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

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Free of context, the notion of snow in June, on Nel Unlit’s Fireflies single, is a romantic juxtaposition of seasonal norms; thought provoking in its ambiguity and gently surreal like an intriguing invitation into a dream. Taken in the context of the band’s Wake For The Dreaming, a strict concept album based on Neil Gaiman’s Sandman: World’s End series, it becomes a precise introduction to a beguiling reworking of the stories within stories and layers of subtle caricatures that make up the graphic novel.

Sat in quite probably the only terraced house in Middlesbrough with a baby grand piano in the back room, Jon Horner and Clare Hargan explains how the concept was realised (there are a string of others from the nine-strong troupe that come and go throughout our interview including bassist Aaron Woodier, cellist Harriet Bradshaw and guitarist Ben Robinson). Jon: “The album grew from me, Clare and Ben being a recording project with the skeleton of the record, but as it went on we decided we wouldn’t mind doing a few gigs and the dynamics of the record would be hard to do without other people involved.” Clare adds: “We started with Harriet and that worked so we decided to go with the full band.” But, as Clare continues, they are conscious not to step on each-others toes, “we tried to find space where we could but also a lot of the music was dictated by the stories so the songs are naturally dynamic.”

A lack of repeated segments or regular choruses, much to Ben’s chagrin, is something that doesn’t detract from the record’s listenability as musical themes persist and provide a (dis)comforting familiarity even on first listen. Jon is keen to downplay the need for traditional song structure: “There are certain songs that would work as a big single but we had to stay true to [the concept] and you don’t want to bastardise someone else’s work, so we brought in themes and melodies that represent the different characters. Death has her own melody and Dream and Inn have their own theme which grounds you in the story,” and all are part of the stunning arrangements and vision that add an ergodic and segmented feel to the record in line with the novel’s storied design. With influences varying from HP Lovecraft to Watership Down, but coalescing musically perhaps somewhere between Liverpool prog-folkers Ooberman and Richard Dawson’s Peasant, the recurring musical motifs mark Wake For The Dreaming out as a meticulously accomplished project in the vein of Neutral Milk Hotel’s In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. As Ben laughingly concedes, “Yeah, I find the lack of choruses quite frustrating, it’s quite difficult to engage with some of the songs because of that but it’s going to be a grower. The songs are musically more complex so it is a folk-opera because it’s not written around ‘how are we going to play this live?’. But really it’s actually been fun!”

the recurring musical motifs mark Wake For The Dreaming out as a meticulously accomplished project in the vein of Neutral Milk Hotel’s In The Aeroplane Over The Sea

An album launch at Bobik’s in Newcastle on Saturday 15th February is followed by a short North East tour including a Westgarth Social Club takeover in Middlesbrough planned for Saturday 22nd February (with all three rooms utilised and featuring the band, their solo guises, guest vocalists from the album and the myriad and overlapping associated acts including Tom Joshua, Dressed Like Wolves and Sullivan & Gold). The all-day spectacular should ensure the band and their dual labels Spooker Rekkids (digital and CD) and Butterfly Effect (snow white vinyl) a little place in Teesside music-lore. Jon: “It’s the only way we could do the album in full with everyone there. So the attic will have all the acoustic artists, Hold Music are reforming, I am really lucky because I’m only playing once but Harriet is playing about four times but if it all goes according to plan it will be a brilliant day.”

If all this sounds like a logistical nightmare, that’s because it probably is but, as Jon explains of the guest vocalists, “we wanted it to sound like a musical or a theatrical production,” while Clare was equally sedulous of the screening process, “as time went on and we built the songs a bit more, it was fun trying to decide who fit each character. We didn’t have Tom [Joshua, on Unhung] in mind initially but he was perfect for that song and – this seems quite indulgent – but I’ve listened to that song a lot because it doesn’t sound like us because Tom is singing it.”

Having started as a four-piece it is clear the extended membership is a musical democracy and Jon’s thoughts are already turning to album number two. “We are writing it as a group, everyone gets what the songs mean.” Aaron hits the nail on the head: “It comes from maturity, if we’d tried to do this when we were 22 everybody would have tried to show off a little bit more. But now we can let the ego go a little bit. Jon is quite humble but he has the broadest musical scope of all of us and he holds it all together.” Jon concurs: “I’m a lot less militant now than I was when I was younger so I would deliberately do the opposite of what you are supposed to do, but I’m not trying to prove a point so much now as long as the song has what the song needs.”

So, far from being a daunting rebirth… “It’s actually exciting. It’s my favourite part of writing music when new ideas are coming about and I feel blessed to have people like Harriet and the others writing music for something as I know how awesome they are.” Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the first snowflake fall outside.

Nel Unlit release Wake For The Dreaming on 14th February via Butterfly Effect and Spooker Rekkids. They play Newcastle’s Bobik’s on Saturday 15th and Westgarth Social Club, Middlesbrough on Saturday 22nd February


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