Interview with Aquilo: An Intimate and Moving Evolution

Aquilo © Graham Walzer
English duo Aquilo discuss the songwriting growth in their second album ‘ii’, their musical evolution, and of course, sad songs.

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When we first spoke to Aquilo in early 2017, the English duo of Tom Higham and Ben Fletcher had just released their highly-anticipated debut album Silhouettes. An evocative set of “shiver-inducing songs whose haunting instrumentals and raw lyrics cut straight to the core,” Silhouettes brought out the beauty in sadness, immersing listeners in Aquilo’s cinematic melancholy and establishing them as, for better or worse, sad song experts.

ii - Aquilo

ii – Aquilo

While they wear that title well and with pride, Aquilo have made it clear that they’re eager to do more in their music, and they’re quickly evolving to make that happen. Only a year after introducing themselves through Silhouettes, the band have released a breathtakingly beautiful sophomore album. Completely self-produced, the modestly-titled ii builds upon Silhouettes‘ atmospheric pop sound and poignant balladry while exploring new emotional and sonic territories.

Album opener “I Could Fight on a Wall” sets the scene with a driving beat and an open, airy ambience that complements Tom Higham’s high, sweet vocals. Throughout ii, Aquilo indulge in brighter soundscapes, so while the subject matter isn’t always positive, their music nevertheless glows with dazzling radiance – highlights include the infectiously catchy “Silent Movies,” the vibrant “Seagull,” the harmony-filled “Now and Here,” and the hauntingly bittersweet “Ghost,” a song about moving on from a relationship and letting go of the past.

In fact, much of Aquilo’s songwriting has a refreshed, invigorating energy about it. The somber “Thin” finds the duo stepping away from the first person narrative, “writing about someone else’s problems, and taking it and looking at it from that perspective,” Tom Higham describes. Their sad songs are particularly stirring: “The Road Less Wandered” finds Higham delivering one of his most powerful performances yet as he laments a love that wasn’t meant to last. “I can offer you my love but you won’t take it; I would make a promise too, but you would break it,” he cries. Meanwhile, “Six Feet Over Ground,” “Who Are You,” and ii‘s aching closer “I Lost a Bet” reaffirm that Aquilo are at their best when they dwell in sadder, brooding emotions.

Expansive, intimate, and moving, Aquilo’s ii is well worth the listen: Songs of joy, sorrow, hope, and hopelessness flow together as the duo create a world that is entirely their own – a heartfelt record full of love, beauty, and sincerity.

Aquilo’s sophomore album ii is out now via Island Records / Harvest Records. Dive deeper into ii with Atwood Magazine’s exclusive interview as Tom Higham discusses Aquilo’s songwriting growth, their musical evolution, and of course, sad songs.

Aquilo © Graham Walzer

Aquilo © Graham Walzer

A CONVERSATION WITH AQUILO

Atwood Magazine: Hey Tom, great to catch up with you! So, I've been listening to the album for a while now, and I really want to start where we left off last year. One of the big things we talked about was your penchant for sad songs. How has that evolved this year?

Tom Higham: I guess it has evolved. I think in the course of writing Silhouettes, we were kind of going through relationships that ended, and they didn’t end in the best way, and we had a lot to write about. We had loads to write about because we both basically broke up with someone kind of at the same time, you know? So we had so much to talk about. I think in this record, we don’t really go into, I don’t know, relationships too much? There’s a couple of songs – like, “Who Are You” is about meeting someone new. We wrote that, probably… I had just gotten myself into a new relationship. I’ve been with a girl for about a year, and when I met her it was kind of nice. I wanted to write a kind of happy song, in a sad sonic environment. I don’t know if that makes any sense, but “Who Are You” is kind of, almost like a celebration of meeting someone else, and moving on from the previous stuff.

You wanted to write a happy song that sounded sad?

Tom: Sonically, I wanted it to sound quite moving. I wouldn’t necessarily use “sad” as the right word, but moving. So a kind of happy in terms of the lyrics – almost a celebration, but with kind of moving sonics… Yeah, I guess you could describe it like that.

I get that - when you're singing, “Who are you” there's kind of a bittersweet feeling to it. There's like this turmoil.

Tom: Exactly. At the time, I was hanging out with a group of people. There was this person in the group, and I didn’t really know who she was, I wanted to put it into a song because I thought it was an interesting topic.

I wanted to write a happy song, in a sad sonic environment.

So are you still two sad lads from up north?

Tom: (laughs) We are slightly happier lads now from up north, living in London. We’ve got our own studio now, which has been a massive game-changer for us – so we’ve basically just been kind of locked away. It’s been a massive step up for us. So, we’re not we’re living in the north of England anymore; we’re actually living in London.

So two sad lads living in London.

Tom: (laughs) Yeah, two sad lads living in London!

Is it still harder for you to write happy song?

Tom: You know what, I think it’s f*cking wild hard to write a happy song. I think people who can write happy songs well are very talented. Speaking for me and Ben, we find it a lot easier to write sadder songs…

Something about ii that really speaks to me is that you're not always coming from a sad place. There's melancholy across the record, but it's not the same kind of heartbreak as your first record.

Tom: Yeah, yeah exactly. I think in this record, we’ve kind of taken a step back. We’ve got friends that were going through things, and we’ve got, you know, other people. It’s actually been nice to kind of focus on writing about someone else’s problems, and taking it and looking at it from that perspective. I think it’s a really interesting way to kind of deal with things in writing about other people’s problems, and not just your own.

I can totally understand that - it's a challenge, really.

Tom: It’s a completely different perspective.

It’s a really interesting way to deal with things in writing about other people’s problems, and not just your own.

Were there any specific moments that stand out to you as difficult, in terms of writing from someone else's perspective?

Tom: No; I feel like it came kind of naturally. We have a song called “Thin” on this record, and that song, we wrote within maybe half a day. It was kind of easy: We had a lot of things to say about it, and you know, I feel like the lyrics are a lot more… Almost closer to the bone, and a lot less metaphorical than our last record. Our last record, we tended to kind of… We kind of wanted everybody to take their own interpretation of the song, and kind of make and it their own. With this record, I feel like we’ve been a little bit closer to the bone.

I want to talk about the lyrics in “Thin.” We know you, you're not yourself - take a bow, take a bow. What's going on?

Tom: This one, in particular, is quite directly about one of our friends. That lyrics at the end is basically saying, “We know you – you aren’t yourself. You’ve got to kind of like, step up. You’re better than this, kind of take a bow.”

Embrace who you are.

Tom: Yeah, exactly. Take a bow – I think it’s a nice way to kind of embrace who you are.

I love some of the other messages on this album. “Six Feet Over Ground” is not so subtle.

Tom: No, like I said, we’ve kind of written a little bit closer to the bone. That song was one of the ones that came really quickly. We wrote that with Amber Simone, who’s fantastic; it was almost like a collaboration! It was actually interesting, because it was at the end of the session, and we weren’t coming up with anything. She was like, “Look, I’m going to have to go in an hour.” I was like, “Alright, cool let’s write a song! Let’s do something different – nothing is happening right now. So let’s just start from scratch and be different,” and we came up with some chords on the piano, and suddenly it all kind of fell together. The song’s just about being okay in your own space, when you’re six feet over ground.

That comes right after “Ghost,” which is a personal favorite of mine.

Tom: Oh really?

Yeah, it's beautiful! One of my favorites, I don't know; you guys have a lot of songs that are my favorite. We get to have conversations like this, so I get to like every song at the end of the day.

Tom: It’s interesting, because that’s my girlfriend’s favorite tune as well.

I like the way that you say, “give up the ghost.” It's kind of about moving on, isn't it? About actually allowing yourself...

Tom: Yeah, allowing yourself to move on. That’s what it is. It’s actually, I feel like, one of our saddest songs on the album. It’s kind of a little bit of a heartbreak song as well. It’s about someone who’s staying in a relationship when you know it’s going to be over soon. You just kind of have to be with each other until it definitely has to go – until one person has to move away, literally.

I have to commend you guys. I'm almost scared to watch whatever music videos you come up with here, because I can only imagine the man from the “Silhouette” music video starring in that song, trying to find love again, and that would just kill me.

Tom: (laughs) That was a particularly sad video, wasn’t it?

Moving on, you have this in two EPs. I've been listening to this as one full album. At the end of the day do you treat these two separate entities and stories?

Tom: It kind of came organically, doing that. We were in the studio, writing and so inspired to get a move on and write as much as we could. We had these five tunes and our manager was like, “Look, why don’t you get these done and mixed properly. You guys keep on writing, and let’s just put another album out – but let’s do it in two parts over the course of time, and then on the fourth of May, you’ll have an album,” and that’s all we’ve done. I feel like it’s kind of worked; it’s a little bit different, obviously, but we wanted something that we were really proud of, and I think ten tracks is enough. I mean, our last record was fourteen tracks, which I feel may have been a bit too much, but I feel like ten tracks is a kind of good way to put what you want out. It’s a good way to get a taste of what we’re doing at the minute.

Tom: Exactly!

One of the things I'm struck most by is your sonic advancement. You really play with stuff in a way that shows how much you've moved in the past year, in terms of experimenting in the studio. Your first record had a lot of piano ballads. In your second album, you just expanded, and it all starts with “I Could Fight on a Wall”!

Tom: Well, we’ve moved into a studio; we’ve become a lot more confident with what we’ve been doing. We had some people help produce a couple of the songs on our last record, but on this record, we’ve actually produced everything ourselves, and it’s just been a different game. We’ve got our own studio, we can do what we want in it, and we like experimenting with a lot of different things. I mean we went out and got a couple of bits and bobs, but like realistically in the minute we were recording a lot of organic stuff. So, a lot more acoustic stuff – we went out and bought an upright piano, and that’s just been amazing! We’ve got a couple of synthesizers in a proper old-school sense, and again it’s been amazing: You can put it into the system, and then manipulate it with the effects that we know, and then you’ve got a completely different sound! And that’s what’s happened. We kind of fell into something, like fell into this kind of soundscape that we’ve used through most of the album, and that would involve things like knee slaps and pen clicks, and finding random things to hit and sample… I don’t know, we’ve just kind of experimented with so many different things. That’s what’s given the record the sound.

I understand there's a wine glass somewhere? What would people be most surprised to find made it onto the record, sound wise?

Tom: Okay, so there was a wine glass, and that comes at the end of “Thin.” You can hear that pretty clearly actually, but I reckon the most surprising thing… We’ve got a Nord electronic keyboard. If you turn it off completely, and then hit the keys, you get kind of like a thud. That is the sound of “Who Are You” – that is literally that sound, with the keyboard turned off, and we hit the keys.

So you turned a keyboard into a drum? That's pretty cool!

Tom: Normally we use it for pianos and things like that. But yeah, we used it for its percussive abilities.

I remember that you worked a lot with Olafur Arnalds and SOHN on the last record. Without them, do you feel that there's something more authentic about your sound this time around? That in doing it yourself, you really are showing the full spectrum of who you two are?

Tom: Yeah absolutely. We have the luxury of working with people we’ve always been inspired by. Olafur Arnalds is insane! SOHN is just literally like a master… So like, when you’re in the studio with those guys, you learn so much. And you’re constantly adapting and changing, and learning, so you come out of it with so much more knowledge, and that’s what helped so much with the second record – because we’ve learned so much.

What I'm feeling from songs like “The Road Less Wandered” and “Silent Movies” more, is that you guys expanded melodically. You really let yourselves explore melody in a way that was obviously present on Silhouettes, but you just went farther. How did you go about finding new hooks?

Tom: It’s one of those things when you’ve sat down at the piano, if you don’t think, “we need new hooks,” it completely will come natural to you at the time. And it’s normally the first thing you come up with is the thing you up end up using. In the studio, we’ll come up with a chord progression, and maybe a bit of production, and then I’ll just get next to a mic, and sing a little bit or do something, and normally speaking, the first thing you come up with is the first thing you end up using, because it felt right at that time, and that’s normally the right thing to do.

We talked about sad songs earlier; I think about “The Road Less Wandered,” where you’re singing, I can offer you my love, but you won't take it. That's one of those sad songs.

Tom: That definitely falls into the category of a sad one. I think that song is the closest to the last record. “Six Feet Over Ground” is kind of like that, too.

On the other hand, “Silent Movies” is maybe sonically the farthest from your last record, and it's so cool! Good job. Where did that song come from?

Tom: Like I said, it just kind of happened. It’s funny, I don’t really remember the recording process of it. That one just kind of came together… That song and “Seagull” are maybe the closest together, but farthest away from our sound. We’re out of our comfort zone, but this is what you’ve got to do, isn’t it? If you’re not evolving, then what can you do?

Can you talk to me more about what you mean by going outside of your comfort zone?

Tom: Doing things that we wouldn’t necessarily do. On the first record, we were happy to sit next to a piano and write songs, and not really concentrate or rely as much on the production. Sonically, “Silent Movies” is definitely different. It is further away from our comfort zone, but it feels right.

I love its message - I get sad, and that's okay. It's kind of like the Aquilo anthem, of saying “Yeah, we write sad songs! What of it?

Tom: Exactly!

We’re out of our comfort zone, but this is what you’ve got to do, isn’t it? If you’re not evolving, then what can you do?

Do you have any favorites on this record? What are you most excited about, in sharing your sophomore album? What gets you most giddy when you listen to it?

Tom: Yeah, I reckon I’m most excited about “Seagull.” Like we said before about being a bit outside your comfort zone. I want people to see that it’s kind of more than just sad, downtempo tunes.

What's the future hold for Aquilo? I know you're going to be touring a lot, and you're always in the studio. Is it just a constant music-making fest?

Tom: Yeah, it’s always going to be making music first. We do want to branch out into doing, like music for film. We’d love to do that because we’re so inspired by the likes of Explosions in the Sky. Kind of like, really, really, really progressive rock. I’m massively inspired by them, and those guys do a lot of film music. I’d love to go down that path, and I know Ben does as well. What the future brings at the minute is, we just want to get touring, we want to make music; we want to do what we’re doing right now.

I saw you guys last year at Bowery Ballroom in New York City, and it was one of the best concerts I saw all year. I can only imagine what this year's show will bring, so congratulations!

Tom: Thank you very much!

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📸 © Graham Walzer

Silhouettes and Sad Songs with Aquilo

:: INTERVIEW ::

:: ii – Aquilo ::

Mitch is the Editor-in-Chief of Atwood Magazine and a 2014 graduate from Tufts University, where he pursued his passions of music and psychology. He currently works at Universal Music Group in New York City. In his off hours, Mitch may be found songwriting, wandering about one of New York's many neighborhoods, or writing an article on your next favorite artist for Atwood. Mitch's words of wisdom to fellow musicians and music lovers are thus: Keep your eyes open and never stop exploring. No matter where you go, what you do or who you are with, you can always learn something new and inspire something amazing. Say hi here: mitch[at]atwoodmagazine[dot]com