If there’s one thing that characterises Luke Sital-Singh as an artist, it’s his admiration for craftspeople. ‘I’m a bit jealous of making something with your hands,’ he tells me, ‘of getting blisters from really hard graft. There’s an element of that, that I miss in music.’ And so, nearly half an hour into discussing his new album, Time Is a Riddle, I ask him about his interest in the slow movement. His enthusiasm is immediately apparent: ‘I find it inspiring, the thought and the process that’s gone into something – especially, almost moreso, when it’s something fairly mundane. The makers that I like make fairly everyday objects: knives and cups.’
And, from what we’ve been discussing, it suddenly makes sense how that affinity for functionality feeds into his own craft. Nothing in his music really works for him unless it actively serves its purpose the way a knife or a cup does. You sense this as he talks about writing the album’s closing track, Slow Down. ‘The final tracks are always my favourite songs on albums for some reason. It’s the final say; it needs to be intentional. I knew I wanted a song that devolved into some kind of chaotic mess. I always thought it would be a cool way to end an album: to have a nice little sweet song that explodes in on itself a bit.’
Likewise, the album’s lynchpin middle track, Cynic, was created for the express purpose of replacing earlier song I Have Been a Fire as an opener for live performances. This, in turn, gives an insight into the kind of attention that goes into his shows, most strongly evidenced by the fact that his songs are conceived of simultaneously as recorded band performances and solo numbers. ‘I need the songs to work as a solo musician. A good song should be able to be performed very bare bones and still hold up.’
And yet, like any good craftsperson, he tracks his own progress carefully: ‘I’m not a very prolific songwriter; I still don’t really know how to write a song. I don’t write all the time. Right now, I haven’t written a song for a year.’ But in discussing his influences, another thread comes up. ‘I really admire people like Mark Kozelek and Bill Callahan, who almost sing conversations out. I’ve always liked that kind of direct writing: it almost sounds like there’s no craft, like they’re just talking. I can’t get that far, but I still admire people that write like that because it feels so honest.’
The block he mentions seems to have something to do with a personality trait which Sital-Singh repeatedly mentions wanting to overcome on Time Is a Riddle. ‘I’m just a chronic overthinker in all life – that’s part of what feeds into the sorts of things I like to sing about. But I then start to overthink certain lyrics and it all just kind of implodes. So I didn’t try that hard on this album to really have a clear idea from the outset about what each song was going to be about. I let a lot of subconscious stuff flow through.’
Nowhere is this clearer than in the origin story for Rough Diamond Falls. ‘I always felt a little suspicious of people when they say “oh, this song came to me in a dream”. Yeah, of course it did. But I did wake up singing this chorus, and I’d had this dream where I was in this place called Rough Diamond Falls, a heaven/hell sort of place. And I just got up and I had to write that song instantly. In the past, I would have gone: well, that’s stupid, you can’t write a song when you don’t really understand what you’re saying. Whereas, on this album, I can’t explain to myself intellectually why it feels right, but I’m just going to go with it.’
This balance between long consideration and swift action comes up again as we discuss the drawn-out process of choosing the album’s cover: ‘a prime example of me overthinking everything.’ At the last minute, a decision was made for artist Hannah Cousins (Sital-Singh’s wife) to create a linocut from a photo taken by Sital-Singh himself. Luckily, he seems pretty chuffed with the result. ‘It makes me feel a little bit shaky, how close we were to not doing that and submitting some crap photo, when this is perfect. You just think: I didn’t have this image for a long time when I was planning this album. Now suddenly it’s there and I couldn’t imagine anything else.’
And indeed, a linocut carved, inked and pressed over a span of two days by his own wife seems far more appropriate to Sital-Singh’s ethos than some crap photo. As he continues expounding on his love for makers – Glaswegian potter Jono Smart included – he tells me ‘it’s nice to think there’s some sort of human touch that’s gone into something I use everyday. I find that really interesting and inspiring. I really appreciate it when useful things get elevated.’ That human touch is exactly what Sital-Singh seeks to convey with his music – and, even if the blisters aren’t there, the craft still is.
Time Is a Riddle is out now on Raygun Records / Red Essential. Luke Sital-Singh plays the University of Edinburgh’s Teviot Debating Hall on 15th May and Òran Mór on 16th May, followed by additional dates throughout the UK. Visit his website for full details.