Newton Faulkner on Human Love, American Idiot and Guildford gigs
PUBLISHED: 02:50 29 April 2016 | UPDATED: 15:50 17 April 2018
While his trademark dreadlocks may have gone and the theatre stage is calling, Surrey-born-and-bred troubadour Newton Faulkner has just released what could be the best album of his career. As he gears up for a Guildford homecoming gig, here he talks to Matthew Williams about what comes next
In its own quiet way, a little corner of east Surrey has been shaping a hefty chunk of British popular culture in recent years. Whether it’s the comedy of David Walliams, the beats of Fatboy Slim (aka Norman Cook), the globe-straddling electronics of Disclosure or the intricate melodies of the man I’m meeting today, they all have one thing in common: they spent their formative years in the Reigate area.
“It’s kind of strange, isn’t it? But very cool too; a Reigate revolution!” says the uniquely-talented singer-songwriter, Newton Faulkner. “You can never say never about collaborating with folk, especially from your hometown, and the Disclosure guys are great, so maybe we could arrange something one day. Perhaps a Party in (Priory) Park would be a bit too ambitious – although what a line-up that would be to start things off.”
Kind of strange and very cool sums up Newton’s work fairly accurately, too. Never one to toe the line, he’s always stood out from singer/songwriter clichés thanks to his quirky take on pop, soulful voice and impressively complex guitar techniques. While his previous album, Studio Zoo, proved a cathartic process following his breakup with the mother of his five-year-old son, Beau, Newton’s latest release (his fifth), Human Love, finds him in a much more optimistic place.
“I got a lot of emotion out on the previous record,” says the 31-year-old. “I’m not sure what possessed me to show the entire recording 24/7 for five weeks from my home studio on the internet, but now I’d say it was a necessary process and opened the path to Human Love.
“With this album, we took the sparks from some of our live shows – those moments where you really notice the crowd go bonkers – and tried to recreate that feeling as often as possible. So hopefully it’s pretty euphoric for the most part. There’s still the same intricate guitar playing, but it’s surrounded by a lot more. I think it’s probably my most complete record, and I got to work with some amazing people along the way.”
There’s another noticeable change with Newton too: gone are his signature dreadlocks, which were shorn during the video of his new album’s lead-off single, his cover of Major Lazer’s Get Free.
“Well, if you’re going to do it, you may as well do it properly,” he laughs. “I’d been thinking about it for a while, and fortunately I’ve still got a pretty distinctive look. It’s funny, The Simpsons’ creator Matt Groening used to say that the key to a good character was designing a silhouette that people could instantly recognise. It appears to be the path I’ve taken in real life.”
Having met him straight from the cinema, where he’d been watching The Good Dinosaur with his son, conversation turns to his own dad, Keith, who wrote the popular children’s pop-up book, The Wide-Mouthed Frog.
“I’m very lucky in that my son really took to Dad’s books,” he continues. “It’s special enough reading them together, but watching Dad read them to him is just magic. We probably don’t head over as often as we should, but my parents are still based locally, near Reigate, where we were all brought up.”
Having first appeared in the pages of Surrey Life magazine as One to Watch back in July 2007, before he’d released his first album, Hand Built By Robots (which went straight to No.1 in August of that year), Newton has since set up camp in East London in his home studio, which was converted from an “old dog biscuit factory”.
He hasn’t left his roots behind completely, however: his brother, Toby, continues to be his main songwriting partner as well as one third of the live band (with Newton and drummer Toby Couling), while sister, Lottie, is his manager.
“Toby and me live together and, well, it’s a lot of fun,” says Newton. “As well as the obvious distraction of having our own studio, which we’re ‘renovating’ again (we like to mix it up a bit, even if it’s just painting the walls or a few new instruments), we’re big computer gamers and love films. It’s great that we’ve been able to take this journey together and Toby also writes for other people too – something I’d love to do more of, if I had a bit more time.”
Enter stage right
Considering the busy schedule of the modern-day artist, whether that’s writing, recording, touring, doing the PR circuit or even, as in Newton’s case, a tentative move into the fashion world with recent appearances at London Fashion Week and the front cover of an Italian style magazine, it’s even more impressive that he’ll soon be taking on a lead role in the touring production of Green Day’s award-winning musical, American Idiot.
“I can’t wait for this!” says Newton. “I haven’t actually seen the show before, despite always wanting to, but that will help to bring a fresh approach to the character. I’m lucky as we’ll get some Sundays off too, so I’ll be able to fit in a few festival dates alongside the tour, and I’ll take a little recording set-up along for in-between learning lines.
“That said, this theatre stuff is also great because it gives me a bit of a release from music, music, music… Don’t get me wrong, I really love what I do, but after 15 years or so of just one focus, having a little break will probably do me some good – even if it’s just for a few days a week.
“Plus, I love Green Day – and getting the chance to work my way back into acting (he started out as a student at the Italia Conti stage school), singing songs by a band I love, was too good to miss. It’s strange as my alter-ego in the show is actually a guy I went to Italia Conti with way back – and we were in what was basically a Green Day covers band. So it’s all a bit surreal, but very exciting!”
Before all that, though, comes a European tour that kicks off in Paris just a few frantic weeks of rehearsals after we meet (“as usual, I’m over-complicating things and I’ve got a new guitar that can basically trigger sound- effects when hit in various places across its body. They’re just in the places I usually do my percussive hits but I’ve barely had a chance to play with it yet!”).
I wonder aloud whether the disturbing scenes of carnage resulting from the terrorist attack on last year’s Eagles of Death Metal show at Le Bataclan ever made him think twice about performing in the French capital?
“To be honest, maybe it’s just me, but when you hear that people are trying to silence artists, for whatever their reasons, well… it just made me want to play there more,” he says. “It’s not something that I think aggressively about, but musicians and music fans, and everyone who supports that, should never be put in that position – we can’t let that sort of situation affect how we go about doing what we love.
“I also knew the merchandise guy, Nick Alexander, who was killed – so that’s just incredibly sad. I guess I’m just looking forward to an amazing, passionate show, as you know that’s what all involved would like to see continuing to happen.”
When Newton hits the mainland again, paths eventually lead back to Guildford, where he spent his formative years learning the ropes at the Academy of Contemporary Music. It will be the third time he’s played G Live, a venue he says has always been “good to him”, and I wonder what he makes of the music scene in general in the town?
“Here’s where I make myself sound really rock ‘n’ roll,” he laughs. “When I was studying at the ACM, I still lived in the Reigate area, so I didn’t really take part in the nightlife to be honest. I get the feeling that things are going rather well though, and when I was back there to give a masterclass a few weeks ago, people seemed to be really excited about the place. I love doing that sort of stuff. I learned so much from Eric Roche, who sadly passed away in 2005, that it feels good to give a little back myself. I’m very open to more of that sort of thing.”
From his unusual guitar-playing techniques to his trademark haircuts and steps into the world of theatre, Newton says life is a constant search to avoid, as he puts it, “beige”. He needn’t worry. With one of the best albums of his career currently being toured – and even fashion magazines now clamouring for his look – it seems that this lad from Reigate is ready to take on the world. First up, Guildford…
My favourite Surrey...
Restaurant: We’ve been going to Café Rouge in Reigate forever as a family, so that holds nice memories.
Place to visit: My kid loves Priory Park – the playground there is amazing.
Place to relax: The Everyman Cinema at Reigate. So many friends worked there when we were growing up and it was always a great place to hang out.
Shop: I bought my first guitar at Eric Lindsey’s shop in West Street in Reigate.
Gig venue: While I’m really looking forward to G Live, we had many, many gigs at band nights at the Horley Baptist Church back in the day. Really, really fun nights!
The Reigate Connection
Fatboy Slim: Norman Cook has Come a Long Way, Baby since his formative years being educated at Reigate Grammar School.
David Walliams: Another former Reigate Grammar School pupil, he’s managed to reshape the worlds of TV comedy and children’s literature.
Disclosure: Former Reigate College music students Howard and Guy Lawrence hit the big time back in 2013 with their electronic duo. These days, their music seems to be everywhere.
The Guildford connection
A whole host of notable musicians have taken the same path as Newton Faulkner through Guildford’s Academy of Contemporary Music (ACM). Among them are Emmanuel Dadey, who has just joined the Drifters; Ebony Day, who won MTV’s Brand New for 2013; guitaristJoel Peat and bass player Ryan Fletcher who play in Lawson; Ted Dwane, who is the bassist in Mumford & Sons; and singer/songwriter of the moment, Ed Sheeran, also honed his craft there.