Newton Faulkner: “Being able to trust my voice has made my guitar playing better”

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(Image: © James Sheppard/Acoustic Magazine)

After 10 years of backing bands, co-writers and lavish production, Newton Faulkner is back with renewed confidence and this time, he’s going it alone...

It’s strange to hear an artist with a decade-long career behind him say he’s only just found his niche, but for Newton Faulkner, his new album represents a renaissance born not from fancy production or following trends, but stripping things back to the core. This is the overarching theme on Newton’s sixth album, Hit The Ground Running.

The essence of his sound has always been him and his Nick Benjamin-built guitars - he now owns seven - but looking back over his previous albums, he realised that his vocals were unintentionally taking a back seat to production. 

The songs that had lots of space and were very vocally-driven stood out to me

“This time, I just wanted to do what I was good at,” he says. “If you listen to the album before, there are very few single vocals and everything is tracked at least three or four times. That’s a sound that I like and it’s Peter Gabriel-esque but it was kind of due to a lack of trust in my own voice.”

From his home studio, and with a little tough love from his co-writer brother (“He told me to write on my own this time, because I’d forgotten how!”) he began to build the foundations of Hit The Ground Running, writing songs that needed no production to carry them. 

“The songs that had lots of space and were very vocally-driven stood out to me,” he explains.

“Vocally, I’ve pushed myself further and in different directions than I’ve done on any of the albums. The biggest leap is trusting myself to carry songs as a singer and not rely on production and guitar playing.”

Swing Low

Low-tuning fan Faulkner discovered that thicker strings enhanced his sound.

“I’ve increased my string gauges and it sounds great. I’m tuned very low; my sixth string is a C. I’ve got a baritone that’s down in A, and at one point I was just using strings that you get over the counter and it was getting a bit rattly. We went up to 75s and its crazy string gauges; wound B-strings.

“The way that the pickup and the mic reacts to that is such a good sound. I now have a completely custom-gauge sets of strings which, to be honest, is a pain in the arse! I have to have a database for what strings are on what guitar, like an Excel spreadsheet.”

Fans might be a little surprised to hear that, after years of touring and releasing albums, Faulkner felt unsure of himself. He admits that he was wary of trying to compete in such a saturated market.

“There was way too many male soul singers at one point and that kind of edged me away from that style of singing. I just didn’t want to get involved in that; I didn’t think I was a good enough singer to compete,” he admits. It was his fans, though, that inspired him to do the very thing he was afraid of and go back to basics.

“I’ve had a few different setups and different bands but what people have always come back to saying is that it’s better on my own,” he says. “I think what that comes down to in the end is communication.”

During the live shows his new material will, says Newton, have a much more intimate quality.

“I’ll have the ability to improvise and make up the set as a whole. I can completely adapt that if it’s just me,” he says.

“A gig I did recently was seated, so I built things up a bit slower. Other gigs were the polar opposite where I’ve gone for maximum noise. You can’t do that with a band because people would look at you like, what the fuck are you doing?”

Stripping it down

Stripping things back hasn’t only improved Faulkner’s confidence in his own voice, but it’s improved his technical ability.

“I found I could sing!” he laughs.

“I’ve been working on it solidly for years. My tone’s been getting better, I’ve gained maybe an octave and a half. I don’t know what’s happened, but it’s considerably better than it has been. Being able to trust my voice has made my playing better; it’s more natural because I’m not trying to work too hard. 

“I did some writing with a friend of mine who’s a really serious backing vocalist called Kristin Hosein, and she’s an equivalent level of nerdiness, but with vocals. When I tried to do some of the stuff she suggested, I was like, ‘Shit, I can do all of this!’”

Faulkner may have re-emerged with only his guitar as company, but that doesn’t mean he’s scaling down his live setup.

“I’ve got an electric Nick Benjamin with MIDI triggers on all the percussive points. That’s got a separate output for the bottom two strings so I can run that through a bass amp with an octave pedal and make a huge amount of noise,” he says gleefully. 

“And a Pigtronix Infinity Looper and Roland PK-5; some of the stuff on them is locked to the click, so [the loops] are mathematically perfect. For the next tour I’m looking at having two different setups: one complicated all-feet-all-hands one to do stuff from earlier albums, then I’m also going to have a proper purist one,” he explains, “one mic and one line coming out, just guitar and vocal.”

Not only does 2017 mark 10 years since Faulkner released his debut, but it’s also the year that he found himself musically, and discovered that sometimes, less really is more.

Newton’s latest album Hit The Ground Running is out now on PledgeMusic.

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