The second fret

During an extended break from music Stephen Fretwell built a family and then experienced it breaking down. Approaching a new album without bravado was his last-ditch attempt to hold it together

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After 13 years away from music, singer-songwriter Stephen Fretwell has returned with his album Busy Guy. Fretwell left the industry for family life, but the breakdown of his marriage drove him to begin writing again, producing an album documenting his experiences of fatherhood, love and heartbreak.

Released in 2004, Fretwell’s debut album Magpie earned him slots supporting artists such as Elbow, Oasis and Keane, and the single Run became the theme song for Ruth Jones and James Corden’s hit comedy series Gavin and Stacey. His second album, Man on the Roof, released in 2007, led to a nomination for the Ivor Novello award. But following the birth of his first son he chose to prioritise raising his young family in Brighton, spending his days “walking around Asda with a couple of kids in a trolley trying to stop them from pulling the crisps off the aisle”.

Fretwell, now 39, admits there was a “problem” with his previous approach to his career.

“As an 18 year old I pretended I wanted to be a thoughtful singer-songwriter, but really I wanted to be famous,” he says, confessing that his first two albums were not “the most authentic expression of myself but rather made with an eye on creating a character almost, that wasn’t me”.

Walking away he found it “a relief to just be my son Albert’s dad” and “loads more fulfilling than prancing about trying to be a pop star”. A good friend advised him to simply focus on being himself, inspiring him to write Busy Guy with a strict policy of honesty.

“If I put anything in whatsoever that looked like I was posturing or trying to paint myself in a way that wasn’t truthful, or glamorise anything, I’d immediately scrub it out,” says the Scunthorpe native. The result is a pared-back album that rests completely on its lyrics or “on that space between the first word in the first song and the last word on the last song”, as Fretwell puts it. His bold move seems to have paid off.

Once Fretwell chose to create new music he had to learn how to do it again, working for a year “before anything started to sound like it deserved releasing”. He would write for hours at the local library but he was not driven by ambitions of fame but rather hoping to impress his wife who he was then separating from. It was the time away from music that then allowed him to delve into this rawest of subject matters.

“As anyone who has gone through a breakup will know, especially one involving children, or any children of parents who have split up, it’s a very tender wound,” he says. He saw the album as his “last shot” with his wife.

“I’ve not said that to anyone else but there’s no point lying about that… It certainly wasn’t cathartic, it was desperate. There was a fevered tenseness.”

The album was written looking to the future. “If I could just do this then, I’ll have a job again, I’ll be on two feet again, I’ll be feeling better about myself, and I might win my wife back.”

Fretwell was also aware of the responsibility that the album would be a document of that period. “My little boys might listen to this when they’re grown men, wondering why their mum and dad split,” he reasons.

Despite being Fretwell’s third album then, Busy Guy has the vulnerability of a first release. But in embracing honesty, the musician is freer, no longer waiting for fame and just enjoying being his authentic self, “not thinking I’ve got to be cool, I’ve got to look enigmatic”.

At a performance this summer at Green Man Festival, he found himself answering the crowd’s calls to climb down from the stage.

“I didn’t even know what to do. I think I ran along high fiving everyone. It was the loveliest thing in the world to not feel self-conscious about doing something as stupid as that,” he says.

Since recording the album he’s been, well, busy, writing for a full year and hoping to get another album out early next year.

“I just want to keep touring,” he says. “I feel so lucky, I don’t want it to stop.”

Stephen Fretwell tours next month, visiting Leeds Brudenell Social Club on 7 Nov and Manchester Gorilla on 8 Nov  

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