‘I don’t believe you’ve got to be unhappy to write from the heart’
After years of heartache and midlife restlessness, Elbow's Guy Garvey seems more content these days – happily married and with new baby son
Guy Garvey: “I’m the last member of the band to become a dad”
Elbow frontman Guy Garvey tells me he is in “a lovely pub. I might have to order a drink in the middle so I might pause...”
He is sitting beside his wife, actress Rachael Stirling, daughter of Diana Rigg, who he married in 2016. The pair had a baby boy, Jack, last April. Garvey is just back from a North American tour. They’re enjoying something of a break in the schedule. Everything is going well. After years of songs that dealt with heartache and a certain midlife restlessness, more recently he seems to speak in terms of happiness and contentment.
Is he surprised to find himself in this new life? “Yes, of course. All these things are not mutually exclusive. They only happen when you’ve met the right person and have planned it. It’s a wonderful thing. I’m a lucky, lucky man in so many ways. Everything is new.”
He would, however, like to point out that the party times are far from over, “just very tightly scheduled. When you’re on the road you can behave like you always have. It takes a little longer to recover. But I think that would happen anyway.”
Garvey has said before that his heavy drinking was part of being “tortured in my twenties, all part of the garret”. But now? Goodbye to all that. Already known to be chatty and likable, these days Garvey is positively perky.
I have all my diaries still, from age 14. It’s not difficult to put myself back in that position
Is it harder for him to write when things are on the level like this? “In my experience, if you’re in the same place with the same stimuli, you will write the same thing again so a change of circumstances, a change of scene, it’s all grist to the mill...”
And besides, there is still all the old miseries for him to draw upon. His parents' divorce and bullying particularly affected him as a child. “I have some 20 years of experience of one kind or another. I have all my diaries still, from age 14. It’s not difficult to put myself back in that position, if the lads come up with a piece of music that dictates...There’s enough going on in the world that you can still write darkness, unhappiness and pain. It’s around if you need it.”
He’s done with ideas of the tortured artist. “I don’t hold much truck with the idea that you’ve got to be unhappy to write from the heart and earnestly,” he says. “It’s fine to get your motivations from all over the place. And the other thing is you’re allowed to feel more than one thing at a time.”
He takes the promised pause to politely ask the waitress for some ice.
“It would be impossible to function if you could only focus on one thing – to feel the loss of a friend at the same time as falling in love at the same time as being outraged at current western powers – it’s all there all the time. It’s what you choose to pick up on.”
His own personal circumstances may be at odds with the upheaval in the world but the two converge when it comes to his son. “It makes you worry about the circumstances for your family. You wonder what kind of place Jack is going to grow up in.”
I feel now more than ever that the small area of the garden that is music needs protecting from Brexit
It’s an anxiety that he is certain will work its way into his writing. “As soon as you have youngsters to worry about, you get a bit more active in your surroundings.”
Garvey is the son of a trade unionist and even with his massive commercial success, he has no intention of pulling up the ladder behind him.
“I’ve always been politically engaged but I feel now more than ever that the small area of the garden that is music needs protecting from Brexit, for example. If I’m in a position to help the powers that be to make sure that musicians aren’t too adversely affected, particularly young musicians, by what goes on. So I’m working out how to get busy on that front.
“Travel is one of the things – we need to make sure there’s suddenly not expensive visas necessary to go play a gig in Paris. Playing live is the only way that young musicians make money now and it can’t be thwarted because of ridiculous f***ing Brexit.
“And also importing vinyl from Europe, if you want to put your own record out you have to have it made in Europe. If that’s something that has huge tariffs attached to it then merchandising income goes up the swanny as well, so it’s okay for an established band like Elbow but for the kids coming after us, trying to make a living out of music, there needs to be something in place.”
Manchester at heart
Garvey lives in London now, having moved there for love, but his heart is very much in Manchester. The Manchester bombing in May had a stark effect on him – the Manchester Arena was the first that Elbow ever played.
“Where the arena is situated is the gateway to Manchester from the North. It’s where the train used to run. You go right by where it happened in order to get into the city. So those feelings of excitement as a 12-year old I had going to the nearest big city… Now, anyone who takes that route will have that to think about.
“But the way Manchester responded to it with love – I’ve never been prouder to be a Mancunian.”
The new album is “still being written. It will be a while yet.” Yes, his son has become a muse of sorts: “He crops up every time I sit down to write. It won’t be an album of children’s songs, but I think that’s a good idea at this stage.”
In terms of what to expect, musically it will be a continuation from Little Fictions. “We’re not writing with drums at this point so there’s a lot more programming, and the synthesizers are continually to be on the rise. Pete Turner has put in some very simple acoustic guitar numbers together which are almost spoken words and stuff.”
A theme has yet to emerge. “In the last record we had a lot about the anticipation of Brexit, I knew it was gonna happen. But it was also about finding new love in my life at this point and about moving cities as well, an awful lot of it was written on the train between Manchester and London.
“There’ll also be continued love songs to my beloved Manchester because that’s been a constant throughout Elbow’s writing career.”
I’m like a child on the tube. I’m fascinated by it, or the ninkinonk as I’ve started to call it
London also brings inspiration. “It’s a different pace and throwing up different thoughts. It could do with taking a bit more of a pause now and again. Everyone rushes around too much.”
Known to sit in pubs with a notebook and watch people, he is, as always, finding the majestic in the ordinary. “I’m like a child on the tube. I’m fascinated by it, or the ninkinonk as I’ve started to call it.”
Garvey will be touring with John Grant in Ireland soon. The pair recorded a gorgeous duet of the song Kindling from Elbow’s most recent album. With their tender music, deeply personal but still imbued with all the politics of the day, they’re a good fit lyrically.
“Sartorially also, y’know. He’s a well-proportioned man with a good beard. We love John’s music and I play it a lot on my [radio] programme. He toured with us in America going back four years and we became really good friends so we realised Kindling could be a duet and Craig [Potter] had the idea of inviting John. I sent him quite an emotional blackmail, ‘if for any reason John you don’t come aboard with this, that’s absolutely fine...’” He laughs.
‘A certain flag’
Garvey’s well-received solo album, 2015’s Courting the Squall, was recorded in response to turning 40, and out of a desire to increase his productivity. Recording with five other decision-makers can be a slow process. There will “definitely” be another. “I had way too much fun doing that.” The memoir he once mentioned is on the backburner though, something for when he’s “too old to tour. My wife’s sat next to me. She said, ‘when I’m dead’.”
Elbow have evolved and grown together, and lost only one member along that way – even then with some grace. “I’m the last member of the band to become a dad, y’know. So the advice has been absolutely paramount. Mark [Potter] had a baby daughter two months after Jack was born so his daughter is a contemporary of my son. We’re wondering who’s going to play bass and who’s going to play drums.”
Leaving to go on tour is “harder, yeah. It’s also more joyous in terms of you can get stuck into drinking the way you used to. But no, missing Rachel and Jack, of course it happens,” he says, redeeming himself.
Then, unable to resist a final boldness, “I have a certain flag I must carry. Some men have known pubs to be the mecca of social justice. I will not be putting down that mantle.”
You can almost hear him wink at his wife.
The Music of Manchester
“The songs that we sing from the stands from our bands, set the whole planet shaking” wrote poet Tony Walsh in This is the Place, his tribute to the victims of the Manchester Arena bombing. Manchester’s music scene has long been the pride of the city and has come to define entire eras.
As far back as 1965, the top three bands in the US Billboard charts, Freddie and The Dreamers, Wayne Fontana & The Mindbenders, and Herman’s Hermits all hailed from Manchester while another Manchester band, The Hollies, topped the charts in the UK. In 1977, the Manchester invasion of the US charts continued with the Bee Gees, while at home Joy Division emerged to give angry voice to the industrial decline of northern Britain.
The 1980s saw the rise of political pop under the Thatcher government with “Manchester Miserabilists” like the Smiths, and the Madchester movement of the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays was born. The sounds of the 1990s and 2000s would come to be defined by Manc bands like Primal Scream and Oasis.
Elbow plays the 3Arena, Dublin on February 24th. Tickets from ticketmaster.ie