"There's a line in the E.E. Cummings poem 'Somewhere I Have Never Travelled, Gladly Beyond' which goes 'No one, not even the rain, has such small hands' which I paraphrased to 'Nothing can wash this away, not even the rain' –– I've always loved that imagery and intrigue... I've never been a realist, the magic and mystery is where my heart lies and where my mind wonders..."
As the singer in I Am Kloot from 1999 to 2014, John Bramwell achieved a Mercury Prize nomination for 2010's The Sky At Night, a Top 10 chart position for 2013's Let It All In, numerous UK and European tours and a triumphant farewell at the Queen Elizabeth Hall with an orchestra in 2014. Now, as a solo artist, he's travelling a very different path, his stunning new album The Light Fantastic is almost a complete U-turn from his Kloot-days. Darker clouds have been banished, there are strings and four-part harmonies (a warming development, since Kloot never had any backing vocals) and a dozen gloriously exhilarating, beautifully crafted and observed songs about life, humanity, the universe and everything. As John puts it, “It's been great to find the joy of making music once again. These are the most uplifting songs of my career.”
When Kloot ceased in 2014 - stopping playing together, rather than officially splitting up - he felt burned out, tired after years on the road. “I'd started to feel like an employee,” he says. “I just wasn't functioning creatively. I was 50 and wanted other experiences.” Initially, this took the form of extensive solo touring. Feeling reinvigorated and rejuvenated from the freedom of the industry, he played everywhere from an old German church run by hippies to villages nearby festivals he was playing too, travelling in an old Mercedes camper fan with his faithful dog Henry in the back. “The response was often like, ‘I can't believe you're playing in my village. Shouldn't you be at the [Manchester] Apollo or somewhere?'” However, after hundreds of such shows - which produced a live album, Live 2016 and self-released solo debut, 2017's Leave The Empty Spaces - 2020 brought lockdown and John suddenly wasn't playing any gigs at all. “I went into a sort of slump,” he admits now. “I realised I'd created a little world away from reality. So when that finished it hit me harder than I expected.” There were harder, more personal blows too.. His parents having divorced when he was younger, by 2020, his father had been ill for 15 years and died just before the pandemic struck. Then when the singer's mother had dementia and became terminally ill he wasn't allowed to see her.
Feeling isolated and “financially and mentally under duress”, he poured everything into his music but far from the melancholy or dark album we might have expected, the guitars, drums, cello and lyrical and musical warmth are positively joyous. The singer admits he was partly writing songs to comfort himself in the new circumstance, but it wasn't all that simple. “When we were able to play I'd be driving around in the car with Dave, I'd be singing something and we'd get the phones out and start recording. These are not very conscious songs. I was just opening my mouth and singing, almost like a stream of consciousness. There was a real freedom in doing it that way.” He'd first experienced this way of writing for Meet Me At The Station, the last track on Leave The Empty Spaces, which was literally penned at a station, with the dog, waiting for a train. “He turned to look at me and bang, I just had it and started singing it to him there and then. Then later for the middle verse I had to make it into a full song, but that was it.
The themes of travel and escape are found throughout The Light Fantastic. The wonderfully delicate opener Leave Not Traces has an instantly memorable guitar riff and shades of Vegas era Elvis, Neil Diamond and late 60s Glen Campbell. The first words on the album are “Maybe I'll get away from this...” “That's me and Dave getting in the car and again it was completely subconscious”, John explains. The second track A World Full Of Flowers is as joyous as anything on the album and again has a spirit of nowhere in particular - as long as it's a happy place. The lush melodic vocal harmonies over a Beck sounding syncopated drum loop, atmospheric Fleet Foxes soundscapes and hand claps are a glowing departure from the traditional Kloot sound. There's even the unusual sound of chatter, which captures the exuberance of a world as it emerged from lockdown. “We were just running through the song a few times and talking,” the singer explains. “The chatter somehow bled into the final take and it just gave it an atmosphere. It was completely accidental, but worked brilliantly.”
It's Just You is the album's most straightforward love song and is probably as close as any artist gets to classic, vintage Paul Simon. Here It Comes, with its delightfully playful strings and soaring chorus, is another completely improvised composition, lyrically. John's not sure what the spontaneous words mean, if they mean anything, but thinks that “Corporation penguins, overdosed on dope” is “Something to do with the business”. He suggests that the line “here come the hallelujah angels, swinging in on ropes” might have been a subconscious recollection of a Monty Python scene where a shipful of pirate accountants mount a hostile take-over of another boat and swing in on ropes. “It's extreme consciousness. It's not anti-Christian. If ‘newsreaders' would have scanned I'd have sung that. It's about how preachers come in all shapes and sizes and how there's so much pressure to be part of one group or another. Which I've always resisted. So I suppose it's really a hymn to outsiderness.”
The singer - the smallest child in an east Manchester comprehensive and growing up with a single mum - has always been one of life's outsiders, and has never liked being pushed around. He's also - as he has increasingly realised as he's got older - one of life's romantics. He grew up near Werneth Loe, just south of Manchester, renowned for its spectacular views of the night sky. As a child and teenager he would visit the spot just to stare at the ethereal majesty of it all. “You could see Hyde, Stockport, Manchester, all lit up. My mate had some binoculars, and there are not just stars, there are galaxies. I think it really helped me philosophically in terms of the whole... we're not that significant. But there's that feeling of trying in life to do something. It's like something David Lynch said, the stars are beacons of hope.” Such experiences cut to the core of who John Bramwell is, and explain why the sky and stars - and even those city streetlights in I Feel Me - feature so often in his lyrics. “On previous albums I've thought what else can I use instead of ‘stars' or ‘sky', you know, but this time I haven't done that. I didn't want to deny it.”
Such imagery crops up most vividly in A Sky Full Of Lightning, another stratosphere-influenced John Bramwell classic, but this time the skies aren't something to gaze at it awe and wonder. They're the storm clouds of blackness which were enveloping the singer at the time and which he needed to escape from. It's the album's darkest track and he was unsure of where to put it in the running order but it works poignantly in the middle, giving context to the bluer sonic skies around it. “There's some funny videos on YouTube,” he says. “Like the guy mowing the lawn and there's a raging tornado behind him. So I had this black cloud, and was subconsciously telling myself, ‘I need to keep moving again.'” The heavens also feature in the gorgeous heartbreaker of a song that follows. I Am The Sky, with lyrics such as “Where are we now? What do we know? What have we seen?” is a real life, the universe and everything statement that is surely one of the finest and most fully realised songs John Bramwell has ever written. The dark clouds are soon followed by more rays of sunshine. Days Go By - about the passage of time, starting a cappella and tapping into the old folk tradition of communal singing - is quintessential solo Bramwell: a mix of grit and warmth. The Element Of Truth is another sitting at the station song, but this time inspired by a busy platform in rush hour. “All my previous engagements with the moon and the stars have been called off,” he chuckles. “This is not a romantic setting. ‘And no one, not even the rain can wash all this away'. Because obviously I see rain as a purifying thing.
Nobody Left With You, co-written with Dave Fidler, and channelling early Bob Dylan in its dizzying narrated style, was written just before they went onstage at a festival and captures “pre-gig nerves” along with the birds, the rain, the skies and the heavens. The closer, Illegalised, is a wry comment on authority and our loss of freedom, something else the singer has become very aware of on his travels in that camper van with Henry, his trusty canine companion.
The album has been lovingly crafted by John Bramwell (guitar and lead vocals), Dave Fidler (bass, guitar, vocals, production and engineering), Andy Fidler (drums), Harriet Bradshaw (cello and vocals) and Alan Lowles (piano, keyboards and mixing). And the title track, The Light Fantastic? The term originating from John Milton's 1645 L'Allegro [“Com, and trip it as ye go/On the light fantastick toe”] which gradually became “trip the light fantastic” meaning dancing has a more than careful latest owner in John Bramwell, 2024. “All very subconscious at first,” he says, “but then I used it to imply good times.” Indeed - and as we all know, sometimes the best weather comes after the storm. So get in the van with John, Henry and the band and trip, The Light Fantastic.
John Bramwell 2024