It’s not the second album that’s difficult. Melodies, harmonies and words all come embarrassingly easy to a born songwriter like Alex Highton. It’s the life that happens in-between the songwriting and the recording that’s the hard bit. Don’t get this wrong, Alex knows that he deserves little pity for leading a wonderful life with his wife and children out there in the “wilds” of Cambridgeshire, it’s just that its taken a rather circuitous route to get him there.
As a kid his time was split between his native Liverpool and Florence, Italy, after his parents’ divorce. Liverpool has a musical heritage that is impossible to escape but it was during the summers, whilst devouring his Dad’s amazingly eclectic record collection , that his musical education began, taking in everything from Talking Heads & Penguin Cafe Orchestra to The Band & David Ackles.
He lost his twenties to bad decisions and train-wreck relationships and it was only after meeting his future wife, and then struggling through some kind of nervous breakdown, that he started to take songwriting seriously. The songs he wrote (part therapy / part love letter his new life) formed the basis of his debut album, a record replete with tales of rural S&M, mental, emotional and economic collapse, and ultimately salvation through love and family.
The record extensive support from BBC6 Music & BBC Introducing (amongst others) and a US tour followed, taking in New York, Austin (SXSW) and LA, with more dates in Germany, Holland & Belgium, as well as slots at CAMP BESTIVAL, WILDERNESS FESTIVAL, NO DIRECTION HOME, SUMMER SUNDAE, THE BIG SESSION and more.
Having got the observational stuff off his chest so gloriously on his debut two years ago (“a masterpiece,” according to Heaven Magazin in Holland, “World class,” said the Guardian), on his follow up album “Nobody Knows Anything” he now turns on himself.
The results can be seriously discomforting, albeit in a highly melodic way. It’s Alex Highton after all, though these days his ever-evolving craft as a writer approaches Steely Dan levels of effortless complexity and Paddy McAloon-like supersmart nonchalance (witness It Falls Together, the bonkers Panic, the epic Mephisto or Sunlight Burns Your Skin for sheer unhinged musicality) as well as a newfound taste for sharp-edged lyrical brutality. Highton himself cites Sufjan Steven, Here We Go Magic & Joni Mitchell as big influences on this record, if not directly in sound or style, then certainly in approach. “There were no rules whilst recording, the songs could go anywhere.”
And for the sake of one last comparison, the achievement of a devastating statement like “I Only Asked You To Try” followed by as heavy-weight a song as “Somebody Must Know Something”, elegantly arriving at its conclusion that “God is dead or he’s left, that’s the only explanation”, must surely rank as Highton’s big Randy Newman moment.
“This is me trying to work out the point of it all really, to which the answer is I haven’t got a clue and nobody has.” he says, “That Richard Dawkins advert that they had on the side on the London buses ‘There is probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.’ is probably were it’s at. I sort of quote this in the chorus the song “Fear”. The title “Nobody Knows Anything” is actually a famous quote about Hollywood folk scrambling around for the next big hit that I stole from William Goldman and I suppose all the songs are me trying to conquer my own existential crisis. I get pissed off with the certainties presented to me by religions and politicians. In fact I did record it with the loose idea that these songs were the thoughts running through someone’s head just before they die. It’s certainly structured in that way.”
So there is a structure after all. To anyone outside Alex Highton’s head it would sound more like a brilliant explosion of original thoughts, ideas and instinctive expression.
What sets Nobody Knows Anything apart from its folky predecessor at the very first listen is the extended cast of players joining Highton in his sometimes almost jazzy, avant-whatever, then sometimes stripped-back arrangements. Next to his long-time cohorts double-bass-player Jonny Bridgwood (Morrissey, Kathryn Williams, The Leisure Society etc.) and drummer Howard Monk (Billy Mahonie, The Clientele etc.), producer David “Bear” Dobson, Laura J Martin, Bonnie Dobson, Jonathan “Tall Tree Six Foot Man” Czerwik, Nancy Wallace (of The Memory Band and The Owl Service), John Howard and Robert Rotifer (of Rotifer) all make appearances, next to “my wife, my kids, the dentist who lives next door and loads of others”. “It’s still the village life, then, but equipped with a magical wardrobe that opens to a wondrous world of sounds and dreams.
Praise for Woodditton Wives Club
“World Class” – The Guardian
“World Class….resotres your faith in the genre” Tom Robinson BBC 6 Music
“Fantastic record” – Steve Lamacq BBC Radio TWO
“A Masterpiece” – Heaven Magazine