The inspiration to write songs comes in bursts for Jon Fratelli, whose new solo album is inspired by the records he fell in love with as a teenager, writes Fiona Shepherd
Back in the days when he was plain old John Lawler, Jon Fratelli had an epiphany, a moment of almost banal simplicity, shared with his father, when the pair sat down to watch Pink Floyd’s final tour on television. Lawler’s father was a fan, his son a teenage novitiate.
“Within 15, 20 minutes, I was thinking ‘I want to do that’,” he recalls. “I discovered Dylan, Pink Floyd and The Beatles in the same summer and it completely changed everything. While all my friends were listening to Oasis or whatever was the main Britpop thing of the day, I was off with those three. I had a record player and no records. But my dad had all this vinyl, the standard 60s stuff, Beatles, Kinks. But that was a lucky find because if he’d had a different record collection, I would have gone in a different direction.
“I’m a traditionalist, there’s no getting away from it. There are certain song structures that I’m moving back towards because I think the possibilities with them are infinite.”
Now 39, and father to an ultra-keen 19-year-old drummer, Lawler can draw on 20 years of songwriting experience, first in short-lived bands around Glasgow and tentative solo endeavours and then, more explosively, in The Fratellis, who unwittingly captured something in the air in the mid-2000s with their rambunctious character sketches of showgirls, addicts and lonely souls. Just don’t ask Lawler how he did it.
“I was completely at a loss,” he says. “We had this record [debut album Costello Music] that sold more copies than I could ever have imagined and people seemed to be wanting that from us and I didn’t know how to give it to them again. I had written that group of songs in the space of about three or four months and it was gone. And it really took us up to this last record for it to stop being any sort of concern.”
This last record was 2018’s In Your Own Sweet Time, the band’s fifth and best album, and the third in quick succession since the band reformed in 2012, following a three-year hiatus when Lawler retreated in disillusionment from that first bewildering flush of success.
In that interim, he formed Codeine Velvet Club with singer/songwriter Lou Hickey, creating a lusher, throwback sound – as The Last Shadow Puppets are to Arctic Monkeys – before moving on again to record his first solo album, Psycho Jukebox.
A second solo album, Bright Night Flowers, was recorded and shelved in short order, only to resurface this month in an updated incarnation with four of its original songs standing next to newer material written on piano around the same period as In Your Own Sweet Time.
“I really just recorded it out of curiosity,” says Lawler. “Once I had that bunch of songs I wanted to hear them, to be able to say whether they worked or not.”
As to why the material did not work out first time round, “the simplest answer is I wasn’t ready to sing them yet. But my voice has changed in the last three or four years and I’ve started to become more in control of it and stretch it further. It’s just a lot of practise and I’m a slow learner. I’m not really somebody who can’t help themselves singing. I can go months without singing but for whatever reason over time my voice changed and I knew how to deliver something I couldn’t before.”
Bright Night Flowers is a considered and classic collection, embellished with sumptuous string arrangements by The Fratellis’ keyboard player Will Foster, and far from the bouncy jabber which many consider to be Lawler’s signature. Yet it’s unlikely he will ever rekindle the likes of Chelsea Dagger or Henrietta. “I think those characters are best left,” he says. “I can’t really catch those anymore.”
It would be tempting to describe Bright Night Flowers as a more personal record, with its first person lyrics and the confessional associations of such dark-night-of-the-soul piano balladry but the naturally guarded Lawler has commented before on the need to look beyond his quiet life for all his lyrical inspiration.
“I don’t go out very much, except in a triangle from my house to the supermarket to….” He trails off. “Well, these days it’s more of a straight line. But I’m happier now to write what would seem like my own story. I still know that it’s fiction. Everybody’s story of their life is fiction – it’s really, what kind of fiction?”
Lawler also continues to spin Fratellis fiction, with another collection of band songs set to be recorded in the spring and likely to be released at the start of next year.
“It’s been fruitful,” he says. “It’s been a period where I’ve never been more productive or more happy with what I’ve done. But it might just have ended.”
For Lawler, making – and listening to – music comes in waves. “Somehow three or four years ago, listening to music stopped being a daily thing and now I’ll have these explosions that will last two or three days. But my son has picked up my collection and run with it in a way I never did. He’s got god knows how many Dylan bootlegs and he’s in that really beautiful period where he’s utterly obsessed with music and it’s that real joyous phase.
“I remember that and I get it from time to time. It slows as you get older, but it’s still the only thing in life that excites. I know that sounds a bit bleak, but there’s nothing else that will get me out of bed at three or four in the morning like a song – not even a hurricane would get me out of bed at that time. And I have no other skills, so it kind of has to work. I also realise that one day it might not, and then it will be time to do something else.”
Bright Night Flowers is released by Cooking Vinyl on Friday. Jon Fratelli plays King Tut’s, Glasgow on 22 February