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Amateur Ornithologist

How did you first get into music?

My parents aren’t musical at all, although they both enjoy singing and there was always music playing in the house. We didn’t have much money at all when I was younger but we inherited a car from a neighbor and used to go out on drives to the Lake District or Yorkshire Moors, listening to the radio and mixtapes my mam and dad had made. That’s where my interest in music comes from, singing along to The Beatles, David Bowie, and 50s rock’n’roll and doo-wop. So, I always wanted to be backing singer. I suppose I’ve achieved that now by recording all the backing vocals for the two AO albums.

My brother’s five years older and he used to play classic indie like The Smiths and Stone Roses, and then stuff like The White Strips and Strokes. I’d hear them through our adjoining wall, and it would seep into my consciousness. Then when the Sunderland music scene started kicking off with The Futureheads, Field Music, The Bubble Project and The Golden Virgins, I was in my late teens and got seriously into going to gigs. I was buying the NME every week and watching out for interviews to see who the bands I liked were inspired by and who they were being compared to. Then I’d go to the discount chain MusicZone and buy everything mentioned on CD for a fiver. I ended up with a really interesting music collection with albums by The Cure, The Slits, Beach Boys, Talking Heads and Wire.

I formed a band called Squares with my best mate Martin and we learned how to write songs and record, releasing our own album. I sang, wrote the lyrics and tunes and helped shape the sound - but I couldn’t play any instruments myself. After a few years of playing live around the Tyne and Wear, the band came to an end and I pretty much ditched music in favour of making comic books, writing scripts and managing arts projects.

At the beginning of 2020, I invested in a little midi keyboard and decided to start teaching myself how to write music. It was good timing because when the lockdowns started I ended up with no job and all my plans were put on hold. So, I spent every day watching YouTube videos about music theory, messaging Martin questions and sat at my keyboard on Garage band trying things out.

By this point, Martin was working as a music producer under the name Harbourmaster and was involved in most of the North East scenes’ releases either by producing them or doing their mixing and mastering. When I sent him the demo for The Bigger Picture he said we should try recording them properly. I decided to make an EP but ditched that idea in favour of recording an album, which became Birdwatching.

Greatest Strength/Greatest Weakness?

I’m neurodivergent so that’s probably the answer to both! I don’t look at the world like a lot of other people do so I can find a lot of social interactions, networking and being at gigs difficult. I say the wrong things or just have a complete lack of confidence. But, then, those same differences mean that I can sit down and write music that’s very much me and write lyrics that are incredibly honest but maybe from a perspective that might not have been expressed as regularly in pop music.

Again, that lack of confidence means that I’m not able to work with just anyone in terms of the band or recording etc. But when I do find people that I can get along with and accept me for who I am, I try to stick by them and do what I can to support them. For instance, we’ve got some younger band members who haven’t played lots of gigs or been in bands before, and I really enjoy supporting them to grow in confidence and experience, and achieve their aims.

With my background in making comic books and managing arts projects, I’ve got lots of transferable skills to being a musician and putting out albums etc. I know my way around design software and can do covers and posters, but I also know how to budget and plan for a recording session so I can get the most done for the smallest amount of money.

What interests or hobbies do you have outside of music?

The name Amateur Ornithologist suggests I'm a birdwatcher, but I'm not really. I know the odd thing about birds and I like to spot them on walks but I don't go out looking for them specifically. When I made comic books, I created lots of bird-related superheroes for one of the stories - so I learned about different types of birds to help choose names. And that's where "Amateur Ornithologist" comes from - I had the name years before I started the project. I don't make comics anymore but I still read them - I recently read pretty much every X-Men released between 1968 and 2001 and that took me around two years! My favorite creators are Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips who make great crime comics together, like The Fade Out.

I'm a massive reader in general but I mostly read non-fiction books about bands and musicians, so that's not necessarily outside of music. I'm reading The Sound of the Machine by Karl Bartos from Kraftwerk at the moment, but I think Miki Berenyi's Fingers Crossed has been the best I've read recently.

I love cooking and baking - I can't eat gluten or dairy and my girlfriend is vegetarian, so I enjoy the challenge of navigating our needs. One of my favorite things to do is try to make versions of fast food or restaurant meals that aren't normally on offer to us.

How do you nurture your own creativity?

I studied writing at university, and I've done a lot of courses and workshops on the subject. The thing we always talked about was sitting down and doing the work - not waiting for inspiration to come but to put the work in. Even if what you make isn't great, you have a starting point that you can work from. har the phrase “writing is rewriting” is something that sticks with me still.

So, mostly, I sit down at my computer and midi keyboard and start writing. Generally, I write songs in big batches - working towards an album etc. - and then I don't write for a long time, making sure to watch lots of music documentaries, listen to different music and reading more music books. That way, I'm getting lots of ideas and new inspirations for when I next sit down to write.

Who has been your most influential teacher or mentor?

I pay lots of attention to what artists are doing around me and I ask lots of questions if I don’t understand things. Again, my neurodivergent brain means that I’m probably not polite like other people and just say “okay” if I don’t understand things - I have to ask until I really understand, or know I have enough understanding that it will start to make sense when I try something myself. This is something Harbourmaster has been very patient about over the years that we were making music together as Squares, and then when we’d support other artists in the recording studio together or collaborate on arts project as part of my work. I’ve picked up so much from these experiences and then since I’ve been writing my own music, I’ve been lucky that he’s made himself available to answer my questions on music theory. Most of the time his answers are, “here’s the musical rule, but feel free to ignore it completely if something else sounds better”, which has been inspiring.

What is your proudest achievement so far as an artist?

Amateur Ornithologist was just named 2nd best indie artist of 2022 at the Radio Wigwam Awards 2022, and that's fantastic to me because none of the judges know me personally and they obviously listened to lots of music to pick their winners. I was watching it with Chris, who plays bass in the band, and when the presenter for that award was reading out the runners-up, he said “oh, I’m going to make a mess of this” so we knew there was a good chance it was us.

I put together a band in mid-2022 so we can play the AO stuff live. Our very first gig was a headliner to launch the latest album, and that was a sellout. A great night with a lovely audience.

Any top-level artists/musicians/DJs that have given you a shout out?

Hermit Phase was played a few times by Frankie Francis from Frankie and the Heartstrings on his Amazing Radio show. He introduced it one day with "it's good!" and I thought that was a funny quote to use, but he sent me a few alternatives to use including “This track made my pants shoot off sideways.” Frankie is an important part of the North East music scene so getting that support means a lot. Over on Amazing Radio USA, John Moses played one of my least radio-friendly songs, The Willows, on his show multiple times, which was a big surprise!

What are your plans in the coming months?

I’m currently writing the third AO album, which will be the first that will include co-writing on some songs with bands members and working on arrangements together. It will also be the first that I’ll be able to rehearse the songs for and sit with them for a while before going into the recording studio. I’ve definitely noticed that I can sing the older songs better now that I’ve been doing it for months in the practice room, so I’m excited about knowing them better before recording the vocals in the studio. I understand the recording process so much more now and I have lots of ideas I can’t wait to try out that will help take another step forward in the Amateur Ornithologist sound.