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The Half Chapter - Album Listening Party

In these days of fake reality TV pop pap, made to be consumed like fast junk food and then just as soon forgotten, it's not only rare to come across a new artist as good as Michael Clarke, it's somewhat akin to a minor miracle.

Clarke, who goes under the generic name of Clarkesville, is a tall, blonde and handsome kid aged 22 but he is no overnight/wannabe sensation. Born in Walsall, Michael spent some formative years with his parents in Amsterdam where they were running a drop-in centre cum safe haven for recovering drug addicts. By the time he returned to the Midlands, as a 14 year old, Clarke had seen the other side of this life at first hand. A budding songwriter even then, he started to hone his craft playing acoustic gigs. "I never wanted to do anything else other than this - music, songwriting and playing but I wasn't one of those people who had a band of mates together by the time they're 19. I concentrated on my writing because I was adamant about my future. I did my A-levels and went straight into a management deal."

Two more years of hard graft at the home studio face enabled Clarke to build his repertoire and when he turned up at the Wildstar offices armed with his acoustic guitar and a voice to die for it was patently obvious that he had the right stuff. After running through a couple of songs Wildstar snapped him up on the spot: no hesitation, no caveats.

Listening to Clarkesville's gloriously accomplished debut album "The Half Chapter" (produced by top Swede Martin Terefe), it's easy to appreciate that Wildstar enthusiasm. While it would be ludicrous to claim that anyone is the finished article - that would be no fun for anyone - it is also clear that the ten songs represented here signal the arrival of a major talent. But this is no simple rock and roll rags to riches cliché. Clarke has spent many months before, during and around Clarkesville, getting himself about in the low-key environment of the support act. A usually hapless task, he turned it to advantage.

Music - Clarkesville - Album Listening Party
Music - Clarkesville - Album Listening Party
Music - Clarkesville - Album Listening Party

He's appeared before Coldplay favourite Ron Sexsmith (another of Terefe's acclaimed productions) and, more recently, the Kings of Leon, and also been spotted by members of Travis, when he did a gig at the Enterprise Club in Primrose Hill. The excellent Travis drummer Neil Primrose appears on this album.

Great records aren't usually created in limbo and Michael Clarke is perfectly happy to pay tribute to the artists who inspire him. "My earliest favourite album is Achtung baby by U2 and I still reckon you should never lose that initial thrill of discovering something that is important to you. I love Crowded House for Neil Finn's songwriting. I'm a huge fan of Bob Dylan, for his poetry and his honesty. I love the Beach Boys, Elvis Costello,, The Flaming Lips, Beck's Mutations, August and Everything After by Counting Crows...."

It can be common practise in biographies to censor the likes and dislikes of the artist at hand because - oh, that won't sound cool blah blah and no, that doesn't fit the image we want etc. etc. There is absolutely no point in doing that to Michael Clarke, since his insistence on the values of honesty and melody is interlinked. "When I came back to England as a teenager," he recalls, "I felt an element of not fitting in and there was a certain amount of rebellion from me. But it was more about culture shock than some false desire to be a loner. I'm a miserable bastard at times, I can be a major hypochondriac, even though there is sod all wrong with me, and I am prone to be a depressive. Not a manic one. I'll leave that for later on," he laughs.

His refusal to inject a bit of cool pretence into his story is refreshing. "Well, when I say everything I do is trying to be honest I'm not being pretentious. I just want to relax in my songwriting. I don't care about momentary fame, I'd rather leave people not being able to wait for the next song. It's like a friend recommended Royksopp to me. I didn't know anything about them but I fell in love with their album immediately."

The "pretty special" element Clarkesville aspire to is evident in everything on "The Half Chapter." The album title, incidentally, is skimmed from the Julian Barnes novel 'A History of The World In Ten and a Half Chapters.' As for Clarkesville itself? "You've got to have some fun. This album is by me and about me but it clearly isn't just all me so it would be wrong to take all the credit. Much as I'd like to. It's a collective name that I like. I mean Clarkesville, Georgia. Yep. Clarkesville, Tennessee. Sure. But Clarkesville, Birmingham? It's a lot funnier."

Not that Clarkesville is about to try and confuse anyone. Even so the album opens on an enigmatic mood with the looped and grooved 'Evergreen,' a reflection of Michael's love for classy chill out sounds. "I wanted an intriguing start and the first three minutes means you're not sure where the album will go. The beats and loops are thanks to my Swedish element of Martin and our programmer Andreas Olsson but there are other musicians bringing something to the party. Left to my own devices I'd probably have made a folky Neil Young acoustic album, but this production team is perfect. It's not overblown. We've used the Love Sponge Strings (recorded in Nashville), Glenn Scott on Fender Rhodes, and some brass. I do the mainly the guitars and the piano. "

In amongst the who does what where stuff it's worth accentuating Michael Clarke's own gifts for melody, words and that voice - which you need to hear for yourself. "I really find music easy to write. I've worked hard enough to know what melodies suit me and how they can grab a listener," he says. "I also love language and I stress about lyrics more than anything, although I accept that for most people the tune is the thing and you can concentrate on the words later on."

And what great songs there are to pore over! In 'Heavy Soul' Clarke deals like the young Dylan in the lingua franca of "being pissed off by a person who is eager to dump their problems on you. I'm tolerant, but there's limits," he grins. "Obviously there's girl songs in here like 'Last man Standing' where you want to do something completely careless. You've fallen in love, it's all gone wrong and it's not that you're enjoying that feeling of being on the rebound but rather you're looking for something…anything……to take you're mind off this person."

As well as the universal themes which anyone could relate to, Clarke extends himself on songs like 'Moonflowers' where the metaphor circles around a person who blooms out of sight, and he and raises the bar joyously in 'Everyone Will Have Their day,' a moment of glorious optimism. "Unusual for me," he smiles.

Musically, Clarkesville offers a lasting and rewarding experience. Beats and loops are subtly employed and dropped into a warm mix, the harmonies are cut

straight from the "West Coast vibe" Clarke owns up to loving, the ballads are poignant and punchy but never wet and windy, and hey, there are plenty of straight down the line classic sounding pop songs like 'Secret File', 'Someday' and 'Spinning' which all strike that must-hear-that-again-right now chord.

So maybe that's enough biography for now. Suffice to say that once 'The Half Chapter' grabs you, and then you won't want to put it down. Great music is an addiction. Clarkesville are making great music.

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