Salt
Salt
Salt
Salt
Salt

Salt

By Tony McGuinness

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Before Tony McGuinness was Tony McGuinness of Above & Beyond, he was another artist, another music industry professional, another man entirely. Which is completely understandable. Because, for the Tony McGuinness who is finally releasing his debut album almost three decades after he recorded it, it was a whole other lifetime.

Salt is the great lost solo project from the songwriter who would become the chief "male voice" lyricist in Above & Beyond. That is, as he puts it, "pretty much anything that a man is singing for Above & Beyond, I will have written it".

Now, at last, in 2024, the fans, the followers and the fascinated can hear the DNA of that songwriting mastery. The heart of Salt's nine tracks were written by McGuinness in a heady six-month burst between 1995 and 1996, the result of classic '90s whirlwind romance in a London that was popping off with the explosion of club culture in the UK. Helping in the creation of these acoustic guitar-based, sparkling, pitch-perfect, psych-pop cameos of desire and feeling and loss... yes, there were – and readers of a sensitive disposition may wish to look away – drugs involved. Love was the drug, and Ecstasy was the love drug.

But the essential truth, the essential artistry, the essential honesty of these songs remain the same. Salt is the singer-songwriter sound of McGuinness feeling his way towards the musician he would become – and, as one third of Above & Beyond alongside Jono Grant and Paavo Siljamäki, the band they would become, too.

"In my life in the mid-'90s there were lots of new things happening," begins McGuinness. "There was the clubbing and the whole lifestyle that came with that – and there was writing songs about Shelley and me. That was something I'd never done, ever. I'd never thought my life exciting enough to write a song about, but it started to be the norm. And I guess as a songwriter, that would end up standing me in very good stead with the band who became my life."

Shelley came into Tony's life like a brick through a window.

At the time, he was working in marketing for a major record label. After a particularly successful sales conference presentation, he was rewarded by his boss with a weekend in a luxury hotel in the company of one of the label's biggest bands.

There, over the clack of balls on baize in the games room, he locked eyes with an American who was a member of the band's entourage.

"I walked in and there was this skinny, grumpy-looking girl smoking a fag," says Tony, "wearing a thin cotton dress, cardigan, black tights, Dr Martens. I said: 'Do you want a game of snooker?' She was like: 'Yeah, alright.' So we started playing snooker – and started a relationship over the three days that I was there. I really fell for her. When she smiled, she looked incredibly beautiful. When she didn't, she looked like she might kill you! She had one of those faces and I was utterly smitten."

Tony convinced Shelley – already a seize-the-day-and-WTF-is-tomorrow? kind of girl – to forget returning to the US with the band and instead come to London with him. "We were in love," he says now. "I said: 'Come and stay with me. I don't know what's going to happen. But it'll be an adventure.'"

Back at his Wimbledon flat one (very) early morning after a night clubbing, coming down as the sun came up, the fag reek and the hormones swirling, Shelley said to Tony what he still describes as "the immortal words, which I will never forget: 'Go and get your guitar and sing to me.'

"And as a creative person, for whom the spark of creativity is always elusive, to have that excuse to play, and to have that willingness to hear – well, I think that's what a muse is, isn't it? So I went and got my guitar."

After a spangled jangle through the repertoire of covers he could remember – "Crowded House songs and this and that" – Tony remembers watching Shelley exit the kitchen. "She had a Triumph motorcycle T shirt on. And I just went twang on my guitar and sang: 'biker babe, biker babe…'. And that's how that song came."

Over the next few months, as Tony rode the rocket of their romance, the songs poured out of him. Not all the songs were inspired by Shelley. Aching piano ballad Crying, for example, came some time later and was inspired by another girl, "someone whose dad was a rocket scientist who inspired many Above & Beyond songs". But his songs from that period had a coherence – thematic, sonic, emotional – that felt fresh and empowering for Tony.

Buying a sampler, eight-track tape-machine and mixing desk from the post-trip hop outfit Olive, he began recording the songs at home, helped and encouraged by Bob Bradley, a longtime friend and collaborator.

"He just started constructing these sound canvases," remembers Tony of Bradley's groundbreaking early productions of his songs. "I'd never seen anybody do anything like Bob was doing. Making the drums up in the sampler. Different kit for every song. Different vibe for every song, [while retaining an overall, coherent feel]. It blew my mind. He loved trip-hop, and we were both really into Angelo Badalamenti and Twin Peaks – and James Bond music, The Beach Boys and Steely Dan."

The result: a collection of alt-folk songs with glitter on their fingers and sweat – or, even, salt – on their skin. When, eventually, Shelley left, never to return, that tang of songwriterly salt was all Tony had to remember her by.

And then, for the best part of three decades, Tony McGuinness forgot about the album. For one thing, he was gazumped by the rapid advances in recording technology – the basic kit on which he'd recorded the songs became obsolete, and his tape machine broke. Just as Shelley was a spirit in his soul, the songs were ghosts in the machine.

But McGuinness never fully forgot about this memory capsule of emotion – and how it helped form the writer he is now. "That six-month period, with the willing audience I had – the muse, basically, of Shelley – gave me all the encouragement I needed to mine my own life in the future for subsequent songs. It became very natural to keep writing in that vein."

So, having eventually managed to extricate the original recordings from the defunct kit, over the last few years, with the help of engineers and musicians who are part of the Anjunabeats family, he began sprucing up his distant recordings.

It was slow going, but he was pleasantly surprised at how well they stood up – and their ongoing currency and, indeed, relevancy to the world of Above & Beyond. That was due in part to the connective tissue between his MIA solo project and a core element of the band's canon: their pair of acoustic albums. The Musical Director for those sets, released in 2014 and 2016, was Bob Bradley.

"Fifteen years after we worked together on my songs, when Above & Beyond were thinking about doing the first Acoustic album, I thought: I know who I want to do it for us – Bob. Because I know what he did with my songs previous to them sounding like they do on the record. They were just me strumming a guitar. But they ended up being these things with strings and brass and backing vocals and all sorts."

Gradually, Tony's songs took shape as an album deserving of its moment in the sun, almost 30 years on from its inception. A necessarily intricate process gained further momentum after his bandmates embarked on their own projects – Grant unveiled JODA in 2022, and Siljamäki put out his solo P.O.S. album in 2023.

Finally, McGuinness felt the time was right.

"As one of the team at our label Anjunabeats told me: 'This is your origin story, Tony. This is when you became the person that Above and Beyond has been using to write the songs for these 24 years.' And that's the truth of it," reflects McGuinness. "Before writing these songs, I thought that other people's lives, or books, or films or stuff that I make up was the only interesting material for a song. But these songs are when I started thinking that my own experiences, my own emotions and feelings were precisely what would make my songwriting better, more impactful and more relatable."

Tony McGuinness 'Salt' will be released on 12 July on Anjunabeats.

Tracklist

1Biker Babe - Tony McGuinness04:01
2Carry Me Home - Tony McGuinness04:54
3Babydoll White - Tony McGuinness05:39
4Salt - Tony McGuinness03:36
5Crying - Tony McGuinness03:31
6Cleaning - Tony McGuinness04:53
7Love Me - Tony McGuinness04:03
8Seven Flames - Tony McGuinness04:35
9Long Way To Fall - Tony McGuinness04:31

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