It’s Been A Long Time: An Interview with Stephen Fretwell

After a 13-year long wait, Stephen Fretwell has treated us to his third studio album, Busy Guy. I was very eager to chat to him and fill in the gaps from this last chapter of his life. As I persevered to reach him on release day without any luck, I couldn’t help but think to myself, has he disappeared just as suddenly as he’d returned?

“Sorry I’ve been out of contact, I’m so sorry,” Fretwell tells me, once I finally get through to him. It almost feels like an apology for the last 13 years he’s been absent from the music scene.

“That’s alright, I was worried you’d taken another hiatus so soon,” I say.

Fretwell laughs. “No, me and Dan Carey stayed up and listened to the album on Spotify and had a big night. I just forgot about the interview and thought I’d treat myself to a lie in since it was release day, so sorry.”

“No, that’s absolutely fine,” I say. If there was ever an excuse for forgetting an interview or earning a lie in, this was surely it. 

Fretwell depicts to me what sounds like a New Year’s Eve countdown, complete with the same overwhelming level of excitement and anticipation, consisting of him and Carey sitting in front of the computer screen at 11:59pm with Spotify open, waiting for the big drop. 

“It clicked over to midnight and the album just appeared there and it was just a big moment for us both,” says Fretwell. 

Stephen Fretwell grew up in Scunthorpe and cultivated his musical roots in the Manchester music scene in the early 2000’s, frequenting bars and playing gigs in Northern Quarter. He released his debut album, Magpie, in 2004 and its follow-up, Man on a Roof, in 2007. Fretwell established a name for himself for his vivid and poetic lyrics and minimalistic, stripped back acoustic sound. His song, ‘Run’, became well known among households thanks to it featuring as the theme music to the sitcom, Gavin & Stacey. But after being dropped by his record label due to not meeting predicted sales figures and his partner falling pregnant with their first child, Fretwell subsequently began what would be a 13-year hiatus from making music. 

“Well, I suppose, you know, you try to live life going forwards, don’t you? But you review it backwards,” Fretwell says, my first taste of what would be one of many philosophical musings throughout our chat.

After two years of some self-confessed “pottering around”, Fretwell’s second son was born and he moved to Brighton with his young family. 

“I kind of lost a bit of confidence or, certainly, I’d lost the idea of myself as someone who singularly [makes music] and that’s everything about my life. Every time I tried to go back to make a record, it just never felt like I could do it, I suppose. I just listened to the songs and thought: that’s not good enough. Do I really think I should be contributing to the world of art, putting something out? Do I think I have something worthwhile to say?”

This is the universal struggle of an artist, a feeling experienced by so many, yet conquered by so few. Fretwell found the secret for overcoming this mindset in Whetherspoons, of all places. Not at the bottom of a pint, but from working as a kitchen hand.

“I got a job working in a kitchen, washing pots and doing stuff like that. It kind of smacked me in the face a bit that there was something else I could do and I should really have a go at it. I made a wager with myself that if you do this, and it doesn’t work, at least you did it. Because you might kick yourself for the rest of your life that you didn’t try.”

“Not having any choice is a good thing sometimes,” he adds. Fretwell really isn’t making it easy to stick to my word count when he weaves these golden threads of wisdom through our conversation so freely.

Fretwell recorded Busy Guy with Speedy Wundergound label owner and his close friend of 15 years, Dan Carey. Even if you haven’t heard his name before, you’re probably familiar with his work. The London-born producer is the man behind an impressive array of the UK’s most promising acts such as Irish post-punks, Fontaines D.C, London experimental rock group, Squid and poet turned rapper, Kate Tempest. Carey is also responsible for hits such as Sia’s ‘Breathe Me’ and Kylie Minogue’s ‘Slow’, as well as for mixing songs for Hot Chip, Grimes, Dizzee Rascal and M.I.A. In other words, he’s a very handy guy to have as a friend. 

The album title, Busy Guy, came from a long running joke shared with Dan Carey, when he asked Fretwell one day about his habit of always carrying a copy of The Guardian, a notebook and a collection of pens with him everywhere he went, which was commonly the pub.

“I said to him, well, if you’ve got these things – if you’ve got a notebook, a newspaper and a bunch of pens, and you go to the pub in the morning, then you look like a busy guy, rather than an alcoholic. [Carey] thought it was funny so he always calls me busy guy. As we walked out the studio, he wrote on the tape box ‘Busy Guy’ and no one would let me change the title after that.”

When I ask if he would say he’s been a busy guy these last 13 years, Fretwell responds:

“I have been busy with family things. It was the best time of my life hanging out with my little kids but yeah, I wasn’t busy with music, I suppose. That seems to be part of the humour in that title.”

But despite his tongue in cheek album title, Stephen Fretwell has genuinely been busy recently. Following the breakdown of his marriage and his decision to give his music career another shot, he took a more disciplined approach to song writing, starting with daily visits to the British Library.

“In the past I wouldn’t have to worry about songs, they just took care of themselves. Whereas this record, I didn’t have anything when I started it. I hadn’t picked a guitar up for so many years. I had a couple of little things that were in my mind and I had to be really strict. I started going to the library everyday from nine until two and moving the words around and working on lyrics. Then after doing that for about a year, it felt like it had gained some momentum as a project and it was taking care of itself again.”

The way Fretwell speaks about his creative process makes it sound like it’s often effortless. Perhaps it’s taken some extra work to get back into his usual flow, but everything seems to align and fall into place in a mysterious kind of way for him. His studio session with Dan Carey, where they ended up recording the whole album in a single sitting, is a shining example of this.

“I brought Dan a set of lyrics and I brought myself a set and he moved them around on the coffee table in the control room and said: I think that’s the order you should do them in. I looked at it and said: that’s the same order I had in mind, or there abouts. You shout out the title at the beginning of each one, and I’ll move the lyrics on the music stand and just go for it… Then about two hours later, we walked out the studio and it was done. Then we’ve just been waiting for it to come out today, so it’s quite a big day, really.”

While Busy Guy still contains Fretwell’s signature sound, between the lulls of his guitar, you can also hear the seasoned tones of a life having been lived. This album is darker than his previous records and rightly so, with the looming themes of divorce and loss cast throughout its tracks. Fretwell says this is his most authentic album yet:

“When I wrote those first two albums I was a posturing young man, I was striving to become a big star. I was on a major label and I had all the wide-eyed energy of youth. When I listen to them, I can hear where I was trying to be a hit rather than trying to record something beautiful or that I felt was pleasing to me.”

I’ve got the lyrics of ‘The Long Water’ from Fretwell’s new album bouncing around in my head as I’m writing this: 

It’s been a long time
And time changed everything.

It has been a long time since we’d last heard from Stephen Fretwell and time has changed mostly everything. He’s 39 now, he’s experienced both marriage and divorce, raised children, moved away to a seaside town and is back living in London. He might not be the wide-eyed, fame-focused rock star he once was, but he’s found that fire in his belly again and reignited that creative spark. Even though Busy Guy is a break-up album, there is something hopeful about endings that blur into beginnings and an artist re-immersing himself in his craft.

When I ask if he’s planning on sticking around on the music scene for a while, Fretwell teases that he’s already working on his next record. He’s even ran it past good friend Dan Carey and “it looks like a goer”. 

“I’m just grateful that I’m able to [make music] and that people are interested because I really wasn’t expecting people to be so welcoming of it,” says Fretwell.

Busy Guy is out now on vinyl and all major streaming platforms.

Photo Credit: Holly Whitaker.

Found in New Sounds Issue 3