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Songwriting has always been a soul-baring exercise for British singer-songwriter Bobby Long. From the dark themes of his earliest work through to the thought-provoking subject matter he has traversed since then, his body of work is at its core captivating and emotionally raw. Whether mining the depths of despair and alienation or exploring spirituality, apathy and even more mundane topics like love and passion, his songs are word pictures that transfix and transport.
For his fourth album, Sultans, Long has chosen a somewhat different approach, from conceptualization through the recording process itself. Rather than working within the confines of a producer’s tight schedule, he chose to work with multi-instrumentalist and close friend Jack Dawson, with whom he had toured and collaborated on the 2012 EP The Backing Singer, and they took their time. “Usually with other producers I have worked with, we would meet just before recording. The relationship blossoms just as we record and work together, and by the end, we are really close. With this album, working with Jack especially, the friendship was already so deep, and there isn't another musician I have played with as much as Jack, so everything was intertwined.”
As a result, Sultans as a whole is unlike Long’s three previous releases, A WINTER TALE (2011), WISHBONE (2013) and ODE TO THINKING (2015), beginning with the songwriting and preparation. “I started writing the songs a year before and did a lot more pre-production than usual,” he explains. “When I write, I usually just record my vocals and guitar, but this time I ended up using drum loops, played bass lines and spent a long time working on guitar parts and harmonies. I usually don't go into too much detail because I would want whoever played bass or drums to come up with something naturally, but this time, I really wanted to work on the greater detail. When it came time to record, Jack (the producer) and Dave Lindsay (sound engineer) were incredibly respectful of the demos I had concocted. They honoured the originals and advanced them. Dave, who played drums on the album, actually liked some of the drum loops so much that he copied some of the fills. His drumming is a really important part of the album. It sets the tone and drives us forward.”
The trio recorded at Lindsay’s Country Club Studio in Brooklyn over a one year period. “We became a little band during the recording,” says Long. “I played guitar and sang, Dave played drums and Jack played bass. We basically recorded those parts as a band live. We would jam songs out and work things out. We then built the song up by adding parts and using other musicians/magicians to play different instruments. Having the record based around the natural feel of a live performance really added a human element to the album and set the earthy feel, which I really felt was important. As much as I wanted to experiment and feel the freedom to add anything and everything, we all felt it was incredibly important to stay true to our own playing and build from there. Just like the Beatles would have done.”
The Beatles actually loomed large in this project according to Long. “Me and Jack are massive Beatles fans and other bands like ELO and other psychedelic music really was a huge factor in our approach,” he explains. .”We would set up each day to do a new song, play it through a bunch, smoke, drink and then attack it. The results were always so varied and dynamic. It was a very liberating feeling. We made playlists and spoke about different techniques used on albums we loved from the 60s to present day. Nothing was off the table. No music was too weird or too un-cool.
“When you write a song, you always have the greater picture in your head. Your imagination runs over the tracks, and the songs take on all sorts of forms. The sounds of this record are the closest to my imaginings that I’ve ever come before, and this record is without doubt the closest I’ve come to matching what is in my head. Ironically, it came through working with a great friend of mine and feeling free to experiment because of our closeness before we went in the studio.”
Sultans takes its name from the first and last tracks on the album—essentially “Sultans Part 1” and “Sultans Part 2.” “It was a song that was originally just drums, ukulele and a sample that Jack gravitated towards,” Bobby explains. “I feel it sets the tone for the entire album and ends it quite nicely as well. We were obviously inspired by Sgt. Pepper when coming up with the idea of the same start and end point. It gives the album a concept, and although the songs are quite similar, there are differences in dynamics and playfulness.
“Also, vocally this album was different for me. I was really inspired by John Lennon’s vocals and the rawness he would get, especially on early Beatles records or his solo stuff. Letting emotion get in the way and kind of showing my true colours. I wanted to be brave, especially on the deeply personal songs so I just left it all out there.”
The songs that embody the album are varied in subject matter, some mining universal themes Long has touched on since the beginning like love and death, while other topics can be found on the 6PM news on a daily basis. “Some of the songs are from the standpoint of watching from the outside and putting myself in that situation,” he explains. “Being displaced and trying to understand others in certain situations creates patience and brotherhood not only in a song, but in real life. I think I wrote these songs with greater imagination. I was feeling a lot of frustration towards religion and religious establishments for one thing. I didn't understand the depth of my frustration until I noticed the same issues arising again and again. My wife was expecting our first child during most of the making of the album, and my son was born pretty much right as we finished. Maybe that had something to do with certain frustrations—I don't know. I do know that the lyrical content of the songs came from my experiences throughout my life, rather than just from the year before recording it like usual. I suppose my outlook has changed, but my writing is always in some sort of evolutionary stage. At the moment, I’m just harboring ideas. In the past, I’d write a song a day. I’m always changing it up.”
If you’re looking for some truth,
you’ve lost it,
take the furthest thing that you can’t prove,
or try to make some sense of it all
Bobby Long was born in Wigan, near Manchester in Northern England and moved with his family when he was two years old to the town of Calne in the countryside of southwest England known where he grew up. Dyslexic as a kid, his learning disability kept him from fully expressing the thoughts in his head until an observant teacher introduced him to the poetry of Dylan Thomas and suddenly the world of literature was his playground. His musical parents provided a constant flow of music in the house, from the Beatles to Bob Dylan to the blues, but he resisted the music bug until he was 16 when he was given a guitar and began writing songs.
At 18, he enrolled at London Metropolitan University where he studied sound and media for film (another passion) and became a regular on the local open mic circuit. Often playing five shows a week, he worked at developing his own unique guitar style and learned how to sing while showcasing his original songs. There he also fell in with a tightly-knit community of fellow musicians and actors who would become his close circle of friends. Among them was musician Marcus Foster, with whom he wrote a song called “Let Me Sign,” and soon-to-be movie star Robert Pattinson, who would sing their song in the 2008 blockbuster film Twilight.
The notoriety surrounding the film gave him the opportunity to come play his music in America, and he essentially never left, settling in New York City as home base for his life and career. Long headlines his own shows and has supported major artists, among them Steve Winwood, Iron & Wine, Rodrigo y Gabriela and Brett Dennen, as well as playing high profile festivals like Bonnaroo, Austin City Limits, the Dave Matthews Caravan, Bamboozle and England’s venerable Glastonbury Festival.
In between albums, he channels his writing skills into poetry and has now published two volumes of his work, Losing My Brotherhood (2012) and Losing My Misery (2016). For Losing My Misery he also created the original illustrations. “I feel like a better songwriter after I write poetry,” he says. As for another book, he says, “I have a few things I’m stuck with or half way through. Sometimes you’ve got to wait for a bit of inspiration or timing.”
Sultans represents Bobby Long’s continuation of his commitment to creating music that both challenges and entertains. “It’s about the whole body of work for me. It’s all part of the greater. I don’t think you can define anyone by one album. I certainly cannot. The good, bad, successful, underappreciated--it doesn’t matter. It’s about expressing yourself and feeling better for it. I want to do many more albums…no matter what.”