Interview: North Sea Radio Orchestra
Craig Fortnam on the tragic circumstances behind their most personal record to date
Words Ben Graham
Over the past decade, North Sea Radio Orchestra have become known for their unique brand of ‘alternative chamber music’, mixing the romantic classical tradition of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten with prog, folk and the Bagpuss and Ivor the Engine soundtracks of Vernon Elliot.
Primarily, though, they’ve always been a vehicle for the work of founder member Craig Fortnam. And while previous albums have seen him set to music poems by the likes of William Blake and Thomas Hardy, their third outing, I, a Moon, features Fortnam’s own lyrics for the first time, on a record that has a distinctly darker, edgier feel than its predecessors. “It touches on tragic things that I’ve experienced,” Fortnam says, with some reluctance, “and that brings on more profound feelings.”
A graduate in music composition from Dartington College of Arts in Devon, Fortnam’s classical training was complimented from an early age by the thriving local band scene in his native Kingston upon Thames. Playing in a Hawkwind-influenced space-rock group from the age of fourteen, Fortnam soon became aware of fellow Kingston dwellers Cardiacs, and his own musical direction would become inextricably entwined with that of the ultimate cult psychedelic band.
“Because it was such a small scene, there was this band called The Trudy, and their bass player, John Baskerville, gave me the Seaside cassette, and that’s what got me into Cardiacs,” Fortnam recalls. “I started going round [Cardiacs founders] Tim and Sarah Smith’s house, pestering them, and I ended up becoming friends with them. And John was also friends with Bill [William D Drake, later to join Cardiacs before embarking on a critically-acclaimed solo career as a singer, composer and occasional NSRO member], so I became very good friends with him when I was sixteen. It’s like a big family.”
After graduating from Dartington and moving to London, Fortnam found himself playing bass in a jazz function band, which helped his chops but left him feeling somewhat directionless creatively. “I call it jazz cul-de-sac,” he laughs, “because once you’ve gone down there you have to come back the way you came in.” A chance meeting with the aforementioned William D Drake led to Fortnam joining Drake’s post-Cardiacs combo Lake of Puppies, alongside Sharron Saddington, who Fortnam swiftly fell in love with. The couple went on to form The Shrubbies alongside two other ex-Cardiacs, Sarah Smith and Dominic Luckman, but although the collaboration was creatively rewarding, Fortnam was becoming disillusioned with playing the traditional indie-rock toilet circuit.
“I began to realise that most people were there for a social thing, and people were talking all the way through,” he says. “That just started annoying me and I thought, ‘I’ll write music that doesn’t have drums, that isn’t loud, and we’ll play places where people sit down and then they won’t talk.”
Fortnam recruited a bunch of like-minded musicians from the pool of bands associated with Cardiacs — and a few of his classical connections — and the North Sea Radio Orchestra was off and running, with Sharron, by now Fortnam’s wife, as lead vocalist. “It was thirty quid to hire a church in the City of London, so I thought, I know, we’ll just do gigs in city churches, and it’ll be like this weird thing, this funny band who play in churches,” he says now. “And the music I wrote, I was really aware of the acoustic potential, so some songs were definitely written so I could have this amazing piano chord that just goes ‘ching!’ and just let it ring for a bit. It’s just a way of creating your own world, isn’t it? Nobody else is doing that, so that’s half the battle — doing something different.”
Fortnam has spoken often of how London has inspired his music, yet many critics described NSRO’s first two albums in terms of rural, pastoral imagery. “Yeah, it’s funny, because for our first album we did a lot of recordings in St Olave’s, which is a beautiful, pre-Fire of London church that survived, just behind Trinity Square,” Fortnam says. “And the sound of that record, to me, is like London. It sounds like timeless London to me. Like the Thames, the shingle when the tide goes out. The second album does sound very pastoral, but we had moved to the country then.”
The pastoral vibe is something Fortnam has tried to avoid on I, a Moon. “I got a bit tired of reading reviews of [our music] “tolling through the sunlit glades” and all that,” he says. “People have accused us of being twee, and if you only like the Ramones then we probably do sound fairly twee, that’s fine. But I always think it has a certain darkness that saves it from that, personally. So I was a bit surprised to read all these reviews about sun-dappled rivulets.”
The phrase “quintessentially English,” which crops up a lot in NSRO reviews, is a very double-edged cliché, I suggest. There are dangers in seeming to be uncritically nostalgic for a bygone idyll that probably never existed.
“Yeah, but it’s got nothing to do with that at all. There’s no pining for anything, we don’t walk around in waistcoats. But it is very much informed by certain types of English music, those are my influences.”
More than any other NSRO release, I, a Moon feels very much like Fortnam’s baby. Partly this is because for the first time he recorded, mixed and produced it himself, cutting and pasting on his laptop, a technique he’d experimented with on last year’s near-solo side project, Arch Garrison’s King of the Down. “It’s almost like that album was a rehearsal for this album, in a way,” he admits. “It certainly gave me confidence, so that when the live recording of I, a Moon didn’t work I just thought, fuck it, I’ll do it myself.”
As mentioned earlier, I, a Moon is also the first NSRO album to feature Fortnam’s own words. “I think I was slightly aware that I was removing myself a little bit,” Fortnam says now. “Why cut down an avenue of self-expression? I was aware of that for the first time, really. Maybe the Arch Garrison thing was a part of that, as well.” And yet he’s distinctly wary of discussing the album’s lyrical content.
“This is going to sound very oblique, but it’s about a situation that’s very upsetting, and very difficult for people who really value their privacy,” he says, relenting a little. “What I would be happy to say is, sometimes tragic things can make you feel more alive, and more aware of being alive, and the amazing-ness of it. And I think you just feel more, when you’ve got to feel those sorts of things; you can’t choose, ‘well I won’t feel sad, I’ll just be happy’, it doesn’t work. It’s just levels of how much you feel things. And a lot of this album is about feeling everything more.”
What is public knowledge is that, since the release of the last NSRO album, Fortnam’s close friend and mentor, Cardiacs leader Tim Smith, suffered a heart attack and a series of strokes that left him largely paralysed. While Fortnam is understandably reluctant to discuss this publicly, and doesn’t want to be seen to be using the situation, the tragedy inevitably informed his writing.
“When I start writing words, most of the time I don’t think of what a song’s going to be about, you just reach down into your subconscious bag of words and phrases and things,” he says. “And when I reached in, what came out was all of this stuff about Tim.
“It’s just an awful experience, but also to have it happen to someone like Tim… you know, he’s a national treasure gone unnoticed, and that adds a lot of levels of irony and poignancy to it. Even though he’s a really good friend of mine and it’s really upsetting anyway, there are layers upon layers… It’s awful. It’s like if it’d happened to Benjamin Britten, you know, you can imagine the fucking hoo-hah in the press. So there are songs lyrically about that, and it’s my response, I suppose. It’s not even a question of using it to write songs; it’s just what came out because I wanted to write something profound and meaningful and that’s what was there. And there was never going to be anything else, really.”