Newton Faulkner is a 23 year old English singer songwriter with a wistful smile and phenomenal dreadlocks. But you’ll already know him as one of 2007’s most striking musical arrivals, clocking up a Number One platinum album, sell-out UK tours and a growing legion of passionate fans. This is an old fashioned word-of-mouth success story from an artist with simply stunning songs and an astonishing virtuoso guitar technique.
So just what is that Faulkner sound? It’s acoustic guitar like we’ve never heard it before. It’s things done to six strings that will boggle the ears and eyes. It’s a throaty but gentle blues croon that speaks of backwoods, beaches and the badlands of, ah, Surrey. It’s t*u*n*e*s, the likes of which have become a word-of-myspace cult across the Cornwall surf scene and landed prestigious support slots with Jack Johnson’s cult buddy Donavon Frankenreiter.
It’s a genius cover of Massive Attack’s Teardrop dropped into a set to silence a rowdy crowd whilst supporting Paulo Nutini during the World Cup or the Python-esque wit with which Newton Faulkner is fast winning over audiences across the UK.
It’s this inventiveness – this esprit de gig – that made this 22-year-old from just outside London one of the most buzzed-about DIY artists of 2006. With no promotion and bugger-all money his first release, spring 2006’s Full Fat EP, reached Number One on Amazon’s singles chart. The shuffling beats; Faulkner’s laidback scat singing and gutsy holler; the chewy blues riffs; the ‘tapping’ of strings – these had (pardon the pun) struck a chord with anyone who had stumbled across his shows in the south-west, causing the low-key release to sell-out its 3000 copies. With his wonderfully dexterous approach to guitar, Faulkner is as exciting to watch as he is to hear.
‘Tapping,’ explains Faulkner, ‘is prodding the strings really hard with your other hand, your picking hand. You can have stuff coming from both sides of the strings. There are certain frets which work really well – you get two notes and they harmonise with themselves. It sounds like there’s more than there actually this. You’re getting stuff out of both sides of the guitar.’
But Faulkner doesn’t want to get all Guitar World on our ass, even if he does play his handmade guitar (‘it’s been built to take a hammering’) with proper affection. He just wants to move us, and himself, with his music. Which is why prefers writing while he’s touring rather than while sitting at home.
‘Everything makes more sense on the road,’ he says. ‘When you’re not gigging you write stuff that’s for you in a way that you don’t when out doing gigs. If you’re doing gigs whilst writing you know what you need, you have a clear understanding of what people like and want – which I can’t seem to remember when I’m at home. Which is really stupid,’ he says with a grin, ‘but it’s just how it is.’
He spent his teenage afternoons teaching himself the guitar after picking one up for the first time aged 13. He progressed so fast that by age 16 he secured a place at the prestigious Academy Of Contemporary Music in Guildford.
Aware that there would be some serious players also enrolling, super-focused kids who’d been playing since the age of four, this three-year veteran – well, novice – spent the summer before enrolling with a guitar round his neck from dawn to dusk, working on his skills.
His diligence paid off. Under the tutelage of the college’s Head Of Guitar, the legendarily innovative guitarist Eric Roche – who sadly died in 2005 aged only 37 – Faulkner rapidly developed. ‘It was Rock School,’ he admits. But while other students were seriously into ‘heavy metal shredding,’ he was pushing on with his own style of rhythmic, percussive playing.
A stint in a teenage wannabe punk-rock band petered out. ‘I knew we really were a Green Day tribute band when at one gig we played the whole of Dookie, in order.’ He played in another outfit called Half Guy – ‘everyone else was playing angry metal in church halls so we thought we’d be perverse and be the happiest band in town. My guitar was pink…’ But the responsibilities of being, effectively, the band’s manager, soon took their toll.
So Faulkner started writing and gigging on his own. A publishing deal and a record deal – the latter with Ugly Truth, a new subsidiary of SonyBMG – quickly followed. His second release, the UFO EP, came out at the end of 2006. The lead track, a co-write with his brother, is a rippling, infectious tune that had earned him a standing ovation at one of Jo Whiley’s 2006 Xmas Little Noise gigs (sharing the Union Chapel stage with the likes of Coldplay’s Chris Martin, Lily Allen & The Automatic).
‘UFO’ was closely followed by first single proper ‘I Need Something’ which propelled Newton straight onto the Radio 1 Playlist for the first time. Follow-up ‘Dream Catch Me’ became a much coveted Jo Whiley Record of the Week and sat in the UK Top Ten for three weeks while headline shows across the UK helped send his myspace into meltdown with over 1,500,000 plays in just eight months.
Now a fully fledged touring artist, Newton wowed audiences at several major festivals through summer 2007 including Glastonbury, Secret Garden, Cambridge Folk Festival, V, Wireless and Newquay Unleashed. He’s also undertaken several headline tours that have seen him play to sell out crowds the length and breadth of the country.
July 2007 saw the release of Newton’s debut album, ‘Hand Built By Robots’ which showcases not only those fantastic vocals and beautifully dextrous guitar lines, but also wistful and intelligent lyrics delivered with tremendous wit. A winning formula indeed, as the album spent its first six weeks inside the top five, including two weeks at Number One, before quickly being declared Platinum. The album also secured a very tidy six week residency at Number One on the iTunes chart and stayed inside their Top Ten for the rest of the year.
By January 2008 ‘Hand Built..’ had gone on to sell over 500,000 copies and secure our hero a Brits nomination for Best Male Artist. Newton has also started spreading the word globally with his first North American and European live dates - a highlight being an especially exciting performance that took place in a hot air balloon high over the Swiss Alps for a radio broadcast.
‘Hand Built..’ also offers the chance to hear that staggering version of ‘Teardrop’. There aren’t many who would have the bottle to attempt a reinvention of Liz Fraser’s spectral vocal and Massive Attack’s symphonic majesty. But Faulkner does, with style. While his guitar gently weeps, his voice quietly soars. It’s quite something. He’s quite a talent. Lord knows what next he’ll magic out of those fingers, that throat, and that instrument.
Prepare to be gobsmacked.