FFS interview: Al Lewis & Sarah Howells

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Al Lewis at The Allotment

The very charming Al Lewis & Sarah Howells agreed to have a chat with us before the exhibition showcasing the artwork for Sarah’s album with her other band, Paper Aeroplanes at Riverside Studio in Hammersmith. The duo have recorded their debut album and are waiting to have it finished off and released. Keep your eye on FFS for more details as soon as we have them.

FFS: Is the story of you meeting each other on the tube true?
Al: it’s true but it’s sort of embellished…
FFS: How did you end up chatting on a tube? People usually stare straight ahead.
Al: Well we’d both gone to see this gig of a friend of ours.
Sarah: He’s a mutual drummer…
Al: …and so we’d just gone down to his gig and Sarah was totally blanking me, she wasn’t talking to me at all…
Sarah: I wasn’t blanking you!
Al: …she was being a proper diva…
Sarah: That’s such a lie! I was standing right next to you and you were just too shy to talk to me!
Al: …and then on the tube back I plucked up the courage…
Sarah: You always say plucked up the courage it’s such bollocks!
FFS: as if you’re really scary?
Sarah: Exactly!
Al: …she was very intimidating but I was like ‘here’s my EP’ and she was like [sarcastically] ‘yeah I’m sure I’ll listen to it”. But then she MySpaced me afterwards
Sarah: And I said I’d listened to it twice in a row which is really good for me…
Al: …and she said I really like your EP, let’s sing together.
FFS: Did you already know you wanted to collaborate with someone?
Al: No not at all…
Sarah: You just gave it to me because we were meeting and chatting about music and you had it on you. I don’t know what I said in my email I  just thought it was really good and I think I just said if you ever want a backing singer… My drummer — our mutual friend — had said a lot about him.
Al: We did this one open mic night in Soho didn’t we? It was our first gig and we only had one song ‘Throw Me A Line’, which is on the EP, and the promoter was like ‘you two should do more together’ so we did.
FFS: You do make a very nice sound when you sing together, your harmonies are quite minory…
Al: That’s down to Sarah
Sarah: [puts on an affected voice] ‘It just comes naturally’… no I’ve always harmonised to everything, like I’d be watching Home & Away and harmonising to the theme tune just cos I like doing it and I just do what I think works. [to Al] Sometimes you change it don’t you? Sometimes when we get into the studio I need to take more of a back seat and sometimes there’s bits that stick out too much.
Al: I think that’s maybe what’s nice about it is that we don’t really think about it we just put it down there.
Sarah: I try not to sing on the bits that don’t need it.

FFS: Do you write together for Al Lewis & Sarah Howells?

Al: Yeah there’s some of the songs on the album that are me and Sarah and some are just me. It just depends really. We’ve had a few sessions and it ends up with Sarah going ‘no that’s rubbish do that bit better’. So after I’ve cried a little bit…
Sarah: yeah, my contribution is criticism…. no that’s not true… I think it’s just about bouncing ideas off each other.
FFS: Do you write solo stuff as well, Al?
Al: I do stuff in Welsh and in English and the English stuff just seems to become me and Sarah kind of under the banner of me, I know that sounds weird. But we went in the studio at Christmas and Sarah’s on pretty much everything we did then.
Sarah: I didn’t make you!
Al: Yeah that’s the way it worked out.
Sarah: We just got in the habit didn’t we?
Al: It works!
FFS: I sent the recording of the allotment [Al & Sarah played the first Allotment night, which FFS runs with Anika Mottershaw] to my uncle who’s a huge music fan — especially Bob Dylan — and he picked out your tracks. So they’re obviously very good.
Al: He’s obviously got impeccable taste. Bob Dylan, Al Lewis…
Sarah: There’s nothing between you really!

Sarah Howells at the Allotment

Sarah Howells at the Allotment

FFS: Where are you with your debut album?
Al: It’s all finished we did the last bit of vocals in February so it’s just got to be mixed now. but you never know with these things…
FFS: Do you have a distributor?
Al: We’re going to see first if we can get a label to release it, we’re going to talk to a few indies and see if anyone likes it. We haven’t really played it to anyone yet we’re holding back the tracks until it’s been mixed
FFS: So you’re doing it all yourself then handing it over to a label?
Sarah: And you’ve got Bill Gauthier to mix it, hopefully…
Al: Yeah —  if it happens — he’s done some stuff with Fleet Foxes and the Acorn
FFS: Is it all going to be new material or has anything from Skin and Bones made it onto the album too?
Al: Three songs from Skin & Bones have made it; ‘Make A Little Room’, ‘Sinking Boat’ and ‘Throw Me A Line’, then there’s six new tracks and one track off an EP I did, ‘One Way Love Affair’.
FFS: There’s an album of just your own stuff on Spotify, and that seems quite different…
Al: That’s very different I’d say — that was me in my Jack Johnston phase…
Sarah: It was a long time ago wasn’t it?
Al:  I was still a student so I wasn’t technically a musician…
Sarah: You can be a student and technically be a capable musician!
Al: You know what I mean! I wasn’t doing what I’m doing now I just put all these songs down…
FFS: Who produced the new album?
Al: It was a mixture really. There’s this guy that i’ve been working with a lot in Cardiff called Llion who was basically engineer/co-producer, but he wouldn’t throw his ideas in he’d just let us do what we want. So basically it was a combination of me and Sarah and whoever else was in the room.

FFS: You sound a more folky and country now – was that a decision you made?
Al: I think what happened was that I analysed which songs people liked and it seemed to me that people preferred the more folky stuff that I wrote. I don’t streamline the type of songs I write — or I didn’t used to anyway, Sarah will say now [adopts a high pitched voice] “Oh that’s such an Al Lewis song!” — but when I was younger I just used to write anything and everything. Now I’ve realised the songs people liked that I did before were that sort of genre
Sarah: that’s the type of music you prefer though, too, isn’t it? I can tell what you like listening to it now. I don’t know what you used to listen to…
Al: Jack Johnston!
Sarah: Yeah you don’t listen to things like that anymore you’re not a Jason Mraz fan or anything. More sort of Low Anthem and Ryan Adams and stuff?
FFS: What do you both listen to now?
Al: I think I like male singer songwriters and Sarah likes female singer songwriters
Sarah: Maybe… I used to, I did go through a phase of listening to women all the time before the internet was massive when I was really young anything that had a girl on the front I’d just buy that
Sarah: Mainly American and mainly a rip off of Alanis Morissette. We like similar stuff don’t we? You got me into Greg Laswell and Swell Season we both like Swell Season and Damien Rice.
Al:  And we saw Regina Spektor at the Hammersmith Apollo just before Christmas.

FFS: Do you separate music that influences you from the stuff you just like?
Al: I was talking to some producers and they said it’s good to keep in touch with what’s going on even if you don’t think it’s you.
Sarah: I don’t really sound like any of the stuff I listen to. I sound more like the things I used to listen to the stuff that’s almost ingrained in me from when I was younger. Like Fleetwood Mac my parents used to play in the car all the time. I used to listen to the Cranberries and the Corrs a lot when I was younger before they went really poppy and crap. Now I don’t listen to things that sounds like me at all. Like the national and Regina Spektor and Laura Viers, stuff like that
Al: Sometimes nice to move away from what you are like. I was listening to the new Arctic Monkeys album, I really like it. It’s got that Queens of the Stoneage influence obviously because of Josh Homme producing some of the tracks… It’s nice to move away from what you do and listen to something like that.
FFS: Do you find yourself picking elements out of music like that?
Al: I think maybe for the next album I might pick up an electric guitar cos I’ve never done that. It’s definitely somewhere I can go.
FFS:  You’ll have to get some friends in the audience to shout Judas the first time you play it at a gig
Al: I know it’s a touchy subject isn’t it, when Dylan did it and Fionn Regan….
Sarah: …and you being the next Dylan…
Al: Argh! No I’m not saying that Lynn’s going to write that now…
Sarah: Al Lewis: “I am the next Dylan”
Al: I know Fionn Regan his new album is a lot more electric as well and he was obviously very acoustic in his first album I think it’s something interesting to do cos you can make new sounds and it just gives you some room to maneuver
FFS: it’s a good way to do it starting acoustic so you can actually write songs and then you add noise
Al: yep if a song sounds good on an acoustic guitar then it’ll sound good on whatever
Sarah: I like Foo Fighters and Deftones and stuff like that I think that actually comes through a tiny bit — maybe more in a couple of new songs that aren’t on our album — I think that stuff influences me more — l was a massive Tori Amos and the national but that stuff doesnt come through at all… maybe lyrically occasionally
FFS: You’re not channeling Tori?
Sarah: No, which is weird cos I listened to loads of her from 16 onwards I just listened to Tori Amos all the time.

FFS: What’s the critical reaction been like for all your various projects?
Al: Skin & Bones is a folk country EP, so in some cases it was reviewed by people who obviously don’t like that stuff.
FFS: That’s so annoying when they do that…
Sarah: I wouldn’t review rap or some underground R&B urban stuff cos I’ve got no idea if it’s good or bad. I know if it’s a good song and that’s about it.
Al: We had some like that and we had some really nice ones.
Sarah: we’ve only just started our PR for Paper Aeroplanes so I don’t think we’ve had any reviews yet… Oh we’ve had one on BBC Wales online review which was really nice but we’ve just got feedback of people saying they’re going to review it Mojo and Q said they’re hopefully going to review it.  You go ‘yay’ and then you think ‘oh no! if it’s bad more people will read it’.

FFS: Sarah, I know you work at the River Cafe by day. Are you a full-time musician Al?
Al: I was until 2 weeks ago when I had to get a job because the bayliffs were calling!
Sarah: No they weren’t!
Al: Well, no… but cos spent quite a lot on recording the album and the PRS that I get for singing back home in Wales is falling really bad I’ve got a boring admin job in the City. It’s soul destroying it really is but if anything it’s made me realise I’m really lucky that I can do music full time sometimes cos 5.30 can’t come soon enough.