David Thomas Broughton is unique. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing him perform a lot over the last 10-and-more years and I can’t think of a solo performer who can come close to the magic he creates.
A David Thomas Broughton live performance is tricky to explain if you’ve never witnessed it. It’s hard to think of another performer so keen to subvert the idea of a ‘gig’ who simultaneously has such incredible songs. Usually one is a substitute for the other but not in this case.
2015's documentary film The Ambiguity Of David Thomas Broughton couldn’t have been better named. He can be confrontational but simultaneously warm and welcoming, or profoundly unsettling but yet extremely funny in the same moment. The last time he played Nottingham (a truly amazing performance at the Playhouse accompanied by the Juice Vocal Ensemble) he managed to offer the whole crowd out for a fight, for example. It was somehow touchingly beautiful and completely unforgettable.
I’ve seen him walk over to a group of chattering audience members (at Cecil Sharp House, the home of English Folk Music no less) and place a wailing personal-attack alarm on the floor in front of them mid-song and just carry on with the alarm sounding (very loudly) throughout. When he eventually turned it off (a long while later), the sense of peace that accompanied the next song was overwhelming and perfect. He can push an audience to the very limit of patience, where you feel people losing connection, and then pull them back in harder than ever before with a single action.
It’s like he uses all these tools as diversions, like a magic trick. You’re focused on one thing and then he pulls something else out of the hat and that moment is all the more special because of your discomfort leading up to it. He takes songs that lesser artists would define their careers with and pulls them apart in front of you.
So how can you begin to describe this without experiencing it? I guess you really have to come and see it.
David’s last record entitled Crippling Lack spanned 3 LPs and featured contributions from Aidan Moffat, Beth Orton and among others.
David plays The Maze on 23 November. Now living in South Korea, this will be a rare chance to see such a unique performer in the cosy confines of one of Nottingham’s best venues.
In advance of this, I emailed him some questions in the hope he’d help me describe what he does better than I have done…
I’ve helped you a few times with gigs in Nottingham and each time I’m faced with the task of describing what you do in a way that will appeal to the masses. And each time I’m stumped, genuinely. Your biography quotes you as describing what you do as being about the ‘awkwardness of life’. I think that’s perfect but I need the hard-sell. How would you describe what you do?
The bare bones of it is: singer songwriter and performer in a kind of theatrical sense. But more complexly it is not like stepping into the role of the act on stage as it could seem on the face of it, it's a lot more about honesty and is perhaps just accentuating parts of the actual me.
I often reel out a cliche about the 'dark and light' of life, and still feel it goes some way to describing the conflict of the standard concept of a nice song/piece of music with the noisier more challenging element. Someone was happy with the term 'accidental words and noise' although a lot of the words and noise are the basic pre-written song.
Linked to this: how do you describe your music when asked by people outside of the artistic world you’re part of? For example: elderly relatives, taxi drivers, work colleagues...
The response starts with a long suck of air through the teeth, which elicits eye rolls from the questioner. And then I say I start from a kind of simple folk finger-picking style, and sing and make other noises. But then elucidate with a "well I guess it's kind of a physical performance too".
When you started making music and playing it live did you always want the accidental to be part of what you do? Or is it a way of dealing with the stress of a live performance – just let what happens happen and find a way to deal with it?
As a naive upstart I went into the DTB project as a means to make the beautifully orchestrated songs I dreamed about - perfect pop-folk nuggets. Somewhere along the way I forgot to learn how to play instruments, and continue to be very nervous about performing, but desperately want to play well and be a confident performer. So I am striving for that but have also become drawn to a kind of darker noisier place.
It was partly a necessity to include the accidental but then it became the point of the whole thing in some ways - to look at the things people either ignore or try to gloss over. It felt more genuine to not hide inadequacies. So I guess the crux of the matter is that you have hit upon the answer - it is a way to deal with the stress and is a see-what-happens-and-deal-with-it experiment!
Continuing this theme of awkwardness – do you ever feel awkward when you play? I have to say I don’t feel you do. I always feel like everything is happening as part of a grand plan and you’re very relaxed about it but I accept that might be some mind-control skills on your part...
Always feel awkward - it seems so stupid as soon as I've put myself in front of people, but I have the pressure to get on with it and then the show kind of happens and all the time it feels like I've been fired out of a cannon or something - I have to get through it. But I also have to have some degree of control - so mind control techniques it must be, but I've never really analysed it.
What’s the worst thing that’s happened to you during a live performance? I’d be interested to know if it ever goes completely wrong…
There's a few times a faulty cable has cut out completely and the whole thing stops dead, but then that could have been one of the obstacles I'd put there for me to deal with? And one time the faulty lead made a kind of extreme loud/quiet thing happen - but again that became the show: the straining of the audience to listen to the quiet bits and the sudden jump back to loud as the lead was knocked. But the worse is the occasional completely new audience who just don't get it and you either get pulled off or heckled to pieces - and there has been at least one occasion I've just had to run away. Not so much these days hopefully...
How do you begin to translate what you do live (and how you present the songs) to the recorded form? Is it hard to work out how to present the songs you’ve written without an audience or without the elements of chance you employ live?
It's becoming increasingly more frustrating as I have grand ideas but limited means - the first method was always to try and be as 'live' as much as possible so: press record and make single-take recordings, but then I think the idea of working on a kind of evolving composition is appealing so I've attempted a conventional studio based overdubbing multi-tracking approach too.
Ultimately the songs are presented as songs. There is no way to translate the live show - even making a live recording of a show loses the physicality of the thing. So they are separate entities. Although I continue to crave the spontaneous so I often keep a majority of single first takes on recordings - so (at least I know) it has the 'of the moment' element to it.
What leads someone to move from Yorkshire to Korea? I might be clutching at straws but has living somewhere where language may be something you consider more affected the way you communicate to an audience now?
It's family and/or work that make anyone move, my partner got a job working out there [North Korea originally, and now South Korea], and I had the opportunity to accompany her. What an opportunity not to miss!
But then actually being somewhere like that is a conflicted existence. Fascinating but a real education. Living now in South Korea is much easier in many many ways - not least actually being able to get to know people. Doing some shows in Korea has made me acknowledge that a lot of the physical show is a kind of universal thing. The lyrical content passes a lot of non-native English speakers by and all non-English speakers, but the show cuts through that with the process by which the sound and performance are constructed.
How did 'The Ambiguity of David Thomas Broughton’ film come about? The title is perfect, by the way. I’ve never had a documentary made about me but I’d imagine viewing it is a curious mixture of pride and extreme embarrassment…
Greg Butler, director of the film, I had met when he made a music video for me, we shared a similar sense of humour and a love of the absurd. He picked up an idea that had been floating around for a while to try and make some kind of assessment of my performance and it got a bit more involved.
It's exactly that mix of pride and embarrassment - I can't deny that you get a bit of a big head when you see a crowd of people responding positively to you prancing about like a prick.
But then you also see yourself on screen prancing around like a prick.
Lastly – LeftLion loves some Nottingham-based anecdotes. Tell us something that’s happened to you in Nottingham…
Well I guess there was this one time in Rescue Rooms....actually, perhaps you can make something up (that makes me seem like a true gent and doesn't incriminate anyone).
David Thomas Broughton, Giant Head, Polly Harvey are at The Maze on Thursday 23 November 2017. Buy tickets.
As a warm-up to David's show at The Maze, Broadway Cinema are hosting a special screening of the documentary The Ambiguity of David Thomas Broughton on Friday 17 and Saturday 18 November 2017. Further information on the Facebook event.