Suede guitarist and pop producer team up for Albion-inspired folk.
“WE WROTE THESE SONGS BEFORE THE BREXIT VOTE, WHICH I THINK IS A TERRIBLE THING FOR THIS COUNTRY.”
There’s someThing of a good cop/bad cop dichotomy with Artmagic. Guitarist Richard Oakes, who was plucked from West Country obscurity by indie titans Suede in the early 90s, is cooler than a cucumber just out of the fridge. Vocalist Sean McGhee, whose writing and production credits include Britney Spears, Alanis Morissette and Robyn, is the conceptual architect, and he’s the more serious of the two.
Artmagic came together in 2008 thanks to a serendipitous Doctor Who connection which involved Sean and a friend of Richard’s meeting regularly down the pub to discuss all things Gallifreyan. The singer doesn’t feel this story is relevant to our tête-à-tête today, even if a Venn diagram of Prog readers and fans of the Time Lord would probably generate an ample intersection. Artmagic have released two albums six years apart, and the latest – The Songs Of Other England – is a work of sumptuous, understated beauty (The Farmer And The Field featured on the Prog 88 CD).
The title track of the album in particular is a divine tribute to the arcane folk traditions of Albion, and a nod to the secret musical history of our once proud nation. There are narratives throughout written from the perspectives of the underrepresented and the disenfranchised. Film director Derek Jarman provides inspiration, not so much for his output as his methodology: “His whole thing at the beginning when he didn’t have money to shoot in 35mm or afford proper sets and professional actors was to allow the budget to define the aesthetic,” says McGhee.
Thwarted by work commitments, including Suede, the pair wrote songs from scratch in McGhee’s Tottenham studio in 2014, working quickly.
“Richard used to be very reticent to do anything off the cuff like that and over the years he’s really warmed to it,” says McGhee. “He’s really good at it.” Oakes learned to improvise in front of members of the reformed Suede when the old method of bringing songs to the studio stopped working for them. “You’ve got Ed Bueller, Brett Anderson and Neil Codling all standing over you giving you live punditry on what you’re playing,” says Oakes, laughing. “‘Oh that’s good; play that again. Don’t like that, do what you were doing before.’ You have to get used to that and put your artistic ego aside.”
As a duo, Oakes shares an equal footing with McGhee. Despite more than two decades of playing guitar with Suede, he’ll always be the new boy to many.“It used to really irk me and Neil but now we just accept it,” he says philosophically. “Sean’s husband Phil is a big Marillion fan, and people still talk about Fish. He hasn’t been in the band for 30 years! It’s just absurd, but there we are.”
McGhee’s anxieties include people thinking the album’s title might be in some way a reference to a certain referendum: “We wrote these songs before the Brexit vote, which I think is a terrible thing for this country. There was a moment a few years ago where the idea of Englishness was being slightly rehabilitated, but now we’re back to this two World Wars one World Cup little Englander jingoistic Empire bullshit that I have no interest in.” JA
ARTMAGIC, L-R: RICHARD OAKES, SEAN MCGHEE.