We had the pleasure of sitting down with the three members of Motel Sundown this week to talk gigs, releases and how they’re going from strength to strength following on from a string of singles leading into their first full-band album.
Rob Johnson, Naomi Campbell & Karen Turley are the guitarists and singers in the group combining beautiful three-part harmonies and layered acoustic and electric guitar sounds to bring their taste of Americana, Country and Folk-rock to the forefront. With three of them writing and collaborating with a host of amazing musicians, their album coming out later this year.
Liverpool Noise: So in terms of your inspirations, I know all three of you contribute to a lot of the songwriting, how do they help in forming some of the skeletons of the songs?
Naomi: They probably help too much I think! Because we’re all listening to music, it just kinda sometimes feels like it sounds too much like so and so. But if you mean does it inspire us when we write then yes.
LN: So your genre, you’ve almost tried to shift it a little around 2019 in order to not be pigeon-holed. What would you say you fit into now or do you find it’s best to keep it open and see where it lands you?
Karen: Yeah that’s the plan, it’s trying to figure out what sound we are because there’s all different influences. Me and Naomi are into country but we also have a love for soft rock and Tom Petty for example. Rob has a lot of Beatles and James Taylor influences so yeah, some of the songs can lean towards sounding a bit more country and others might be more folky.
Rob: I think songs are songs, aren’t they? You can dress them up in different clothes. You do what you do but it’s just music really. It can take one thing you like such as a delay part, or a verse segment and put it in a country song.
N: Because we all can call upon these different influences it means we can write together more easily too.
R: I always think people are really invested in how you perform it and how you sing it. It’s the details.
N: We’ve been using the word Americana a bit more too, not that it’s a new genre, but it’s not really specifically country or specifically folk.
LN: Liverpool seems a great place for the Americana scene at the moment too!
N: We’re just not certain genres, as opposed to we are certain genres.
LN: That’s a good way of putting it! So the first batch of singles you brought out, would you say the new album is keeping in line with those or is it moving along and expanding on what you’ve already built up?
K: I think we’re a little unusual in that we all had one song each that we recorded together. We worked on them together, but they were very much ours.
N: They weren’t necessarily written with Motel Sundown in mind, we just wrote them before all that. We then started writing together and had something to bring and record, then release them as the band. So I guess the album is different in that we’ve written all these with Motel Sundown in mind. But in terms of sound they’re fairly similar.
K: We realised what sounds we like and how we wanted certain things to sound. We just developed that.
LN: And when you first met each other, you had a couple of years before becoming Motel Sundown. What was the deal were you just sussing each other out at the back of a bar for a while?
N: Haha! Yeah we were doing a lot of cover gigs at the time having a lot of fun and I’d always said I’d come back from travelling and sing with Karen eventually, and when I got back Karen was playing a few gigs with Rob and we were just doing a few bits as a three. We started out under a different band name until we started it a bit more seriously. It all happened quite naturally though, nobody ever said ‘Should we be in a band’ it just felt like the natural thing to do.
R: You had two songs each individually that were precursors to some of the ones we did. That was almost finding the sound. It’s funny because as we started doing stuff for the album it’s like there’s certain ways that we stack the harmonies or using the 12-string.
[insert quick break while coffees arrive]
R: So I think the longer you go on, the more you find the sound and gel with the process.
N: It was handy not to have to go out and find each other. I didn’t really want to do solo stuff.
R: I think one of the references we always have is almost like Crosby, Stills & Nash they’re all songwriters and all sing and write different style songs. That’s all we want to do, just be different! It’s nice that it’s actually more flexible and a band of singer/songwriters rather than a standard band.
K: You can almost guarantee that what you’re putting out will be miles away from what you could do as a solo. Not even just the harmonies but the inputs too.
LN: Do you think that the rather unique line-up you have of two acoustic guitars and an electric guitar helps you to stand out? I know on some of your tracks you’ve got a full sound with bass and drums, is that yourselves dictating what goes on or are you happy to let those musicians interpret their own sound on those singles?
N: We love playing full band. We’d love to have the same line-up each time, but the session players we use at the moment are too talented they’ve got so many other things going on! We do love acoustic too. We recently did a Sofar Sounds unplugged gig, which was really nice. But in terms of festivals and stuff it would be great to have a full band.
R: Yeah, so when we recorded the album, almost all of it has a rhythm section to it. It’s a much more fleshed out sound.
N: We can have literally just the three of us for most things too, but if we have the option for a full band it’s so much fun to have drums and bass!
LN: With the studio sound then, do you also play some of the extra instrumentation yourselves or do you find that you’re happy to let whoever comes in out their own spin on it?
R: The musicians we’ve had have been so good. We were really lucky. The bassist, who unfortunately has since passed away, worked with The Jacksons and the Beegees.
K: The pedal steel player we had worked with Emmylou Harris.
LN: Was this all done in Manchester?
R: Yeah! We essentially had a lead sheet then everything else they just played around it. We didn’t even suggest one single thing.
K: They were like machines. Our pedal steel player called Gerry Hogan sorted it from his house and sent it through. We didn’t know what to expect at first but he sent it all back and it was all incredible. He’s 77 too so he’s been playing for years.
R: We’d recorded the album as a demo so it was pretty close to how it was going to sound, but then it’s letting them do their own thing too.
N: That’s the dream. For us to be a three and have collaborators who come on and really bring something new to the sound. We have been playing with two guys at the minute, Sam Rabette our bassist who’s got so many projects on the go. It’s so nice to have him playing with us. Then Ben Wall our drummer is really in demand too. They’re also our friends so it’s great.
LN: So when you said that the first batch of tracks you wrote were almost individual songs that you brought to the band, would you say the new album has been approached in a similar way or is it more of a joint writing project?
K: It’s a bit of a mix of both i’d say. Usually one of us will start off with an idea for one or record a short demo and see if we want to change or alter it.
R: Exactly, sometimes you just think, yes that’s it. There’s other ideas to put in sure, but sometimes it can be afterwards too.
N: Like the three of us live apart too so it’s hard. Me and Karen used to live together, and to be honest we didn’t write enough then really either!
R: One of the things we were saying too is that we have these different identities. You want to keep that separate sometimes because if you start collaborating on everything it can be mixed up. When you write on your own you’re not scared to write about what you want and say what you want to say. It’s just pure, you know?
N: There’s one song on the album that was intentionally a group project which has actually turned out really well. We know then that it’s special because we’ve made it together.
LN: Do you now write with each other in mind with your own vocal strengths too?
K: Yeh Rob does that a lot for us.
R: Well they’re better singers than me! But I can focus on guitar a bit more that way. I had a few songs that either of them could sing, that’s freeing as well.
N: Some people tend to get confused about who’s actually singing.
LN: Unless it’s Rob…
(5 minutes of solid laughter later)
The three harmonies together sound fantastic by the way!
N: Thank you! Sometimes we try to write for it, but it’s probably easier to just go with the flow and not get stuck in a set way.
LN: So for the new album then, we’ve had a few single releases.
K: Yes! The first one ‘Perfect Eyes’ – which is probably one of my own person favourites too.
N: Then another single release, but that one’s definitely secret!
LN: So the album is a little secretive for the time being, are there any gigs or festivals you’re looking forward to going once it’s all released?
N: We do. We have a few! There’s a band called The Hanging Stars – they’re Americana style and we’ll be playing with them at St. Michael’s Church.
R: We’re doing Grateful Fred’s in Southport too. We’re supporting The Chaplain Sisters who are an American band. It’s a monthly thing and should be a lot of fun!
LN: Do you find in the theatre setting you can be a little more intimate?
N: Yeah I got quite nervous last time!
K: It’s a lovely setting though. Because everyone’s there listening. But we’ve also got the British Country Music Festival in September too!
R: These theatres shows I find as being slightly less rewarding. People have this etiquette that you can’t talk, can’t go to the bar, can’t go to the toilet.
R: Well, you’re not supposed to anyway haha. I like it when you’ve got to earn the right to get people’s attention by winning them over instead.
K: When you play with a band too it feels like cheating with a big cloud of sound. With it just the three of us you can hear every little thing.
R: We do like to have a bit of banter too in those shows, not taking it too seriously because it’s just music and everyone’s there to enjoy it. We’re friends at the end of the day so we have more fun and relax when we chat about the songs and stuff like that. Because I find it so funny when people have these staged speeches they do at gigs, pretending like it’s the first time they’ve ever said it, so it’s easier for us just to enjoy it, you know?
K: Talking about the songs is great though. It’s always good to have a story behind it.
LN: I think Americana and country do have that wonderful story-telling ability to their songs…
N: Yeh we don’t do it for every song but it’s good to keep some stuff secret
R: Or we just make up complete lies about them!
N: Haha, yeh we used to test if people were listening and we’d just make up stuff. We said we’d supported Travis once to test how many people were listening.
LN: Amazing, so guys to wrap it up, what’s your favourite gig you’ve either been to, or performed at? Anything that’s changed your mindset as musicians?
R: For me, like it terms of playing, our gig at Grand Central with the whole band. Keys, drums, bass, 3 guitars and 3 vocals. It was an attentive audience and a really nice vibe. That’s probably my favourite. It was a charity gig that Tony Cook had set up for Shelter, the Liverpool Homeless Charity.
K: Yeh that was amazing. We’ve been to some good gigs too though. Brandi Carlile was a highlight. Unplugged in London, it was just incredible.
N: Stevie Nicks was probably mine (as she is staring at a photo of her in the bar).
R: Delvon Lamarr Trio in the London Jazz Cafe, everyone was just milling around but it was such a brilliant gig in such a casual way. Richard Thompson in theatre in York was pretty ridiculous too.
N: Even Parr Jazz here in Liverpool has some brilliant evenings so you never know what you’ll find locally too!
LN:Thank you so much!