The Magic Lantern:
‘If it’s not believable or true in some sense, then it’s nothing and you may as well not be doing it’
The Magic Lantern’s Love of Too Much Living was one of the standout alt-folk releases of the latter part of last year. Shire Folk spoke to Jamie Doe (aka The Magic Lantern) just before Christmas, with his touring schedule almost at an end for the year.
SF: The Magic Lantern used to be a quintet didn’t it, and now it’s slimmed down to just you?
TML: When I first started doing The Magic Lantern, I started it solo when I was living in Bristol, then I moved to London and met up with a friend of mine who I’d been to school with and he was studying jazz at music college. I lived with him and together we put the band together around my songs and a lot of musicians we met in London, and it evolved into this quintet – quite heavily arranged and, for want of a better phrase, chamber folk sound. Our first album, A World in a Grain of Sand, which I’m super proud of, but I really felt that I just wanted to … well the songs I was beginning to write as that album came out I really wanted to concentrate on playing solo and to find that sort of intensity and push myself, because I’m really aware the singer-songwriter genre is a thing that a lot of people have understandable concerns about. For me, when you get it right, the intensity of the connection is the strongest it can be. So with all the risks associated with leaving a band and coming down to playing solo gigs around the place we tried to do that, because the benefits certainly outweigh the risks.
SF: I suppose it gives you greater flexibility because there’s little additional instrumentation beyond you, guitar and piano.
TML: There’s obviously a logistical thing that makes it easier to get around and be more flexible, but more than that I think it’s that there’s nowhere for the songs to hide. That’s what I wanted. I’ve been thinking about these songs and putting a lot of effort, love and consideration into them and I really wanted to present them in their most stripped down, unadorned way because I think the less you put into it the more the audience or the listener can bring to it if they’re prepared to meet you halfway. That’s what I’ve been trying to do for the last few years. As I’ve been making this record and playing it – I know it’s challenging because there’s so little else going on – if I can find a way to coax the audience into meeting me halfway then, when it works, it’s amazing.
SF: If you’re a fan of this sort of music then I think you need to commit to it. It’s not immediate, you have to put some effort in, but like all of the best things, if you do, that’s when you get the rewards from it.
TML: I relate to that myself, not just as a musician, but as a listener I have the same experience. We all have records that we heard and loved them straightaway, but we probably had more records that didn’t grab us first time, but as we grew with them, they become really important to you. Deep down I have a worry sometimes that maybe as a culture we prize immediacy, we give things less and less attention, just because we have so many more options available to us. Why give something repeated listens when you can just go and listen to something else? On Spotify you have almost every album that’s ever been made and yet, as you say, if you’re going to do something you have to commit to it and give it everything, so that’s what I believe. That’s the approach I’ve taken: to do something that’s really exposed. Maybe at first listen it doesn’t reveal everything there is to it, and there’ll be people who listen to it the first time in a casual way and they may not get it, but that’s OK.
SF: One of the things that struck me about the album was a sense of your being overwhelmed by life, love and information. Is that right?
TML: I’m not sure I’d use the word overwhelmed, but I certainly know why you’d get that. Your sense of it is absolutely right. The truth is, this phase of my life – becoming an adult – has been really hard. It’s been a challenge and it’s been something that I haven’t found particularly easy. There have been a couple of very specifically dramatic experiences during that time, but more than that – and broader than that – has been the coming to terms with the loss of my youth. That carefree sort of thing, where everything’s possible, and I’m not necessarily sure what it’s been replaced by. After the death of innocence is meant to come some sort of wisdom, but I don’t feel I’ve gained any and I’ve been feeling just as confused and uncertain but without the ability to throw myself into enjoying life in the way that I did. I was really lucky to have really strong groups of people around me. As I was growing up people become more itemised and more focused on their own lives, relationships and careers, which means that despite the fact I’m very lucky to have close friends, I feel very alone a lot of the time. Maybe that comes across in some of the songwriting.
SF: You seem to have coincided with a musical zeitgeist of minimalist, stripped back guitar and voice recording. Do you feel part of a wider scene?
TML: I’m not sure I feel part of a musical zeitgeist, but I’m certainly not doing this on my own. I live in London and I’m part of a community of musicians and we all support each other. There’s a whole thing going on with connections in Bristol, Norwich, Manchester and that’s happening despite the music industry. Every now and again some will scrape up against the radio or national press or something, but it’s happening anyway and in order to be a musician doing what we’re doing at the moment, you can’t do it on your own. It’s all about sharing, assisting each other on gigs. I’m on Smugglers Records, which is a collective really, more than a record label. In that sense I feel very much part of a community of like-minded musicians, who are all pushing for a similar thing. The stripped-down thing is more a reaction against the confections of our social media world; not trying to impress people for the sake of it, not trying to write something that’s going to be a hit because for people like me there aren’t ‘hits’. This isn’t Radio 1, this isn’t the front cover of the NME. If it’s not believable or true in some sense, then it’s nothing and you may as well not be doing it. To have the love and respect of my friends and colleagues and other musicians is the first and one of the most important ports of call when I’m writing, playing or touring and it helps give me a confidence that there’s an audience out there for this music and my goal is to find an audience I know is out there and connect with them. I’m not trying to make loads of money, I know that’s not possible with what I’m doing. I have a realistic sense of what I’m trying to achieve and I’ve been able to do it because I contribute to the scene I’m in and the scene contributes to me.
SF: I gather the album is coming out on vinyl. Does the format matter to you?
TML: It was definitely my choice – there isn’t anyone else involved in making decisions about what I’m doing. I’d love to say there was a team behind the scenes saying, we should get him to put it out on vinyl! No, I chose to do that. The first album I released, I released on CD and I didn’t think about it. Whereas now when I came to record the record, I knew that before I recorded it I wanted it out on vinyl. For two reasons. The first is that as I’ve been travelling round and touring and selling CDs I’ve noticed more and more people asking me if the first record is out on vinyl and that made me think that I really ought to have this one out on vinyl. The second thing is that despite being on all the digital platforms going – you can buy my record on 190 digital stores or something for what it’s worth – actually I sell most of what I sell directly to people at gigs and that’s why I put so much effort into the packaging and the whole product and physical side of things. You’ve got to fetishize the product; because it’s so easy to put the CD in the computer and burn it (and even that’s more hassle than streaming it from Spotify) you’ve got to make it something that says a lot about you as an artist. Do you or don’t you care about how you look? It was the same when it came to vinyl. I didn’t choose it from an audiophile point of view, because there are lots of different ways to listen to music. I like it because it’s exciting to me as artist who’s spent two years putting blood and tears and all the money I had saved up in the world into making this album; it’s really nice for me to have this thing – this is what I made! It feels even more tangible than a CD. There are a bunch of people who haven’t bought the album yet because they’re waiting for it on vinyl and I hope everyone who’s waiting for it will be really happy with it when it comes.
The Magic Lantern’s album Love of Too Much Living is out now on vinyl, CD and download