“It was going to be called Bones That Catch The Light”, says Ben Ottewell of his third solo album, “but when I mentioned that to friends they either sniggered like Beavis and Butthead or thought it was too wordy.”
In the end this Chesterfield-born, Derbyshire-raised singer-songwriter opted for A Man Apart, a title with a pleasing ambiguity. “It could refer to my solo career away from Gomez, or to the crazy populist politics demagogues and thugs that seem to rule our world right now”, he explains. “Or it could simply refer to a broken man; someone who has fallen apart.”
Given that Ben turned 40 last summer, and given that next year marks the 20th Anniversary of his former band Gomez’s Mercury Music Prize-winning debut Bring It On, it was perhaps inevitable that his latest record was proceeded by a fair amount of stock-taking and personal reflection.
Demonstrating Ben’s potent and ongoing love-affair with Americana – and flecked with trace elements of what you might loosely call Derbyshire folk – A Man Apart is the first solo album he has made without some kind of Gomez project lurking in the background. As such, he found the process both liberating and ever-so-slightly daunting.
Throwing off the “security blanket” that is/was Gomez – and untroubled by the question of whether the songs he was writing should be earmarked for himself or his former band – Ben knuckled down. The two guitarleles (think ukulele with six strings) he bought for his nine-year-old twin boys proved a good investment – though not for Joe and Ry. “They just hung them on the wall,”, laughs the singer, “but I picked one up and wrote [title song] A Man Apart on it.”
While the ever-fertile ground of love and relationships tested feeds into the material that this passionate and famously gutsy singer has again co-written with childhood friend and former Tunng member, Sam Genders, there are other themes afoot too. Fervent opener “Own It”, for example, sees Ben reflect upon his time growing up in public with Gomez, while the album’s aforementioned title track – which was kick started by him reading about the disgraced American TV Evangelist Peter Popoff – ultimately concerns the kind of populist politicians who deliberately exploit peoples’ hopes and fears.
“Most of these songs were written before the Brexit vote”, says Ben, “but it would have been hard not to reference the Brexit and Trump debacles in some way. I live in Brighton and frankly we’re all scared shitless. I’ve got a lot of friends who are European immigrants and it’s a very strange and uncertain time for them.”
Like 2011’s Shapes & Shadows and 2014’s Rattlebag, A Man Apart began life in Los Angeles. The three days spent at The Chalet near Culver City were primarily to procure the services of ace engineer / bassist Will Golden and Richard Thompson’s live drummer of choice, Michael Jerome. “There’s this great liquor store across the road there on Washington Boulevard that’s full of crazy fuckers”, Ben explains, recalling the LA sessions. “They sell Bulleit Frontier Bourbon in every size you could want, and that was our fuel.”
From there he brought the record back to Mu Studios at The Laundry Rooms complex in Sheffield, where Martin Smith engineered and produced the record. Key contributing musicians during that stage included lead guitarist John Smith (“a true gent, and one of the best electric folk guitarists in the country”) and Rhodes electric piano / Hammond organ player, Joel White.
It was when he wrote Bones, Ben says, that he knew he had a record. “Just in terms of craft, I think its one of the best things I’ve ever written” he says of the spare, cello-ornamented song. “It’s basically about not being worthy of someone or something, but I think it’s healthy to figure shit like that out.”
Elsewhere on A Man Apart, Lead Me Away, with it’s nod to Dylan’s Simple Twist Of Fate, makes fine use of a the kind of portable field organ that army chaplin’s once utilised as a portable hymn machine, while Walking On Air, with its gorgeous resonator guitar, spans a whole lifetime of adoration via sussed deployment of its titular pay-off line.
“I still love my Americana and my JJ Cale”, says Ben in summary, “but I think this is quite an English-sounding record. I feel like I’m really finding my feet as a writer, and I notice that the people who are coming to my shows these days aren’t necessarily Gomez fans.”
Asked how the Ben Ottewell who collected The Mercury with Gomez in 1998 compares with the 2021 model of himself, meanwhile, Ben says this:
“I was so crippling shy back then that I barely recognise that person. I was having a good time, but not feeling comfortable. We were all smart enough to know that it wouldn’t last forever, though, and we found the surreal-ness of it all amusing. A couple of days after the Mercury we played to 20 people in Philadelphia, and that was when we started to be a proper band.
“Nowadays, I just feel incredibly lucky to have had some kind of 20-year run at this, and if I can sustain what I do, great. I’m also starting to look a lot more like the way I sound”, adds the singer, laughing. “I’m not this fresh-faced kid freaking people out anymore!”