words: Matt Fraser
pics: Kevin Petch
“Leeds Festival was great. It’s more exciting than nerve-racking to play at the bigger gigs. We probably won't get to play it again though as it's a rock festival."
Ali Whitton shouts his thoughts on their recent Leeds Fest appearance, over the Cockpit Bar's noisy background music before their support slot with Aberfeldy. Even if I could get my dictaphone to work it'd be of no use. Luckily Ali's backing vocalist Sam takes notes for a living. And I'm fluent in bribery.
With acts such as David Gray, James Blunt and Damien Rice currently riding high in the charts there's plenty of scope to carve out a successful career writing and performing the kind of heartfelt acoustic songs Ali concentrates on.
"I hope my hair and clothes come back into fashion in the same way my music has" Mr Whitton jokes. Current album Kisses/Curses showcases Ali's strengths perfectly - personal, transparent lyrics delivered with a fragile, honest, down-to-earth voice that comes across almost as 'singing-speaking'. He's still not happy with his voice even now, but when presented together with the intricate lead guitar twangs, swelling viola, folktastic male-female harmonies, and his own emotive strumming, the effect is both chilling and magical.
It hasn't been a smooth ride though. Ali and lead guitarist Lee Potter met at primary school, and it's been this deep-seated friendship that has kept the band together at times.
"It was initially just me and Lee playing together. Then Lee went off the rails a bit." All cheekily glances over to Lee and it takes all my persuasive powers to get the full rock'n'roll story out of the guys. It's not printable, but needless to say it involved a lot of black jack and showgirls.
Ali continues the tale. "Anyway, Lee really had to take a break, not just from the music but everything. It meant I carried on writing and performing here and there as a solo artist."
This gave Ali space to fully develop his own performance and writing style, and whilst this didn't stop him worrying about the friends' musical future together, Ali did eventually decide to introduce a viola to cover for the missing lead guitar and also to widen the sound more generally. Fortunately Ali's faith in Lee paid off, and he returned to the band clear headed and ready to add those vital intertwining acoustic noodlings that are now so important to the band's sound.
Other members were recruited during All's time at university or through mutual friends, with the current other half of the band Naomi Abbot (viola) and Sam Stockdale (backing vocals) being the most recent recruits to the Whitton family.
Whilst the band members are dotted around the country at the moment, the fulcrum actually rests in North Yorkshire. When questioned on why Leeds was chosen to build up a stronghold, Ali is adamant, "I went to Uni here in Leeds so it was the obvious choice. It's true, York is difficult to get gigs in, you ask around but don't get anything. Leeds has a good scene, with plenty of good acts and venues. It's important to play the same places as more people come along each time. People bring their pals along the next time after having seen us before. We used to gig virtually every week, but now we look for a big gig every couple of months. That way the crowds are eager and fresh."
This word-of-mouth sentiment is central to Ali's grand plan, and has already seen fruition not just in Leeds but also down south, even when it's not been expected.
"There was this gig where we turned up and realised that we were opening for a bill of five metal bands! The audience actually responded really well to us. They seemed so shocked that we didn't have a drummer, but when I introduced one of 8 the songs as being about death they just all cheered and loved it!"
Ali's previous musical experiences have obviously coloured his perception of music making and the industry today.
"The other bands I've played in were too scared to write personally." Something he now delivers well, and that his music relies heavily on considering he's only 22. The album sleeve and online biog hint though that maybe he's also felt burnt fingers with not only song writing but also PR and marketing.
"In the beginning I would spend every Friday afternoon sending out demos to labels and management, but now I realise that we weren't ready to be signed at that point. We needed to concentrate on the Leeds audience, and then try to do this in every city until someone notices the buzz we're creating. Anyway, the cost of PR is too much for our own label, and we've all heard the bad things that can happen when you're signed."
Their self-released album is only available split as two EP's, and is directed at the gigging audience. "It's easy to afford one (£5), but at £10 for an album it'd be a bit much for someone to consider at a gig we felt."
Wise words from Mr Whitton once again. Only 22 years old you know.
"I listened to the whole album and even I felt it was a bit difficult to listen to in one go! I always wanted to call it Kisses and Curses, and when I found that the songs split lyrically to be matched with the upbeat/downbeat vibe of the different EP titles the decision was obvious."
The album as a whole is very Celtic sounding, which is something Ali wants to move away from "in order to be more radio friendly." But he's proud of the evident importance of the melody and lyrics. "There are clashes between the narrative in the lyrics and the upbeat choruses, but I think that works." He stops to think. I'm trying to write less chorus based songs. I'm looking to jam songs out more - write collaboratively. The viola parts for example can really stand out and change the songs."
Something he thinks the whole band is already improving on however is their stage presence.
“I was very unconfident at first. But I realised that we could play the songs, and the band needed to enjoy themselves on stage more. I saw that we would just stand there in a row. Acoustic bands can be very sombre, so we needed to start being a bit more upbeat."
And whilst additional band members are a thought for the future, a more pressing issue is coming up with a more fitting name. Something along the lines of 'Ali Whitton and the ' is what they have in mind. They haven't come up with anything yet, so answers on a postcard. But be warned though, your idea might be immediately discarded. "Ali still has veto on everything," Sam slips in, "After all, they are his songs."
Whilst they hang around waiting to be told that they're not going to get a soundcheck, Lee explains their more immediate dilemma.
"Leeds is definitely the most draining place. Not necessarily nerves wise, but there is often a big crowd with lots of people you know - and then you have to please people on a personal level. You feel you need and want to thank every single person for coming."
Anxious on their behalf I make my way into the Cockpit proper for the gig. Ali and his crew take to the stage, and they look a little nervous. Gone is the confidence and charisma I felt earlier in the interview, and I worry that the lack of a soundcheck has now played on their minds a little too much. Ali himself immediately gets into his stride with his heartfelt vocals, and once the viola, lead guitar and backing vocals become audible it's acoustic heaven. I can see that Ali's material makes so much more sense live than on record. It really tingles the spine, and everyone in the room is appreciatively silent during the songs - whooping and cheering justifiably between them. Honestly, catch them live soon.
After the gig I manage to catch up with Ali and all of his band members in turn, but only for a short while each. They honestly do try to get round to saying hi to every face they recognise after their set. A noble, if not exhausting, affirmation of their dedication to the word-of-mouth cause. "How did we sound?" They all ask me with real fear in their faces. They genuinely worry that it sounded poor out front, and I give it to them straight - what you could hear was always great - really great.
"Ah thanks mate, really glad you enjoyed it," Ali chirps at me. He knows I'll be at his Jonathon Rice support at The Faversham in early November, and that I'll bring even more people to add to the army of Whitton. His word-of-mouth theory seems to be working a treat even on an old cynic like me. Ali's other masterstroke isn't going according to plan however, as when Lee nervously asks how the CD sales have gone, it appears most of the many purchasers have bought both EPs. I wish my ideas that didn't work ended up with such positive results. More kisses than curses for Ali Whitton at the moment then. Luckily for him that's not the case with his CD sales though.