Orlando Weeks likes the anticipation the most. The spell before the thing that’s coming comes fully into focus, when possibilities crowd around and your next project might become any one of them. He likes to read and listen, watch films and plays, enjoying the luxury of time to soak up inspiration. “There’s this small window where you’re just so embracing of everything,” he says. “I’ve realised what I look forward to is that surge of excitement about making the next thing.”
As the singer in The Maccabees, the highly regarded indie band who announced their split in 2016 and said an emotional goodbye with three huge shows at Alexandra Palace a year later, such creative freedom was harder to come by. A five-way democracy stymied by compromise, they struggled to complete songs to everyone’s satisfaction and Weeks, 36, also wrestled with the requirements of commanding large rooms as a naturally shy frontman. For a handful of early gigs he had even tried singing from the side of the stage.
“There was no one person to blame for it. We just couldn’t find an atmosphere that seemed to work,” he says of the process of making the fourth and final Maccabees album, Marks to Prove It, which nevertheless became their first number one in 2015. “We couldn’t see the wood for the trees. It felt quite claustrophobic.”
Today he releases his first solo album, and it’s about that waiting period he so values. Specifically, waiting for the birth of his first son, who is now almost two. The collection, titled A Quickening, is about not knowing what to expect when you’re expecting. “There are all these feelings and insecurities. Where is my place in this? Am I ready? Am I being usurped?” On Safe in Sound he sings about being “Caught between launch and landing.” St Thomas’ is about the blurred glimmers of early life witnessed in an ultrasound scan. On Milk Breath, the only song written after the baby was born, he finds common ground with his boy: “I’m a beginner/You’re a beginner.”
Between us we struggle to come up with the names of any classic albums written about fatherhood. There’s the occasional memorable song – John Lennon’s Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy), Father and Son by Cat Stevens, Stevie Wonder’s Isn’t She Lovely, to name a few – but perhaps because musicians are expected to remain eternally young there are infinitely more songs about the act of procreation than what traditionally comes afterwards.
Weeks is on rarely trodden ground, then, and he tackles his subject beautifully. A Quickening is a stunning, five-star album, reminiscent of the later work of Talk Talk and Radiohead with its keyboard washes, muted horns, barely brushed piano and the singer occupying the softest part of his vocal register. There’s none of the grand guitar power of his former band. Instead he crafts small hours atmospheres, that half-awake feeling that new parents will recognise as the sense that you and a milk-drunk miniature are the only people on the planet. He has captured something precious.
He didn’t necessarily plan to write an album on this theme, he says, but it’s what came out naturally. “That conversation becomes central to everything you do,” he says. “It’s your reading list, it’s all you talk about with family and friends. It colours everything.” And rather than the baby cramping his creativity, if anything he speeded up. “You suddenly have to do twice the work in half the time, while half asleep, but you have this weird energy. It’s one of the great evolutionary bonuses. You can cope.”
He had written before about childhood experiences, singing about Lego and the wave machine at Battersea’s Latchmere Leisure Centre in 2007 on the first Maccabees album, Colour It In. Now he’s come full circle. He and his partner awaited their son’s birth in the same hospital ward where Weeks was born. They still live in south London, though when the band first split the couple moved to Berlin for a while. There he wrote, illustrated and composed instrumental music for his first post-Maccabees project, a picture book called The Gritterman. Paul Whitehouse narrated the audio version of the story, a gentle winter’s tale with soft-focus illustrations indebted to Raymond Briggs’s Snowman.
He says that he never thought of it as a children’s book, but he clearly has an ongoing interest in tapping into feelings of innocence. “I wanted to make something that was comforting to me,” he says of the story. The artwork he made for A Quickening is a series of soft-edged shapes arranged in varying configurations, like tasteful potato prints. “The shapes are meant to feel like little amulets or tokens or house gods,” he explains. “I like that you can reconfigure them, twist and turn them but they still have this sameness.”
The Gritterman allowed him to avoid the obvious next step for the face of a revered defunct band: a solo album with a familiar sound that will please long-term fans. “It felt separate enough that I didn’t feel bound to anything. It wasn’t trying to follow anything, it was such a self-contained project. I felt like the slate was as clean as it was ever going to be.”
So as he steps back into life as a straight musician, few will expect him to match the sales figures or venue capacities of his old role, though that doesn’t mean that the new music doesn’t deserve to be heard as widely as possible. He sounds content with his position.
“There are so many amazing things about being in a band: the camaraderie, the shared responsibility, being picked up when you’re down. But I never would have made a record like this and inflicted that kind of introspection on everyone,” he says. “I’ve tried at various points to be ‘the frontman’ in inverted commas. I just can’t do it. I feel like a fraud. The priority is just to make the work that I feel is the best work for me.”
And as for what comes next, he’s happy to wait and see. That’s the best bit. “I’m really excited for something to hit me as the best use of the next year of my life.”
A Quickening is released today on Pias