Dan Gillespie Sells can pinpoint the precise moment The Feeling's new album first came into being. He had returned to London alone after spending Christmas 2011 in the English countryside, his five-year relationship in tatters, his head in turmoil. Sitting by himself in the East London pub he bought in 2010 and converted into a home (with a recording studio on the ground floor, naturally), Dan did what all born writers do in such situations: he plonked himself down at the piano, and wrote a song.
The result was 'You'll See', one of the 11 tracks that make up 'Boy Cried Wolf'. The album's title is taken from its opening song, 'Blue Murder', which fans of the London-based five-piece will recognise at once as classic The Feeling. The album is the band's first under an exciting new worldwide deal for recording and publishing with BMG Chrysalis, after their previous deal with Island Records came to an end, and its sounds, hooks, melodies and lyrics attest to the sense of liberation the band felt when they reconvened at Dan's house. "Making a record because you want to make a record is incredibly different to making one because you're required to," says Dan.
"I think something that happens to a lot of artists after a certain amount of success is that you lose the ability to hear your own voice, because you're just listening to everyone else's. That's a pretty horrible place to be. And even if you know it's happening, even if someone warns you about it, even if you think you're on top of it, there's a point where you end up listening to so many different opinions, you can't do it anymore."
Richard Jones, Dan's friend since they were teenagers and the co-founder of the band, remembers coming round to the pub shortly after Dan had returned, heartbroken, from the country. "I came in and Dan went, 'I've written this new song but I'm worried that it's way too depressing'. But you listen to it and you can hear the truth in it at once. He writes best when he's being emotionally open. It took me back to the time, years and years ago, when I'd split up with my girlfriend and moved in with Dan. I was sitting on the sofa, he was rehearsing to do this acoustic solo show, and he played me 'Sewn'. I thought, 'Oh my God, that's an amazing song'. And I turned to him and said: 'We need to do this'.
A pretty extraordinary way to announce yourself as a band, 'Sewn' kick-started an extraordinary 12-month period for The Feeling, whose 2006 debut album, 'Twelve Stops and Home', topped the UK charts, and yielded three Top 10 singles. They were the most-played band on UK radio in 2006, and their success was capped the following spring when they were named Songwriters of the Year at the Ivor Novello awards.
Two more hit albums 'Join With Us' and 'Together We Were Made' followed, but the band readily admit that, having made their debut album in a garden shed belonging to Kevin and Ciaran's mum and dad, they were losing touch with the bond that had brought them together in the first place: a love of music, and an urgent need to record and perform it.
"We've been lucky because we were able to build this studio and make a record in the way that we wanted to make it," says Richard. "Nobody was picking it apart. On our last album, we wrote more than 60 songs for it and spent two years recording. When we made our debut, we weren't thinking like that we weren't constantly going, 'Is this a hit?' A great song that comes along at the right time, that's a hit. And a great song that doesn't come at the right time isn't. Coming out the other side, and making this record, feels so vibrant again." Dan agrees: "When you're not being noticed, you're a voice in the wilderness, and that's actually a wonderful place to be if you're an artist. You're creating in an incredibly pure away, because you're not thinking about what's coming out of you you're just thinking about why nobody is listening!"
It wasn't just a return to the DIY ethos of 'Twelve Stops and Home' that made sessions for 'Boy Cried Wolf' both so fruitful and so enjoyable. For Dan and Richard, who have for several years been helping new songwriters find their own voice and fulfil their potential, losing self-consciousness and stocking up on self-belief again were crucial parts of the process. "All writers become very fearful of stagnating; the real challenge is to keep doing what you do but keep getting better at it. I only learnt what my strengths are when I started writing with other artists. I'd sit down with people and they'd say, 'Can you do that thing that you do?', and I'd think, 'What are you talking about?' They'd go, 'You know, that thing where you push the chord and it sounds really unusual?' And I'd be like, 'Huh?' And they'd play something and go: 'That'. So I'd say, 'Doesn't everyone do that?', and they'd say: 'No, that's what you do.'"
Those keen-eared young songwriters could have been describing Blue Murder. Anyone familiar with Dan's songwriting will know his penchant for pushing a phrase seemingly beyond its limit, for taking a chord progression that one step further than other writers would, and the bridge on 'Boy Cried Wolf's' first song is a classic example of this.
But there are other factors, too, that make the song instantly identifiable as the work of The Feeling. Musically, it's beautiful, of course, its melody harking back to the sinuousness of 'Sewn'. Lyrically, it describes the romantic wounds the song deals with with a startling candour that plugs you straight into the emotional mains, its depiction of locked-up feelings recalling one of 'Together We Were Made's' most haunting songs, 'Leave Me Out of It', on which Dan duetted with Richard's wife, Sophie Ellis-Bextor. But the most thrilling thing about the song is how revitalised the band sound, Dan's voice a sandpapered plea, Richard's bass serpentine and propelling the track along, Kevin's solo lines towards the end an air-guitar standard in the making, Ciaran's closing grace notes played with incredible subtlety, Paul's drums cutting loose as the final chorus kicks in.
Another quintessential Feeling moment is the song 'I Just Do', which begins with the unforgettable line "You said 'I'm not an arsehole' / Something, of course, only an arsehole would say." Closing the album (though you should listen out for the hidden song Edie, Dan's touching musical message to his niece), 'I Just Do' is a track built on an epic scale. "I really wanted to get back to that early Elton John lushness," says Dan, "the whole Gus Dudgeon thing where you have all these backing vocals rushing in. I suppose you could call that a guilty-pleasure thing, though that phase has never really made sense to me. You either enjoy something or you don't. When we first released records, it was really hard to convince people that we were for real. To this day, I don't think we've properly got that message across."
You're sort of tempted to lean over when he says this and tell him it's nonsense, but then you remind yourself that feeling like a bit of an outsider is a spur that has long driven Dan to keep writing, keep searching for that perfect song. He obviously found some, because 'Boy Cried Wolf' is packed with the things. The euphoric 'Rescue' belies the imploring self-inquiry of its lyrics. The ballad 'A Lost Home' is almost unbearably poignant and raw. 'The Gloves Are Off's' plangent, arpeggiating piano sets up a huge chorus that is going to be incandescent live. The self-lacerating 'Empty Restaurant' finds Dan using metaphor to lay bare his anguish, to characteristically a melody of extraordinary beauty.
Can he write a sad melody, I ask. "I always wanted to make pretty music," he answers, with a laugh. "My emotional response to music has to involve a big smile at some point. It's like Carpenters songs, which are beautiful but riddled with sadness. You can have all the perfect production in the world, but in Karen's singing there's always that thread of sorrow. And that's what we're looking for, too; making music that's just sad, or just edgy, has no interest for me."
Looking back to the making of 'Boy Cried Wolf', Dan says the best thing about it was that "we were just in our little bubble again. There was this sense that there wasn't any pressure on us now to be anything other than what we are." You can hear that freedom, that reaffirmed love, in every bar of the album. It is the sound of a band reborn and renewed. Back and better than ever. Music born of heartache, the 11 new songs end up reaffirming the idea of love as a force for good. "Can you do that thing you do?" asked that young songwriter. And Dan, Richard, Kevin, Ciaran and Paul did just that.