He's considered the folktronica producer du jour, but Stephen Wilkinson's art runs much deeper than that. His latest unleashes his inner pop instincts.
"I still don't think of myself as a good singer," admits Stephen Wilkinson, "but I'm better than I was and I feel more confident in using my voice in different ways."
He's not kidding.
A Mineral Love, Wilkinson's seventh proper full-length under his Bibio moniker, is his first where virtually every song has a vocal component to it. This may not seem like big news to casual outsiders, but for this somewhat shy West Midlands indie producer who rarely performs in public, it's a big deal.
"I still feel like an amateur when I hear people like Olivier St Louis sing," he continues, "but I also appreciate that you don't have to be classically good at something to make potent art. I suppose the success of my vocal tracks is certainly not a discouragement to sing more, but I'm still shy as fuck and I honestly can't see I'll ever get up and sing in front of a crowd. I don't even feel comfortable behind a laptop in front of a crowd.
"I've met a few people who are very surprised by that, as if not wanting to play live is a contradiction for a musician, but I'm not a performer -- I'm a studio guy, I'm a musician but I like to be in my secret bubble and that's where I shine. I'm the musician equivalent of an animator or a film director."
For those who have been following Bibio, that description is remarkably apt, and much like frequently-compared-to but stylistically-dissimilar laptop star Four Tet, there's a heavy emotive element running through Bibio's instrumentals, as sepia-toned guitar strums paint pictures of steel-grey skies (as on "The First Daffodils" from 2013's Silver Wilkinson), funk guitar workouts do more than simply get you to boogie (as on "Jealous of Roses" from 2009's Ambivalence Avenue), while "K is for Kelson" from 2011's Mind Bokeh mixes sunny guitar pop with keyboard sounds straight out of Merv Griffin's home studio to create something upbeat, nostalgic, and new all at once.
None of the above songs, however, are indicative of their parent albums, because each Bibio release embodies a variety of styles from song-to-song, each album carries over similar tropes from the last, but each album evolves in unique, subtle ways. It's those very same cinematic vibes that Bibio captures so well that have not only lead to his songs being featured in movies and TV shows, but also to him even scoring a role in 2014's Jason Reitman-helmed film, Men, Women & Children).
That confidence he's developed has lead to the breakthroughs that A Mineral Love, his best album, has been able to achieve. Spurred by the success of previous vocal tracks like "À tout à l'heure", Wilkinson has found himself in the precarious position as a minor-key indie pop star. Whether it be on the jazz-affected guitar groover "Town & Country" or the strum-and-drum ballad "C'est La Vie", he sounds absolutely in his element. He's never produced for his voice better than he does here, his lyrics hover around surrealism and profundity but never truly land on either plane, creating a beautiful, interpretive effect. (For example: "Tinted blue sings a heart that's bruised / But tinted rose speaks a mind that's closed".)
So what were the big changes between Silver Wilkinson and A Mineral Love? "Nothing changed, at all," Wilkinson says, "I have many facets and they shine differently on different albums. If you listen to "Weekend Wildfire" on Vignetting the Compost, or the opening track on Ambivalence Avenue, you can hear early hints at a sound which is linked to people like Steely Dan. The difference is, I didn't listen to Steely Dan back then. But they are part of a bigger picture, an American sound that is very particular to me as a non-American, growing up with '70s and '80s American TV, it's part of a sound that I latch on to. It's hard to explain. But Steely Dan are only a small part. Sesame Street is actually more of an influence and I hated it as a kid, I found it too extroverted.
"But in retrospect," he continues, "it has that American sound, which I'm addicted to. I suppose Stevie Wonder hit the peak of the sound I'm talking about, but it filters into so many people from different nations. I hear elements of it in Brazilian artist Marcos Valle. What's funny is that people are saying 'Feeling' [a promotional single off of Mineral] sounds like Shuggie Otis. I love Shuggie Otis, but I only heard of him after I handed in A Mineral Love to Warp and a couple of guys there said it reminded them of Shuggie. So I decided to check out Shuggie and really dug it.
So is it a coincidence? Not really. The sound that they're comparing me to is influenced by Sly & The Family Stone, but also that American thing I'm talking about but not talking about. Recently I heard the theme tune to Taxi and I was like, 'That's what I'm trying to do,' but without specifically remembering that theme tune. It's the essence of '70s and '80s America, somehow filtered and less than half-remembered, that's where I'm at, at the moment, but it was brewing before I was even signed to Warp. You can hear it on Ambivalence for sure, but A Mineral Love is definitely more American influenced."
How interesting it is, then, that for an album that absorbs so many American influences, Wilkinson reached out to a variety of non-American vocalists to help make some incredibly interesting features. On the album highlight "Why So Serious", Olivier St. Louis (formerly Daysoul) adds his own flair to what turns out to be a rump-shaking '80s synth-funk workout.
"I heard Olivier on Hudson Mohawke's debut and was blown away by his skills," Wilkinson tells us. "A couple of years ago, HudMo leaked a track called 'Forever 1' featuring Olivier and that track was the track of the year for me. The melodies, emotion and mastery over his voice were incredible but not many people seemed to notice its beauty.
"As for Wax Stag," he continues, noting the guest on album track "Gasoline & Mirrors", "I've been a fan since before he was signed and we've also been good friends for as long. I love his style, I love his ear for melody and rhythm and syncopation. He's an undiscovered gem, but then most of the great music in the world is undiscovered and most of the popular music in the world isn't worth discovering."
As for his collaboration with Grammy-winning, chart-topping recluse Gotye on the song "The Way You Talk"? "We've never met, we've only exchanged a few emails," Wilkinson tells us. "Without wanting to sound corny, relationships between musicians/producers often happen outside of knowing each other. I suppose with us, we have mutual respect and admiration, perhaps in different ways, but really the collaboration was quite simple: I asked and he said yes. There's not really much of a romantic or historically stimulating story behind it."
Yet in featuring so many vocalists, much less singing so many songs himself, his lyrics have become more of a focal point than ever, and once you get past the reverb he douses his voice in, there are some notable moments of interpersonal disillusionment that pop up, wherein statements of longing are mixed in with some rather lovely nature imagery.
"I mostly sing about 'You' as opposed to 'Me'," Wilkinson says when asked about his songwriting process. "My songs are rarely about me, but I relate to many of them. My lyrics are often (but not always) ambiguous and borderline nonsensical. I like that play of clarity and vagueness, it leaves room for people to fantasize about what the lyrics might mean but also doubt whether they are close to the original meaning. My lyrics are sometimes coming from a place of deep consideration but are mostly more like glossolalia -- things come out of me for no apparent reason and then I use them as a seed and then stem from that seed."
Even with the heavy promotional runup to the release of A Mineral Love, Wilkinson has still found some time to look back, as a half year prior he found himself overseeing the re-releases of some of his earlier efforts when he was still signed to Mush Records. When asked about which album he tends to find himself listening back to the most, Wilkinson is honest in admitting that "It changes depending on what I've been going through. You have to appreciate that me listening to my albums is very different to anyone else listening to my albums," he continues. "If I go back to a certain album or track more than others, it's for very different reasons and has nothing to do with whether they're stronger or better tracks or albums. My personal favorite tracks of mine will differ to the obvious favorites on my royalty statements. For instance, 'Poplar Avenue' [the last track on Fi] is one of my favorites. It has something about it that is very potent for me, yet it's a lesser known track to the world. I'm blown away by the idea that my music has a place in some people's lives, but obviously to me, my music has a kind of personal diary quality to it."
So in looking over this personal diary that is his long and rich discography, one has to ask: what's Stephen Wilkinson's biggest regret? Conversely, what would he call his proudest accomplishment? "No regrets," he says bluntly. "Proudest accomplishment? Not sure. It's an ongoing thing. Looking back at the last 11 years, listening to my albums and thinking that I've said something, even if it's only appreciated by a minority and even if it's unclear what I've said, I've still said something and it's my voice, and I taught myself how to do it."
While there's no doubt Wilkinson is speaking from the heart, he's wrong about one thing: his music is no longer appreciated by a minority, but a growing throng of fans who were clued in to what he was saying long before he decided to put his voice in front of a microphone.