Loneliness is a funny thing. It can sit in the grandest or smallest of rooms, ignore your friends, stride up to the furthest corner of your heart and nestle there without giving you so much as a compliment. Even when we’re on top form, quaffing beer and anecdotes, the threat of silence lingers like hands on a black clock. What awaits the loner? An empty bed, a walk through that street only you have familiarised? Apologies for this preamble: I’m managing to make songwriter and all-round nimble musician ED BLACK sound like Morrissey with a migraine. He’s not like this at all. He just knows that isolation is torture, and he’s managed to find an ointment for it.
I’m speaking to Ed Black via Skype on an unremarkable November afternoon. It’s our fourth interview; our first was eight months ago, when he was eagerly explaining the pitfalls of being a solo singer. There are the Jake Buggs and Ben Howards of the world, who happen to play acoustic guitars and thus act as the vanguard of ‘authenticity’ in pop music. People expect other young men with quixotic haircuts to give them more of the same: stability, recognisable packages, whatever you want to call it. In our first conversation, Black was adamant that his ambitions were greater than this, and I could tell he meant it. He’d just left Ninetails, a band constantly humming across Liverpool’s fascination with the avant-garde. “They weren’t too keen on gigging,” was one of his reasons for doing so. The group signed a management contract, but Ed has made his decision to go it alone – it was the right thing to do, from a musical perspective. He wanted to keep playing live, keep learning from a raft of mentors, to visualise the off-kilter leanings of his own, very personal, emotional exhibit.
Won’t Go Back and Mistakes are the glorious fruits of his labours over the period since our first chat, which he is revealing in the form of a double A-side single in December. And ‘labour’ is as apt a word as any to describe the brief spurts of writing and recording that went into them. When these demos landed in my Dropbox in mid-July, they hinted at panoramas through infant eyes: gorgeously melodic, subtle and somewhat jarring due to their fluid wavering between old-school instrumentation and electronics. Synthesis and silence struck me then, and now, as the tracks pull delicately at the edges of their structure, lapping backwards and forwards to catch beats in the riptide. “I see an ornament,” he says during our Skype call in the midst of summer, when I ask him to come up with an image surmising the mood of the EP. He links me to the cover of an old Coldplay record: a stone or a shell in someone’s hand, swamped in velvet light. “Definitely an ornament in blue,” he affirms. “Please don’t think I’m into Coldplay by any means, but these colours would work.” Listening to the final version of the tracks, where Ed’s tender vocals seem to be balancing above a descent into the internal, accepting the bliss of one’s own solitary headspace, my mind’s eye can’t help but agree with him about the blue part.
Though occasionally an exercise in frustration, spending the better part of a year on such scant material has enabled Ed to realise, to the fullest extent, how good these songs could be. Post-Ninetails, Black got an offer from Ady Suleiman (close friend and prospective alt-RnB artist) to be his right-hand man in London. He de-camped and got swiftly embroiled in new commitments and the pleasures of the capital. For our final Skype call in October, Ed is speaking from Suleiman’s shed. Time away from the north has only cemented his opinion of the music industry but “You have to move down here [London],” Ed tells me. “I know it’s typical to say that. For the stage Ady’s at, you have to have a connection to this city.” Living with that reality didn’t stop him from spending long nights in with Logic, the digital software beloved by people with too little leisure time. When he was “starving or need[ing] a piss”, he’d forgo the demands of nature to spend hours at his digital workstation, fiddling over modulations and EQ levels.
However, behind Black’s easy, tech-savvy veneer lurks an artistic obsession – some would say insecurity – with being alone. A breakup almost ruined him: he was nervous the ex in question would turn up for his Sound City gig, and he actually resurrected a song called Being Alone that night, drip-feeding his audience glimpses of the New Ed, the one willing to bear the scrutiny of an entire room and thrive in it. There’s been an acoustic release on the cards for quite a while, reflecting the shitload of Bon Iver he was listening to while trying to climb out of his emotional quicksand. “I wouldn’t necessarily classify [the acoustic tracks] as ‘of that mould’, but Justin Vernon was undeniably a huge influence on their conception. I still haven’t got round to doing them yet because I don’t want my tunes muddled up, and I don’t want to spread myself too thin.” He and the girl are back together after six months apart. “It’s a bit weird working on something I wrote in a completely different headspace. They’re a big thing for me, relationships. Since I was 16 I’ve always been in one, in some form or another. Whenever I’m single I don’t enjoy it at all.”
If the delayed catharsis of a voice and whispered chords could turn out to be Black’s For Emma, Forever Ago, then his completed material imitates Bon Iver’s second album, along with the spliced, sensual dub of FKA twigs and Baths’ child-like melodic intuition. I ask whether the lushness and warmth of the EP is an attempt to find solace in other people, or if it endorses retreating inside one’s self completely. “Hmmm,” he says. “I haven’t especially thought about that, but if I’d go one way, I’d say it reaches out. Y’know, like the experience of realising the layers and the textures of the thing with Jake.”
This is Jake King, Ninetails’ drummer and Black’s alchemic totem. I visited Jake’s flat on Roscoe Street back in August to see how they were getting on. Alongside a Mac or two, and bunch of magnificent synth equipment, a board hung on the wall, scrawled with ideas like ‘Longer opening section?’ or, more simply, ‘BASS’. The lads sit me down and we listen to the half-completed demos without speaking, bobbing our heads. “There are elements of field recording in the percussion. I’ve just deleted a few actually…” Jake explains. “There’s a rain sound I really love: it was falling on a coal bunker outside my mum’s house. I’ll chop that up and make it into a sensible beat.” I attempt to make a link to Swedish philosopher Alain de Botton’s theory on the symbolic effects of thunderstorms. They look perplexed. Dammit, Josh, rein it in.
Another difficult question is thrown to Ed in our last conversation: have you matured in the past year? He squints. “Subconsciously… My hair’s matured.” What about plans for an album in the near future? Would it be along the same lines (albeit faster lines, one might wish) as these effervescent offerings?
“Again, I don’t think about it too much. There’s not a lot of thinking behind what I manage to do here and there. It’s cool – it’s why they’ve come out the way they have. But I’d say I’d lean more towards conventional structures, despite the fact I love the atmosphere I’ve already managed to capture.”
Here’s hoping an atmosphere of daring originality continues to hang over Black’s career – it suits him down to the ground.