Pairing melancholy songwriting with stirring euphoric electronica, Nathan Ball is setting sail into a year of change as he unveils his debut album Under The Mackerel Sky. “It’s what I’ve always dreamed of,” the 30-year-old singer/songwriter says, describing his new sound which sees his captivating storytelling become intertwined with sprawling synths and atmospheric soundscapes as he draws inspiration from his new life by the sea.
Like many musicians, the pandemic stopped Nathan in his tracks when a year of touring plans simply disappeared. Intent on starting work on his next project, unplugging from the lifeless city where he’d never quite felt at home, a decision was made. Rather than whittle away unwanted days in London, Nathan moved to Cornwall, permanently where he’s been hard at work creating this record.
“I had always dreamt of fusing my passions for folk songwriting and house music to create this sound I had envisioned,” he explains. Having incrementally added house-inspired flourishes to each successive single, the 12 tracks which make up Under The Mackerel Sky effortlessly fuse these two worlds into a cohesive body of work. Nathan’s honest, often poetic lyrics remain the centrepiece, but now they weave through vivid, new, endlessly creative surroundings.
Written and recorded primarily in a rundown farmhouse on the North Coast of Cornwall with long-time friend and collaborator Max, like most debuts, the album is a culmination of the artist’s life thus far. Nathan pieces together coming of age realisations, collected over the years, with more recent reflections on the chaos and calm of change. “It was the first time I wasn’t trying to impress anyone,” he explains, thinking about the album as a time capsule for the future, something to look back on with pride. Deciding “I’m going to make music that I love,” what initially had begun as an EP quickly became so much more than that.
Opening with “Whispers”, Nathan reflects on the other thread which ties him to the water, his grandfather, who served in the Navy. Having emulated the composed hush of BBC Radio 4’s The Shipping Forecast for the album’s introduction, he remembers listening to it as a sleep aid when he found himself overthinking at university, “it used to remind me of him,” he says, “that soothing voice in the background and wondering what he might have been up to at sea.”
Lead single “Blindside” began with Nathan tinkering on a piano, in an old chapel outside of Bath. Its haunting verse leads to a manic chorus and it eventually erupts with cymbals like crashing waves on storm-beaten cliffs. Documenting a relationship falling apart, Nathan remembers the feeling of “losing sight of who each other is, or was, and craving that connection and emotion back.”
On “Falling Short” Nathan pens a hopeful letter to his younger self, while “Can’t Work You Out”, another solo conversation, is filled with frustration. “You’re just winding yourself up until there’s this eruption of emotion,” he explains, noting the production of the track is in parallel to this “I just kinda pictured screaming into a mirror until breaking point and smashing it, it was nice to have that sort of release on the record.”
Towards the end of the record “Hotel Room” delivers a stark snapshot of loneliness. 72 gigs into an 82 gig year, Nathan found himself in a drab Copenhagen hotel listening to the guests in the adjacent room’s screaming match. “I could hear this shouting through the wall,” he remembers, “and this overwhelming sound against my silence, suddenly made me feel remarkably alone.” Distilling that moment into the song, he wrote the lyrics in that very room, before finishing the track in the chapel.
Nathan says the album’s title track “always tugs on the heartstrings.” Doubling as the record’s closing statement, “Under The Mackerel Sky” is filled with sentimental importance and its story binds these songs into something more. Inspired by former Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman, who too loved his trips to Cornwall so much he ended up moving there, Nathan explains “it’s a line from a poem [of his], I’d always seen this patchwork in the sky, but didn’t really know what it was called and then read this line.”
A mackerel sky, called so because the undulating ripples of clouds resemble the scales of fish, “means a change is coming” according to sailors, sea folk and fisherman. “Normally in the weather it means a storm is coming,” Nathan says “but it was in this mad world of change, that we were all in, I thought maybe it doesn’t just mean a change in the weather, maybe it’s a change in whatever the hell’s going on.”
“It was one of those songs that poured out in half an hour and it was finished,” he adds. Having completed the track at home, he took the initial demo on a pilgrimage of sorts. Although the destination was just a few hundred metres from his starting point, it couldn’t have been more fitting. A bench overlooking Betjeman’s gravestone with the wild Atlantic Ocean creating the most beautiful backdrop. Listening to his latest creation, in that seat, for over an hour, Nathan reels “it all clicked in that moment… suddenly everything made sense, for the first time in a long time.”
A product of intense emotional labour, “it embodies everything I was feeling at that moment and where I was at that time” Nathan says looking back over the final months which have gone into crafting this album. Unexpectedly steeped in folklore, Under The Mackerel Sky instinctively shifts with what you see when you look heavenwards: whether the sky is clear, cloudy or filled with so much light pollution you can barely see the stars, it's a record that will connect wherever you find yourself this year.
Matthew Kent 2021