A Bit of Previous

Belle and Sebastian

A Bit of Previous

In the winter of 2019, Belle and Sebastian had an album’s worth of material ready to record and were preparing to decamp from Scotland to California to make their ninth studio album. You know what happens next. “Once the lockdown started, everything else got forgotten, and then we very much went inside,” lead singer and songwriter Stuart Murdoch tells Apple Music. They kept busy, of course, collaborating with fans online for the pandemic-specific “Protecting the Hive” project and assembling the live compilation What to Look for in Summer. “But I don't think any of us were really interested in making an album remotely from each other,” says singer/violinist Sarah Martin. Once they were able to convene in person nearly a year later, the band decided to transform their Glasgow rehearsal space into a studio and make their first LP in their hometown since 2000. Murdoch still had his reservations, but they turned out to be moot. “A vocal booth could be in San Francisco, it could be in Cape Town, it doesn't matter,” he says. “It becomes like a womb for you to imagine new songs.” And that’s very much what happened—they scrapped most of the songs from the original batch and let A Bit of Previous take shape organically. “The record was entirely different to the one that would've been made if we had gone to Los Angeles,” Murdoch says. “We could write in the studio. We could start songs in any direction we wanted to. We could start the song with just a drum beat and build it up from there. Or we could bring everybody in and have everybody perform. It was a very flexible, very creative time.” That result is 12 songs that, like the LP's title playfully suggests, represent the band in classic form, reflecting on the present and occasionally looking to the past, with a mix of wit and tenderness. Here, Murdoch, Martin, and keyboardist Chris Geddes speak through each of the album's songs. “Young and Stupid” Stuart Murdoch: “It's a very happy song for me. Although the lyrics might feel like, ‘I was yelling in my sleep/Crying, feeling weak,’ when you write a song where you appear to be moaning about your life, it's a sort of a therapy in a way. I wrote this song very quickly, on the way into the studio. And immediately with myself and Brian [McNeill], the engineer, we just set up a drum machine, and we put down very basic chords so that we could map it out. And we wrote the song almost. To capture something so quickly—even though in the present time the feeling seems to be down—that's part of the beauty and the nature of music and writing songs is that you can capture a feeling and still come out the other end feeling happier.” “If They're Shooting at You” Murdoch: “I had the music idea for this a couple of years ago. It was around about the same time that Bob [Kildea, bassist] brought a song, his own musical idea. This was during the [How to Solve Our Human Problems] EPs. It became mostly Bob's song, and I wrote the words for it, and it became [2018 single] 'Poor Boy.’ So I took a little bit of my tune and slotted it in because I felt that the vibe was the same. The thing is, though, afterwards, the original feel kept going around in my head. And I thought, 'I want to extend this and make this a song.' And so that's what we did with this one.” “Talk to Me, Talk to Me” Sarah Martin: “I kept going to Sainsbury's [supermarket] on Friday nights, inexplicably, where they play great records. And there was one time they were playing like a series of Style Council songs while I was in trying to find pasta. When I was driving home, that tune kind of popped into my head, so I made a rough demo of it. It just kept niggling me that I thought Stuart would sing it better than I would.” Murdoch: “As soon as I heard the tune, I was gone. I loved this right away. I could see the possibilities for it. I was thinking about somebody who was corresponding with me, somebody who wasn't in fact very well. And so I kind of deliberately tried to slip into their mind and tell the story from their perspective.” “Reclaim the Night” Martin: “It's about having to kind of carry on bumping into people who are problematic because they're friends of friends. And you just want to kind of go through life without having to engage with them, but you can't make your friends stop being friends with people who are assholes.” “Do It for Your Country” Murdoch: “I do imagine trying to impart wisdom. And sometimes it's to an imaginary person, sometimes it's to a person from quite deep in the past where it's almost unfair in a sense when you think, ‘Okay, well, I know this stuff now. This is what I want to say to you back then.’ But it's quite a simple song. It's a loving kind of speech, or something. They have that phrase, 'l'esprit d'escalier'—the things you thought about on the stairs, things you thought about afterwards that you wish you'd said to somebody. And so that is an aspect of songwriting—my songwriting, anyway.” “Prophets on Hold” Murdoch: “This was another one, like 'Young and Stupid,' that would never have existed if we'd gone to LA. It was a walk-in song. I had the original chorus just as I came in, and played it on the piano. I thought it was going to be the greatest song I ever wrote. I really did. Sometimes you think that. And whereas 'Young and Stupid' was simple but came out great, this one I thought was going to be great and came out okay. I mean, I think everyone did a good job. But I thought it was going to be a like a soft disco, soulful classic.” “Unnecessary Drama” Murdoch: “I took a similar stance that I did with 'Talk to Me' and decided to write about a correspondence. This correspondence actually spanned time, and the person had sort of changed during the life of the correspondence. And I told the person that I was going to try and write the song. She thought it was funny. The thing I love about this track is that the guitar riff and the melody, which were both provided by Bob, seemed to dance with each other, but they lock in at the same time. And that to me makes a thing interesting.” “Come On Home” Chris Geddes: “I never really write complete songs. I'll just have the sketch of something, bring it in, teach it to a couple of people, and try and have a groove going. And then hope that one of the singers walks in and says, 'Oh, that sounds quite good.’ But in this instance, the verse that Sarah sings and the whole kind of feel of the track popped in my head when I was on my way to or from a football match. Because of laziness and trying to avoid writing lyrics, I only had those couple of lines, which I gave to Sarah. And then we were playing it as the band, Stuart kind of just took the groove and wrote his verses over it.” “A World Without You” Martin: “It's nostalgic for kind of times when you connect with somebody. It's kind of based on the last episode of Fleabag. It's based on Fleabag and the priest. Just like when you have a connection with somebody that neither of you is really reachable, but just kind of a memorable moment with people.” “Deathbed of My Dreams” Geddes: “I think Stevie [Jackson] wanted us to try and do something that sounded like a Frank Sinatra record.” Stuart Murdoch: “It's one that just really took off for me with the arrangement. Chris did a pseudo sort of string part, but it sounded rich. And it was a really nice setting for Stevie's voice.” “Sea of Sorrow” Murdoch: “Most of the songs are very current. They were all written pretty much for the record and written about that time. 'Sea of Sorrow,' the tune for that was a few years older. And I had it under the pseudonym ‘Nice Waltz Number One.’ We don't write too many waltzes, I don't think. So that tune was in my head, and then suddenly I had a notion to write some words.” “Working Boy in New York City” Murdoch: “‘Working Boy in New York City’ is more about a San Francisco thing, but maybe San Francisco didn't scan. It's about a friend of mine that I became friends with when I came to America for the first time in the early '90s. But it's best not to be too literal, and so I placed it in New York. And there's other elements that come in that go just beyond his story. But there's a line from his favorite song, which was ‘Downtown' by Petula Clark. And I specifically remember him one day describing what that song meant to him.”

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