Tom Aspaul‘s debut album is a fucking triumph.
Black Country Disco is a brilliant concept. Take life in the mundane, dull-skied West Midlands of the UK and make it slap through exploring heartbreak, fear, new beginnings, blooming & finding yourself again through exciting, brilliantly written, confessional pop music with a disco twist.
For an artist who we first stumbled across with an exceptional song nearly seven years ago – that ended up being reimagined by Kylie Minogue and kickstarting his career as a songwriter proper – this album feels like far more than just a debut album. It’s a full realisation of an artist that writes unlike anyone else, delivers consistently and makes you happy through processing his sadness. It’s a special thing to be able to do.
It’s just gone 1am where Tom is, he’s just finished watching a black and white film with his Mum and we’re ready to talk. Nic Kelly in bold, Tom Aspaul in not-bold, and hit play before you read through this.
Your album comes out this week. Wow.
I know. Everything is going according to plan, whatever that means. I’m feeling good. I thought I’d be more emotional and more fraught, but I’m not at all, I’m very sort of calm and just excited. I can’t believe how long it’s been – I announced the name of the project on the exact same day, a year before. So it’s like a big, full circle. That year has just been like the most crazy year in everyone’s life pretty much. It’s just been mad.
The 12 months since then just feel particularly whirlwindish.
Yeah, and I’m not trying to make out that I’ve had it even more dramatic than everyone else. But in the sort of three, four months before the pandemic kicked off, I left my job and my boyfriend and my home and where I lived, I left everything where I’d been living for like twelve years. So then I came back home, and then this all kicked off… it’s just been mad. At the same time, it’s been a whirlwind in a good way. I’ve learned loads of stuff like I’ve gotten really good at producing, I’ve learned how to run my label quite effectively, I’ve learned how to do physical records and physical CDs… I’ve gotten better a lot of things. It’s been an experience and a learning curve.
You’ve been an icon of bundles recently, I saw all the bundles. Talk me through that physical production process?
Have you heard, like, the anecdote about at the end of the Second World War, Winston Churchill and Roosevelt and I think Joseph Stalin made a note on a napkin… I could be making this up… but that’s pretty much how I just decided what went where with the bundles. It was like, really late night. It was the middle of June, I was listening to Fleetwood Mac, I was sitting here right now. I had my notebook open. And I was like, “I’ve got 100 vinyl that I’ve been given by Qrates. And I was like, “I’m just going to split them in two, put some this way and sell some this way, and then make so many CDs.” I just did it without looking at the cost of manufacturing anything. Or how much do people tend to sell them for and I just did it. And luckily, everything has like, worked out budgetwise.
When I bought the vinyl though, it almost didn’t matter to me the cost, because I was so invested in what you were doing with this project. and the concept of Black Country Disco. Not many artists will announce the project and then start sort of leaking the tracks gradually and introducing what the world is. Most people will do most of the tracks, then maybe a month out they’ll say what the project and the concept’s called, but you’ve kind of flipped that on its head. I think that might bring some more personal investment from people, do you think?
Yeah, possibly. And that was never my intention. I thought this album was going to be out in, like, the beginning of 2020. And obviously I announced it in September 2019. So it was only three months – kind of more or less what you were saying – like the regular rollout. But it took a lot longer for things to get finished. AND I went to Australia for like, three weeks. In the end it was nice, because the more unplanned it kind of was at some stage, it made me able to change things and adapt. That adaptability was a stroke of luck, really, because then obviously the pandemic happened and I’d not set a release date, thank God, because that would have been f’d, royally. Obviously you can always put dates back and stuff, but I hate to backtrack, so I just kind of kept that release date dangling. I was going to try and do July 14th, because that is the official Black Country Day, but then it made sense for that to be the day I would announce the name of the album and then it would come out in September. So it’s actually all kind of panned out well, but yeah, like you said – I think because of that it’s like a happy accident, people have become more invested.
I think there’s something really nice about that, we’ve had more time to sit with the individual songs and get an understanding of this world you’re going for. For folks who don’t quite understand the concept of Black Country and what you’re doing Black Country disco, could you talk to that a little bit for me?
I’m from a part of England called the Black Country. I can’t think of an Australian example. But an American example, it’s quite easy to compare it to somewhere like Detroit or Cleveland, somewhere that had quite a lot of industry and a lot going on in the 60s and 70s. And then the economy sort of fell out the bottom and then loads of people became unemployed. There’s still a lot of unemployment and deprivation… so that’s a really like depressing way of describing where I’m from but it’s also full of incredible people and lots of amazing music has come from here… but it doesn’t really have much of a uniting identity. It’s also kind of inspired by so many different artists who are very proud of where they’re from – like California Girls, Empire State Of Mind, Americans particularly. I kind of thought it would be nice to flip that on that head, flip it on its head and do something quite tongue-in-cheek and British. If you ask any British person, what their least favorite part of the UK is, they would probably say the West Midlands or the Black Country where I’m from. It just has a bad reputation for being really grim and really dull and really gray and boring, and I was kind of forced to move back here when my relationship ended, I just didn’t have the funds or the time to find somewhere to live in London. And I had a dog. That was very difficult, landlords are very funny about pets. So I was just like, no, let’s go home. I’ve got a really lovely family, and they were all very willing to have me. I just came home and I remember being in my room and thinking, I’m like, I’ve ne. I guess that’s where the initial idea was, and it’s a whole load of emotions. Nostalgia, because it’s obviously where I grew up. And then also a sense of loss because I’d left everything behind in London, but then also like rediscovering where I was from and the beauty in it all because it is quite bleak, but I think it’s also really beautiful and great and amazing at the same time and it’s just a combination of all of that I think. The album itself is in a sequence, where I wrote the first half when I first moved back and then the second half is after I’ve lived here a while and you can you get a sense of the journey I go on which is from being quite depressed and sad and lonely and then kind of realizing I actually love it here and life is so much better because I can be free and creative and I don’t have to pay 1000 pounds a month rent in London. It’s like a whole journey that I’ve been on, which is similar to you, you left Sydney and moved up to the Central Coast didn’t you? Which is sort of the same distance? It’s like an hour out of town, right?
Yeah, I connect to that so much. I was in the hustle and bustle of the city all the time, really getting caught up in that and not really taking any time to actually consider who I was as a person, it was all in the context of the people I was around, and then I moved back up here and just got to breathe for a minute. You evolve so quickly when you’ve got that time with yourself.
Yeah, you do. It is amazing how the human brain works, because there’s so much stuff I’ve kind of buried, that I remember about me and who I was, and I think it’s all kind of wrapped up when you’re in a relationship anyway. You kind of give so much of yourself to another person, that you kind of forget who you are, in a sense and so where better to rediscover who you are, than where you were born and where all your family are and where your roots truly are. It sounds really corny but like, it’s massively about rediscovering who I am and who I’d forgotten I was. A lot of my heart is still in London, my friends are still there and a lot of this album – well, most of it – would have been possible without the help of a lot of people who still live there. And you know, I miss it. But I think you just have to look at the circumstances I was in, and being a creative person in London is pretty soul destroying. I couldn’t afford to live there and do this. And if I did, I had to work pretty much a nine to five job. Which I enjoyed, but it took all my free time and none of that was left to create, and I think that was causing me a lot of frustration.
That’s where you lose your sense of self a little bit, don’t you, when your life is made up of eight hours of your 9-5, four or five hours of creation… something has to give. Either sense of self, your relationship, your sanity / sleep schedule, something’s got to give there. There’s only so many hours in the day.
100%, and there are so many other things and so many other reasons that everything kind of worked out better now, where I am. I kind of think as well, on a real big philosophical scale, it doesn’t sit well with me making someone else their fortune by working all the hours God sends to be able to live in a flat that I don’t own! And you know, I’m no spring chicken, I’m about to turn thirty-four, it’s pretty much now that I have to do this otherwise I will have massive regret. The opportunity really presented itself and I had to sort of take it by the hands and do it. I had to do it. It sounds so dramatic when I’m verbalising it…
It’s a kind of a domino effect in your brain, isn’t it? Like, why am I working this job, OH to pay for this flat that someone else owns… and we just end up a cog in the capitalist system, which we’re still happy to be a part of! It’s just we want a little bit more freedom, I think.
Yeah. And I consider myself incredibly lucky because my family didn’t turn around and say, “get a job.” And like, “you’re in your early 30s, everyone else is getting by and own houses or whatever, why aren’t you?” They’ve never ever questioned it once. They do support me and all of that. I’m very lucky in that sense, because some people don’t have that support network. But, you know, at the same time, I don’t have family that live in London or have anything to do with the music industry, I’ve kind of not had any guidance from anyone in the music industry until I was sort of in my 30s anyway.
You’ve always run your own race, haven’t you? You’ve always done this off your own bat.
I think so. Yeah. Like, I haven’t really had that much help. I was saying today actually, I am so grateful for everything that happened with my songwriting, but I think if I didn’t have that initial success with Kylie Minogue, things would have been so much more different because I think that kind of pigeon-holed me as a writer, and I was kind of coerced down a path that I wasn’t necessarily 100% happy going down, which is just writing for other people, and I think I always wanted to be an artist and I was never allowed to really. Part of me thinks maybe you know, who’s gonna buy a record from – at that point – someone in their late 20s making pop music? I can understand why you wouldn’t want to back me if I was a horse, at that point. But in a way that’s just made me, now, more determined than ever. I think also I care less. I literally don’t give a shit. I don’t really have much to lose, which is a thing that’s just made everything so easy because I have such a clear vision of who I am and what I want to do.
That’s really interesting. I saw MNEK talking this morning, because today’s the second anniversary of his album Language, someone asked him when he’s going to do another one. And he said that he’s kind of really happy doing the behind the scenes thing at the moment… I think I’ve always been best when I’m behind the scenes.
I know what you mean! It comes with age and with experience, you just know, not what your lane is but what makes you happy. It’s really selfish, I think in some ways, what I’m doing! I do have the thought that I just… like, the situation I was in before I left London, with my previous relationship, was great and it was lovely and I had a really lovely time. But I think it was inevitable at some point that there would have been a crossroads where I would have been like, “what am I doing? I’m not happy!” and I think it had to happen at some point. But the balance is really difficult between writing for the people and doing your artist project, but I have a really clear idea of what I want. And that is, I only want to do my artist project. But if people want me to write with them, then I will. Like it’s really simple! If people ask me, then I’m not going to say no if I’m not interested… Does that make sense?
It becomes almost this thing of like, “I’m going to do my artist project and nothing else. But if I get that phone call asking to write and it’s a project you feel comfortable attaching yourself to, then you’ll do it.
Whatever my capacity is. There’s been people that have come forward and it’s like, “great, this is a nice amount of work that I can handle,” because, you know, I can do it. And also, one of the great things of this whole project is I’ve literally learned how to record my own vocals and produce – two of the songs on the record I produced myself! I did the final two songs. Because it was written in sequence, and we were like, deep in lockdown and I needed two more songs. I was promised a song that someone had said I could have for the album and at the last minute they gave it to someone else. So instead, I just wrote two better songs. You know, what can you do? So the last two I wrote in June.
That’s amazing because 01902 – near the end – is probably my favourite… newer… song. I mean, this is the thing. It’s hard to pick favorites on an album with no skips and an album that’s so continuous.
Well it’s like one big song, isn’t it?
It’s two. Definitely two sides. Vinyl is literally like the best way to experience it because there are two sides to the story, I guess. And that is one of loss and heartbreak and then one of like hope joy and excitement and coming through the other side of that. That’s what the truth is, the first five or four songs I wrote are from when I didn’t really have a plan and I didn’t really know what I was going to do and my world really was like, falling apart. And then when things became more clear then also, I feel like my writing became more fine tuned and it’s more exciting to me. I think the first half is like, really heartbreaking for me to listen to. I find it quite difficult. But I think a lot of people will connect to it because it’s about heartbreak and that’s quite a universal thing. But then the second half really excites me because it’s about the future and about me sort of gaining control again. But yeah, I’d say there’s very specifically two sides to it.
Hearing you communicate the meaning behind what you’ve put in the last couple of years is a very special thing to hear. It takes a lot of work to get to a point where you can communicate the mission that you’ve been on.
Yeah, well, do you know what – it’s all I’ve done for years! I would be embarrassed if I was having one of these conversations and I had nothing to say, because I have SO much to say. Like, there is so much time and effort gone into it.
I could talk for hours about this, but I’m also cogniscant of the fact it’s 1:15am. Is there anything else you want to communicate about this record and your feelings around it?
I think it’s really important that people listen to in sequence, but each song is individually there for the taking and for your enjoyment. Like, I don’t want to be one of these weird musos that’s like you have to listen to my album in sequence like that’s not the case. But I think it’s quite unique. It’d be great if you knew the background to it, because I think it would make the listening a bit more enjoyable, but also that I really hope it doesn’t sound like this really serious record devoid of any fun because it’s not! Like, it is so fun, from front to end. There’s loads of funny little interludes and the songs don’t necessarily do what you’d expect them to do. I’ve really worked on the songwriting and tried to make it as interesting as possible and as weird and offbeat as possible. I hope that comes through and I just hope, after all this time, it kind of finds an audience and people can find something they like on there. It’s been such a funny weird ride and I can’t wait for it to come out and for everyone to hear.