Interview with Phil Daniels by Words in The Earth
A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of reviewing Take A Deep Breath, the debut album from UK chillout project A Better Life. It’s a wonderful album full of transformative soundscapes designed to evoke relaxation, but the thing that stood out most for me was the emotion and individual touch that seemed to emanate from these songs. It stands to reason then that A Better Life’s founder Phil Daniels has a very personal reason for creating music with such blissful tones.
The collective is multi-faceted, involving a host of talented instrumentalists and two stunning vocalists that help bring the songs to life; but at its heart is Phil and his innately creative mind. In this interview I aimed to get a deeper understanding of his connection to the music, his influences and inspirations, and the process of putting together a collective that can still produce such beautiful and intimate music in the midst of a global pandemic
Tell us about your musical history before A Better Life, and what got you into making music?
I honestly couldn’t tell you what got me into making music in the first place! My first memory was hitting pots and pans in my parents kitchen…which I expect a lot of budding drummers did! Instrumentally and in a live set-up I’ve focused on drums and percussion for much of my creative working thus far, and aimed to get involved in lots of different styles – rock, pop, folk, jazz, orchestral. I think opening myself up like that has given me a well rounded view of what can be achieved, and what you can do when taking inspiration from multiple genres.
What inspired you to start A Better Life, and what was the intention for the project?
I’ve always loved ambient, downtempo and chilled electronica, so being involved in a project in that genre was going to happen at some point. I went through a tough period a couple of years back where I wasn’t fully in control of my head. It led to a full on breakdown and it took me the best part of a year to recover. It made me reassess everything in my life, figure out what is important to me, and from a music perspective, where exactly did I want to go next. Having been a part of live bands for years before, the idea of writing my own music and working with people as the ideas required with no stress or expectation was so cathartic – and I’m convinced this process has helped with the output we’re able to release now.
The intention for the project has always been to create music that you can relax to – wherever that may be. The slogan is ‘chill-out, relax and unwind’, and that’s exactly what I want the music to assist people with. After years of taking on too much and trying to keep so many different people happy – I discovered the hard way that taking time out, time for yourself, is an absolutely essential part of anyone’s existence….so I want our music to help with that essential process.
Who are some of the artists that inspired the sound of A Better Life?
There are numerous, but my absolute favourite artists in the Downtempo genre are Zero 7, Air and a Danish band called Bliss. I think my style owes a lot to the influence from them. Add in artists like Enigma, who were probably the first act I heard in the chillout genre back in the early 90s – and Chicane’s slightly more chilled synth based material and you kinda get the sound I’m going for. It’s just what I enjoy writing.
The beauty in having a collective of musicians though, is that their styles come out in the parts they write – so naturally the sound evolves with multiple different genres coming in to play. It’s very exciting.
How did you begin putting the membership together? Was it all people you have worked with before?
Only Andrew Richardson (keys, strings) I’d worked with before. He is an old friend of mine and an excellent multi-instrumentalist musician so I always wanted him to be involved in the project. The other musicians have all come into the project in various different ways, come from many different musical backgrounds and are based all over the country – all working with me remotely over the last year or so. I’ve been so lucky to have these incredible musicians work on this album, to believe in the project and in me
How does the song-writing and creative process work?
I don’t have any set formula to song-writing. I think you need to be open and adaptive as a producer.
For most of this album I had a working idea, in various stages of completion, and when I thought a track needed some input from a collaborator, I put it out to them to see what would happen! Mostly I’d try to be very minimal with my artistic direction as I never want to stifle a musician’s creativity. They may hear something I don’t which could be the making of the track – and so that’s proved on a number of them.
The only difference to this format is when I’m working with Andrew as we are local to each other and can jam together in the same room. As was the case on ‘A Moment of Nothing’, that whole synth part was written while we were jamming ideas, and very quickly we agreed that Pete’s voice would work a treat on it, which it does. Takes the piece to a whole other level.
Do you write lyrics for the songs or is this down to the vocalists?
Very much the vocalists! I wouldn’t even know where to start, so I’m very lucky to have not only two outstanding singers on this album, but singers who are excellent lyricists as well. It’s such a hard skill, and one I really admire.
Has the pandemic and lockdown had much effect on the project and the album’s creation? Logistically or creatively?
Bizarrely the pandemic has been nothing but positive for the project. I don’t think we’d be even close to where we are now if it wasn’t for people being stuck indoors. It certainly focused me, and I know some of the others had time to devote to the project that they wouldn’t necessarily have had if we’d all been operating ‘normally’. It’s allowed us to fully embrace the idea of remote working – in our own time, recording on our own gear and then bringing all the ideas together.
It’ll be interesting to see how long it’ll take to do album two – the non lockdown album!
Take A Deep Breath – Review by Words in The Earth
Despite the cultural significance it has for those of us in the UK, I’ve never actually dived too deeply into chillout music before. The style was pioneered at the great London nightclub Heaven, and dance music institution Ministry Of Sound have been upholding the chillout genre for the best part of two decades now. When house music was at it’s peak of commercial popularity in the UK, chillout was there alongside as it’s relaxing, spaced-out partner. Whilst I can’t profess to being an expert in chillout, I am familiar enough with the style and it’s roots in ambient house, as well as it’s relationship to downtempo and trip-hop, to find Take A Deep Breath, the debut album from A Better Life, an incredibly intriguing and creative project.
My experience with these sounds is often as a constituent part to some exploration of native music, jazz-fusion or spoken word, but A Better Life take quite a pure approach to chillout. The UK collective are led by songwriter and producer Phil Daniels, who is joined by instrumentalists Andrew Richardson, Alan Henery and Andrew Ryder-Richardson, producer Bryn Wulff-John, and vocal collaborators Pete Rawcliffe and Herica And The Wolf. Across the eight tracks on Take A Deep Breath the collective craft a delicate and sublime soundscape that is absorbing in exactly the way chillout music should be.
The album kicks off with Mono Heart, which builds up from a minimal beginning into a highly atmospheric concoction of layered synths, melancholy guitars, rolling percussion and dramatic vocal riffs. It’s a perfect way to set the ambience and style of the album. The second track The Thrill Of Freedom has a more typical structure to it, with the extraordinary lead vocals from Pete Rawcliffe leading us through the subtle waves of piano and synths. There’s a captivating rhythm section too, with the organic bass sitting nicely in time with the shuffling electronic beat.
Dreaming Of The Beach sees the group delve into some field recordings, utilising a sample of slowly crashing waves, children laughing and seagulls calling before the track kicks off into the most addictive hook on the album. Herica And The Wolf provides a sensational vocal performance, full of an emotion that breaks through the beautiful melodies and reverberating beats with perfect balance. Souda Bay puts the guitar at the forefront, with two duelling Mediterranean fingerpicking style guitars providing a lovely dynamic to the ambience that surrounds them.
Fuego focusses in on the Iberian influence, featuring an elegant spoken word piece given in Spanish by Herica And The Wolf that overlays some slow droning synths and subtle but highly evocative notes of guitar and percussion. It gives way to a sombre trumpet in the final movement, slowly drifting through the ether into a calming finale. Against The Breeze once again sees a passionate vocal performance from Herica And The Wolf, this time against a backdrop of bitter-sweet piano melodies. The track builds up in intensity with impeccable craft, gently introducing new ambient elements that seem to swirl weightlessly beneath the vocal.
A Moment Of Nothing has a relatively hefty percussive element to start, and brings in some middle-eastern influences in the fluttering vocal runs and pulsating bass lines. As it goes on, an ethereal quality start to develop as all the parts seem to flow together effortlessly. It’s a lovely counterpoint to the energetic title track that closes out the album; despite the foot-tapping beats, the spoken word vocal seems to come from a meditation instruction. As this final track builds up, the energy that has threaded it’s way through the whole album starts to transform into something almost transcendental in nature.
Take A Deep Breath is a delightfully hypnotic album that brings a depth of unique influence to the classic chillout sound. The vocals are stunning in every track, even when they are used simply as an atmospheric device, and the balance of free-form instrumental ambience and structured song-writing is superb. A Better Life can be extremely proud of what they have created here, because the more I listen to it the more I get the feeling that Take A Deep Breath is a simply outstanding record.
Take A Deep Breath will be released on 1st May 2021. You can find out more about A Better Life, including music and social media links, on their official website.
You can read this review on the authors website here
Take A Deep Breath – Review by thebandcampdiaries.com
April 2021 – A Better Life is a band from the UK.
Led by songwriter and producer Phil Daniels, A Better Life recently finalized their debut studio album, which is going to be released independently on the first of May, 2021. The group started working on this release in September 2019, and they managed to complete the tracks over the span of 18 months, despite the stressful times caused by the global pandemic. The tracks showcase an incredibly diverse sound that sets the bar higher in terms of sound design. Along with trip-hop and chillwave influences, A Better Life set out to expand on ambient influences, and even Celtic music.
” .. feels like a sonic journey that will make you feel more grounded with your surrounding and give you a sense of peace and relaxation.”
The unique thing about combining Celtic sounds with ambient electronic soundscapes is that the music acquires a distinctive new age focus on setting the bar higher in terms of sonic aesthetics and genre definitions, creating a fantastic collision of different genres and ideas. A Better Life’s debut album ultimately feels like a sonic journey that will make you feel more grounded with your surrounding and give you a sense of peace and relaxation. This release unfolds beautifully throughout the span of eight studio tracks, each with something amazing to bring to the set-list. In addition to the world-class production aesthetics, the album is also lifted up the the artist’s remarkable attention to details, displaying a very dynamic production style that brings energy and vibrancy to the table, without compromising in terms of haunting soundscapes and contemplative moods.
I would highly recommend listening to this particular release if you are a fan of artists as diverse as Air, Brian Eno, Enigma, Portishead, Massive Attack, Jonsi & Alex, Boards Of Canada, or Royksopp, only to mention but a few.
Find out more about A Better Life, and do not miss out on Take A Deep Breath, which is going to be available from the 1st of May, 2021.