Interview: Abi Farrell chats 60s soul, emotional lyricism, and Big AC Records
Your new single ‘I Will See You Through’ is a contemporary nod to 60s Motown, how did this latest track come about?
I've always loved soul music - it’s my favourite to listen to, sing, write and perform by far. Earlier this year I was planning my next steps, having put out my first EP independently in 2019. I wanted to move more decisively into the soul space because it’s where I feel most at home but, as yet, I hadn't really found a soul scene in London. Completely by chance, I met music artist Nick Corbin at a jam night in Hackney in February this year. I loved his performance, we got chatting and over lockdown we began writing together.
The initial idea, the first verse and chorus for ‘I Will See You Through’, was actually Nick’s and the first time I heard it I knew it was something I desperately wanted to write on and sing! I added a second verse, tweaked the second chorus lyrics and set the direction for the middle eight. Throughout, he took care of the pre-production, picking out all these gorgeous nostalgic 60s sounds. It’s been such a lovely collaboration where we've both brought different things to the table. We recorded it at Woods Lodge Studios in September and here we are now!
Having co-written this song with Nick Corbin (Lack of Afro, Laville, New Street Adventure), and having it produced by Mitch Ayling (The Milk), how did you approach the collaborative process together?
It began over the summer in lockdown and happened very organically. In June, Nick sent me a demo of the first verse and chorus and I absolutely loved it; I had just bought a home recording setup, so we were able to send files back and forth to each other. Sonically and lyrically, the theme was very much around reaching out to a friend in need, so I took that theme even further, writing about helping to navigate a friend out of a difficult time. I drafted a bunch of lyrics and phrases that fit that theme, put together the rhyming couplets that seemed strongest to me, layering some adlibs and harmonies.
I sent it back, Nick liked it and then, probably a few weeks later, I sat at the piano and landed on the descending chords into the middle eight. Nick added the instruments and some final chords for that bit, I wrote the middle eight lyrics, he chucked in a final double chorus, I added the vocal and then it was ready to present to a producer. Nick made the introduction to Mitch who was just an absolute joy to work with and I felt really lucky to have his involvement. Mitch knew exactly what sound we were hoping to create, that 60s girl group vibe but with more modern production to bring it into the present day, and helped us to realise it all. It was a really lovely writing and recording experience.
Growing up in Oxfordshire, how did you develop your artistry and how does that scene compare to your current hometown of London?
Having grown up listening to a lot of old soul and huge pop artists, I was fascinated by vocal melodies and hooks from a really young age. Aged 14, I joined the school Soul Band and quickly had to learn all of these huge Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and Dusty Springfield songs, to name a few, and we would play in local pubs, bars and venues. So my time on the Oxfordshire scene wasn’t really in the city centre circuit with promoters but in local village pubs. Soul Band is really where I cut my teeth and loved how I could express myself vocally, there was nothing else like it. That year my Dad bought me a keyboard and, though I never had lessons, I taught myself basic chords and began to write ballads.
It wasn’t until I was at university in Birmingham that I really started to play my own songs live at open mic nights and band nights, and launched a solo artist project with my band in about 2015. Back home I’ve since played a few local festivals in South Oxfordshire but there isn’t a great soul presence in the area and it can often feel like a boy's club, so I’ve found the live music scene in London to be a better fit. I’ve played some great gigs with really responsive audiences at Camden Chapel, Notting Hill Arts Club, Camden Assembly and the Bedford in Balham to name a few, and I'm really excited to get back to live music in 2021.
Being raised on a soundtrack of female-driven pop, funk and soul, with your influences including Aretha Franklin, Carole King, and Chaka Khan - what draws you to these artists and styles?
I've always been an emotional one and their music just has real guts and feels great to sing along to, there is often such a mood of raw devotion and desperacy in the lyrics that you don’t get with other genres. For example when you consider Aretha’s ‘I’ve Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You’ - it talks about being totally infatuated and heartbroken at the same time, she expresses that through all of these spine-chilling vocal runs which just send me to tears of awe every time!
Also the composition, especially of Carole King’s ‘Tapestry’ album which features such stunning arrangements, it has always motivated me to get better at chunky chord progressions and improve on the piano. I’m also drawn to defiant statements and vocal hooks like ‘Stop! In The Name of Love’ by The Supremes because it’s great storytelling, it’s just so evocative of a real-life confrontation in a relationship. I guess I just love the drama, love the emotion, all combined in with beautiful arrangement.
How have you been adapting to a world without live music and can we anticipate any performances in 2021?
I managed to do one socially distanced gig at The Bedford in Balham in October which was absolutely lovely; just the most supportive audience and livestream listeners at home. It's been nice to have more time to be more introspective and consider what it is I want to say in my music. I feel lucky because I have a day job which is how I’ve always funded my music, obviously the dream is to earn a whole living from my music but that has kept me financially secure which I’m really grateful for. Recently, I’ve been preparing songs to demo for release next year and tinkering about with new ideas. I’m finding I’m coming up with lots of random snippet ideas that could be produced in so many different ways, which is confusing but also exciting.
With the support of your new record label, Big AC Records, how has this transformed your experience and direction as an artist?
Working with Big AC Records for this release and my next single is wonderful, it’s such a lovely creative collaboration which has given me so much support in spreading my music far and wide. Since ‘I Will See You Through’ was released we’ve had plays on specialist soul radio stations as far and wide as Australia and Japan! To have this support has helped me take my career and releases to the next level.
Because the founders Nick and Sophie are at the heart of the London contemporary soul scene, they are able to help my music reach this whole new community of soul fanatics who won’t have come across me before. We’ve been able to skill-share our different areas of knowledge to get ‘I Will See You Through’ and my next single to as many ears as possible; so Nick’s co-writing and pre-production has been incredible, Sophie’s graphic design and art direction is second to none and their contacts have shown so much support. I’ve also been able to bring my knowledge of managing my releases for the last few years. For the first time in my career it feels like there is someone I can trust firmly in my corner and, thankfully, we all seem to have similar opinions about next steps or which road to take.
Finally, what does the word ‘groove’ mean to you?
The word for me is evocative of music I’ve been in love with since I was a kid, whether it’s 70s & 80s funk or the beat of a dancy Motown tune. For me it also symbolises being in a rhythm or space where I feel happiest and where I can be most myself and at peace.
Download and stream 'I Will See You Through' here.