Interview: Jack Garratt on new music, mental health and the creative process

On February 18th, British multi-instrumentalist Jack Garratt embarked on his two-week Work In Progress Tour after four years away from touring; this followed the announcement of the eagerly awaited sophomore album, to be titled Love, Death and Dancing, and the release of three tracks from the follow-up LP to 2016’s Phase. I was lucky enough to sit down to talk touring, new music, mental health and the creative process with Jack backstage three dates into the tour at Belgrave Music Hall in Leeds.

C: I know lots of fans are really hyped that you’ve returned with new music… So first off, how is it to be back on tour?

JG: It’s nice, it’s good! It feels good to be back. It’s weird getting used to being on the road again; first night on the bus I didn’t sleep at all. But it’s nice to be reminded of some of the things I really did enjoy about touring last time. Because, you know how it is when you could read all the nice things in the world, but the thing that you cling to is the one negative comment?

C: Absolutely. 

JG: The longer you are distanced from those sorts of memories, like for me the longer I was away from touring, the longer I held onto the negativity of it, and the less I was able to hold onto the positive things about it. Coming back on it, I was just immediately reminded of all the nice things; a crew that really care about the show that we are trying to put on and who work tirelessly, like on that first day when it wasn’t working. Just being reminded of the reasons why we love live music, and why I love live music. It’s been nice, it’s been really good…

C: I suppose it comes back to that whole saying about getting back on the horse – the longer you stay off, the harder it is to get back on.

JG: That’s exactly it, yeah!

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C: So has there been a lot to get used to being back on tour or has it felt quite natural to jump back into it?

JG: The show that we’ve got this time is slightly different than the one before so there has been quite a lot of learning and remapping. I can’t rely on the muscle memory I had last time – eight months has been long enough, I’ve forgotten everything. The muscle memory is a lot different this time as well. I was a bit scared doing it as I wasn’t sure if my body would be able to do it; y’know, I’m 28 now, which isn’t old but it’s not as young as I was when I was, 24 doing the last tour. The muscle memory was just really quick back then to learn all the stuff and I could just play the drums and all the the synths and stuff at the same time. I had no idea if I was going to be able to do that this time around or not, and luckily there’s just something in my brain that allows me to be able to do it quickly and efficiently. Learning how to do this tour, and learning how to do the songs in this new arrangement has been really quick, which has meant I’ve really just been able to fall in love with the songs in a new way. I’m performing them in a more direct way.

C: So you’ve been able to relax a bit more, enjoy the process and do new things with it would you say?

JG: Yeah, definitely. But I think that says a lot about the songs this time around as well; the tracks on Love, Death and Dancing allow me to do that a lot more than what I did on Phase. The whole point of the Work In Progress Tour as well is the album isn’t out until May; I wanted to do a quick-fire version of those first two years of touring that I did before Phase came out where I could play the songs for people and see what their reactions would be before I put them on record. This time around I didn’t really have that available to me, but I sort of just made it happen – we’ve got these two weeks or so of touring to just go and play songs for people and see their reactions.

C: Like an album beta test, almost?

JG: I mean, that’s exactly what it is! And the thing I love is that I get to play these songs for people – there are songs I’ll play tonight that people won’t hear again until May, and I love that! I love that it’s a case of ‘you get one moment to experience this song and that’s it’.

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C: So people get this one opportunity to hear them and get them stuck in their heads for that whole time – no reprieve until the album’s out!

JG: Exactly! I hope that is the case – it helps me to put those songs out and see if they’ll stand that small test of time, and hopefully that means they’ll stand a slightly longer test of time, as well. But so far the reactions have been overwhelmingly positive.

C: Yeah, I can see they’ve been great! I was looking through Twitter to see what people’s experiences of the shows had been so far and saw that someone had written quite an emotional note about the show and posted it to you on there, which was lovely to read – how was that?

JG: Oh yeah, it was the sweetest thing!

C: I think they spoke about how they were on their own for the show and were quite anxious to come along, but those anxieties just melted away with the music, which was amazing. 

JG: That’s been a running theme so far – a lot of people seem to be coming to the shows on their own.

C: I was originally coming to this one alone, and wasn’t bothered by that, but I’ve been doing that for about six years, and I think it’s easy to forget just how scary that experience is when you’re not used to it. 

JG: It’s certainly a tough place to be alone sometimes, and I think as well there’s been a mixture of people’s expectations of me this time around; there’s been a lot of people coming with the expectation of ‘oh this is going to be an absolute mad one!’ And then a lot of people coming thinking ‘I think this is going to be quite an emotional evening’. And what’s really lovely is I think the show that we’ve got does swing between those two feelings quite a lot. Hopefully you’ll experience it for yourself tonight – a lot of what people were saying last night has been resonating with me as they weren’t expecting to feel so emotional from the show, and then people being able to feel the beat of the music and really move with the music as well. I feel like this show is really hitting both of those nails on the head, or at least I’m hoping it does; we’ve only done the full show once.

C: So far I think I’m leaning towards the more emotional expectation, and I’ll probably need a good dance after ‘Mara’, that’s for sure!

JG: Ooh that’s a fun one to play – one of my favourites at the moment!

C: And it’s my favourite to hear!

JG: Thank you so much, that’s wicked! I can confirm that I am playing it tonight and I hope that you enjoy it. I feel that we’ve been able to do a version of it that feeds both the performance of just the song, but then also the performance of the recorded version – they both seem to work really well. I’m glad you like that one, I like that one too!

C: I’m looking forward to hearing it! So it’s been said before that it’s almost impossible to pigeonhole your music into a single definitive genre and ‘Jack Garratt’ is like a genre all on its own. When you’re writing songs, like I think you’ve said particularly with ‘Time’, it really felt like you – is there any formula or ways that you can tell that a piece feels like a ‘Jack Garratt’ song?

JG: I find that no matter what I do that’s going to be the case, and writing this album has helped me to say that with more confidence. I think before I was using ‘Jack Garratt’ as a genre as a means of… almost as like a defence mechanism. It was probably quite a naïve way to think about it: music that sounds like ‘me’. Whereas this time around I’m saying it with more confidence; this is me and this is how I sound. But to be honest working with my friend Jacknife co-producing on about five or six songs on the album, ‘Time’ was the first one that he and I did together, and I remember saying to him “It doesn’t sound like me,” or “I want it to sound more like me.” And he just kept saying “What the fuck does that mean?” – from his perspective, it wasn’t a case of ‘okay, let’s figure this out and see what you mean by that’, it was, ‘what the fuck are you talking about? And why are you trying to sound like you, or not sound like you?’. It was more a case of him telling me to trust my instinct more than anything. Ultimately, his point was that my sound would just become what my instinct was. That hit me so poignantly at that time because I used to be so good at listening to my gut, and then I stopped being able to do that. Working with people like him and James Flannigan, who is a really good friend of mine, he helped me do the exact same thing; I was in a room with people who trusted that my instinct would be right, and that helped me to trust that my instinct would be right. So I don’t necessarily go for anything in particular that I think ‘Jack Garratt’ is, but I find that if it sounds like someone else then I obviously haven’t done it right.

C: So talking about trusting your gut, since you’ve kind of ‘returned’ back onto the scene, you’ve been really open about how you were feeling back in 2016 post Brit Award win and after Phase came out. Has it been quite cathartic for you to be so open about that or helpful to you in any way, and do you think other artists should do the same – I think it’s maybe a bigger issue in the industry than a lot of people know?

JG: Yeah, it’s a good question. I think it’s incredibly important that openness and having a more direct level of conversation and communication about mental health within the music industry, and about mental health in music in general as a topic of songwriting, is happening, and is happening for good reason. Do I think that it’s something that’s also easily manipulated and used to make money? Yes, absolutely. I think there are people who are writing songs about mental health because it’s fashionable, not because it’s what those people need to write about. That’s not me saying for one moment that people don’t have their own shit that I don’t know about, that’s why I wouldn’t ever name names. But I absolutely think I can see it from a mile off when someone is using it as a means to make money and gain popularity.

What I personally have decided to do with using it as a topic to write about is, I’ve used it as something to write about because it’s exactly what I have needed to write about. The way in which I’ve been writing about it, and I think during the shows now, the way in which I talk about it, is the important thing. I mean that in the sense that it’s important that I be careful in the way that I talk to an audience about it because what I don’t want to do is sit on a stage and bear my life story to people, because my life story is not interesting to other people. The emotions I feel however are the things I think that connect me to other people – that’s what I write my songs about and why people are able to live their emotional journey vicariously through the music that I make… I’m rambling on this answer because I’m still figuring it out for myself, but the thing I’ve really enjoyed doing is I’m talking about these experiences that I’ve had that are soul-bearing and heart-wrenching, and talking about my depression and my mental state, but I’m trying to do it without drama or romanticism. I’m trying to do it honestly and with humour; in ways that encourage the audience to listen and understand, not alienate them by just talking exclusively about me the whole time. And then I play the song, and it allows the audience to hear the song for itself – I will tell them what it’s about and why I wrote it, but then I’ll allow the song to speak for itself…

It’s a really good question because it’s, and I’m trying not to use this word, but fashionable to sing about mental health… That’s obviously not a blanket statement – there are people who are able to write about mental health with such accuracy, and with such brilliance, and use pop music to do that, and I think that’s such an amazing thing to be able to do. But I see a lot of people who sell addiction and sadness to young people especially, and it makes me really scared…

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C: Even myself I feel like I’ve seen a lot more of it going to gigs and interacting with people. It’s great that people are more open with their experiences, but I share your worry in how rife it’s become. 

JG: Of course, and also what I feel it does is it almost forces people to feel like they have to have something to say about it. Like, suddenly if you’re not someone who suffers from it then you can be the one who begins to feel alienated because you might not consider yourself to be depressed, or don’t have chronic illnesses, or other conditions. I’m careful about what I say there because it’s so down to the individual’s relationship and interaction with themselves; the only thing that I can say with pinpoint accuracy and truth is what my personal experience of mental health, and how it effects me. And my reaction to that is these twelve songs that are going to come out – it’s Love, Death and Dancing.

C: Absolutely – I think that’s a good summary of it, and how it can cause issues for some people. I knew that question might have been a challenging one to answer…

JG: But it’s an important question to be asking, and important to be asking more people than just me or just those who have the platforms through which to be able to talk about it. It’s important that everyone be able to have those conversations with themselves, and with therapists, and with friends.

C: I couldn’t agree more – thank you for taking the time to answer that one. Just one quick final question before we wrap up: is there anything that you’re missing about being at home/in the studio when you’re on tour, and vice versa – have you missed certain things about touring whilst you’ve been at home? 

JG: Always when I’m not at the other one, I miss it. When I’m not on the road, that’s the only place I want to be, when I am on the road, I don’t want to be there anymore, and it’s always the way! Luckily my wife is coming tonight, which is nice because I’ll have a little taste of home for a second, which will be lovely. Although I’m only three days in and I feel like I’ve got almost cabin fever… But it’s also amazing – I am self-sabotaging enough that I find some sort of sadistic joy in doing these kinds of performances and giving myself to the show every night. I’ve just got to take care of myself wherever I am because I do the same thing when I’m in the studio, I can have days where I forget to eat for hours and hours, and don’t get enough sleep; that’s the thing, I’ve just got to be better at taking care of myself.

C: It’s all about finding that balance I suppose, and it’s easier said than done… That being said, I hope you do continue to take care of yourself and enjoy the tour as you should be able to. Thank you so much for taking the time to sit down and have a chat this afternoon. 

JG: Thank you to you as well – it’s been a lovely conversation. I really appreciate it, I hope you enjoy the gig!

Interview & Photography by Chloe Addlesee
jackgarratt.com

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