Entering the cosmos of Cornwall-based singer-songwriter Nathan Ball has always had something of eyeing a two-headed figure of sorts. At once rooted the tradition of introspective songwriting as well as passionate about crafting electronic spheres that really take listeners into a world of its own, the British artist has taken his fair time to arrive at the powerful and ambient sound of his debut LP Under The Mackerel Sky. For as much as it symbolises an artistic departure, this record is in many ways a finish line for the songwriter, as it accumulates the development Nathan Ball has gone through to arrive at this specific point.

“I forever wanted to merge my love for DJing and my singer-songwriter style and I wanted to sit somewhere in the middle of that.”

“You only get one debut album”

“I’ve been releasing singles and EPs for about six years now and I guess for quite a few reasons I was still searching for the sound I wanted. Every song I released was a step in the right direction and I was slowly building kind of an organic fanbase”, Nathan emphasises early on in our virtual meeting and I can really gather that this project truly has become a labour of love for the musician. “I’m so pleased with how it’s come out and how it’s tied together, with the message and the name of it”, he summarises, “I’m so proud of every song on there”. 

“I forever have been kind of a believer in that you only get one debut album. It kind of felt like there’s a bit of want for it, but I also had a lot of time at hands to make it.”

The Sweet Rushes Of Epiphany

Gazing into the light (photo by Jimi Herrtage)

How much can a name tell? Well, in the case of Under The Mackerel Sky, it was that very phrase that opened the door in Nathan’s head to tie together the various ideas and song material gathered up in the past years – and the image is weaving like a theme through the entire record. “I wanted an album to be a body of work and all make sense together, but didn’t really know how to tie that in. And then I found this name … it’s all kind of a real snapshot of time, but also a work in progress of seven years”, he says. 

Itself taken from a line one of Sir John Betjeman’s poems, a Cornwall local, the image of Under The Mackerel Sky made “it suddenly click”, as Nathan calls it. “I’d always seen these crazy patchworks across the sky, never really knowing what it was” and once the notion took hold of him it was not long that the entire album itself took shape. “It kind of means a change is coming, a storm is on the way… I liked the idea that maybe a change is coming in the world”.

“The day I read the line I wrote the closing track of the album. I wrote it that day in like an hour and cycled down to the church where he is buried, that got actually lost in the sand dunes at one point. Years later they dug it out and it is this amazing church by the sea. I sat there with that song in my headphones and all suddenly clicked. I knew that it had to be the title of the record and it suddenly gave a whole context to the thing.”

The Turning Of The Tides

Opening with Whispers, a soaring piece that breathes the oceanside, inspired by the memory of his granddad who was in the navy, Under The Mackerel Sky exercises a stunning atmosphere of sound and it doesn’t fail to captivate and engage. It is for instance taking us into the melancholic realms of Blindside, which begins with Nathan strumming the piano, taking to a rushing chorus and eventually erupting like a wave that has just crushed on the shore, all the while documenting a relationship that is falling to pieces. 

“Being here during lockdown it kind of felt very open and empty, I just felt very inspired by the area. I wanted the music to emulate that epic, almost being smothered by nature, being all consuming.”

And while the mood remains soothing, things do get wild and loud, if you look at the banger Can’t Work You Out, placed firmly at the heart of the album. Described by Nathan as an “internal conversation in your head, going round and round, not really getting anywhere”, this piece is blessed with a terrific build-up, with a howling “eruption of emotion in the end”. “It’s kind of an anti-song really. There is no chorus and no verse, just a constant build. It feels good to have that release somewhere though”. And what a release it is indeed.

The strong side of Under The Mackerel Sky is that Nathan Ball is able let these stirrings break out into the open as he manages to integrate them into the overall ethereal surface of the record.  The tides may be turning, but here is a songwriter who succeeds in recording the manifold emotions rushing as he lives through the dark of our times. Melancholic memories turn into anger and despair, which then turn into the soothing feels of the later tracks such as Hotel Room or the closing title track.

“There are a few threads that go throughout the record. Loneliness, for instance, came a lot from touring in the last few years. Before the pandemic I did like 82 shows in a year and I was just playing on my own, without the band. I felt it’s a weird, lonely existence when you cruise around the world just with your guitar. When you play on your own the entire day and you have all these people in front of you and you speak to them afterwards, it’s an attack on the senses and then you go to your hotel room and you’re just on your own, trying to come down from this wild rush of energy. That’s what the song Hotel Room is about.”

A Crack For The Light

While the lyrics as well as the music remains on the melancholic, wistful side of things, there is a strong upbeat vibe that makes the songs of Under The Mackerel Sky a beacon of light. Moody themes of despair, loneliness and melancholic musings may leave a strong imprint on the separate pieces and yet, the idea and hope of change that is sure to come along dominates the message of this record eventually.

“I hope the album makes people think and tap into some kind of unknown emotions. I always love it when you’re sitting in a car with a lot of friends and you’re all talking and then a song comes on and you all go silent and you don’t realise you’ve done that and everyone is looking out the window. I’d love that to happen. I love it when music is kind of a soundtrack to an emotion for you.”

“Loneliness seems to be a real theme throughout the record”, Nathan tries to conclude, “but when I listen to it I feel also a lot of hopefulness. It feels very hopeful, despite everything. It’s kind of a melancholic euphoria.”

Nathan Ball‘s great debut album Under The Mackerel Sky is out now via Viva La Music.