For some artists, three years dominated by broken hearts, the spectre of bereavement and wrangles with their record company would be the perfect excuse to churn out a set of self-pitying songs. But Liam Frost has synthesised his experiences into “We Ain’t Got No Money, Honey, But We Got Rain”, a brilliantly soulful pop record that mixes sweet melodies with tantalisingly dark undertones.
While his 2006 debut, “Show Me How The Spectres Dance”, understandably dwelled heavily on the impact of losing his father and older brother, “We Ain’t Got No Money…” is an album dominated by love songs. “It has a more optimistic feel,” says Liam, “The last album had so many bleak moments. I’m only 25 and I wanted to make a fun record before I hit 30. Then I can do all that maudlin stuff and turn into Leonard Cohen!”
With that determination to create an unashamedly upbeat record in mind, Liam went to New York work with producer Victor Van Vugt (Nick Cave, PJ Harvey, Sons And Daughters). “He makes really great sounding records that are rich and well layered. I also heard he was up for a party which helped,” laughs Liam.
As well as a raft of startlingly catchy songs penned by Liam alone, the album features a few written alongside Ed Harcourt, which ultimately led to Liam duetting with the radiant Martha Wainwright.
“I’m never going to write a moronic 3-minute song with the same lyric over and over,” Liam says directly. “My last label were forever suggesting hook-ups which I was open to, but not to coming up with lame pop songs to make someone else happy. I really like Ed’s music and I’d heard he was a bit of a whizz.”
The prospect of working with Ed was pretty nerve-wracking though and the night before they were due to meet for the first time, Liam went out on the lash. “I made a total mess of myself and got smashed,” he admits coyly. “My girlfriend was really angry with me.” But arriving in the studio it soon became clear that the partnership was meant to be: “When I got there Ed had a Bloody Mary ready for me, but it was left untouched.”
The first product of their collaboration was ‘Your Hand In Mine’ which Liam describes a “dirty love song”. With bouncy piano and addictive harmonies, it was begging for something special. “Ed sang some bits on the demo but to make it a guy/guy duet would have given people the wrong idea,” Liam chuckles. Luckily, Victor is an old friend of Martha Wainwright having known her for many years.
They sent the unfinished song to her and waited. “She didn’t get in touch for a while and it started to dawn on me that she might not be in to it,” he says. “Then called me and said, I’m in my car driving down Santa Monica Boulevard and I really like the record.” Despite the intimate sound of the song, Martha recorded her parts after he’d returned to the UK – but plans are already afoot with the song set to be a single.
Recording at Stratosphere Sounds in Chelsea (the studio co-owned by ex-Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha and Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne) and Victor’s own studio nearby was completed by July 2008 but the record’s road to release has been a bumpy one.
“Show Me How The Spectres Dance” was a critical success but only a minor commercial proposition. Liam realised that he couldn’t continue on a major label – with pressure to alter his approach to songwriting and tweak his image – so he left. “I recorded this album for Columbia but we had the feeling that things weren’t going to work out. We went in and said, can we have the record back? It wasn’t acrimonious at all.”
Leaving Columbia also meant the chance to slightly remodel the record – dropping some songs included at the behest of the label in favour of brand new compositions. The bouncy Springsteen style future-single ‘Two Hearts’ with its euphoric chorus and chiming piano was one of them. “I dropped a song that I’d had a problem with but the label were convinced was going to be my hit single. ‘Two Hearts’ was almost a direct response to that – saying, look I can write a single but I can do it on my own terms.”
Like many of the songs on the record, ‘Two Hearts’ twists two very contrasting strands together – an unabashed love song and subtle suggestions of darker times. The lyrical references to sharks, water thick with blood and being the “architects of our own disaster” make it something far more compelling than a simple love song. “Someone called it my credit crunch song,” says Liam. “I’m not sure about that but when all that stuff hit I started to realised that things were going to be tough.”
The record is relentlessly and realistically romantic. From the title (taken from a poem by prime influence Charles Bukowski) to the money hidden in a knicker drawer on ‘Skylark Avenue’, its abiding theme is love in difficult circumstances. There are few modern love songs that can match the glorious rush of ‘Good Things Are Coming Our Way’ where the excitement of a new relationship is undercut with a frank admission of past indiscretions (“easy love was a nasty habit I never could quite kick”) and ‘Younger Boys, Older Girls’ evokes the twilight streets of the lyrics in its woozy music.
Though ‘Skylark Avenue’ is a poetic confection (the council house where Liam grew up is frequently referenced in the record) is littered with Mancunian landmarks. The Hidden Gem church plays a central role in ‘Younger Boys, Older Girls’ and ‘Shipwrecks’ transports the listener into Liam’s flat just outside the city centre where distant bangs could be gunshots or cars backfiring.
‘Skylark Avenue’ refers to the location of the house where Liam grew up. “It was a council estate,” he says, “But it wasn’t full of Jeremy Kyle cases, quite the opposite infact. I knew everyone who lived on the road and whenever I go back they’re still pulling for me, buying my records and following my career.”
But while he didn’t grow up in the kingdom of Kyle, a similarly tacky chat show provided the inspiration for one of the record’s most striking lyrics, ‘Shipwrecks‘ “If you lay with dogs/then you’ll wake with fleas” Liam reveals: “That came from Ricky Lake. I was sat watching it one afternoon and there was Waynetta from Oklahoma and she said that!”
This cheeky sense of humour is also extremely evident in ‘Orchestra Of Love’, the big ballsy pop song that closes the record. Also co-written with Ed Harcourt, it’s a finger-clicking, doo-wop inspired swing song decked in delicious harmonies that will slap a smile on your face.
And yet, while the joys of being in love suffuse the record, Liam went through a very tough time in the three years following the release of his debut album. Unpicking the lyrics of the stripped back ‘Leading Lights And Luminaries’ reveals the clues – “Somewhere along I lost my thread.”
“I did a support slot with the Magic Numbers and I was literally sat backstage shaking. I didn’t realize at the time but have been made aware of it since,” Liam admits. “I was in a bad way. There were judgments being made from inside the record label so lord knows what it would have been like if I was the sort of person who reads Youtube comments.” He laughs.
The recovery came from spending time staying with his sister back home in Prestwich, Manchester and more radically, on a trip to the Arctic in 2007. Liam took part in Cape Farewell, a project which takes artists and scientists to places where climate change is truly apparent, taking the place of Jarvis Cocker on a small boat sailing to Greenland. “I was so seasick and didn’t say anything for the first six days,” he says. “I didn’t write any blogs or emails. People thought I’d lost my marbles. I got more emails than anyone because I hadn’t said anything. The first one was from my manager, who had urged me to go and do it, saying – ‘Please don’t kill me’.”
But once the seasickness began to fade, the inspiration started to grow. The first song he wrote on the trip was ‘Leading Lights And Luminaries’, a statement of intent. “That song is multi-faceted,” he says, “There are lines that directly relate to being out in the Arctic but it ties into every other aspect of my life.”
“I’ve never aimed to go and sell millions of records and be a rockstar. I just want to make a living with music. It’s a message to fans of the first album. You can clearly see that this is the kind of songwriter I am.” Explicitly questioning where he fits in Manchester’s long musical heritage, he declares: “Now, I’m not doing this to join my city’s leading lights and luminaries/I’m just happy that you people seem to like these broken melodies.” But for all his genuine modesty, “We’ve Got No Money…” is a record stuffed with affecting songs and lyrical depth that should guarantee his place in the city’s pop pantheon.
The songs on this record are the kind that take on a life of their own once they’re in the hands of listeners. Just as the melancholic ‘This Is Love’ from his first album became a wedding song for one couple, this clutch of perfectly poised pop songs will resonate far beyond their personal inspirations. There is something so refreshing about an artist who is making music for the sheer love of it. “My first record didn’t really get any hype, so I never got above the parapet. This is almost like putting out a record by a fresh artist” But if you’re going to sing one lyric back to him, make it this one: “It’s just so good that you’re still here…”
Mic Wright, July 2009