"Newton Faulkner believes in accidents. A bona fide pop star at home in his native UK - where radio presence, great press and a thrilling live show drove Hand Built By Robots to the top spot on the album sales chart upon its release there last summer - this 23-year-old singer-songwriter makes music full of serendipity and happenstance, coincidence and luck. As its title suggests, Hand Built By Robots contains acoustic music for the digital age: Faulkner croons in a voice shaped by years spent listening to Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Tom Waits and plays guitar with a distinctive tap-pick-and-strum technique that allows him to use the instrument as guitar, bass and drums all at once. Call it folk-pop for the future, and get ready to hear quite a lot of it as Faulkner goes about spreading his success to these shores.
Newton first picked up a guitar at age 13; within three years he was honing his skills at Guildford's prestigious Academy of Contemporary Music. Studying theory and technique, though, led young Newton to a discovery: "If you're trying to get noticed playing normal guitar, you have to be phenomenal," Faulkner says with a self-deprecating laugh, "because that's what everybody else is doing. To be the most amazing soloist in the world you'd have to spend four years in a cave doing nothing else."
Generally disinclined to cave life, Faulkner hit upon a different idea. "I was just sitting around playing guitar with a friend and I did something weird, this sort of quick slap-tap-bass thing. I wouldn't say it was good or technically impressive, but my friend said, 'Wow, that was cool'. I was like, 'What? That wasn't cool - it was just a bit weird.' But he made me do it again, and then I was like, 'Wow, that is cool!'" Thus was Faulkner's inadvertent virtuosity born.
The singer voices a similarly casual attitude toward songwriting. "To be perfectly honest, when I'm writing I try to think as little as possible", he admits. For Faulkner, the goal with any tune is to approach an uncommon subject from an uncommon angle, a trick he picked up from some of his teenage favorites, including Radiohead, Green Day and the Presidents of the United States of America. "I like something that carries a message and isn't just talking about how hot a girl is or how depressed you are." To that end, Hand Built contains a song about the perils of growing old with superpowers (Ageing Superhero) and one about the value of certain facial expressions (People Should Smile More).
Faulkner penned a handful of the album's tracks with his brother Toby. "You can spot that stuff because it's usually slightly stupid," he says. "UFO, Gone in the Morning, She's Got The Time - the most ridiculous ones he had some involvement in." (Faulkner also co-wrote for the album "with slightly more serious people" including Crispin Hunt of the Longpigs, with whom he crafted Dream Catch Me, the album's lead single and a huge hit on England's Radio One. In addition, there's a heart-stopping cover of Massive Attack's Teardrop that may cause you to change the way you think about that song.)
For all of Hand Built's hand-built craftiness, Faulkner says that where he feels most comfortable is onstage before an audience, playing songs, telling stories and cracking jokes. (It doesn't take long before you realize that Faulkner particularly likes cracking jokes.) A Bobby McFerrin gig at London's Royal Festival Hall made a huge impact. "He was basically just strolling around making noises and chatting to people," Faulkner marvels, "and everyone sat back and sort of said, 'This is really nice'."
Newton spent last year building an intensely devoted fanbase in Europe, headlining his own shows as well as opening concerts by John Mayer, Paolo Nutini and the John Butler Trio. This year he's looking forward to following the same path in the United States. "I like to have a kind of conversation with the entire crowd," he says. Prepare to start talking back."
Please enjoy the performance video from his show at The World Café Live.
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