How the ‘Tristan chord’, the colour orange, and Connan Mockasin influenced one of the year’s most beautiful albums
Westerman’s debut album, Your Hero is Not Dead, builds on the deceptively low-key sound of the songwriter’s breakthrough singles two years ago. Full of exquisitely crafted pop songs ruminating on themes of morality, humanity, and interior struggle, the music is graceful and poised, and self-reflective in a way that feels perfect for this moment in time. Recorded with producer Bullion in southern Portugal before being wrapped up back in London, Your Hero is Not Dead is also one of the year’s lushest sounding and lithely groovy albums. We spoke to Westerman to learn more about what inspired the record.
Westerman: “I know that I know nothing.” The lyrics are full of questions to which I have no capacity to give answers with any basis of hard truth. I just wanted to present the questions and let the listener fill in the blanks for themselves, or at least stimulate a consideration of the themes I’ve incorporated. That ultimately was the most truthful way I could express myself at that time, and there was a cathartic nature to the process of documenting the things I was concerned with.
EAST OF EDEN, CHAPTER 13
Westerman: This passage in John Steinbeck’s book has stayed with me since I first read it as a teenager. As well as being – like all timeless writing – prescient for the times we find ourselves in, this is a quotation which always helps me in moments of doubt during the creative process: “And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected.” The nature of this section at the end of the chapter, which acts almost as an aside in which the author leaves the narrative and speaks directly to the reader, is something that inspired the final track on the album (“Your Hero is Not Dead”). I have tried here to say, in the most direct way, what my feelings and sentiments are towards the person listening.
THE TRISTAN CHORD
Westerman: The ‘Tristan chord’ is part of a leitmotif in Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde. The chord has become quite famous; it is very distinctive and signals the re-entry of Tristan. It always stuck in my head as a good way of telling a story really succinctly, non-verbally. I suppose what was more influential for me was the idea of a leitmotif, really. I got the idea from this opera, but the idea of having a recurring musical phrase to centre the album’s narrative when the story has moved around was something I saw very clearly as being central to the album.
Westerman: It seemed fitting that we were surrounded by orange groves when we started recording in the Algarve last January. Orange has been a bit of a recurring theme. I lent Nathan (Bullion) a faded orange t-shirt when I was visiting him in Lisbon, when we were starting to go through the phone recording demos the summer before last. He liked it so much that I let him keep it. We often ate oranges on breaks between takes while recording. The smell of orange blossoms in the evenings, while we were in the Algarve, was out of this world. Orange blossoms are a really beautiful thing. The sky at dusk was often a flaming orange colour, and there was a lot of looking up at that and thinking while writing the lyrics for the record.
CRITTER AND GUITAR ORGANELLE
Westerman: I get asked quite a lot about guitar tone, pedals, and stuff like that. But the organelle has been the most consistent and consistently useful instrument we’ve had over the last few years. It looks like a toy, but it’s very powerful, and so versatile. A lot of the arps and the guitar tones come from that thing. In “Big Nothing Glow”, in particular, you can hear it a lot. The very first demos we made of the record in Choupana were instrumentals with acoustic guitar, the organelle, and a BOSS delay, and that was it. It’s an amazing machine.
FOREVER DOLPHIN LOVE BY CONNAN MOCKASIN
Westerman: I remember when I first listened to this album, it was completely transportative. It really felt like stepping into a different world. I loved the use of instrumentals and the wilful lack of interest in traditional structure in a record which works so seamlessly together.