Jake Shillingford has been creating music under the guise of My Life Story for over three decades now. Originally formed in Southend during the mid-1980s, My Life Story’s creative peak took place throughout the following decade. Creating a sonic landscape that encapsulated the worlds of pop, rock and orchestral music hall. They became one of the most unique bands from the era that became known as Britpop, releasing three critically acclaimed albums (1995 debut Mornington Crescent, follow-up The Golden Mile two years later, then Joined Up Talking in 2000) alongside a batch of equally revered singles and EPs over the same time frame.
Since that third record, My Life Story went on hiatus at various points during the first part of the 21st Century. Preferring to concentrate instead on his Exileinside project before releasing a solo album in 2009, Shillingford resurrected My Life Story once more in 2012. Combining his time with the band between lecturing at Brighton Music College (BIMM) and writing music for television and films, with multi-instrumentalist and composer Nick Evans, who also plays guitar in the current line up of My Life Story.
Nevertheless, it’s the long awaited fourth My Life Story album, World Citizen that’s got our collective knickers in an excited twist right now. Released last month on Shillingford’s own Exilophone imprint. It marks the band’s first collection of new material in nineteen years, and while aesthetically different from its predecessors, stands tall alongside each and every one of them in Shillingford and My Life Story’s impressive canon of work.
While not entirely a concept album in its most obvious form, World Citizen is heavily influenced by current events. Taking the narrative perspective of two fictional characters and what they see around them, it is, as Shillingford quite rightly calls it, “A songwriter’s album.” While the cinematic orchestral sounds of yore are present in parts, World Citizen demands to be heard intently with particular focus and attention paid to its lyrics.
“Some of the chord structures and arrangements date back to the end of the Exileinside era,” admits Shillingford. “I learned a lot from that project because it was almost the antithesis of My Life Story. It was very stripped back and electronic, trying to let the songs breathe a bit more. A song like ‘The Rose The Sun’ has an openness to it which comes from learning as a songwriter to let the lyrics just sit on top of the song rather than throwing the whole kitchen sink in there. The really fascinating thing for me personally while writing the album was that I didn’t write any of the lyrics until May and June of this year. I’ve never done that before. Whenever I’ve made an album before the lyrics have been written over a period of time, and there were some concepts and ideas with this one too.”
Owing as much to Mike Leigh’s satirical comedy from 1977, Abigail’s Party, which paints a latent picture of the aspiring middle classes as it does the divisive constraints of Brexit which engulf us today. It represents arguably the most conversational album Shillingford has worked on to date.
“The album is around forty minutes long and I’d like to think of it as a short contemporary play, certainly with the language in it. It’s a very conversational album, lots of ‘he said, she said’ stuff, which I was really experimenting with. For example, if you go and see something like Abigail’s Party you immediately know it’s set in the 1970s. It encapsulates that era, and I approached writing this in a similar way. That’s not to say World Citizen is a political album. It isn’t, its about two people surrounded by world events that are happening right now. I hope that comes through in its language and the things it’s addressing. Conversational language is so important to me because that makes things seem real. You can instantly relate to those two people or even put yourself in the place of those persons. It’s not me getting on my soapbox, its just about living in these times.”
While Brexit undoubtedly had an influence – check out ‘A Country With No Coastline’ (“That one’s about Brexit!”) – however minor, World Citizen still bares all the hallmarks of a classic My Life Story record. Shillingford’s distinctive, crystalline vocals soaring over arrangements that veer between anthemic pop (‘Taking On The World’) and dramatic orchestration (‘#NoFilter’) with an array of twists and turns thrown in between. So, would the My Life Story of twenty years ago come up with an album like World Citizen? Shillingford suggests not.
“Mainly because we were living in a completely different time. The world around us has an impact, and when there is division you start to question yourself; who you are and where you stand in life. The media is constantly talking about division. It’s almost like A Clockwork Orange thing. If you program people’s brains enough, they’ll eventually believe anything you tell them. When you start to realise all the game playing that’s going on and the echo chambers around it, we’re still ultimately searching for the truth.”
Indeed, it’s this continual search for the truth that underpins each and every song on the album, and undoubtedly makes World Citizen such a fascinating and rewarding listen.
“If you were to ask me what is the one adjective that the album’s about, I’d say ‘truth’. The album really is about truth. Truth in love, truth at the end of love, truth in daily life. I think I found happiness in truth by the people closest to me. They’re the people I trust. They tell me honest information from the heart. A song like ‘The One’ has a lot of really simplistic lyrics, and that’s very deliberate because the idea was for it to sit alongside something quite wordy like ‘Telescope Moonlight Boy’. Which again is about a kid searching for truth, looking at adults around him and realising a lot of them are indulged in this fakery. A lot of it is inspired by the Albert Camus novel The Outsider even though I haven’t opened that book for a long time. It had a really big impact on me when I was a young man, reading every existentialist book before the age of 21. The idea that our lives are based on the premise where if you don’t tell too many lies, you’re going to upset too many people. The whole fabric of society is based on white lies. That’s the background of it and I’m trying to break through all of that.”
World Citizen is the first album where Shillingford has collaborated with guitarist Nick Evans. Having formed a production company (Choppersaurus) together five years ago and written incidental music, scores and jingles for television and films ever since, it was perhaps inevitable they’d eventually combine their talents in a recording studio.
“I was lecturing in songwriting at BIMM, which I’m no longer involved with. I think education is really important, but you can also get into a rut just by talking about something and not doing it. It felt like I’d programmed myself out of writing songs, so while I was telling people how great songwriting is and why its good for the soul, I needed to be doing more of it myself. So, Nick and I just started a small partnership, writing scores and various clips for television production companies. That really grew. We wrote our first US feature film called Blood Fest last year for Rooster Teeth. We’ve also written music for the trailer to Farming more recently, which is an amazing film starring Cate Blanchett. It’s actually quite similar to This Is England only set in Tilbury, which is near where I was born in Southend. It’s about skinheads and the indoctrination of young people into that movement. So, we were really getting into writing for those clients but then there comes a point where you want to start writing for yourself, which is actually easier. Whereas writing for a client who’ve got this specific script or vision can be quite difficult.”
Having recorded the string segments with an orchestra in Budapest via Skype, something Shillingford would never have dreamed of twenty years ago, the songs for World Citizen came together pretty quickly, something its creator is especially proud of considering his background and lack of classical training.
“One of the things I always loved about being in an orchestral band was that constant friction between the classical world and the one which I grew up in. I left school at 16 with three ‘O’ Levels and none of those are in music.”
Nevertheless, the question on many people’s lips; especially those that saw My Life Story back in the day; isn’t entirely unexpected. Will there be an orchestra at any of the forthcoming live shows?
“I’d never say never. It’s purely down to budget. We are still aesthetically a cult sort of band, even though in my head I see us as being quite commercial. If somebody wants to put us on a Britpop ‘Best Of’ we’ll gladly take it. So, it’s just circumstance really, but I’d love people to see and hear My Life Story play with a full orchestra. We toured a lot in the nineties. We played a lot of spit and sawdust, old school rock and roll music venues with a twelve-piece mini orchestra. What we’re doing now is a bit of a mixture of the two worlds. We’ve got a tight five-piece band. The most important thing for me is getting the songs out to people. Get people to hear about My Life Story again. If that means having to do it with a smaller band, we can manoeuvre a bit more easily and remain self-sufficient, that’s what I’ll do. But then also, why not do a special show with a big orchestra? Let’s see what happens.”
With three highly respected albums from the first era of My Life Story and lots of bands from the same time period currently embarking on anniversary tours for landmark albums, Shillingford is understandably open to the idea himself.
“It’s the 20th anniversary of Joined Up Talking next year, so we have been talking about doing something to commemorate that at the tail end of 2020,” he reveals. “But my focus right now is on World Citizen and taking it on its journey for as long as we can. That’s the wonderful thing when you put out a new record. You have no idea where you’re going to end up with it, so I hope we go on a reasonably good journey with this album.”
Reminiscing about the past, My Life Story were a unique entity. Alongside bands such as the Manic Street Preachers and Shampoo, they didn’t really fit into any genre specific box. Loved by outsiders yet never quite rigid enough to fit mainstream tastes, despite an unprecedented run of exquisite pop singles throughout the nineties. Shillingford looks back on that era with a great fondness, even though it seems so unachievable in the current climate.
“I can’t imagine anybody would be able to afford to self-finance going around the UK with an orchestra. Even in the nineties, the idea was that we were so at odds with the acid house scene and the end of grunge. We also had our own manifesto and a lot of it was the opposite of what was going on at the time. I was wearing a suit. There was a dress code at gigs, which I loved. I don’t know of any other band that enforced a dress code on the door. I loved playing with people in that way and trying to bring back elements of music hall in there. Behind it all was the idea that hopefully we’d get snapped up by a label that would see the grand vision.”
“If you remember that era, we’d often release a two CD set where you’d have the same A side with lots of different B sides across both CDs. If you were a dance act, you’d just put loads of remixes on them, whereas we often put six tracks across both formats, and we were very proud of that. There’s a lot about Britpop, which I’m not a huge fan of. The competitiveness of it. But one element of competitiveness I did like was the challenge to write and deliver great songs all the time. We still have something to say no matter what the song is, even if it’s just an observation. A lot of My Life Story’s experimentation was using orchestras and different ways of recording them which you couldn’t really replicate live.”
Regulars on the more nostalgia end of the festival circuit since their return, having played events like Shiiine On and Star Shaped. Could World Citizen be the record that makes bookers of more contemporary events sit up and take notice? Shillingford doesn’t see why not.
“We do have a booking agent. The nineties are in vogue right now and I think most of the bands that play those festivals are aware of that. They’re also aware that the noughties are going to be in vogue next. It’s heartening to know there’s still that passion from those bands. I find it quite interesting that having released a new record you almost become two bands. It’s like having a split personality because I would never betray my past. I love playing the old songs and don’t see anything wrong with people going to nostalgic events whatsoever. I think it’s absolutely wonderful. So, there’s the past, but then there’s also the present and the future. It’s just trying to get that balance right. So, in some ways, doing a little tour for the new album makes a lot of sense. It’s almost like going back to the beginning. Then with those festival shows, why not play all the old songs and relive those moments. It’s great for me too because I get to meet and hang with old friends and bands we played with from back in the day. Whether you can fuse the two depends on how well this record is received. My Life Story were fortunate in a way to be a band that weren’t massively recognised, so what I’m hoping is people will just accidentally hear our music. That people will share our music and hear it for the first time. That’s the greatest thing about the democratisation of music through the web.”
My Life Story tour the UK from next month. Full tour dates below.
World Citizen is out now via Exilophone.
02 – ISLINGTON Assembly Hall
20 – ST ALBANS Horn
21 – NORWICH Epic Studios
23 – HEBDEN BRIDGE Trades Club
24 – HULL New Adelphi
30 – WORTHING St Pauls
01 – BRISTOL Exchange
Photo: David Titlow