Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Sneak Attack: Allan Pownall

Contemporary pop is crowded with wannabes, young hopefuls of varying ability who will stop at nothing to achieve the alleged dream-state of fame. In that climate, we should cherish any artist who breaks through, while having higher, purely creative goals in mind.

At 24 years of age, Alan Pownall has the world at his feet, and yet he has reached this favourable position almost in spite of himself. He is not one of those singer-songwriters who regales you with stories of first picking up an acoustic guitar, aged 3, writing his first song in half an hour, and playing at 500 open-mic folk nights before anyone had even heard of him.

Alan makes no bones about the fact that he first tackled the instrument in 2004, and that his path has subsequently been somewhat charmed: after playing only three or four gigs, he toured as a support act for Adele, and now is about to release an album on one of the world’s biggest record labels.

Pownall, though, is sure to be one of 2010s brightest new stars. His song-craft feels so effortless – tracks like ‘Clara,' a Kinksy, easy-strumming message to a tantalizing would-be girlfriend ("you build me up to just let me fall") breeze past so sublimely tunefully — that one might almost imagine its creator never breaks sweat.

That impression, however, is deceptive: these past five years, Alan has taken musicianship and songwriting to the point of obsession, trying on styles for size, changing direction, re-writing lyrics, tweaking melodies, adding and subtracting various instruments from his arrangements, reaching for perfection.

The young South West Londoner was at art school in Milan, when music-making first became a possibility for him. "I lived quite a reclusive existence there", he says, chuckling as he remembers how inadvertently he discovered his own talent.

"My father came over to visit and brought me a guitar. For about six months, I never even picked it up, it just sat there as a perfect accessory to an art student’s flat. It was only when a friend of mine came over and started playing around with it that I thought i'd give it a try. It was just one of those things: the more I did it, the more I liked it".

Circa 2006, Alan quit his course and came home to pursue music. He'd written a handful of songs in a folky idiom, but was vaguely looking to get a band together to perform them with, when he was offered a gig at Nambucca on Holloway Road. The only condition was that he had to play solo, on acoustic guitar. In the intervening three months, he brushed up his mini-repertoire, but his debut was a disaster. "At one point, I stopped to apologise for my guitar-playing – that’s how bad it was".

Alan had only made a couple more live outings, when he met Adele at the Troubadour. "I sheepishly said to her, you can check out a couple of my songs on MySpace. Within a couple of weeks, I was in her Top Friends. Two weeks after that, I was on holiday, and I got a message from her saying, Do you want to support me on my first UK tour?"

"I was excited at the prospect – and I had to do it, I wasn’t going to get the opportunity again – but at the back of my mind, I knew I wasn't ready. I only really had four songs to my name, which included ‘Colourful Day,' and three others which I don’t really do anymore. I was writing songs on the road. There were some gigs, where I was reading the lyrics off a piece of paper. It was so unprofessional". He shudders. "I definitely remember coming off that tour feeling a little bit broken, but it was all part of getting there".

Undaunted, Alan used his trial-by-fire as a motivation to reappraise what he was doing with his music. In the meantime, he landed a publishing deal, and moved out of his family home to share a flat with Jay Jay Pistolet, and Mumford & Sons. He played gigs with numerous rising young acts, including Florence & The Machine, Jack Penate, Noah & The Whale, Laura Marling and Kid Harpoon. After signing up with Mercury Records, he went out on his second tour, supporting Mr. Hudson, and was soon ready to start work on his album.

Alan had been feeling increasingly limited by the acoustic format, and his latest batch of songs were crying out for further arrangements, with a full band. "I'd been living in a very folky environment, and I wanted to do something else. I didn't want to be another ‘one man and his guitar’: I found it uninspiring. The same chords, the same formula, and the pursuit is really just the lyrics. I like folk music, I just don't feel there's much more to offer it".

Alan’s voice, indeed, dominates the record, at once antique, ageless and immediate, as he croons about the romantic entanglements in his lyrics. He says that, with his later batch of songs, he sought to write more openly, amalgamating experiences in the service of a compelling song. "I’ve never met a girl called Clara", he says, "she’s made up of a number of people I’ve met".

On top of Alan's easy-rolling guitar style, his songs are fleshed out by a small, unfussy rhythm combo, plus occasional embellishments, such as violin (from Noah & The Whale’s Tom Hobden), brass or twinkly percussive instruments. "I wanted the album to be like a jazz festival in the 1940s in the south of France, but set in some dingy bar on a rainy day – like, it would have all those picturesque elements, but slightly twisted as well".

There isn't a single track aboard, which isn't 100% irresistible, touched by magic. The whole thing tells the story of a quick-flowering natural talent, from the mournful folky beginnings of ‘Colourful Day’, right up to the fully orchestrated present. Mr Pownall himself is still busy, meanwhile, writing a song per day, hoping to squeeze a couple more brand new tunes on there, and setting his sights on Album No. 2.

More imminently, he's to top the bill at Music Week’s Unearthed concert in the Elgar Room at the Royal Albert Hall, and continues a residency at Puregroove Record Shop in Spitalfields. Puregroove's in-house label.

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