Shortlisted for a Mercury Prize under his previous guise as East India Youth, William Doyle has evolved into a scintillating solo artist. His new Eno-assisted album ‘Springs Eternal’ – steeped in ambitious and dreamy art-pop – is arguably his finest work yet

“I wish there was some sort of unifying thread in what I do,” reflects William Doyle. “Perhaps there is, but I haven’t identified it yet.” 

He’s speaking on a video call from his home in the Kent seaside town of Margate and, in truth, sounds entirely unbothered, but it’s the kind of puzzle likely to engage any artist whose career has largely been defined by change. 

The singer, songwriter and producer first came into earshot in 2013 as East India Youth with his solo ‘Hostel’ EP, a bedroom-recorded set of electronic pop, taking its cues from Depeche Mode, Neu! and Underworld. The next year, two of its tracks appeared on ‘Total Strife Forever’, East India Youth’s debut album, which ventured further into vocal-free electronic songcraft and bagged a Mercury Prize nomination for its mix of the rhapsodic and unsettling. 

There was a second album in 2015, ‘Culture Of Volume’, featuring hard-edged experimental noise alongside smart, immediate pop tunes with Doyle’s sweet, pure voice at their heart. Five exclusively ambient LPs under his own name followed, peaking with 2018’s ‘Near Future Residence’, which takes its cues from Japanese kankyoˉ ongaku (“environmental music”). All up, it was an auteurist run of records that made Doyle’s next move almost startling.

In 2019, his ‘Your Wilderness Revisited’ album manifested as a strange, heady bloom. Based on his experiences growing up in the small town of Chandler’s Ford, it features fulsome pop songs conjuring “damp Hampshire greens” and Doyle’s furious cycling past “many houses with names, Everglade, Albion, Lakewood, Arcadia” in an attempt to dull the pain of his father’s death. Cut-up spoken words from Brian Eno and writer/filmmaker Jonathan Meades lend a slightly hallucinatory quality. 

Two years later, Doyle upped the dreamily filmic feel and synthpop drama with ‘Great Spans Of Muddy Time’. Now he’s made another strikingly significant yet more subtle shift with ‘Springs Eternal’. 

“The initial idea was to make a stripped-down record with not many instruments on it,” explains Doyle, chuckling in acknowledgment that the album “ended up being something completely different”. 

“Half the songs were written on guitar and I hadn’t done that for a long time. ‘Great Spans’ was kind of an accident [due to a hard-drive failure, Doyle had to salvage the music from cassettes] and had lots of experimentation, whereas my previous album was very painstakingly planned and arranged, and there were many instruments on it.

“Writing with just a guitar, rather than using the computer to construct bits, was the idea at the start to get me back to the essence of songwriting. I felt like my songwriting had been superseded by using a computer. It’s very different when you’re sitting with the guitar and it’s just you in a room. There’s a bit of time where it feels quite difficult but, after a while, you enter into this weird flow state where you’re sort of having a conversation with yourself and you’re not really aware of anything else that’s going on. 

“It’s not at all like looking at a screen and making decisions there – it’s this weird space you’re in, and I wanted to enter that world. I thought the record would end up that way, because some of it was written like that. But that’s not what happened.”

The title ‘Springs Eternal’ comes with a parenthetical “hope” that speaks to our uncertain times, although Doyle says there are other themes in play – time and death, which surface in songs focusing on alcohol dependence, impecuniosity, serious illness and the threat of ecological disaster, among other things. 

All of which makes the album sound extremely sombre, but Doyle’s lyrics are allusive rather than explicit, and the music is lighter and less grandiose than before. It makes more use of open space and often adopts a breezy, playful, art-pop air even if the subject is weighty. ‘Now In Motion’ and ‘Soft To The Touch’ suggest Hot Chip and Talking Heads as kindred spirits (‘Now In Motion’ even borrows the distinctive keyboard squeal from ‘Girlfriend Is Better’) and have a ton of potential chart power. 

Photo: Parri Thomas

Elsewhere, there’s an instrumental passage, some pleasingly noisy electronic outbursts and an ambient-synth piece with a jazz edge. In the track, ‘A Short Illness’, the narrator ponders his own mortality: “I’ve lived a brilliant life / But how will death be described / When written in the press? / ‘Died of a short illness.’” 

It’s a droll, dulcet song reminiscent of Rufus Wainwright, inspired by Boris Johnson’s hospitalisation with Covid (though it’s emphatically not about the erstwhile PM – “I wouldn’t have him as a character in anything I’ve done”). Doyle lets his sense of humour show, which is very much a first. ‘Springs Eternal’, then, seems to open an expressive new chapter. 

Doyle credits working with a producer for the first time – Mike Lindsay of Tunng and LUMP – as crucial in helping him make a different kind of record. He gives two main reasons for opting not to fly solo again – wanting to combat studio isolation and a need for someone to exchange ideas with. He admits “it can be lonely doing it by yourself a lot of the time” and also that the odd, lo-fi nature of ‘Great Spans’ allowed his “playful version” to emerge, something he decided to go with. 

“The easiest way of doing that is by getting in a room with someone else, where there’s a dynamism between you,” he reasons. “Sometimes there were a couple of other people in the room and I think it infused this record with the playfulness I wanted. Also, when you’re self-producing – and if you’re predisposed to the notion that you’re going to make something big and grand – it’s very hard to edit yourself down, because you care about every single idea. You want all of them to occupy the foreground at one point. That’s a noble thought, but it’s exhausting for the listener.” 

It was “some weird kind of shared history” that led him to choose Lindsay as producer. Doyle was renting a studio room in Hoxton, east London, which Lindsay had occupied before him, and they bumped into each other one day when Lindsay dropped by. 

“As I was leaving the studio, I met Mike at the door and he said, ‘You’re from Chandler’s Ford, right?’. It turns out he was from the same town, which is bizarre because it’s not very big. He’s about 10 years older than me, so our paths had never crossed when we lived there, but that set us up – we were into the same kind of music and had a lot of mutual friends. Then it was a case of, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we did something together one day?’. So when it came down to it, it felt like a no-brainer.”

Although ‘Springs Eternal’ is a different record in terms of tone and temperament, Doyle isn’t sure whether its particular newness is a one-off or if it’s carved a path for the future. 

“It doesn’t feel like just another record to me, but then none of them do. I think if I ever feel like that then there’s probably no point, really. Everyone says that, don’t they? ‘I don’t make the same record twice.’ But a lot of people do, and I respect that sometimes people will have a very clear vision of what they do and their life’s work is this constant reworking of the same idea. That can be brilliant as well. 

“To me, it feels like a new person every time, and I don’t know if that’s disorienting for people who have kept up with what I’m doing, but I just need to feel like that – like there’s a new chapter every time. This one does, especially. I liked that you said there was a sense of humour to it. That sets it apart from everything else I’ve done and is something I’m keen to keep exploring, though not to the end point of making musical comedy!

“A sense of humour is such a big part of how I interact with people, and I always find it really weird when I look back at records I’ve made – I’m very proud of all of them, but at times it’s like, ‘Cheer up, mate!’. I do feel I get more out of other people’s music if there’s humour in there, and I actually really struggle to connect with stuff that doesn’t acknowledge the absurdity of living. That’s what I wanted to try and tap into with this record.” 

Brian Eno has been an inspiration throughout Doyle’s music-making life and the two struck up a relationship after their first meeting in 2015. Eno lent his voice to ‘Your Wilderness Revisited’ and pops up in the credits on ‘Springs Eternal’. When Doyle realised that ‘Now In Motion’ and ‘Eternal Spring’ had the immediacy and buoyant pop feel he wanted, he scrapped half of what he’d done and wrote a handful of new songs to suit the album’s reshaped identity. Having just six weeks to do it, he realised he needed some help to get going.

“Brian makes music every day and ends up with lots of stuff in his archive. So, really just as impetus for starting something, I texted him and said, ‘I need to write a bunch of new songs – can you send me some backing things?’, and he said, ‘Can you give me some keywords?’. 

“Every work in progress goes into this big playlist, so he’s able to search through it. I was only after four or five things and he sent me about 25. Obviously, I never take it for granted because my 16-year-old self that got into his records wouldn’t believe I’d be able to just send him a message and he’d send me some music.”

If Eno has long been a beacon, there are other, more surprising artists who’ve nudged Doyle down the path of this new record. The effectiveness of contrasting upbeat melodies with gloomy lyrics – so striking on ‘Eternal Spring’ (“And soon I sank into an absence, an abyss / A deep blue darkness with a strangely death-like grip”) and ‘Soft To The Touch’ (“Now that I live here alone / There’s nobody home to cushion the blows”) – is something Doyle first noticed on Of Montreal’s 2007 album ‘Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?’.

“The music was so bright and poppy, hook-laden and melodic, but the lyrics were so dark,” he recalls. “There are obviously other examples of it, but that was the first time the contradiction really struck me – I was just so taken with it. I think that I always wanted it to be part of what I’ve done, but I don’t think I’ve been successful in doing it until this record.”

Mentioning Rufus Wainwright in connection with ‘A Short Illness’ prompts an enthusiastic “big fan” response from Doyle, although he admits appreciation took him a while.

“Someone said quite early on my voice sounded a little bit like him, which now I take as a great compliment. Not that I didn’t then… you just think, ‘Oh, I don’t want to sound like someone else’, and that made me not get into him for longer than it should have. Then I had a moment about five years ago and just felt maybe I should lean into this more. It’s obviously part of my DNA in some way. 

“So yes, Rufus Wainwright – and also Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy. They’re not very cool influences in lots of ways, especially when you’re making more electronic music. They’re almost show tunes, and I’m not a drama kid at all, so I’d always thought, ‘Why am I so into that?’. But it’s definitely a big influence.”

Doyle is less clear on the music that transports him outside of his work, which is understandable – there are infinitely more listening possibilities than there are names for the activities, moods and emotions any of us might want to escape from, immerse ourselves in or simply sit with. But even if he can’t nominate specific go-to records or artists – “I’m trying not to say Brian Eno!” – he recognises music as a retreat. 

“To me, songs and albums are places you go to, if that makes any sense and doesn’t sound flowery,” he says. “They’re a space that is different from the one your physical or mental self is in. You’re able to transport your mental self into a different place and that’s the main thing, isn’t it? That’s all I’m trying to do, all the time – just make spaces for myself and my own mind to live in.”

‘Springs Eternal’ is out on Tough Love

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