Two months ago, Knysna-bred musician David Meulen released his first solo album, “@davidmeulen”, steering a very different course from his previous act, Dividable Grand – an alt-rock outfit he formed in high school.
“@davidmeulen” is simple, straightforward, acoustic goodness. It’s one to play in your car, with something to kick-start your day on the drive to work, or calm you down on the way back. There are songs that’ll make you want to fall in love, buy a Kombi and hit the road, dance in a pub, or mourn a failed relationship. It makes for a great soundtrack to everyday life and I really enjoyed it.
That said, I only discovered this after I gave the album a second or third listen. At first glance its simplicity (vocals, acoustic guitar and basic drum grooves reign in most songs) gives a monotonous impression. But as I took a closer look the intricacies in each song quickly became apparent, and I found myself singing along like it was a high school mixtape, in no time. Guest artists like Barry Van Zyl (Johnny Clegg drummer), Maurice Paliaga from the Dirty Skirts and legendary harmonica master, Lonesome Dave Ferguson, appear on some of the tracks and add years of expertise to what is already a good album.
I spoke to David about road trips, The Beatles and day jobs:
Jessica Kramer: Well done for the release of your first solo album! Having played in a band before, how did you find the writing and recording process different now, being solely responsible for it all?
David Meulen: Hugely, hugely different. When you write for a band you are always thinking of the other band member’s styles in your song writing. “What would fit with the drummer’s style or the bassist style?” There’s no more of that anymore. It’s all, “what would suit me and what would suit my voice and how can we fit the other instruments into that?” But I never really changed my song writing. It’s a very different style to the band, and I found changing the style was enough.
JK: How did the song writing process go?
DM: Well, as soon as the band disbanded I knew I had to change something. So I went on a road trip to just get back to basics. I took my van, went completely alone, took my guitar and travelled down Route 62. I stayed on a couple of farms and random places, just sort of where I found myself and wrote songs. The second I got back I had more than an album’s worth of songs and chose the best ones from those. Then I called in Rusty (Brendyn Russouw) and we went down to Knysna for two weeks and did the pre-production there. We finished the song writing, I wrote two more songs for the album and then we headed to studio for two months.
JK: You have said that the album is very stripped down and basic, musically. Can we expect the same thing from your live shows?
DM: Well, I play with a three piece for the shows. I have always enjoyed playing with a band on stage ‘cause there’s a connection between the musicians and it’s a lot more fun than just playing solo. I do that now and then, and I will if the gig calls for it. If it’s an acoustic gig, I’ll play acoustic; I’ll play what’s on the album. But I want people to enjoy the music no matter where they are. If they’re in their car listening to the album, it’s different from being at a venue and wanting to have a good time. So we try to adapt our live set to whatever the venue is or what we are feeling on the day. It does change a little bit. We have a drum-kit and a bass and it adds a little bit more energy to the songs.
JK: Speaking of where people listen to it, what did you envision when you imagined people listening to the album?
DM: I actually had a loose sort of concept for the album which was the journey, the road trip that I took. It was a very nostalgic and emotional journey. But when I was writing I tried to capture where I was physically and I was in my car for most of the time. So absolutely, if someone thinks of a road trip when they listen to the album I feel like I have done a good job.
JK: As a musician in the South African industry, which seems to be growing every day, what do you see your future looking like here?
DM: Look, I love South Africa. I love everything about it, really. I love the venues, I love the crowds. But there is no way that a musician who wants to make it in the world can stay in South Africa. It’s just too small. When I was in London I was shocked by the amount of exposure that a single album gets. I mean Paolo Nutini just released his “Caustic Love” album when I was there and there were posters everywhere, and adverts on TV; it was everywhere. You don’t get that here. If you happen to read a blog you might see a new album and go “oh okay” there just isn’t the exposure here. There’s a lot more competition overseas, but we’re so cordoned off from the rest of the world that we do have something more to offer the world ‘cause we haven’t been as influenced by it.
JK: So if you could further your career in any other country where would you go?
DM: I love London. London is my favourite place to be. The venues are fantastic. I mean, you go into a pub that has a similar sort of vibe to Alma Café and you’ve got this jazz band that’s just made up of world class musicians. People who you could watch a DVD of for hours on end, no problem, and they’re just playing in a pub. They’re just randoms. The music scene is fantastic there.
JK: You attended some lectures at the famous Abbey Road Studios. Tell me a bit about that?
DM: It was so great! I’ve been a Beatles fanatic since I was 6. My dad introduced them to me and I was just sold for the rest of my life. The first album I ever got was Abbey Road and that inspired me to become a musician. I haven’t doubted becoming a musician since I was 6. So to go into the actual studio and play the instruments they played was eerie, but really cool. I mean they show pictures of the Beatles recording Help and you’re sitting right where they were in the picture. I attended a lecture on the advancement of recoding techniques from a gramophone, a cone and a needle to the digital stuff we have now, and I have noticed since I have been back that my song writing has changed.
JK: So do you think it will influence your next album in a big way?
DM: Yeah definitely. I tried to get a bit of a live feel for this album ‘cause we wanted to keep it as raw and as simple as possible. So I think I’d probably expand on that a little bit more and go for a bit more of a mechanical recording technique.
JK: You’ve been doing this since high school. What’s it like to be a full time musician?
DM: Well, my goal in life is to never have a day job. So I try and advance my music as much as possible. I am doing a song writing course at the moment and am also interested in photography and recording and stuff. So I’m never really bored. I’m never just sitting around. I’ll be song writing or working on a live set; whatever needs to be done.
JK: Do you think you’ll ever go back to Dividable Grand or start another band?
DM: I don’t think any album I ever release will be the same as the last one. I’m interested in a whole bunch of different genres. I love the rock side of things. I love the acoustic side of things. So I definitely think I’ll do something similar in the future but not with the old band.
JK: How do you approach growing and developing as a musician, given your love for different genres, when so many artists get ridiculed every time they change their sound?
DM: There’s such a fine line between releasing something that you want to release and releasing something people want to hear. And I think that releasing something that people want to hear isn’t really what we should be doing as musicians, because it’s probably already there. If they want to hear that, go listen to the bands that are already there. I always listen to my fans, but I’ll always release what I want to release because that’s what they are there for in the first place. If I lose a few fans because I release something completely different, I hope that they remember the first album. The Beatles did the same thing. They went from this acoustic vibe to psychedelic crazy shit, and I am sure they lost millions of fans and gained millions of fans as well.
JK: If you had endless resources, and could collaborate with anyone you wanted to, what would your next album look like?
DM: Right now, this morning, I’d probably collaborate with The Tallest Man On Earth. I really dig him. If I could reincarnate Pink Floyd at the same time I’d do that. So if I were to make an album right now it would be a cross between me, The Tallest Man On Earth, and Pink Floyd. Maybe a bit of Radiohead tucked in the bottom. Tomorrow it might be completely different, but this morning it’s that.