Artmagic are a truly unique emerging creation, whirling together their resources to create a formidable, broiling maelstrom of talent. Making up the ensemble are Suede guitarist Richard Oakes and the velvet-voiced Sean McGhee, who in the past has hurled the fruits of his creative endeavours into the proverbial boiling pots of queens of electro like Robyn and Imogen Heap.
Their new album Become The One You Love is a beautifully layered, meticulously crafted amalgamation of anguished emotion and candid introspection. We spoke to Artmagic about honing their craft, and about what lies under the album’s delicate skin.
How does your past experience influence your music?
Richard: In every way. The kind of music we write comes from the heart, and the more the heart has experienced, the richer the music. This is not to say that anyone young can’t write similar music, just that for me personally, I had to go through a lot of different experiences to achieve the kind of soul that (I hope) is apparent in Artmagic’s material.
Sean: Raymond Carver said, “If you understand one despair, you understand every despair”, and he was right. It all feeds in. But songs can have minds of their own – our song “I Keep On Walking” is fiction with a heart of emotional truth, and it came out of nowhere. You don’t want to be in a position of writing vague songs about nothing in particular, although that does remain a laughably popular choice for so many skinny boys with guitars. We aim much higher.
What sort of things do you imagine while songwriting?
Richard: No imagery, just feelings. This is probably why I never wrote lyrics, for me music on its own can say so much without the need for words. It can be a perfect art form, inviting people to draw their own interpretations, making the appreciation unique to everyone. I often find that the reaction I have to a great song comes way before I have bothered to pay attention to what the lyrics are saying.
Sean: If you’re thinking about it too much, you’re doing it wrong. A Zen-like state is essential to get the raw ideas down. Then, it’s editing, and the slow-motion grind of getting the words and melody just so. For example, “You” took a long time to perfect - I wanted to say something complex in very simple language. It was a challenge and I was at it for weeks before it I was happy. Inspiration and craft – you have to have both, and we don’t step back until it’s right.
What was the first CD you bought?
Richard: I can’t remember the very first, but I remember when my CD collection equalled about 4, and the one I was most proud of was The Cure’s The Top. I was more into buying old vinyl at that time, the first being London Calling from a shop round the corner from where my sister worked.
Sean: The first thing I remember buying for myself was the 7” of Imagination’s “Just An Illusion”, which is still one of my favourite records – that filthy bassline makes me need to take a shower, even now. I don’t recall the first CD I bought but I would have been a young teenager, so I have a horrifying suspicion it might have been some then-fashionable tissue-thin UK indie nonsense. Luckily I grew up fast.
What kind of atmosphere would you like your music to create?
Richard: I’d like it to draw the listener in completely, for people to understand what we’re trying to do right away. I believe what we do is fairly immediate, but I’d also hope that people can discover a little more on each listen. These are the kind of records I like, ones that offer more than just the surface reaction.
Sean: An atmosphere of uneasy beauty and lovelorn melancholy, with hooks like glue. There are moments on the album that are ethereal and moments that are visceral, and we want those to stick with people. Too many records evaporate on impact; we want to engage our listeners rather more deeply.
What’s your favourite instrument? Why?
Richard: From the moment I discovered the guitar it was a revelation, as it was an instrument I understood fully by instinct. I never had the same thing with the piano, despite being taught up to about Grade 5.. I think I preferred the guitar because I was able to crack it on my own, and also, crucially, was able to write on it. I have rediscovered the piano in recent years though, many Artmagic songs have been composed on it. It’s a hugely versatile instrument.
Sean: Obviously singing is all-important to me; I sing incessantly, as I’m sure my neighbours would ruefully tell you. Richard’s guitar playing always grabs me, too. I’m drawn irresistibly to synthesizers because they can marry simplicity with power and texture – virtuosity for its own sake has never appealed to me. But I can get a song going on just about anything.
When are you most relaxed?
Richard: I’ve always found it extremely difficult to relax, I’m naturally anxious and on edge a lot of the time.. It’s a boring answer but the thing that relaxes me most is music. Unless it’s the kind of music that lights a fire under you..
Sean: Probably when I’m hiking, one of my legion of non-rock ‘n roll hobbies. Hillwalking in silence really helps me slough off my worries. I surround myself with music at all times, so those silent moments mean a lot. Doing nothing does the opposite, and adds to my stress levels. There’s a great deal of difference between resting and being sort of bone idle.
Where’s the best place you’ve played?
Richard: Artmagic have already done a fair portion of the London music circuit...I think my favourite is probably The Bowery, we played twice there and it was great on both occasions.
Sean:I’d like to think the best is yet to come – we’re playing Sheffield Cathedral and churches in London and Manchester on our upcoming tour, really special spaces, I can’t wait to sing in those. We’re also doing some totally unamplified performances, which will be very exciting. I could tell you the worst place we’ve played but I’m far too polite. A receptive audience makes up for all privations, anyway.
What’s in store for the future?
Richard: We’ll start on the next record as soon as we have the time it deserves. The most important thing for me is writing and recording, I’ll happily carry on doing that at the expense of all other industry requirements.
Sean: More touring, plus another single; we’re putting “Down In The River” out in October so we’re still giving Become The One You Love our full attention. But I am already thinking about the second album. It feels like a long time since we finished this one, and I’ve already started collecting ideas for the next set of songs. We’ve spoken in broad terms about what we’ll do next, but you never know until you start. We might try writing for some other artists, too.
What’s the best thing about being musicians?
Richard: Being able to express ourselves. It’s what songwriting is all about, getting things out that can’t be expressed any other way. The 1971 answer would be drugs, cars, girls, money… but I believe the world has moved on since then!
Sean: Creativity is vastly underrated nowadays, especially now that music is regularly reduced to “content”, a term surely invented by people with a dark, empty void where their souls should be. We get to create something that only exists because we’ve made it, which no-one else could have made, which can touch the heart of someone you’ll never meet. That’s intoxicating.
Debut album Become The One You Love, is out 9th July.