Nic Armstrong still thinks of himself as an artist. That’s because he hasn’t quite caught up with being ‘discovered’ as a musician, says Dan Cairns, The Sunday Times.
Of all the many pearls of wisdom parents bestow on us as children, surely one of the most irritating is: “It’s not the winning, it’s the taking part that counts” — scant comfort when some Midwich Cuckoo has carried off the prize you have spent a whole term working towards.
But for the Newcastle-born musician Nic Armstrong, being an also-ran has proved the making of him. When his girlfriend sent off a cassette of his demos last year to a competition run by a music magazine, Armstrong had little hope for it — a pessimism vindicated when he failed to win. But someone at the magazine was impressed enough by the 24-year-old’s rasping voice and modern take on British beat music to pass the tape on to Björk’s record label. Within a week, he had signed a deal; days later, he was recording his debut album in Liam Watson’s analogue-only Toe Rag studio in east London (the studio of choice for the White Stripes).
“It’s crackers,” Armstrong says now, an ever-present roll-up clamped between his lips. “To sign me without even hearing me play live, as well. I just went down to the company and they said, ‘Let’s make a record.’ And I’m like, ‘What the hell?’” Armstrong’s debut, The Greatest White Liar, is a 14-track stunner that comes haring out of the traps, does its stuff and departs after a mere 40 minutes. A first listen tickles your soft spots for early Stones, Kinks and Beatles — an impression strengthened by Armstrong’s sandpapered singing voice, which is hewn from the same rock that made Lennon, Jagger and Armstrong’s fellow Geordie, the Animals’ Eric Burdon.
Prolonged exposure lifts the album beyond mere pastiche. Certainly, tracks such as I’ll Come to You, Broken Mouth Blues and Natural Flair are immersed in the vernacular of early-1960s British blues. And you could look, too, at his mien — Lennon cap, collar-up donkey jacket — and think, hello, it’s the penniless art-student look, and smell a carefully packaged marketing concept. Except that that is precisely what he was.
“I’m pretty much a painter,” he says, for all the world as if he hasn’t got an album to promote. “Ever since I was a kid, I was drawing and painting; that’s what my main way of living was, of keeping my mind going and feeling safe. And I’ve still got that, which I’ll go back to if the music career f***s up.” He says he took up the guitar as a way of conquering his shyness. “I didn’t have no friends as a teenager, I was just sat drawing in my bedroom. Then I thought, blow this, I want to play guitar, get out there a bit, open up.” Even then, progress was slow. “I wanted to be a lead guitarist,” he laughs. “And my uncle went, ‘Do you know what chords are?’ and I said, ‘No.’”
It was, as it so often is, a parental record collection that got him going. “I got into the Stones and all those other bands my dad was listening to, and it was like a big tree of influence. I went through stages of listening to death metal, I had a gangsta-rap stage, a techno stage. But then the blues came, and that’s when it started.”
“It” was, of course, the urgent need, never mind desire, to set down on paper and tape the words and music that came pouring from his head. You can feel that gale force of compulsion on The Greatest White Liar. Suddenly, Armstrong’s music-making, hitherto an insular activity — and, he hints, not a release from but rather a buttress for his tendency to depression — was out in the open.
It was a far cry from his experience of songwriting up to that point. “I was staying up all night,” he recalls, “going to bed at eight in the morning, just concentrating on the music. University (in his current home town, Nottingham) took me five years to get through, because I was too busy with the music.” A succession of “mind-numbing” jobs, all of which, Armstrong admits, he was quickly sacked from, meant that something as supposedly liberating as music was in danger of becoming an indulgence as much as a necessity. A lack of money was a constant issue.
“I remember one night,” he says, “I was supposed to be going back to Newcastle, but I missed my bus. I had no money, no heating, no electricity. It was fireworks night, and I was sat watching them. Through boredom, I got this plate and started building up matches. I thought I would put them in a pile, light it, and it would just spark up. So I put some candle wax on, and I had a tin of lentil soup, so I put that on, too. The fire was going wild, the plate jumped and cracked, and it spread to the carpet.” He says all this with a wry smile, but you sense that, for all that the period in question makes for good anecdotes now, it cost him a lot at the time.
For such a talented songwriter — and a truly exceptional singer — Armstrong is fantastically modest (and, accordingly, probably has an ego the size of a house). Were it not for his girlfriend’s trip to the postbox, we might never have heard of him.
“I never even thought about singing,” he says. “I couldn’t even speak at school. I’d clam up.” He’s making up for it now.
Perhaps our parents were right after all: to the loser, it seems, the spoils.