INTERVIEW: Amateur Ornithologist | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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How many accomplishments must one tick-off before deeming themselves ‘a musician’? Evidently, writing, recording and releasing his own album wasn’t enough for Daniel Clifford who, when discussing 2021 debut Birdwatching with NARC., seemed at pains to play down his own credentials. With a background weighted more towards visual media, an element of imposter syndrome was clearly at play – yet on the eve of Amateur Ornithologist’s third record, it seems this self-taught songwriter is finally prepared to reassess.

“I do consider myself a musician now!” He proclaims. “My friend Martin Trollope [aka Harbourmaster] has been telling me this for years, so I’ve finally started listening! I think I had a very narrow view of what constitutes a musician back then – and even though I still wouldn’t say I’m a great singer, I’m far more proud of what I can do now than I was back then.”

Although Daniel would’ve qualified by any reasonable metric from the outset, it’s fair to say his project has developed significantly in the two-and-a-half years since. For one, Amateur Ornithologist is now a fully-fledged group; a big bang-like expansion set to be unleashed with the January release of Hide.

“It wasn’t designed to be a band,” he insists. “Amateur Ornithologist came about during the first lockdown when I felt incredibly frustrated, and that I couldn’t do anything without somebody else’s help. I started to teach myself how to write music, but it was always supposed to be self-sufficient.”

How then has he wound up heading an expansive six-piece ensemble, featuring the multifarious talents of Liam Slack (keys), Maddie Smyth (viola), Chris Perriman (bass), Louis Young (guitar) and Rob Bailey (sax)? “Once I’d finished the second album [Building The Bird] I thought I’d actually like people to hear it, and that the best way to achieve that would be to play some gigs. At the beginning I thought I’d struggle to find anyone I’d like or share musical ideas with, so I tried to find people who were happy just being in a backing band… but that didn’t work, because the first people I met were really nice and I wanted to be friends with them! I’m often a quitter, but having them there has really helped my confidence. It’s happened by accident, but the people have really shaped what it’s become.”

Lyrically, I wanted to explore the boundaries between reality and imagination; the weird things people think they see and hear

Indeed, while Daniel was keen to build momentum on the live stage, his prolific work-rate (“I get incredibly bored if my brain isn’t working”) has documented an outfit taking shape in double-quick time. Whereas Birdwatching mined a fruitful seam of ‘80s indie and Building The Bird ripened that sound with a sprinkling of arty post-punk influences, Hide represents a vast leap in both sound and composition. Its widescreen scope is established instantaneously on A Hidden Path, where isolated viola is gradually subsumed within a sax and synth-splashed oddball-pop nugget par excellence. Elsewhere, If It Looks Like Magic and The Anatomy Lesson offer fleshed-out takes on Daniel’s sunshine jangle sensibilities, richly melodic standouts The Word Is Love and Hide dazzle through restraint as much as their embellishments, while When They Fall is a soaring coda elevated by ecstatic harmonies and ornate string arrangements.

“I’ve always enjoyed natural and man-made sounds coming together,” Daniel muses, discussing the mix of acoustic and electric elements within Hide’s palette. “I live in Ryton, and when I leave the house I hear birds in the hills and trees – but also the buzzing of pylons amidst their songs. The two are always intermingling.

“Lyrically, I wanted to explore the boundaries between reality and imagination; the weird things people think they see and hear,” he continues. “I’m really interested in folk horror, myths and mysteries – without necessarily believing that stuff, carrying around crystals or being into star signs! If It Looks Like Magic, for instance, was written about [infamous photographs] the Cottingley Fairies. What I’m looking at and what someone else is looking at could be completely different, but that doesn’t necessarily mean either of us is right or wrong.”

As well as bringing the machinations of his creative mind to life, Daniel is proud that Amateur Ornithologist offers a safe and encouraging environment for the musical expressions of neurodivergent members. “It can mean things take longer. Because of my autism, I like everything to be laid out and organised, whereas others in the band may be the complete opposite, or may occasionally forget to prepare stuff. We have the same aims, but often come at it from different directions. We can get niggly sometimes, but there’s a greater sense of trust and understanding between us because we’re all being ourselves and respecting each other for that.”

Moreover, the project’s development since the pandemic has provided an anchor during what’s otherwise proved a choppy period. “I used to work full-time in the arts, but when I moved back to the North East those jobs didn’t really exist,” Daniel recalls. “My brain would die if I wasn’t writing stuff or trying to organise things. Sometimes I suffer from autistic burnout and can’t get out of bed – but even if I’m stuck there I can prop my laptop up and write. It’s got me in the arts sector again, and back to being more social, like I used to be. I’d lost all of that and was going nowhere, but now I feel like I’m back out in the world. It’s been a huge change for me.”

Amateur Ornithologist launch Hide
at The Globe, Newcastle on Friday 19th January.


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