It would be easy to think that Elbow’s winning formula is all down to the band’s affable frontman Guy Garvey - b ut that would be doing the Manchester five-piece a huge disservice.
With his BBC Radio 6 Music show and public profile, he may be the face of the outfit as well as the voice, but the band is a democracy, with every musical move they’ve made over their six-album career a joint decision.
For proof of that, you only need to listen to Garvey’s recent solo album, Courting The Squall. It of course sounds vaguely similar to an Elbow record; his rich, warm hug of a voice unmistakable, as well as some delightful rhyming couplets and sentiments that seem so perfect, you can’t believe someone hasn’t thought of it before.
Musically, however, it covers a much more diverse range of styles and influences, tipping its hat in the direction of folk, funk, jazz and American roots.
“I personally like solo albums from people in bands, because it’s a chance to hear what said member does in the band that you love,” says Garvey, 41. “And sometimes it’s really satisfying, because they go off at a tangent.
“I think there’s a stronger link to my radio show on this album than there is with Elbow’s music,” he adds. “Just by virtue of me being the only writer here, you can hear the sorts of things I’ve been listening to over the past few years.”
His radio show, if you haven’t heard it - Guy Garvey’s Finest Hour - involves Garvey playing a wide selection of music his listeners might like, while weekly feature, A Song For Guy, sees listeners returning the favour, suggesting a song for him they think he’ll never have heard before. The result is exposure to all sorts of wonderful music from around the world.
As for branching out on his own - the solo excursion is a temporary one, with Elbow due back in the studio next year for album number seven - he says it feels like he’s having an affair.
He’s been working at the same studio in Manchester where Elbow have settled, and recalls bandmate Craig Potter, who was working in the next room on a project with another artist, popping in to say hello while he was rehearsing recently.
“He said it was like catching me in bed with another woman,” reveals Garvey. “Although he was finding plectrums about the place, rather than rogue earrings. But it’s just good fun, and I can’t wait to see Elbow in the crowd at my gigs. That’s going to be a treat of the age for me.”
Normally when the singer of a band goes it alone, it’s because there’s some underlying tension causing the move, or it’s a signal of more permanent things to come. Garvey insists that’s not the case for him, and it’s very easy to believe that.
When the rest of the band heard his album had gone to number three in the charts, behind Elvis Presley’s recent orchestral album and Rod Stewart’s latest release, he said within 30 seconds, he’d received congratulatory texts from the other four wishing him well. “The texts lined up on the screen of my phone, so I took a screen grab of it, it was such a beautiful thing.”
He’s wanted to make this solo album for some time, although admits he’s only been able to release it because of Elbow’s success, allowing him the indulgence. He wasn’t going to tour the album, either, until bandmate Pete Turner persuaded him to.
There’s the expectation of Elbow fans to manage, and he’s all too aware what some of them might think.
“I’ve no doubt certain Elbow fans might not like my album, but you can gauge from Facebook and streaming figures on Spotify and whatnot, as many people, and as many people again have come to listen to the record. So by that, there are people who don’t stream Elbow records who have listened to this, but there are an awful lot of Elbow fans who haven’t listened too. It’s six of one and half-a-dozen of the other.”
One of the most striking things about Courting The Squall is Garvey’s lyrical phrasing, and the way he twists seemingly never-before-said sentences and tongue-twisters into gorgeous melodies. On Juggernaut - his favourite song on the album - he sings of ‘the hurry home gloom’, and of sitting in a cafe watching a woman outside struggling in the wind, ‘cursing the folly of a three-dollar brolly, in your after-work make-up and still-at-work shoes’.
It’s evocative writing, and conjures up a complete scene in a matter of two sentences. It’s no surprise to hear he has plans of a musical in mind, using Elbow songs, retooled to suit a story he’s yet to think of, but hopes to have on stage in the next couple of years.
“That unconventional sort of phrasing comes to me quite naturally, really,” he says. “When I was a kid, I was really into hip hop and we had an English teacher that used to let us rap at the back of the class, so the first writing I ever did was written to be spoken, to be rapped. I got into the idea of rhythms in the vocal early on. The first incarnation of Elbow was a not-very-good funk band and I used to write rhythmic lyrics then too.”
He says he’d definitely like to write another solo album, as he’s had so much fun recording this one, especially beating the nine-and-a-half-week deadline to get it all done.
“This has been an opportunity to work with loads of people that I’ve always wanted to work with and it’s been fascinating. It’s such a different pace as well,” says Garvey. “With Elbow, it’s like a team of scientists trying to crack a code; working out problems, and at its best it’s meditative.
“The pace with the solo album, it’s more how it felt to produce other people’s albums, with the added pressure of singing and being the writer. And I’ve loved every second.
“I can’t wait to take it on the road and see people’s faces in the crowd again.”