Open Hearts: An Interview with Bright Light Bright Light
Ahead of the release of his new single ‘An Open Heart’, Nick Smith had the pleasure to speak to musical wunderkind Bright Light Bright Light, as he embarks on a tour of America’s west coast with Elton John.
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You’re on the road right now with Elton John – how do you find working with him, and how did you coax out that fantastic understated vocal in ‘I Wish We Were Leaving’?
Working with him is a mixture of very normal and very bizarre because we’ve known each other for quite a long time. You know it was just like working with a friend really until you are in the studio and you realise who that friend is! We talked about it a lot before we went into the studio and I played him the song, which had my guide vocals on it, and we just sang it through in the kitchen then went in the studio and he delivered it really softly. He’s quoted quite often as saying he likes singing sad songs, and he’s like a fan of miserable music, so I think he kind of enjoyed the chance to sing something with a bit of a different energy and he just delivered this subdued performance and it was really quite heartbreaking.
How do you feel that living in New York influenced the album?
Beyond words really. Because it was the second album, I wanted to do something different, or at least have a different perspective, and I thought that living somewhere different would be useful for that – you know, having a different take on life, a different energy and a different landscape to tease out a few new ideas. Even for the songs that had been written already it gave a different energy to them and a different tone. I was a little bit out of my comfort zone. I did feel like a different person and I felt rejuvenated and it helped me finish the record. Having the chance to see how my music sounded in a different environment was really quite liberating.
The record is quite a cathartic journey but at the heart is a bittersweet optimism. Was this a conscious step or more of a reflection of our life experiences?
It’s meant to be optimistic. It’s about understanding what you like about your life and what you don’t like, and getting rid of the things you don’t like. I streamlined things that were getting on my nerves and focussed my energy into finding new things that I really enjoyed, which made making the record a much more enjoyable experience.
Who would you say are your biggest influences in music?
Kate Bush, Elton, Pet Shop Boys, Erasure, Depeche Mode – and then weirdly some less obvious American artists, a guy called Duncan Sheik, Joni Mitchell. People that have really strong identities and they are completely themselves whatever they are doing. You can feel their blueprint on their work and you understand that no-one else could have made those songs.
One of the things I love most about your music is that it’s not necessarily pushing a gay agenda. Your songs are about issues that affect everyone and that’s why they resonate. Is that a conscious part of your blueprint or is it something that just comes naturally?
Well, there’s more to me than just being gay so I guess it just comes naturally. I just think nobody really wants to hear a tunnel vision perspective and I don’t really want to give one – love or relationships are not particularly tied to sexuality or age or gender or race or location. The songs are about people, places and connections with other people which I don’t think are confined to sexuality. A lot of people in pop music love gay artists to be solely gay focussed and that’s fine, but it’s not who I am. There are many different aspects to my life and that’s one of them. When I was growing up, I lacked a gay voice that was linked to a heterosexual world. It was important for me to be a slightly “normal” person who happens to be gay, making music for people in places where I grew up in the Neath valleys. They don’t feel special or flamboyant or different, but they just happen to be attracted to someone of the same sex. They understand they don’t have to be this thrilling, shimmering person to be perceived as gay, it’s just something that influences who you fall in love with. I’m never going to hide any aspect of my sexuality or life really, but I didn’t want it to be the only thing as that’s a bit boring. I think that prefixing things with gay or straight marginalises you. People are tapestries, and highlighting one thing seems like you’re making a point of it and want to be challenging with it. I got berated by one journalist who told me I should be making more of a point about my sexuality and talking more about gay rights – I play at gay pride events, I run a gay night, any tweet or Facebook post that I do has some kind of gay reference, I don’t really think I need to do any more than that. The whole point of ‘Life Is Easy’ is about inclusion really and the people that have influenced me. ‘More Than Most’ is about my best friend and making him feeling included in his surroundings and I don’t want my music to be exclusive or alienating.
Recently, I did an interview with a wrestler about coming out in sports and my issue right now is that when people do come out, whether it be in sport or the entertainment industry, it’s our own community that kind of rebels against them.
Yes, I find it disgusting, like when Tom Daley came out and you see these snide comments on Facebook. You want him to come out and then the minute he does, you slag him off! I can’t be bothered with that hideous writhing nest of snakes, it’s boring. A lot of people are slagging Sam Smith off, also. It’s his stance and it’s his life, just let people be.
Your videos are particularly innovative. How important do you think they are in our ever changing music industry?
I think they’re still important. Younger kids go to YouTube to find music rather than Soundcloud. People can use YouTube as a search engine much quicker and they can leave comments, so videos are an important calling card and still the first impression anyone will get of you. You can project a little bit of your personality into a music video so I think they’re really important and a really good opportunity to do something interesting – however, they are very expensive! It’s difficult because not a lot of artists, myself included, have a big budget. You’re trying to do something with a vision and a goal and an identity but you don’t necessarily have the full budget you need to realise visual ideas that you have.
I’ve heard that you went to see Kate Bush recently. How was that experience?
It was really amazing! It was very emotional for me as I have listened to her records more than most people’s records and I never really thought that I’d get to see her live. It was really heartwarming to go to a gig, probably the first I’ve been to where every single person in the room is full of love for this artist. Everyone wanted to see her, no-one spoke in the songs, people weren’t filming and instagramming all the way through it. It was more like a piece of theatre and people giving rapturous applause and it was amazing for her to have created this audience completely in love with her. It was very moving.
How do you find being on the road?
I really love touring. I think the good thing about it is that you watch your songs connect with people. If you’re in a studio, you don’t really have anything outside of that room, so a song can sound as good as you want on record. But it’s only when it’s out in the real world that you see if it’s had any effect. It’s so nice doing a show in New York where people sing a long and you realise that all the way across the world that people have bought the song, understand them and have embraced the words. If I’m back in London and I do a show and people go crazy it’s amazing! It’s a lot of fun, especially at these Elton shows where I have the chance to tap into an audience I would never had been able to otherwise. It’s really what should be the most fun about the job. It’s kind of hard as an independent artist as it costs a lot of money to do it and hard to explain to fans in places that aren’t easy to get to why you never go there and the simple answer is, it costs too much. And that’s depressing. But touring has to be streamlined when there’s no support or label or funding involved. Hopefully, you’ll get the chance to go to all of these places, so this tour with Elton means I can go to a lot of places I’ve never been to. It’s so amazing that he’s allowing me to do that.
The new single ‘An Open Heart’ is actually my favourite track on the album, very empowering and euphoric. What’s your favourite track?
I have two. I really love ‘More Than Most’ just because it’s the last song that I wrote about two weeks before mastering the record. It came from a place of real love and I just felt really good. It’s about my best friend who was having a bad time so I wrote it to cheer him up. I love singing it, it makes me feel really happy and positive. The other one is ‘Happiness’. I was having a fucking awful day when I wrote that song and it was just really nice. It’s about two people that I don’t really have a lot of love for and I just wanted to spin it around and make it a little bit more of a positive good-bye rather than a fuck-off! It’s about trying to exorcise some feelings that you have and trying to save a good humour from sacks of shit!
What is your biggest vice?
Working all the time, I think. Partly because I have to and partly because I enjoy it which is a bit of a boring vice really! I can’t think of anything else. It’s a very good vice to have but in other ways its quite dangerous. Not being able to switch off is quite hard.
‘An Open Heart’ is out now and available from iTunes and other music outlets.
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