Halfway through Sweet Baboo’s fifth album comes I Just Want To Be Good, in which the North Wales singer appears to describe himself in glowing terms.
“I’m a lovely little man”, sings Stephen Black who, as Sweet Baboo, has written and performed songs of sweet sentiment and charming melody since 2003 but never with such accomplishment as on The Boombox Ballads. Black isn’t celebrating his own loveliness, however. I Just Want To Be Good is by fellow Welsh singer Cate Le Bon, a close friend for whom Black plays bass, and she wrote the song about him. It’s the only cover on an album of otherwise personal love songs that combine kitchen sink detail with universal appeal, and it shows a new side to Sweet Baboo: as the Harry Nilsson of Snowdonia, a gifted songwriter not above lending his dulcet tones to the words of others.
Black says of I Just Want To Be Good, “there’s a line in there about building roads, a reference to my former job in the roads department of the Welsh Assembly. I’ve learned a lot from Cate, as I have from everyone I have worked with. It’s a bit like listening to a song you like. You soak up everything, you try to copy it, and it comes out entirely differently”.
On The Boombox Ballads, Sweet Baboo wanted to explore more what it was to be a singer as opposed to a ‘singer / songwriter’, a term that to him at least seems to have picked up negative connotations. There was a tentative channeling of latter day Scott Walker (You Got Me Time Keeping) in both songwriting and working with an arranger, Paul Jones, for the first time, with Jones helping him paint the most vivid accompaniments possible. This process leaves Sweet Baboo with nothing but his voice to guide him to the emotional centre of the song.
By his own admission, The Boombox Ballads is Sweet Baboo’s naked attempt to emulate his heroes, Harry Nilsson and Dennis Wilson among them. But being a 33-year-old father of one from Trefriw, on the edge of Snowdonia, rather than a drug-addled lunatic from Los Angeles, on the edge of sanity, it is driven by his characters, not those of his heroes. Rich with string-laden arrangements, with lyrics culled from personal experience and resonating with domesticity but imagination too, The Boombox Ballads is Sweet Baboo’s sophisticated pop album: celebratory, a little melancholic, free of cynicism.
You Got Me Time Keeping is Black’s attempt to write a song like Scott Walker’s The Electrician, although Walker’s mordant personality and Black’s essentially sunny one meant that it was never going to come out as he hoped and it’s all the better for it. “I really did try to rip off the middle section to The Electrician”, says Black, seemingly unconcerned about a Blurred Lines-style million-dollar legal case coming his way. “I said to my friend and arranger Paul Jones, “can you write something exactly like The Electrician?” But it ended up very different. I’m not sure why”.
Then there is Tonight, the most romantic song on a very romantic album, a love song to Black’s wife, pregnant with their first child when he wrote it. I was playing Northern Lights by the Super Furry Animals for a friend’s wedding band and I wanted to write a song with a similar feel to it. All my friends are music obsessives so, when you tell them you want something to sound like a particular song, they know what you’re talking about. But you can’t help but end up expressing yourself even when you try and emulate someone else. You Are Gentle, for example, is our attempt to sound like Sail On Sailor by The Beach Boys.
Folk-pop gem Walking In The Rain is heavily influenced by Randy Newman, even if it doesn’t actually sound much like a Randy Newman song. “We wanted to capture the quality of those sessions he did in 70s Los Angeles where they would have twelve violinists in the studio”, says Black, “but we didn’t have the money. So we cheated and got three violinists to play the same part three times”. One of the sweetest songs on the album, it is about the simple joys of going out for a walk with the one you love, getting soaking wet, taking all your clothes off and doing it all over again.
Got To Hang Onto You, featuring contributions from the 70s-tinged Cardiff duo Zervas & Pepper, came from a similar sentiment. “That was my attempt to write a song like The Boys Are Back In Town by Thin Lizzy”, says Black, even though the song’s lyrics, “All I want to do is play you Northern Soul records, while you’re lying next to me until late in the night”, suggest a different inspiration.
“It’s a shame really, because we first played it live in 2013 and then the film Northern Soul came out so everyone will think I’m copying that, but I’m not”, says Black. “The truth is, I’m not even a massive Northern Soul fan. My special subject on Mastermind is
the complete works of Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci. But one night, my wife and I got drunk and listened to Blowing Up My Mind by The Exciters, and I decided to write a song about it. Any references in the song, like [legendary Northern Soul mecca] Wigan Casino, are a product of Wikipedia and Google”.
All of this fed into a simple but ambitious goal: to make the perfect album. Originally, Black wanted to make The Boombox Ballads on his own, but then reality set in. Recorded in a Cardiff studio with producer Charlie Francis, and a whole host of musicians including: Avvon Chambers and Daniel Ward on drums; Rob Jones and Huw Evans on bass; a string quartet; arranger Paul Jones; guest singers Zervas & Pepper on Got To Hang Onto You; and Laura Byron of Tender Prey on You Got Me Time Keeping, the result is a vibrant, endearing pop classic.
“From the very beginning, I had a clear idea of how I wanted everything to sound”, says Black. “For the first part of 2014, I was on tour with Cate Le Bon, my wife was going to have a baby, and I was going to come back and make this album as my singular vision and be in control of everything. I had to let that go. You start a record in an idealistic way, imagining it’s going to be your last because you couldn’t do anything better, and then reality hits. Other people contribute their ideas and the album is better for it. Now I’m already thinking about the next one”.
In the meantime, here is The Boombox Ballads, about as charming an album by a lovely little man from North Wales as you could hope for.