Ian Ball: Going Solo

Having released sophomore solo album Unfold Yourself earlier this year, Ian Ball, one-fifth of UK indie-rockers Gomez, is set to grace our shores later this month, playing ten dates around the country. The Dwarf chatted with Ball in the lead-up to this tour to discuss the new album, the value of the support of loyal fans, and the challenges he faces attempting to perform songs from the new record live.

Ian Ball has been writing songs, performing live, and recording albums with Gomez for over fifteen years. The band has released an impressive seven studio albums to date, and are undoubtedly one of the most experienced bands in the business. Ball happily acknowledges the achievement that the band has made to keep it together for so long – “…honestly, it’s a fucking miracle that we have been able to keep it together for as long as we have and still really get along with each other…I think it’s pretty rare in the music world…unless you’re phenomenally successful and held together by the fact that if you just show up you make millions of dollars. But if that’s not the case to keep a group together like that…it’s pretty rare.”

The opportunity for Gomez’s individual members to work on side projects and solo material may be a key to their continuing success as a band. Ball was the first of the five to branch out and release a solo record – 2007’s Who Goes There – and it would be understandable if he found the prospect of recording and performing as a solo artist daunting, after so many years surrounded and supported by his band mates. However, for Ball, it is quite the opposite – “Maybe with the first album there was a little more [pressure]…but…I literally don’t feel any pressure whatsoever when it comes to writing music. I don’t have expectations that I feel I need to fulfil, I’m very relaxed and really just love making music, so I really just do what I love to do…I’m lucky in that respect, that I get to be able to do it and have people have access to it, it’s great, it’s really a wonderful thing.”

While Who Goes There had a distinctively Gomez flavour – acoustic guitars, Ball’s trademark vocals and harmonies, and lyrics that would work well on any Gomez album – Unfold Yourself is worlds away from Ball’s solo debut. Exploring his long-term penchant for ambient and electronic music, Ball took a whole new approach when making this album – particularly in the way in which the songs were created. Working with Joachim Cooder – who Ball describes as “a really, really, insanely nice, sweetheart of a chap” – the songs on Unfold Yourself were created in stages, with sounds, ideas, and songs being shared long-distance. Says Ball, “…our original intention was like ‘yeah, shit, yeah, let’s get together and make some really cool ambient music’… and he sent me a lot of little pieces and snippets and sketches, and just a sound or just a beat or just this and that, and I would send him stuff that I had and gradually…we started to create these pieces of music…it was kind of just a jigsaw puzzle that we put together over the course of working on it.”

The freedom to create and explore songs at his own pace was invaluable to Ball when making this record, and it was a freedom he’d not experienced previously; “…it was nice because we had time…we weren’t in the studio, we were just doing it on our own time, so we could afford to really indulge being really, really analytical and very perfectionist on everything that went into it…it wasn’t like ‘I’ve written this great song, we must record it!’ – it was fashioned in completely the opposite way. It was really more about getting the music to sound amazing, was the goal.” Originally intending Unfold Yourself to be an instrumental album, again and again Ball would realise he’d been singing over the top of the music - and, as was the approach with the rest of the album – he let the songs develop as they needed to. “‘…is this even a chorus? I don’t know, who cares, it’s part of the song’…that’s how the songs came about.”

A new approach to song writing and recording was not the only new approach Ball took when making this record, however. Embracing the current trend of fan-funded music campaigns (such as Kickstarter), Ball started a PledgeMusic campaign in order to raise funds for his second solo record. Says Ball, “I met the guy who set up pledge at a Gomez show, he was telling me about it and I was like ‘oh, I’m in the middle of this thing…’ and he was like ‘well why don’t we…you want to try it?’ and I was like ‘yeah, that sounds great!’” The project developed quickly, and Ball was blown away by the support he received from fans. “…once it started to get rolling I started to feel this incredible gratitude towards the people – more than I’d ever felt before from people buying the album in the store, which…doesn’t really make sense, because you’re getting people’s support, but when we were doing this, it felt, sort of like a microcosmic personal world…it felt really valuable, and I felt really appreciative, I was really humbled by the support…and it was a good impetus to make it great.”

Another key element of the process that greatly appealed to Ball was the fact that it allowed him to communicate directly with the fans, and make the music that he wanted to make, in the way he wanted to make it. “It takes out the fucking…‘middle man’, as it were, in every regard…there’s…not a single other person between the creator and the people who get to listen to it…that’s how you want to do it…nobody had any input in it...I just wanted to make the album, there isn’t any, fucking, bold grand plan to make videos or, you know, flog myself and change songs to make them more catchy…that’s what I wanted to make, and that’s cool…that’s a really cool thing, to have the privilege of doing, I think.” Ball happily concedes that the pre-existing Gomez fan base that provided him with a great deal of support during the campaign was vital to it’s success – “I’m very fortunate in the sense that…there’s already people out there who are into it.”

Now that the album has been successfully recorded and released, Ball is facing a whole new set of challenges, as it is time to attempt to perform songs from Unfold Yourself live. While it is undoubtedly a spectacular album – beautiful, enchanting, and intricate – the fact of the matter is, it will potentially be very difficult to perform these synth-heavy electronica songs live. When I asked him about how he intended to tackle this challenge, Ball’s response was typically laid-back and cheerful; “I’ve tried a few things…if I could have brought everyone that I made the record with here…then we would’ve had more of like a band situation, but because everybody’s working it’s like ‘oh fuck!’…so I’m gonna round up some Australian people and I might even get people to just jump on stage with me and they can just play with whatever machines they’ve got…as of right now have no idea how I’m going to pull [this off]…because I would love to be able to present the songs in sort of in the way of how they sound on the record…it’s really exciting because I’ve got a few ideas and I’ve got some software and I’ve got some new bits of gear and lots of wires everywhere that might work but it also has to be portable…I think it’s gonna be really good fun…my goal is to just see if I can do it, and if I can’t, to have fun failing doing it!”

Regardless of what happens – and if Ball succeeds in translating Unfold Yourself from the record to a live performance – one thing is certain: Australian audiences are set for a good time when attending an Ian Ball gig. “I feel like people just want to have a good time when they go out these days, you know, it’s like so hard to go out anymore because it’s like eight million dollars for a beer…So yeah, how I’m gonna do it? Not sure yet. I’m gonna have to be both Pet Shop Boys, that’s what it is. I think I have to be both the Pet Shop Boys. Originally I was confining myself to just Neil, but I think now I have to combine them both….or maybe Erasure, probably more like Erasure…they’re fucking awesome.”

So there you have it. Ian Ball is a gracious, humble guy who values the support of his fans and likes Erasure. Be sure to go and see Ball if he’s performing somewhere near you – I’ve got the feeling Aussie audiences are in for some serious fun.
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