Fyfe Dangerfield

Fyfe Dangerfield seems more than a little wary of success. Best known as the lanky frontman of the eccentric, Mercury Prize-nominated pop quartet Guillemots, he briefly went solo in January this year with Fly Yellow Moon, a quieter and, it has to be said, more mainstream effort that helped to raise his profile. But it was in April he accidentally stumbled upon commercial success, when his cover of Billy Joel’s ‘She’s Always a Woman’ was featured in a John Lewis advert and very quickly made it to number seven in the charts. Suddenly he was performing the track on The Graham Norton Show and facing far more attention than he’d ever had before. Yet despite this acclaim, when we sit down to chat, Fyfe is very quick to distance himself from it.
He sighs before admitting, ‘It’s the least artistic thing I’ve ever done, probably.’ Then again, perhaps such a reaction isn’t surprising, given his constant striving for some form of artistic integrity. Was he worried that he might be accused of selling out? ‘I thought about it, and it was the first time I’d ever said yes to anything like that. You know, I don’t have any sort of problem with John Lewis. I shop there… But it’s something I’ve thought about a lot – I remember when Jack White did the Pepsi ad and everyone was like, ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ And I thought, on the one hand, yeah, he’s totally selling out, but on the other hand he’s now got a set-up for life where he can record, sell records, and he doesn’t rely on the record shop or the studio… Plus I’m sure he drinks Pepsi from time to time.’ He laughs at this, before adopting a more sincere air. Clearly this is a subject that has weighed heavily on his mind.

‘It’s a weird one, because on the one hand there is that side of me that thinks he’s a total sell-out, but the other part of me thinks that unless you’re going to live your entire life avoiding anything corporate…’ Fyfe trails off, and pauses momentarily to consider his position. ‘The whole music business is an ugly corrupt business, really.’ Another pause, before he returns to the original topic. ‘Anyway, in this instance I didn’t have a problem with [John Lewis] anyway, and I like Billy Joel, and I could definitely use the money… And then suddenly people who’d never heard of me before were buying my record and it’s taken it to another level. But on the other hand, it’s not really something I’m musically proud of. All I’m doing is singing someone else’s song.’ His feelings are left fairly exposed as he reflects on his newfound success, a consequence of his tendency to think out loud, and this openness – or perhaps unguarded-ness – soon makes it clear that he is a fairly conflicted figure. Whichever topic I happen to raise, he will invariably put forward one point of view, hesitate, and then examine the other, usually preceded by a sigh of, ‘On the other hand…’ It’s rare that he reaches a conclusion on any matter, preferring instead to constantly re-examine his thoughts.

Much of this externalised struggle revolves around the dilemma he feels between commercial, mainstream success and managing to retain a sense of artistic integrity. When the Guillemots’ second album, Red, was released in 2008, its first single, ‘Get Over It’, seemed to dominate the musical airwaves for a few weeks, yet Fyfe is once again in two minds about this success. ‘We went with ‘Get Over It’, which was hugely successful on the radio, but then what did that achieve? I mean, the one thing I was proud of… [was that] in that context it did sound really good, it sounded like it did stand out.’ But then, before he indulges in any self-congratulation, he spins the topic round to see it from the opposite perspective. ‘As a song, I’m not proud of it at all. It’s just a bit irritating.’ I admit that I share his view on that single, and suggest that they should have put out a different track – for me, ‘Kriss Kross’ and ‘Don’t Look Down’ stand out in my mind as the album’s highlights. ‘Yeah, I totally agree with you. It’s so frustrating. Those are exactly the two songs, the ones you mentioned, that are the two on that record that I’m really proud of. With ‘Kriss Kross’, I remember when we wrote it, and I thought, ‘Man, this sounds like this huge smash single,’ and then you do it and the radio people are just like, ‘Nah. It’ll probably get played on 6 [Music], but nothing else really. It’s too weird.’ It’s so frustrating.’

Then again, the music of Guillemots has always been rather left-field; the band take inspiration from everything from classical to jazz, glam rock to Indian dances, and this eclecticism leaves them almost impossible to categorise. The diversity and sheer originality of their sound has earned them a loyal yet small following, and Fyfe seems extremely aware of how very un-commercial many of their tracks are. The band appears to juggle constantly the twin concerns of mainstream success and musical integrity; indeed, so unusual are certain tracks that they often take refuge in EPs and B-sides. ‘The B-sides to ‘Get Over It’ and ‘Falling Out Of Reach’ are definitely some of our favourite things we’ve done, whereas ‘Get Over It’ and ‘Falling Out Of Reach’ are probably two of our least favourite things we’ve ever done.’ He laughs at this irony, but then expresses gratitude at just being able to release them at all. ‘There’s a comfort in just knowing that it’s out there and it is available for people who want stuff like that. We’re definitely at some point going to make a B-sides compilation.’
Dangerfield’s primary concern does seem to be that of integrity, and his self-criticism is ruthless and relentless. Their debut album, Through the Windowpane, was a hit, earning them a nomination for the 2006 Mercury Prize and only losing because it was up against Arctic Monkeys’ Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, but critical reception for ‘Red’ was far more muted. Fyfe shares their reservations: ‘It was just a bit of a difficult record, I think, for us to get right. It was that classic thing, because I had a long time to write our first record… most of it I’d been planning for years. It was very easy to make, really, it was just a case of slotting all the pieces into the right positions. Whereas the second record…’ He trails off, and I suggest that perhaps it was a little too forced. ‘Yeah, yeah, it didn’t feel like we were making the record because we really wanted to make one, it was because we needed to.’ He swears that they’ve learnt their lesson from this, and promises that their third album will be an improvement. ‘We deliberately wanted to take longer writing it, not recording it. In fact, we had about a year just writing together, and having enough time just to really get a vision.’ Is it more coherent, then, as a record? ‘Yeah, I think it’s a lot more coherent… I feel very much like if we get things right it’s going to be something that I’m very, very proud of.’

I press him further on the details, but aside from revealing a vague release date – ‘the plan is for it to be out in March’ – he seems reluctant to discuss details. He falters when I ask him to describe the feel of the new album: ‘I get a feeling for it, definitely. I get a feeling of being lost up in the sky and trying to get back home, but I don’t know…’ He trails off once more, and is clearly rather uncomfortable. Yet this should perhaps be expected, considering that, as Fyfe readily admits, his strengths lie very much in music itself, and he struggles to approach his art in an analytical, verbal manner. ‘Part of what I love about any art form is just a kind of gut reaction, that you just like something and you’re never really sure why. Whereas you can’t really write a review and just go, ‘I’ve got no idea why this is the best thing I’ve ever seen, but it just was.’ You need to explain it.’ For Fyfe, this is clearly unnatural – music is a natural impulse that he can’t quite explain. ‘I know that music is just what I’m meant to do. Since I’ve been tiny, I’ve always felt like it’s just natural to me… There are people like Leonard Cohen or Nick Cave or Dylan who you just feel are possessed with a sort of lyricism. They’re perfectly good at music too, but it’s a means of getting that across. I feel that way, but the other way around. Music is what I’m meant to do, and lyrics are a way of facilitating that.’

One significant consequence of this dedication to his craft appears to be a certain lack of practicality. His effortless creativity means that it is a struggle to remain with one project: ‘Already I’m starting to think about what I want to do after the next Guillemots record. I’ve started to make plans, and I have to almost stop myself a little bit – we haven’t even got this one done yet. I think if you’re creative, then you just always want to be making a new thing. I don’t particularly want to do something and then have a year of patting myself on the back.’ He almost seems to be frustrated at his work rate, yet this surprises me, as he has always appeared to work at a fairly rapid rate. ‘Well that’s what people say to me, but I don’t feel like I do really. I think from the outside it might look like that, but I don’t really think I do. The Beatles used to make two records a year, so I don’t really think that my work rate has been that prolific. I think my problem is that I come up with loads and loads of ideas, but in terms of finishing things off…’ Perhaps somewhat appropriately, he trails off, leaving this thought unfinished.

As an interview subject, Dangerfield is extremely friendly and helpfully open on almost every subject, but it is clear that he would rather be playing his music than talking about it. I put this to him, and he is quick to agree. ‘Being in a studio’s wonderful, because it’s just a complete escape from reality, and you can just stop. You kind of forget that you’re human, playing music and getting lost for hours.’ Is it the same sensation when playing live? ‘There is a side of me that really likes performing – it’s that classic thing of being really shy, but coming alive when you’d onstage. I genuinely, genuinely don’t find it that intimidating at all.’ As the interview draws to a close, I wish him luck with next year’s album, but admit that I’ve no idea what to expect. Yet I rather suspect that he likes his own unpredictability, and may not even know himself where he might be going next. ‘I just know that I want to put myself into lots of different things. You just have to follow your instincts, that’s all you can ever do, and your instincts change all the time.’

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