Sam Duckworth: The caped crusader who wants his songs to change the world
The Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly star tells Elisa Bray why he's not being naive
Friday 18 January 2008
"Don't let people make you think just because you're young, you're useless," Sam Duckworth, better known to his fans as Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly, sang in his 2006 song "Once More With Feeling". He still has not forgotten the reviewers and those who posted comments on message boards dismissing him as a "naive" 20-year-old, but today meeting the 21-year-old whose wisdom stretches far beyond his years, is nothing short of energising and inspiring.
While many people at the age of 21 are completing their university degree, Duckworth is about to release his second Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly album, Searching For the Hows and Whys, through Atlantic Records. Since he started out as an 18-year-old one-man band (and a laptop), Duckworth has proved himself a modern political and social commentator, a regular performer at Love Music Hate Racism shows. Speaking out against racism and the BNP was a result of the Southend-born musician, whose father is Burmese, being racially attacked in a pub two years ago, and prejudice, consumerism and religious strife are common themes across his two albums. All of which has resulted in the rather trite tag of "protest singer".
"Being called a protest singer is kind of OK. What did bother me was when people said: 'He's a 20-year-old naive kid who thinks he can change the world and deep down he can't do anything.' I don't care if people don't like the music and I don't care if people don't like me," he says, thoughtfully, "but putting down somebody who actually wants to see a positive change in the world doesn't seem to make any logical sense."
Since releasing his acclaimed debut album The Chronicles of a Bohemian Teenager, Duckworth has set about honing his skills as a songwriter, focusing on lyrics and the craft of the song. "I'm trying to find more depth to the lyrics so that people can't say it's naive any more or people can see there's at least an accelerated growth of my understanding ."
Take new anti-consumerist song "Children Are (the Consumers of) the Future", whose first lines' reference to Sex and the City contradicts anyone was has dared hail the television show as empowerment for women. "I find that really shattering. It's changing our cultural landscape. You don't have to worry about all the hard stuff that's going on in the world because you can go shopping," he says disappointedly. Get Duckworth talking about the situation, for example, in the Middle East – his song "I Could Build You a Tower" – and he could talk articulately for hours. However, try asking him about the music and how he creates such catchy melodies, and a fleeting coyness takes over.
"I find it strange talking about it..." He tails off. "I find it much more comfortable talking about anything else than the music. I don't really know how it happens ...I just fumble around until it sounds good. I could sit around and play guitar for hours."
Inevitably, lyrics inspiring political and social motivation matched with folk inflected indie and his Southend hometown have led to comparisons with Billy Bragg. Duckworth is quick to heap praise on Bragg, saying: "He's one of my heroes. He's a real role model. I think he's amazing so if anyone compares me to him that's the highest compliment."
It had always been Duckworth's dream to work with Nitin Sawhney, the multi-instrumentalist songwriter and orchestral composer. "Everything about that record [Migration] really resonates with me – where it's coming from politically, musically. Also it had a rawness and a DIY ethic to it. For me that's one of those records that always set the bar in terms of production." He recalls: "I was desperate to work with him on any level. I remember when I just signed the deal with the first record, they asked, 'who do you want to work with?', and I said Nitin, and everyone said: 'Sam, that's never going to happen.'" But come his sophomore album the question came round again and this time he persuaded his label to arrange a meeting with the artist. When Sawhney agreed to co-produce the album, Duckworth unfalteringly stood by his decision, saying: "I'm not going to do it with anybody else." His dream may have become a reality, but Duckworth radiates humble disbelief, talking about the "multi-faceted, heavyweight name who has done so many incredible records and production" agreeing to work with him who "first started out as an 18-year-old kid with a laptop who'd been playing punk rock shows for a couple of years."
The collaboration marked a turning point in the way Duckworth would create his songs, introducing more broken beats, samples, instrumentation and complex programming, and you can hear the distinct influence of Sawhney on the ambient vocal samples-laden "I Could Build You a Tower". It's a great development from the straighter, more singer-songwriter approach of the debut Duckworth made when he started out with a computer and an acoustic guitar.
"The whole feel of that first album was songs I'd been playing on the road, songs I'd been writing on a laptop just trying to capture a moment and capture an energy. I loved that time, but the only reason it was me and a computer was there wasn't any other option. And I really wanted to concentrate on the sonics of this record." Searching for the Hows and Whys "was a real conscious decision to push myself to as far as I could get to now."
"Waiting for the Monster to Drown" – the first song released as a free download – even prompted people to ask if he's a Roni Size fan. "I get the impression people were expecting an album of "I Spys" and instead they have got an album of more drum and bass than they expected, which I'm really happy with. Now people know there's a drum and bass and electro side to what I do I can embrace it even more." The awareness that this second album is the sink-or-swim record does not phase him in the slightest; Duckworth's confidence is such that he looks forward to the next phase, what he calls the "open season do-what-you-want time" when he can make his Kid A record.
Identity is a strong concern for Duckworth, whose choice of the name Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly (found by chance in a magazine article about a Batman computer game) was a conscious decision to avoid being boxed into the oversaturated singer-songwriter group, then led by James Blunt and James Morrison.
"I genuinely believe I wouldn't be where I am now if it wasn't for the name. I'd love to say I could be in the same position if I was called Sam Duckworth, but I think you need something that differentiates you from everybody else. If I didn't have the name I would unfortunately be treading the bad line between James Blunt and emo and thank God I'm not there because that's not a place I'd want to be."
He has already tried out a few of the new songs live. Recalling his early punk days, for the live shows he brought in musicians Mike Glenister, Andy Theakstone and Gavin Fitzjohn, whom he met as a teenager when he used to put on punk rock shows in Southend, and the live sound is more aggressive. "To me that was a really important dynamic, to get four people who come from the same place that I had and who had the same kind of ethics and ideas that I had, but also had the same enjoyment out of it."
Listening to Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly you wouldn't guess that Duckworth's roots lie in punk. But for him the punk influence is strong in terms of its ethics and social empowerment rather than the sound. "When you're touring with DIY punk bands you realise it's got to be all about the music and the connections you have with people and the experiences. You take that away and you're five jobless people in a transit van travelling around the country not eating very well, not sleeping very much."
In 2000, Naomi Klein's No Logo came out and became the central talking point for anti-consumerism and anti-globalisation, finding itself a spot on many young people's bookshelves. But Duckworth prefers to credit punk rock for his ideals and recalls being frustrated by the assumption that it was Klein's book that hugely influenced his first album. "Lyrically punk's changed my whole landscape. Klein wasn't the first person ever to question ethical business policies. Love Music Hate Racism in particular, that all came from punk rock. UK ska punk bands were seen in a community of people and it really set a precedent of how a small group of people could really make a difference. I owe more to the punk rock scene than I do to anything else."
And that is the reason behind the title of his new album. Without asking the questions, no solutions can be found. He recently read and admires Paul Kingsnorth's book One No, Many Yeses, for being a political book that offers solutions to the problems. And that's exactly what Duckworth wants Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly to do.
"If I could only be remembered for one thing I'd like to be remembered for making people aware that you can make a difference. You don't need to be an army to cause a revolution. One person can make a big change, but I'd love to see that become a culture. I'd love to see an uprising in particular of the teenagers of the UK and of America to say, 'look, our governments are flawed, our shopping practices are flawed, our corporations are flawed, we're the next generation, we're going to make a difference and make sure it doesn't stay that way.' If nothing else, grunge and hardcore made it acceptable for teenagers to be angry again. Whether I can make a small ripple in a big pond or make a big splash, I don't know..."
One notable area where he feels he has contributed to making a difference is in Fair Trade, which he actively promotes during his tours. Duckworth tells how his long-term touring friend Kate Nash told him that she'd started using Fair Trade merchandise since touring with him and other musicians have also followed suit, and as a result demand for wholesale T-shirts is now outstripping supply for the first time in 10 years. Music's ability to make a difference is something he personally experienced on a recent trip to Kinshasa with Damon Albarn's Africa Express, where he played alongside African musicians on a trip that he says was his personal highlight of 2007. He had previously jammed with Africa Express at their acclaimed Glastonbury show, where he found himself on stage with his hero, Bragg.
"One of the non-musical things that I took back from the Congo is that they were content with what they had and didn't want more. You see people in the UK who have everything, but don't have any shred of happiness whatsoever. That's why I'm glad listening to the record that I didn't make one of these suburban life is rubbish, being in a band is hard work, albums.
"What I am starting to find out is that it didn't really change me but reaffirmed who I was. It made me more determined for this year that a few people can make a difference because I spent 10 days with these African people and they probably touched my life that in a way is going to last 20 years."
And with this second album to establish him as a career artist, Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly's infectious passion might well make a difference.
Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly releases the album 'Searching For the Hows and Whys' on 3 March on Atlantic; he tours with his band from 12 February (www.getcapewearcapefly.com)
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