Steve Mason has found happiness and is ready to take on the world with new album About the Light. Interview by Fiona Shepherd
As 2019 dawns, life is sweet for Steve Mason. The ex-Beta Band frontman – you may also know him by his other musical aliases, King Biscuit Time and Black Affair – is happily settled in Brighton, married with a one-year-old daughter Layla and poised to release what he considers to be his “first legitimate record”. As William Wordsworth might put it, he has been surprised by joy.
“I suffered from depression for a long time,” Mason says, “and it makes you very, very selfish. But what I love about being a dad is that you are no longer the most important person in the room. Your needs are not important any more and there’s something quite beautiful about that.”
Mason has stopped short of writing some Isn’t She Lovely ode to his toddler but his new album About the Light is infused with positivity and possibility. The title track concerns the moment he began to turn his life around.
“I was living just outside St Andrews in a little cottage, I was single and music was all I was really doing,” he says. “I came back off tour and had this epiphany where I realised unless I sorted this out, I was going to blink and I’d be 50, burrowed in the woods like some little weird hermit and only socialising when I went on tour. About the Light is about having that moment of clarity and realising you need to grab life by the scruff of the neck.
“I was very lucky to find some happiness, so I needed a whole new set of songs. Your art should always reflect where you are in your life. Some of the songs that I’ve played in the past, I wouldn’t really want to play now. I wanted to write something that I would really enjoy playing onstage and that’s what I’ve done.”
But what does the man who has already released the brilliant Monkey Minds in the Devil’s Time and the tender, compassionate Meet the Humans mean by calling About the Light his first “legitimate” album?
“When I listen to this record it sounds to me like a world class record. It actually feels it could compete with the top records that are out. I worked with my band on all these tracks, because you want it to be exciting for you to play so you engineer it to be that way. That’s another reason why it feels positive and driven.”
Confident that he had a set of songs with which to take on the world, Mason recruited top flight producer Stephen Street, best known for his work with Blur, The Smiths and Pete Doherty, to polish up the potential. Together, they dappled the music with glorious bursts of brass and gospel-y backing vocals (Mason dubbed his singers the Aye Threes in homage to Bob Marley’s I Threes) to create an atmosphere of warm, soulful uplift.
“It’s having the confidence to work with some of these top guys, and what these people can bring is amazing,” says Mason. “Previously I’d always wanted to keep a level of control. I always thought I was going to lose something but you actually gain way, way more than you are ever going to lose.”
Mason even sounds different on this album. Already known for his distinctive, hypnotic vocals, communicating a sort of Zen yearning, he chose to put in a more extrovert performance instead.
“It’s out of my comfort zone, pushing my voice and trying to get some real drive and passion out of it,” he says. “What I used to do was rely on the music to provide the rises and falls but this time I really wanted to get that out of the vocal.”
The result is a soulful celebration, reminiscent in places of Primal Scream’s recently unearthed Memphis sessions, but with Mason’s usual keen eye for an image. Opening track America Is Your Boyfriend is a bridge from old to new, being the one geopolitically inclined song on the album, inspired by the Grenfell Tower disaster.
“I remember coming back into London,” says Mason, “and you could see this black stump sitting there like this rotten tooth, this horrible monument to the pain and suffering that capitalism at its worst can bring, so that some company could save a couple of quid per square foot. It’s just so brutal.”
In contrast, the beautiful Fox on the Rooftop was inspired by the almost fairytale image of a fox’s nightly visits one hot summer to his friend’s young daughter.
“I can imagine that moment of discovery, before the panic sets in, this bedroom bathed in moonlight with the child fast asleep and at the other end of the bed a little fox curled up. And I took that and started to think about other images like that that I’ve known in my life and put them all together.”
Such magical, evocative, everyday vignettes are suitably encased in a striking album sleeve featuring bright, bold lettering around an arresting archive photograph of a gallus gang of girls posing in a bleak, shabby street. “I love the spirit of those girls,” says Mason. “You know that maybe they’re not living in the best circumstances but they have that thing where if the four of them are together they are unbeatable. They represent the light in a dark or a tough situation and for me that’s the overall feeling that this album has.”
Steve Mason plays SWG3, Glasgow on 31 January. About the Light is released by Double Six Records on 18 January