Name: Nathan Ball
Occupation: Singer-songwriter, vocalist
Current release: Nathan Ball has been involved in a few top-tier collaborations, including two tracks with UK electronic legends Faithless on their comeback release All Blessed. [Read our Rollo Armstrong of Faithless interview] Now, he presents his debut album as a solo artist. Under the Mackerel Sky is available now.
If you enjoyed this interview with Nathan Ball, visit his Facebook page or Instagram profile for more information and current updates.
Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?
I’m not too sure really, it’s a kind of strange feeling that just takes over, where I just feel zoned in and have an urge to write and create.
I’m yet to write a song about a dream, but certainly personal relationships often prove to be a real inspiration for writing and have been a constant theme throughout Under the Mackerel Sky.
For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a 'visualisation' of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
I never really have concrete ideas when I set out to write a song, I like to just get lost in an idea and a theme and see where that takes me. I then form an idea of where I’d want that sound to go and what might suit the song to further it’s meaning. But I wouldn’t say there’s ever really much planning involved.
Is there a preparation phase for your process? Do you require your tools to be laid out in a particular way, for example, do you need to do 'research' or create 'early versions'?
Not really to be honest, I have my little studio at home with a couple of guitars, a microphone, a keyboard and an interface, and that’s all I really need to write a song.
I don’t really do any research into the process, I like to just let it happen and whatever comes out of it has come out for a reason.
Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating? What role do certain foods or stimulants like coffee, lighting, scents, exercise or reading poetry play?
I like it to feel atmospheric in the room when I’m writing, so usually when it’s getting dark outside and I have a little lamp or a candle on. I feel like that always sets the scene for me and puts me in the right frame of mind to write.
I read poetry too, and actually the album title ‘Under the Mackerel Sky’ comes from a line in a poem by Sir John Betjeman who wrote a lot about this area of Cornwall I live in, and was a real inspiration for the album.
What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?
I usually start with an instrument, either a guitar, a synth or a piano and just start singing over the top, trying to work out a vocal melody. Eventually after a while of singing it, I find a pattern emerges and the vocal melody forms.
Usually in this I’ll have sung some lyrics which begin to take shape as well, or allow a theme to emerge. Then I sit down to write the lyrics or go on a walk by the sea and sing ideas into my voice notes.
When do the lyrics enter the picture? Where do they come from? Do lyrics need to grow together with the music or can they emerge from a place of their own?
They often come from the notes in my phone. If I ever hear a phrase I like the meaning of, or ever end up singing a random line, I write it down in the notes on my phone and dig into them when I come to writing a song.
For me I like the lyrics to grow with the song as I feel the instrumentation can allow them to take on a different meaning and allow the lyrics to evolve.
What makes lyrics good in your opinion? What are your own ambitions and challenges in this regard?
I think first and foremost they have to mean something to you, otherwise what’s the point in writing the song in the first place? As musicians we’re given the opportunity to say something and for it to be heard, so I feel like that has to come from the heart.
I love lyrics that make you feel something and transport you to distant memories or thoughts which stick with you every time you hear that song.
Once you've started, how does the work gradually emerge?
I tend to start writing the song then leave it for a while and keep tinkering with it over the following weeks. I’ll then record a little demo and send it to Max, who plays guitar for us live and produces the records. We’ll then work on it together and he’ll add his magic and we work on finishing the idea off. Often we’ve played the songs live before we’ve even recorded them, just to see what direction that takes the song in and how the crowd react to it.
I remember with "Right Place" we toured that for a whole year before we got to recording it and it totally changed the way we played it.
Many writers have claimed that as soon as they enter into the process, certain aspects of the narrative are out of their hands. Do you like to keep strict control over the process or is there a sense of following things where they lead you?
I don’t really like to keep strict control over the process, I think it’s important to let the songs breathe which is why I like to live with them for a bit, to see if they take on different meanings over time and if they evolve with the sound.
There are many descriptions of the creative state. How would you describe it for you personally? Is there an element of spirituality to what you do?
It does kind of feel spiritual in a way, I kind of drift into this transcendent state and it’s probably one of the few times I feel truly present and lost in the moment, rather than worrying about anything else that might be going on.
Especially in the digital age, the writing and production process tends towards the infinite. What marks the end of the process? How do you finish a work?
I think it’s easy to keep tinkering away and adding parts until it becomes the biggest and loudest piece of music you can possibly create. But then you remember that the magic existed from the beginning when it was just you singing and a guitar. The beauty of it can often be its rawness, so it’s important to consider that rather than to keep adding layers.
I think you get a sense of a song just feeling right when it’s finished and having the vibe you set out to create.
Once a piece is finished, how important is it for you to let it lie and evaluate it later on? How much improvement and refinement do you personally allow until you're satisfied with a piece? What does this process look like in practise?
For me it’s definitely important to let it lie and come back to it at a later date to see if it takes on a different meaning or if you’ve taken it in a direction it shouldn’t have gone in. When there’s just 2 of you in a room, it can be easy to get carried away with an idea and really run with it, but you might return to it later and find it just doesn’t suit the song at all.
I like to live with the tracks for a few weeks or months and listen to them in various different situations to see how I feel when I listen to them.
What's your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering for you personally? How involved do you get in this?
I’m not much of a producer myself, but I’m always there for the production part of it. I really enjoy being in the studio, especially when it’s just me and Max as it feels like we’re on this journey to get the songs finished and we’re such good friends that it’s a really enjoyable process.
I’ve not been there for the mixing process before, we usually send the tracks off and let the mixing engineer work their magic on it then give feedback on it. I think we got to mix number 27 on "Blindside" on this record!
Mastering, I’m told, is hugely important but I never really notice the difference that much.
After finishing a piece or album and releasing something into the world, there can be a sense of emptiness. Can you relate to this – and how do you return to the state of creativity after experiencing it?
For sure, it’s always a strange moment when you release something into the world. I used to really struggle with it as there’s so much build up and so much effort and energy goes into creating it and putting it out there, then you release it and it’s just out in the world and belongs to everyone else then. It always feels slightly underwhelming. But now I’ve got used to that and always make sure I’m doing something else on that day to take my mind off it.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you personally feel as though writing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
Music for me is an outlet for emotions or whatever you might be feeling at the time. We have the opportunity to put a message out there and tell a story through our lyrics that often serves as a therapy of sorts. It’s also a process that results in you playing it live in front hundreds or thousands of people in a room where you create this connection with the audience around a song you’ve written which can change both yours and the listeners lives.
I don’t really find I get that feeling with making a great cup of coffee personally.