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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Laura Barton

‘Instant 80s!’: ex-Midlake singer Tim Smith on mixing William Blake with the Cure

Tim Smith and Kathi Zung
‘I really romanticise England’ … Tim Smith and Kathi Zung. Photograph: David Zung

‘I wish I could say I took five years off and went to Greece or something … ” Tim Smith lets the idea hang briefly. “But no,” he says. “No. I just got to work.” Smith, the founding vocalist of folk rock band Midlake, is explaining how 10 years ago the life he had known was dismantled – by himself and by others – and how he slowly built it anew. It’s a gentle story, as he tells it, though as he talks, one suspects the past decade has smoothed the edges of events that must have been painful.

Smith, speaking via computer, has requested that we keep the cameras off, and his voice rises in a steady, amiable monologue. “I left the band. And then unfortunately, I got divorced from my wife about two months after that – my wife wanted to divorce, I didn’t. But we were more like friends than lovers. So … I packed up and sold the house and then I moved away. I moved in with my parents actually, for quite a long time.”

The city Smith left behind was Denton, Texas, where he had been to music college, and where in 1999 he had formed Midlake with four fellow jazz students, going on to release three critically acclaimed albums and tour widely with songs that recalled the sounds of earlier eras: the Yardbirds, the Alan Parsons Project, Grandaddy. Soon, they became one of the frontrunners of the 00s alt folk scene, keeping harmonious company with Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver.

‘We used very little reverb’ … Smith and Midlake in London in 2010.
‘We used very little reverb’ … Smith and Midlake in London in 2010. Photograph: Stephanie Paschal/Rex Features

When Smith quit in 2012, the band, on the brink of releasing a new album, were blindsided. But there was a kind of optimism, too. His bandmates chose a new singer and Smith, never quite satisfied with the Midlake sound, turned his attention to new projects. A solo album was hotly anticipated. A website was set up suggesting he was now recording under the name Harp. But the weeks turned into months, then years, his time taken up with “just, you know, life”.

Life, in this instance, meant “finally falling in love again” and relocating to North Carolina to be with his new wife and her two children. There were day jobs, chores, keeping chickens, a stint helping his wife in her role as a professional organiser, clearing people’s houses, hauling out “van-loads of junk”. Along the way, Smith continued to work on music, writing, recording and acquiring the production skills he needed to render the sounds that ran through his head.

One day, Smith received an email via the Harp site. It was from a Midlake fan suggesting he might like to listen to the Cure’s third record, Faith. It was not an unknown record to Smith, but listening afresh, it galvanised the musical direction he was already taking – one shaped by bands such as Cocteau Twins, Depeche Mode and Tears for Fears.

“I’m not sure what took me into the 80s,” he say, “but it opened up the world of drum machines for me.” Still, learning how to create that sound and use those machines took time – especially for someone whose perfectionism had largely undone his previous band. “I was reading books about it, watching videos about it, and finally learning the craft. But it was still very, very difficult.”

Each song posed a new set of sonic problems. “I knew some of the basics, but I didn’t quite know the controls on a compressor and exactly what it was doing. And in Midlake, we used very little reverb, so I didn’t know about the different types – or that turning on a chorus pedal on the guitars was like ‘instant 80s’.”

But the songs took shape and an album began to emerge: Harp’s debut, Albion. “I should make it clear that the 12 songs are not what I was spending 10 years doing. There were a lot of other songs I was working on as well, that I’ve shelved.” There will be another album. “But I think it’ll be more 70s, kind of warmer, you know?”

The world conjured up is cold, small, drab and beautiful. It sounds like the record Smith was always destined to make. Its opening track is called The Pleasant Grey: it captures not only the sound he craved, but the country he first visited and fell in love with in the early days of touring with Midlake.

“I have quite a love for the British landscape and the old villages, grey skies, castles, cathedrals, stone walls and green pastures. I really romanticise that.” Other track titles point to a similar preoccupation: Shining Spires, Country Cathedral Drive, Herstmonceux (named after a medieval village in Sussex).

Although it is hard to imagine a more different landscape to his native Texas, Smith is adamant that it is not simply a case of the grass seeming greener. “I don’t know where all that love came from,” he says. “Maybe from my childhood and some of the movies I was into: The Dark Crystal, Dragonslayer, Beastmaster, Excalibur.” Smith drew, too, on the poetry of William Blake, whose Visions of the Daughters of Albion lends itself to one Harp track. “I’m not a poetry buff,” he says, “but because I don’t write lyrics first, I do use poetry for guiding me through finding melodies. So I was looking at Blake, trying to come up with a melody, just singing those lines, and I think they just stuck. It’s like: ‘Man, I’m not gonna find anything better than these lyrics.’”

One of the most crucial elements in the Harp sound and story is Smith’s wife, Kathi Zung, who also works as a puppet fabricator, known for her work on stop-motion animations such as Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio and Netflix’s Wendell & Wylde.

‘The album wouldn’t sound the way it sounds without her’ … Zung and Smith.
‘The album wouldn’t sound the way it sounds without her’ … Zung and Smith. Photograph: David Zung

“She’s a musician as well,” Smith says. “She can play several instruments.” It was Zung who programmed the drums for Albion. “She’s sitting next to me. She’s working the controls. She’s very invested. She can hear things. She will bring up old songs I’d forgotten about and say: ‘I think you can tag this on right here.’ The album wouldn’t sound the way it sounds without her. So that’s wonderful.”

Later, Zung herself will email – up late, she says, updating Harp’s website, YouTube, Bandcamp and social media. “I am a diligent resident of the 21st century,” she writes. I ask if, as an integral part of Harp, she might have anything to add to Smith’s interview. “Tim may not have mentioned how big a role early 80s TV show themes played,” she replies. “Actually, that’s how it was discovered we were meant for each other. We have a deep love for all the same weird music: the theme songs from Kung Fu, Taxi and Little House on the Prairie. Even The Waltons and Knight Rider influenced us, our childhoods, deeply.”

That influence, she explains, is not simply about the sound of the music, but the way the songs make listeners feel. “They hit you with an instant longing,” she adds, “a feeling that, on the first listen, you’ve known this song your whole life. You feel nostalgic for a time and a place you’ve never been to.”

Smith had talked warmly of how the pair met and eventually got together: Zung, having heard he might be struggling with some organisational aspects of his new project, contacted him via the Harp website and offered to help. The pair started talking, and maintained a platonic correspondence until a year or so later when he house-sat for a friend near Zung’s home in North Carolina.

He says: “I thought, ‘Oh, it’ll be great, I can write somewhere different and do music in this other house, and then we can hang out, in person, for a change.” What Smith had not anticipated was how much they would connect, how it would feel almost like a song they’d known their whole life. “And that was falling in love,” he says. “Right there, you realise: ‘Oh, wow.’”

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