More about: Orlando Weeks
New beginnings always start with baby steps, and that’s never been truer than with the latest project from Orlando Weeks, erstwhile frontman of beloved indie titans The Maccabees. When the band announced their split at the peak of the powers and fame, it was a tough pill to swallow for many. But in the intervening years, Orlando has hardly shown any signs of slowing down. Writing, illustrating and providing the soundtrack for his book The Gritterman, creating art for IDLES’ Joy As An Act Of Resistance exhibition, this is someone who obviously thrives on being busy. But these were only stepping stones for his most important, and personal, project of all.
Named after the moment when an expectant mother first begins to feel the baby moving, A Quickening is a beautiful, humbling and powerful insight into the experience of becoming a father. Today, eighteen months on from his sons’ birth, Gigwise catches up with Orlando to discuss all things parental. Laughing as he describes life with a toddler mid-lockdown as ‘spicy’, he begins to shed some light on the last few years. “All the way through the run-up to our son being born, I was writing,” he starts, “I think I was conscious of it being, on some level, a way of me documenting and keeping this witnesses account. Trying to be a very present observer in this very extraordinary thing that we were going through.”
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That idea of being a witness runs through much of A Quickening, a deeply heartfelt record that doesn’t try to mansplain or take focus from his partner but instead explores his own journey. “I don’t want to put words in my partner’s mouth, but my experience of this time [pre-birth] was a really grey area where nothing was concrete. You’re just trying to pick your way through it, through all the inconsistencies, the stuff you find on the internet.” This is a story where the main storyline may be a universal one, but the details are purely personal. “It’s a weird juxtaposition, it feels entirely like it’s the most important thing that anyone can come through. But I read the other day that half a million women are pregnant right now. That’s huge!” he exclaims, “So by any stretch of the imagination, you’re not the most important couple in the world. So to present any kind of universal truth… I’d have flunked that. And I wouldn’t have wanted to do it like that, it was way more interesting and appropriate this way.”
The way he chose is through a string of gorgeous snapshots into parental life, both pre and post-birth. Almost childlike himself in the obvious feeling of awe that resonates through every second, it is very much a journey through Orlando’s headspace in this life-changing period. The writing process unfolded gradually but naturally, and A Quickening slowly emerged. “It was the same way that I took photographs of everything, and made recording of monitors when we went for check-ups. It was a way I could sort of find my place in things.” At the end of each day Orlando returned to it, describing it now as “a nice distraction from the anxiety bubble of the twists and turns of that time.” The songs were kept largely under wraps with only his wife, and later his friend and producer Nic Nell, allowed a glimpse. “Once our son had arrived and I could look back at it, it was obviously a collection of songs. And I had to turn these quite rough demos into fully functioning comprehensive music.”
Those demos transformed into gold. Current single ‘Milk Breath’ details the unforgettable early nights, the breathless moments after putting a child to sleep that every parent will recognise. Tiny snapshots becomes poetry in Orlando’s hands. “You’re almost floating, time works in peculiar ways and you can’t tell whether you’ve been stood there for one hour or four”, he reminisces today. ‘Summer Clothes’ is an awestruck examination of the changes and sacrifices his partner is going through, while the likes of ‘Blood Sugar’ and ‘Safe In Sound’ aim to cast a protective parental shield around his son. Echoes from the past come to the fore on ‘St Thomas’’, as in a strange quirk of fate he spent time in the very room that he himself was born in. A lucky piece of serendipity perhaps, but one made even stranger by the discovery of a photograph taken at that time by his father of the view, showing Big Ben once again under wraps, exactly mirroring one taken this time round.
At points, his imagination flies free. Describing ‘Moon’s Opera’ as a “fantastical journey”, it is based in part on his love of 80s classic films like The NeverEnding Story and Labyrinth and sprang from a series of illustrations that he created at the same time. 'Takes A Village’ meanwhile takes the form of a letter to himself in the future. “I could catastrophize, I’d ask myself what was the worst that can happen… it won’t happen, it won’t happen,” he sighs towards the end. “I’ve always been a worrier” he admits today before chuckling, “But perhaps, in some ways, that has got me prepared for a time when I do have something to worry about.” There’s a disarming honesty about him as he elaborates further. “Some of the lyrics there are a reminder to me about the difference in being protective and claustrophobic, the importance of staying on the right side.” He is curious as to what meaning I derive from his lyrics, seemingly delighted that more than one reading can be made. “I love that it can feel different to everyone,” he smiles.
Most of the time, surviving each day is enough of an achievement for new parents. But not for Orlando though, a man that seems to be at his most content when juggling multiple projects. “I’m maybe not the one to ask,” he laughs when I ask him how he copes, “But I think being busy makes me better and easier to be around!” More than just something that has resulted from the new addition to his family, there’s a sense that his new life has inspired him just as much. In his case, a change is as good as a rest perhaps. “I think it was really easy to feel like just part of a machine towards the end of The Maccabees,” he explains carefully, with no hint of animosity. “You’re just turning up, jumping around and doing your thing for an hour and a half. And this is very different, I needed that.” It’s easy to see that the new artistic outputs, the illustrating, the writing, the music, have exhilarated and recharged him. Could A Quickening have been written in the context of his old band? His answer is definite. “I’ve thought about this a bit recently and no, I don’t think so. I think it needed to be solely in my control.”
The results are a sound that is far removed from his previous work. There is a feeling of space that is immediately striking, a reluctance to fill the air with sound when a more sparse approach can say so much more. “A lot of the records that were touchstones had that same space,” he exclaims, “Things like the last Low album, FLOTUS by Lambchop, bands like Talk Talk and Blue Nile all have it, and they were strong influences on us.”
There is a meticulousness about every note, or absence of sound, a mastery of mood and ambience that is hugely impressive and seemed to lead him naturally into performing live in a string of unique venues. Though the magnitude of the dangers surrounding Covid-19 were just starting to become apparent as his short tour ended, the tour still has fond memories for Orlando. “I really enjoyed this tour, playing in so many venues that were brand new to me.” One in particular stands out. “We played a church in Brighton, St Bartholomews, that was right round the corner from where our old studio for The Maccabees used to be. Playing in all these beautiful rooms, I loved the challenge of just working out how to set the instruments up, trying to get the sound just right.” Admitting that he has plans on how to expand his live band when shows do return, it’s easy to see that he is excited to be back in the act of planning performances again.
Talk turns naturally to what it will feel like to return to live music post-Covid, and the importance of sharing a communal experience once more. It is perhaps fitting to be discussing events that feel both seismic, and deeply personal, during a period of global isolation and lockdowns. A Quickening is a reminder that life does go on, and that the same threads connect us all. Baby steps have suddenly never felt so big.
A Quickening is released on 12 June.
More about: Orlando Weeks