’t want your autograph, I don’t mean to make you laugh, I’m just hanging on the words you haven’t said yet…”
“Sometimes a song decides for itself where it wants to be placed in the running order. Serenade In Vain had a feel about it that to me evoked a sense of a bright summer morning, one of those lazy moments when you kind of float into the day. Lyrically it has a theme that is revisited throughout the album: one of a man head over heels in love – or so he thinks – helplessly, hopelessly fumbling around the edges of the object of his affection. I think everyone, male or female, can relate to that.”
It’s followed by the wee hours sophistication of Bright Night Flowers, the title and lyrics inspired by some of this voracious reader’s literary favourites.
“For some reason it was always going to be the album title. I’d written that phrase down years ago. I can’t be sure but I think I picked it up in a Norman Mailer book, possibly The Deer Park. There’s also a reference to John Fante’s Ask The Dust, which is a semi-autobiographical novel about a struggling writer.
“This could also have been an album opener. If Serenade… is a song that evokes the morning then Bright Night Flowers veers more towards a nighttime tale. Maybe it’s just that these periods are usually the times when you can find some solitude. For me those bright, lazy mornings are usually alive with possibility, whereas those evening periods can sometimes bring on a more reflective feeling.”
There’s more reflection in Dreams Don’t Remember Your Name. It’s hard, if not wholly unrealistic, to channel Roy Orbison, but Jon has had a good crack.
“I think it’s impossible not to notice Roy Orbison if you have a love of the emotionally charged ballad or just pop music in general,” he agrees. “That voice is really essential. The thing is, though, that you have to understand from the off that you’re never going to come close to what he is able to convey even in a single note. This song, I guess, does have some drama to it in a way that makes it less understated than the other songs on the album. I’d love to say that it was planned that way but it was just a happy accident.
“Sometimes when you’re putting an album together you know that you need to come up with a counterpoint at a certain place so as not to be repetitive,” he continues. “But on this occasion it just took care of itself. It’s possible that in terms of the arrangement I had Sea Change by Beck in mind.”
There’s another artful nod, to Tom Waits – early Seventies/start of career Tom Waits – on the song In From The Cold.
“Like anyone with a decent set of ears I do love Tom Waits. But he falls into the same category as Roy Orbison, i.e. admire but don’t take it any further. This song was actually written a few years back, before I’d heard any Tom Waits, so any resemblance has to be a coincidence. As for the vocal delivery: I was actually a bit hoarse at the time and always meant to re-record it but I grew to like it.
“I think lyrically this is one of my favourites, I can’t say for certain, but it sounds to me like a song written about a female star of the screen. We’re empathising with the plight of the starlet who is built up and then torn to shreds – usually by some kind of male feeling of inadequacy, though sometimes also by female jealously. Things might have changed a little bit but it’s something that can still be found.”
His deep-seated musical loves also find form in Crazy Lovers Song and Evangeline: perhaps the most classic-sounding country ballads on an album blessed with a bunch of them.
“I’ve always been a traditionalist when it comes to music, so there’s something in what people call ‘country’ that has always appealed. To me it has potential to be constantly played with, especially lyrically. At the time I wasn’t in a place of high energy, so these lazier styles were something that I gravitated to quite naturally.
“I can’t think of any examples among the writers who I’ve always admired – Dylan, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Springsteen – where they haven’t also gone into these places musically. I think that speaks for itself: if you have a gut instinct and love for rock’n’roll then country feels like a completely natural companion.”
Rounding off this perfectly-assembled, finely-wrought, nine-track song-cycle is Somewhere: another six-and-half-minute epic, with interesting electronics whispering in the background.
“I think this was the only song that I wrote on a guitar. I think thematically it harks back to something like Dylan’s Restless Farewell. It’s a ‘so long’, I guess, to who or what I can’t say for certain… Maybe to everything that has innocently defined you.
“Suddenly realising that your identity has been defined by a multitude of imaginary storylines can bring about a sense of relief and a feeling of exhilaration. But it can also involve some sadness for the character who’s dying off, no matter how imaginary he or she may be.
“People will know this when there’s a character in a book or TV show that they relate to who dies – it’s exactly the same. There’s been an investment in his or her plight so it’s natural to mourn their passing.”
Obviously a solo album is rarely a wholly solo production. Bright Night Flowers comes close, but Jon credits his partnership with producer Stuart McCredie, a repeat collaborator over the years (not least on the Codeine Velvet Club album) and with whom he worked in WHAT studio WHERE. A big shout out, too, to the sublime string scores written by Will Foster, The Fratellis’ longtime keyboard player. As Jon says, “he was given free reign to do whatever he wanted and he really did produce some beautiful work. They were performed by The Cairns String Quartet from Glasgow, and by a ridiculously talented guy in LA called Stevie Blacke who can play anything and everything with strings on it!”
Jon promises “a couple of shows” in support of his second solo album, although he admits that, “I gave no thought to this whilst working on the album, though. Like I’ve probably said before, these things should only be done for their own sake. What comes after is something you have to let take its own course.”
With the uplifting melancholia of Bright Night Flowers, Jon Fratelli has pulled something very special from his art, heart and soul. But if he viewed that last Fratellis album as “playful”, if push came shove, what sole adjective would sum up this one?
“I’d describe this album as playful as well, actually!” he says with a smile. “It might not seem like it, but heartbreak and emotional pain can also be playful when you know that they’re not to be taken too seriously. It’s funny – that the age-old western image of Heaven depicted in art really looks quite dull. It seems to involve everyone sitting around in loincloth looking a bit vacant!
“Equally, you can’t know pleasure without its opposite. In that respect, black is equally as joyful as white. Life would be very dull if happiness was the only experience, wouldn’t it?”