At the start of 2023, in those bleak January days where you get about 14 minutes of daylight each day, I faced a dilemma. The Outlaw Orchestra had a really busy 2022 with a pretty gruelling festival schedule followed by intensive recording and promo for an EP and single releases over the autumn and winter. In those early months of 2023, we were enjoying a bit of downtime. But right at that moment, I hit a real creative seam. Totally inspired, I holed up in my tiny little studio on the top floor and began working on new music. Some of it fell very much into Outlaw Orchestra territory, but I also found that a lot of the songs were going in a totally new direction and I was experimenting with new sounds and instruments.
Once I had a collection together, I showed what I had to Outlaws manager Mike “Hit ‘Em Hard” Hughes, who mooted the idea of a solo album. So that’s what we did. I wanted my solo record to be something totally new, and for each track to have some new element that I hadn’t done before. Sometimes, the new element is an instrument or sound I’ve not previously used, sometimes it’s a recording or a writing technique, and sometimes it’s the musicians or producer involved – the challenge then became finding the balance where each song has it’s own unique character but all still hangs together as an album.
Track By Track
Elvis was the 3rd single I released ahead of the album, but we always felt it would be the one that really connected. It started with a riff and I recorded a very early version of me playing the song and singing and uploaded it to TikTok. Now, I’m a mid-30s music nerd, so the majority of social media stuff goes largely ignored – but the video of me playing this song I just wrote jumped to 25,000 views within a day and I had a stream of comments on Tik Tok and Instagram asking for tutorials on how to play the riff, etc.
One of the messages I received was from local Southampton music legend, Jonny Moody, who said he loved the song and asked if he could produce it. I knew he was a good producer, so I figured I’d hand over the reins and let him have a go – and man he brought so much to the song! It was record of the week on BBC Introducing and was added to one of the biggest playlists on Spotify – the Indie Rock Playlist. To see it really kind of take off has been really special.
In 2022, the Outlaw Orchestra performed at Black Deer Festival on the border between East Sussex and Kent. It was one of our biggest gigs of the year, with 3,000 people crammed into the tent for our set. I came offstage on a massive high and took a little wander around the site with my wife and sister. We came across a little stall where a guy was selling Cigar Box Guitars. With the adrenaline from the performance flowing around my system, and my performance fee burning a hole in my pocket, I brought one there and then (my wife is a pretty patient woman who understands the guitar addiction!)
After I’d got through all the normal bluesy / slide playing on the cigar box, I dug a bit deeper and ‘Somewhere’ is the song that came out.
Rhonda was one of the first songs I wrote for this record. It’s kind of a homage to the crazy characters we’ve met on the road, touring up and down the country playing music, the chorus has the refrain “Oh, Rhonda take me home” – but there’s a double meaning in the lyrics. ‘Rhonda’ is the name of my Gibson ES335 guitar that I often use on the road, so whilst on the surface it’s a song about a girl, the hidden meaning is that Rhonda is the guitar, and so she’s always the one with me.
It was also nice to have Ryan, drummer for the Outlaws, play on the track too and give it that flavour that he brings.
Angel’s Ain’t Singing My Name
At the end of 2022, I learned the sad news that Tina – a well-known face on the rock scene as a music photographer and senior member of the Forge Music Group agency, had passed away. I didn’t know her well, but had always got on with her and she took some great shots of the Outlaws which we’d used in our promo. Angels Ain’t Singing My Name is not about Tina (I don’t think I really fully know what the song is about yet), but I think her death brought about some of those feelings and thoughts about life and death and how we are all thought of once the journey’s done.
“I’m an over-rated upstart who won’t amount to much” – this line came to me whilst standing in line to go through passport control flying from Sweden back to the UK. As the plane taxied toward the runway, I stared at the note in my phone with that line glaring back at me. By the time we touched down in London, the song was written. I was super happy with the melody and the lyrics, but I felt the record needed something to make the song sparkle. So I swapped out the acoustic guitar with a dobro resonator in Nashville tuning. Nashville tuning is an old country recording trick – basically, you have a guitar where the lowest 3 strings (the E, A and D) are an octave higher and the higher three strings are the same (which actually makes them lower than the E, A and D). Normally, you blend this guitar with an acoustic and it makes the whole things sound very rich – but I decided to go with just the Nashville Guitar on it’s own and the core of the song which is what gives it that high sparkling sound.
I also threw a Didgeridoo in there as it comes out of the first chorus to add a little more flavour and depth – some reviewers wondered if it was a a synth as it sounds kind of fizzy but it’s just the Didge hitting a really strong note.
This one is the outlier – it was actually written years ago and has been kicking around on my computer for what feels like forever. I wrestled with it so many times, with different variations having all sorts of different instruments and voicings. Finally, I landed on real trumpets to give it that final sheen. There’s just something about real brass that you can’t find in a software patch or a synth and Nebojsa Pavlo on the trumpet played the parts perfectly.
As with a lot of my lyrics, there is a double meaning hidden in there. The song has an angry streak running through it and there’s the lyric “I was a Highflyer, a white liar, a raging fire, now a lonesome pariah” – Highflyer was the name of my first proper band back in my university days at Leeds, it was my first experience of touring and recording and the song is kind of evocative of a youthful angst so it felt appropriate to drop that reference into the lyrics.
I was super lucky to have Dane Campbell of Phil Campbell and the Bastard Sons play on a couple of tracks on this record. Go To Bed was the 4th single and Dane’s drumming really shines through on this one. It’s no over-statement to say he’s one of the great rock drummers on the scene at the moment and when I first received the audio stems of his drums back and dropped them into my project, the way the track suddenly jumped out of the speakers was incredible.
Sick and Tired
In 2017, I was scouring eBay and I saw an ad for a 54 key, Mark II Fender Rhodes. This electric piano straight out of 1982 was still not quite coming into vogue – but I was already a convert. My pianist dad always told stories about his Fender Rhodes that he sold in the 80s (when you couldn’t give them away) and he talked about how he missed it. I brought it, and it has been a staple of my studio ever since. The Rhodes is such an iconic, classic sound – there are a million emulations that give a good approximation, but the real thing is unbeatable. So I recorded the track, layered it up, but something wasn’t quite landing. Something about the track didn’t feel right – so I returned to Mood Market Studios and asked Jonny Moody (who produced Elvis) to work his magic. The final version still has my beautiful Rhodes part in there, but Jonny was able to add so many other parts and voices and made Sick and Tired a journey to another planet.
In the midst of those dark January nights, an ad for a special acoustic lap steel guitar came up. Years ago, a little local company based in Medford in Dorset sprung up and started making lap steel guitars. Unfortunately, the company didn’t survive, but having been a Dorset resident for a decade now, I almost consider myself a local and I’ve been on the hunt for a real Anderwood Acoustic LapSteel (also called a Weissenborn for a while). Amazingly, whilst I was in this amazing creative space, one appeared on Facebook Marketplace – I messaged the person listing it and offered a pretty low price. They rejected it straight away with the kind of message that screamed “NO TIME WASTERS” between the lines. But then about half an hour later I got another message – “Sorry man, I didn’t recognise who you were, I love the Outlaw Orchestra and have seen you loads – maybe we could meet in the middle on the guitar?” – it was still a great price so I drove over there, got the Anderwood and wrote Angels Ain’t Singing My Name and Clouds within a couple of weeks.
Easy took a bit longer to write, the album was basically done but I felt there was more to explore with mixing acoustic and electronic instruments and utilising studio effects like parallel compression to make the bass pump. Lyrically, I started with the idea of “Go easy on yourself, go easy on me, let’s go easy on each other and everyone we meet” – I wanted to write something that felt unifying – we have so many things dividing us, I wanted something that countered that narrative.
I knew Clouds would close the album from pretty early on. I wanted it to feel like a group of musicians playing together in a pub, literally for the first time. So I set myself a rule – I would only give myself one shot at each part – So the vocal and every instrument was played straight in, first time – even before the parts were fully conceived. This approach meant that I ended up with some little mistakes on the final mix – but the aim was to be totally servant to the vibe and I feel those little mistakes help paint the picture of a group of musicians in a live environment, even if behind the microphone it was only me recording. That’s why I wanted Clouds to close the record, because it felt like a nice way of taking this project, recorded mostly on my own in my tiny little studio, into the wider world and the sound and tone of Clouds helped me achieve that.
Read our interview with Briley here