Typically the reserve of people with bare feet, acoustic guitars and rollies tucked behind one year, recent years have thankfully seen the idea of "the singer-songwriter" given renewed vigour. While the mid to late 00s saw Britain flooded with sappy guys wailing sad jams for basic couples and their slow dances, the solo songwriter is an altogether more versatile prospect these days – one that’s seen an influx of new talent explore entirely more experimental worlds. Enter Westerman: a west Londoner making fresh, odd pop sounds that slice with a tender edge.
Signed to Blue Flowers – the same buzzy London label that’s given fellow solo act Nilufer Yanya space to shine – Westerman’s debut EP Call & Response was released last year. It's a three-track portrait of an artist unafraid to toy with songwriting convention through surprising, off-kilter instrumentation and a hushed, Arthur Russell-like vocal. Citing the likes of Joni Mitchell and Neil Young as inspirations, Westerman insists that the core of a good song lies beneath the flashier elements of its production. “I like songwriting – that was the basis for everything,” he says over the phone from a studio in Lisbon. “I still maintain that I like to be able to play my own songs on the guitar; I think it's a good discipline. But if you're writing songs and they're good, you should be able to play them without all of the bells-and-whistles of production. There’s always songwriting at the core of it – one person and an instrument.”
While that statement might sound a bit ‘real music’ in the wrong hands, in Westerman’s it feels like an honest opinion from someone who has spent their life behind a guitar. Self-taught in his teens, he made a beeline for indie bands like Kings Of Leon – “I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll try and write like I’m from Tennessee’… but obviously, I’m not from Tennessee,” he says today, now 26, laughing at himself. Amid all the fake cowboy idolising, though, he began to write snatches of material that would go on to inform his low-key, idiosyncratic sound – a warped guitar line here; a weird vocal melody there. It wasn’t until a latter-day connection with producer Bullion – himself inhabiting a primarily electronic musical world – that it began to evolve and make more sense. The result is something that channels the storytelling power of the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young-era, but through a crystalline, modernist aesthetic.
“Meeting someone coming from a totally different background – because I didn’t really understand how you could be a musician if you didn’t play a physical instrument, I suppose – really opened my eyes,” Westerman tells me. “Before I recorded anything, the songs I was writing had a lot of slightly odd vocal things happening, just to try and fill out the sound. It’s not conscious, and for me they make sense, but I’ve come to realise that maybe the melodies I come up with naturally are a bit… I think they are pop melodies, but they’re slightly off-kilter.”And new single “Confirmation” (which we’re premiering above) finds the perfect balance between that pop sensibility and Westerman’s more twisted musical mindset. A three-and-a-half minute tale of creative redemption, it skits between odd, exploratory verses, and the kind of chorus that tabloids might call a tear-jerker if Sheeran ever got his mitts on it. One minute it sounds like a chart hit in waiting, the next it feels more like something you might come across during a jazz night at east London’s experimental mecca Cafe OTO. “Don’t you wonder why confirmation’s so much easier when you don’t think so much about it?” he ponders in that chorus – a rallying cry for the free-minded approach to creativity that sits at the centre of Westerman’s music, delivered in such a way that you wonder how he ever found the melody.
As with many of Westerman’s more beautiful moments, he tells me the track burst out of him in a way that felt almost accidental. “I had quite bad writer’s block, which I think everyone gets, and was trying to write stuff but just being like, ‘Oh this is all rubbish’." Taking that writer’s block and tackling it from angles he hadn’t explored before – by writing about the block itself – he quickly found that chorus popping into his mind, like a devil-on-the-shoulder message to help shift his period of inactivity. “Without thinking about it, that phrase came, and it just seemed to be so easy,” he says. “I wrote the lyric about the idea of how overthinking stuff is kind of debilitating, and locks you up.”If there’s anything Westerman is not, it’s locked up. Unhooking a metaphorical Pandora’s box of odd sounds and creative flourishes, “Confirmation” is evidence that the London soloist is unafraid to drag his alt-pop wizardry to imaginative new places. “There’s so many different ways of making something that is not totally abstract, and does make sense, without just following classic chord patterns and progressions,” he says. “I think you can really play around with that stuff and just have fun with it, really. I like to just see what happens.”You can follow Tom on Twitter.