Natalie McCool

Gary Barlow

Singer/songwriter Natalie McCool makes dark panoramic indie music with a pop edge. Her latest track, the haunting Thin Air, features Bernard Butler on guitar, and her singles including the double A-side – “Fortune” / “On Fire” are being championed by BBC Radio Two, BBC 6 Music, Amazing Radio and Channel 4’s Hollyoaks. She has released three EPs and is recording a debut album. Natalie has a host of high-profile fans and has even had a one-to-one songwriting session with Paul McCartney. She is working with legendary producer Steve Levine who has signed her to his record label Hubris.

Widnes, Cheshire
Hubris Records

Songs with passion

It’s not often you get to work with one of your guitar heroes, but Natalie’s done just that on her new single Thin Air. She’s a mean guitarist herself but Bernard Butler guested on the track. Bernard is known for his work in Suede and McAlmont & Butler and also contributed to Duffy’s award-winning album as well as tracks by bands old and new. Natalie hooked up with him at a pretty unusual location.

I met Bernard at a UK Music event at the Houses Of Parliament - and I gave him a rough mix of the song - so that’s really how it came about! I wrote the guitar part of the song first - I wanted to make it sound very jangly and trebly (the part in the chorus) and the guitar in the verse very full and ‘heavy’ sounding. Bernard played the lead parts on the chorus and also the guitar solo, and also some feedback parts.

There’s a free download in exchange for a tweet too.

Natalie’s a gifted singer-songwriter and her songs are accessible but have a surprising twist to them.

I don’t know where it comes from, probably from deep in the bowels of my twisted little mind. I love songwriting and I just love having kind of lots of different meanings in a song that people can tap into. I suppose the dark sort of element is, I think the production of the tracks really brings that out.
But it’s really the lyrics that are quite dark. I mean I’ve got a song called Size Zero which is about the fashion industry and models and the whole kind of crazy circus that people get into and looking thin and it’s just ridiculous, and I think that’s probably my most controversial song. But in a good way. Because obviously I’ve taken the higher moral ground that’s there with it.

I really enjoy writing about things that people don’t often write about. I had this song that I wrote in Uni and it was really interesting actually, it was about a car crash, from like a couple that had been in a car crash and one of them died. It’s written from the viewpoint of the surviving half, being at the funeral and still kind of falling out. But it’s about death, the song, so it’s quite weird, you know. I really like writing about crazy, crazy weird stuff.

Natalie loved playing music from an early age, and growing up in a musical household meant she could try things out.

My dad was a blues guitarist, he used to play a lot of slide guitar and I was always fiddling about with his guitars in the house. He had quite a few guitars. I just kind of taught myself for a bit and then I started singing and writing songs, and then I got into LIPA when I was 17 and that kind of just did it for me, I was away, I’ve just gone from there really.

LIPA, is the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts and it sounds like an amazing place to go and study. Past students include Sandi Thom, Harry Radford from post-hardcore band Yashin, and Kent Riley from Hollyoaks.

It’s Paul McCartney’s old grammar school. And George Harrison’s as well, he went there too. So it’s weird being in there. It’s like, ‘Cool, Paul McCartney was here’. And he’s quite involved in it as well, he probably comes back about four times a year and he does master classes and songwriting master classes which is great.

Natalie was lucky enough to have a one-to-one songwriting class with McCartney, and also made the most of other kinds of sessions on offer.

They do drama, dance, management, stage design, costume design, everything you can imagine really to do with performing arts so it’s just a big melting pot of talent, it’s brilliant. I would encourage anyone who’s interested to go there.

Other household names, who act as patrons or companions to the Institute and conduct masterclasses from time to time, include Grammy award-winning producers and songwriters Cathy Dennis and Trevor Horn. Joan Armatrading is a patron, and Natalie will be supporting her in Manchester towards the end of the year. LIPA also hosted the Yamaha-affiliated Make It Break It songwriting contest, which proved a real breakthrough for Natalie.

I played on stage and then afterwards Steve Levine, who was one of the judges, he’s a record producer, he signed me to his label, which was brilliant.

Steve is the multi award-winning producer of legends such as Culture Club, The Beach Boys, Deniece Williams, Honeyz, America and Gary Moore. His record label Hubris is also the home of newer bands 6 Day Riot, Daytona Lights, The Glitches and Patch William. He is a hugely supportive manager, social media whizz and award-winning radio producer and contributor too. Natalie knows she’s in good hands.

It’s great, when you work with someone so pro, as he is, he’s just done everything!

Winning the songwriting competition also led to Natalie getting her current acoustic guitar and then electric.

After winning Make It Break it, which is a Yamaha-affiliated competition and working with Steve as well, I’m now a Yamaha artist I suppose, so they gave me one of the new range to use, which was great. Thank you. It’s a great little guitar actually. You can have it so that the pickup is all the way to mic, it’s got like a little twisty knob on the top, or all the way to piezo. And it’s got three mic sounds you can have, they’re either really close or quite wide so it sounds great, it’s a brilliant guitar, it just sounds perfect.

Her electric guitar is from John Hornby Skewes’ Vintage range and she says its features are just fantastic for her.

It’s a Vintage Advance, and really great of them to let me have one so thank you! It’s got an F-hole, it’s hollow-bodied. It’s great cos I’m quite small. Guitars are quite heavy sometimes so it’s great for being on stage and carrying it round gigs and rehearsals and not getting the backache and shoulder ache that I normally get. It just sounds great. It’s double Humbucker so it packs quite a punch when you’re strumming it out or twanging the strings. So that’s great for me as well I do a lot of finger picking as well. I’m really happy with it, it’s a fab little guitar.

For the new single she used a Fret-King Ventura Super 60.

Natalie’s a Vox fan when it comes to amps and she loves that valve sound.

The amp I use is a Vox AC15. I really like crunch and it sounds really crunchy when I strum it really hard, that kind of tone in it that I really like, not kind of bassy or muddy, it’s very clear.

We asked her how she writes her songs and then develops them.

I just write on acoustic guitar because it’s just easy for me to whip it out and have a go. I generally write lyrics and music at the same time, lyrics and chords, so that’s kind of the early stages.

She develops her sound with vocal and guitar pedals.

I’ve got a really funky little voice pedal which is like a harmony pedal, it’s great actually. It’s Vocalist Live 3 by Digitech. You put your guitar into it and it recognises the harmony and then you stomp on it and lovely harmonies come out, so it’s a great little pedal. And I also use lots of guitar pedals, chorus, distortion and delay. That’s my sound. I really like The Police, that really chorussy 80s kind of sound.

Generally when I’m songwriting I just record vocals and guitar into Garage Band and then send it off to Steve and we just go from there.

I really enjoy going into the studio, it’s my favourite part of everything, as you can really experiment and there’s no kind of pressure like there is when you’re doing a live show and you’re trying to write a song, it’s just kind of like, you just focus on the outcome and getting there and building it up, so it’s my favourite bit. I love recording vocals - vocals and guitar are my favourite parts to do in the studio.

She’s filmed her own video using a different model, the Digitech Vocalist Live 5, in the studio, and playing her distinctive Fret-King Ventura Super 60.

Natalie plays most of her live gigs with a band, and gave us a bit more detail on how she uses a different model, the Digitech 3 at venues for her vocal performance.

You put your mic into the input and mono out to the desk and then you put your guitar in. ‘Guitar in’ it says, so you know where to put it. And so it recognises what you play on guitar harmonically and so the harmonies are correct. And it’s got a guitar through output so you can take a separate guitar signal from it. The output is a mix of vocals and guitar but you can take a separate guitar output. Or, as well, if you want to put it through a pedal board, which I do, and get the effects separate on the pedal board, which I do. And you can have delay, vocal delay, reverb, if you want to just use it with acoustic, it’s got a chorus effect on it and a reverb for guitar. And you can have up to two extra layers of harmony on it, so it’s a great pedal.

She has other pedal favourites too.

My delay is a Boss delay, which has that warp function which is really cool. You know, you press it and… I use that in quite a lot of my songs, like in Size Zero there’s a bit right at the end where it’s just noise, like bzzzz… That’s really interesting to use because you know you can wait until the note’s almost finished and then warp it, so that’s quite cool. I’ve had that for years now that pedal, and it’s served me really well.

The chorus pedal is an MXR which is a great little pedal, fantastic, really pleased with that

The distortion pedal is a Digitech pedal and it’s great for when I play solo shows because if I’m playing acoustic guitar or semi-acoustic it’s got two outputs, one to the PA or you can have output two to an amp, so if you want to rock it out and you’ve got a big band you put out through the amp or if you’re doing a solo show you can put it out through the PA. It’s a really good little pedal.

Natalie loves having so much artistic and creative freedom at her label, and she says it’s a great time to be a woman in the music business.

There’s all kinds of pop artists like Jessie J, Ellie Goulding, obviously Adele, who all write their own stuff so I think it’s a really great time for the girls. It’s really nice to be coming into the industry as it is now because I think people are a lot more open to us we’re really doing it ourselves, aren’t we?