Some People Say I’m Pop: An Interview with Art Block

London-based singer-songwriter Art Block has, in the space of a few years, released an impressive trove of tunes that run the gamut from bare and minimal to lush and cinematic. Marked by a hypnotic blend of acoustic guitars and electronic instruments, his 2020 EP, The Basement was curated by the sound archives of the British Library and featured on Amazing Radio, international podcasts and music blogs. More recently, Block’s White Horses EP appeared in two editions – one with vocals and one as a purely instrumental that highlights his intricate and moving orchestrations. Curious to learn more about the artist, I reached out with a few questions…

You have an excellent voice! How did you learn to sing?

Thank you! That’s very kind. It was a rather long process, starting from not having a clue how to record my voice properly to having lessons with a French singer, Eve, based in London but now in LA. I just let it all out, errors and all. Gradually I improved although I believe that it’s more interesting to be technically imperfect.

Along similar lines, who are some of your influences in terms of your vocal style?

Thom Yorke and Jeff Buckley have been long term inspirations. But maybe there’s a bit of Tom Petty in there somewhere too. I quite like female singers like Sharon van Etten and PJ Harvey too. I guess I should mention Richard Ashcroft too.

I’m also curious about your name. “Art Block” is the perfect name for anyone engaged in creative pursuits. Is it your given name, or is it a stage name? Or is that something you’d rather leave up to your listeners’ imagination?

It’s a stage name which is pretty convenient as people like to call me Art!

You’ve recorded – and released – a lot of music over the past few years. Am I correct that your first offering appeared in 2015? And how many songs have you released since then?

Gosh, I’ve lost count but I think I had over 50 songs released! I’m planning to compile some of them in my debut album in 2023.

Do you see your music evolving over time? If so, how?

Yes, I’ve been lucky to have worked with some amazing musicians and producers. Ian Barter, Amy Winehouse’s former guitarist, really helped with developing my sound adding some retro electronic elements. Another producer, Jay Chakravorty, also incorporated some interesting cinematic type arrangements and I worked with Shuta Shinoda a top rate mixing engineer, originally from Tokyo, who has had Mercury Prize winners. Recently I’ve been co-producing stuff myself with a lot of help from William Robertson who I recorded my acoustic sessions album with in one day at Hackney Road studios! Using synths and mixing with more organic sounds has been quite cool. I had the opportunity on my latest EP to use a Moog One synth which is a very powerful and inspiring instrument.

You cover a lot of territory in your music. As I mentioned in my intro above, there’s some spare acoustic music, but there’s also the lush feel of White Horses. Somewhere in between, I suppose, you manage to sprinkle in some electronic and rock elements as well. What accounts for this variety?

I’ve sort of covered this in my answer above. I enjoy intermingling electronic and more organic elements. My aim is to create music I would like to listen to and rock is very much an influence. But I also have diverse music tastes, so Wu-Tang Clan, Kraftwerk, Sharon Van Etten, Beethoven, Depeche Mode are all in there!

Does the degree of stylistic variety in your music make it difficult to market? I’m thinking about those annoying little boxes artists need to check when they submit their songs to streaming services and music review sites. How do you describe your music, and do you ever think about genre?

That’s a great question. With “The Basement” I wanted to experiment with a more electronic sound and then interspersed it with folkier elements. I definitely found there was a wider audience once you enter the electronic music sphere. Alt-folk is a very narrow and specific genre and definitely harder to market. Then again, some people say I’m “pop” so I never know quite where I stand! I’d like to think of my stuff as in the classic indie alt-rock acoustic tradition ultimately. I think that’s how a promoter once described my live music!

You’ve worked with a wide range of musicians, producers, and engineers. What is your musical network like? How do you meet the kinds of people you work with?

Another brilliant question! I often research the producers who have worked on songs I really like. When I first contacted Ian Barter, it took a year until I had written the songs to work with him and then we did two Eps in a row! I literally just emailed him and then we chatted for a long time about music and it seemed we were on the same page. It’s important to work with producers who are encouraging and allow artists to breathe – Ian has worked with some very big names in music but he is an absolute joy to work with and treats unsigned artists in the same way as those who are signed to major labels. With Jay, again I admired his own music so I just contacted him and he was interested in working with me.

Specifically, folk guitarist Ben Walker produced your EP Borderline. What did he bring to the process?

Ben is an amazing musician to work with. I literally just recorded the acoustic guitar parts and vocals in his house in North London and he did all the rest! I was thinking about reconnecting with him at some stage. In fact, he did some guitar work on Seagulls – we didn’t use it all but there are some subtle segue elements we incorporated.

More recently, you released two version of your White Horses EP. What was behind that decision?

As you say, I like to show off the work that goes behind creating the instrumentation for the songs which I really enjoy. Raphael Bouchara’s drum work for example is superb as is Sandra Brus’s violin parts and some of William Robertson’s intricate acoustic guitar parts. I’d also love to have my music synch licensed one day – although all musicians dream of that!

What’s next for you?

I’m working on a couple of more songs to complete my first album in 2023! I’m hoping it will be a fair reflection of my efforts over the years where people can chill over a longer piece of work.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to me!

Thank you for the interview!

My Passion Is Improvising: An Interview with Timothy Simmons — and Friends!

Earlier this year, Timothy Simmons released an album of instrumental tracks titled Climbing the Spiral Stairs. The plan all along was to follow it up with an album of collaborations building upon the original tracks that he had recorded. The result, Friends Meeting, is as mesmerizing as Climbing the Spiral Stairs, yet a different album altogether insofar as each musician brought something new to the table, dramatically transforming each tune. Given the nature of the project, I wanted to hear from Simmons as well as the artists he worked with to get a sense of how it all came together.

TIMOTHY SIMMONS

What was the idea behind following Climbing the Spiral Stairs with an album of collaborations based on that initial album?

I was so thrilled with how the guitar improvisations for ­Climbing the Spiral Stairs came out, that I wanted to expand on them. Since they were improvised, and my passion is improvising with other like-minded folks, I thought it would be fun to share them out and ask others to add their own improvisations to them. Once their improvised parts came back to me, I added drums, bass, percussion, synths, etc. But at all times, everything I added was improvised and recorded in only one or two takes. I wanted to keep the entire thing feeling live and improvised. So, even though it is all done remotely and with multi-racking, it still is a collection of free improvisations.

How do you know the musicians you asked to work with you, and why did you choose them to contribute to the project?

Well, you’re one of my oldest friends, and we collaborate all the time, so choosing you was easy. Plus, you engineered the recordings for the original guitar improvisations that this album was bult out of. Todd Rogers plays viola and violin on “Oscillation I,” Alina Plourde plays English Horn on “Oscillation II” and oboe on “Stick and Weave” and Jonathan Best sings and plays piano on “Waiting for the Afterglow.” They are all friends from Music for People, which is where many musicians go to explore improvisation and to make music that is free from rules. Drew Anello, who plays guitar on the track “Orbiting,” is an old student of mine, and Khalil Munir, who does the incredible recorded tap dancing on “Stick and Weave” is a fellow teacher and collaborator.

Why is the new album called Friends Meeting?

Friends Meeting is a title I’ve been kicking around for years, and in this instance, it just felt right, since the record made out of a bunch of friends meeting, virtually, to make music!

DREW ANELLO

Which song did you collaborate on, and what drew you to that particular song?

“Orbiting”! I liked the tempo change and build up of moments it takes the listener on a journey. Also Tim asked me to play on it and I always jump on every opportunity I can to play on his music

What did you add to it?

I added some ambient guitar. I added a drone at the end I tried to not get too in the way.

How did you go about figuring out what to play? 

Honestly a lot of my session work is throwing a bunch of ideas at the wall and seeing which one sticks–haha. I try to ask myself is what I’m playing serving the music often its no and I have to create more space.

What do you like about collaboration in general?

It’s an awesome way for multiple artist to express themselves and create a masterpiece together!

More specifically, what do you like about working with Timothy Simmons?

Tim really kicked off my music career he’s been a friend and mentor for about seven years and has given me a lot of inspiration as an artist as well as taught me a lot of valuable lessons. One of which being adding silence to the tune. Its a really affective way to add more emotion to a song

Do you have any solo projects that you’d like to talk about?

I write music as a “Mello Anello” and play throughout NYC quite a bit. I also produce write and play for other artists and run a studio based in Brooklyn!

JONATHAN BEST

Which song did you collaborate on, and what drew you to that particular song?

“Waiting for the Afterglow”

What did you add to it?

Piano and voice.

How did you go about figuring out what to play?  

I had just put a new mic pre/compressor in the rack and I thought this would be a good place to test it out. So I put down a piano track without even knowing the key. Just started playing. Then I recorded my voice making up words as I went. I asked Tim to take out two lines that I thought were superfluous.

What do you like about collaboration in general?

You come up with things that would have been impossible with just one. It’s like the universe is drawing with two or more crayons.

More specifically, what do you like about working with Timothy Simmons?

I always know it will be deep with Tim because he is dedicated. So it creates trust.

Do you have any solo projects that you’d like to talk about?

Everything’s a collaboration these days.

TODD ROGERS

Which song did you collaborate on, and what drew you to that particular song?

“Oscillation I.”

What did you add to it?

Violin

How did you go about figuring out what to play?  

Tim’s foundation had an exuberance to it and when I hear this in a piece I’m often moved in a Carnatic direction.  To be clear, I don’t know how to really play in this style, but I chose something that to me was evocative of Carnatic.

What do you like about collaboration in general?

It’s the IT for me when it comes to music, it’s always been about the connection.  Even if I don’t play much or do anything particularly noticeable or interesting, just being inside the soundscape being created together is gold for me.

More specifically, what do you like about working with Timothy Simmons?

Tim’s arrangements are truly unique, and he has so much talent spread across so many instruments.  He even plays accordion for god’s sake!  These abilities are matched by his production talents.  On this piece for instance, he really dug in, probing in several different directions till he found what was just right.  All along the way he sent me versions for my input, making it a true collaboration

Do you have any solo projects that you’d like to talk about?

Definitely not!  My work always involved others.  Here in Brooklyn I started a project called “Throughline” which fuses electric blues and Eastern European influences with a dose of effects-driven spaciness.  It’s all original work and largely fueled by improvisation.

MARC SCHUSTER

Which song did you collaborate on, and what drew you to that particular song?

I worked on “Spirals” and “Lost in Space.” I was attracted to the jazzy feel of “Spirals.” The track Tim sent me was originally called “Seven Up,” and it reminded of Vince Guaraldi. That was before he added the ethereal e-bow parts, which I like. Now it sounds like Vince Guaraldi teamed up with Robert Fripp to score a very cosmic Charlie Brown special. I mean that in a good way!

What did you contribute?

I added drums to “Spirals” and keyboards to “Lost in Space.”

How did you go about figuring out what to play?

For each song, I put the track that Tim sent me on a loop and just kept playing until I liked what I was doing. For “Spirals,” it was a matter of figuring out how the song moved, almost like figuring out the stride of a horse and then trying to walk alongside it at the same pace. For “Lost in Space,” I was actually listening for the spaces that I could fill in. In my head it was like, “Okay, Tim is doing a cool thing here, so I’ll hold back, and now there’s a part where Tim is holding back a bit, so I’ll play something.” I suppose the main thing I did was listen.

What do you like about collaboration in general?

My favorite thing about collaboration is getting a different voice on a recording. I do a lot of recordings where I play all the instruments. As a result, my music starts to sound fairly predictable to my ears. I always know what the drums or the guitar solo is going to sound like. Collaboration adds a layer of unpredictability, which makes the music more fun.

More specifically, what do you like about working with Timothy Simmons?

Working with Tim is fun because he lets musicians do what they want to do. He doesn’t say, “I need a guitar solo here, and I want it to sound like this.” It’s actually quite the opposite. When he asked me to contribute to this project, it was more a matter of picking a song I liked and then adding whatever I wanted to add. As a result, I got a chance to play drums on one track and keyboards on another despite the fact that I’m most comfortable playing guitar.

That’s another great thing about playing with Tim. He lets people go outside their comfort zones—and once they’re there, he pushes them a little further. With “Spirals” in particular, I knew I wanted to try my hand at playing drums, but I didn’t realize at the time that the song was in, I think, seven-four timing. It took me about three hours of playing along with the track just to come to that realization, which is when I realized that the original title, “Seven Up,” was a hint. I just thought Tim liked fizzy soft-drinks.

Do you have any solo projects that you’d like to talk about?

I recently published a children’s book called Franky Lumlit’s Janky Drumkit, which Tim actually encouraged me to write. It’s about a boy who wants to play drums but can’t afford a kit, so he builds one out of odds and ends he finds in the recycling bin. Very DIY. Tim and I are also releasing another album of improv music under the name Simmons and Schuster. It’s our second album. We’re calling it Dos.

I also recently unearthed some old tapes I recorded with my friend Brian Lambert a long time ago when we were the Star Crumbles. Interesting stuff. I feel like the past and the future get blurred a little when I listen to it. I can’t say too much about it because there’s some weirdness about who owns what. Not between me and Brian, but between us and other entities who shall, for the moment, remain nameless.

Loose and Free: An Interview with Brian Lambert

When I spoke to Brian Lambert back in December, he was well into his 52-week song challenge. Designed to showcase his skills as a songwriter, the challenge has also given Lambert a showcase for his ever-increasing skill as a music producer. Songs like “We Are OK” and the more recent “Heroes at the Dawn of Time,” “In Your Face,” “Kids,” “Hang Out with You,” and Lambert’s cover of the Replacements’ “Unsatisfied” reflect a wide range of influences while allowing his craftsmanship to shine. As he nears the finish line, I thought I’d drop him a line to see what the year-long experience has meant to him.

Fifty-two songs in fifty-two weeks! How does it feel?

Thank you, Marc, for this opportunity to talk about what was a pretty epic adventure in music making.   As you can imagine there is quite the range of emotions: relief, excitement, a bit of sadness.  Overall, I‘m very proud of climbing this mountain I set out to climb.  In some sense, though, I’m really still so close to it that it’s hard to really put into words what the whole experience means.  I don’t know if I can until it’s a bit further in the rear view mirror.

Yeah, I guess it’s hard to have perspective when you’re still so close… Were you ever tempted to give up? What kept you going?

I don’t know if I was ever tempted to give up per se.  There were some outside pressures with money that made me question whether finishing this was the right thing to do, but by that point I was almost at the end and people were cheering me on.  It didn’t make sense to stop then.  More than that was the question of whether I could get the music done in time to keep on the song-a-week schedule.  I took a fall and injured myself which caused me to get behind.  The music takes the amount of time it takes to make and it created some anxiety around being able to complete it in the time I had set out for myself. It  was important to finish though, and working on music is the one thing I can do regardless of my mood or disposition.

I’m curious as to whether the parameters or even the purpose of the challenge changed for you over the course of the year. Did you go in expecting one thing and getting another?

I was intentional at the beginning about being loose with the parameters. It was such a huge undertaking I wanted to give myself as much grace as possible.  The purpose was to realize my potential in terms of songwriting, performance on a recording, and my production/mixing mastering skills.  I knew I wanted to write new songs in new ways, I knew I wanted to do some cover tunes and write a couple of instrumentals, but besides that it was really get a song a week out to the world every week for 52 weeks straight.   I view things a bit differently now, but do feel confident about my ability to express myself in the studio.

What did you learn about yourself as a result of this challenge? 

One, I love music.  There were times where I had to sit down and play when I wasn’t feeling it but afterwards I was almost always glad I did.  I’m not tired of music and am ready to start working on new music. I suppose the biggest thing is that I don’t have to be perfect, that I’m perfectly alright just the way I am.  Not sure how I came about that realization in the process, but I do feel that way now.   The other part is becoming less cerebral about the whole process.  Thinking doesn’t make good music, it’s more of a feel thing.  I honestly don’t remember how I did much of the last part of the challenge. There was a lot of just hitting record and letting it rip.  I think that’s how you get the right feel, loose and free.

What about your evolution as a songwriter?

I’m definitely more of a melody/music first songwriter now than I was before.  There were lots of times during the process later on when I would have all the music but no vocals or lyrics and then come up with them listening to the track.  Before this I would need a fully composed song on the guitar before starting.  This has been freeing in a lot of ways and allows me to kind of compose lyrics to the overall vibe of the track as opposed to feeling like I have to be able to sit down with a guitar and play the whole thing out.

Listening to your most recent tracks, I’m struck by your exponential growth as a music producer. What are some ways you’ve evolved in that regard? Any tricks or tips you can share with readers? 

 I think that is a result of listening with the mindset of an objective listener. After doing so many tracks, it gets easier to notice when you start to get bored with the song.  Like a more passive than active listening where if I start to lose interest, I think about what I can do to keep my attention. So much is about what you take out at certain parts than what you put in.  Creating subtle dynamics with volume or eq is one way to do that, but I’ve found arrangement is probably the most effective way to keep listeners interested over the course of a song.

I’m also thinking about the sheer number of songs you’ve released. Do you think of them all as being of a single piece—like one massive album—or do different songs fit into different categories and represent different sides of who you are as an artist? 

I think of the project of going through some distinct phases.  Phase one was just getting a sense of things and experimenting, I’d say up to about up to “On Your Side,” which was song 16.  I really just kind of played around with different approaches and ways of doing things.  Phase two was definitely an indie pop/rock stage which is most encapsulated in the We Are Ok album that I released only on Bandcamp.  By that time I felt like I had a specific method and was going for more or less a unified sound with an album in mind.  Next I decided to explore one-mic recordings and getting a great performance without hiding behind production.  It seemed to me that was the element that was still lacking for me.  I had always been told I was way better live than on recordings and I wanted to finally get over that hump. So I basically just sang take after take until I got it right.  The last phase was the last 12 songs which to me make up an album and was really me taking everything I had learned and putting it all together.  There is a bit of a grungy aspect to some of the songs because I was just feeling that. The last 12 saw me do a collaboration, wink, a co-write, and three of the songs were inspired by Twitter friends.  I was really happy with how all of them came out and really feel like the best work was right there at the end.

What do you think about this body of work that didn’t exist a year ago?

I feel great about it and, ironically enough, about the work I released prior to it as well.  This process was about growth and learning to accept myself, and I accomplished that.   It’s still really a ton to process.  I wish I had some really great insight that I could share about the whole experience, but I think whenever you do something this big, the scale of what you’ve done won’t make sense until a little further down the road.  I guess in a rambling way I’m saying I’m still too close to it to have perspective.  I know that for the first time I listen to my own work and really enjoy it and for me that’s a huge win.

Definitely a huge win! What’s the plan now that you’ve met the challenge? 

Gosh, I need to figure out the whole how do I make a living thing.   I’m looking at ways to do it from art but the reality that I need to add some dollars to the bottom line is ever present, so figuring that out is a priority.   Artistically, I have a remix that I did for Scoopski coming out soon and then another collaboration with Marc Schuster* that I am super excited about.  I need to release some of the songs in album form.  I’d like to do more collaborations and just contribute to other projects and help people realize a bit more of their own visions, but nothing concrete as of the moment.

Do you think you’ll do it again?

No, not intentionally in any case.  I’ve proven what I need to myself in terms of my ability to write and produce quality work.  I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point in time working with other people that I surpassed that output but as for creating challenges that have to do with a volume of work in a set amount of time that challenge has been met.

Thanks for taking the time to chat with me, Brian! 

It was my pleasure Marc, thank you for the opportunity to reflect on the huge journey that I just completed.

*Hey! That’s me!