The new record has a very distinct and uniform sound. Was that conceived while you were writing or was it discovered once you were in the studio?
I don't think I ever know what I want to achieve. The recording process for me, you write your basic songs at home on a guitar or piano. When you take them into the studio you start doing overdubs. A song can go in many different directions depending on the mood you're in on the day you're recording that one song. It's quite a daunting thing to go through. I'm quite an indecisive person at the best of times. It could sound good with piano or without piano, or with strings ― there are so many different ways to do it. I find the process exhilarating but also a bit of a nightmare because there are so many things that could be different. I think my philosophy over the years has been to just go with your instincts and whatever seems to start working the best. I think across this album I didn't over think anything too much. I just went with what seemed to be working. And that went through to the ten songs that are on there. They were the first ten to be finished from a batch of about 30. What I usually do is finish the whole batch of 30 or 40 and drive myself insane trying to figure out which ones are the best. Because I reached a point at which ten were done I figured I'd relieve myself of that heartache for once and finish the others and do a trilogy. It's imposed on me to work on another couple of albums in rapid succession. But the sound emerged in the studio. There's quite a lot of reverb going on. That's because when I'm doing a guide vocal I need tons of reverb because I'm too shy of singing without having any words and the reverb gets me through. We had some demos where the reverb just worked and I went with it because it seemed like it was the right sound for this collection of songs.
So the songs are written and recorded for the next two instalments?
No. There are 15 or 20 that we made a start on and I may go back to them. There's a few that I like and I've written others since. But I never finish anything till I go into finish. So there's a handful of ideas for the next instalment. I could even go back to songs I'd written ten years ago. On this one there's a healthy mix of old and new. There are really old songs that are three or four or five years old and songs that are brand-new that were recorded on the night. The general rule is there are no rules to this trilogy. That's why I like the title It's What I'm Thinking, because that allows me the freedom to say that's what I was thinking on that day or during the three- or four-week period of making this album. It's just opened up my creative world in a way that I've never really had before. I should've discovered this before now but it's taken me this long to see that that's how simple it can be. And all the songs were recorded relatively quickly by my standards. And the lyrics were written quite spontaneously. I didn't cross anything out or change stuff. It was almost as it came out of my head. That's something I'd like to maintain. Photographing Snowflakes, the sub-head, was a metaphor for capturing moments fairly quickly and not changing it too much. I might one day go in and just play piano and release that. There's no real rules to it, which is the way forward for me, which has opened up my world in a way.
And this epiphany came while writing the soundtrack for The Fattest Man in Britain?
That soundtrack came along as a bit of a godsend in a way. At the beginning of last year I was intending to start recording the next album and for a few months I was writing songs and I just couldn't see a way through. I'd not been in the studio for a while and I was nervous about doing it again. I wasn't suffering from writer's block; I just didn't want to do it. I just didn't feel I had any good ideas to present. When the soundtrack came along it forced me to go into the studio and do some demos. I was really quite nervous. I hadn't played in a studio in over a year and I sat there and after about ten minutes I settled in. I thought, "Why have I not been doing this all the time?" I've always got something to offer in the studio. I don't like leaving at the end of the day with no results. It made me quickly realize I'd been quite stupid to not have been continuously doing it because you get out of practice and you get nervous about the idea of it. I think that was the catalyst for making me want to do a trilogy. I did the soundtrack and it was a low-key release but it was rewarding and it just got me going again and made me realize that I can't afford to not be in the studio and be creating because that's essentially who I am as a person. It keeps me ticking and keeps the rest of my life easier.
There were three years between Born in the UK and the soundtrack, which is a long gap for you. What prompted the gap?
It wasn't really a conscious decision; it was just collective circumstances. The Born in the UK album, I toured America and Europe and the UK obviously. I think I was just disappointed that the album didn't do as well as I'd hoped. I thought that album would represent my time to have a new level of success but it didn't really manifest that way. It was well received by the fans and the critics more or less, but it didn't sell massively. I know it's tough these days, that's the climate that we're in. I think after going through all that… The real answer is I had a lot of work done on my house, my kitchen and it took a long time. Six months or something. And that was historically where I'd sit with my guitar, in the kitchen. With the disruption, I got lazy and wasn't really writing for a bit. That was a contributing factor plus my disappointment with the previous album I got disillusioned and disheartened and allowed myself to not push myself as hard as a normally would. I don't think that will happen again. Sometimes you got to go through a period like that to realize you really need to do this. My brother-in-law worked for the Simpsons for ten years. One of the older writers ― I can't remember his name ― he used to write at a coffee shop in L.A. and the coffee shop was demolished and he couldn't write anymore so he had a replica built in his garden so he could write. Apparently that's a true story. Whenever I talk about my kitchen I relate it to that. I should really get myself an office space where I do stuff like that but I haven't gotten round to it.
You've cited Neil Young and Bob Dylan as musicians that just go into the studio for a week and knock out an album. Were there any specific records or artists that inspired you to write this way?
I never listen to much music at all when I'm making my own records because I don't want the distraction of it. Sometimes occasionally you do listen to something for inspiration for a certain sound. But it's more of an overall feeling of the climate we're living in now in the music industry, I think it just suits me quite well because I am quite prolific. Maybe it's looking back with rose coloured spectacles, but a period like the '70s, but it just seemed looking back that artists like Dylan and Neil Young and many others at the time, I think releasing albums was an easier process where artists could satisfy their need to be prolific and put a record out, two or three a year sometimes. Or at least one a year. And it's got more difficult to do that because there's so much competition now. To give yourself a chance of your record to get listened to or noticed even, you have to spend a three-month period to get the monthly magazines to write about it, which is fair enough. That's always been the case. I just think that now that I'm back on my own label, if I've got an EP tomorrow, I've got these three songs and I want to put them out. The internet has sort of ruined a lot of the ways the music industry was working. But on the positive side, it's opened up this new thing that if I wanted to release a song from last night's set I can put it on my website or Myspace or whatever it is. And it's a way for people getting involved with what your doing to a degree. The way I started my career was on my own label anyway and I'm kind of back to that again and that suits me fine. I might not have a big advance from the record company but I can still make a record and put it out there and if it only sells 10, 000 copies it won't be deemed a disaster the way it would be if you were with a major label.
You mentioned feeling disillusioned. Did that manifest itself in any of the record's lyrics?
I've been doing a few gigs, I tend to play a set of songs a lot of the time and it dawns on me on stage that there's a lot of sadness in my words and there are a lot of sombre songs about relationships ending. I've had a lot of friends pass away so a lot of that creeps in to your mindset when you're coming up with words. But a lot of it's tinged with humour and hopefulness as well. Maybe it's a trait from being from this part of the world, a Northerner from Manchester. I wouldn't want to liken myself to someone like the Smiths or Morrissey but I think on this album there's an element of that style. As a solo artist I've never really fit into the jigsaw of Manchester music history. But somehow I'm part of it and I'm quite proud to be part of it but because I'm not a band I don't fit in somehow. You don't think about that when you're writing, you just get on with the thing you do. I'm quite pleased that this record, I think it's got a few more of my musical influences on its sleeve, more than in the past. There are elements of the Smiths. That's how I learned to play guitar, listening to Johnny Marr and trying to copy some of the stuff he was doing, which is impossible because he's too good. But that's how I started to play with my fingers, playing bass lines and melodies at the same time. I think it's come through a bit more, but without copying. I wouldn't allow myself to. I think it's just come through naturally.
What is about Manchester that breeds so many great bands?
I grew up with all that stuff; all the Manchester bands that I was a fan of. As a kid, growing up in Bolton, which is 20 odd miles away, I felt detached from it. But I'd go into Manchester to see bands and buy records and there was always an air of something going on. Because of what's happened to me, with my music and becoming well known, I know a lot of these people. There was a creative spirit in Manchester that was instrumental in my career taking off in the first place. I met people just through socializing and it was a catalyst for me starting my own label back in '97. So I'm grateful to the place for that. People like Tony Wilson helped in the early days. He offered us his support and he just championed us and said it was great that we'd started this new label. To be mixing with people you'd seen on the TV growing up it was just quite a revelation that it was that easy to bump into these people and for them to champion you. I've bumped into Bez and Ian Brown; I know Johnny Marr and Bonehead from Oasis. I suppose I'm still getting used to the fact that I've become somebody that's part of it. I've been around long enough to accept it. But I still feel like I'm a guy ploughing his own soil and I don't get involved in the scenes anymore. I don't really go into town. I'm just at home and I know the people I know. I've got the kids now so I'm a family man as well. I'm still on a path that I'm trying to find the right route for and this album's the next stage in that. I still have a lot more to do hopefully. A lot more interesting stuff to come out of me. I think I'm just finding my feet. It represents a new beginning in me feeling more free spirited than I have in the past and I can take it anywhere I want.