INTERVIEW: Nothing But Thieves' Conor Mason Bares His Soul As Man-Made Sunshine
From the haunting depths of isolation to wielding a brand new EP laden with vulnerable yet powerful musical magic, Conor Mason, aka frontman for Nothing But Thieves and all-round sonic sorcerer, has channeled his personal demons into a sublime new solo endeavour: Man-Made Sunshine.
An extremely personal sonic adventure, Mason's experience during the isolating pandemic saw him coming face to face with trapped emotions and unprocessed memories holding expansive real estate in his head. Initially acting as a vessel for Mason to organically confront and process his feelings to move forward, the debut self-titled Man-Made Sunshine EP soon took shape following encouragement from within and beyond Nothing But Thieves HQ, with Mason's healing chapter in his life forging five gripping and elegantly absorbing tracks that celebrates Mason's uncanny musical ability with a fresh new twist.
Drawing on elements of psych-pop, electronica and alt-rocky waters (think Glass-Animals-meets-Jeff-Buckley with an underlying flavour of Nothing But Thieves) Man-Made-Sunshine is equally an experimental sonic journey for Mason as much as it is a chance for him to come to terms with himself. With producing on some of the EP's tracks by Mason's NBT bandmate Dom Craik and Mason's meticulous goal to make every moment on the release ricochet directly into your soul, the end result of Man-Made Sunshine is an uplifting whirlwind of beauty, helmed by the hauntingly beautiful vocal stylings of Mason himself. And to celebrate the release last week of his brand new EP, Conor Mason joined Tiana Speter this week to chat baring his soul, sonic intuition, artists who move him to his core and beyond.
TIANA SPETER: Conor, I'm over the moon to talk to you today, and I feel like we've recently all had such a beautiful gift to start to close out 2022 with the release of your debut Man-Made Sunshine EP. I know the project was teased a little earlier in the year, but to bring this EP to life, I know it's obviously stemmed from some less-than-rosy places...but how does it feel to finally have this glimpse into Conor Mason's soul out in the world after everything that came before it?
CONOR MASON: It feels great. It is quite revealing I've realised, but I couldn't think of a better way to connect with people other than by being truly honest, properly honest with myself. And I kind of wrote it for myself anyway as a form of therapy. I was expelling it out of my body into song form because that's the easiest way for me to get that sort of stuff out, especially creatively. I didn't really expect to do anything with it though, I was just happy to get it out of my system. And then I got quite a lot of encouragement and people were like: "You should do something with this, release this.". And then, now that I'm looking back, I'm like....god, some of these songs are super personal. But I'm happy to release it because I'm in such a good place and I feel comfortable releasing them. And if someone else is struggling or in a tough place, maybe it can offer them a friend or something to tune in to, in that sense. It feels good, I'm super happy about it.
TIANA: That's the amazing thing about music isn't it, obviously it stems from extremely personal experiences for you, but then when it's released, people can also find something that they need in it too. It's an incredible meeting point that music gives us, and I feel like it's even more noticeable after emerging from lockdowns and all of that stuff. With all of that in mind, at what point did the idea for Man-Made Sunshine solidify, were you just writing and writing and writing, output, output, output and it all transpired? Have you always wanted to pursue a solo thing outside of everything else that you do, because you're a very busy man, you always seem to have heaps on...
CONOR: That's the thing, I think when I realised that these weren't Nothing But Thieves songs, and when there were a few songs that were too "special" if I'd used them for publishing or other artists, because I occasionally do that with songwriting for other artists...but it felt so "me". I felt like I'd finally uncorked some trapped stuff and was just like: "Oh, this just feels so me". And it was when my band members, especially Dom [Craik] and my managers as well, they were all like: "You've gotta do something with this. It feels really special, it feels very you". But at first I kind of had your reaction, where I was like: "Bloody hell, I don't know if I've got the time or the energy" (laughs). But it probably gave me more energy in a sense. During the pandemic I could get it all recorded and stuff like that. And it gave me a lot of zest for life, I could pour every part of myself into each kind of nuance of each song. I really, really worked hard, almost like a second-by-second nature on every song, where I literally was like: "If this one drum snare or this vocal variation doesn't affect me, if it doesn't feel emotive or arresting - then I won't use it. I'll change it, I'll redo it". I had this track Little Bird on the EP which I was going to have produced by this guy who fell in love with the project. He's done stuff with Travis Scott and all of these massive hip hop people. I sent it to him, and it came back, I was like: "Oh cool, thank you!", I was quite flattered, and it was very kind of technically insane. But it didn't affect me emotionally in any way. So, I was just like: "Well, it's not important that it's him doing it. It's more important that it moves me". And I went back to the demo and how it first got built, because I feel like I trust myself, your first output sometimes is the correct one because you are literally creating it for the first time. Obviously it doesn't always work that way, but I felt like it did for that song, and actually most of these songs on the EP. But I've had to trust my gut a lot with that sort of stuff. And I really put my soul into each part of each song. From the start of the EP to the end, it's like a conversation with myself. It's really weird (laughs). But it feels very familiar, and all of the choices are 100% me. I'm happy with that.
TIANA: That effort definitely comes through, the moment that Brain In A Jar started, I got instant goosebumps and they stayed with me through the whole EP. And to hear how painstakingly you went through every inch of it, you definitely get that sensation that so much has gone into it. What's also incredible about everything you seem to turn your hand to musically is that you go to these hard and darker places lyrically, but something about your voice and your music always makes it feel like there's someone there hugging you and holding you along the way, and you come out of it not feeling all bummed out, or depressed or upset. It's just this amazing catharsis that you've always weaved, and Man-Made Sunshine feels like that on steroids. After listening to the EP I just felt like a weight had been lifted...
CONOR: I kind of designed it like that! Like we touched on earlier, I kind of wrote it for myself quite selfishly, in a sense it was a form of therapy and I basically wanted to create a bunch of songs that I could tune into when I was in that place. I was writing it within that place. And it takes a long time to get out of those places. Sometimes people never get out of them. But I was finding, I guess without sounding too hippie, a kind of frequency to tune into, a vibration to tune into. You have certain songs with certain artists, and then you make a playlist and it's that similar thing. I was like: I wanna make a set of songs by one person like me (laughs) that I can tune into and listen to. And that's that whole "conversation with myself" thing, it was helping myself. It was weird, certain messages like Life's Gonna Kill You (If You Let It)...it was easier to say that in song form than to actually say it to myself. Later on I learned to do that though, and that's been a massive part of my healing. I think part of a lot of people's healing is self soothing. But it came out intuitively for me on this EP, and then I learned that lesson post-recording it and post-writing it. They're all kind of designed for me to be a friend to tune into. And that's why I feel really hopeful that it can have the same effect and the same sort of frequency that people can tune into if they feel they need to. I've listened to some songs in the past, especially by some of my favourite artists like Radiohead where you've left it and you feel like (inhales deeply): "That was heavy!". These Man-Made Sunshine songs offered my comfort, so hopefully it does the same for others.
TIANA: I can tell you so many of us are so grateful that you took the time to talk to yourself in these songs because you've talked to so many people through them as well. And it's been awesome hearing you explore stylistically on the EP as well, it's obviously Conor Mason singing, but there's all these beautiful layers, psychy indie pop moments, and a beautiful contemporary feel to the production. And I loved seeing that you worked with Dom [Craik] on some of these songs too, I actually interviewed Dom last year when NBT were releasing Moral Panic II and he's an equally talented and lovely individual like yourself. What was it like working on some of this project with him, I know all of you do so much outside of the band too, but was it a pretty seamless step going outside Nothing But Thieves and beyond that usual mode of operation?
CONOR: It was amazing. Dom never likes to get gassed up, he's quite modest actually. But he was the one who really pushed me with this project. He really believed in it and, I guess in a sense, he wanted me to figure myself and my stuff out. He was really a champion, which is great. I obviously love his producing skills, he's amazing. I had Rosebud, which was initially just this really simple ballad-y piano piece, just almost quite a dramatic topline in a sense. Quite theatrical to some degrees, but quite a ballad. And I just knew he would modernise the hell out of it, and I just knew for that one: Yeah, I wanna do it with Dom! And Dom was beautiful with it. Whereas within the realms of "band world", if I brought in a song or one of us brought in a song, whatever, we'd all pick it apart and pull it apart and we would share it because it's Nothing But Thieves and you're trying to create a Nothing But Thieves thing. But for this, he just put on a different hat and was like: "This is you. This is your thing, I wanna facilitate your vision and how you see it". It was amazing, I'd never seen that, I'd never worked with him in that way. He's amazing, he's such a great producer. He must do that, or I know he does now, with all of the acts that he works with. And he didn't try to be like: "No, we should get rid of this", or anything like that. Instead he was like: "OK, how do you hear this, what do you think of this, give me references. What do you think about that?". Just really trying to do the best for the song. He smashed it, it was great. It was a joy to work with him and I wanna do more for sure. Having said that, Dom also wouldn't be afraid to tell me things, I'm pretty thick-skinned with all of it, I'd be like: "If you thought this could be better, tell me and I'll go rewrite it". But he loved the songs, it was really, really effortless. I didn't know if it would be the same, like you said, given the way we've worked in terms of a writing and producing sense as a band. But it was completely different and it was great, it feels so nice to have it so "in house" and to have been working with my brother, he is one of my best mates. And he believes in the project and he believes in me and just...we've got such a lucky thing with our band where we really want the best for each other as humans, regardless of our jobs and our careers. We want to look after each other and make sure that we're all thriving. Whatever that means, it could be in or outside of the band. We've got a really good thing going with that. And this project didn't break out of those parameters. It was like: "Yeah, you gotta do your thing. Enjoy that!". It's great, it's really cool.
TIANA: I love hearing that, and seeing that resounding support in and beyond the band too. It was awesome actually when Man-Made Sunshine was first announced, and I read a post on the Nothing But Thieves socials where they were like: "Conor's made a project with a better name than our band name", it was fantastic!
CONOR: (laughs) I didn't write that, I swear!
TIANA: Recently you've been releasing the Difficult Conversations With A Friend series on YouTube, and they've offered some incredible insight into who you are as a person and beyond your beautiful music too. With so many people I've spoken to, over the years your own music has become a lifeline for so many, both with and even before Man-Mad Sunshine. I know you mentioned Radiohead earlier, but who are some key artists or bands that have consistently resonated with you or helped you through some of those harder times over the years? Are there some that just keep popping up in your life?
CONOR: Yeah definitely, you can't help it from happening can you! Sometimes it's not even a lyrical thing for me, as much as that does help. But again, it's that vibration thing. I just tune into certain artists and they just never leave. Obviously Jeff Buckley is a no-brainer. But it's also people that are avant-garde in terms of the genre-to-genre leap. I have a kind of soul response to someone like Nick Drake as much as I do with someone like Chet Baker - and then it'll go to someone like Frank Ocean. The three are completely different, but they hit me in the same way. And Bon Iver, those sort of artists...actually when I first discovered Bon Iver, it wasn't that long ago, which is crazy because obviously they've been around for a millennia (laughs).
TIANA: Hey, it's better late than never!
CONOR: I know! And it almost weirdly got me into the world that I'm in now, it was only five-ish years ago. I fell in love with them and I was like: "Oh, this person Justin Vernon"...every single note choice he makes, every single one, whether it's on a vocal or anything, sax, piano, whatever he's using - every single one is designed to hit you and affect you. But the listener wouldn't even realise it, it hits so clever and it's so thought out. The first time I heard Bon Iver, it was like: "Ahh, this person gets it, we listen to music the same way". Whether I could create a fifth of what Justin Vernon has created in terms of the beauty of what he has...that sort of thing resonates with me. I felt the same with Frank Ocean, and like I said, with Nick Drake, just these sort of people you can latch onto. Elliott Smith is also one of those people, again, you just naturally are absorbed by them because they are creating and outputting their soul. And that's exactly what I wanted to do with Man-Made Sunshine, and what I want to continue to do. I can't think of doing it any other way.
TIANA: I think it's safe to say you've achieved far more than a fifth of that, and I'm definitely not the only person who thinks that. But before I let you go, as a musician you've played all over the world, countless festivals and beyond. Obviously your musical journey extends beyond being in a band, but for you personally amongst all of the madness that comes with the territory and all of the highs and lows along the way...what's a key standout musical memory that springs to mind for you?
CONOR: Ohh that's hard...
TIANA: It can be good or bad, doesn't necessarily have to be when everything goes right...
CONOR: (laughs) There are so many! I mean, some of them are simple. Sometimes it's just moments that you have with your band, with your brothers in random cities, and those beautiful powerful moments. I'm just talking about the general stuff, just us being together can be some of the most amazing memories. In terms of music, I mean, the obvious ones are the O2 when we played there in London, that was obviously mind-blowing and life altering in so many ways. It was like the end of an era for us and a path to finding new goals.
CONOR: But honestly, this sounds really stupid, but I could give up all of the shows and all of the accolades. The fact that I just enjoy being with this group of people...I'm very lucky to have such great friends in the band. And I don't need any of the other stuff, really.
TIANA: That's not stupid, that's really what it should all boil down to at the end of the day, that's what it's really all about. If you don't have that, none of the bells and whistles even exist. I think that's actually the perfect answer.
CONOR: I feel like I try and...well I try to keep my priorities and check my balance, that sort of thing. Job-wise, it's never important to me. It's the experiences that I have. And that's why I wasn't even sure about releasing Man-Made Sunshine earlier on. But the experience of getting that out my system was brilliant. And then the experiences that I have with the boys, and obviously so many of those are onstage - that's fantastic. But its the enjoyment that is more important to me. And if I didn't have those moments, if we were just miserable all the time, slogging around for 10 years: I wouldn't do it. I'm just so lucky to have great people around!
TIANA: I'm so glad to hear it, and we are all equally incredibly lucky that you keep making and releasing this amazing music. And obviously the latest addition is your debut Man-Made Sunshine EP, it's an absolutely stunning collection of songs. Thank you for letting us into your world and I can't wait to see what happens next!
CONOR: Thank you so much, cheers!
CONOR'S DEBUT MAN-MADE SUNSHINE EP IS OUT NOW VIA SONY MUSIC ENTERTAINMENT UK.
FOR MORE INFO HEAD HERE.
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BY TIANA SPETER