Antony ‘ANT’ Harding is probably best known for his work in the John Peel adored Hefner. They released four acclaimed albums and bothered the charts ever so slightly before going quiet. Harding however had been quietly chipping away on his own material prior to Hefner’s silence, releasing his first singles in 1999 (the same year as “The Fidelity Wars”) and his debut LP, “A Long Way to Blow a Kiss” in 2002 – a minor (key) masterpiece.
Fans of ‘Britain’s biggest small band’ will know Harding’s hit to be anything but gentle but here running alongside his day job was an incredibly delicate and thoughtful series of folk/pop albums and EPs. Being a Jamie–Come-Lately to all this, I can only imagine what people made of his material at first – but time most certainly shows its worth. Enduring songs for the hopelessly romantic and romantically hopeless.
So, with album number three up and out, I was able to wield my journalistic stroke and secure an interview with the man. He was kind enough to chat about John Peel, birds, hat hair, the weather and, predictably, Hefner past and present.
First and foremost, you have a new album out. An album centred on birds called “The Birds Sing Goodnight to You and Me” on an Italian label. Why birds and how does an Isle of Wight raised London drummer, turned Swedish émigré come to be recording for Italian labels?
I’m not a Twitcher, I have no car or telescope so I wouldn’t be a very good one. I’m much more of a watcher since my early days on the Isle of Wight. I noticed that over the years I had written a few songs that mentioned birds. Then I was asked for a bird song (Magpies) for the Music Migration compilation album on Second Language and this led me to playing a live show to some Honey Buzzards at a bird show down in the south of Sweden. So all this got me thinking about whether or not I could do a bird themed album myself.
As for Italy, I had already released two CDs with the lovely Homesleep Records of Bologna some years ago, as well as bits and pieces with some other Italian labels and had done several Italian tours and radio sessions so it made sense to try to reawaken that audience. And it just so happened that some Italian touring mates of mine came over to Stockholm to play a gig. I said I had a new album recorded and they said they had a label and that was that.
In addition to our passerine friends, the album has a number of very human characters. What is the connection of birds to the songs and their protagonists?
My original idea was to write ten songs about birds. I mean each song would be about a different bird but I got stuck trying to think of a lyric about a Chaffinch for example. So instead I started to think about how the characters in the new songs I had written could be linked to birds. It became much easier to squeeze a bird or a mention of birds into the songs here and there. The main characters are actually my two young sons, one of which is called Robin so that song wrote itself. I imagined them growing up in the surrounding woodland and what they might get up to, drawing on my own past experiences of the outdoors from growing up on the Isle Of Wight.
The beginning of your known solo career was a very London thing. Overlapping just slightly with Hefner; you started out playing shows at the 12 Bar Club on Denmark Street, producing your first releases with Cushy Productions and even recording a Peel session at Maida Vale. What motivated your move out of London to the fine land of Sweden?
I think I needed to escape London for a bit and do something out of character like move country, get married, buy a house and have kids… The band had just finished so there was no real reason to stay and I was promised a much easier life in Sweden if not a much colder one. Ten years later and I’m still here but life is more complicated than ever and the winters are even colder.
Did this cultural change impact your music or the way you made it? Weather seems to be a source of inspiration across your discography.
Yes the days were suddenly peaceful and I couldn’t hear the neighbours, just seagulls flying up and down the street. I was also immediately struck by the clear changes of season and the love/hate relationship with the annual winter snowfall. I broadened my song-writing palette to include snow songs as well as the rain songs of before. I think I’m easily affected by the weather so it plays a big part in my life especially now when I have five months of snow to contend with and suffer from terrible hat hair.
Hefner were charmingly described, I believe, as ‘four songwriters playing the songs of Darren Hayman’ but did you find that being ‘the drummer from an Indie band’ made it harder to be taken seriously as a solo artist?
Usually people were pleasantly surprised that a drummer could produce something that was melodic and delicate instead of relying on drum fills and clowning around. I had reviews comparing me to Dave Grohl and Phil Collins so I was expecting pretty big things! But the gigs would always bill me as – Ant (drummer from Hefner) so I was tempted now and again to go onstage and just perform a 30-minute drum solo but alas Hefner songs had none. That said, all the offers I got from labels came from the fact I was in Hefner – so I didn’t grumble.
It must have been gratifying though to see John Peel’s support continue when you were out from behind the kit?
Yes that was a big surprise to me and meant the world. When John Peel starts playing your records it’s a great thrill. Unfortunately it soon ended when he discovered I was an Arsenal fan and never played my records again. However I may be the only Arsenal fan who got to set foot inside Peel Acres!
Though people should probably have given up on a full-fledged reunion by now, you continue to collaborate quite frequently with Hefner alumni Darren Hayman, Jack Hayter and John Morrison. Do you still feel you work well together? And are there any post-Hefner appearances that you’re particularly proud of?
I think we know so well what each other wants so it’s always an easy task to play or record together. I did rather enjoy setting the drums up again for Jack’s recent ‘Farewell Jezebel’ single and I had fun singing one of Darren’s “January Songs” the other year. Working with Darren, John and Jack again on “The Birds Sing Goodnight to You and Me” was also a pleasure. Their collective talents made it a much better album.
You toured the new album in China and endured a slew of radio sessions in promotion of it. What’s next for you? Is it too soon to be thinking about album #4?
I’m pencilled in to return to China in the autumn, which will be amazing. Now isn’t the fourth album supposed to be difficult? I thought the third one was supposed to be hard but it was a piece of cake. I’ve already written and demoed album #4. However this time it will be a rather naked and melancholy little affair as my plan is to record it at home using just my voice and my acoustic guitar and nothing else, well maybe a box of harmonicas. That’s the challenge this time. I’m very pleased with the songs. I think they’re strong enough to work naked even if some of them mention snow.
Have you any unfulfilled ambitions that you’re shooting for in 2012?
I’d love to see a Black Woodpecker.
Any words for the readers, assuming we have some?
What’s the cure for hat hair?
Words by Jamie Hallaman
ANT’s third LP “The Birds Sing Goodnight To You And Me” is out now on We Were Never Boring Records.