I meet Tom Hickox in Ye Olde Cock Inn, an old, country-style pub whose exterior belies its location just a short walk from Didsbury village. This part of town was of the singer’s choosing, returning to his student base where he spent three and a half years studying English Literature.
“I haven’t been in here since a failed attempt to complete the Didsbury Dozen!”
His face lights up and you can sense the hazy memories flooding back. A rite of passage for any Manchester student, the Didsbury Dozen is the stuff of legend. Ironically, where the success of drinking a pint in twelve consecutive pubs, is inevitably undermined by the grim reality of a ruthless hangover and tarnished memory of your achievements.
On entering, he cuts quite a different figure than the besuited, well-presented man seen onstage; noticeably more rugged with flowing blonde hair and biker jacket.
We’re here to talk about upcoming album Monsters In The Deep (due March 31st via Family Tree/Warner Chappell records), the follow-up to 2014’s much-underappreciated debut War, Peace and Diplomacy. Those unfamiliar with that record would be interested to know frequent comparisons were made to some of the finest songwriters of the last 40 years; Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits and Nick Cave among them. It would be easy to buckle under the weight of such expectation, but Hickox takes it all in his stride.
“I have no beef with being linked with great artists!” he says, a huge smile across his face.
“They’re all real heroes of mine. It’s flattering to be mentioned in the same breath as those guys. As I release more albums people will see you in a world of your own“
The origins of writing this album sound like the opening scenes from an HBO drama, Hickox himself having been attacked near his Camden home and rushed to hospital for stitches on his tongue, somehow had the wherewithal to observe the plight of another. Korean Girl in the Waiting Room, at its core a song about homesickness, is one of many on Monsters In the Deep devised from observing real life.
Which, whilst being a dramatic launch point for writing new material, brings up another question altogether; if you can be rushed to A&E and construct the story for a song there, do you ever really switch off?
“It can be like that, I am always searching. It isn’t going to fall in your lap every day. I’m interested in stories, in people, and making those people not necessarily good or bad people.”
Here lies the one true consistency from War, Peace and Diplomacy; a songwriter principally concerned with the world around him and humanity in its rawest form. Perseus and Lampedusa, a good pun aside, deals with the false hope of refugees arriving on the Italian island, while The Dubbing Artist is based on the story of Irina Nistor, a translator who secretly dubbed banned American films in communist Romania. Really, it’s about obsession, animated further by abandoning his usual vocal style for something altogether more wistful.
There is definitely a richer sound on Monsters in the Deep, a clear sign of an artist more confident and willing to explore sonically more than before. Though impatient with the wait for the record’s release – it was completed in June of last year – he tells me that the songs still feeling fresh on playback was a good sign the record was definitely finished and resist any urge to tinker.
This breadth of material stems in no doubt from work with producer Chris Hill and Richard Hawley guitarist Shez Sheridan. Crafting multiple versions of each song, meticulously adding and subtracting instruments until the song feels “most honest”.
Key to this approach according to Hickox is being surrounded by musicians more concerned about playing with heart and communicating how they feel with their instrument rather than impressing other musicians with an obsession over technical proficiency.
“If you become obsessed with the form of something, rather than the expression and the point of what you are singing about then you have no chance of communicating with the listener. What we’re trying to do is make people feel something”
Suburban student bar crawls aside, there are fond memories for the Londoner from his Manchester days. There is also a classical music connection in the city, his late father Richard Hickox CBE having performed in the city with his City of London Sinfonia. Which brings us to potential other live shows in the city.
“We’re hoping to headline The Deaf Institute, which is one of the best small venues in the whole country”
And if we’re daydreaming for a moment?
“The Bridgewater Hall, maybe even with The Halle if we’re talking Desert Island gigs!”
He chortles as if to suggest absurdity, but truth be told, I don’t see it as unduly unrealistic. That lineage of great singer-songwriters that he is often placed into suggests that dream could a reality.
Interestingly, the only time Hickox is lost for words is when asked about what a good 2017 would be artistically, something he won’t be drawn upon. I don’t suspect this is through any carefully managed media strategy, simply a man concerned with his art, happy to leave the numbers to the professionals.
Slipping out of the pub to go our separate ways, we reflect on his Didsbury Dozen defeat one last time.
“I even made the mistake of attempting more than one pint in some pubs!” he roars laughing.
Tom Hickox, a man after my own heart, on record and off it.