I have been a fan of Andy Thornton as a human being and musician since the late 80s. I love his new record Ages which I have already reviewed on Soul Surmise. I was delighted that he agreed to a wee interview. It became a big one about art and travel and the cruelty of the British Empire and the deepening of faith.
STOCKI: So, it has been a while. Why an album now?
ANDY: 10 years since I’ve actually finished one!
In 2010 I got promoted to the boss of the charity I was working for. That was a pretty hefty job. I had 42 staff and then the government started cutting our funding. I did six years of what was pretty exhausting work but in the margins I kept writing songs. I started travelling around the world training people for the British Council and was having the most simulating experiences. But there was no time to record anything.
The opening song of this album was actually written on the train on the way home from my last day at that place of work. It’s called “the Restless Horizon” and it’s about moving on from feeling closed in by life’s treadmill. And from that point on I started conceiving the tracks that I’d been writing for a new album.
Four years later here it is! That’s Ages indeed.
You have an extra CD of your older work. Putting them together how do you think your songwriting has changed over 30 years?
This is something I think a lot about. I often think there’s not much point in putting out any more music. The world is absolutely jammed with it. It’s so easy to put out a new track, and to find new music. I think there is something like 20,000 new songs on Spotify every week. Why bother? Who will listen?
But that is exactly the conundrum of life. Each one of us is both supremely important in our own world and almost insignificant in the big one. You can’t really square that circle, just let it stir up what it will.
So I started to write songs that I think reflected coming to terms with that and in that sense they had to be more complete, considered and mature songs. I now spend loads more time on my lyrics. The album has a song called “you’ll find me in the birdsong” I think it took about four years to write. I literally developed the song at around four in the morning night after night. I was very stressed I used to wake up in the night at 3 o’clock with my mind running. I was trying to get back to sleep, feeling wrecked and then the birds would start singing. At that point I’d be even more stressed because it was nearly morning and I hadn’t got back to sleep!
Then one day I told myself to stop fretting about the birds and go and join them. In my imagination just go and be one of them and relax and enjoy the dawn chorus. And as time went on I just thought, well that’s exactly where you belong, you are a songwriter after all.
So I think I’ve written some of my best songs lyrically. They’re quite intense and I hope there isn’t a spare word in there. They are also more musically varied and they’re definitely not singing about girls not wanting me anymore! That’s how grown up they are!!
Do you think your musical influences have changed at all?
Possibly not as much as they should. I am quite puzzled about that. I think most people actually write fairly similar songs all their lives. It’s not common that someone writes something too different from what they first wrote. We all have quite constant sensibilities as far as I can tell. So the bandwidth of my choices of melodies isn’t huge. Perhaps the arrangements vary.
There are some writers and bands that I just keep going back to because I never tire of their music. You can hear them in my choices of songs I guess cos they must just resonate with me. Whether it’s Prefab Sprout or Aztec Camera or Bruce Cockburn. I love other things but they don’t endure the same. I try to write as originally and as freely as possible but still I can tell that I am leaning on some sounds or styles that are pretty similar.
Let’s get to the new record. Were these songs written over a long period?
I think the first was written in 2008 when I first went to Pakistan. That song is called “Lahore Moon” and originates from a rush hour trip through the city centre to a small restaurant that overlooks a 17th century mosque. it was a terrifying journey as I had never experienced the chaotic and treacherous roads you get in overpopulated poorer countries. Life seemed so fragile and transient. Thousands of penniless people just trying to get through each day. The only uncrowded place was the moon above us looking down, I thought, with tender love and mercy on each vulnerable soul.
And the last was written last year.
I actually worked with Boo Hewerdine who is one of my favourite songwriters and who offered to help me put the album together. I took 21 songs to him and he whittled it down to 10 for me.. Then I wrote a song called “To Be Strong” which I really wanted to include. I didn’t ask his permission! It’s a song about learning to regroup after life’s struggles and tragedies. Maybe he’ll shun me for it. But I will regroup!!
There seems to be a lot of travel going on? Is this you using your songwriting to unpack what you experienced in your overseas work?
Yes. I’ve written lots. I have loads of lyrics hanging around waiting for the moment that a song creeps up on me. But I have been in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Palestine, Lebanon, helping to develop a new program that trains and connects social activists around the world.
A lot of the time I’ve been working in post-conflict countries, meeting people who have been through Civil War or where there has been some kind of ongoing strife. I wrote a song called ‘This Time, This Place, This Skin’ in Sri Lanka. I had been working with people from the north and south of the country who had been on opposite sides.
One thing you realise in settings like that is how people are really similar, fundamentally, yet can spend their lives at war with each other depending on what they’ve been brought up to believe about the others. It’s the same the world over.
I was tired at the end of the week, and just sat down to let my mind wander and this song came out pretty much in one go. It probably took about half an hour to write and three years to refine. The lyric is quite precise and fierce, which drove me to complete it.
There also seems to be a little bit of growing up/growing older/falling upwards going on. Is that an overall theme?
I hadn’t really started with the theme. But I think it’s common that you spot the overarching theme that has preoccupied you when you start putting a collection of songs together. It’s one of those moments you look down your own time tunnel and see what kind of things have been bugging you.
I think somewhere in your mid 50s you spot that life is just circular. When you stop striving to prove yourself or to get somewhere in your career or something similar, you realise that we are kind of going round in circles, reinventing the wheel and making the same mistakes and that’s mostly because of the phases of life that we go through.
Like at around about 30 years old I start getting more ambitious and then I risk my self and learn new skills and start pushing people out of the way because I know it all! Then around 40 I’ve had enough experience to realise it’s more complicated than that but I’m going up the ladder so I keep pushing. Then about 50 I’ve started to get into my stride but meanwhile there is this 30-year-old sneering at me because they know better than me. And the 40-year-old is becoming more skilled… etc etc
And then I start to ease off the battle and realise that I’m losing my potency. And I’m losing it just at the point when I’ve made enough mistakes to do everything better! And at that point I realise I’m caught up in a bigger pattern of life. And it’s too late to have another go and do it right next time.
For me, at that point somebody handed me the book “Falling Upwards” by Richard Rohr. It’s a book about learning to deal with life’s transitions and be reconciled to your loss of power because the last phase of your life is about learning to give it all back and to let go of your ambitions. And I guess that’s the theme that’s coming out in these songs. That, tinged by wonderful chances I’ve had to see the world and interact with people of very different life experiences.
Falling Upwards is influenced by Richard Rohr. Why has he in particular caught your attention?
He runs a school of contemplation of action coming out of the Franciscan tradition. They are based in America.
I think what I like about him is that he has a whole different angle on what it means to live as a Christian. When I was younger it seemed that Christianity was about getting on the inside with God and once you’re on the inside you had to then get other people on the inside. And the message was that you had arrived. And you had to get them to arrive.
The snag with that was that you remain very immature and after a while something is knocking on the door of your heart saying isn’t it time you went deeper because this isn’t that satisfying? Maybe, even, that you are a fraud?
That’s where Richard Rohr has another perspective. Contemplation and action is about learning methods of deepening your spirituality alongside your encounter with the world around you. The two are reciprocal and inform each other. We have to learn to stop striving to be important and yet dare to confront the nonsense in the world around us. We can actually only do that when we don’t think we are that important because otherwise we will protect ourselves and our egos in the battle. We will end up subconsciously fighting for ourselves and our status and not really for the greater good.
His framework of spiritual growth is so complete and deep and based in the many traditions of Christian contemplation that it becomes self-evidently ‘right’ as you do it.
You don’t miss and hit the wall in Cruel Britannia. Where did that come from?
Well it actually came from a guy ranting at Theresa May on BBC Question Time! It was around the time of the 2017 election I think. He was talking about how intolerant our country was becoming. Turning away refugees, “sending people back” to some fragile country they had to flee from. He protested that we are turning into cruel Britannia.
I thought that summed it up perfectly. This country has become more and more intolerant, and it can only do that because there are the seeds of the intolerance in our psyche waiting to be awakened by fear.
I compared that to Bangladesh, where I’d seen how people just cannot be cruel to each other in the main. They are brought up in an egalitarian country and have a little sense of themselves or their own self-importance.
In fact, I once asked some sociologists from a university I was working with in Pakistan what they thought of a commonly held belief in the UK... That was that if we hadn’t colonised India then it would never have become a more developed country. No railways, roads or infrastructure et cetera. He looked at me with the most pitying look. Like I had been fooled from my very birth. He just said “of course we would - and it would have been ours and millions upon millions of us wouldn’t have died young”. He made me feel tiny. He was right to make me feel tiny because that was the size of the idea I had absorbed since childhood.
So where did that aggrandised idea come from here? It came from outright heartless savagery. We are a country that grew up thinking that we arrived in this place of plenty because it was ours by right, not by theft. But it was ours by savagery in the main.
The British Empire was originally just a trading empire that became more and more savage to subjugate the natives of countries we had started to buy. We had guns they had spears. We shot them, we beat them, we starved them, we exploited them, we sold them into slavery, and systemic racial superiority was a convenient and delusional myth to kid us we were justified.
It is vile, and yet our money and our influence in the world has come from it. The City of London is still awash with the money that came from the profits of that time and we are still trading on it and we still protecting ourselves with it. When times get tough we adopt that cruel mindset.
Sorry if was I ranting?
I love the extra Cd. It was great hearing Remastered versions of my old favourites. Any reflections on having to re work with your thoughts and music from, in some cases, a lifetime ago?
Well it was my chance to pick out ones that have gone down well and then try polish them up a bit.
I did a few new vocals and patched up stuff that I thought could’ve sounded better.
To be honest I have so little currency in the world right now, having not played a gig in 10 years. I just thought it be nice to throw in my back catalogue so people knew that I had written good stuff. When you are a bit of a niche writer, you have to accept your place!
What do you hope the listener might get from Ages?
I don’t know if I know, except I hope that people recognise themselves in there and their struggles in some of the lyrics. In the past the songs that have most connected with others are the ones I have written from a moment of struggle or awakening. They tend to turn the key in other people’s hearts in a way that I hope is valuable.
I guess that is why I keep writing, in a world of 20,000 songs a week, someone might come across one of mine and it might make a difference. I think I’ve had enough of hearing pop songs that don’t make any difference. I’m hearing the same sentiments regurgitated to different beats an ever-simpler melodies. I’m never going to try compete with that. I’m just going to try doing my own thing and then, well, die. I think that’s all we have got. And that’s plenty for now.
More than plenty Andy. Thanks for what your songs have meant to me.