Stephen Fretwell Interview - Natural talent of Stephen Fretwell

EMMA LEE Manchester-based singer-songwriter Stephen Fretwell has been tipped for great things – and there’s a chance to find out whether he lives to the hype when he plays Norwich Arts Centre on September 10.


For someone who's not afraid of laying his emotions bare on record, in person up-and-coming singer-songwriter Stephen Fretwell is much more of a closed book.

The 23-year-old northerner is chirpy and friendly, but when it comes to answering questions he prefers to keep his replies short and simple and doesn't give much about himself away.

Perhaps he likes to sit back and let his music do the talking for him. Or maybe he's still getting used to being grilled by journalists on the promotional trail.

He's certainly a man in demand - before our interview I'm warned that his schedule is tight and I mustn't go over my allotted 15 minutes.

But then that's hardly surprising.

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Fretwell's latest single, Emily, was playlisted on all the radio stations that matter and became a top 15 airplay record. And since the release of the album Magpie he's had acclaim across the board from music bibles NME and Q magazine (which called his talent “supernatural”) to middle England's favourite newspaper, the Daily Mail, which picked him as one of its top “must-see” acts at this year's Glastonbury festival.

His emotional lyric-driven style has led to comparisons with singer-songwriter Damien Rice.

The launch of his career couldn't have come at a better time with a new generation of male singer-songwriters, including James Blunt and Daniel Powter, reaching the top end of the singles and album charts.

He says that he is trying not to let the acclaim go to his head. “It's a little bit strange. It's very flattering when people compare you to people who are very successful. You have to keep your feet on the ground. They [the press] will say bad things about you, too,” he says.

“It feels great, though. Really good.”

Fretwell went to school in Scunthorpe, a place which he once described as having “no soul”. When I speak to him he is a little less harsh towards it. “It's not really a place to do music. You can't really get into doing anything there because it's such a small town,” he says diplomatically.

As a teenager as well as holding down a succession of jobs, including a short-lived spell at an abattoir, he nurtured his blossoming musical talent.

After two years of pestering he persuaded his grandparents to lend him the old guitar they kept hanging around their house.

His Grandma made him swear to bring it back every weekend so she could check he was looking after it.

Stephen's dad asked a friend to teach his son to play and that was when he was introduced to Bob Dylan's music. Soon after, he started writing songs for himself, making tapes for friends and imagining the albums he was going to make.

“I was always just playing guitar and remember trying to write songs and make music. It's something that I've always wanted to do,” he says.

“I was into all the greats, the Beatles, the Stones, Bob Dylan. When I got older I got a bit anal about finding obscure music, old school hip-hop, early Motown - things that do not get on the radar when you are a kid.”

Five years ago he moved to Manchester, supposedly to study. But he swiftly abandoned academia to pursue his dream of being a full-time musician and work on his songwriting.

“It was a massive thing when I moved to Manchester. There are lots of opportunities to do creative things there, be a writer or be a musician. It was a conscious decision to move there because all my favourite bands came from there,” he says.

“I'm inspired by anything - it could just be a single word that might sound nice on top of a melody or musical phrase,” he says.

He was soon creating a buzz on the city's music scene. At 21, City Life magazine readers voted him top live act in the city.

He regularly supported bigger acts passing through town, and was chosen as tour support for local heroes Elbow.

Fretwell's first release, 8 Songs, was released on a friend's label, and copies now change hands for around £40 on the auction website eBay.

Two self-financed releases followed in 2003 - the Something's Got To Give EP and The Lines mini album, which helped bring him to the attention of the press.

He signed a deal with Fiction Records and recorded Magpie at one of the most famous studios in the world, Abbey Road in London.

You can hear a host of influences in his music - Dylan, the Beatles, Leonard Cohen and even jazz and swing.

Talking about his influences he says: “I would have loved to have worked with Nina Simone. That's my favourite type of voice ever. There's no one around now with a voice like that. I am obsessed with gospel and old blues.”

And the acclaim hasn't just come from music critics. Fan Cameron Crowe, who directed Tom Cruise in Vanilla Sky, asked him to write some music for his new film Elizabethtown which stars Orlando Bloom and Kirsten Dunst.

He is not sure whether his song will make the final cut of the movie, which is due to be released in the UK on October 21, but says he was honoured to be asked.

“It was very weird to be invited to meet him. He's a great director and music is very important in his films,” he says.

As for the future, he says he's “itching” to get back into the studio and start working on new material after the tour.

“It's a nice way of life,” he says simply.

t Stephen Fretwell plays Norwich Arts Centre on September 10. Box office: 01603 660352. The album, Magpie, is out now.






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