Songwriting has always been a soul-baring exercise for British singer-songwriter Bobby Long. From the dark themes of his earliest work through to the thought-provoking subject matter he has traversed since then, his body of work is at its core captivating and emotionally raw. Whether mining the depths of despair and alienation or exploring spirituality, apathy and even more mundane topics like love and passion, his songs are word pictures that transfix and transport.
For his fourth album, Sultans, Long has chosen a somewhat different approach, from conceptualization through the recording process itself. Rather than working within the confines of a producer’s tight schedule, he chose to work with multi-instrumentalist and close friend Jack Dawson, with whom he had toured and collaborated on the 2012 EP The Backing Singer, and they took their time. “Usually with other producers I have worked with, we would meet just before recording. The relationship blossoms just as we record and work together, and by the end, we are really close. With this album, working with Jack especially, the friendship was already so deep, and there isn't another musician I have played with as much as Jack, so everything was intertwined.”
As a result, Sultans as a whole is unlike Long’s three previous releases, A WINTER TALE (2011), WISHBONE (2013) and ODE TO THINKING (2015), beginning with the songwriting and preparation. “I started writing the songs a year before and did a lot more pre-production than usual,” he explains. “When I write, I usually just record my vocals and guitar, but this time I ended up using drum loops, played bass lines and spent a long time working on guitar parts and harmonies. I usually don't go into too much detail because I would want whoever played bass or drums to come up with something naturally, but this time, I really wanted to work on the greater detail. When it came time to record, Jack (the producer) and Dave Lindsay (sound engineer) were incredibly respectful of the demos I had concocted. They honoured the originals and advanced them. Dave, who played drums on the album, actually liked some of the drum loops so much that he copied some of the fills. His drumming is a really important part of the album. It sets the tone and drives us forward.”
The trio recorded at Lindsay’s Country Club Studio in Brooklyn over a one year period. “We became a little band during the recording,” says Long. “I played guitar and sang, Dave played drums and Jack played bass. We basically recorded those parts as a band live. We would jam songs out and work things out. We then built the song up by adding parts and using other musicians/magicians to play different instruments. Having the record based around the natural feel of a live performance really added a human element to the album and set the earthy feel, which I really felt was important. As much as I wanted to experiment and feel the freedom to add anything and everything, we all felt it was incredibly important to stay true to our own playing and build from there. Just like the Beatles would have done.”
The Beatles actually loomed large in this project according to Long. “Me and Jack are massive Beatles fans and other bands like ELO and other psychedelic music really was a huge factor in our approach,” he explains. .”We would set up each day to do a new song, play it through a bunch, smoke, drink and then attack it. The results were always so varied and dynamic. It was a very liberating feeling. We made playlists and spoke about different techniques used on albums we loved from the 60s to present day. Nothing was off the table. No music was too weird or too un-cool.
“When you write a song, you always have the greater picture in your head. Your imagination runs over the tracks, and the songs take on all sorts of forms. The sounds of this record are the closest to my imaginings that I’ve ever come before, and this record is without doubt the closest I’ve come to matching what is in my head. Ironically, it came through working with a great friend of mine and feeling free to experiment because of our closeness before we went in the studio.”
Sultans takes its name from the first and last tracks on the album—essentially “Sultans Part 1” and “Sultans Part 2.” “It was a song that was originally just drums, ukulele and a sample that Jack gravitated towards,” Bobby explains. “I feel it sets the tone for the entire album and ends it quite nicely as well. We were obviously inspired by Sgt. Pepper when coming up with the idea of the same start and end point. It gives the album a concept, and although the songs are quite similar, there are differences in dynamics and playfulness.
“Also, vocally this album was different for me. I was really inspired by John Lennon’s vocals and the rawness he would get, especially on early Beatles records or his solo stuff. Letting emotion get in the way and kind of showing my true colours. I wanted to be brave, especially on the deeply personal songs so I just left it all out there.”
The songs that embody the album are varied in subject matter, some mining universal themes Long has touched on since the beginning like love and death, while other topics can be found on the 6PM news on a daily basis. “Some of the songs are from the standpoint of watching from the outside and putting myself in that situation,” he explains. “Being displaced and trying to understand others in certain situations creates patience and brotherhood not only in a song, but in real life. I think I wrote these songs with greater imagination. I was feeling a lot of frustration towards religion and religious establishments for one thing. I didn't understand the depth of my frustration until I noticed the same issues arising again and again. My wife was expecting our first child during most of the making of the album, and my son was born pretty much right as we finished. Maybe that had something to do with certain frustrations—I don't know. I do know that the lyrical content of the songs came from my experiences throughout my life, rather than just from the year before recording it like usual. I suppose my outlook has changed, but my writing is always in some sort of evolutionary stage. At the moment, I’m just harboring ideas. In the past, I’d write a song a day. I’m always changing it up.”
If you’re looking for some truth,
you’ve lost it,
take the furthest thing that you can’t prove,
or try to make some sense of it all
Bobby Long was born in Wigan, near Manchester in Northern England and moved with his family when he was two years old to the town of Calne in the countryside of southwest England known where he grew up. Dyslexic as a kid, his learning disability kept him from fully expressing the thoughts in his head until an observant teacher introduced him to the poetry of Dylan Thomas and suddenly the world of literature was his playground. His musical parents provided a constant flow of music in the house, from the Beatles to Bob Dylan to the blues, but he resisted the music bug until he was 16 when he was given a guitar and began writing songs.
At 18, he enrolled at London Metropolitan University where he studied sound and media for film (another passion) and became a regular on the local open mic circuit. Often playing five shows a week, he worked at developing his own unique guitar style and learned how to sing while showcasing his original songs. There he also fell in with a tightly-knit community of fellow musicians and actors who would become his close circle of friends. Among them was musician Marcus Foster, with whom he wrote a song called “Let Me Sign,” and soon-to-be movie star Robert Pattinson, who would sing their song in the 2008 blockbuster film Twilight.
The notoriety surrounding the film gave him the opportunity to come play his music in America, and he essentially never left, settling in New York City as home base for his life and career. Long headlines his own shows and has supported major artists, among them Steve Winwood, Iron & Wine, Rodrigo y Gabriela and Brett Dennen, as well as playing high profile festivals like Bonnaroo, Austin City Limits, the Dave Matthews Caravan, Bamboozle and England’s venerable Glastonbury Festival.
In between albums, he channels his writing skills into poetry and has now published two volumes of his work, Losing My Brotherhood (2012) and Losing My Misery (2016). For Losing My Misery he also created the original illustrations. “I feel like a better songwriter after I write poetry,” he says. As for another book, he says, “I have a few things I’m stuck with or half way through. Sometimes you’ve got to wait for a bit of inspiration or timing.”
Sultans represents Bobby Long’s continuation of his commitment to creating music that both challenges and entertains. “It’s about the whole body of work for me. It’s all part of the greater. I don’t think you can define anyone by one album. I certainly cannot. The good, bad, successful, underappreciated--it doesn’t matter. It’s about expressing yourself and feeling better for it. I want to do many more albums…no matter what.”
Updated January 2019
If Bobby Long has learned one thing for sure in the course of his music career, it’s that all things take time. He’s reflecting philosophically on the making his forthcoming third album, entitled ODE TO THINKING, which is named for the first track on the new recording. “I have been cultivating these songs live for the last year, seeing how they stand up, changing them, dropping them, bringing them back,“ he explains, “so when I came into the studio with them, I was ready. Now that I can see the finish line ahead, I’m getting excited that people will finally be able to hear what I’ve worked so hard on and what I envisioned for these songs.”
That vision has been percolating pretty much since he finished the writing process, perhaps because he’s been performing many of the songs live since their completion. An extraordinarily prolific songwriter who has at times been compared to his heroes, among them Elliott Smith, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, his newly written songs tend to undergo a metamorphosis during their live exposure. “With some songs,” he says, “you have to play them out before you record them because they’re not quite there yet. Playing them about 20 times in the right setting really helps, but you also don’t want to overplay them because by the time you come to record them, you’ve lost whatever it was that excited you about them.”
For his third album, he’s returning to the basics, a guy and a guitar, recalling his heady early days on London’s open mic circuit. In the studio this time around, he teamed with producer/musician Mark Hallman (Carole King, Ani DiFranco) with the songs sturdily built around Long’s vocals and guitar. Hallman played bass guitar, drums, piano and organ on the recording and worked with Bobby to construct the background vocals and harmonies that complement his singularly plaintive voice. The creative process unfolded during a two-week period last fall at Hallman’s Congress House Studios in Austin, Texas.
“It was great to be able to focus completely on the recording and nothing else, no distractions,” he says. “Mark’s approach to recording is to work on one song from start to finish before moving on to the next one. It was a very efficient process. We worked side by side in dressing the parts. There was one day we completely finished two songs and started to prep a third one. I even wrote one of the songs (“1985”) while in the studio because all I was concentrating on was working. I had musical tunnel vision.”
The end result is a solid collection of 11 original songs that suggest the intimacy of his live shows while the songwriting displays a hard-won maturity in its exploration of a variety of subjects. The title cut, a paean to global apathy and confusion, opens the recording with intricate finger-picking on the guitar. From there, the album traverses all manners of minefields of the heart (“Cold Hearted Lover of Mine,” “Something Blue, Something Borrowed” and “Treat Me Like a Stranger”) to the outer reaches of nostalgia and memory (“That Little Place I Once Knew,” “1985”). The lyrics of “Not Going Out Tonight” unfold like a movie in three acts, while “Kill Someone” has a story all its own (he tells it during his shows).
ODE TO THINKING was made possible by a hugely successful PledgeMusic campaign (www.pledgemusic.com/bobbylong) that was launched in the summer of 2014, receiving support from over 750 pledgers (and counting). In addition to pledging for teeshirts, posters, hand-written lyric sheets and other items, each pledger receives a download of the album upon its release. “It is incredibly gratifying that so many people wanted to help me make the new record,” Long says. “This community has been with me for every step of the journey to create this record, and it will be especially sweet for me to be able to deliver it directly into their hands.”
Born in Wigan, near Manchester in England’s industrial north, and raised in bucolic Wiltshire (Thomas Hardy’s Wessex), Bobby Long grew up surrounded by music. “My dad played guitar and was really into folk music: Peter, Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, people like that, so I was brought up with that and, of course, The Beatles, but the blues was the first thing that I really remember loving. I used to put on blues records by myself when I was 10 or 11 and a lot of the early finger-picking guys like Mississippi John Hurt.”
Playing along to old blues records, Bobby, who had tried cello at an early age, fell in love with the guitar, “I’ve always loved music, but it didn’t start to hit me just how much until I was about 16 and was given a guitar and started writing my own songs,” he recalls.
At 18, he moved to the big city, enrolling at London Metropolitan University where he studied music for film and became a regular at the city’s open mic nights. He worked hard at developing his own unique guitar style (“When I went off to America for the first time, I got more press for playing the guitar than for anything else”) and learned how to sing while showcasing his finely-crafted, original songs. There he also fell in with a tightly-knit community of fellow musicians and actors who would become his close circle of friends. In 2008, he co-wrote a song with one of those friends, musician Marcus Foster, and it found its way into the first of the “Twilight” series of films. The global impact of the film focused attention on him and became the catalyst that brought him to America.
Armed with a homemade CD he called Dirty Pond Songs, Long arrived for showcases in New York, Nashville and Los Angeles in April, 2009. He would return to tour three more times that year by popular demand before deciding to make New York his home. This time brought with him his first real recording–produced by Grammy®-winner Liam Watson at his London studio—and he signed with independent ATO Records in 2010. The following year ATO released the highly-anticipated A Winter Tale to critical acclaim. The Wall Street Journal said of A Winter Tale, “the album announces that a promising talent has arrived and suggests he will have much more to say.”
On his second album, Wishbone (2013), produced in Los Angeles by Ted Hutt (Gaslight Anthem, Old Crow Medicine Show), he was backed by the players who toured with him in support of A Winter Tale. “That album was conceived as a band project,” he explains, “so those songs were approached with that in mind.” In between, he made a five-song EP in a New York church called The Backing Singer with producer Jesse Lautner.
Now writing and touring are a way of life. Long headlines his own shows—known for their irreverent, self-deprecating humor in addition to the music—and has supported major artists including Steve Winwood, Iron & Wine, Rodrigo y Gabriela and Brett Dennen, as well as playing high profile festivals like Bonnaroo, Austin City Limits, the Dave Matthews Caravan and Bamboozle. His music has taken him to more parts of America than many Americans will ever see, as well as Canada, Australia, Europe and his native England. He wants to visit them all in support of ODE TO THINKING as well as some places he’s never played before (he has fans from South America to Southeast Asia).
In between albums, he channeled his writing skills into a book of poetry entitled Losing My Brotherhood (2012) where he delved into themes of love, lust, desire and disappointment. He is working on a second volume that will also include short stories. His music is featured in the short film See Seven States From Rock City, which is making the festival rounds, and, of course, there are always new songs in the works.
“I guess I’m always writing,” says Long, “but I write straight through. If I’m writing and I don’t complete what I’m working on, I’ll generally toss it to the side. I’ll do everything in that one span of time. There might be a few changes I’ll make later on, but I definitely don’t live with it for too long like some people do. It’s either there or it’s not.” There are exceptions however. “There’s one song I’ve been working on for months that I keep coming back to, but it’s never quite right. For a minute there, I gave it up on it entirely and was going to name the new album after it… but I quickly changed my mind about that one.”
Now 29, Bobby Long is excited about the future and his ability to continue to do what he loves. “I feel like it’s all really good,” he said of his career. “I’ve been cultivating a fan base and evolving musically. I’ve always been pretty aware that for me to get to the position of my heroes, it’s going to take time.” And time is on his side.
Updated July 2015
ATO Records – February 19, 2013
Though England is his place of birth, the songs found on Bobby Long’s forthcoming sophomore album, Wishbone, are redolent with pieces of Americana. They were composed in New York City, a place he feels more at home than he ever did while living in his native country, and the album itself was brought to life on the other coast, recorded with producer Ted Hutt (Gaslight Anthem, Lucero, Old Crow Medicine Show) in Los Angeles. “New York has shandy print on everything I do,” explains Long, “but there’s a Californian tint or energy on this album.”
Four years ago Long made the move to the states to live among the streets and visit the places he’d read about while composing his university thesis on the social impact of American folk music. A student of the craft on a musical and intellectual level, Long’s reverence for American music runs deep, with influences ranging from country greats like Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb, to folk singers Woody Guthrie and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and modern day luminaries like Jeff Buckley and Elliott Smith. As such, Long was especially honored to use Smith’s guitar and amp while recording Wishbone, the gear generously lent by Rob Schnapf, Smith’s long time producer who happened to be recording in the studio next door.
All of those individuals and more have provided Long inspiration over the years, but in particular on Wishbone Long looked toward artists like Neil Young and their ability to re-invent themselves time and again as solo acts or with band in tow, even while risking alienating fans. The album title Wishbone, as he explains, is a lyric from the song “Yesterday Yesterday.” “It was one of the first songs I wrote for the record,” says Long, “and it was so different from everything I’d done to that point. I wanted to push myself and ‘Yesterday Yesterday’ was a catalyst to build around writing wise.”
When it came time to record, Long took that same attitude with him into the studio. “I have no wish or want to make the same record twice,” says Long, “going into the second record I wanted to make sure I was open to new approaches and ideas from Ted and the musicians I was working with.” Along with Hutt, Long surrounded himself with a cast of accomplished players including Mark Stepro (Ben Kweller, Tim Easton) on drums, Chris Morrissey (Kweller, Mason Jennings) on bass, and Rich Hinman (Rosanne Cash, Rhett Miller) on guitar. “There was a great sense of community,” says Long, and the camaraderie that developed, and respect the musicians held for each other during the sessions, lent itself to an incredibly creative environment.
Another contributing factor to the differences evident between Wishbone and the debut A Winter Tale came with the logistics of the recording process. “On this record we had more time and were not recording live to tape,” says Long, “so I wanted to write more specific guitar parts and do my own harmonies.” At the same time Long was conscious of making sure a similar thread ran through every song on the album. With the extra time in the studio he was able to work through and become comfortable with 12 tracks from an original list of 40-plus compositions. It was an important aspect of the album-making process for Long, who though young in age, takes a long view towards musical history and deeply reveres the album as an art form and the ultimate expression a musician can put forth.
All of the consideration taken in writing and recording manifests itself in the songs that make up Long’s sophomore album Wishbone. He taps into a broader palate of emotions than he has on past releases, eschewing melancholy and eloquently channeling anger and frustration into gritty, hard-driving guitar parts that compliment his rough-hewn vocals on songs like “Blood In The Orchard” and “All My Brothers.” Steel guitar provides an apt counter balance, adding a hint of twang and drawn out expanse to the urgency put forth in the lyrics. Long still shows his softer side on numbers like the heart wrenching “In Your Way” and swaying ballad “My Parade.” Throughout the album he displays his deft control of melody and tone, well practiced over many years of prolific songwriting and live performances.
Long has come a good way from his early days playing open-mic nights in London. He now finds himself stepping into the pantheon of that grand musical history he so admires, gigging at major festivals like Bonnaroo, and impacting popular culture with performances on late night TV shows. Yet, with all these significant accomplishments, Long is far from content. “I’m looking forward to people hearing this album,” he says, “I think it will help people see that I’m not just a solo performer.” With Wishbone, listeners and fans will see a different side of Bobby Long, the restless musician always striving to grow and improve his craft while finding new avenues of expression.
A WINTER TALE
But recognition has actually been hard-won. Born in Wigan near Manchester in Northern England, Bobby Long grew up from age four in a small town in Wessex”Thomas Hardy country. At 18, he moved to London to attend university, graduating with a degree in sound and media for film. He quickly established himself on the local open mic circuit, finding his voice and beginning to develop songs characterized by catchy melodies paired with elusive, imaginative lyrics. In London he met a circle of fellow musicians, among them Marcus Foster, with whom he wrote a song called “Let Me Sign,” and soon-to-be megastar Robert Pattinson, who would sing it in the 2008 blockbuster film Twilight.
That coup gave him a head start on a fan base, but as an indie performer, he knew he would have to take the reins of his own destiny. So he recorded an acoustic CD, Dirty Pond Songs, in his bedroom, and set off for America in April 2009. As what became known as the Dangerous Summer Tour continued for months, he sold thousands of copies of Dirty Pond Songs on the road as well as two self-released live CDs. All have been available only at his shows. He also engaged his audience directly via his MySpace page ”it will soon surpass the two-million-views mark” and watched as fan-supported sites devoted to him and his music popped up to further his story.
The next step is his studio debut album, A WINTER TALE (on independent record label ATO Records), on which he wanted to capture the immediacy of those live performances, “to have flaws in it, some signs of human nature.” Grammy-winner Liam Watson (The White Stripes’ Elephant) and his analog Toe Rag Studios in London”where they put down five initial tracks in just three days”proved an ideal match for the artist’s old-school recording approach. Backed by a coterie of studio musicians on many of the tracks, he would end up recording 18, finally making a taut selection of 11 original songs.
But Bobby Long isn’t content to coast on the songs that launched him. He’s constantly writing new ones, sharing them online and performing them live. “I write all the time,” he laughs, as if there is something wrong with that. “The songs grow from an unconscious place. If you’re always writing exactly what’s on your mind, it can come out overworked or undercooked.” The result: he has more than enough unrecorded new material for yet another album, even as he prepares for his debut release. And, he’s enjoying the little details of putting out an album, “the things kids dream about”the album cover, the order of the songs, the way it feels”it’s like the smell of a brand-new book.”
Impressing a widening circle of admirers, including many critics, Bobby has packed venues across the United States, Canada and Europe. In 2009, he played 160 shows in seven months in seven countries. The Boston Herald praised his “likeable, rough-hewn voice” and “catchy way with a chorus,” while Pollstar reported that he “continues to amaze audiences with a bare-bones sound reminiscent of early Bob Dylan.” Radio, too, has done its part, beginning when WXPN in Philadelphia added “Who Have You Been Loving” from Dirty Pond Songs to its playlist and invited him to perform live in their studios. His 2010 tour schedule kicked off in March with a live WXPN Free at Noon session, which was broadcast nationally on NPR’s World Café Live while he was still unsigned.
He cites Dylan’s career, as well as his songwriting, as a major influence. He also lists Richie Havens, Neil Young, Tim Buckley and Leonard Cohen as influences, along with more modern troubadours like Elliott Smith and Conor Oberst. A love of American roots music shines through his songs, evident on the album in the intense minor-key folk of “Penance Fire Blues,” the two-step groove of “Two Years Old” and the old-timey waltz “Being a Mockingbird” with its banjo and pedal steel accents. And Bobby is no dilettante when it comes to traditional sounds”his university thesis was on the social impact of American folk music.
“In London there’s a big folk scene happening,” he says. “It resonates with a lot of young people now.” Yet lurking in his background is a broader musical sensibility that encompasses the guitar-tinged blues of Mississippi John Hurt, the knowing song craft of the Beatles and the Kinks, and even flashes of the angry heat of another band he ":admires greatly” Black Sabbath.
Above all, it’s the honesty and aching vulnerability in his intricate songs (not to mention his shy demeanor on stage) that endears Long to burgeoning audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. “He breathes a labyrinth of imagery that is so fragile and heartrending”it’s impossible to let go” declared one writer, and as another one put it, “If music is truly a form of self-expression, then British singer-songwriter Bobby Long apparently cannot tell a lie.”
It’s been a fast rise, but he’s not looking for a cheap route to success. “I’m in it for the long haul. This first [ATO] record is just the first step on a ladder. I want every day to be a learning experience and to have the same kind of career as some of my heroes,” he says. And he’s determined to work hard to do just that. At 24, Long is an accomplished guitarist, having mastered an uncommon finger-picking guitar style through non-stop performing. That impeccable approach lifts gentler numbers like “The Bounty of Mary Jane” and “Sick Man Blues” just as assuredly as a full-on strum drives the folk-rocker title track of the album, “A Winter Tale,” and the acoustic epic about loss and longing, “A Stranger Song” (“Where the wings that sting the borderline, words fall softly to the floor, A woman’s love can cause a man to spill his every flaw”).
Finally, after countless solo shows, Long is fleshing out his acoustic sound with a band behind him, though he still steps out during the set to play alone. “I’m writing more with a band in mind now. I love how good that feels, when your playing is matched by the snare, the bass.” Inspired by everything from old Jack Teagarden recordings to Dylan going electric, he also says he “learned a lot from touring about how a show can be like theater.”
A WINTER TALE merges band power with acoustic rawness, featuring Nona Hendryx (LaBelle) on backing vocals on “Penance Fire Blues,” B. J. Cole (Elton John, Sting) on pedal steel, Icelandic singer Lay Low on several tracks, and other top-drawer musicians. And by way of continued extensive touring in North America, he will be bringing A WINTER TALE and what has been called his “tapestry of tales” to the ever-growing audiences seduced by his compelling voice, musicianship and charm.
* * * * * “
The covered surface hugs the board but keeps in the sky,
A childhood glimpse that keeps you warm but hangs you to dry,
The shameful dream the shameful face that pulls on your heart,
Those brittle winds will keep the dawn from you at the start,
So bring me choirs to ease me on my way,
Bring me screams of organs for the day,
Bring me choirs to brighten all the gales,
Bring me screams of organs and the wails,Of winter tales.”
—from “A Winter Tale” by Bobby Long