That songwriters tend to reach a creative peak before the age of 30 is one of music's abiding mysteries. It doesn't happen in literature or painting, whose practitioners might go on improving throughout their lives. But look at any list of the greatest songs ever written, and they are generally the work of people who – from the Beatles downwards – are not far into adulthood. As in sport, the clock ticks fast.
Nick Hemming, frontman and songwriter for The Leisure Society, doesn't have an explanation for this. He just knows that, at 39, he was terrified of having to write the band's third album, because “most people are crap by the time they get to my age”. Those fears have proved to be groundless. Alone Aboard the Ark is a work of charm and depth, and it confirms Hemming as a musician of striking gifts. Generous of spirit, deft of execution, these are warm, colourful, literate songs that reach into the heart and the head.
With their roots in Burton upon Trent, The Leisure Society offer an unmistakably English outlook on life. That means restraint and melancholy, but it also means exuberance and rapture. In Alone Aboard the Ark, a band which on albums one and two – The Sleeper and Into the Murky Water – were occasionally a bit too retiring have acquired a thrust that shouldn't do them any harm commercially. More and more the group are beginning to look like the British equivalent of The Decemberists.
So are The Leisure Society, with their steadily growing following, about to make an exponential leap? One would like to think so, but part of the band's problem – which is also part of their appeal – is a reluctance to push themselves forward.
I met Hemming and his main accomplice in the six-piece outfit, the similarly modest Christian Hardy, in the back of a pub in Marylebone in central London. We were round the corner from the HQ of Monocle magazine, where the band had just done a set for its radio station.
“There's something quite ugly about bands thinking they're important,” Hardy comments. “We're keen to avoid that.” Hemming admitted that for a long time the job of promoting his music had been anathema to him. “I would always try to avoid doing an interview. I hated trying to represent myself.” Now, according to Hardy, they've realised that “we have to be a bit more assertive”. The Hemming/Hardy story begins in the late 1990s. Hemming, the older by seven years, was a guitarist in various bands around Burton, Hardy an up-and-coming keyboard player. They were introduced, and they played together, but the big time it wasn't. Hemming got a job with a company that sold fruit machines, and Hardy went to art college before going to London and pursuing a music career. Back in Burton, Hemming was at a low ebb.
“I had a nervous breakdown, and was in a bad car crash, and my partner left me. It was all piling up and that's when Christian said, 'why don't you come to London'. I hated the job I was doing, so I thought I might as well take the chance.” With £1,000 he'd saved, Hemming pitched up at the house Hardy was renting in Balham and slept on his sofa. The Leisure Society – with its rotating cast of supporting musicians but with Hemming and Hardy always at its heart – was off and running again.
Suffering's capacity to inspire great art was demonstrated when Hemming made a return visit to Burton one New Year and an episode unfolded that led to the song that to some extent has become the band's calling card. He bumped into his ex-girlfriend and then went round to her house, “somehow thinking that we'd get back together” – at which point her new boyfriend turned up.
“I was devastated. I got the next train back to London. I sat in my room and cried my eyes out and drank a bottle of vodka and wrote this song.” The song was “The Last of the Melting Snow” – a modern classic of love and loss that expresses heightened experience with a rare luminosity. It was nominated for an Ivor Novello award, was championed by Guy Garvey, and was a huge hit with listeners to the Radcliffe and Maconie Show (it was their Record of the Week with 90 per cent of the vote). It not only has the capacity to reduce listeners to tears but still has that effect on Hemming himself. The band performed it live on French radio recently and, “I found myself welling up”. Hardy says that he too cried when he first heard it, and, while harbouring his own musical ambitions, he recognises he has to defer to his friend.
“I was a lot more confident before Nick came along, but that's a good thing because our standards went up and expectations went through the roof. With Nick around it would be silly for me to be pushing my songs.”
Hemming's songs it is then. He had built up enough that the band's second album drew on the same pool as the first, but with Alone Aboard the Ark, he made a fresh start, which partly explains his concerns about coming up with the goods. By now the band had been discovered by Ray Davies and they were able to record in his Konk studio, the first two albums having been home-studio efforts. Suddenly the stakes were raised, but the result, Hemming said, was something he was really proud of.
“For so long I couldn't write songs. I was a very late bloomer. I only really started when most other people have stopped.” Hemming's actual age is therefore misleading. Not only does he look a lot younger than 39, he's a lot younger in songwriting terms. And anyway, who's to say that as with Tom Waits and Neil Young – two exceptions Hemming cites – he won't go on to defy the norm?
'Alone Aboard the Ark' is out now. The tour continues until 25 April