On the same dial as Wire, Teardrop Explodes and Belle and Sebastian, singer & songwriter Amateur Ornithologist is releasing a ten track debut album Birdwatching on 16 June 2021. During this past troubled year, the man behind the mask North East artist Daniel J Clifford, found solace watching birds from his window while writing songs.
I’ve had the name Amateur Ornithologist for about five or six years. I used to make comic books and did one that featured lots of bird-influenced superheroes. That meant I had to do loads of research and, at the time knew loads about different birds. Most of that knowledge has gone now but I still find solace in hearing birdsong and seeing the almost-animatronic movements of birds. So it fit.
I also like the combination of words that mean someone studious and a bit unprofessional. Because I think that sums me up very nicely – rough around the edges.
I started writing songs when looking out onto a telephone wire that birds would sit on. They nested in the eaves of the house so would fly back and forth all day. I couldn’t help but watch them really. And magpies often seem to approach me. I’m sure they do with everyone but I like to think I have a connection with them. One jumped on the windowsill and we locked eyes for a few seconds. I love things like that.
BIRDS FLY OVER ME
My first single Birds Fly Over Me is like a mission statement. It’s a sunny pop song about love, hope and confidence. But doesn’t shy away from all the doubts, fear and self-reflection that you have to go through to get there. I come up with titles first a lot of the time. I had that one a little while until the tune and lyrics for the chorus came. It’s a positive phrase and that’s where it all started, but I can’t help being aware of everything else.
I think it would fit perfectly on a BBC radio 6 music show, one that Andrew Collins would be hosting about 15 years ago. You’d have a paper review with Richard Herring first and then The Wedding Present blaring out afterwards.
I started writing Birdwatching around June 2020 and finished in January or February this year, it was recorded in a few places. My oldest friend, Harbourmaster, produced the album so we recorded all lead vocals, and he recorded bass, guitar and handclap parts at his recording studio in Simonside, South Shields.
Matt Hardy recorded drums and percussion at his London studio before moving to Bristol where he recorded a couple of tracks at J&J Studio which is owned by Portishead’s bass player. Brass was recorded by Lee Morris at Harbourmaster’s studio too. This was the last thing we recorded – I got a job and the budget went up on the album. But Lee works so brilliantly and quickly that it didn’t end up costing much anyway.
A lot of backing vocals were recorded at home, with a few bits done at my girlfriend’s house. I wanted to limit the amount of time I was there to be as safe as possible. Luckily Harbourmaster is doing things right – hand sanitiser, wipes, masks, fogging machines and distanced at all times.
CHORDS & MELODIES
Most of the songs came fairly quickly – but those were the ones that worked. There were a fair few that I started and realised weren’t going anywhere. Even when the chords and melodies were written, some of the lyrics took a long time.
A song like Dead Man Begged went through lots of drafts and directions with the words. Then it clicked. Bird imagery always gave me something to cling to and work with.
Then there’s Simple Things. The melody, chords and words came quite quickly. But the arrangement took a long time. At one point it was going to just be synths and drum machines. But as I made it simpler and simpler, it got better. Which is apt for a song called Simple Things.
Even when we thought some songs were finished, I would have new ideas. The song Matters I Know Matter To No One was done and then I had this idea for an outro guitar that Harbourmaster made really sing. Then there were other songs that he would suggest a new harmony vocal for too.
FRAME OF MIND
I’ve probably gone about this the wrong way, coming right out of the gates with an album, so I’m not expecting to set the world alight or anything. At the same time, I’m very proud of the album and think it captures my frame of mind. I’ve achieved what I was going for musically too.
I just hope people enjoy Birdwatching and it’s a good starting point for me to build on. I’m definitely going to focus on some singles and EPs before doing a second album. In terms of gigs, I want to put together a band and play live when it’s safe – although I need to find the right people first.
Check out Amateur Ornothologist and pre-order Birdwatching on bandcamp at: https://amateurornithologist.bandcamp.com
Interview by Gary Alikivi May 2021.