MANCHESTER, England – Last month, the six members of Black Country, New Road joked around in a cramped rehearsal room about to try something new: everyone was singing lead vocals.
First, Tyler Hyde, the band’s bassist, sat up front and sang — his voice jumping between a soft pop squeal and a raspy screech. The following May, Kershaw, usually on the piano, took over, her voice soft and snappy like that of a folk singer. Then Lewis Evans, the saxophonist, sang two songs.
“Dope as hell,” said Charlie Wayne, the band’s drummer, as Evans finished. Evans didn’t seem too sure. “I was a little too slow!” he said, looking frustrated.
Just six months ago, Black Country, New Road, one of Britain’s rising rock bands, was a very different proposition. At the time, lead vocals were the domain of a single frontman: Isaac Wood, an intense and sometimes anxious vocalist, whose loving lyrics helped Black Country, New Road win fans and critical devotion. The band’s debut album, ‘For the First Time’, was nominated for a Mercury Prize, Britain’s top music prize, last year. His second, “Ants From Up There”, was nominated by the New York Times Critic’s Pick.
But just before New Year’s Eve, Wood sent a Facebook message to his comrades. He could no longer be in the public eye, he said. The stress of pouring out his heart on stage was too much. He was leaving.
Wayne said that when this message arrived, the group’s first thought was “our friend’s safety”. But once that was secured — Wood is in a much better place now, Evans said, happily working at a bakery — the remaining members had to decide what to do next.
Several of the band members gathered to discuss the moment in a sunny courtyard after rehearsal last month. Breaking up was never an option, Kershaw said, because “playing together is so important to us.”
However, the band members seemed to disagree on how difficult the reboot would be. When Evans said starting over after Wood left “didn’t seem like a big deal,” Hyde and Kershaw looked at each other confused and giggled. But his departure has allowed everyone to more fully appreciate the pressure a band’s lead singer can go through. So they came up with a solution: share the load.
At Wood’s urging, they kept the band’s name but decided to stop playing the tracks he had sung (Wood did not respond to requests for comment for this story). This meant that before the rehearsal, the musicians had spent five intense, fun, but sometimes stressful months writing nine songs to fill European festival dates this summer. Without the income from those appearances, Evans said, they would have had to get jobs, so they would hardly have been able to play together.
The growing financial and emotional pressures on musicians have long been the focus of media attention in Britain. In 2017, Help Musicians, a non-profit organization, set up a 24-hour helpline to offer support to people with mental health issues or financial anxiety. Those worries only grew as the pandemic closed performance venues, while the cost-of-living crisis sparked new worries.
Wood’s departure illustrated those pressures, said John Doran, a music journalist who has long championed Black Country, New Road. Being part of a successful indie band could once lead to a good lifestyle. Now, Doran said in a phone interview, the deeds are running out “to maybe one day have a mortgage and not need a side job.” It’s “no wonder musicians are under so much stress,” Doran added. “I don’t envy them that at all.”
This is actually the second time the members of Black Country, New Road – all still in their early 20s – have had to reboot.
Four years ago almost all of them were playing in another band, called Nervous Conditions, which was about to break into the competitive UK indie music scene. With only a few tracks online, declared taste sites the group one of the “most exciting propositions” in the country, and record company representatives flocked to its shows. But then its leader, Connor Browne, facing anonymous accusations of sexual assault, released a statement apologizing for the harm caused, and the band disbanded.
Hyde said the bandmates learned lessons from that moment. After the split, “the whole philosophy became, ‘We’re doing this for us and because we want to,'” she said. Since then, the group has rewritten songs and changed lyrics whenever they got bored, she added.
When asked how they managed to reinvent themselves, the musicians said that having so many band members with different interests helped them. But for the band’s fans, other factors were more important. Geordie Greep of black midi, a London-based band that is touring the United States with Black Country, New Road in September, said in a telephone interview that the band members were virtuoso musicians. It gave them the ingenuity to keep changing their style, he said.
The members of Black Country, New Road — most of whom have known each other since they were in high school — also clearly had a strong community connection, Greep added. “These guys really go out of their way to hang out as friends,” he said, looking a little puzzled. Most bands, including his own, don’t do that, he noted.
Even for such a close group of musicians, the process of transitioning to lead vocals hasn’t always been easy. Evans said he “shook” the first time he sang a track he wrote to his bandmates. Kershaw said she found it “irritating” and told everyone “not to worry” if they thought her tracks were “not the right vibe”. She squirmed in her seat, remembering the memory.
But with concerts looming, the band members once again had to overcome their nerves to sing in front of paying audiences. A few days later, the band took the stage at the Pink Room, a concert venue in Manchester, northern England, packed with 250 people (the band canceled a sold-out 1,800-seat show in town shortly after Wood’s departure).
If Evans was still nervous, he didn’t need to be. As soon as he started playing a cheerful saxophone melody to open the track “Up Song”, he was greeted by whoops from the audience. When the group arrived at the raucous chorus, the crowd began to jump up and down and sing along, as if they had heard the song hundreds of times. “Look what we’ve done together,” the band sang in unison, “BC, NR/Friends forever.”
A few tunes later, even the bar staff fell silent as Kershaw sang “Turbines/Pigs,” an eight-minute song in which she plays a sweet piano melody while singing, “Don’t Waste Your Pearls on me/I’m only a pig.”
After 45 minutes, the band left the stage with a few polite greetings. Some fans screamed for more, until they realized Black Country, New Road couldn’t come back for an encore even if they wanted to. The new incarnation had played all the songs she had.