Mike Atkinson

Interview: Will Young

Posted in interviews, Nottingham Post by Mike A on November 21, 2008

I’ve noticed that the gaps between each of your albums have been getting steadily longer. Why has there been such a long gap this time? I can’t believe you’ve been slacking off…

It has been three years since the last one was released, and about two years since I finished work on it. Then I did a play in Manchester, which took up about four months. I also did a gorilla programme for the BBC [Saving Planet Earth], in Gabon and the Cameroon. Then I had a bit of a break, and then I started the album. So, yeah – the gaps have been getting bigger, but maybe I’m just working out how long I can get away with it, before I have to do another one! (Laughs)

How would you characterise the material on the new album, Let It Go?

I find it really hard to characterise my stuff. I normally end up nicking journalists’ reviews and quotes, and saying: “Oh, I think it’s like this…!”

So I’m not really sure how to answer that, but I definitely set about writing very simple, more lyric-led pop songs. Rather than write to tracks, I tended to write to just a guitar or a piano, before adding in rhythms and things like that. And I think that’s made a difference.

So there’s a song called I Won’t Give Up, which started very simply with a guitar – but then we went to [dance production team] The Freemasons for the rhythm, and then we went to a Nashville quartet for the strings. It’s quite a piecemeal approach to writing pop songs, but it means that you can, at each stage, choose the best people that are right for that job.

You’ve also got more songwriting credits on this album than ever before.

Yeah, I have – which is great. I love singing other people’s songs, but I’ve definitely got better as a songwriter. That comes with experience, and also learning from people that I’ve been writing with, who are at the top of their game. That’s made a big difference.

Are the lyrics pretty much down to you?

Yeah, they are. I normally have to co-write because I’m not very good on instruments, but I definitely think that my lyric writing has improved. That’s something that I’ve learnt from Eg White [writer of Leave Right Now, who also co-wrote Will’s Who Am I and Changes, Adele’sChasing Pavements and Duffy’s Warwick Avenue]. He has a real honesty in his lyrics, and I think people can relate to them because they are more conversational.

I sense that lyrically, the new songs are quite personal. Some of them feel moody, introspective, and quite troubled at times – as if you’re trying to work things out. Have I read them right?

Definitely. You can’t help your songs being personal to you, and sometimes I suppose they do help you work things out. I’ve definitely been doing that in the last two years: working out what life’s about. They call it “Venus Returns” or something like that. It’s a time when you’re approaching thirty, and you do think about life, and I think there a reflection of that.

Are there any musical surprises lurking on there?

I think there are some curveballs. As I was saying earlier, I think getting people like The Freemasons to do the rhythm is interesting. People wouldn’t expect it, but I think that’s what pop should be all about. And I think that the music is the best that I’ve done – but maybe people always say that on new work, that’s fresh in their minds.

I did a couple of songs with a guy called Mike Spencer, which were done live in the studio. I hadn’t done a whole song live before, and that was a great experience. He’s worked with Jamiroquai and Kylie and Alphabeat, and it was great to go to a new producer and forge a new relationship with him.

Filming the Changes video sounded like a hairy experience. Had the director got some sort of vendetta against you?

Yeah, I know – why can’t I always go for simple videos? It was quite hard work, but I think that it needed to be, to reflect the struggle in the song. Martin De Thurah is a fantastic director. I loved his Kanye West video [for Flashing Lights] and I just thought: yeah, we’re going to work really well together. So I get struck by lightning, burnt, half drowned, pushed over, I burn my possessions in a ten-foot bonfire, I run down country lanes… it was nice to do something so physical and challenging. I like to be challenged in everything that I do, and videos are definitely a big part of that.

You played Glastonbury for the first time this year. Was this a long held ambition?

Yes, I’ve always been a big fan. I’ve gone for the last seven to nine years, and it was great to finally perform there. The crowd were fantastic, and the feedback was: yeah, come back next year and maybe even play a bigger stage.

I’m really enjoying the festivals, and I’m really pleased that I’ve come from Pop Idol to singing at these kinds of events. It’s a different crowd, as they are there to see a wide variety of different music. They don’t have to stay, they can always leave – and I think that’s the scary thing about festivals. It would be awful if you started playing to a full house and then suddenly they’d leave!

Who did you see at Glastonbury that rocked it?

I thought that the Kings Of Leon were great, and the Raconteurs were amazing.

I gather that you’ve only recently started getting back into music as a listener, as your initial success destroyed the mystique. Was entering the music business a disillusioning experience?

It can become a bit disenchanting – as with any job, when you start to learn the ins and outs of a profession. But I’ve started to really enjoy music again, and I think that’s tied in well with the stuff I’m doing now. It’s made my writing better, and I go to more gigs than I’ve ever gone to before.

Things changed so much for me, and so quickly, that there were only so many new things that I could take on. Now I’m a bit more accustomed to it, and more relaxed about the whole thing, I can get back to enjoying music – which is why I started singing in the first place.

When you were going through the Pop Idol process, did you have a “Plan B” in mind?

I would have gone back to drama school, to finish my course. I always said that I’d try until I was thirty to be a singer. I did want to act as well, but the singing was the priority, so I think I would have kept on going. I also worked at a record company before drama school, so maybe I would have tried to get back to that.

Your screen performance in Mrs Henderson Presents was over three years ago. I know you’ve done a stage play since, but are we ever going to see you in the movies again?

With the two jobs that I’ve done, I was very fortunate to work with fantastic people that I could learn from. I took a lot from it. It’s a really tough thing to get into theatre, and the reviews for the play were honest, but they were encouraging. That gave me so much confidence in my acting.

It’s the same as with the music: you have to earn respect. You can’t just demand to get auditions. But the more auditions I get, the more experience I get.

So although the music is key at the moment, I’m really looking forward to doing some more acting. I strongly feel that it’s something that I can do more of in the future.

Has your experience on stage informed you as a musical performer?

I think with the acting, the relationship with the audience is very different, and I don’t know if you can really equate the two. But nothing is mutually exclusive in performance. They do all feed into each other.

I found that every night was a different show, and sometimes I’d see something different in the play. There’s so much text to learn and delve into, so the way you feel about the play at the end of the run can be completely different to the way you felt at the beginning.

So it takes on its own life, and I think songs can do the same thing, but in a very technical way. You can make split-second decisions live, and that’s a different type of excitement.

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