Lauren Strain caught up with Ali Whitton at Manchester's Dry Bar to look back on a busy 2005 for the songwriter, which included an appearance at Leeds Festival and saw the release of his "Kisses" and "Curses" EPs.
"I love observing", says fair-haired folkish boy Ali Whitton, gazing distractedly out of the Dry Bar's black sheet window at the flashing, merging strips of yellow car lights, like arrows on fire, whipping past. Skidding through the rain, they drown out the clip-clops of importantly-heeled boots and blaring choruses of video phones. Grey, grey rain.
Crumpled leaves skip past the doorframe. A black arch of umbrella caves in on itself and becomes a spidery, sagging skeleton, tossed by some impatient commuter into a gaping bin. Knitted scarves curl around people's cheeks, their wet tendrils of hair dance in the wind, their breath is warm, ballooning out into the sub-zero air; small, smoky clouds of heat. "This is my season. I love autumn. I try not to mention it too much in songs - I try and find different ways of slyly bringing it in. It's not obvious to like. You have to look that bit harder."
It's been a busy year for this slender, sensitive man of the North York moors and his acoustic guitarful of open, plaintive laments and smiles of the heart. Now, as he drifts away for a while and takes a break from gigging to record, experiment and think some more, seems as good a time as any to reflect and glance through the glass doors. The release of his debut album - sliced down its sweet middle into two EPs, 'Kisses' and 'Curses' - meant that a schedule of three self-organised tours had to be slotted into the jigsaw of life: university dissertations, personal troubles within the band and the fact that the members of his beautiful motley crew are dotted all over the country - viola player Naomi Abbt in the sea-swept surroundings of Southampton, guitarist Lee Potter tonight stuck in Newcastle and rose-voiced vocalist Sam Stockdale working through the world of theatre right here in drizzle-drenched Manchester, where, tonight, they'll play a stirring set to a semi-circle of mesmerised faces, all of us propped on wooden chairs, leaning against the creaking, crimson walls and jotting down names and emails at the sounddesk.
"I'm still doing a tour with whoever I can scrape together," he explains. "Me and Naomi did some duet dates for the last one on our own; which is a bit daunting when you're used to the full sound." Given the crammed amalgam of day jobs and families which form part of everyday life, not to mention the amounts of travelling and the scraping together of cash funds that belong to a voyaging band, Ali is obviously indebted to their presence. "When it's going under my name, it's a lot to ask somebody else to help me along; so I appreciate the band doing this for me."
Whilst each musician is indispensable to the soothing, flowing yet painful tonic of sound that the Whitton band creates, the songs are decidedly Ali's own. "The reason we've never had a band name is because, well, initially, it was me on my own anyway and I think that, with a band, you don't know who's writing the songs. If a band writes the song together I just think it's going to suffer a bit; especially if it's just backing music and they put nonsensical lyrics over the top of it just 'cause they sound good. I mean, it does work, but I want to get this honesty across first and foremost."
It's true - his message never suffers. It is impossible to ever imagine losing grasp of Ali's intensely personal vision. No matter how complicated you make his musical environment; no matter how many showstealing virtuoso trumpeters or lavish, raucous swathes of overproduction you may attempt (mentally, this is) to shove into the songs; no matter how many warbling, swooshing, CD:UK-pleasing synthpad effects or cunning marketing scams you hypothetically envision as part of the scenario; even if (God forbid) all of this rubbish were tagged and slapped on to Ali's music, despite it all you would still be able to tunnel directly to its central, beating heart - the core, where one boy with one guitar stands alone. And sings.
How? Because it's all about speaking the absolute truth; about yourself and everything around you.
"I started in a typical-sixth-form-really-shit band as a lead guitarist when I was fairly poor on guitar," he explains. "All the other bands of the time, when you're seventeen or eighteen, were writing songs about Tesco or something. I just thought that was a bit of a joke so I started trying to write honestly. I'm amazed when I listen to 'Miracle', which I did a year ago; to me it sounds... I mean, lyrically, it's not that bad, but... my voice is not very good. But I was talking to somebody about that and they said that well, even then, the honesty kind of came through. If you've got stories or if you've got something that you can use to build towards some sort of conclusive feeling then you've got a lot." In short, the words, and where they come from, are imperative. "I wasn't able to do guitar very well early on and I couldn't really hold notes, so, because of that, the lyrics got heard a bit better. It was more like speaking to a tune, early on. I realise now that I couldn't have done it any other way. If I could've sung brilliantly from the start I'd probably be doing some generic James Blunt stuff."
It would be an easy mistake to make to lump this young boy in amongst a million beaten-up, beaten-down corduroy-clad minstrels of aching, ebbing loveliness and check-shirted sorrow (Blunt firmly excluded; we're talking Rice, Adams, Malin and the other Rice here). Yet, somehow, I feel he is different; there is something else at work here. Very rarely have I instantly felt like someone grabbed a loudspeaker, held one end to their delicate, heartbroken lips, pressed the other to my right atrium and cried "I am making the most complete and clear sense about myself and yourself that you ever heard." Ali, however, does this with such ease, immediacy and bittersweet incision that, sometimes, it terrifies me.
"It's just life, isn't it?" he says, raising his eyebrows in a small shrug. "I'm influenced by the negative things that happen. I'm quite, like, a manic person... quite hyper... which is why there are references to 'You say that I act like a child' and stuff like that. I'm quite immature, really... when I'm in company. But then, because of that, when I'm on my own I get quite down and... start thinking. Particularly, being in the city constantly, with things happening, and then going back home to the countryside... it's quite a shock, especially being on my own. That's when I write a lot. I get really moody with loneliness anyway, but when there's all that stillness...that's when I write, 'cause if I didn't I'd just end up down and depressed."
Perhaps it's because he's so aware of his own fragility that his songs carry some extra, subtle dimension. With his seemingly-naïve charm comes a whole lot of wisdom. There's a beautiful veil of, not self-consciousness, exactly, but a certain acute realisation and acknowledgement of his own weaknesses and reasons for why he needs to do this draped carefully over his lyrics. It's not about killing time; it's about looking at it, wondering what it's for, learning how it works and emerging at the other end feeling a little safer, a little calmer, a little more like a person.
"It's like therapy isn't it?" he exclaims quietly. "It's such an obvious kind of cliché, but it is; it's just like writing a diary. But I get a real kick from people hearing it as well. I was thinking that if I did a set made up of the songs that I've written at my window looking out at the North York moors, it'd be a set that I'd be proud of - things like 'A Little Hope', with the clouds moving over the hilltops... it's all just being down, coming over from the city, and the way I deal with that."
"I suppose the main question, usually, is 'Why all the sad songs?!'", he giggles. But it's not all misery - far from it. As well as the beautiful corridors of light that slice through his words and music in the audible forms of gentle sweeps of the strings, his dewy, breakable voice and his mischievous, meek smiles, there's another positive beam of hope that shines on everything he does; his ability to smile at himself. It's as though there are two of him; Cheeky Ali winks at Thoughtful Ali, telling him to keep on going and hold his chin up - reassuring him that it's all okay and, ever-ever-ever-so-slightly, poking fun. "One of the new songs is called 'Empty Threats and Recurring Themes'", he explains, "and it's just, kind of, putting down my own subject matter. It's like it's all I write about; 'Oh I'm going to run away', or 'Oh, I'm going to do something rash and then you'll see how much you care about me', or just lamenting the loss of someone or something... they're the things that I write most. When I'm alone, my thoughts... because I've got such a short concentration span, they jump and jump and jump."
And thus we jump onto that tricky matter of the meaning of life.
"I'm not religious at all so that means... I can't really... y'know, I don't know why we're here. It is such a big question that I feel like I should think about but it means, ultimately, sometimes when you're on your own you feel a bit pointless, you think 'Well, what's the point of being here?' Then you realise it's because of company and people. That's why we're around."
Without wanting to paint an overly bleak image of Ali's musical mood or, indeed, life, sometimes there's just such an intense sensation of being surrounded by so much garbage, jargon and baggage in the world. Many of us, probably most, lose sight of what's important. "Even in your job," he agrees, earnestly. "I mean, I've been temping in an office and, y'know, I know so much about rural irrigation and farmers and fields and it's like... what is the point?! Like, why!? Last night and the night before, I was picturing being in Hyde Park when it's autumn and really appreciating it - then seeing all the cars go past at the sides and thinking that, in a way, they're probably pleased to be going home and stuff, and they're all going somewhere... it's that feeling you get when you're on a train, leaving, and everyone's going somewhere and going to someone they love and you're not... and sometimes you think of it in a good light and sometimes you think of it in a really negative light."
His music, then, is here to wake people up. Show them the real world. Show them feeling. "There's also just that fear of leaving and not having anything to leave," he ponders. "In a way, it's a really selfish way to try and make yourself slightly immortal - that sounded really wrong, didn't it?! Really bigheaded!" he laughs, playfully, slightly embarrassed. "But it is, it's like, y'know, you wanna leave something. I really would love to change the way a few people think. I'm not saying that my beliefs are right, but I just think that, like in 'Give It Time', nobody really looks into things, everyone's just happy to do their 9 'til 5. It just really distresses me that people don't think on any other level."
Don't worry, Ali. You've already opened my eyes.