There is a stretch of road that runs through the Adirondack National Park, just a few miles of houses and barns and truck stops and trees. But just off this road is a rough track that leads down to a lake, and a beach, and a cluster of old buildings. “And that’s where I spent my summer,” says Ali Lacey, better known as Novo Amor. “By a lake, surrounded by tall evergreens.”
That summer in Woodgate, New York was years ago now, but for Lacey it remains a pivotal moment. Employed as a music teacher at a summer camp, he spent his days holding classes among the pews of an old chapel. “It was otherworldly,” he says, and the details are still keen in his mind: the bats that found their way into the chapel lanterns at night and in the daytime cast strange silhouettes against the walls; the scent of fresh pine; the unexpected greenness of that land. “It’s a serene place,” he adds.
A lot of things changed for Lacey that summer. He put away his interest in rock and heavy metal and film scores, and turned to what he describes now as “Music with more emotional depth than what I was listening to before.” He fell in love and suddenly found that “as predictable it sounds, songs began to mean a lot more to me, lyrically.” And he realised too that the relationship he began by the lake in Woodgate was in some ways as much about a place as it was about a person. “Going there, and then returning has played on my mind” he says. “How that place changed me. It felt like a turning point in my life.”
He returned from America to a period of uncertainty. With no job, no plan and his relationship over, he moved back in with his mother in Wales, into his old bedroom, strewn with reminders of his adolescent years; broken skateboards, old birthday cards, holiday ephemera, posters of long-broken-up bands. A room that was, in itself, hinting at the idea of change. Within these newly decorated walls, Lacey set up a recording space and began to piece together what would later become his first songs as Novo Amor. “There was a space on the wall where my graduation photo should have been” he says. “I didn’t go because I was in that room making music.”
After several months, he moved back to the city, finding work in an ice cream parlour and spending his free time writing. “I felt I was going through a massive change in my life,” he says. “I’d finished university and didn’t know what I wanted to do other than make music. It was kind of a lack of direction that led me to writing songs.”
Lacey had been playing music since his teens, and studied music technology at university with the intention of writing film soundtracks, but the idea of being a songwriter was new to him. “All the music I’d made before was orchestral scores,” he explains. “I’d never really written a song with lyrics just on the guitar before.”
In 2013 he volunteered to write the score for a friend’s feature film. “I did it as a favour,” he says, “just because I want to be involved.” For the climactic scene he wrote a song he called ‘From Gold’, conjured unexpectedly late one night when he returned from his shift scooping ice cream. "It was the simplest and most powerful thing I’d ever created. One long crescendo, no chorus, just an emotive, repetitive guitar melody for three and a half minutes. It felt special."
‘From Gold’ seemed to unlock something in him, and he began writing a collection of songs he would release as the ‘Woodgate’ EP the following year - songs inspired by his time by the lake in upstate New York, that were tender and honest and lovestruck.
He quit the ice cream parlour and took a job making karaoke backing tracks. “Kate Bush songs, and Conor Maynard, and weird Swedish pop,” he recalls. “You’d have to remake the song as close as possible but without the vocals. I earned seventy pounds a track. It was horrible.” He also produced somewhat unorthodox sound libraries for composers. “I undertook a project where I took apart random objects like baths and cookers, and recorded them at different velocities, hitting them with different mallets, and turned them into instruments on the keyboard that composers could play,” he explains. “It was just a good way of getting original sounds and different recording techniques. But that led to doing sound logos - those things you hear at the ends of adverts. They were just ideas, but they ended up paying off.”
What this slightly peculiar musical trajectory allowed Lacey to do was to simultaneously continue writing and performing his own songs. “Music was a crutch to lean on” he says. “It’s helped me to build my own studio and travel around, playing different countries, meeting new people…"
Among the people he met was the songwriter and producer Ed Tullett, with whom he forged an immediate bond. “It was nice to be around somebody who was so musically focused and so confident in his own ideas,” Lacey says. “It was great to just sit there and make music with him.” Out of that friendship grew a musical collaboration which endures to this day, resulting in a full-length album, ‘Heiress’ released via AllPoints in 2017.
Working with Tullett did much to bolster Lacey’s confidence. “It gave me an insight into how other people write songs,” he says. “And it’s just nice to have ideas from others sometimes, rather than being stuck in my narrow-minded thinking of ‘I’m not really an artist and my songs have to be about a certain period of time…"
But that ‘certain period of time’ has lingered. In May 2017 he released the ‘Bathing Beach’ EP, a kind of sister EP to ‘Woodgate’, taking its name from a postcard of the lake where he spent the summer of 2011. “Four songs didn’t really encompass all that I was writing about” he says. “It felt like things weren’t over in that sense, and this feels more like a closing — a wistful nod to a certain period of time.”
In 2018, Lacey’s debut solo album ‘Birthplace’ continued to consider ideas of time. “The album was essentially a joyous and celebratory but slightly skewed and at times sombre look at the past for me,” he says. “It’s tied to the idea that when you remember something, you’re actually remembering the last time you remembered it - not the event itself. You can’t step in the same river twice. You wake up every morning another day older, another day further from your past.”
The sounds of his recording environment, at home in Cardiff, bled into the fabric of ‘Birthplace’: the distant chatter of a party across the street, Bonfire Night fireworks, the seagulls that congregated on the building site next door. Even the sound of the late night recording hours Lacey kept to avoid the construction seemed to make their presence felt: “There's something calming about working at night,” he says. “You can focus on smaller detail of sounds.”
He began Novo Amor as a project of sorts - an act of defiance in the wake of a break-up. “I got broken up with for a guy who was a singer-songwriter” he laughs. “So I thought ‘I could do that’.” But along the way, and quite unexpectedly, he found something rich and rewarding. “Making ‘Birthplace’ was, in a sense, kind of the end of Novo Amor,” he says. “But really I knew it was just the start.”
Its release in the autumn of 2018 heralded the beginning of a year of touring with his band, of vans, tourbuses and border crossings, of airports, stages and dressing rooms, of exhilaration, of missing home, until, in the enveloping winter of 2019, Lacey finally sat down in his studio, to reflect, and the experiences of the recent past began to take shape as the ideas that would become the second Novo Amor album -’Cannot Be, Whatsoever’ - slowly came into focus.
Although summer gaps in the touring schedule afforded brief spurts of writing with collaborator Tullett, who helped with pooling ideas and setting a tone, the whole of August was written off to renovating his studio, pulling the ceiling down to create a new space to work in. “Decision-making in music-making can be hard a lot of the time” Lacey explains. “I like the moment just before the music has been made, the thought that you never know how what you’re about to write is going to sound, how important its going to be to you or to the person listening. The process can feel like my studio during the renovations - a mess! Sounds and ideas form outlines, which in turn create shapes and patterns that need to be grasped, pulled closer and nurtured.”
“It’s not always easy to make sense of it” he says, “but I actively encourage the clutter, to become the mess that I have to work to refine, allowing words and phrases to jump out and to either resolve into meaning or retreat back into the noise.”
‘Cannot Be, Whatsoever’ leans into this clutter and indecision, not just musically but visually. The album’s artwork - by Dutch visual artist Tilleke Schwarz, who credits her embroidered work to the influence of the oddities of life - teems with shape, colour and invention. “Tilleke’s art is kind of an analogy for both my writing process and how the artwork depicts it: a box struggling to house a myriad of scattered objects.”
‘I Feel Better’ was the foundation of the album for Lacey, putting him on an upbeat and optimistic path, enjoying the process and making music because he had the desire to, rather than feeling obligated. But the process itself was informed by notions of indecision and reflection, of recognising how much life has changed, of reaching a point, almost a decade after beginning the journey and asking:
“Why am I writing?’ What am I trying to achieve with my music? How do I feel in comparison to the me who sat in his bedroom wrestling with how to carve a path for himself?”
For his audience, one of the many answers would almost certainly be “more optimistic”. In comparison to the melancholy of much of his back catalogue, the tone of ‘Cannot Be, Whatsoever’ is a marked shift toward the light. “I like that the last phrase of the first song on the album - ‘Opaline’ - is “now I feel like I’m finally me”. But elsewhere the lyrics are tempered with caution, evidenced by the self-lacerating doubt in ‘No Plans’ - “Here’s to betting I spend my life wrong, sitting at home, staring at the wall”. And in March of 2020, in the final stretch of the writing and recording progress, Lacey could have had no idea of the prescience of those words as the entire world found itself at home, staring at the wall, in lockdown.
Planned creative sessions with Tullett and any hopes of involving friends were cancelled. “Ed visited for a dozen or so days of recording and production before COVID-19 took hold, but the rest of the process was undertaken alone” he says. “I’d hoped to record vocals with my whole band, string recordings with (Novo Amor violinist) David as well as some extra vocals by (friend and Chicago resident) Gia Margaret.”
On how this informed the process, Lacey is contemplative. “It’s hard to say if making an album through a pandemic had any negative affects on the music. It kept me indoors. It put my future on hold and made my career and so many aspects of my ‘normal’ life feel irrelevant. In some ways I liked that, and I think to an extent it alleviated some of my anxiety about needing to deliver something.”
The pandemic also afforded him an opportunity to consider his songs from the perspective of his audience. “It allowed me to appreciate why people need art and music at a fundamental level” he explains, “as an escape, as something to hold onto and fall in love with. It can be friend when they can’t go outside, creating a moment of calm or evoking nostalgia from their life before. The thought that you can create things out of thin air that affect people so deeply… sometimes it can really overwhelm.”
As he prepares to release ‘Cannot Be, Whatsoever’, Lacey contemplates a past soundtracked by songs of quiet hope and longing.
“I can still see Round Lake, Woodgate and my time in upstate New York when I picture ‘Birthplace’. The songs feel surrounded by evergreens, sheltered by this place I’ve romanticised, that doesn’t actually exist anymore. These new songs feel immediate and noisy in comparison. If ‘Birthplace’ is the countryside, then ‘Cannot Be, Whatsoever’ is the city.”