It always makes my day when an unexpected email arrives from an artist that has somehow discovered the Wild Hare Club and decided that it sounds like their kind of environment and asks whether it might be possible to organise an appearance. Singer/producer Sean McGhee sent me a kind and thoughtful email of this ilk and introduced me to his collaboration with guitarist, Richard Oakes - Artmagic. I am glad he did, because it’s by acting on out-of-the-blue opportunities that good things happen.
Since releasing their debut album Become The One You Love in 2012, Richard has returned to the reformed Suede. Reclaiming his place at the heart of their writing team, he re-established them with the three UK top 10 albums Bloodsports, Night Thoughts and The Blue Hour. Depending on when you read this, these albums may well have been joined by The Insatiable Ones, a great title for a Suede album.
Meanwhile Sean has continued his career as a singer and producer. In 2013 he started working with Alison Moyet as her backing singer and latterly her musical director, touring the world twice over and notching up co-writing credits on her 2017 top 20 album Other along the way.
Despite their achievements elsewhere, Artmagic always planned to press on. Starting in 2013, they began writing a second album. With neither an abundance of time to tinker or a major label budget to fritter away, they decided to make features of these particular bugs. Taking a cue from renowned filmmaker Derek Jarman, they allowed these restrictions to define the album’s aesthetic. Songs were written when spare days could be found, then recorded quickly in small London studios.
Both wanted a more direct sound – less detail, more focus. Richard’s guitars would be front and centre with Sean’s voice and analogue synths. Gone, too, would be the additional musicians. Drums would be provided by Alex Thomas (Anna Calvi, John Cale, Squarepusher) but the duo would play everything else themselves. Sean explains, “On our first album, there’s a lot of electronic texture, a lot of watercolour washing over the songs. This time, I was determined to make everything more upfront. We had to work fast, so a direct approach fitted perfectly.”
Keen to beat a new lyrical path, Sean drew from his interest in English folk music. He found himself writing character sketches and narratives – about lonely fishermen, about elderly women abandoning their religious faith, about Muslim birdwatchers and, in the case of the title track, about the traditional songs themselves and the singers who keep them alive.
Musically, however, an adoption of folk aesthetics was never on the cards. Richard took his cues from Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, Talk Talk, Thee Oh Sees and Field Music lending the album a slightly prog feel. Crucially, Sean was determined that Richard’s own unique style should drive their song writing, and that there was no attempt made to fit into anyone’s agenda but their own. It’s all very well to look back but pushing forward is, in the end, the most important thing. Nostalgia, the duo say, has no place in Artmagic’s work.
Finally, in early 2018, the album, The Songs of Other England, was complete. The sound of the record might best be described as crepuscular – a distinct feeling of twilight seen through dense trees. And, as the album progresses, you find yourself walking amongst those trees, becoming surrounded, losing all sense of a world outside, as dusk becomes dawn and the occasional shaft of sun penetrates the half-light.