Hugo Manuel is the kind of artist who can turn restlessness into a prolific body of work. He first won listeners over with his warm voice as he fronted the indie rock band Jonquil, then with synth-heavy, R&B-tinged solo project Chad Valley. Manuel’s music always sounds intimate, but he’s undoubtedly a people person. He’s a cornerstone member of the Oxford, UK-based art collective Blessing Force, and Chad Valley’s debut album Young Hunger boasted collaborations with acts like Twin Shadow, Glasser, and Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs. Manuel is currently going it alone on the road, but he’s armed with a number of new songs that he premiered via his Peace & Understandingmixtape. It’s a fitting title; the British crooner has an innately calming presence that’s transferred to everything he works on.
I caught up with Manuel to talk touring America, new influences, and Joni Mitchell.
Welcome back. Does it seems surreal to be coming to the US so many times in one year?
Yeah, it is pretty surreal. It’s cool, I think at the end of this year I’ll have spent like three or four months in America. I’d love to stay longer, actually. Maybe later on.
Had you thought about trying to record here?
Yeah, it’s all about money, that kind of stuff. I can just record at home and not spend any money on studios or anything like that. So I’m pretty lucky in the respect that I’m not sure if I need to spend money on recording, but maybe one day I’ll have a huge record label advance or something that I’ll blow on living in America for a while and making the album.
You also have Blessing Force to tap into. Do you all have a studio?
Not really, all of the crew has a studio, but it’s not necessarily a Blessing Force thing. But actually on this next album I’m writing at the moment, I think I’m going to make a lot of use of those guys, use more musicians and stuff for instruments I can’t play like drums and bass guitar.
There’s the whole UK R&B revival thing going on, though your sound isn’t quite like the main acts that are getting attention for that.
I don’t know, it’s like Jessie Ware? I don’t mind being associated with anything, as long as it’s not anything horribly wrong. That kind of music’s cool, I listen to Jessie Ware a lot, and AlunaGeorge. It’s good stuff, and to be associated with any musician you respect is always a nice thing. It doesn’t bother me, I’d kind of just like to let people say what they like and not get too involved in discussions about genre or tags. It just doesn’t quite seem necessary. But at the same time, I don’t think it’s an evil thing.
It does matter less and less now.
Yeah, I suppose so. It’s always going to matter, though, it’s always going to be a way to write about music. You can always just listen to music, but for the times when you can’t listen, you’ve got to read about it. It’s basically why genre terms exist.
Speaking of which, there was the mixtape you released. What kind of vibe did you want to put out with that?
I had a lot of tracks that I wanted to get out in some way, that I was building up over the last year or so, since I did my last album. I just wanted to get it all out in one go, because I’m about to go deep into recording my next album and I wanted to get rid of all of these bits and pieces that had been building up. I say get rid of, I mean unleash onto the world. So it seemed like a good way of doing it. I’d not done anything like a mixtape before, it’s kind of a new idea to me. The idea was suggested to me and I really took to it. A lot of it is quite dancey, it’s a lot of house kind of stuff and a lot of very sample-based stuff I couldn’t really release conventionally anyways. So it just seemed like the perfect platform to put the songs out.
“Understand Me” is a new song, yeah?
Yeah, that’s kind of the intro to a bigger song, so you’ll probably hear another version of that one on the album. Probably, I can’t say for sure, but that’s just the beginning. So that’s why I wanted to put it on the end, because it’s leading into the next album. It’s going to sort of tie it together.
So you’ve started thinking about what kind of shape this next album’s going to take?
I’ve written a lot of stuff for it already, and it’s sounding different. I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s going be a little bit of a change I’m trying to make. I’m trying to rein it in and make it not too much of a change, but it’s going to have a lot of new influences on it. I’ve been expanding my musical tastes and exploring new sounds I’ve never used before. There’s a lot more organic sounds on it, more real drums, guitar, things like that.
What have you been into lately?
I’m into a lot of old German krautrock. Can, La Düsseldorf, that kind of late krautrock period stuff towards the early 80s, Tangerine Dream and that kind of thing. I’ve been listening to loads of really weird world music things, just been getting really deep into Bollywood soundtracks and samba and weirder things. I’m making a real effort to listen to new shit I’ve never heard before.
What’s your perspective like on Young Hunger now that it’s been out for a year?
I don’t know, it’s weird. It’s something I know so intimately well and I can look now and I can’t remember making the songs or recording it. I was living in a different place, in a very different world in a lot of ways. So it’s kind of foreign to me, kind of like a different person altogether. It was made in such a short time, so it’s very weird when I go back and listen to it. I’m still playing songs from it every day, so it’s not that far away, I guess.
Do you see yourself continuing with that spirit of collaboration, too?
Yeah, as I’ve said, I’m going to collaborate more with my friends and musicians that I know. Rather than singers, it’ll be other instruments. Percussion, mostly, drums, guitar, bass. I’d love to do some more vocal collaborations, there were a few people I was talking to about doing something on Young Hunger, but it didn’t work out. So there’s a few people who I’d love to do something with, and I know they want to do something with me. So maybe at some point, but I’m not into that at the moment, really.
Who would your ultimate dream collaborator be?
I’d love to have Joni Mitchell sing on a track, that’s definitely the biggest. But I’m 99.9% sure that won’t happen, so I’m not holding any hopes up.
What is it about Joni Mitchell that particularly appeals to you?
I’ve listened to her so regularly, and there’s so much material, and it’s all good. It’s incredible how I listen to every album, because everything is incredible. Her way with melody is so original, you can’t imitate that. When you try to, it’s pointless. The way that she uses other musicians, she did a lot of stuff with jazz fusion musicians in the late 70s, then she moved on to Thomas Dolby and English 80s electronic musicians. She did all the synth records in the mid 80s. She’s just a bit of a chameleon, and I love her. She can take influence from every form of music.
Is that what’s inspired you to branch out?
Yeah, exactly. I want every album of mine to have a very different atmosphere and sound and effect. That’s worked out well so far.
You’ve also been doing more in the way of remixes.
I’m kind of always doing them now. I’ve just done quite a few more high profile ones. That’s my bread and butter, I live off that in a way. It’s quite cool, someone made a Soundcloud playlist of the remixes I’ve done, and it wasn’t complete, but it was around two hours long. I’ve done probably at least three hours’ work of remixes in the past three years, which really surprised me. That’s a constant thing. I’ve got one on the go at the moment, I’ve got one I’ve got to start next week, while I’m on the road touring at the same time.
It’s not like you’re doing 12 minute long remixes, either.
Oh, no. I like doing remixes that just reimagine the song, so I’m always going to use pretty much all the vocal and put a very different song underneath it, write a song around the vocal. People don’t ask me to do a dance remix that’s going to be played in clubs, that’s not my job.
Though there are people pushing back against how club music has become more mainstream and lifestyle-based, though maybe it’s become more of a thing here in America.
Well, dance culture between America and England and Europe is very different. It’s been a thing in England for the past 25 years and I’ve noticed that in America, it’s quite a new thing. I’ve got a good friend of mine from back home who just moved to New York about six months ago, and he’s really amazed there’s no clubs. The whole culture is so different. In England, the pub shuts at 11 and then you go to a club til 4 or something, and the club is where you can dance. That’s what everyone does, that’s the only option. Here, you have these bars where you can sit until 4. It’s just a cultural thing, and the cultural phenomenon has affected the music itself that comes out in this country.
What’s next for you?
After this tour, I’ve got some time off, and I want to finish my album. I’ve got a couple of shows here and there, but over Christmas, I’m going to knuckle down and just sit in my room for eight hours a day writing. So come spring next year, I’ll be back touring with a new album.