2020 has been a complete bust --- that's hardly a revelation. What is a definite revelation, however, is the new album by Noush Skaugen, just in time to save an otherwise crappy year. From hearing the advance singles, I knew this was going to be a very good record. Still, I was not prepared for the scope of great songs that Noush has assembled for the Michael Beinhorn-produced Hey Sicko (Wildcard Records).
From beginning to end, every track shines like a bright star in its own constellation. With a vibe sort of recalling the '70s, each track has its own identity, carving out its own particular place in the set. Noush slickly pulls together a bunch of moods to power each song, going from rockers like "Run Baby Run" and "Black on Gold" to more thoughtful tunes like "Tonite" and "Only the Good Die Young".
There are many surprises here like the sassy "If the Devil" that surely has to become a live staple and the mesmerizing title track which is simply beautiful. I can go on and on but suffice to say that there are 12 tracks on this record and beyond no passengers --- every song is first-rate.
If you're not already familiar with Noush, this British singer-songwriter released her debut full length in 2008 to great critical acclaim. In the meantime, she has balanced her music career with a venture into the acting world. She has a recurring role in the comedy series Dead Pixels as well as a starring role in the movie Sisters in Arms/Soeurs d'Armes.
If you haven't guessed by now, I'm kind of a fan and urge everyone who likes singer-songwriters who can deliver great material in a first class manner to check out Hey Sicko. Although the year is not done yet, I can safely predict that this 5 star winner is by far my favorite record of 2020. Read on to find out what Noush tells us what went into making it.
antiMusic: Lost and Found was released 12 years ago. So Hey Sicko was 12 years in the making. Why the long gap?
Noush: As an artist I am a marathon runner, not a sprinter! I love the process, delving into the rabbit hole like 'Alice in Wonderland', being absorbed by the world I'm creating. That in turn starts to grow and take on a life of its own around me --- only coming up above ground to release a piece of work to the public when it is ready, the best it can be and timeless.
It is a hard thing to do to let go of something that has been a part of your life for over a decade, as you can always go back in the studio, tweak the bass, tweak the guitar riff, the tones, the mix, the masters and on and on...but at some point creatively we need to release it which is cathartic in itself.
My nature is also from the camp of artists like Stanley Kubrick, rather than a prolific pop artist in terms of quantity of work released to the public. It's not about releasing material just to release for me so there is a constant flow of work regardless of whether it is good or not. My inspirations are the classic rock, blues & folk albums that are still masterpieces of work and timeless to this day.
Lost and Found was recorded at one of the finest studios, Blackbird in Nashville, and with the finest Nashville musicians (several from Keith Urban's band) in the Nashville way. However, I wanted to evolve, grow, push boundaries and create a piece of work musically which was looser, that came from a live rock 'n roll vibe, musicians simply jamming and vibeing in the purest way, nothing manipulated or controlled.
Lyrically I wanted the theme to be inspirational, something that we can all connect to in the world as humans, regardless of our nationality, race, background. As a piece of work it was important to me that the record takes the listener on a journey, and where every song is a stand-alone song of quality. These kinds of projects can take time.
antiMusic: I'm getting a vibe of the '60s, 70s and '80s when people made records that they cared about, not just throwing out "hit singles" created by eight people and massaged by A&R people. What was your criteria in assembling songs that would eventually be included in Hey Sicko?
Noush: Absolutely that was my inspiration and intention, I'm so happy you get that vibe from the record! Assembling the songs was the hardest part. I wrote for several years before connecting with Michael Beinhorn, and at that point I had hundreds of finished song demos and many more germs of ideas. With Michael we narrowed down the songs good enough musically and lyrically with the same thread to be on the record to nine or ten.
Then once I travelled from London to LA where we did the record, more work was done in the old-school way of A&R of really digging to find my true voice as an artist, what I wanted to say and my vision. Then at our place in Venice Beach, before my musicians with whom I had toured extensively in the US, from Nashville arrived, I continued to write for the final few songs that would make it on the record. In the end we had thirteen songs, but one called 'You Said' had to go during the recording process for the record to be twelve songs. I hope to finish recording that song one day and release it as it is also a great song.
antiMusic: There is an indefinable aesthetic that permeates the group of songs here that make up the album. Over that time, it would be understandable if there was a deviation of styles in content. Considering the length of time that it took to assemble the lot, did you intend for the songs to carry an identifiable DNA or is simply a natural product of "your style"?
Noush: I think in the early process of writing the songs, which is very much a free-flow process for me, I was in a vibe that was a natural evolution of my style, then once it came to selecting the songs I certainly intended for them to have the same DNA so to speak.
antiMusic: The production of Michael Beinhorn adds a massive wallop to the material but does not act as a camouflage to shortcomings, rather giving the powerful material a backdrop to succeed in a dramatic fashion. How did his production jibe with your story-telling style?
Noush: I learned so much from working with Michael. He is an absolute genius and has the generosity, compassion and patience to truly help and guide an artist to find their vision, whilst enhancing the songs and staying true to the artist's material without putting a 'producer' stamp on the record or as you say 'camouflage' shortcomings.
We spent hours and days together defining this vision. The collaboration was incredible. Not to say the work was easy because it was long hours for all of us! I remember my drummer Jon Radford staying behind in the evenings at our rehearsal studio in Hollywood, after already eight hours of rehearsal of all of us together with Michael, to rehearse more on his own to refine the drum beats. Myself and Stanton Edwards, my guitarist and bassist would then also rehearse back at the flat in Venice Beach before the next day of rehearsals...as we were not walking into the recording studio until we were ready as a band to track.
Michael supported me and my musicians through the whole process to challenge ourselves so that we created the best work possible together. The most challenging for me was recording the vocals, as I wanted it all to be live, no autotune etc., and the goal was to get one whole vocal take for each whole song. We did this many times over to achieve the best performance possible.
The first vocal takes I did in LA, I was in the studio with Michael, our awesome engineer Beau Burchell and sometimes the musicians. But the takes weren't quite vibeing, so Michael suggested everyone leave the studio and that I track them on my own, as he had done with Chris Cornell for 'Black Hole Sun'. The solitary space, no eyes watching or listening, gave me the freedom to really dig into myself, my emotions and pull out the best performance possible. That was all Michael knowing how to achieve the best performance from an artist.
antiMusic: There is a great balance of pedal-to-the-metal songs and more take-it-slow-and-absorb tunes. Was this done on purpose to channel an even array of moods or just the way those particular songs came out? Great sequencing by the way.
Noush: Yes, the balance and order was chosen on purpose. I wanted to have an array of tempos and moods in a certain order to take the listener on an auditory and visual journey, like a film. This balance is very important to me.
antiMusic: Possibly my favorite is the title track. "Hey Sicko", the song, seems to be a gritty letter to someone who's in your rear-view mirror. What can you tell us about this song and why it was important enough to name the record after it?
Noush: "Hey Sicko" was one of the last songs to be written for the record at Venice Beach. I was still searching for the title track to tie the record together. I wanted it to be personal, gritty, honest and gut wrenching. The album is about awakening and transformation...overcoming life's challenges to grow into the person we were always meant to become, but before we can do this we have to face our darkest demons and the wolf within ourselves.
"Hey Sicko" is a letter on a personal note to disease, in particular --- cancer, which took my mother from this earth when I was a kid. I wanted to talk to it as if it was a person, but not as a victim, from a place of empowerment. I kept some of the lyrics vague, and played with some of the lyrics so anyone could relate to the song as if talking to anyone or anything that has marked us, abused us and tried to put us down, take the wind out of our wings. But humans are strong beings and we can rise above these tests and life's challenges to be even stronger and wiser.
antiMusic: "Automatic" is a terrific way to start a record. Lots of energy, an engaging riff and a great vocal. Give us the low-down on this song.
Noush: This song I wrote with Nik Kershaw. It is about the moment we decide who we want to be, at the precipice of choice, the top of the rollercoaster, after being let down by those around us, hopes and dreams that are still in the ether. Are we gonna be a victim of life or rise like the phoenix and like a warrior, dust ourselves off and lunge forward in full force, knowing we can deal with whatever life throws at us. When we do, there is no greatest high. We are high on life, unstoppable. The guitar riff was all Stanton on the guitar. He is amazing as is Jon the drummer. When you're playing with incredibly talented musicians who are your friends, the song comes together naturally.
antiMusic: "Rebels and Foes" is a great track that sounds a bit like mid '70s Stones (and not just because you mention rolling stones in the song). What is this song all about?
Noush: "Rebels & Foes" was inspired by the country greats who are kings and queens of telling a story in a song from start to finish. I wrote it in Nashville and go back through my life's journey on the road.... from leaving London to New York to LA, touring the US and all the supporters and haters, fake friends, groupies, lovers and foes who I met along the way. Touring is a lonely road. You have a lot of time to reflect, especially touring the States as each venue is several hours drive away. All make us who we are, good and bad memories.
antiMusic: "Buried in Vegas" sounds like the after-effects of an extended "lost weekend" in Sin City. Tell us about this one.
Noush: "Buried In Vegas" another track I wrote with Nick Kershaw, is very much a story about arriving in the US, with all the hopes and dreams I had as a young, naive lass from England, where we grow up watching Hollywood movies with the American dream dangling like a diamond.
The city of Vegas, with its bright, shiny neon lights, fancy hotel palaces and unlimited supply of purchasable pleasures, in actuality hides the dirty, sordid stone underneath, and this city sums up for me this underbelly of the diamond so to speak. The image and idea we have of something is never the reality, the grass is not necessarily greener, and you wake up realising the dream was a prison to break free from, leaving the person you were before on the road behind you.
antiMusic: I absolutely love "Run Baby Run". The energy level goes up about 20 notches on this cut. It must be real cathartic to play this one live. How did this one come together?
Noush: For sure, this track is amazing to play live, lots of energy!!! It's a festival, stadium track. I wrote this track on my acoustic guitar sitting on my sofa in east Nashville. It's about waking up to the narrative thrown in our faces on a daily basis from our society, family, teachers, the control which is sneaking up on us and waking up to the fact that we don't have to live this way.
Which is actually very aligned with what is happening now with COVID and all these new rules and controls enforced upon us... We choose for ourselves who we are and who we want to be. It's about individuality and having the courage to own it. Then in the studio with the musicians it all came together so fluidly. That is when you know it is a great track.
antiMusic: If listeners are not nodding their head after two seconds of "Black on Gold", then their pulse has stopped. You have said that you are a story-teller and that the story is the genesis of each song. However, this riff is so tasty that I can't believe it didn't come first. Give us the low-down on how this song came together.
Noush: This song is the only song I wrote with Paul Brady in Ireland, and originally the lyrics were completely different. We wrote it on piano and guitar, the riff came towards the end in rehearsals with the musicians. When I got together with Michael to choose the songs for the record, the melody and the song was great but lyrically it did not fit with the rest of the songs, so I re-wrote the lyrics of the whole song at Venice Beach.
Of course, it is a story as I love to write them. It's about meeting someone you connect with and how you feel in the beginning with that ignition of creativity and fun that you feel so high that you can do anything. It is a very positive uplifting track on the album.
antiMusic: If you had to prove your mettle to the more rocking portion of the listening public, you could do no better than with "If the Devil". What inspired this one?
Noush: I have always loved Joan Jett and Pat Benatar, I wanted an anthem-like song like "I Love Rock 'n Roll"...and this track is about doing your own thing, not caring what people think, throwing the judgements out the window. All of this is personified in "The Devil", dancing with the devil if you will, knowing what he is trying to do and doing your thing anyway. Musically also after having spent time at the honky tonks in Nashville, I wanted a feel good rock track that a whole bar could just sing out loud and forget themselves.
antiMusic: Another favorite is "Tonite". There's such a cool vibe about this song. What's the story behind this one?
Noush: "Tonite" was one of the last songs along with "Hey Sicko" to be written in LA, and one of my favs, which I wrote with my guitarist Stanton. Fleetwood Mac has always been a huge inspiration to me, especially the drum sequences Mick Fleetwood would play. So this song is inspired by that vibe and era, with a build throughout the whole song. It's about a girl taking flight, knowing she's looking for something more than this life she has, leaving a world behind, flying free. It's about spreading your wings and taking your freedom.
antiMusic: With regards to the COVID crisis, how are things in the U.K. at the moment? Are you able to play shows and take this music out to the people?
Noush: This moment in time is very tricky with COVID, as touring is next to impossible, but musicians are creative and we have to find other creative ways to get the music out to people. We will have to see how the situation evolves, but what I do know is that the public miss going to shows and us musicians also miss playing in front of a live audience. The world needs music, and live music. That connection is a moment in time and we write for songs to be played live...for that connection with the people. I hope we can find some solutions soon.
antiMusic: You're not only gifted musically but you've done a fair bit of acting as well. Capping the experience surely must be the starring role in the movie Sisters in Arms. Tell us about being in the movie, your acting career and how you're able to juggle it with your music endeavours.
Noush: I've always been a musician and songwriter from the very beginning, starting as a small child playing flute, saxophone and piano, then guitar came in my teens...and acting was a natural way of evolving my storytelling. With my songs and performing on stage, I have always taken on personas whilst blending them with myself.
The germ of the idea always comes from myself, and the same happens with acting and taking on a role for film or tv. It all comes under the umbrella of storytelling for me, they are just different forms which I find complement each other.
The film Sisters In Arms was a fantastic experience playing a Kurdish Guerilla fighter against ISIS. Firstly it is a cause that the world need to know about. Every day Kurdish women, with only a few weeks training, risk their lives and take to the front lines alongside the men to protect and defend their people and land with next to no support from the world.
I admire these women so much, we trained with some of the real women fighters in Morocco (where we filmed), and they are courageous and fearless,...they have much to teach the west. From an acting point of view, it was a rare and welcomed opportunity as an actress to play a lead role of special forces fighter in an all-female cast of talented women. Most of the films we see are American-style films of an all-male cast in war zones (with perhaps the token woman ) so I welcomed this opportunity, for the public to see brave women fighting for their basic human rights.
I have trained for many years in Krav Maga martial arts, so having gun and stunt training with the Moroccan and French teams was a natural evolution to my martial arts training. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I spent a week walking around with rocks in a back pack to understand the movement of a soldier! After that we added the weight of the AK-47 (Kalshnikov) and colt gun to my wardrobe, and I was ready for the stunt scenes. The filming of it was tough. We were in the real conditions the women would be in as much as possible, and with long days and nights of filming, but it was all worth it.
It is a film I am proud to be a part of. It was sold out in cinemas for the whole month when it was released in France last October and is now out on DVD. I hope more people see the film and understand what is happening, as we speak, to these women and the Kurdish people.
antiMusic: Considering the situation for live shows is in doubt for the foreseeable future, what is your plan for promoting this record going forward?
Noush: With live shows not an option at the moment, I am very grateful for interviews such as these with yourself!!! I am spreading the word as much as I can. Fans from before have been very loyal and supportive and I believe so much in the record that as people listen to it, the word will spread. Once touring opens up again, that's another story, let the games begin.
Morley and antiMusic thank Noush for taking the time to do this interview.
Purchase Hey Sicko here.
Visit the official website here.