Matt Stalker reliably tells me the lion’s share of recording the latest album from him and his accompanying Fables took place in a chilled former classroom near Allenheads in Northumberland.
Strange then that the intensely beautiful album leaves me snuggly warm right down to my toes... and as anyone who has touched my feet will testify, that’s not a usual occurrence.
“We had a big open fire,” laughs Matt, explaining the distinct lack of chattering teeth and blow heaters on the record, which is likely to ensure a wave of favourable attention for the band, who have existed in one form or another – producing what has been called ‘chamber folk’ – since 2008.
“They’ve got the old classroom with white walls and bare floors, set up for a gallery,” he continues as we order our respective cuppas at Quilliam Brothers Tea House in Newcastle. (Incidentally, I recommend trying the Apple Crumble brew if you’re passing, but back to the Stalker in hand).
“We lived there for five days just before Christmas in 2012. It was freezing and the schoolhouse was up a driveway we couldn’t get to for the sheet ice. It took us four hours to salt it by hand.”
The ‘we’ he refers to comprises the current five-piece line up: himself, cellist Jenny Nendick (also of Bridie Jackson and the Arbour), singer Ditte Elly Goard, drummer Ged Robinson and viola player Adam James Cooper, as well as an engineer with winter talents.
“We’ve got a great picture of him all wrapped up, with a shovel at the grit bin, looking sick of his life. He thought he was the Nigel Godrich to our Radiohead and we had him salting the roads.”
It’s these kinds of collective experiences which Matt, who is a psychotherapist by day, says made the recording of the new album a much more pleasurable experience than the band’s 2011 debut, The Man Who Said This Died of Alchemy.
“What’s really nice about this record compared to the last one is that it’s just the sound of me relaxing and stopping trying so hard,” he says. “The first record was very much like ‘nobody knows who you are, you’re making a record, you have to prove something’.
“I wasn’t really comfortable in my own skin as a writer and singer at that point, so I ended up aping Jeff Buckley half the time.
“Also, I now realise, it’s a lot more enjoyable when you don’t put so much pressure on yourself, allow other people to write their parts and work in collaboration instead of being a massive control freak. Who knew?” he laughs. Matt says this new way of working offered him a more rewarding feeling when listening to the tracks back.
“I have a sense of detachment from it, which is really lovely. I had thought it would seem less gratifying to take less ownership, but actually the opposite was true. What was achieved through collaboration was a million times more satisfying to listen to.”
Inspired by the work of controversial 60s psychiatrist, RD Laing, the album takes its name from a poetry collection he published.
“It was called Knots and it follows the protagonists of Jack and Jill with all of the poems being kind of ‘Jack is this, because Jill is this, because Jack is this’... it’s hard going but you kind of get the point after the first page,” he laughs.
“The album became 11 character pieces all around the theme of complex relationships but I think the end result is fairly easy to listen to rather than hard going.”
And everyone will be able to judge for themselves when the long player is launched at a gig at Gateshead Old Town Hall on midsummer night, June 21.
“We were going to do the launch at the Mining Institute, but it only holds 100 people and we’ve got 15 on stage,” Matt says. “GOTH was definitely on our list of places we wanted to play and we’re excited for people to hear what we’ve been working on for two years.
“None of us have ever really believed that Fables is going to be our long-term career or earn us pots of money. We’ve done it because we love making music together and anything beyond that is a bonus. Our ambitions are to play some really nice gigs in really interesting places. And sell a few records.” And with Knots, I reckon this will be a boxed well and truly ticked. Twice.