This summer sees the release of the debut album by The Willow, the solo project of the critically acclaimed Custom Blue’s Alex Pilkington. Having been in gestation for a period of around 2 years, and recorded between production sessions for Sophie Barker’s recent LP “The Seagull” and the Blue Rose Code LP “North 10” - this thought provoking and emotionally engaging collection of songs is now ready to see the light of day.
Following Custom Blue partner Simon Shippey’s relocation to New York, and his own move from London to Bradford on Avon, Alex found himself with the freedom and space to create music without the need to rely on anyone else’s agenda or opinion. Using mainly a Neumann U47 microphone, an old AMEK desk, and recording in Logic, Alex began to put together the material for the record. Despite the freedom afforded by isolation, he soon found that he needed a foil to work with (“without another person I would struggle to finish anything, I can tweak for days!”), he brought in longtime friend and musical collaborator Mark Tucker, a gifted engineer and keyboard player.
With Mark now on board, the demos Alex had been recording began to be fleshed out into full-blown productions, and other musicians were drafted in where necessary. These included drums from Ian Thomas and James Porter, bass from Jeff Mann, pedal steel guitar by Michael Phillips, moog from Kirill Nicolai, and a haunting vocal duet with Beth Hirsch, singer of Air’s “All I Need”, whom Alex had produced the album “Titles and Idols” for in 2001. “She has one of the purest voices I’ve ever known.” Says Alex of Beth, and her vocal on the track “So Many Things” stands as an emotional high-point of the record, a reminder of her amazing talent, and Alex’s skill as an arranger in using it to such great effect.
If there is a theme to this record, it seems to be the passing of youth, the transition to the next stage of life, and figuring out how to bring those relationships formed in our early years into our new lives. “Hard To Break” speaks of people’s continuing hard living lifestyles, despite lacking the emotional and physical strength to do so. There’s no preaching here though, Alex is honest enough to admit that he also is “trying to get through.” Country tinged heart-breaker “Is It All Forgotten” addresses a friend and asks whether we can ever go back to how things were, or are we forever moving forward, away from our treasured childhood dreams. As the song reaches it’s emotional climax, Alex remembers that “Somebody told me we would make it,” before finishing the song with the crushing question “Is it over for you too?”.
The LP sees Alex re-energized to create guitar based music after feeling a little “electronica-trapped”, and he does so effortlessly, displaying himself once again to be a musician, producer and arranger of rare grace, taste, and fluidity. It also shows an urge to create something lasting, a rarity in this day and age of easy come easy go downloads, a whole sound world to get lost in, and revel in the feeling. Sounding like a classic early 70’s Paul Simon LP covered by Philadelphia folk heroes Espers, this is a record of dreams and regrets, of finding the strength to accept life’s changes when they come your way, where the songs are like moments snatched from dreams, hanging like ghosts in the air.
Featuring performances from Ian Thomas (drums), Kirill Nicolai (synths), Jeff Mann (bass) and James Porter (drums) the album has echoes of Wilco, CSNY, Low and Bon Iver.