Surrey songsmith Newton Faulkner on working at farm shops, underwater gigs and what comes next

PUBLISHED: 13:17 06 October 2011 | UPDATED: 11:30 23 June 2015

His debut album Hand Built by Robots vaulted Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black to No 1 in 2007

His debut album Hand Built by Robots vaulted Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black to No 1 in 2007

Multi-platinum singer-songwriter Newton Faulkner has a way of transforming the less than orthodox into a nation capturing hit. With his ginger dreadlocks, the Surrey songsmith has never been your average ‘pop’ star and is just as happy playing Glastonbury as he is a hot air balloon. As he gears up to perform at Weyfest this month, Matthew Williams meets him to discuss working at farm shops, underwater gigs and what comes next, among other diverse topics

Brother Toby, Newton and sister Lottie (right) with friend Hannah Swift at GlastonburyBrother Toby, Newton and sister Lottie (right) with friend Hannah Swift at Glastonbury

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine September 2011


***

Almost ten years ago, a ginger dreadlocked teen took to the stage with his band as headliners of an intimate music event in Reigate’s Priory Park.

While some in that crowd may have had an inkling of where his future would lead, few could have predicted the meteoric rise of our protagonist: armed, for the most part, with just his guitar, voice and a lot of charm.

Much has changed in the world of Newton Faulkner since then but that haircut remains the same and, while Glastonbury was on his summer schedule, the venues continue to be less than conventional.

“I played HMS Belfast last year and a hot air balloon the year before – that was definitely interesting,” says the 26-year-old, when we meet in the very respectable surroundings of the Arkle Manor restaurant in Betchworth, just down the road from his childhood home near Horley.

“So, I’ve done sea, air and land already, and I did play in an old slate mine as well; I suppose underwater would have to be the next one…”

Ever helpful, Surrey Life suggests that the billiard room under the lake at Witley Park, near Godalming might be worth a look following his headline appearance at Weyfest this month, which is held just down the road at the Rural Life Centre in Tilford.

“Funnily enough, I was asked a while ago what my perfect gig would be and I had just watched Ponyo, Studio Ghibli’s take on The Little Mermaid,” he says. “I thought an underwater gig with all the sea creatures swimming around above would be amazing. I’d probably have to get a bit more ‘Bowie’ though; otherwise the crowd would just spend their time watching the aquarium rather than the set.”

Something a little different
If you haven’t witnessed a live performance by Newton Faulkner (actual first name Sam; real middle name Battenberg; random humorous Wikipedia addition: Jammy-Dodger), it’s hard to imagine even creatures of the deep distracting the audience from what’s going-on centre stage.

No average singer-songwriter, he plays percussive guitar (drumming beats from his instrument as he fingerpicks chords, melodies and harmonies from the strings), while triggering visuals, backing instruments and other effects via pedals at his feet.

It’s certainly taken the one-man band thing to another level and has led not only to multi-platinum album sales (his debut album Hand Built by Robots vaulted Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black to No 1 in 2007) but also to him being a sought after live performer. It’s all a long old way from Priory Park, but he remains remarkably grounded.

“It’s very challenging having to occupy the stage by yourself; it’s mentally exhausting and physically demanding, but I probably don’t make it simple for myself,” he laughs.

“It’s so satisfying when everything works though. I’m still trying to decide what to do next: I’ve done acoustic with no effects; triggering visuals and effects; with a band; with a string section… I’ve covered quite a lot of ground already but I think I’d like to experiment further with the string section.”

At this point, coffee arrives and he whisks one out to his father who has dropped him off for the interview (Newton doesn’t drive, preferring to get the train about as it allows him time to “get things done”), singing as he goes. When he returns, I question whether there is any truth to the rumour that this wouldn’t be his first foray into the world of hospitality.

“Ha-ha; yes, I worked at Fanny’s Farm Shop near Merstham for ages; on and off for about five years,” says the quietly spoken songsmith, who also attended Hawthorns School in nearby Bletchingley and was part of Gatton Community Theatre (playing King Herod, dreadlocks and all, in one of their productions pre-fame).

“I haven’t been back for ages ­­– should do though! I remember the tree house getting built. It was a fun place to hang out: unloading trucks full of logs, feeding pigs, collecting eggs, making tea. Very random.”

Family guy
Surrey born and bred (and possibly the most famous person to have come from the Horley area: “Well, Dame Judi Dench obviously lives not too far away, but she wasn’t born here so I’m not sure that counts...”), he now lives in London where he’s converting an old dog biscuit factory into a home-come-studio.

“I live with my girlfriend and my six-month-old son, who is amazing,” he says. “I always thought becoming a father would make you more sensible but there hasn’t been much change. It’s incredibly good for your mental health, bizarrely. It takes away a bit of your brain that was always bugging you and is actually really relaxing. He’s an incredibly chilled out baby.”

Newton himself enjoyed a comfortable, if not exactly traditional, upbringing. Dad, Keith, wrote, illustrated and published the perennial best-seller The Wide-Mouthed Frog; mum, Sally, encouraged him to take up everything from horse riding to the unicycle, to widen his acting skills – Newton was also a pupil at the Italia Conti stage school. He remains very close to his parents, living back at home until the building work at his London pad is completed, while his sister, Lottie, is actually his manager, and brother Toby is a song-writing partner.

“We’re just a really good team and have a lot of fun,” he says. “It’s important to have a lack of seriousness and being around them definitely helps with that.”

After the acting distractions, he made his way to the Academy of Contemporary Music in Guildford in 2002 and it was there, he says, that he “found himself” as a musician under the tutelage of Irish finger-style guitarist Eric Roche, who sadly passed away in 2005 at the all too young age of 37.

“I owe so much to Eric but I never wanted to be just a copy of another guitarist,” he says. “There are loads of guitarists out there who are better pure players; Thomas Leeb, for example, is someone I’ve always admired, luckily got to know and I’m always a bit jealous that he gets to just concentrate on his playing – while I’ve decided to create sketches where I’m about to face battle with a bunch of angry pirates…

“I’d like to spend some time just focusing on playing at some point. Depending on how the next album goes, I think I might do an instrumental thing with (Japanese recording artist and producer) Cornelius. I doubt it would be a very commercial thing – I can’t imagine it making Radio 1 – but it would be very satisfying.” 

Life in the limelight
His third album is already written but could head in “any direction” before its release next summer and, away from the stage, Newton has started exploring less traditional musical avenues.

“I like jamming along to films and recently scored a short movie called The White Wall,” he says. “When you have a visual, your brain works in a different way and I’d like to do some more. I may be doing some computer game music as well, which will be really interesting.”

As for fame, he says he is increasingly confused by high profile figures who complain about life in the limelight. As someone who happily spends the day mingling with the audience before a charity concert headline spot, he doesn’t understand those who choose to sneak on and off stage and away.

“That can’t be fun at all and seems to be missing the point,” he says.

Recently, a group appeared on the social networking site Facebook entitled Ed Sheeran is a poor man’s Newton Faulkner. To some, such a rivalry would be a fire to stoke but he insists that the latest songwriter on the block, who also happens to be ginger, is actually someone he quite likes.

Are the pair of them managing to reclaim an element of cool back for the fiery follicled around the world after the damage inflicted by Mick Hucknall, I wonder, tongue firmly in cheek...

“I’m not quite sure why people have such a problem with Mick Hucknall,” he laughs. “I mean, musically, he did some great stuff, if we’re honest. It’s a bit like Phil Collins; you obviously get put on a list somewhere and that’s where you stay. I don’t know who owns that list: it’s probably Rupert Murdoch.”

At that moment, George Michael’s version of The Police classic Roxanne suddenly floats through the speakers, which seems quite timely (if a little odd) as attention-grabbing covers are Newton’s stock-in-trade – whether it’s Massive Attack’s Teardrop, which made him a household name with heavy Radio 1 rotation, or his latest live pièce de résistance, Bohemian Rhapsody, which was considered a complicated song when Queen played it, let alone one man and his guitar.

Surreally, though, it was a cover of a children’s television theme that proved particularly popular for a few years.

“Yeah, Sponge Bob did take off in a way I hadn’t really expected and turned into something of a drunken heckle by the time I stopped playing it,” he says. “I had realised in the support slots, all you have to do is be remembered, whatever that happens to be for. Even if it’s something really weird.”

A home counties born pin-up for surfers (according to some press) who has never surfed; a multi-platinum selling musician who spends half his stage time (approximately) talking about pirates; and a performer who can get 50,000 singing along to a children’s theme song having just brought couples to tears while covering Nineties trip hop…

There may be little that is orthodox about Newton Faulkner’s approach to music, but it’s impossible to forget the impression he has already left. The show, however, most certainly goes on and we’re looking forward to Fanny’s Farm Shop appearing in between Brixton Academy and Glastonbury on next year’s touring schedule...

***
 

How he found his sound…

“I suppose it was an amalgamation of things really: I saw Cake, who were brilliantly interactive, and The Flaming Lips are masters of euphoria. My biggest live influence, however, is probably Bobby McFerrin: he basically makes every other singer look really lazy. His show is incredible. I’d love to collaborate with him. It gave me the confidence to do what I do – not only playing straight songs, enjoying myself and taking the gig wherever it decides to go. It’s kept working on all these different levels: whether playing in front of 50 people or 50,000. It’s funny, because I’d always assumed you’d have to drastically change your act to the situation but I’ve found you don’t.” 

***

My favourite Surrey

Restaurant
I’m not sure it’s my favourite but the Thai Terrace in Guildford is amazing. It’s on the top of a car park, which I still find really surprising – you don’t really expect it. It’s very cool.

View
I’ve always enjoyed the view from the Hog’s Back and it’s a brilliant name to be able to drop into random conversation.

Shop
I attach so much nostalgia to the Blockbuster in Reigate. I’ve had so many good times because of it and I was a master of the ‘mega fine’. I had a film that had been taken off the list and brought it back two years later – the fine would have been about £5,000. I still don’t think I ever watched it. It was AI.

Place to visit
Fanny’s Farm Shop – we could get a charity gig going in the tree house. Well, me in the tree house with a speaker and everyone below. It could happen.

Place to relax
Definitely home for me.

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