Medicine for the Soul is the sophomore release from the U.K.’s The Vagaband, one of the foremost acts on England’s vibrant roots scene. The self-produced album is the follow-up to their much praised debut Town & Country and is being released on CD, gate-fold vinyl and via digital download on their own Eggsong Recordings label.
The Vagaband are an eight-piece ensemble based in Norfolk, UK who creates distinctive song-centered roots music. Performed on a rich and exotic array of instruments including flugelhorn, mandolin, marxophone, clarinet and pedal steel, the songs of singer/guitarist José McGill and pianist Greg Cook take the listener on a trip rom vaudeville and Victoriana through the horn-driven soundtrack of New Orleans and on to the open landscape of reflective Americana. There is however an underlying Celtic-Britishness flowing throughout Medicine for the Soul.
In “The Whistling Song” the band announces: “There’s a time to dance, a time to die”; this central theme underpins the album throughout. Both celebratory and reflective, the initial optimism gradually gives way to darker tales inhabited by drunks, dead-end seaside towns and troubled souls. The centre piece of the album is title track, “Medicine For The Soul,” an ode to late Texan songwriter Townes Van Zandt with cinematic arrangements reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s “Atom Heart Mother,” or Radiohead’s “Karma Police.” A quirky addition to the album is “Gabrielle,” a song from the canny of ’90s alt rock anti-heroes Ween; this unique take on the song gives some sense of Vagaband’s energy-charged live sound. The album closes on an ultimately sober, contemplative note with “Cisco Wine” and “A Different Drum.”
After a summer touring Europe and the UK festival circuit, the band played a number of shows throughout late 2014, and will continue touring in 2015 in support of the new album.
Ghettoblaster recently caught up with McGill to discuss the record. This is what he said about it.
When did you begin writing the material for your most recent album?
Almost immediately after the dust settled from our first album. So mid 2012 I guess. Recording started January 2013 and took till mid 2014!
What was the most difficult song to take from the initial writing stage through recording and mixing? Why was it so troublesome?
Without a doubt it was the title track ‘Medicine For The Soul.’ For a start it’s an ambitious task to write an ode to Townes Van Zandt and do it justice. I’d done a demo with half mouthed words – lots of holes in it – but the essence of it was there – the right emotion.
A lot of the writing of the track – lyrics and arrangements – were done in the studio and I kept flipping between two melodies, not knowing which was the best option. It went on and on for months. I think I ended up getting really hung up on trying to pull off an epic piece that transitions from being a stark, exposed simple folk song to a full on heavy loaded production. Getting that balance without fucking up the humanity of the track was hard plus the endless overdubs and horn/string arrangements. I’ll think twice about getting involved in an arrangement like that again.
That said, I was driving through the middle of Spain not long ago listening to an early mix of it, the sun was going down over the terrain where they shot the spaghetti westerns. It was great to release it into its natural habitat. A far cry from the back box room studio of my terrace house.
Which of the songs on the record is most different from your original concept for the song?
‘Lifted’ in hindsight is the one I’d have approached differently given the chance. I feel it’s too poppy and slick in its delivery. It should have stayed a simple ballad – not so earnest and yet so skippy. There’s a UK folk/pop band out there who’s music I really hate – I won’t mention thier name ‘cos I don’t want to spread the negativity – but everytime I hear ‘Lifted’ I think ‘Shit, I’ve made our band sound like them!!!’
Did you have any guest musicians play or sing on the record?
Yes quite a few local musicians playing banjo cello, musical saw, trombone.
Who produced the record? What input did that person have that changed the face of the record?
I produced the record at home in the most basic of set ups in the adjoining box room to my bedroom.
You would’nt believe the lack of gear and space we have. Basically two mics, no mixing desk and totally reliant upon overdubbing everything one step at a time. We’d love to record in a set up that allows for more ensemble takes – live rhythm section to get a feel.
That said, certain track on the album I think we’ve managed to pull off a live feel due to playing them out live over a long period before recording. Without question, the greatest benefit to recording at home is we have the freedom to explore ideas/techniques without it costing us money. You get to be Brian Wilson! That can become a trap though so I do check myself or else I’ll end up with a sandbox.
Is there an overarching concept behind your new album that ties the record together?
The working title for the album was A Time To Dance, A Time To Die.
Half way through demoing the songs we realized most of the songs shared not just similar themes but the same lyrics too. ‘these dancing days dont last for long’, ‘this party’s over’ – lots of shared imagery. It was useful to stand back and make sense of what we’d been writing about. Which was acknowledging that nothing lasts forever, to embrace change, let go of the past – everything and everyone have their moment of glory but it’s all transitory. Even the songs about towns with a forgotten past fitted.
There’s a lot of weariness in the album. A lot of reflection. This is why we decorated the cover with a day of the dead butterfly. It’s the perfect symbol for something that is at the height of its power but only has a short time left.
Have you begun playing these songs live and which songs have elicited the strongest reaction from your fans?
‘The Whistling Song’ has become a firm favorite with the crowd. Lots of singing and swaying. “Gabrielle” (written by Ween) has been in our set since 2009. It’s always been the highlight of our set.
Once we nail “Medicine For The Soul” I believe it will have its place in being awesome live. We need to pull our fingers out on that one to pull it off. BBC orchestra perhaps?
(Visit the band here: www.thevagaband.co.ukwww.facebook.com/thevagaband)