Sign up for our newsletters   

Baltimore City Paper home.
Print Email


Wigan Peers

Starsailor Joins the Ranks of Nice, Sensitive, So-Very-English Bands

By Michael Alan Goldberg | Posted 1/21/2004


Ah, remember when British rock 'n' rollers were debauched and dangerous? John Bonham pleasuring groupies with a live red snapper, Sid Vicious ending his girlfriend's existence with a hunting knife to the gut, Liam Gallagher head-butting fans after shows and attacking passengers on international flights, usually in a cocaine stupor?

Those days seem so, so long ago when considering the wholesome crop of English bands currently courting U.S. audiences--Coldplay, Travis, Elbow, et al. Such earnest, well-mannered, cerebral, nice lads, aren't they? You'd probably be comfortable letting any of them look after your kids or hang out at your house with your girlfriend while you leave town for the weekend, knowing that the worst you might discover upon your return is a half-empty container of soy milk left out on the kitchen counter.

Starsailor frontman James Walsh, 23, just might be the most upstanding of the entire lot. Checking in from the United Kingdom--where the quartet is busy rehearsing for an upcoming tour in support of its second album, Silence Is Easy--it becomes apparent that the exceptionally polite, somewhat whispery singer-guitarist hasn't got one trashed hotel room, drunken orgy, or embarrassing run-in with the law to his credit. As it turns out, he hasn't created a ruckus, he's created a baby. Walsh declares that his daughter Niamh's arrival 17 months ago had a profound effect on his songcraft, and that just might be the key to breaking through here in the States.

"The first album [2002's Love Is Here] did pretty well, but it was quite introspective and melancholy," Walsh says. "The new record is that much more euphoric and upbeat because I fell in love and had a child, and I think it'll go over better with American crowds. I think they'll be able to empathize with the positivity of the album, the sense of hope that we tried to get across."

OK, Walsh might be teetering precariously close to Ned Flanders territory, but you can't argue with his timing. From Chris Martin to Chris Carrabba, sensitive guys with acoustic guitars and/or pianos currently rule the roost, having nudged aside venomous nü-metal clowns and lascivious teen-pop knuckleheads on their way to winning fame, fortune, the adoration of millions of women, and even the respect and admiration of backward-hat-wearing frat boys from coast to coast.

So it would hardly be a shock if people connect en masse with the blatant heart-on-sleeve-isms bursting through the seams of Silence Is Easy. Lyrically, Walsh is prone to such mushy, melodramatic offerings as "Turn your head to face the sun and love will keep you safe" ("Telling Them") and "All the sea shall rise, all the stars will shine/ And the moon will fall across the meadow" ("Bring My Love"). And from a musical standpoint, the album is packed with stately, swooning ballads--all delicate piano twinkles, gracefully soaring strings, ringing guitars, and epiphanic sing-along choruses. At times the combination feels, well, a bit sappy and overwrought. But when Starsailor handles its emotional business with a bit more subtlety and flair, the results are stunningly sublime.

Coldplay comparisons are probably unavoidable, but the best way to describe the sound of Starsailor to those who've never heard them is simply this: late-period Verve fronted by Jeff Buckley. That first part makes sense, given that Walsh and his bandmates--bassist James Stelfox, keyboardist Barry Westhead, and drummer Ben Byrne--hail from Verve frontman Richard Ashcroft's birthplace of Wigan and were steeped in the vibe of their hometown heroes at an impressionable age. And though he developed an interest in singing at age 5, Walsh cites Buckley's 1994 masterpiece, Grace, as the single greatest influence on his style. (Jeff's old man Tim ranks up there, too; after all, the foursome named themselves after the elder Buckley's 1970 album.) He's got the quivering, penetrating falsetto down pat--on the tender, precious "White Dove," the resemblance is downright scary.

Scarier still, Walsh isn't content to conjure Buckley's spirit in the vocal booth only. "When I'm trying to come up with stuff, a lot of times I'll sit down with a photograph of Jeff, look at it, and think, What would he think of this song? It kinda spurs me on," he chuckles, insisting the motivation is crucial because he's not the kind of guy who wakes up every day with winning melodies floating through his mind.

"I really have to sit down and concentrate when I'm writing," Walsh continues. "Although, if you think of it as work, that's when it gets difficult. If I sit down with a guitar and think, OK, my job is as a songwriter, I've gotta come up with some great songs today, the pressure gets to me. I get uptight, and it's not a great way to write music. So I sit down with the guitar as if it were a hobby and see what I can come up with, and if it's great, brilliant, and if not, at least I'm enjoying myself. But you just keep at it, really, until something magical comes about."

That's all well and good, and wise and inspiring. But is there anything even remotely dangerous or controversial to the Starsailor story? As a matter of fact, yes. To make a long story short, in early 2002--while they were in the States touring in support of Love Is Here--the quartet learned that legendary (not to mention weird and reclusive) producer Phil Spector was a fan and had insisted on coming out of retirement to helm its next disc. Considering that Spector hadn't overseen an album since the Ramones' 1980 End of the Century, Starsailor jumped at the opportunity. But after a few months of recording at London's Abbey Road Studios, Spector's erratic behavior and dictatorial agenda grated on the band members, and they gave him the old heave-ho (only two tracks from those sessions eventually made it onto Silence Is Easy). Just a few months later, Spector was arrested after police found actress Lana Clarkson shot to death in his Los Angeles mansion; authorities believe the notoriously gun-happy producer killed her, while he maintains she committed suicide.

In the aftermath, Oasis goon and longtime Starsailor detractor Noel Gallagher had this to say to the British newspaper The Sun: "When I heard somebody had been shot dead at his house, I thought, Fucking hell, I hope it's the singer out of Starsailor. " Walsh chose not to step out of character and respond in kind then, and he declines to address either the Spector or Gallagher fiascos now. But just before he hangs up the phone, he makes crystal clear the only things that are truly important to him.

"My priorities and responsibilities are as a father, a husband, and an artist," he says. "When I'm offstage I want to be close to my baby daughter, and when I'm onstage I want to give it my all, send the audience home satisfied, and just enjoy that whole strange and touching experience."

Hard to knock a guy for that.

Related stories

Music archives

More Stories

In a Lonely Place (8/4/2010)
Montreal's Arcade Fire shows its American roots on new album

Keeping it Together (6/30/2010)
Marah and the Hold Steady add a harder, not as hopeful edge to Bruce Springsteen's working-class angst

By the Throat (6/9/2010)
Pianos Become the Teeth wrest screamo back from latter-day crapcore nonsense

More from Michael Alan Goldberg

Nigh Hard (6/4/2008)
Death Cab For Cutie: Now More Like Slayer Than Its Ever Been--Kinda

Sword On Sword (1/9/2008)
In The Face of a Fantastic New Album, Wu-Tang Clan Revolts Against Its Mastermind

Callous in Sunderland (6/1/2005)
Futureheads Pull Ahead Of The Postpunk Pack

Comments powered by Disqus
CP on Facebook
CP on Twitter