In 2018, Ewan MacFarlane played his final show as frontman of Apollo 440 in front of 30,000 fans in a sun-kissed Seville. He had promised himself that he wouldn't be one of those fifty-something guys who is still leaping around the stage like a lunatic. So instead, at the tender age of 50, he released his debut solo album Always Everlong. It emerged to a rapturous reception, with praise from countless publications including Rolling Stone, Classic Rock, Louder Than War and The Sunday Times, who declared him to be the best voice in rock this side of the Atlantic.
Amidst the praise almost everyone posed the same question. How come the guy from Apollo 440 is now making music that feels like a kindred spirit to Tom Petty or Bruce Springsteen?
If Always Everlong delivered the unexpected, Ewan's upcoming second album Milk throws another thrilling, fascinating curveball. His love of Petty and Springsteen remains in sharp focus as heard with his previous project, The Grim Northern Social, but now you can hear touches of Al Green, Aerosmith, Arctic Monkeys, The Clash, Foo Fighters, Lucero and The Replacements within a stellar set of songwriting.
Always Everlong was an ode to my heroes, like Springsteen, Petty, Fleetwood Mac and Bowie, he begins. This album is a bit more edgy, and there's a lot more soul. Its very varied and unpredictable with some big changes in the way that some of the songs go. That's my favourite thing about being a solo artist. I can do exactly what my mind and heart wants to do.
That liberation extends to his creative process. With a home studio set-up, Ewan might wake in the middle of the night with an idea and immediately be able to tiptoe downstairs to start working on the song. He writes and records almost everything himself, the only notable exceptions being to call upon his daughters to record harmonies, his live bands drummer and bassist to improve upon his initial ideas.
The likelihood of a 2am clang of guitar or recording vocals would suggest that living with Ewan takes a little patience. Which leads us very naturally onto the albums lead single All Those Years. His bristly, soulful vocal croon exalts his life long love for his wife Jo, while a Petty-fronting-The Replacements groove fires on all cylinders.
Ewan describes it as a song that shows you can be in a long-term relationship or a marriage with children and everything that goes with it, but still fancy the pants of each other. I'm lucky that even after twenty-two years together, we can still let our hair down and be who we are as individuals with no conditions.
Its a theme that he returns to throughout the record, albeit with some characteristic twists. Mixing Memphis soul with some psych-rock flourishes, Tangled is a pure love song that, he chuckles, could also be interpreted as being a similar tale to Every Breath You Take. Meanwhile, When Al Green Sings is a tribute to an artist who you listen to and feel a wee bit better about yourself, no matter what day you've been having.
In short, its a celebration of being able to sustain a love that feels alive as the years drift by. It gives the album a universal, engaging appeal. After all, so many of us are always looking to maintain and reignite our relationships, even if life's challenges mean that its not always plan-sailing.
Its not just about being in love, he adds. Its all the emotions that come with it as well. A relationship isn't always easy, it would be bullshit if we said everyday was perfect. Sometimes you need to work through the shit and experience new things together to get to those electrifying moments where you feel just like you did when you first met. Every couple will have days when you're passionate, but there will also be days when the relationship takes some work, or is emotionally challenging. I believe this record speaks to a lot of peoples experiences:
The albums title track MILK is one of the finest moments that Ewan has ever delivered. Opening with a swaggering, indie-rock riff with a hint of Alex Turner in his vocal phrasing, it opens up epically during its chorus, while Ewan's voice takes on a tone that recalls Perry Farrell of Janes Addiction. It shouldn't work, he admits, but that's the beautiful thing about music. There are no rules.
Which begins to answer our earlier question. Ewan initially moved to London in the early nineties and was managed by the legendary Bill Curbishley when he first met Apollo 440. He was invited to drop by their studio, and his jaw dropped when he heard a fusion of drum n bass and rock n roll that they were working on. Ewan insisted he could add vocals, and after a little persuasion, his one-take, improvised lyrics became an essential element of one of their definitive moments in their album Electro Glide in Blue. His connection with the band continued over the years until he became their full-time live vocalist in 2007 and then a key creative force on their album The Futures What It Used To Be.
Apollo 440s disinterest in being confined by genres (they loved Led Zeppelin as much as they admired Roni Size and the Beastie Boys) has continued to serve Ewan well. And now he's set to unleash his similarly sprawling second album, only a few months after releasing a deluxe edition of his debut.
Working independently means I can push in whatever direction I like, with no expectations from anyone else, he concludes. Its really liberating. The variety of this album might confuse people at first, but when you put the jigsaw together it all makes sense. I've always been obsessed with songwriting and this is full of good tunes.
Those songs take on a new power during live performances as Ewan's songcraft, soaring voice and stage presence combine to fiery effect - and after time away during the pandemic, he's excited at the prospect of performing, whether its with full band shows, solo acoustic sets, or a three-piece, Johnny Cash-style skiffle line-up. He has just confirmed a headline tour of Scotland which begins this September, and expect more shows to be added imminently
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