Elbow frontman Guy Garvey: 'Belfast will be some crack, I can't wait to explore the city'
Manchester singer/songwriter Guy Garvey is better known as the Elbow frontman, but ahead of his solo gig here on Sunday, he tells Lee Henry there is more than one string to his bow... from radio presenting to unlikely star of children's channel CBeebies.
National treasure status is very rarely bestowed upon indie musicians, but then Guy Garvey isn’t your typical gauche frontman, graceless and egocentric, spitting at the camera for spitting’s sake.
As he sings on his band Elbow’s joyous ode to youth, Lippy Kids, “I never perfected that simian stroll”, and thank the rock gods he didn’t. In the national treasure game, charm gets you everywhere.
If we’re to compare him with fellow Mancunian musicians, Garvey is much more Noel than Liam; more John Cooper Clarke than Mark E Smith. The northern soul of 21st century UK rock, he is the gentle giant we would all love to sit down to a pint with, capable of splitting sides and breaking hearts with one deft lyric.
Garvey greets me down the line, after hours of Press interviews, like a distant cousin, though he doesn’t know me from Adam — “Good morning, Lee. How are you today?” — and chats whimsically about old friends and upcoming gigs as only the finest raconteurs can. Our allotted 15 minute timeslot doubles, then trebles, before I feel that I should let him get back to what he does best: write music.
He’s currently penning original tracks for the benefit of audiences who saw him perform from his debut solo album, Courting The Squall, after its release in October 2015, so that they find something new in his set list to sway to, and is “very much looking forward” to “having a crack” with the Belfast crowd when he plays the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival on Sunday.
“I was shouting at myself yesterday,” Garvey confesses, as if it were the most normal thing in the world to do. “Having trouble with a second verse. They’re such a pain in the a***, aren’t they? Never going to be as good as the first. So I find myself making a cup of tea, shouting, ‘What’s up with you, you soft b******? You’ve done it a thousand times. Get up those stairs and finish the song. It’s not coal-mining, you know.
“But it’s not as mad as it sounds. I’m a radio broadcaster now (he is a presenter for BBC6 Music), and have been for 10 years, so talking to myself comes quite naturally.”
As singer and chief songwriter with alt-rock quintet Elbow, Garvey has been a critic’s favourite for years, first shortlisted for the Mercury Prize back in 2001 for the band’s cinematic debut, Asleep In The Back, and winning it in 2008 for their bittersweet mainstream breakthrough, Seldom Seen Kid.
That collection of songs was partly inspired by the memory of the band’s late friend, musician Bryan Clancy, and also features what many believe to be Garvey’s finest work to date, the breathtakingly beautiful Ivor Novello-winning single One Day Like This.
Written as an antidote to Frank Sinatra’s My Way — which Garvey describes as “a horrible song … Just one man going round and round about what a t*** he’s been his whole life” — One Day Like This is, rather, as inoffensive and life affirming as six-and-a-half-minute pop songs come.
In it, Garvey lays his scene in a sunlit bedroom, his protagonist “shaking off a heavy one” from the night before, lying beside a woman he realises he loves with all his heart. Fans of Elbow, and those who have never even heard of Guy Garvey, will be well aware of the song’s epic refrain. “Throw those curtains wide,” it goes. “One day like this a year would see me right”.
Providing the soundtrack to countless first dances the length of breadth of the UK since its release, One Day Like This broke Elbow in a big way after the relative success of previous single, the ironically titled Grounds For Divorce.
“It was such an explosion of joy after such a deeply unhappy time,” Garvey recalls of the song’s instant success. “So the fact that many people now decide to get married to it is just a really precious thing. We’ve been offered loads of money for it from various advertisers, but so far we’ve resisted. That said, it’s bought each of us a new house, that song.”
Hailing from Bury in Greater Manchester, Garvey was raised Catholic along with five older sisters Gina, Louise, Sam, Karen and Becky and one younger brother, actor Marcus Garvey, by parents who encouraged his love of music from an early age. His roots are working class and his father spent most of his life as a newspaper proofreader, later joining ICI as a chemist, while his mother was a police officer before becoming a psychologist.
Today, Garvey counts himself lucky to live next door to a young family who tolerate his soaring falsetto and personal insults of an afternoon — that is when he’s not spending time with his actress girlfriend, Tipping The Velvet’s Rachael Stirling (38) — daughter of legendary actress Diana Rigg and theatre producer Archibald Stirling — down south in London.
“My Manchester neighbours are adorable,” says Garvey, who, unlike his fellow band members, has not yet become a father. “They’ve got two gorgeous kids, and because we live in a semi-detached house, I hear them running up and down the stairs all the time. They’re at that age where they just shout their heads off, and it’s a really comforting, neighbourly noise. I can’t imagine what they think of me shouting at myself, though. They must think I’m bullying somebody, that I’ve got a house slave, maybe.”
Joining BBC6 Music’s roster of star-studded broadcasters in 2007 as presenter of his own Sunday afternoon show, Guy Garvey’s Finest Hour, significantly broadened the now 41-year-old’s appeal, beaming him into the homes of millions of discerning music lovers up and down the land, while toddlers and housewives everywhere recognise him (on the street, frequently) as the cuddly, somewhat dishevelled reader of Farmer Joe and the Music Show on Cbeebies’ Bedtime Stories.
“It was the loveliest, sweetest thing to be involved with, that. It was all because the other lads had babies. They all went, ‘Ah, you should do that’. So I did. You can imagine the crack I had with a bunch of young people all working in children’s television, where everything is lovely. Their sense of humour is so dark, so I had a really good day with them. They have many outtakes of me messing up. I’d love to do some more. It’s another string to my bow.”
In 2012, Elbow was commissioned by the BBC to write the theme for their coverage of the show of the century — the London Olympics, no less — while Garvey and co have continued to conquer hearts and minds with performances on everything from Children In Need to Later… With Jools Holland, as well as the main stages of almost every major music festival in Europe.
Next week, Garvey takes it down a notch with a solo gig in the festival marquee at Custom House Square, as the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival organisers celebrate one of their finest line-ups of recent times.
Having held the attention of thousands at Glastonbury, Coachella and elsewhere leading Elbow — the consummate showman, never short of an anecdote or ballad to instigate a mass sing-a-long — Garvey is enjoying performing in more intimate venues as Courting The Squall picks up pace and brings in new fans intrigued by his loose, raw solo sound.
“You don’t change what you do as a frontman performing to 2,000 or 90,000 people,” Garvey reveals, “but the best thing about playing a small venue is that you get to have a chat with the audience. So on this tour, there have been some really good nights out, really fun. In Belfast, of course, there will be some crack, because you’ve got a bit of a reputation for having a laugh.”
Garvey has many memories of the city. He first performed there in 2001, promoting Asleep In The Back at the Limelight — where he exchanged numbers with a girl who “was quite good at talking smut” (cue huge Bury belly laugh) — and subsequently shared an unforgettable evening with Gary Lightbody and the Snow Patrol boys after the opening of the Oh Yeah Music Centre in 2007.
“Mad night out with those b*******,” Garvey recalls, seemingly still pained at the thought. “They’re such good lads. We got kicked out of our hotel rooms, but we had a couple of hours to kill before we had to go to the airport.
“So we’re in this bar restaurant in some hotel, rammed to the doors, and everyone in the room had a peculiarity, something psychedelic about them.
“It was like being in a Beatles cartoon. There was a guy with what looked like clip-on hair, a kid in a tiny dinner jacket, another dressed all in sequins, and I was like, ‘What is going on?’ Then I spotted playing cards stuck to the ceiling. Turns out we were in the middle of a magician’s convention. A very surreal experience.
“Since the first time I visited, the city has improved massively, and become a much prettier place. I’ve heard that improvement has continued, so I’m very much looking forward to having a look around myself.”
Toddlers, housewives, radio geeks and genuine fans should feel free to accost Garvey in whatever bar, cafe or retail establishment in which they happen to find him. After all, national treasures worth their salt never turn down a selfie.
- Guy Garvey will play the festival marquee on Sunday as part of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, at 8pm. Tickets cost £20 from Visit Belfast, tel : 028 9024 6609. For more details visit http://cqaf.com/2016/guy-garvey/