Big, beat-conscious and astonishingly diverse are not the adjectives that might have sprung immediately to mind with regard to Newton Faulkner in the past. He was the singer-songwriter once tagged ‘the British Jack Johnson’ and tossed in alongside sensitive, strumming troubadours in the tradition of Jackson Browne and James Taylor. He was the guy with the dreadlocks he had been cultivating since the age of 15, the one who flayed the hell out of an acoustic guitar whenever he played live.
That was then. These days, Newton Faulkner is a different proposition, and his audacious new album, Human Love, is a colorful statement of intent. His fifth studio collection, and his first for new label BMG, it is an alluring maelstrom of rhythm and harmony. Embracing racing drums, African percussion, chanted choruses, ambient interludes and the most imposing hooks of his career to date, it combines a more forthright writing style with a greater emphasis on beats and texture.
This fresh start also comes with a startling new look for the singer, who turned 30 this year. In the dramatic video accompanying his new single, Get Free, he can be seen unceremoniously taking a pair of scissors to those long locks. Getting rid of his trademark coiffure was something that Faulkner, fuelled by his current enthusiasm for change, was thinking of doing anyway. ‘I wasn’t forced into anything for the sake of the video,’ he says. ‘I was going to have them chopped off regardless. It seemed like the right time to do it.’
The new single sets an invigorating tone. An online hit three years ago for Major Lazer – the side-project of dance DJ and producer Diplo – it builds towards an epic, layered crescendo. Its dynamic grasp of light and shade is typical of Human Love, from the gleeful escapism of Up Up And Away to the soulful blues of Can I Be Enough and the heartfelt rawness of Break, a piece Newton describes as ‘the breather in the middle of the record’.
The album benefits from an intriguing gallery of co-conspirators. Mixed by Cenzo Townshend (The Maccabees and George Ezra), it features songs co-written with Newton’s older brother Toby plus contributions from Australian psych duo Empire Of The Sun, who add shifting grooves to Shadow Boxing, and London songwriter Ed Drewett (One Direction and Professor Green), whose impact can be heard on the rousing Far To Fall. Cam Blackwood (a producer who has worked with Florence + The Machine), brings a shimmering sheen to Step In The Right Direction, while Tessa Rose Jackson features on the pounding, piano-led Stay And Take.
‘I can do the solitary, singer-songwriter thing, but it’s much more fun to write with other people,’ continues Newton. ‘I’ve never had a problem with co-writing. I actually find it more fun to have someone else in the room. You connect. You bounce ideas off one another.
‘My last album, Studio Zoo, was quite subtle, so I wanted this one to be very direct, with the drums really prominent. I was listening to a lot of world music, Chinese and African folk, and that had an impact on the melodies. At one point, I almost made a real rock record. That didn’t happen in the end, but the ideas and attitudes shone through.
‘One of the reasons it sounds so varied is that I worked with so many different people. The mood is different to Studio Zoo. That was made after I’d come through a bad break-up and I was at my lowest ebb. Human Love is more positive – it’s about what happens after you’ve come through the hurt and pain.
‘My old label were always trying to find a box to put me in, but I don’t feel that now. When I sent in my new demos, I expected people to ask what the hell I was up to – but they came back saying that they wanted more of the same.’
Whether Human Love will make the singer any easier to pin down is another matter. He has been his own man ever since he picked up his first guitar at 13 and began playing along to the Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, CSNY and Bert Jansch records in his parents’ collection at home in suburban Redhill, Surrey. An unlikely period at the Italia Conti stage school in London was followed by a stint at the Academy Of Contemporary Music in Guildford, where he studied under the late Irish finger-style guitarist Eric Roche. It was in there that he developed a playing style that enables him to produce a bewildering array of percussive effects on his instrument. After playing the part of bassist Mike Dirnt in a short-lived Green Day tribute band – one show involved the Dookie album in its entirety – he graduated to gigging on his own. ‘I didn’t do solo gigs because I thought they would lead to fame and fortune,’ he says. ‘I did them because I didn’t have a band. Then, when David Gray became successful, it struck me I could do this for a living.’
He was as surprised as anyone when his first album, Hand Built By Robots, topped the charts in 2007, deposing Amy Winehouse, selling a million and spending a year in the Top 40. The follow-up, Rebuilt By Humans, was a tribute to the surgeons who saved his career after his right wrist was shattered in a freak mishap in the French Alps. He still gets the odd twinge of pain, especially when the screws and metal plates expand in humid conditions, although he was always adamant that the show had to go on. ‘Everyone around me was concerned, but I was back on the road within three months,’ he says. ‘It hurt so much I would sit on the bus cradling my wrist and crying after every gig.’
His third album, the upbeat Write In On Your Skin, gave him a second chart-topper in 2012, while 2013’s Studio Zoo was made over five weeks in his East London home studio, with every move streamed online and open to comment on social media. ‘I wanted to let people into the creative process,’ he says. ‘I could ask viewers whether the songs were good enough, but I also had people telling me to go to bed if it was getting too late!’
Moving on from what he dubs ‘an interesting, if weird, experiment’, he completed Human Love with a renewed sense of purpose, and is now looking forward to touring again as the fulcrum of a three-piece band featuring drummer Toby Couling and his brother Toby, a dab hand on the ukulele, mandolin, dulcimer, keyboards and bass.
‘One of my main aims was to assemble a set of songs that really work for the later slots at festivals,’ he says. ‘I wanted to make a record that tapped into the idea of a festival, where you hear all these different strands of music floating in and out of your head. I want to be up there as the sun is setting, and people are starting to let their hair down.’