Simon Batten’s stirring folk-tinged voice and dreamy melodies have made their way through our hearts and onto our pages. Three years after his debut album ‘Unsettled Weather’, the Oxford-born songwriter is on the verge of releasing his second musical brainchild, still secret, still untitled, but deeply rooted in the Italian soil, where he has been living since 2013.
Michelle Davis: Simon, you’re from Oxford, a town that has spawned music legends such as Foals and Radiohead. Tell us a bit about this mysterious musical hub.
Simon Batten: Oxford certainly punches above its weight musically, considering the size of the town. While I find that Florence is more about professional musicians and official gigs, Oxford offers a lot of really good open mic nights where everyone can play, perform or read poetry. The actual music scene is quite good but difficult to break out from. Everything in England is concentrated in London, where everyone eventually moves to pursue a musical career.
MD: But you ended up in Florence!
SB: Italy was a big attraction for me. Its way of life, the freedom you get from the sunshine. In England, weather completely dominates our existence. I was lucky to end up in Florence, where I can carry on with my music. My new album is all about the journey that brought me here. For example, ‘Arrival’ portrays the moment I set foot in Umbria. The mysterious, misty countryside, the isolated forts peaking out amidst the haze covered hills. I sort of immediately coupled it with the idea of going to heaven. Someone once said that when you leave a place for a certain period of time, it is a bit like preparing yourself to leave this world. The underlying theme I had in mind is loosely based on the color ultramarine, which literally means ‘beyond the sea’.
MD: Through an open call on your website you formed a band, The Strangers, which accompanies you live. The musicians are all Italian, how has the experience been so far?
SB: The name was chosen with irony, playing on ‘straniero’ in Italian, which is actually me in this case and not the group, but also referencing the mysterious and unknown. When it comes to musicians, I feel that we are quite similar wherever you find us. After all, music is not just music on its own. Sending out an open call in a foreign country was a little bit of a shot in the dark but we clicked immediately. It is certainly a linguistic challenge, especially when it comes to using specific music terms. I found forming collaborations in Florence slightly harder than in Oxford, probably because of its lack of more ‘open’ venues, places where soloists can showcase their material and build a community. But you just have to find the right door to get into its magical little world. I am constantly surprised by all the great music that is created here...I’m a big fan of Montevarchi band Flame Parade!
MD: Right now you’re working as an English teacher. Has this more in-depth and objective relationship with your mother tongue changed the way you perceive words and somehow influenced your writing process?
SB: When you teach you become more aware of your own language, the etymology and connotation of the words you’re using. It broadens the palette you’re working with. But I usually focus on concepts to create the overall mood of the songs as well as the lyrical content. ‘Unsettled Weather’ was more of a collection of songs, as most first albums are. It was also more acoustic. The new album will have more of an electronic feel, to better express the ideas of movement and travelling.
MD: Is there something that you particularly cherish about Florence?
SB: What I love about Florence is that everywhere you’ll find something you’ve never seen before. Little gems are tucked away all over the city. One of my favorite moments is crossing the river at about 8pm when there’s that crepuscular peach light. In England the sun sets at a different angle. We just don’t have that glorious golden glow at the end of the day. Even though it’s one little aspect, it has become of vital importance to me. “Someone once said that when you leave a place for a certain period of time, it is a bit like preparing yourself to leave this world.”
Listen to Simon Batten: www.simonandthestrangers.wordpress.com