In a career that has taken him from the slate mining towns of northwest Wales to the expat communities of Patagonia, to the Mandan tribe of the Great Plains of North America, and to the Tuareg rock bands of the Sahara Desert, Gruff Rhys, has been one of Britain's most popular and successful songwriters-always open to anything and a collector of sonic curiosities. "At the moment, I really like working with chance," he says. "Not in a cosmic way. I try to leave things open to chance encounters. After 25 albums, I'm always looking for ways to make a different-sounding record."
And so it was that in the wee hours of a March morning in 2022, Gruff and his band, consisting of Osian Gwynedd (piano), Huw V Williams (upright bass) and former Flaming Lips drummer and current Super Furry Animals archivist Kliph Scurlock (drums), piled into a van from Dunkirk, where they had just played the last show of a tour of Spain and France, and sped to the outskirts of Paris. There, at La Frette Studios, a recording studio in a 19th-century mansion, Gruff and his band Sadness Sets Me Free recorded. Within three days, the album was finished.
"It was a really intense time," Rhys says of the sessions, during which the band, with the help of producer Maxime Kozinetz, recorded ten songs they had worked on while on tour. "These days, I try to capture more moments than produce pop. I had worked with Maxime, the sound engineer, as a guest on the album Aboogi by the Tuareg band Imarhan, making a collection of live recordings, and I was fascinated by how he brought the vocals to the fore."
Over dinner, Olivier Bloch-Lainé, founder of La Frette, told the group about his work with Brigitte Fontaine in the 1960s and how he brought Serge Gainsbourg's best string arranger, Jean-Claude Vannier, into the pop world. "One of the old Paris studios closed in the '60s, and Olivier bought it all up and put it in this big house," Gruff says. "By the '80s, he had the Fairlight synthesizer franchise in France. The studio itself was like a pop museum, he had his record collection on display and we could ask him about that world. We absorbed a lot."
After soaking up French pop history over dinner, he recorded new songs in the studio during the day, at a pace that surpassed even his own legendarily prolific standards. "It's a collection of songs that I put together because they fit together," he says of Sadness Sets Me Free. "They feel melancholy or they're about shitty things." His previous album, Seeking New Gods, hung on an unlikely conceptual framework, but Sadness Sets Me Free takes a very different path. "There are a few short pop songs that spice up the album, but it's a pretty substantial album with band interplay," Gruff says. "It starts out like a straight country-rock record, then dives into this kaleidoscopic abyss and comes back at the end to try to stay on track and stay hopeful," Gruff explains.
More pieces of the puzzle fell into place when Paris-based Kate Stables (This Is The Kit), Gruff's labelmate at Rough Trade Records, sang two songs - "She has an incredible voice, I couldn't have imagined a better singer." Before mixing the album in Marseille, Gruff went to an old scout hall in North Cardiff, where he recorded strings and winds with a quartet from the BBC National Orchestra Of Wales - "They're really great - and they also like to improvise, which is rare." After Rhodri Brooks of Welsh psych-country band Melin Melyn contributed some pedal steel overdubs, it was back to Paris and Chab Mastering, of Daft Punk fame, where the album was given the finishing touches.
"I've mastered records in America, and they always sounded distinctly different from records mastered in London," Gruff says. "I once had a long conversation with [legendary, late mastering engineer] John Dent-he mastered a lot of classic albums by Bob Marley, Radiohead and PJ Harvey-and his hypothesis was that electricity drives equipment differently. So I went all out and mastered Sadness Sets Me Free in Paris to hear what French electricity sounds like. The result, Gruff says, is "a different sounding record. It's pretty round and euphoric with a lot of bass."
After recording Sadness Sets Me Free with his touring band, Gruff will tour with the boys again in 2024. "It's a very playable album," he says. "It's more or less just acoustic instruments - upright bass, drums and piano, a string quartet, some acoustic guitars, some electric guitars, pedal steel, synthesizers - although it sounds pretty full. Live, I aim for a euphoric melancholy."
Coming to Nachtasyl in Hamburg on February 29.