Last time we spoke with Orlando Weeks, we told him we thought his music sounded like winter. Not cold or harsh, but a certain draught in its atmospherics, the same sense of crisp outdoors that was woven through the last of his work as frontman of The Maccabees, and all of the artistic projects he’s been up to since. Polite and patient as ever, he was kind enough not to refute our suggestion, but marked it as interesting – interesting as in, “I’d be interested to know if you change your mind.”
Turns out, he was exactly right. On record, ‘A Quickening’ is much warmer than his introductory run of live shows might have suggested. If anything, it’s closer to spring in its theme – the celebration of new life in the form of the birth of his first child, and a brave new leap into sharing a little more of himself with the world.
“I definitely didn’t sit down and decide I was going to make a record about this,” he ponders, revisiting his headspace of early 2018. “I was just writing songs in the way that I’m always writing and making visual work, and they all ended up coming back to the experiences that we were having waiting for our baby to arrive. I think it’s called Baader-Meinhof theory, where because you’ve started thinking about something, you hear it everywhere else, seeing it in other parts of culture or the news…
“I started noticing parenthood everywhere and thinking about how other people communicate it. I could feel that I was making good stuff, and my partner and I have a continuing conversation about what we’re comfortable with. I’m still not entirely sure where the boundaries are, but I’m starting to feel more confident talking about it now. I haven’t had to slam the phone down yet…”
In many ways, he needn’t worry, for it’s an album that speaks pretty well for itself. Making great use of Weeks’ knack for lyrical nostalgia, it tells a captivating story of the anxieties and excitement of early parenthood, the thrill of waiting to meet your new child wrestling with the concerns of doing a decent job as a parent. Having spent the past few years living in Berlin, Lisbon and Margate before returning back to his native London, it’s indebted in part to sounds of the sea, a new look on old horizons. Most of all, it’s a story of true First Love, an experience unlike any Weeks has felt before.
“That’s one of the most amazing things about it – the grandest, most extraordinary moment in your life, but then life also continues on almost exactly the same,” he says, the smile audible in his voice. “I’m sure other people have described this, but it’s like when you first fall in love – you have a different energy, a different capacity for cycling across London or whatever it is… I guess it’s all of the chemicals released in your brain or your heart, but you feel amazing, and I’ve found that even when you think ‘there’s no way I can get up now’, you do, and it’s all fine. It’s a pretty extraordinary and joyful thing. The downside, not that that is the right word, is that you just become very aware of how complicit you are in the great moments of joy that will happen in that person’s life, but all of the less pleasant stuff that has to happen too. You’re complicit in that, and it’s a heavy thing to carry.”
This sense of responsibility plays out not just lyrically, but in the soundscape of record. Orlando wrote all of the trumpet and piano lines you hear on the album by himself, before extending his ideas to the interpretation of the same set of players who featured at his live shows. It was a process of working that forced the shy singer into a state of confidence, taking charge of the world he had built in his head.
“With that first run of shows, there was definitely an element of… what’s that horrible idiom… fake it till you make it?” he says. “There’s a bit of that with people you don’t know so well, but who are already established musicians. The thing about Maccabees is that none of us really knew what we were doing at all – we were all learning at similar speeds, some people improving quicker than others. Fe and Hugo when we started the band could play the guitar a bit; I definitely couldn’t and still can’t really, but by the end of Maccabees, they had a real identity in the way they played. I was very aware of the way that their progression – and I spose mine – would shape each record. With this, it’s a very different thing, because you go from 1 to 100 without everyone having to be part of the processing of massaging a song into being what it is. That great reveal of ‘oh, they can play it really well really quickly!’ made things really different. You have to decide much quicker if a song holds proper water.”
Thankfully, his boatload of songs survived the choppy waters of the live shows, with recording beginning in earnest. Determined not to overload the organic feel of the project, Weeks and his producer (longtime collaborator Nic Nell), worked to capture the sense of pace detailed on the opening of lead single ‘Safe In Sound’ (“Caught between launch and landing/stood still… still moving”) and ‘St Thomas’s’, the song that names the album and the hospital in which both Weeks and his son were born.
“There were some really bad album titles kicking around at first,” he admits. “Perfect Freedom’ was one of them…even saying it now to you, it gums up my mouth. Quickening is a lyric from ‘St Thomas”, and I just liked how it sounded – I think the record has a certain movement to it, and I liked that the title reflected that. I really love that song in particular – the way it feels very comfy in its skin, and very different to anything I’ve made before.”
The absence of guitars certainly lends itself to some pretty innovative musicianship. With a piano as the only traditional driver of melody, it’s a record that strides with purpose in some places and meanders through empty space in others, recalling the woozy emotions of Radiohead, Talk Talk or even Massive Attack. A highlight is the swooning ‘Moon’s Opera’ (which Weeks is currently working on an accompanying short storybook for), or ‘None Too Tough’, whose joyful trumpets frame the ascent out of ‘cloudy days’, finally ticking the proverbial boxes that Weeks sung about so many years ago. For the frontman of one of indie’s most beloved guitar bands, it’s a clever way to separate himself from the musical palette that came before, to forge something anew.
“Like with all of those things, I’m grateful people see it that way, but it’s such a happenstance,” he reasons. “You can get away with being bad at the things I’ve worked with! I really like sitting at a piano and trying to figure things out that way; I am just about good enough at trumpet and trombone to build drones and to build textures. They do a nice, nice thing where you can bend up and down, and make this really slurring style. And then you can get away with using a piano in a more percussive way, and create that contradiction of those two thing butting heads. With Nic’s production, he is able to find a way to bind those things in a way that I think makes it more comprehendible, which I’m very grateful for. It’s got an identity that I’m really proud of.”
And so it seems, Weeks has found something like happiness. A countrywide lockdown has given him the headspace to appreciate his family, and to enjoy the last pieces of creative work that prelude an album release. His old bandmates haven’t heard the record yet – he’s quite enjoying squeezing in a few more precious moments to himself before showing his musical child to the world. “I haven’t been sending it out too much… or at all, really,” he laughs. “With some records you just want them to exist, and then with others… I’m quite enjoying this moment where it is still mine.” He’s understandably nervous about what it might mean to have allowed himself such candour but seems satisfied that he has done so in a way he won’t come to regret.
“I think what I wanted to be clear is that what I’ve tried to do with this record is to document my perception, the idea of being witness to something,” he agrees. “I was definitely conscious of at no point trying to assume that I understood my partner’s experience or even my baby’s experience – I feel comfortable enough in it that it isn’t really a record that gives away anything about him, but is revealing of me and my insecurities and my anxieties and my joys. Like with so many things right now it’s been put right back into perspective, but in terms of it being a body of work that I think is coherent and adventurous and I can hear me pushing myself in it… I feel really good about it. I’m more content with the idea that I’m going to understand the record better the more I talk about it, and the more people I talk about it with. I feel ready for that now.”
Taken from the June issue of Dork. Orlando Weeks’ album ‘A Quickening’ is out 12th June.
Words: Jenessa Williams