Nev Cottee is one of Britain’s great unsung vocalists, with a deep, dark timbre and sixties slant that recalls prime-era Cohen or Hazlewood.
It’s a natural baritone drawl, woody and round, that’s inflected with a Manchester lilt and all the world’s wisdom.
Having cut his teeth in various bands in the late nineties, including the Noel Gallagher-endorsed country-rock outfit Proud Mary, he went solo, unearthing a bent for classic songwriting and classy instrumentation.
Now onto record number three, Broken Flowers, he’s experimenting with the sun-drenched sound of the American desert and the lush strings of Morricone.
The set, which was conceived and recorded in India last winter, kneads your ears with warmth and authenticity, and shows off a musician in his stride.
We caught up with Nev to find out more about its foundations, his trip to India and why his absence from Manchester helped him turn out one of his most personal records yet…
What drew you to India to record your new record?
Mainly to get away from the English winter, which is relentless, particularly in Manchester! I love Manchester, and I can’t think of many other places I’d want to live in in the UK, but the weather gets you down after a bit and I’m a real outdoorsy person.
So a number of factors conspired, one of them being splitting up with my girlfriend. And I’ve got a few mates who live out there, so I was thinking, ‘Right, set up a studio over there and see what happens’. So that was that.
What studio kit did you take with you?
You don’t need much these days. Just my laptop and a few microphones, guitar and a midi keyboard. I’m no technical wizard, but I can get a certain level of demo recorded. So it was more going out there and getting ideas rather than recreating Sergeant Pepper! It was very productive because I was inspired to get up every day and do it. In a way it was weird, because although I was in India with all these amazing colours and food and people, I ended up writing about Manchester. It became a very English record.
Why do you think Manchester stayed with you so strongly?
It’s part of who I am – the rain, the grind and all that – so I can’t avoid it. I even started to wish it would rain. The grass is always greener isn’t it? The older I become, I feel myself becoming more English. Englishness in all its weirdness, adventurousness and eccentricity.
I found myself missing the village green and a pint of ale. It’s like The Kinks’ album, The Village Green Preservation Society, that idea of Englishness, which is a cliché, but is nevertheless true. I am English, so I’m going to write about it, whether that’s good or bad. Being abroad gave me that clarity. When you’re in the thick of it you can’t really see it.
So do you think the older you get, the more you know who you are?
I hope so! My music is not Radio One material, that’s for sure. I’m not trying to be part of a scene or a zeitgeist or anything. I’m looking on it in a more mature way. When I was young I wanted to be in a rock n roll band like the Stones but I left that behind because I am not 21 anymore. I’m middle-aged! It can be a bit embarrassing can’t it? I won’t name any names, but you see these older bands and you’re like, ‘Come on, you’re a 48 year old man!’ I’m into the greats – the classic songwriters. That’s who I look to for inspiration.
You first started out playing in bands. Why did you go solo?
I did it because in a band you always end up falling out. You can’t name one band who’ve stuck together. Who is there? The Stones. And they probably hate each other. Even The Beatles! It’s a relationship between four or five people, and I think that has a five or maximum 10 year shelf life.
It can hold you back because you’ve got to do things by committee. Being a solo musician is like travelling on your own – you decide, you do it, it’s on your back. It just took me a long time to be confident singing in such a low voice because I have quite a low range. That held me back for a while.
Did it take you ages to settle on that singing style then?
Once I got into it, it was fine. I’d always known great singers like Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits but then when you actually listen to them and try and replicate their style that you go, ‘Wow that’s amazing’. They can convey a lot of emotion without actually doing much!
I decided I wasn’t going to adapt it, to copy anyone, because people will find you out.
What live dates do you have coming up?
I’m going to do two batches this time, so I’ve got a couple of festivals – one in Salford and one in Liverpool. And I’m playing up in Hebden Bridge, and the big one will be the album launch at the Deaf Institute in Manchester on 9 June. Then I’m having a break and will do another batch in July and August down south.
When you play live, do you play solo or do you get a band in?
I have a rotating band, like a squad. I’m like Jose Mourinho rotating them! I’ve got a few people who’ve been with me for a few years. A guy called Chris Hillman who’s with Billy Bragg and loads of others. He’s coming at it from sort of a folky/country angle. I like to cherry pick really good musicians and then put them together. With this album, because there’s quite a lot of strings, I’m going to get a cellist in, lots of strings going on. It’s just about finding the best person for the job and then turning them on to your music.
Broken Flowers is released via Wonderfulsound on 26 May. Pre-order it here.
30 April – Salford, SFTOC Festival
20 May – Hebden Bridge, Trades Club (acoustic set)
28 May – Liverpool, LSS Festival
29 May – London, Spiritland (album playback and DJs)
9 June – Manchester, Deaf Institute