ONE cannot begrudge the excellent Michael Oakley for…
slightly delaying sending back my interview. He was, rather selfishly, getting married and moving to Canada. I speak to the Scottish-born musician about his new video, Turn Back Time, and what it was like to shoot. Oakley chats about the concept and the stories within his E.P. He is a fan of 1980s music and has a real passion for the synthesiser. I ask him about the artists he grew up with and what it is about the 1980s that strikes him.
Oakley reflects on recent changes in his life and what the future holds; whether there will be new tour dates – and what advice he would offer any new musicians emerging.
Hi, Michael. How are you? How has your week been?
Hey…well, funny you should ask... my week has been totally crazy!
I just got married to my amazing, beautiful wife in Canada - and we have spent the past week with my family and her family (which has been really nice).
For those new to your work, can you introduce yourself, please?
I'm a singer/songwriter from Glasgow, Scotland and I love writing and producing retro-sounding, 1980s-inspired Electronic music.
What can you tell me about the song, Turn Back Time? What is the inspiration behind it?
Turn Back Time was written at the end of 2016 when I was seeing a girl I used to know from high-school - and we were getting on great…or so I thought. She cut me off and started seeing someone else without telling me - and I found out from one of her friends that it was because she didn't think I was all that interested in her…which I was totally surprised by. I was left with an overwhelming feeling of wishing I had made more of an effort and not been so cautious - maybe things would have been different if I had.
So; that was definitely the starting point for the concept of the song and, while writing it, I thought a lot about how, when you break up with someone and move on, you still sometimes have those moments of remembering how you felt when you were with them - when things were good and wishing you could be back in that moment; even just for a little while to feel the way you used to feel and remember what it felt like when they loved you.
Musically, I wanted the song to have a John Hughes movie soundtrack feel to it - so, I started playing with those kinds of sounds to build the emotional backdrop for the lyrics.
It seems to, appropriately, hark back to the 1980s. What is about the decade, and Electro music, that appeals to your creative sensibilities?
Well, for me, the 1980s is the greatest decade for music…
It's a time when everything was really vibrant, colourful and larger-than-life. It's the decade which has always emotionally moved me the most - and hit me in the feels - and made me feel warm and fuzzy inside for sure - as well as sparking my lifelong love for synthesisers.
The video looked like it was awesome to shoot. Where was it filmed and whose concept was it?
Yeah. I had the most amazing time shooting my video!
It was filmed in Long Beach, California with my great friend Brad Kinnan and Joshua Paul Millar. When Brad and I met to talk about it, we didn't really know initially what the concept of the video was going to be - other than getting a DeLorean car and revolving it around that! I then had an idea of the video revolving around a happy relationship but, at the end, you find out the girl is really dead - and what you were watching was my memories. I liked the idea of that being a sort of metaphor for what it feels like when someone you love walks out of your life...
Certainly, the person you knew and shared your life with no longer exists: the way you knew them and all you're left with is memories. It was Brad's girlfriend Madison who suggested we make the video mostly first-person perspective; from me having the memories and focus on the girl in the video, Camille Prior - who was absolutely fantastic as my dead girlfriend.
She brought a wonderful charm and melancholy to the video that was perfect. The DeLorean was great because I'm a HUGE Back to the Future fan, but for me, Camille is the centrepiece that really made the video incredibly special.
Looking at the video and it seems you have a future as a bit of an actor. Has going into T.V. and film, as an actor or composer, ever appealed to you?
Haha! Well you know I felt quite at home being filmed, believe it or not. I thought I would get all self-conscious and flaky when the camera started rolling - but I managed to slip into character and, luckily, it translated back well on scree…so, phew!
I don't know if I'll be making a cameo appearance in Game of Thrones anytime soon, though.
Is it true your sister got you into the synth. music of the 1980s? Do you give her royalties for that great tip – or tell yourself you would have discovered the music without her help?
Well... I had to wait till she went to work first before I could sneak in and listen to it!
Then, make sure I had dusted my fingerprints off all the L.P.'s and put everything back EXACTLY how she left it when I was finished. L.o.L.
IMAGE CREDIT: Tony Skeor
Who are the artists from that time that first struck your ears?
New Order, Pet Shop Boys; Depeche Mode, Erasure; Duran Duran and Tears for Fears were definitely the first artists that I got obsessively into.
I still love them now just as much as when I first heard them.
How instrumental was the music you were brought up to where you are now? Do you think music peaked in the 1980s – or is there something about the decade that stands out to you?
I would say that, contrary to what a lot of people I know, think; I really believe this is a great time for new music right now. We live in the recycled generation where, creatively-speaking, we're taking the most beloved elements from past decades; fusing them together to make something completely new - but with modern production techniques.
I also think it's great that anyone can now buy a laptop and start making music easily - and have access to the kind of creative studio tools which weren't easily available and affordable ten or twenty years ago.
Everyone has a level platform to express themselves with, musically - and that, in itself, is amazing.
IMAGE CREDIT: Tony Skeor
How much of your E.P. deals with personal events and romantic fall-out? Was there a time, when everything was going wrong - and you felt that music was the best way to make sense of things?
I started writing California shortly after a very painful break-up with someone I was in a long-term relationship with. I was completely lost in every way - emotionally and spiritually. The one good thing that came from that was that I started writing again after a long period of not doing so. I felt I had something to say and needed a place to channel my despair - and writing music was my kind of cathartic way of processing everything going on in my life.
Every song on the E.P. is a love song in all the different shades you can have: a love lost, a love found and a love you're trying to find. I didn't intend to write music again for anyone else to hear except me - which I think is why it's so retro-sounding. I decided to make the kind of music I loved listening to when I was a kid just for me - and I was shocked and overwhelmed at how well my music been received so far.
California is the name of the E.P. You took a trip there to see John Glenn Kunkel from The New Division. How did you two spark up a friendship and how important is his friendship to your life?
Well. Apart from being a massive fan of The New Division; I had also heard and loved John's solo-work on other projects; so I contacted him in the middle of 2016 and, from that, we started talking - and I asked if he would help me with my album which, thankfully, he agreed to do!
John is one of the most talented guys I've ever met and it was a real honour for me watching him work in the studio. He's the melodic master when it comes to getting detail on a track and finding what parts melodically complement each other - and changing parts that don't so that the music flows and builds naturally.
I think I drove him crazy towards the end of the sessions with my overly-obsessive ways when I'm in a studio working! But John is one of only a few people I trust enough to just sit back and let him take complete creative control on my songs - when I feel I have taken them as far as I can and need direction to get me back in ‘the zone’.
I'm heading back to Los Angeles in a few weeks’ time so it will be great to hang out with John and my fellow bro-ducers who helped me on the album - but this time, in a non-musical capacity but, knowing us, we'll probably end up working on something one of us has started!
IMAGE CREDIT: Tony Skeor
What was it like recording in California? Did it provide some reflection and was it the perfect place to rebuild and find some peace?
California, for me, is the most beautiful place in the world. I travelled over 6000 miles to record my album there, in Los Angeles, with some of the most amazing musicians I've ever met - and to have a life-changing experience.
It's definitely the best thing I've ever done and was great to step outside my normal life back home; to finish what I started but, you know, I went there thinking all I was doing was recording an album and having an extended holiday - when really what I was doing was making some great new friendships - and meeting and falling in love with my now-wife.
IMAGE CREDIT: Tony Skeor
How did it feel heading home after that time? Were you in a better space or was there a lot to sort out?
When I returned home, I was initially elated from my trip but quickly I felt frustrated and unhappy.
I think I thought I would go away and do what I wanted to do: have a holiday and come back to my old life refreshed and ready to carry on as normal. In reality, my experiences had changed me and I couldn't continue with my old life.
I connected with my true calling again and fell back in love with writing music - and I guess with life, also. I had met someone wonderful that I wanted to be with permanently who lived half the world away.
So, yeah, that was hard to deal with because I felt trapped - and it took a few months to slowly transition away from that and leave Scotland.
Glasgow is your home. What is the city like for a musician such as yourself? Are there a lot of artists who play the same kind of music?
I'm now living in Canada with my wife but Glasgow will always be my homeland: I just haven't had enough time to miss it yet.
I think there are a lot of musicians living in Glasgow but opportunities to be successful and break out are very limited. You can try to build a fanbase online independently however, depending on what style of music you make, it can be almost impossible to break through without any help and outside support. I was lucky that I was in the right place at the right time when I started writing again. I sent the first song I finished, Rabbit in the Headlights, to online music station New Retro Wave and, to my surprise, they loved it and put it up on their station.
The reaction I got from that was unlike anything I have ever experienced - and I think the video is now sitting at 150,000 plays…which is insane.
What tour dates are coming up? Where can we come and see you play?
I can't wait to play live but, as yet, I haven't got any plans to tour until 2018 - so watch this space…
PHOTO CREDIT: Brad A. Kinnan Photo + Video
If you had to select the three albums that mean the most to you; which would it be and why?
Ulrich Schnauss – Goodbye
For me, Ulrich Schnauss is the king of Electronic music. I don't think anyone makes a synthesizer talk as expressively and emotionally as he does. It's hard for me to pick one favourite Ulrich album but, if I was pushed, it would be this. Goodbye is a hauntingly beautiful album.
Jimmy Webb - Ten Easy Pieces
Although I love Electronic music and retro-sounding stuff; I also have a love for Acoustic singer-songwriters. Jimmy Webb is one of those songwriters from the golden-era who wrote for Frank Sinatra and Glen Campbell. He never took the centre-stage and always wrote songs for other artists. On his fiftieth birthday; he decided to record himself singing his ten most-popular songs - just him on the piano…and it's one of the most beautiful albums ever recorded.
Depeche Mode – Violator
This is the band and album that changed my life. When I first heard Enjoy the Silence, as an eight-year-old kid, I knew immediately that electronic music and synthesizers were my future as a musician. If The Beatles spawned a whole generation of kids in the 1960S - to want to pick up a guitar - then Depeche Mode are the band that spawned a generation of kids in the 1980s - to want to pick up a synthesiser. I love this album so much that I have the rose from the album cover tattooed on my arm.
What advice would you give to artists coming through right now?
Always keep your music and artistic expression pure.
Don't get side-tracked, mentally, with making money from your music - or how other people are going to respond to your music. You're making music for the love of doing it and for you and no-one else. You then sell that love you have for it more than the actual music itself. It doesn't matter if you aren't talented enough or don't have the right equipment - or if you don't really know what kind of music you want to make and lack direction. All that will come in time as you develop but, right now, make a decision to be creative with what you have - and keep moving forward.
I used to be in bands before writing and singing my songs which, looking back, weren't great but it was all part of my developmental journey. I still don't think I have reached that point yet where I feel accomplished or anywhere near as good a writer as the people I listen to and respect – which, I think, is a good thing.
There’s always room to grow - no matter what level you're at.
Finally, and for being a good sport; you can name a song and I’ll play it here (not one of yours as I’ll do that).
John Waite - Missing You
This is one of my all-time favourite songs. I'm a sucker for a power-ballad…
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