I missed the launch of Alton Wahlberg’s album, Photographs and Memories, but eventually caught up with the bearded busker on the night Tottenham played Liverpool in the Champions League final. Alton is a serious Tottenham fan who would spend the night trying to avoid any news from Spain, because first and foremost he is a working musician and there was a gig to play.
You are an amazingly hard working musician, you are almost always gigging – I think when you first played the Grapevine stage at Ipswich Music Day a few years ago it was something crazy like the sixth of seven gigs that weekend!
Yes, the way I look at it is, I have this theory about music, there are different routes you can go down to kind of get where you need to go. Number one is you’ve got to be extremely… unbelievably talented, where you cannot fail to be noticed. Number two is you get a little bit of luck somewhere. The right person sees you at the right time. If them two aren’t working the third one is you just work – you work, work, work… until they cannot fail to notice you. I would never claim to be the most talented person in the world, so I think that one is out the window. I haven’t had that little bit of luck yet, so for me it is option number three! It is work and grind and do as much as you can to force people to notice you.
And of course that hones your art, doesn’t it?
Absolutely, I think that is the best way to go. It turns you into a complete artist and you experience everything. You see a lot of people who get these overnight things, whether it be a TV talent show or whatever, but I always wonder, one, do they appreciate what they’ve got and two, do they understand what they’ve got. If you haven’t had to work for it then you don’t really understand how lucky you are to get it. I like to work, I like to learn every aspect of it. It sounds funny but I enjoy playing the terrible gigs! The gigs where no one turns up and where no one watches – for me that builds character and it makes the good gigs, it makes you appreciate the good gigs.
Hopefully you are getting fewer and fewer of the terrible gigs?
Yes ah…. I am, but I wouldn’t say them days are over just yet. Certainly there are less than there used to be but they still happen every now and again!
You’ll always get a gig that clashed with a cup final or something!
Yeah, can you imagine that? Especially being Spurs fan and waiting thirty six years to reach the European Final and then you end up gigging – can you imagine how frustrating that would be?
When did music start for Alton Wahlberg?
Music has always been with me. I messed around in bands, I did what all kids do at school, I was the guy who played a little bit of guitar. One of my friends played a little bit of drums. We got together then another fellow who could sing a little bit – we had a little school band, we never took it seriously, it was a bit of fun. As I got older I took it a little bit more seriously, we started doing the pub circuit, only doing covers and things like that.
From there I went on to play with a Killers tribute band, called Fillers! We toured around Europe, we had a big big following and that took it to the next level because it went from being fun to being a professional job. That taught me so much about the industry and after a few years of doing that I kinda thought, as much as I loved it, I kinda got fed up with playing other people’s songs all the time. I got to the point where the band had taken it as far as it could go, we were a tribute band, we were never going to be the real Killers. What more could we do with it? I felt that was the time that I wanted to try out my own stuff and see how far I could go with that. That solo journey probably started about five or six years ago now. I’d messed about in the past, I had busked for ages by myself.
And you worked in the prison service for a while, didn’t you?
Yeah, I worked in the prison service for ten years. That was an experience. It taught me a lot. I was lucky enough that I got to work with some proper talented musicians in the prison. The guys in the prison knew that I was into music, so if ever a prisoner came in who wasn’t maybe very academic, but knew that maybe music could be an influence. They directed them to me and I was able to connect with some of the prisoners on that level and help them on their journey, just by being able to sit down and talking music with them.
Then the gigs started to come in thick and fast, and I though actually I could make a go of this and leave the job and actually go full time with the music so I just did it! It was a big decision, but I kind of did it off the cuff, I didn’t even tell my wife I was going to do it! She came home one day and I said to her ‘I’ve handed in my notice today’ – we have kids and a mortgage to pay and she was like ‘what are you doing, you cannot do this!’ It didn’t go down too well! But it kinda worked.
She is still with you yes?
Yes, thankfully it has worked out and she has been alright with it.
Lets talk about the album ‘Photographs and Memories’ – that string section on the opening number, grabs you by the throat and drags you in.
That is something I have always, always wanted and I have always wanted to replicate that in my live shows. I have always wanted to have strings in the show, as soon as I hear strings… it just tugs at me, as you say, grabs you in. But as an independent artist it is something I have never been able to do. You don’t have the opportunities or the money to chuck around and get people to play. As an independent artist, if you want something like that you have to go and learn the instrument yourself! Having the chance to work with Ginger Dog meant that all of a sudden doors have been opened, and that for me has been the most exciting part of doing this record with Ginger Dog.
The other song that got me was ‘Rain in Manchester’ – anyone who is self employed, traveling the country, boring nights in hotels, they will know what you are talking about.
That was a funny one. I’d been doing a little busking tour. I took myself off, trying to promote myself and my own music in different areas. The danger when you are doing this is that you stick in one area, you stick to what you know, you build a little fan base locally. But people never seem to branch out and go any further. I disappeared off the radar for a week – I went busking in a different city every night for a week. I did Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Derby, Liverpool, Nottingham – I spent a day in each place. Now, you don’t make a lot of money busking, I was having to stay in hostels because you can’t afford to stay in nice hotels. I think it was my last day, and it had rained all week, I had had an horrendous week, I’d made hardly any money, I’d been stuck out in the rain all week and I was feeling really rotten. I was back in this horrible hostel that night, really missing home, missing everything, so I wrote that song and I poured my heart out into that song – it was full of emotion, it was a song for my wife really, I was missing her and being at home. When I got home I played it to her and she said “Nah, I don’t like that one”. I didn’t play it for a long, long time but obviously decided to get it on the album.
There is a line in ‘One Way’ – don’t feel sorry for me boy – a real Suffolk expression, what is the story of that song?
That whole song…. in the last couple of years it has been talked about more. Mental health among musicians is a huge issue, it has never really been talked about. You see the high profile things, the big artists that are suffering with it. But you don’t see the fact that it is not just the big artists. You get that buzz on stage, you get the adrenaline pumpin’ and there is no outlet for it sometimes. It can be a lonely place, people don’t see what happens when you finish the gig and walk off the stage and everyone goes home. All of a sudden you are all by yourself, on that downer. I wanted to write a song that would address some of the issues, almost to sort of say, no matter how far it is, no matter how bad you feel, no matter how low you are – it is not the end of the world. If you are feeling that low, at the complete bottom, well, there is only one way you can go and that is up.
Someone once said to me that being a musician is 10% buzz and 90% self doubt.
Absolutely, I couldn’t agree more.
Musicians wear their hearts on their sleeves, especially when you are writing your own songs.
You are, you are pouring a little bit of yourself out in every single song. Then you stand on stage and you are putting yourself up there to be judged on what you have produced and it is a bit scary. But I still think to this day that the songs that come from the heart are the songs that people connect with, they are the winners. You shouldn’t feel ashamed of getting them out there, no matter how embarrassed you might feel to say something in a song. If it comes from the right place people will connect with it.
I remember one of the first gigs I played with The Fillers – it was a big festival, there were thousands there. We were headlining the main stage… we finished the set, we had all the pyrotechnics going off, we had flames, confetti, everything. It was the biggest buzz I have ever had as a musician, thousands of people screamin’. I’m a young lad, got my shirt off, I’m rocking out on stage absolutely loving it – you feel like a God! I went home that night on an absolute high, woke up the next morning, I was standing in the kitchen washing up and thought ‘last night I was like a God, today I’m just a normal guy doing the washing up at the sink’. It felt really weird, last night I thought I was something special but I’m just a normal guy, it was a reality check, a good thing because you have to live in the real world.
What next, the album is out there….
Right now, it is all about promoting the album, tonight is my eleventh gig in eight days. This is how it is going to be throughout the whole summer. I am plugging away, everywhere I go selling one album at a time.
And this is the opening track from the album – ‘Under the Lights’