“When I got to the end of those 10 days and we’d finished everything, I felt I had grown a little bit”, says Tom McClung, the man behind the Francis Lung moniker, when delving into the creation of his shimmering new album Miracle. “I’d never had that at the end of making a record before…I had got rid of something that I had been carrying with me”.
The evolution of his second full-length LP was a cathartic process for the former Wu Lyf member. He tackles deeply personal themes, such as struggles with mental health, quitting booze and relationships, head-on – depicting the battle between his “self-destructive side” and “problem-solving, constructive side” across its wondrous 13 tracks.
Inspired by the likes of songwriting greats Emitt Rhodes, Paul McCartney, and Harry Nilsson, Miracle brilliantly fuses its darker topics with sunny, uptempo indie pop and art-rock – from the infectious single Bad Hair Day to the album’s enchanting title track – for an almost dreamlike experience.
Its recording process saw McClung decamp to Giant Wafer studios in rural Wales in early 2020 where he played every instrument, except strings, before applying the finishing touches at his home studio in Manchester.
The result is one of 2021’s most engrossing and triumphant listens; one that propels you into McClung’s vulnerable universe as he dodges his demons and remerges with renewed focus. “I feel better but I also feel like I’ve accomplished something”, he told Daily Star. “I feel like I can accomplish something even harder now.”
The album title itself was a poignant choice, too. “I’m not trying to say this album is a miracle, just that I maybe needed one”, McClung explained. “If you need one, you should create a miracle. Even if it doesn’t actually make a miracle happen, it’s just the representation of one.”
Daily Star’s Rory McKeown caught up with McClung to talk about Miracle’s creation, its influences, recording at Great Wafer studios, lockdown life, and taking part in Tim’s Listening Parties.
Hi Tom. How have the past 12 months been for you? How have you navigated the pandemic as an artist?
“Just finding different ways to stay busy. For a while livestreams were a big thing. I got really involved with that. I did a Stay Away Show with La Blogotheque.
“I organised a livestream concert to raise money and awareness for trans rights, the LGBTQ+ movement. I organised a fundraiser for that because it was quite annoying for me to see in the news there were some setbacks in the Gender Recognition Act. They were trying to make it harder for trans people to declare their gender. Basically there was already a lot of bureaucracy in that process. They were removing plans to make it easier. I was inspired to start a fundraiser for that. That’s where the Everybody Cares: Elliott Smith livestream idea came from.
“I made a compilation from that livestream event so we were able to keep raising money for it. The pandemic made me be more creative so I could stay busy. I maybe wouldn’t have thought of that if it wasn’t for the pandemic. Maybe we wouldn’t have had a virtual event.
“You have to be really organised to make things happen during a pandemic.”
You’re releasing your new album Miracle on June 18 via Memphis Industries. Tell me more about its writing and recording process. When did it begin?
“I started writing it just before my last album came out in 2019. It really started with the song Miracle, the title track. It was just a song where it felt like a different voice for me. I definitely feel the lyric ‘it will take a miracle to make it’ sort of reflected how I was feeling at the time, pre-pandemic.
“I felt very hopeless and very out of place. Writing a lyric that reflected that felt very freeing for me. It seemed to not only reflect my state of mind but also maybe something that was happening in the world. It would take a miracle for us to get out of the climate emergency, it would take a miracle to get out of this weird shift towards the right we’ve seen politically recently.
“Personally as well it felt like it would take a miracle to get out of this state of mind I was in. After I’d written that song I started to see that it was quite cathartic or freeing to acknowledge these feelings of how they could be reflected int he wider world as well, almost accidentally. That inspired the rest of the songs. I tried to work through some stuff because I found I could in these songs.”
Lyrically you go deep as you tackle themes of mental health and relationships, as well as quitting booze over lockdown. What was it like detailing something so personal and turning it into song form?
“I can’t really write about much else. I found that in the past when I’ve written about stuff, lyrically that is abstract, that I don’t believe in or don’t really feel, the songs kind of fade away or they don’t see the light of day or last as long as the songs that have a real personal context.
“It made me more drawn to the lyrics. It made it easier to write the songs when they come from a real place. Everybody is going through something at some point in their lives, or maybe all the time.
"I just think that if I can’t write a song that reflects something that’s happening with me, it’s superfluous. If lyrically there isn’t that kind of depth there, maybe it’s not worth writing a song about. Music itself is incidental. Music is inspiration and harder to explain where it comes from.”
You mention a catharsis that comes with it, does it help you from a personal point of view when you are putting it on to paper?
“Yeah I think so. Expressing yourself is great. If you can express something you can’t put in words to even a friend or to your partner, that’s an amazing thing. That’s what I’m always trying to do, to express something I can’t say to other people or to put into words.
“I heard something interesting the other day. Songs explain feelings. You can describe a feeling with words but you have to then imagine it. If you read a book you imagine a feeling from the way the words are expressed on the page. But the song is a more direct version of that. I’ve kind of digressed there but that’s what I’m trying to do.”
It’s called Miracle, which is also the title of track four. What was the reason behind the choice? Did you always want to call it Miracle when you had that song?
“It became clear it was a strong album name. Maybe I was worried it would be a little ostentatious.
"I’m not trying to say this album is a miracle, just that I maybe needed one. If you need one, you should create a miracle. Even if it doesn’t actually make a miracle happen, it’s just the representation of one.”
It was recorded at Giant Wafer Studios in rural Wales. What was it like decamping there? What’s it like coming out of the city and into the countryside? How can you describe the comparison? Was there a change in you personally?
“Definitely. When you’re at home, there are so many distractions. It’s great to be in a residential studio like Giant Wafer because you get up, you work on music until you’re too tired to work on it anymore. You go for a walk and you work on music some more and go to bed. It’s great to be in any sort of residential studio for that reason.
“It’s definitely influential to be around nature. It really focuses you. When I got to the end of those 10 days and we’d finished everything, I felt I had grown a little bit. I’d never had that at the end of making a record before. It sounds cheesy almost but it was, again, that catharsis. I had got rid of something that I had been carrying with me.
“I didn’t expect it. It wasn’t like I was going there to discover myself, it was just to record. At the end of it, I was so mentally and physically exhausted and I had this product at the end of it, it almost came out of me. It was cool.”
From what it sounds like, this whole album experience has been a special one for you.
“I think so. It’s significant for me. I saw these songs as a reflection of how I felt most of the time, and me being frustrated at feeling like s*** most of the time. When we were mixing and mastering it and I was listening to it so much and thinking about writing more songs, it was like there’s something wrong here and maybe it’s my fault. Maybe I’m to blame for the way I’m feeling, which is why I quit drinking. Even if I was controlled in the way I drank, the way I thought about it was definitely not in control.
“People who drink every weekend or three days a week can still be an alcoholic, they can still have that overwhelming feeling to push and continue into drink. Even if you’re just at home on the couch with your partner drinking, if all you’re thinking of is the next drink or how much is left in your bottle, then something’s wrong. I wanted to get rid of that feeling to see if I could start to feel better or not being addicted to anything. It is better, I think. It’s been three months. I have an app on my phone that tells me how many days, which is cool.
“I feel better but I also feel like I’ve accomplished something. I feel like I can accomplish something even harder now.”
From the catchy, uptempo banger of Bad Hair Day, you go between art-rock, prog-pop, and piano-driven sounds. What were you being influenced by, if anything? What were you consuming during its writing process?
“The title track Miracle is really influenced by Emitt Rhodes, who I just love. Songs like The Let down are influenced by Paul McCartney and Harry Nilsson. These influences are a constant in my life. Maybe I was a little bit better emulating them or showing that influence. They’re such sophisticated songwriters, you can’t just sit down and make something that references them without it sounding like total s***. I was happy I was able to get a lot closer to that.
“Hauntology inspired artists like Caretaker, I was really inspired by his work. Some of the interludes on the album, I was inspired by this creepy hauntologic movement of music.
"Caretaker specifically is inspired by the ballroom dancing scene in the Shining. He specifically wanted to make music that was inspired by that. In turn it helped me to see how I could link up songs in the album that were otherwise disparate in genre or in the key as well.
“I was trying to make something that was very musically minded but very catchy at the same time. I wanted it to be sophisticated but not unlistenable. I wanted it to be very accessible but sophisticated at the same time, because that’s the type of music I like.”
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This is your second album, following the release of A Dream Is U. What did you do differently this time?
“I played all the music, for one thing. That made a big difference. My style of drumming is very different to Andrew Richardson, who played on the first record. Drums are my first instrument and I have a very distinctive way of playing. I wanted to be brave enough to layer it up all myself. I’m glad I did because it’s changed the feel and groove of the record. Andy does play on Bad Hair Day though, because he’s a better drummer at the fast stuff than me.
"Apart from that I tried to scale things back because I added things. All the tracks were originally piano or acoustic guitar. Everything else came after. I limited myself to one electric guitar sound per song. Usually if I have a rock song format in my head, it’s like two electric guitars, piano, bass, drums. This time it was like ‘you can only have one electric guitar sound and maybe you can double track it’. It ended up leaving more space for some organ or for nothing. I think that made the record sound better.”
Are you already thinking ahead for your next material and will you take what you learned from this album onto your next project?
“Definitely. It takes a lot to finish records and put them out. I can’t help but thinking about the next project. I think I have an album name, and I think I have the title track! I think I know the theme of it. I’d like to incorporate more of the atmospherics and the sample or loop based things I had in the musical interludes into the actual song.
"I want to use a lot less traditional instruments and still have accessible or crafted pop songs. I’d love to tell you the name of it but I probably shouldn’t!”
You’ve been a solo artist for a few years now and were in Wu Lyf too. How do you think you’ve evolved as an artist in that time?
“Hopefully I’ve become a more direct writer. Musically and lyrically, I think I used to write really long songs. I think I’m a bit better at getting to the point. Is there a way to say this simpler that could be understood more clearly? I think that’s what I’ve improved at. There’s still a way to go. I could always refine more.”
You took part in Tim’s Listening Party for Everybody Cares: An Elliott Smith Tribute. What was that like? How great is it that Tim Burgess has brought everyone together with music during lockdown?
“It was really cool. I’m lucky. I did one for my last EP and I’ve done a listening party for the Elliott Smith thing and the Memphis Industries compilation. I’ve done loads now and they’re always amazing because fans can just talk to artists. There’s no wall between anybody. You can hear a lot of interesting viewpoints.
"It’s something for people to get excited about. Anything that can make people excited is a good thing, in my opinion, in these dark times. It’s a privilege to do those listening parties.”
What’s next for you? What are you hopeful for looking ahead?
“I’m really grateful Bad Hair Day is on the 6 Music playlist. That was a dream of mine. It has been a for a while now. It’s crazy people are listening to it.
“We’re putting out The Let Down as a single. The video for that I’m excited about releasing. It’s a documentary-style spoof. Have you ever watched Classic Albums? We made a spoof rockumentary of what it would be like 40 years in the future. We’re looking back at The Let Down, which is the last track on the album.
"We’re dressed up as old men and we quote a lot of the Classic Albums series. I also die in the video, so it’s a hit all round!”
Are music videos something you enjoy?
“It has been this time. I’ve never really liked it before because you always have to look cool or pretend to be cool or something. I just end up coming across really sad, which is not how I want to come across.
"This time I wanted to have fun. I’ve directed them all. That’s made a difference. Bad Hair Day, we just filmed it in the lounge. I had a bunch of stupid hair styles and just had fun. I wrote an entire script for The Let Down video, which is something I’ve never done before. It was more of a comedy sketch than a music video.”
Francis Lung’s Miracle is out now via Memphis Industries
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