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Interview with Amateur Ornithologist

Photo Credit – Jenny Rohde

Amateur Ornithologist is the brainchild of Tyneside pop culture obsessive Daniel Clifford and October 21st sees the release of sophomore album “Building The Bird” through Harbourmaster Recordings and Regret Everything Records. The record sees Daniel broadening his sound from 2021’s debut “Birdwatching” and embracing both his punkier and mellower sides which result in a more rewarding listening experience. As someone who is neurodivergent, ”Hermit Phase” and ”I Told A Lie”, with their quirky guitar sounds, are about how his reactions to everyday life differ greatly from his friends and peers while “Weird Walking” dispenses with guitars all together to build a track around pounding tom drums, and melodic woodwind and string lines. There are also more introspective songs like the closer “The Willows” and ”A Better Person” which give the record a more rounded, balanced feel than its predecessor.

We chatted with Daniel about the new album and how his conditions affect his life as a musician.

Hi Daniel! How’s everything going right now?
Great, thanks. I’m excited about the album coming out and I’ve been enjoying rehearsing for the upcoming shows. We’ve got a line-up change coming in the band too, which is sad in lots of ways but exciting too.

What classic album cover is your current mood?
Echo and the Bunnymen, “Ocean Rain“. Floating along, holding the oar with some idea of a direction, but maybe a bit too focused on myself!

You’re just about to release your wonderful second album “Building The Bird”. How was the writing and recording process?
Thanks so much. I don’t play an instrument so it was all written in Garageband with a midi keyboard. With Sunscreen, I wrote the chorus melody first and worked out the chords from there, but everything else started with a drumbeat and chords. I built the tracks, complete with every instrument and vocal, and then started working with the producer, Harbourmaster. We transferred the Garageband files into Logic at his studio and started replacing the tracks one by one. Matt Hardy recorded the drums in his Bristol studio. He follows the feel of what I’ve arranged but often does his own thing. Harbourmaster played all the guitar and bass parts, we sent the midi synth parts through a DX7 and brought in Madeleine Smyth and Thomas Dixon to play viola and sax. I replaced all the lead vocals and some backing vocals and that was it. Mostly recorded in two weeks.

Did you experience any “difficult second album” issues which have plagued a lot of artists in the past?
I was raring to go after the first album and knew what I wanted to achieve. I wrote four songs very close to Birdwatching, my debut album, coming out – I Told A LieSunscreenLike An Amateur and The Willows – and those helped define everything. I learned how to write and arrange songs on the first album so I was hitting the ground running.

There’s a lot of variety of styles and tempos on the new record – was that deliberate or did the songs just develop that way?
I realised that a lot of Birdwatching was mid-tempo and reacted to that. I decided to speed the fast songs up, slow the slow songs down, make the sad songs sadder and the happy songs happier. Although I didn’t realise there were so many styles on the album until I started playing it to people! But I was determined not to do eleven variations on the same song.

You’ve worked with a lot of different local musicians on the new record. How has that been?
Although Matt Hardy lives in Bristol, he’s from Tyneside and plays in a few groups up here. We’ve managed to collaborate brilliantly having only emailed. The drums he records are exactly right for my songs. I’ve known Harbourmaster since we were toddlers, and we played in a band together for years – so he knows what I want and respects what I’ve written. Sometimes I write guitar solos I know he’ll enjoy playing. I met Maddie when I was running a film development project she was part of and we became friends. She’d never done any session work before and now she’s part of the band. Thomas Dixon from Dilutey Juice came in for a few hours to add sax and was great to work with; in and out and sounding brilliant.

If you could only listen to one record, what would it be?
It would be a toss-up between Chairs Missing by Wire, Plumb by Field Music and Reward by Cate Le Bon. Probably Cate Le Bon because it calms me down and excites me in equal measure.

When I listened to “Building The Bird” it reminded me of the early records by Mull Historical Society. What were your musical influences growing up and how did they impact the two albums?
I’m just listening to Mull Historical Society now and I see what you mean – pop melodies, weird synth sounds and lots of forward propulsion. But as a kid I listened to The Beatles, The Beach Boys, 50s and 60s doo-wop and rock’n’roll. Once I started buying my own music, it was The Futureheads and Field Music that opened the doors to things like Wire and Peter Gabriel. So backing vocals and harmonies are really important to me and writing pop songs that are as interesting as possible.

You’ve been very upfront about being neurodivergent and your struggles with autism and anxiety but these must be difficult conditions to have when you are a musician?
In some ways, it helps because I always have lots of lyrical ammunition and over-thinking everything means I’m prepared if something goes wrong. But I’m also terrified of going to new places and meeting new people, so the idea of doing gigs is scary. I think the hardest part can be that I can be too direct. I don’t know my tone of voice is off until I see a reaction. That makes collaboration difficult; I just have to surround myself with people I trust and who trust me.

You now have a full band ready to play an album release day gig at The Central Bar in Gateshead. What can we expect to hear?
It’s really exciting to finally have a band after writing these songs for a couple of years and working largely alone. People can expect to see some of that excitement come out on stage, the excitement of finally being able to play the songs live. We’ll be doing seven from the new album and three from the first album. The arrangements will be slightly different – not least because the live band has a viola player in.

What would go on your signature pizza and what would it be called?
I don’t love a big pile of toppings so I think my pizza would be called The Less Is More and act as a reminder to not put too much into every song. I’d have a thin crust, tomato base, vegan cheese, big chunks of tomato and vegan pepperoni too.

What do you have planned for 2023?
I’d love to play lots of gigs next year – not just around the North East but in different parts of the country too. I also want to develop a new batch of songs and start recording with the band. 

Photo Credit – Jenny Rohde

Amateur Ornithologist is Tyneside pop culture obsessive Daniel Clifford. With a brain that stores snippets of old comics, adverts and TV, Daniel channels these into the weird pop music and visuals of Amateur Ornithologist. In Summer ’22, Amateur Ornithologist has grown into a full-blown band, working towards gigs around North East England and beyond. Amateur Ornithologist has earned comparisons to Talking Heads, The Beach Boys and Field Music due to melodic instrumentation, lush harmonies and quirky nostalgic vibes. Daniel is neurodivergent, which causes awkward social interactions. He aims to express himself articulately through music and create moments of understanding for people like him.

Indie label Harbourmaster Recordings will release Amateur Ornithologist’s second album, Building the Bird, on October 21st 2022, building on 2021’s debut Birdwatching and this year’s singles (Hermit PhaseI Told A Lie and A Better Person), which received support from BBC Introducing, Amazing Radio, NARC magazine and a host of radio station and blogs.

You can keep up with all the latest Amateur Ornithologist news by following Daniel on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

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