Behind the Music: Interview with Nathan Ball

‘I’ve been on wild journey while creating ‘Under the Mackerel Sky’ – I think that’s why it’s a bit of a sonic rollercoaster.’

Following the release of his stunning debut album ‘Under The Mackerel Sky’, we chatted to Nathan Ball about what drives his musicality, the personal storytelling within the release, and his love of performing live.

Hi Nathan, thanks for chatting with Listen to Discover, please introduce yourself to your future fans.
Hello everyone! I’m Nathan, a singer-songwriter from Cornwall and I’ve just released my debut album ‘Under the Mackerel Sky’.

What are your biggest musical/non-musical influences?
My biggest musical influences are The War on Drugs, Kurt Vile, Dope Lemon, Daughter, Dixon, Jeremy Olander and Fort Romeau. Non musically, I would actually just say where I live. Cornwall is surrounded by the most insane landscape, with beautiful beaches, coves, villages, and people. I find myself constantly in awe every single day of what I’m surrounded by.

Who is involved in the different areas of your music?
So Max is my best mate, guitarist, and producer. He produced the record and also plays live with us. He was so instrumental in creating this album. Will is my best pal from school and I’ve played in bands with him since I was 13. He plays drums and bass in the live show and is a total dream to be around. The record was mixed by L.A based Nicolas Vernhes, who also mixed my favourite album ever – The War on Drugs’ ‘Lost in a Dream’ – so it was a real treat to have him work his magic on the record. Lastly, the release was mastered by Lewis Hopkin who added the final piece of the puzzle and was very sympathetic to the mix in his mastering.

Where is your go-to place for writing music?
It depends really, but probably at home, usually just with an acoustic guitar or a whaling synth. I like just writing in a very raw style because if a song can stand up on its own like that, in its rawest form, then it’s going to sound great when you get it in the studio.

‘I love listening to albums as a whole and this one is meant to be just that.’

So turning to your utterly beautiful debut album ‘Under The Mackerel Sky’, what’s the story behind the title?
I was reading a poem by the late great Sir John Betjeman and I suddenly saw this line ‘Under the Mackerel Sky’. I’d always seen these patchworks across the sky down here in Cornwall, but never really knew what they were. I then read deeper into it and it turns out a mackerel sky to sea folk means a change is coming, usually in terms of the weather like a storm is on its way, but I liked the idea of a change coming in the world from this madness we seem to have found ourselves in.

I wrote the closing song ‘Under the Mackerel Sky’ on the same day, took it down to where Sir John Betjeman is buried near our home in Cornwall, and listened to it on repeat. I thought to myself “This has to be the title track of the record”. I loved that it gave an overarching theme to the whole thing, and gave a nice nod to where we had written and recorded it.

The opening track ‘Whispers’ makes for such a gorgeously atmospheric starting point. What led to you choosing this as the first track?
Thanks so much. I wrote this song a few years ago with Max and as soon as we wrote it we knew it had to be the introduction to an album, whenever that may be. It’s been so hard keeping it under wraps for these years as I love the song so much, but I’m so glad we got to release it as the album opener.

Equally, when listened to as a whole, the album makes for an incredibly cathartic experience. Was this the intention and if so, how important was it to you that this effect was achieved?
We didn’t really set out for that to be the experience, it was just that each song was telling such an emotional story, and there were a few themes weaving through the whole record that it became a really cathartic experience. To me, the whole album feels like a real journey.

I’m not sure if that’s just because of the wild journey I’ve been on over the years in creating it, but I think sonically it is a bit of a rollercoaster. At times it’s euphoric and hopeful, at other times it’s raw and melancholic. I love listening to albums as a whole and this one is meant to be just that. I wanted it to make sense as a story from start to finish and to allow people to find their own meanings in the songs.

So which track took you on the most personal journey when creating it?
It’s a tough one to pick as they are all such personal songs, but I would probably say ‘My Answer’. It was written during a bit of a low point where I was wondering what the hell I was doing with my life, and is about meeting someone who sparks that fire up again and changes your world. It felt like such a euphoric song to sing when we were recording it. We had the windows open in the studio and were just shouting that chorus at the top of our lungs. I can’t wait to play that one live on tour.

‘If a song can stand up on its own in its rawest form, then it’s going to sound great in the studio.’

Turning to recording, what does a Nathan Ball session normally involve? 
It’s pretty relaxed really. It’s just me and Max in the studio and I wouldn’t want it any other way. I trust him implicitly with the sound and he always helps take the songs in the direction they deserve to go. We built a little studio in an old farmhouse overlooking the sea down here in Cornwall, we’d take days off if the sun was shining and disappeared when the waves were pumping. It was a truly glorious time.

We had all the instruments set up and plugged in in the studio so if inspiration ever struck we could just hop on an instrument and vibe away. We’d normally finish about 6 ish and either go for a beer or just head home and enjoy the evening. There was no rush and no pressure. I think that helped so much in creating the sound you can hear on the record.

Reflecting on your releases to date, how has your creative process developed since your debut single?
I think the process is the same really. I was fortunately very naive when I first started out, didn’t really know what I was doing, and was just writing for the fun of it. Then as I began to understand the industry a bit more and tour the world, the writing became a bit more geared towards those live shows. The story and the personal journey in the song has always been the most important thing for me so that has been a constant throughout the process, but the process as a whole has pretty much stayed the same.

What are you most looking forward to musically in the rest of 2021?
I can’t wait to take these songs on the road. That’s the part of this whole thing I love the most. I love playing songs all over the world and seeing how people react in different places all over the world. It’s a totally different feeling every night and nothing makes me feel more alive. I’m particularly looking forward to getting over to The Netherlands and Germany. They are such amazing countries, full of amazing people and the shows always go off out there.

And finally, what has music enabled you to do that you wouldn’t have ever thought possible?
Travel the world and play songs I’ve written to different crowds in different countries every night. I pinch myself every day that I get to do this for a living and feel very fortunate to do something I love.

Thanks Nathan Ball for chatting with Listen to Discover
Photography Credit: Jack Bridgeland

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