Stephen Duffy has been busy.
The Lilac Time, the band that he has fronted since 1986, have just released ‘Return to Us’ – their tenth long player. Although it’s often easy to be over enthusiastic about such things, there’s a real sense that this may be their best work.
To coincide with its release, Duffy has travelled across the country with his acoustic guitar, performing both old and new songs in record stores to audiences that have cherished his songs for several decades. His final port of call was in his hometown of Birmingham, signing albums in Swordfish Records, as well as performing live and answering questions from radio and TV presenter Adrian Goldberg (and an enthusiastic audience) at the Glee Club.
Having attended both events in Birmingham, it was heart-warming to experience the tangible feeling of celebration at his return and the warmth that Duffy’s fans have for him. But what are Stephen Duffy’s thoughts about making, releasing and performing music in 2019? We decided to the sensible thing and ask the man himself and these are his generous answers…
OUTSIDELEFT: Hi Stephen, it’s been quite a year for you! Firstly, 'I Love My Friends' being issued as you'd originally intended it to be and then the release of what may well be the best Lilac Time album. How does it all feel?
Stephen Duffy: I find the whole business odd. It’s not like we’re back in the conversation, because I don’t know where the conversation is these days. It was good to go and play the Rough Trade shops and the gig in Birmingham because otherwise I don’t know if I’d have felt it. I enjoyed holding the vinyl albums. That felt good. I don’t know what I was expecting, perhaps more than this. But I’ve always felt that. I’ve spent the last 33 years continually amazed we’re not huge!
OUTSIDELEFT: I'm a little perplexed by some of the responses to 'Return to Us' as being your 'political' record. But there's always been an element of protest in your songs from 'Rockland' (1987) to 'Babylon Revised' (2015). Have you been surprised by this reaction?
Stephen Duffy: We’ve always been a political band but maybe we lived in times when people found it easy to separate music from politics. Like anything can be without politics. I started writing some of these songs in 2015 and the record could have come out last year. I was concerned the songs would sound dated or that events would have played out leaving the songs without purpose. But, unfortunately, they seem more relevant to me. I was worried that the line alluding to folks voting for fascism was going to appear over the top. But now the Conservative party are the most overtly fascist party since Mosley’s British Union of Fascists.
The British Documentary Film Movement that started in the thirties wanted to make films that strengthened democracy, to use the new medium for social reform and progressive social change. Now we have the Conservative Party using the new medium of social media to spread disinformation that only divides society and wants to plunge us back to the age of workhouses and no education for the poor. Nothing for the working class.
OUTSIDELEFT: 'Hills of Cinnamon' is one of your most poetic lyrics. It reminded me of the piece you wrote earlier this year for Poetry Magazine about your early desire to be a poet and of some of the writers who had influenced you. Do you ever feel the desire to publish something which doesn't require singing or music? Is there a book of verse in you?
Stephen Duffy: I got the idea for ‘Hills of Cinnamon’ from the ‘Song of Solomon’ which is where I got ‘Kiss Me’ from. ‘Kiss Me’ from the first verses and ‘Hills’ from the last. A lot of this album is about reassurance in difficult times. About saying we’ll be okay if we stick together, hold each other tight and don’t jump in the river. I don’t know if I’ve ever managed to make a great album. This one feels as good as it’s got so far. The challenge of writing songs still feels immense so the idea of spending time writing verses I won’t sing never occurs to me. I like songs and recording songs too much. I love that process. I love making records. Which is unfortunate as streaming has killed the album. The art of record making is not celebrated in the same way. It felt like the ultimate art form to me growing up. Now it’s hardly acknowledged. Making a record is like Christmas to me. I still want to be a poet.
OUTSIDELEFT: How is the memoir progressing? Is it still going to be called 'What the Fuck Was I Thinking?’
Stephen Duffy: I do persevere with writing a memoir. I’ve been writing it since 1979. Now I’m trying to weave sections of all the old manuscripts into a new one. There are things about Birmingham I want to say. About how it was a tough town, but it was a smart town. I remember going to see the CBSO with my dad in late sixties early seventies, walking through the evening streets. It was not a Poundland world, it was not a poor place. It might’ve been a “we didn’t know we were poor place” but it was a city with a purpose, lived in splendid buildings. The Town Hall. The Golden Eagle, the old library the new library, the old Rep, the new Rep.
After I left the Durans and art school I signed on. At first you dawdled in, signed and got your £12 a week but then it started to fill up. Soon you went every fortnight, then once a month. But I’m sure they all voted for Thatcher so Minis could be made by BMW. So that Metro Cammell and the railways could be sold to the French and the Dutch. So that the British Telecom could be privatised just before the most enormous revolution in telephony. Imagine a country that owned the dividends of the mobile phone revolution, how many hospitals and council houses could have been built. That was what was stolen from us. So yes, I feel as if I should finish the memoir.
OUTSIDELEFT: On 'March to the Docks' you mention Constitution Hill in Birmingham in the opening line. There are numerous references to places Birmingham throughout your song writing. What is it about referring to particular locations that appeals to you?
Stephen Duffy:: I loved ‘Tears of Rage’ when I heard it in ’75 when that ‘Basement Tapes’ album came out. “We carried you in our arms on Independence Day. And now you'd throw us all aside and put us on our way”. Constitution Hill. The Municipal Iron Works. Barbarella’s even. Home. A sense of place. I hope my feeling for these places are something that others might recognise.
OUTSIDELEFT: You named the band after a line in Nick Drake's song 'River Man'. 'Lilac Time' also appears in the title of a film and poems by Walt Whitman. But, ultimately, what does the term ‘Lilac Time' mean to you?
Stephen Duffy:: I was very aware of Joe Boyd's Witchseason family. I saw the Incredible String Band at Birmingham Town Hall in October 1969. I loved Fairport Convention, I never saw them with the same line up twice, but I loved them all. Beverly Martin, Nick Drake and later non Witchseason artists like Kate & Anna McGarrigle. It was Nick Laird Clowes from The Dream Academy who put ‘Heaven in a Wild Flower’, the first Nick Drake compilation, into a cassette player next to my head that made me re-focus on it all in 1985. That and ‘Don’t Look Back’ being shown on the BBC for the first time on my 26th birthday. I hated electronic music by then. I wasn’t any good at it really. So Lilac Time means trying to be me for the first time. I’m only just getting there.
‘Return to Us’ by The Lilac Time is available now on BMG. Read our review here.
‘I Love My Friends’ by Stephen Duffy is available now on Needle Mythology. Read our review here.
Official website: stephenduffy.com
Jason Lewis is a Birmingham based music, movie and arts obsessive. Jason's encyclopedic knowledge of 80s/90s Arts films is a debt to his embedded status in the Triangle Arts Centre trenches back then.