“I wrote this album as someone – and for anyone – who likes dancing but doesn’t necessarily want to go out on a Saturday. It’s dance music for people who don’t want to go out! And that’s the music that I love: music that doesn’t care if you’re standing up or sitting down. It’s going to give it to you either way.” – Jack Garratt
If Jack Garratt wasn’t a musician, he’d make a mean critic – mean as in take-no-prisoners blunt and brutal. A detractor of his music could throw a brickbat at him but Jack will always have got there first. Ask him now about his 2016 debut album ‘Phase’ and the 28-year-old doesn’t pull his punches, describing it as “busy and erratic”, “clever bullshit … a record full of beautiful metaphor that doesn’t really say anything. I was scared to actually say something real; I didn’t think people wanted to hear it. That’s why my production on that record is so busy, so saturated.” Yup, he’s down on the production, too. “I didn’t think I was a good producer, so I did lots of tricks to make people think: ‘He’s good.’ Same with the lyrics, with the melodies, all of it: it was just me on a face-value level effectively going: ‘This is good because it’s impressive, not because it’s actually good.’”
At a point like this you sort of want to say: “Mate, go a bit easier on yourself.” Because Phase struck so many of us at the time as a debut of rare audacity and bravery, confrontational and challenging pop record that, far from pandering to listeners, instead made demands of us, and was all the more thrilling for that. That it was also a vivid glimpse into Jack’s head and heart became clear when I first met him, late in 2015, and recognised at once that here was an artist for whom taking the easy route was never going to be an option. That said, listening to him describe the painful and tortuous genesis of his extraordinary new album ‘Love, Death & Dancing’, you realise that ‘Phase’ was a picnic by comparison. Ok, that sounds a bit flippant, but that perhaps has something to do with the fact that Jack can laugh about the background to the making of his second album – now. There was a time, though, a long, long time, where laughter was off the menu entirely. In its place, despair, self-doubt, anxiety and a state of constant, dangerous crisis.
As he gears up to send ‘Love, Death & Dancing’ out into the world, Jack looks back on that period not with gratitude exactly, but with an appreciation of the wisdom it gave him – hard-won, maybe, but deeply precious, and an experience that armoured him for the battles ahead. If the process sounds hellish, ‘Love, Death & Dancing’, by contrast, is an ultimately joyous album. It isn’t afraid to lay bare the torment that led up to and informed its creation. But it is also a triumphant testament to survival, and to courage.
Trouble came knocking just weeks before the end of the gruelling tour Jack had been on to promote ‘Phase’. “I had this whole weird thing happen in the final period of that campaign,” Jack recalls, “where my manager and I, my main guy since the beginning, parted ways. And that left me in an environment where I no longer felt understood, I was overcome by this fear. I was in what should have been this huge celebratory moment, I’m 24, 25, my album has not only sold but sold well, globally, the tours were selling out, I was getting all these accolades and awards – I should have felt comfortable, at the very least. And instead I was scared and alone, and desperate for affection. I’d realised that a lot of the pillars of affection were hollow; they weren’t real.”
Right after the tour’s last stop in Brighton, Jack and his then fiancée Sarah fled to Chicago to be near Sarah’s family. But it wasn’t the haven Jack had envisioned, instead only exacerbating his problems. “I remember walking in there – and I was terrified, just empty and lost. We have these matching tattoos of spoons now because that day, I went into the kitchen for a bowl of cereal and I had no idea where the cutlery was. It may sound strange but it was a moment that made me feel so alone, in what should have been the safest place for me. And it said so much about what was going to happen over the next two-and-a-half years.”
Failing to see the warning signs, Jack convinced himself that the obvious next step was to plunge back into writing and recording. “I went through a period of calling up my new managers all the time and saying: ‘I’m ready, get me in a studio, I want to write, I need to write through these feelings, this emotion.’ Because ‘Phase’ was songs I’d written over the course of 23 years, and this was me going, ‘I’ve got an experience, an emotion, and I need to write through it and figure out what the fuck is going on.’ And every single time, my managers would be like: ‘No. Chill. Go and plan your wedding, go and sit down, go and be at home, you’ve been on tour nonstop for almost three years; take a second.’ But the next day I’d wake up, more empty and depressed than the day before, and be straight back on at them. There was a lot of that, for about a year. And I did write, I wrote a bunch of songs, a whole album’s worth of material that, when I look back on it now, wasn’t good enough. Wasn’t true enough.
“They were all clever bullshit again, just me doing funky tricks, Stevie Wonder chord sequences with pop hooks, and then I played them to my management. And the minute I knew those songs weren’t going to get into the world was because their reaction was: fine. And that put the fear of god in me. So I scrapped it all; everything.”
A Christmas break in New York two years ago, a trip that would be on many people’s bucket list, would prove to be the catalyst for a violent wake-up call. “Somehow, in the middle of all this joy – we went to the theatre, to Saturday Night Live, it was lovely, all these things I’d wanted to do, with the woman I love – this overwhelming thought came into my head. It was the first time I’d ever truly contemplated suicide. I was so taken with this moment, within the joy that I was feeling; that still, despite that, this arrow was able to find a way through it all and hit me, directly, square between the eyes. I just broke down. No love for myself existed in that moment. It was just all self-loathing.”
As can sometimes be the way with artists (it’s a terrible thing to say, but it’s true), this experience, by pulling Jack up short and forcing him to reassess everything, gave life to a song. Writing it would spark not only a new appreciation of his surroundings, his loved ones and his own worth, but a new honesty in how he wrote. The result was ‘She Will Lay My Body On The Stone’, one of many moments on ‘Love, Death & Dancing’ where you find yourself thinking: no one says this. Such naked soul-baring goes, after all, against the pernicious English code that says that unfiltered emotional candour just isn’t the done thing; that we like our honesty dressed in allusive finery, hinted at rather than shouted from the rooftops.
“I came back home,” Jack remembers, “and wrote this song, as a letter to death, saying: take me away, rip me from my life. It’s a plea to death to take care of my wife when I go – which is, so horrible. But it’s the only song on the album that resolves itself – by ultimately saying, leave me here, because I still have things to do. I remember when I was writing it, thinking, if you’re going to use imagery to say this, make sure it’s right. ‘And when she moves, it’s like the sun is in my eyes, I only want to look upon her beauty but I’m blinded by her light, her radiance – gone to waste on me.’ I think that’s the only use of elaborate poetic metaphor on the album. And even though what I’m trying to say is hiding behind that imagery, it’s still, I think, the most exposed and truthful moment on the record.”
Two other songs, ‘Mara’ and ‘Time’, would quickly follow. “There’s no hyperbole in any of them,” Jack emphasises. “No overuse of metaphor; they’re just songs that say what needed to be said, that say how I was feeling.” It was a revelation, he says. And it coincided, he points out, with a new and long overdue societal openness about mental health, his own very much included. Having said that, were there not moments in the process of writing the new songs where he wondered if he might be being too honest, too unvarnished? “Oh, multiple occasions,” Jack laughs. “But the lyric-writing process on this album was truly inspiring and eye-opening. Look, it’s amazing to me that I’m ever able to write a single song, because I never like anything that I write. In terms of style and tone, I don’t know if I actually like my lyrics – but that’s how I write, so I must like them in some way. A really dear friend of mine, a musician called John Joseph Brill, has always been a mentor to me, lyrically; he’s one of the best lyricists I know. I started sending him these songs, and ended having these beautiful back-and-forth exchanges where he would make notes and send them back, and I would then ‘Garratt’ them.”
One key aim emerged. “The thing that I knew I needed on this album was absolutely brutal honesty. To find that, I was trying to personalise the disassociation that I’d attempted when confronting my mental wellbeing for the first time.” You can hear that in the lyrics, constantly. Lines leap out. “It’s all right not to be ok.” “How can I tell her I’m unhappy?” “I’m lying about my mental health.” “The reason I think that the songs hit so viscerally,” Jack continues, “is because they don’t resolve themselves; there’s no moment at the end where the lyric goes: ‘And then everything was fine.’ The thing I realised when I was making the album was that these things I’m writing about, I might have them forever. I don’t want to be the sort of person who is ashamed of that; I want to be the sort of person that understands and accepts that that is part of who I am. That’s what ‘Mara’ is specifically about: calling out that intrusive thought, that person inside you that you don’t necessarily recognise. Asking it to come and sit with you, asking it questions. You know, ‘Come here, come and work with me, because someone else hasn’t put you here, you’ve come from my brain and I’ve got to talk to you somehow.’”
Working with the producer Jacknife Lee on half of the record and James Flannigan on the other half was amazing, Jack says. “They were incredible and really helped me in terms of getting my groove back, my confidence. Jacknife challenged me from a position of respect. He liked ‘Phase’, and was open to the issues with it.” Musically, ‘Love, Death & Dancing’ reflects its lyrical content, moments of mellifluous beauty and calm giving way to outbreaks of cacophonous anxiety and manic energy. If the bluesy spaciousness of ‘Anyone’ recalls Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac, ‘Mara’ conjures the production work of Lindsey Buckingham circa ‘Tusk’, while ‘Time’ could be the offspring of both Baba O’Reilly and Boys of Summer. The anguished, propulsive ‘Better’, meanwhile, channels the Beach Boys, Daft Punk and Beat It, and the enraged, accusatory ‘Mend a Heart’ honours the legacy of Cupid and Psyche 85. Throughout, Jack’s extraordinary voice – equal parts soul and blues – soars and swoops, communicating desperation one minute and rapture the next. You never doubt that he means it. You never doubt it’s the truth, unfiltered, unapologetic, laid bare.
“The album was written from the point of view of someone who has a functioning sadness,” Jack says, “who has had his day-to-day depressions and anxieties that have influenced the decisions he’s made. The album is about that functionality, that day-to-day battle, conversation, tug of war. We’re making a film at the moment, to go with the whole album. The premise of it is that it’s me in the back rooms of my mental health, on my own, interpreting the album. The one thing it needs to do is for the very last shot to be exactly the same as the opening shot. Because this battle in my head is cyclical, infinite; it’s a line of consistency, a time loop that’s just going round and round and round.
“I think this is the first time I’ve felt proud of the songs I’ve made. I wrote this album as someone – and for anyone – who likes dancing but doesn’t necessarily want to go out on a Saturday. It’s dance music for people who don’t want to go out! And that’s the music that I love: music that doesn’t care if you’re standing up or sitting down. It’s going to give it to you either way.”
‘Love, Death & Dancing’ does that all right. Thrillingly unfettered, brutally honest, with melodies that nail your heart to the wall. Impressive? Yes, it’s impressive, certainly. Far more importantly than that, though, it’s sensational. Emerging from the darkness into the light, digging deep into his soul, facing his demons and embracing life, Jack Garratt has made a masterpiece.