You Tell Me is the project of Peter Brewis and Sarah Hayes. As one half of Field Music, Brewis has been honing the craft of pop songwriting for almost fifteen years, whilst Hayes has been exploring contemporary folk in her solo work, and the world of indie-pop via her band Admiral Fallow. Their debut self-titled album, the last to be recorded at the old Field Music recording HQ, was released in January 2019 on Memphis Industries.
(Photo Credit: Matt Jacob)
You Tell Me is a new project from Sarah Hayes and Peter Brewis. Hayes works in the realms of contemporary folk and indie-pop in her solo career and with the band Admiral Fallow; Brewis was the founding drummer of The Futureheads and is one half of the indie rock group group Field Music. After meeting at a Kate Bush tribute show, the duo combined their talents, resulting in You Tell Me’s debut self-titled album released this past January via Memphis Industries. Here, they discuss what it’s meant to collaborate with each other.
—Annie Fell, Associate Editor, Talkhouse
Sarah Hayes: This is the third time we’ve tried to do this. It’s surprisingly difficult to have a normal, articulate conversation when you’re recording it. The previous times I’ve just shouted “Stop!” within a couple minutes. [Laughs.]
Peter Brewis: We need to just talk to each other and stop talking to the microphone, I think. Should we go over how we first came to do the album and the band?
Sarah: Well, a couple years ago, Emma Pollock put together a celebration of the music of Kate Bush — we had a house band, which I was playing in, and lots of guest singers — and that whole thing for me, from start to finish, was an amazing experience.
Peter: And I wasn’t even going to do that gig. I don’t know why Emma asked me, really, because I don’t consider myself as much of a singer.
Sarah: What made you say yes to it then, in the end?
Peter: I wanted to try something new and take myself out of my comfort zone. And I love Kate Bush, and it was a chance to really try and sing somebody else’s songs well. I don’t know whether I did it, but —
Sarah: You absolutely did.
Peter: I had to kind of get confident. “Get confident, stupid!”
Sarah: There’s lots of layers to make [you] understandably apprehensive about it, not least walking into a room of people you don’t know.
Peter: That was the thing. I didn’t really know your voice. I didn’t even know that I was interested in me and you working together then, but [the other performers] were all proper singers, and I kind of knew all of their voices. But when you sang “This Woman’s Work,” that really surprised me. I thought, That voice is good. I didn’t really know anything about you at the time — t’s funny, isn’t it? I think from your voice, I got an impression of what you liked, or maybe even what you might be like to collaborate with. That might have been a false impression, but I just thought, Now that’s the real deal. You know, you don’t want to start talking about authenticity too much, and what that means, but I just connected with your voice.
Sarah: Well, that’s very nice. [Laughs.] And then we kept in touch a little bit after the gig. I’d said that I’d written some songs — “Oh, yeah I’ll send you them!” But then I didn’t, because I was too scared. To actually make myself send brand new things to someone I didn’t really know, I had to get out of my own way in order to do that. Anyway, eventually I was near your studio one day, and then I just came in and played the songs. That was the first time we talked about collaborating, and what form that might take. By the end of chatting about music and playing the songs, you’d taken live demo recordings of them, and it was like, “Let’s make a band.”
Peter: Yeah. Initially, I remember you asking me, “Will you produce a record?” Now, I don’t think I would be much good as a producer if I wasn’t really into the music.
Sarah: Yeah, you couldn’t just treat it like, “This is a job.”
Peter: I’m just not very good at doing jobs. [Laughs.] I don’t mind things being a challenge, but I need to enjoy the challenge. When you played me those first five songs on the CP-70 Electric Grand Piano — The Phil Collins model, if you want to call it that.
Sarah: [Laughs.] Which you do.
Peter: Which I have. I think I could hear straight away lots of possibilities of ways we could do [the songs]. It wasn’t just that I liked them — this is one of the things about collaborating: You want to make sure that you do a good job with somebody else’s thing. In one way, I was like, I don’t want to do this. I can’t be the person to ruin them. I’m gonna let someone else ruin it.
Sarah: So that involved you getting out of your own way.
Peter: Yes. But on the other hand, I heard them and I thought, I can hear how I could possibly get involved in this, as well. It’s a nervousness thing and a confidence thing, and I think this is one of the things about having a meaningful collaboration with somebody: How much of your confidence can you bring to it? And how much should you be worried about fucking it up? But if you’re kind of honest about those things, and you’re open to saying, “I’m worried about not doing a good job. I want to do a good job. How can we do a good job together?” Finding out what the boundaries are, and what your role is, and what what you’re allowed to do within it. I think we figured that out quite quickly, really.
Sarah: I think so. It’s also having ways of communicating everything, especially the musical thoughts that you have — like, a way of playing a phrase, or a feel of a song, or whatever. I find it hard to to express that in words sometimes, so it’s handy that, for the most part, we kind of knew what each other meant.
Peter: Yeah it was. There were some moments where we didn’t — [at one point] you said, “We’ll just stick a couple goose eggs in there,” and I didn’t have a clue what you meant.
Sarah: I nicked that off someone else, I think. I just meant a long note — a goose egg. You thought I meant a golden note, like a golden goose.
Peter: [Laughs.] But those things can be ironed out if you have a sense of humor about what you’re doing.
Sarah: From the beginning, we didn’t particularly have a mission statement, or anything like that, but it was like, “Let’s have fun doing this and just try stuff out, and have a daft laugh.” Which I think we did.
Peter: Yeah, despite the subject matter of some of the songs. It’s kind of serious in a way, but I didn’t really want to approach it with a kind of moroseness.
Sarah: I think that helped me — I hadn’t written any lyrics before this, so that was another thing, like, I need to put these out into the world. Most people get all their shite songs out of the way when they’re in their teens.
Peter: Guilty as charged.
Sarah: [Laughs.] So [they] hone their craft a bit, and find a way of writing and a way of working, but I haven’t done that. I’ve just put my first attempts into the world. I’m sure I’ll look back and cringe.
Peter: I think you’re very fortunate, not having to go through 10 years of writing utter dross.
Sarah: Still to come.
Peter: Well, maybe you could do that later on. I’ll show you my first five songs one day — I’m not even going to tell you the titles, because I would not want that information out there.
Sarah: [Laughs.] So that was an another challenge, but also quite freeing in a way. A nice feeling of finding a way to express difficult things through the joy of music. But in the writing and the recording process, being able to find fun and humor probably helped me to write, or to be OK putting a song out there that’s essentially, like, a carnival of mental health.
Peter: I suppose in the main, it was just you and I collaborating; We both did the writing and most of the performance, and arrangements and the recording, as well. Philip [Hague] played drums on a track, Dave Brewis did some engineering for us, and [we had] a string quartet, but in the main, it was just me and you being the collaborators. I’ve always worked in a duo — in Field Music, it’s just me and Dave, and we make all the decisions. But your previous collaborations have been different.
I suppose what I’m asking is, I assume it was a big deal for you to get these first songs of yours out: Do you think that would have been more difficult in a bigger collaborative group?
Sarah: I don’t know if I would’ve been able to do that. And actually, there’s probably something in not really knowing you very well, as well. There’s a lot of trust involved in something like that, [and] I think that would have been harder to do in a bigger group.
Peter: Well, I suppose because we didn’t really know each other very well, we could just say, “Let’s decide what our relationship is going to be like making this thing; Let’s decide how we’re going to do it.”
Sarah: There was no precedent there, and I think that helped.
Peter: I suppose the other thing we did — we sat down and said, “Here’s this song: Let’s approach it from this way.” You know, “Let’s pretend we’re gonna do a Randy Newman style arrangement for this,” and obviously you fail at doing a Randy Newman style arrangement, but you make something else in the in the process. I think we did that for quite a lot of songs.
Sarah: Yeah. You find whatever way helps you to get started, and then it kind of develops into your version of that.
Peter: Yeah, and I suppose the initial way in was maybe that we both knew that we really like Kate Bush. That for me was the kind of starting point of how we approached everything. I quite often find it helps me to imagine what would so-and-so do — what would what would Van Dyke Parks do? And then fail to do that, but in the process, maybe come up with something different. But I think us being a duo, we can do that easier, because you don’t have to ask permission or get anyone else to play anything. I’ve always had that problem with being in a band.
I think we should also talk about the fact that we didn’t really know what we were going to do with [the album].
Sarah: Yeah, we just forged ahead and made something because we wanted to make it. It wasn’t like [we had] a grand campaign plan, like “Let’s pitch this to people!”
Peter: We hadn’t been signed or anything. We had to make something, and then, “Alright, we’ve made this thing. What are we going to do with it now?”
Sarah: I think that’s quite rare. Or maybe not, actually, but I think what I mean by that is, the idea of applying for funding and ticking certain boxes — it’s easy to make that the norm, where you’re always thinking in those terms: We’ll do an album and then we’ll do a tour…
Peter: That’s one of the things you’ve got to get used to, I suppose, if you’re operating in that world where you can apply for funding. It seems easier to do in Scotland than it is in England.
Sarah: It seems right like it might be.
Peter: You have a kind of a full plan for the project. There’s the recording, there’s the touring, and whatever else. We’ve both done things like that, but I think with this, we made a record and then we thought…
Sarah: “What happens now?”
Peter: “Do you think would anybody be interested in putting it out, and if we did put it out, does that mean we need to get a band together to play?” It’s kind of got complicated, all of a sudden, because we have to do promotional things — like this! — and try to have opinions about things, and try to explain your motivation for doing it.
Sarah: And be really insightful and articulate in interviews, yet funny and down to earth.
Peter: I know that you and me both struggle with that, because —
Sarah: Because we don’t have personalities. [Laughs]
Peter: [Laughs.] Speak for yourself. I think I’m alright!
But yeah, after making it, you kind of have to persuade people to be interested. And that has been helpful. So for instance, I’m really glad Memphis Industries have put it out, and [to have] the team that goes around that, the press team. That’s been really helpful, because if they hadn’t put it out, then we would have had to try to do all that stuff ourselves. Imagine you and I — who sometimes struggle in confidence; haven’t the sort of, you know, bang your own drum, beat your own trumpet, blow your own bass guitar, or whatever — I think that would have been unbelievably difficult.
Sarah: It would have been like the worst, Apprentice-style challenge — when they try and get them to pitch things and they’re absolutely hopeless. People are good at different things. But like you said, a new little chapter starts once you’ve once you finished making the thing. Maybe it does get easier, but you’re expected to be adept at a lot of that kind of stuff, or you have to learn how to do it a little better.
Peter: Well, I think with social media, you have to kind of do some sort of self promotion. You see online, on Facebook or Twitter, some people are pretty good at saying, “Hey, I’ve done this thing and I’m pretty good.” I just find that hard. I don’t have that certainty, that confidence. You have to force yourself to do it.
Sarah: I think when we finished making it, we did have the confidence about what we’ve done.
Peter: Yeah, but it’s more like a confidence about something else, not just about what you’ve made. Maybe it’s about confidence in your ability to explain it to other people, or just a confidence in other people, as well.
Sarah: Hoping that they’ll get it.
Peter: Or be interested in it. You might be confident in this thing that you’ve made, but why would anyone else like us? Why would anyone else be interested in us? It is kind of a leap of faith. I can pretend sometimes that I don’t care about reviews. I don’t care — I believe that I’ve made something good and, if people don’t like it or don’t get it, that’s that’s absolutely fine. But it does matter. You want people to get it.
Sarah: Of course you do.
Peter: You want people to get it and like it, rather than just get it and not like it. And with reviews, the good reviews matter and the bad reviews don’t matter.
Sarah: Yeah, that’s how it works. [Laughs.] We’ve been talking a little bit about the idea of certainty and confidence in your opinions. I think it’s positive to have your opinion, and people want to know what you think about things. People don’t like it when you say, “I don’t know really know what I think about that.”
Peter: I think it’s absolutely fine to say, “I don’t know.”
Sarah: It seems passive, but that’s not passive to say that. It’s difficult to say — difficult to admit that, sometimes, I don’t know.
Peter: Yeah, because people don’t want to hear that. They definitely don’t want to hear it from say, politicians, for instance — if someone asked Theresa May, “What do you think about Brexit?” “Ah, I don’t really know yet. I haven’t formulated my ideas on that yet, and it might change tomorrow.”
Sarah: She’s not allowed to say that.
Peter: I don’t think Trump says that too much. He seems like he knows what he thinks. People being so certain about things, no matter what job you do, breeds confidence in that person, because there’s something to hold on to. I wonder whether people are just suspicious of people, or don’t know how to handle people who say “I don’t really know.”
It’s almost like, if I say to you, “What’s your favorite album of all time?” And you just say, “I don’t know. I’m not sure.”
Sarah: It’s an unsatisfying response in an interview situation, because you’re supposed to know these things.
Peter: But it shouldn’t be. Uncertainty seems to be really sort of frowned upon. But it should be OK.
Sarah: It can be a good thing, because then the idea is that it would lead to people not knowing, and then trying to become informed, or go on a quest to work out what they think or what they want.
Peter: We certainly would ask more questions if you accepted that you didn’t know things. So maybe that is a better state to be in; For you and I, maybe it is a better state to be in. It’s obviously difficult to feel like you’re never certain about things, or you’re constantly in flux, but as long as you don’t mind this idea of life being a journey, as opposed to ever getting anywhere, then that’s OK, isn’t it?
Sarah: I think so.
(Photo Credit: left, Beth Chalmers)