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Midge Ure is a man on a mission. He’s had his fair share of fame and enjoyed the trappings of success from numerous hit songs with 80s electronic rock band Ultravox and also as a successful solo songwriter and performer in his own right (not forgetting the kudos he has received as co-creator of the Live Aid concert charity). However, via his involvement with music students at the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts, he has learned that life for an emerging artist these days isn’t as rosy, particularly on the road. Consequently, Midge stripped back his songs, slung an acoustic guitar over his shoulder and has been traveling the world troubadour style, to see what it’s really like for young performers and has been documenting it for all to see. The Australian leg of the tour won’t be as lonely, he’ll be accompanied by his guitar tech and sound guy but playing bare bones on stage nevertheless. Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips caught up with Midge for a long chat to discuss playing solo, the upcoming Australian tour and his latest album Fragile.

GP: You’re coming to Australia in April and playing solo. Why have you decided to tour solo?
MU: I have just come back from doing a couple of weeks in America, totally on my own too. No crew, no adults, no nothing … just me. I am doing it because when I go to places like LIPA (Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts), Paul McCartney’s music school as a guest speaker and talk to the kids, I realise that what I am saying … I  may as well be speaking Dutch because the idea of being signed and getting a deal, the old model an artist used to work by, doesn’t exist anymore. So I thought I’m going to have to go out there just like these young guys and see how they do it. So I set myself this stupid task.

What have you found to be the pros and cons of touring on your own?
Ha, it’s all cons! (laughs) I am quite good in my own company, quite good spending time on my own. So that’s OK for me but for any young artist  who is lucky enough to get a series of dates to do, it’s tough lugging all the stuff around. It’s really hard for them to make any kind of money, cos the fees are ridiculously low and the costs involved are huge. Withholding tax is a major problem. For an artist to deal with all of that the first time out, it is really tough. But you have to be prepared to lug your CDs and T-Shirts and all that and get on and plane and off a plane, get the stuff in the back of a car and then worry about doing a settlement at the end of the night. I am 61, I have never done a settlement before. It is a whole alien thing to me. The whole process of dealing with the fact that the shipment of CDs that you sent out two weeks prior to the tour might not arrive in time. For me that is not a major problem. For an artist who is depending on selling those 20 or 30 CDs every night to make the thing financially viable, that’s a major problem. I have been videoing all of this, just talking heads and I am going to compile it all and stick it on my website or something just as a little documentary on how weird and wonderful all of this is.

midgeure003I guess you have plenty to occupy your time as you have virtually been your own tour manager?
There is plenty to do. Just things like … I found that I had to get myself an American phone because you have to phone up the venues three gigs ahead and arrange what time you are getting in, where you can park, what time the sound guy is getting in, sending them diagrams of your stage set up, all that stuff that I have never had to do. I’m used to walking on and everything is ready for me and I just do it. When you are doing it on your own, there are a hell of a lot of boxes to tick. The worst part, I tell you, is remembering all of your stuff at the end of the night. Remembering you have your in-ears, guitar leads and bits and pieces because normally there is someone else there doing an idiot check at the end of the night. So there is nobody to do that, you have to be the idiot and do the idiot check as well!

That’s the logistical side of touring solo. I guess it also gives you the chance to play your songs as they were written, before all of the embellishments?
You’d like to think so but it’s not quite true. I don’t write songs like anyone else I know. Everybody else I know, writes the song and then goes into the studio and records it. I write songs in the studio. I use my toys, my tools as a band. So I walk in and look at a blank computer screen with a seed of an idea. As I start assembling the atmosphere to do the song in and write the basic arrangement, that’s me starting the recording process. I’ve got bits of vocals here and bits of that there and it just kind of constructs and I know instinctively when it’s finished. A lot of times all I have got is a line of lyrics which I am building the entire song around and the rest of those lyrics might not come until 6 months or a year later. Once I have all of the arrangements in place I liken it to making a movie. So with touring solo, I had to go back and learn all of the songs. I had to look at Fragile, the new album and think OK, how can I play this on an acoustic guitar? So in a way, I am doing it in reverse.

In that case, it’s a chance to re-imagine the songs then and give them a fresh voice?
Absolutely. You know, doing an acoustic version of Dancing With Tears In My Eyes, or Vienna or If I Was, or any of those things, you have to get your hear around the concept of the audience not hearing the salad dressing, the arrangement, the texture.  There are some things I have looked at and tried and I couldn’t even start to figure out how to play it on an acoustic guitar but I can do Vienna, I can do Dancing, I can do Hymn and The Voice, a lot of the well known songs plus I’ll be doing just a few new ones.

How much gear will you bring with you to Australia?
I have a matching pair of Taylor acoustics, which sound fabulous. (Limited editions of 48, of which Midge has numbers 2 & 17). There’s also a little pedal board that I use for some effects now and then but it really is as bare and stripped down as you can possibly get. It’s much more relaxed and informal but for me it’s fairly intense because you are on stage for an hour and a half on your own, no guitar solos, no instrumentals to give your voice a break.

A lot of musicians who play acoustic guitar on stage talk about the struggle to get a good acoustic sound live. Has that been the case for you?
Since I got those Taylor guitars, no. They sound phenomenal live. They are the best electric acoustic sounding guitars I’ve heard. Prior to that, the expensive guitars that I used which I thought would sound OK, sounded like wooden boxes. These are fairly delicate guitars, the electronics in them and I’m a thrasher. When I  see a proper acoustic guitarist playing, it’s a wondrous thing. You wonder where all the other guitarists are because you can see one set of fingers doing their thing but you’re hearing ten guitars.

How many tunes from Fragile will you slot into the set?
Probably three or four. I wouldn’t think of doing any more than that. Irrespective of how much you want to play the new album, the majority of people coming to see you may not have heard the album. I’m not stupid, they are here to listen to the classics. There are certain songs they want to hear, which I will do and it is not a problem for me to do that but I wouldn’t subject them to half a new album.

Let’s talk about your new album Fragile … why did that song become title track?
I think it summed up exactly what was going on for me. It’s no great secret that ten years ago I was having a miserable time and drinking too much and trying to sort my life out. It’s part of the reason why there’s a twelve year gap between the previous album and this. I did many things during that period but not completing new albums. So when I wrote the entire thing, I was going through various stages of recovery, various stages of self-pity and various stages of mess and various stages of strength trying to get my act together. I wrote an incredibly honest album, brutally honest in places,  just reflecting exactly how I felt. The title track Fragile just summed it up for me. The opening line is “You might as well have asked me not to breathe” and it is talking about drink. Irrespective of how strong you think you are as a character … you know,  I have always been the guy who to carry everyone’s weight on my shoulders and always been there for other people and always dealt with it and always juggled and always managed to do half a dozen projects at once. It only takes one or two small bad things to fall in alignment and you crack, you fall over and that’s what happened to me. So we are all fragile creatures, irrespective of how strong or smart we think we are.

‘Wire and Wood’ is a beautiful track and quite an epic. How long take you put that track together?
The basis of the track didn’t take that long at all. The main melodies and all the elements of the two parts, they came reasonably quickly. It was an exercise for me. I am the king of the soft melody, the second melody. I wanted to do as many different melodies around those structures as possible. Every time it goes round the sequence of chords, a different instrument and a different melody comes in. It’s almost like film music in a way. I have always loved instrumental music and always made instrumental music and I would like to do more of it. it’s like a soundtrack to a movie which doesn’t exist.

‘Bridges’ is another track which is very cinematic …
Again, it’s something i have always done. Ultravox used to do it a lot with B sides. We’d go to the studio and just use whatever equipment was there and create something and more often than not they would be instrumentals. It is just something I have always enjoyed.

Have you ever been involved with a soundtrack?
I did a couple of American indie movies and I quite enjoyed putting that different hat on. It’s creative but without the limitations that you put on yourself . It is the antithesis of making a video for a pop song. When you make a video for a pop song, you already have the soundtrack. You start with that and put the pictures to it. So movies are a different brief but I thoroughly enjoy it. I always thought Ultravox should have done soundtracks just like Tangerine Dream did or Nine Inch Nails. Ultravox should have been doing that but it never came our way.

Pic by Donald Matheson
Pic by Donald Matheson

You had a bit of fun with vocal effects like on tracks like Are We Connected and a few others. What were you using there?
All of the stuff I recorded by myself in my home studio and I used a lot of Waves plug-ins, they are fantastic. It’s something that I learned from ‘Conny’ Plank (Ultravox producer) when I recorded with Ultravox out at his studio in Germany. Conny was a wizard when it came to studio trickery. I always used to put a little bit of flanging on my voice which gives it just a tiny bit of movement. I always loved that, so some of that is still in there… EQing the vocals up so they’re a bit  megaphonic and that little bit of flanging. I use the vocals like an instrument, which we always used to do in Ultravox… as a melody, as an instrument, it had a sound of its own. I also think there is something quite  exposing about singing. When we did the last Ultravox album with Steve Lipson, he had the vocals really loud  and dry and I felt naked! I wanted to push them back into the music somewhere.

Were the drums all from software too?
All loops with added bits of programming. There’s a thing called DrumCore which I use and have for many years. A lot of people use them for doing demos but when I mess around with them, I just love the feel, the swing. They give you different fills, that  you wouldn’t necessarily do with a drummer. And because this album took a long time to put together, I couldn’t do it like any other album. I couldn’t say to a drummer come in and see where this goes and then have it sit around for 6 months and I’m not even sure I want to finish the song. So the idea of having the tools where you could do it on your own ,was much more preferable to me.

Pic by
Pic by

What about the guitars on the album?
There’s a reasonable amount of guitar on there. There’s a big 70s prog rock ending to Fragile. I used Vintage guitars. I have my own signature model, it’s based on a Les Paul with P90 style pickups and a Vibrola unit on it that you would normally have on a Gibson SG or something. I used a variety of amplifiers.

THR10I have a little Yamaha amplifier which lights up (Yamaha THR10) and is a modeling amp, a tiny little thing. I find that by miking this thing up, you can move some air with that, unlike plugging into a processor. There’s a guitar sound on Let It Rise, a real Hank Marvin type twang, all came from miking up this tiny little amplifier.

Living with the album for so long, was it hard to let it go and say, it’s finished?
It’s always hard to let it go. I was desperate to get it out. I was really pleased with it and wanted people to hear it but there’s that horrible embarrassment factor when you put it out there and you think,  people are going to start reading the lyrics and listening to what you are actually saying. When you finish the thing, it is just a piece of music to you but to fresh ears, they start analysing it. There’s that whole thing of people delving into my mind. There’s also a fear factor of something that has taken that long to finish and going through all of the stuff that was going on at the time, you think, what the shit? Really … what if it is crap? Nobody had heard it. There was nobody in the studio. From a blank screen to finishing the mixes, nobody had heard this thing. It really was in every sense a solo album. When I started getting feedback on it when it came out I was ecstatic. People are talking about it being the best album I have ever done but it is a scary thing, I have to say.

Last year, you organised another version of Do They Know it’s Christmas. What was the experience this time around?
It was good. I think the new guys were fantastic. They stepped up to the mark and did it very well. It was equally difficult getting the artists into the studio at the same time on the same day. It was important that they showed real commitment. Anyone can email in a vocal but trying to get people to be there on the day and turning up and doing it in front of the camera is another thing. I still prefer the original. It does it’s job. We created a vehicle which generates money that helps people. We had this weird backlash about the new one, you know, why the same old shit, same old song. Well until somebody writes another song that gives the same royalties, it’s going to be the same old song. It was lovely to see Ed Sheeran, who is one of the truly talented newcomers. He’s the real thing this kid. The odd thing was the realisation that these kids were coming in so scared and we couldn’t understand why. It struck us that they have heard this song all their lives and they didn’t want to fuck it up. They would have done this song at school, in the nativity things and you could see why they were so scared doing their version of that song. I thought it might be Bob they were scared of but no it was the song. Of course various artists used it to take the opportunity to cause a bit of outrage and say, I refused to do it etc, but what they forgot to tell the press was that they were all doing it right up to the night before and realised they’d probably get more publicity by not doing it. The funniest thing was watching Bob turn into the punk he used to be!

Midge, we look forward to seeing you down here soon.
Thanks, I’m really looking forward to it.

Australian dates:
8th April   Showroom @ HBF Stadium
10th April Milanos Hotel Melbourne
11th April Shoppingtown Doncaster
12th April The Basement Sydney
15th April Lizottes Newcastle

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