What was Liverpool before Merseybeat? For that matter, what was Britain before rock n roll? You’d be forgiven for thinking that pop music didn’t exist until Paul met John at the St Peter’s Rose Queen Celebrations and Garden Fete, that nobody had ever whistled a tune. But before that day, Britain was a land of balladeers, dance halls and big bands and though he is still in his mid-20s, it was this, pre-mop-top era that had a deep lasting impression on the young Neville Skelly, an impression that lasts to this day.
“As a teenager, I wasn’t really into the music scene. I listened to singers like Tony Bennett and Nina Simone. It was the period before rock n roll that I gravitated to.” Neville tells me, over a pint in the Cross Keys off Old Hall Street. Its roasting outside and the cool beer is welcome and required. So, where did this interest come from? “When I was growing up, me mum and dad listened to all those old records. My dad was always playing Dean Martin. I just immersed myself in that style and eventually found myself walking round all the old record shops digging those records out.”
And, if you spend some time with Neville’s new EP, Child Of The Morning, you’ll see that the days he spent crate digging have been put to great use. The record is a beautifully constructed collection of ballads, in the vein of Mel Torme and Tony Benn, with a twist of the blues, folk and country. But, how did he get here and what has Neville Skelly been up to before now?
During the early part of this decade, Neville was touring extensively across the UK and playing on cruise ships, trawling across the world with his swing orchestra, releasing a collection of big band classics in 2004. “I was following a childhood dream, in the tradition of all those classic, great singers of having my own big band. And I did it. But it became quite nostalgic and i wanted to do something of my own, something more personal. I wanted to find that feeling with my own music that you get when you discover something that just blows your mind.”
It was that drive to create his own future, that drove Neville to return to Liverpool and discover his own self, his own musical expression, something that had been daunting up until that point, “because I listened to all those songs as a kid, I felt inhibited in a way. The music I was listening to was some of the best ever written and I felt a pressure I suppose, it was like ‘fuckin’ hell man, whats the point!’. Gladly I’m over that now!”
Gladly indeed. Neville’s songwriting was aided in the creation of Child Of The Morning by various members of Liverpool’s music community, the sessions became kind of a drop in, collaborative, expressive environment, over at Ape Studios on The Wirral, “We had the same rhythm section throughout, Scott Marmion played pedal steel and guitar, Ian Skelly played drums and Bob Picken was on double bass and harmonica. After that people would drop in and add parts to songs that they fancied. We did it on our own steam and there was no pressure, we just kicked back, had a few bevvies and took our time.”
The record was largely produced by Ian Skelly and Will She Hold Another was co-written with James Skelly, both brothers of The Coral – its worth pointing out that Neville is not related to them, but just shares the same name – and the record most definitely benefits hugely from the band’s input. In much the same way as Richard Hawley – the closest modern reference point I can give to Neville – the band ensure that the songs arrangements are lush, diverse and creative. “I certainly don’t want to become formulaic” Neville asserts, “that can be the problem sometime with big bands. But working like this, we have our own nuances and a vibe thats our own. We’re definitely on more of a blues and folk tip also and there’s only four or five instruments throughout. Its down to really strong arrangements, which is something we do share with Richard Hawley.”
Another aspect he also shares with Sheffield’s favorite son, is the ability to completely hold you entranced with his voice. Particularly on Child Of The Morning, the EP’s title track, his warm, baritone, caramel croon washes over you, reminiscent of Hawley on The Ocean, who Neville played with recently at The Jazz Cafe in London. “He’s from the same place man, a working class background and not obsessed with cool. He loved our music at the show and was really complimentary…a top guy.”
Liverpool’s musical success, despite what is sold to tourists, has always been a result of the city’s diversity and the breadth of its musical pallet. Neville Skelly is a shining example of the city’s broad musical shoulders and, fairly soon, he’ll be perched upon them.