How Sonic the Hedgehog inspired Newton Faulkner
Ahead of his Belfast gig on Sunday, singer-songwriter Newton Faulkner tells Claire Savage how he found his muse early on in life through a certain rather prickly video game character
For self-confessed "computer nerd" Newton Faulkner, though, his first forays into crafting music came not by jamming along to the latest chart heavyweight but by way of writing lyrics to iconic Sega video game Sonic the Hedgehog.
"I used to write lyrics to the music on the games I was playing," he said of the experience. "The lyrics were 'Who killed my baby', which is a bit strange for a six-year-old. I did a song for every level."
And as if by fate, the 29-year-old Englishman ended up meeting the author of that very music during a recent trip to Japan. "I got a phone call asking if I would like to go and play with a band on TV on New Year's Eve a couple of years ago," he recalls.
The band in question was multi-million selling Japanese trio DCT (Dreams Come True), who proceeded to fly him out to perform.
"The girl in DCT asked me what got me started and I said it was through writing lyrics to all the Sonic the Hedgehog stuff," he says. "It turned out that their bass player, Masato Nakamura, had actually written the theme music'. It was very strange!"
Gigging with a veteran Japanese pop band and touring the world are all far removed from his origins as the son of 'relatively hippie-ish' parents (as he has previously described them) growing up in the countryside around the historic town of Reigate in Surrey. Now ensconced in the Far East (of London), he is, in turn, the 'relatively hippie-ish' father to his son, Beau Henry Faulkner-Richards, who will soon be three years old.
It is in his home studio that Faulkner recorded his most recent album, 2013's Studio Zoo, streaming the entire five-week process live online. Known for his percussive/acoustic-style of music, this latest offering – which he will be bringing to Belfast with a live show at the Limelight on Sunday – is a little less polished and busy.
"It was a massive learning curve in a lot of different ways," he says. "It was completely mental. It was five weeks of being on camera 24 hours a day, but it was amazing as an artist to get instant feedback."
With writing in his make-up (his father wrote children's books), Faulkner likes to make every word matter in his music. Indeed, composing lyrics is, he says, the hardest part of the process.
"I really don't like songs that aren't about anything, and there are plenty of them around," he says. "It's such an opportunity – if people are going to listen to what you're saying – to say something that's worth saying."
Faulkner also writes with his musician brother Toby, who co-produced Studio Zoo (and provided backing vocals on the album). While the two get on well, Faulkner says his musical streak originally came as a bit of a surprise to his big brother.
"We did completely polar oppositely different things to begin with," he says. "He was a drum and bass MC when I was just starting to play guitar – and I was into Joni Mitchell. There was a really interesting moment when he came back from boarding school and he completely missed me learning to play guitar. I hadn't told him about it. He just came back and was like, 'When did you learn that?'
"Then we did writing together. What we were doing when we were kids was what was massive a few years later – a blend of hip hop and acoustic pop. Maybe we should have stuck with it!"
His musical collaborations have also included working with Cornelius – a writer/producer who creates "special audio landscapes" – during that aforementioned trip to Japan, an episode that rekindled an urge to regain his musical versatility.
"I focus so much on my niche style – percussive-acoustic – that there are holes where there probably shouldn't be holes, especially if I want to do more computer and film music," he says. "Yesterday, I was looking round and found all my old (music) books and I said to myself 'Do you still know this?'"
Whether that search for something different might include getting rid of his signature dreadlocks is another issue altogether.
"I kind of embraced it and took it as far as you could possibly have gone," he says of the look which he has sported since the age of 15.
"As a 13-year-old kid, I did lots of research into dread history, because it was something that I connected with for some reason.
"I went to mum and dad and was like 'Can I do this?'. I think they said 'Yes', thinking my headmaster would refuse, and then I went to him and he was a really cool Australian guy and he was like 'Yeah, it's great!' Actually, it looked terrible."
Now a year off 30, Faulkner has subsequently settled into both his look and musical style, and is looking forward to his upcoming tour.
"I have to do a huge amount of exercise to allow me to do a gig, because it's getting more and more physical over the years," he muses. "When I first introduced the foot pedal, I was sitting down and was playing it with two feet and was civilised. I don't want to lose any of the sonics that I've built up, so I've learned to do what I was doing sitting down, only standing up."
Newton Faulkner plays The Limelight, Belfast on Sunday. For details, visit www.limelightbelfast.com