Fyfe Dangerfield seems more than a little wary of success. Best known as the lanky frontman of the eccentric, Mercury Prize-nominated pop quartet Guillemots, he and his band-mates are gearing up to release their third album, Walk the River. Since their previous effort, Red, Fyfe has been busy, and went solo last year with Fly Yellow Moon, a quieter and, it has to be said, more mainstream affair that helped to raise his profile. But it was in April he accidentally stumbled upon commercial success, when his cover of Billy Joel’s ‘She’s Always a Woman’ was featured in a John Lewis advert and very quickly made it into the charts. Suddenly he was performing the track on The Graham Norton Show and facing far more attention than he’d ever had before. Yet despite this acclaim, when we sit down to chat, Fyfe is very quick to distance himself from it.
I bring up the Billy Joel cover, and he sighs, ‘It’s the least artistic thing I’ve ever done, probably.’ Was he worried that he might be accused of selling out? ‘I thought about it…’ He pauses. ‘The whole music business is an ugly corrupt business, really.’ Another pause, before he returns to the original topic. ‘Anyway, in this instance I didn’t have a problem with [John Lewis] anyway, and I like Billy Joel, and I could definitely use the money… And then suddenly people who’d never heard of me before were buying my record and it’s taken it to another level. But on the other hand, it’s not really something I’m musically proud of. All I’m doing is singing someone else’s song.’ His feelings are left fairly exposed as he reflects on his newfound success, a consequence of his tendency to think out loud, and this openness – or perhaps unguardedness – soon makes it clear that he is a fairly conflicted figure. Whichever topic I happen to raise, he will invariably put forward one point of view, hesitate, and then examine the other, usually preceded by a sigh of, ‘On the other hand…’ It’s rare that he reaches a conclusion on any matter, preferring instead to re-examine his thoughts constantly.
Weighing heavy on his mind is the conflict he feels between commercial, mainstream success and managing to retain a sense of artistic integrity. When Red was released in 2008, its first single, ‘Get Over It’, dominated the musical airwaves for a few weeks, yet Fyfe is once again in two minds about this triumph. ‘[It] was hugely successful on the radio, but then what did that achieve? I mean, the one thing I was proud of… [was that] in that context it did sound really good, it sounded like it did stand out.’ But then, before he indulges in any self-congratulation, he spins the topic round to see it from the opposite perspective. ‘As a song, I’m not proud of it at all. It’s just a bit irritating.’ I admit that I share his view on that single, and suggest that they should have put out a different track – for me, ‘Kriss Kross’ and ‘Don’t Look Down’ stand out as the album’s highlights. ‘Yeah, I totally agree with you. It’s so frustrating. Those are exactly the two songs, the ones you mentioned, that are the two on that record that I’m really proud of. With ‘Kriss Kross’, I remember when we wrote it, and I thought, “Man, this sounds like this huge smash single,” and then you do it and the radio people are just like, “Nah. It’ll probably get played on 6 [Music], but nothing else really. It’s too weird.” It’s so frustrating.’
Then again, the music of Guillemots has always been rather left-field; the band take inspiration from everything from classical to jazz, glam rock to Indian dances, and this eclecticism leaves them almost impossible to categorise. The diversity and sheer originality of their sound has earned them a loyal yet small following, and Fyfe seems aware of how very uncommercial many of their tracks are. He’s also something of a perfectionist, and looks back on Red with mixed feelings: ‘It didn’t feel like we were making the record because we really wanted to make one, it was because we needed to.’ He swears that they’ve learnt their lesson from this, and promises that Walk the River is a more satisfying listen. ‘We deliberately wanted to take longer writing it, not recording it. In fact, we had about a year just writing together, and having enough time just to really get a vision.’ Is it more coherent, then, as a record? ‘Yeah, I think it’s a lot more coherent… I feel very much like if we get things right it’s going to be something that I’m very, very proud of.’
I press him further on the details, and he falters when I ask him to describe the feel of the new album: ‘I get a feeling for it, definitely. I get a feeling of being lost up in the sky and trying to get back home, but I don’t know…’ He trails off once more. As Fyfe readily admits, his strengths lie very much in music itself, and he is uncomfortable approaching his art in an analytical, verbal manner. ‘Part of what I love about any art form is just a kind of gut reaction, that you just like something and you’re never really sure why.’ Would he rather not write lyrics at all? ‘I know that music is just what I’m meant to do. Since I’ve been tiny, I’ve always felt like it’s just natural to me… There are people like Leonard Cohen or Nick Cave or Dylan who you just feel are possessed with a sort of lyricism. They’re perfectly good at music too, but it’s a means of getting that across. I feel that way, but the other way around. Music is what I’m meant to do, and lyrics are a way of facilitating that.’
As the interview draws to a close, he admits that he’s feeling restless. ‘Already I’m starting to think about what I want to do after the next Guillemots record. I’ve started to make plans, and I have to almost stop myself a little bit – we haven’t even got this one done yet. I think if you’re creative, then you just always want to be making a new thing. I don’t particularly want to do something and then have a year of patting myself on the back.’
He almost seems to be frustrated at his work rate, yet this surprises me, as he has always appeared to work at a fairly rapid pace. ‘Well that’s what people say to me, but I don’t feel like I do really. I think from the outside it might look like that, but I don’t really think I do. The Beatles used to make two records a year, so I don’t really think that my work rate has been that prolific. I think my problem is that I come up with loads and loads of ideas, but in terms of finishing things off…’ Perhaps somewhat appropriately, he trails off again.
It is clear that he would rather be playing his music than talking about it, and he agrees when I suggest this. ‘Being in a studio’s wonderful, because it’s just a complete escape from reality, and you can just stop. You kind of forget that you’re human, playing music and getting lost for hours.’ I wish him luck with the new album, but admit that I’ve no idea what to expect. Yet I suspect that he likes his own unpredictability, and may not even know himself where he might be going next. ‘I just know that I want to put myself into lots of different things. You just have to follow your instincts, that’s all you can ever do, and your instincts change all the time.’
Walk the River is released 18th April.