It's a rare and strangely thrilling thing, to hand over 20 hard-earned pounds, and walk into a gig venue, knowing everything and nothing about what you might be about to see. As the frontman of The Maccabees, Orlando Weeks has made a name for himself as a careful, softly-spoken crafter of heart-tugging melodies, but following the bands amicable end in 2017, his moves have been much harder to define – a gentle soundtrack for his illustrated novel The Gritterman, some mixed-media collage artwork for pals IDLES and fashion designer Daniel W Fletcher, the odd Instagram update. When he announced solo shows in July, seemingly out of the blue, fans were left with no new material to go off – just the blind faith that what they were about to hear would be something special.
"I was amazed that many people came, for sure. In a way, it was a bit of a weight off - if nobody knows what they're getting themselves in for, then I felt like I couldn't predict people's expectations." He says. "I was more nervous about the songs; there was a chance that if I didn't feel like I was doing them justice or they didn't hold up to the scrutiny of a live performance, then I'd be so disappointed and feel like it hadn't been a good decision. But across the board, I don't think I came away feeling like any of the songs weren't record-worthy."
For those lucky enough to be in attendance, record-worthy seems something of an understatement. The absence of guitars is palpable – think instead of vibey trombones and delicate piano, big emotional breakdowns and of course, Weeks' sensitive, haunting voice, proffering a reassuring hand of familiarity to guide you through this brave new world. Each night, he politely requested that the audience refrain from posting snippets on the internet, and was surprised to find that they took him at his word, respecting the work-in-progress nature of his performance.
"It was definitely asking and not telling – I've never been very good at telling people to do anything," he says. "Things like 'sing along to this one', I've never felt like that's my place. But at the same time, the quiet for the songs was something that I felt super grateful for. I think I just figured that if you've put your hat in the ring for something where you don't know what you're getting, then maybe you'll have an empathy for other people who'll want to wait to hear it for themselves in the way that I'm trying to present it. But even talking about it now, I'm still quite surprised. That sounds bad, and it's no reflection on the people that came, but it's just that it's the knee-jerk reaction of people nowadays to document and display your attendance. As a cusp millennial, I really appreciate people being so respectful."
Commanding attention all of his very own doesn't seem like something Orlando will ever be entirely at ease with. In the absence of his fellow Maccabees, he's been prone to embodying characters - the Gritterman was a wholly fictional world, and Young Colossus, his 2012 graphic novella and soundtrack, was a collaboration with Casually Here's Nic Nell, who will also be producing this record. Being 'just Orlando' for the first time was more than a little anxiety-inducing, but now in his mid-thirties, it felt like something of a vital exercise, one that drew him to a more gradual and deliberate way of working.
"I toyed with doing another Young Colossus record at the start, but the more that I wrote, the more I felt like I wanted to be doing something that didn't feel like hiding," he says. "This record is definitely more personal than I've felt like being for a long time - even the final Maccs record was snapshots of things I'd overheard or moments I'd seen in the neck of the woods that we were working in, all a bit more detached. Now, it's just trying to make a document of what's been happening over the past couple of years and the changes in my life and my friends and family's lives.
"I've been playing the piano – badly, but a lot more – over the past few years, and I started writing in this attic in Margate. It wasn't for anything in particular, but there was something that started feeling like it made a bit more sense – a little bit of piano and then some shonky trombone that I bought in a flea market in Brighton a couple of years ago. Together, those two things combined gave me enough wonkiness together that felt fun.
"Everything since has been trying to refine that. I think there's definitely a thing with the piano - even if like me, you're not very good at it - that happens when you find yourself on your own and not playing with other people, it just gives you a lot more space. I'm learning how to not fill so much space musically – remembering that there needs to be room for things."
Leaving room in his music allows Weeks to fill much more space with his art. Drawing, printing and collaging postcards has long been a source of catharsis, with the latter set to feed into this new project. "Again, it's going back to the way people document everything; why send a postcard when you can tell everyone where you are with a photograph that's probably just as good as, if not better?" he explains. "I kind of feel sorry for postcards, all my friends send them to me now, and I've got a really funny one from the late 60s, a postcard from the Isle of Wight, a triptych of images of the sea and an old house and then some washing up, and right in the middle it says in these big letters, 'No Washing Up In The Isle of Wight'. The weird ones just really tickle me, I like trying to find ways of giving them a second burst of life.
"I'm working on lots of things – I'm really enjoying doing bits with charcoal, and lots of lino, which is always very satisfying – there's something about working with lino where if you've gouged your thumb with the cutter, you know straight away that you don't want that to happen again. It's a good lesson for taking your brain away from any looping thoughts and putting all your concentration into one thing because the threat of thumb-gouging is a very real one."
Fear of impalement aside, Orlando is feeling good about this new incarnation of himself. He's hoping to have the record mixed by Christmas, ready to share in the early months of next year. For long-term fans, it's something of a long time coming - how does his reckon his 2019 self stacks up to the one of ten years prior?
"I'm definitely happier. That's a good start, right?" he laughs. "Definitely less insecure. I understand much better what it is I'm trying to do and how I can go about having a nice time doing it. Doing those September shows was a huge help for taking away a lot of that, the fear of how isolated those pieces of music would have felt if they had never seen the light of day before they came out as this realised thing. It was a relief because they felt like they worked, but also because they existed in a way that I could believe.
"It's the same with anxious thoughts - if you can get things outside of your head, you can often realise the absurdity of the train of thought. It's all linked, those ideas of doing something on your own and then putting it out into the world in order to get some perspective."
In the manner of perspective, there's only one remaining question burning for us to ask – what's the Official Orlando Weeks Merch Desk postcard going to look like?
"Oh wow," he exhales, half laugh and half groan. "I would like it to be one crystalised image that sums things up, but I think actually it'd be one of those ones that I never really want to buy – too many things on it, way too busy, probably missing the point a bit. You know the ones that highlight this extra-ordinary view, but then also the Shopping Arcade and the local McDonalds?"
Maybe it'd be best not to psychoanalyse that, we suggest.
"Oh, don't worry," he assures. "You'll hang up, and I'll head down the rabbit hole…" P
Taken from the December 2019 / January 2020 issue of Dork. Orlando Weeks' new material will be coming in early 2020.
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