The Rails are Kami Thompson (daughter of Richard and Linda) and James Walbourne (guitarist with The Pogues and The Pretenders) and hail from Kentish Town in North London. The duo got together in 2013 and were soon signed to Island Records legendary pink label. Their debut album ‘Fair Warning’ garnered 5/5 reviews in the music press and was voted the number one Folk Album for 2014 by Mojo. The following year the pair won the prestigious Horizon Award for best new artist at the BBC Radio Two Folk Awards.
There’s something different about The Rails on their brilliant third album. It’s not just the sound of the record, which is harder, tougher and rockier than ever before. Cancel The Sun is melodic and immediate, a record that brings together the musical pasts of Kami Thompson and James Walbourne – her family heritage, as the daughter of Linda and Richard Thompson, and sister of Teddy; his as guitarist for Son Volt, The Pogues and The Pretenders – in a record that sounds like a pure version of themselves. You could spend hours casting around for a term to describe it, but maybe the best one would be pinched from an Eliza Carthy album title: Anglicana – music that might originate in America, but is clearly and resolutely English.
“It’s a distillation of influences,” Thompson says. “In an English still.”
Fans of their first two albums – 2014’s Fair Warning and 2017’s Other People – might be surprised at the harder edge of Cancel The Sun, but they shouldn’t be. Fair Warning had been a gorgeous revival of the classic English folk-rock sound (issued on Island’s pink label for full attention to period detail); Other People was a sturdier version of the group, Walbourne turning more to electric guitar. Cancel The Sun isn’t a completely new departure, but it sounds as though Thompson and Walbourne have relaxed into doing the things they do best: those glistening harmonies are draped across the album like velvet. “We sing together, and we can’t wait till the other one joins in,” Walbourne says. “That is something that’s great and very natural, and we can telepathically do it now, which is a great thing to be able to do with someone. I don’t get that from anyone else”.
Cancel The Sun is indebted to the Kinks. It’s not that it sounds like the Kinks, but it shares their fellow north Londoners’ desire to cast far and wide to make the music they want, without sacrificing their individuality. “It’s that English eccentric thing they had,” Thompson says. “They they were so fearlessly themselves. We drew inspiration and confidence from that to forge ahead on our own path.”
So there’s tough guitar pop (Call Me When It All Goes Wrong; Ball & Chain); an excursion into English 60s baroque (Dictator); gorgeous country balladry (Something Is Slipping My Mind); and, still, the folk influence (Mossy Well; Leave Here Alone). “This is a big step forward for us,” Thompson says. “It’s the sum of our parts. We were freed up by working better together to draw in our influences.”
It’s also the first Rails album on which the pair have written together, despite them being married. “When I write lyrics, 50% of the time there’ll be a bit of tune in my head,” Thompson says. “And a few of the tunes James wrote to the lyrics, his idea was scarily dead on with what I had in my head, without any conversation about it. I’m always surprised by him musically. You know someone really well, pick up their pants, and they come up with something that makes you go, ‘Wow – you can do that?;”
“For this record the songs came a bit easier,” Walbourne says. “The melodies came fast because I used a different approach to writing: I plug in an electric guitar, headphones and a mic and sing. So the shackles have fallen off a bit, and it’s been a joyful experience. It was a whole new approach, and it seems to have worked between us.”
Fair Warning saw The Rails pegged as a folk-rock group. “But we’re so much more,” Walbourne says. “Folk rock is a very niche thing. I never signed up to play the acoustic guitar exclusively. I like to plug in and be loud.” Hence the pair of words he keeps using to describe this third album: harder-edged. And, as Thompson points out, on each of the previous albums there were songs that pointed the way forward for the next one – Cancel The Sun isn’t a renunciation, it’s a progression.
That shows, too, in the greater confidence of the writing. Walbourne says that where once he had felt intimidated by having played with some of modern music’s great songwriters – Jay Farrar, Shane MacGowan, Chrissie Hynde – now he’s able to use what he learned from them without trying to copy. And being in The Pretenders enabled him to “cut loose” on the electric guitar in a way he had been reluctant to with The Rails. “I think I’ve definitely found my own voice now.”
The Rails are willing to challenge their audience, though. There’s an edge to songs such as Dictator (“Black box generation / Slaves to validation”), the title track (“Cancel the sun / Hello armageddon”) and, especially, Save the Planet, on which Thompson sings a lyric that’s a long way removed from if-we-all-hold-hands-we-can-change-the-world platitudes, bluntly suggesting that the best way to end humankind’s destruction of the world would be to end humankind.
“Everyone is so convinced that if they make some minor amendment to their lives and everyone else does the same, then everything will work out. Actually, if everyone just topped themselves, problem solved. It’s not the most poetic argument. And, obviously, I don’t want anyone to kill themselves. I’m encouraging people to look at things slightly differently. Without killing themselves.”
That perhaps highlights one of the big differences between the pair’s writing styles. “I generally write fairly morbid stuff,” she says. “Always have done. That’s what I find interesting. James is probably a bit more of a storyteller. As an objective observer, I’d say there’s a real thread of people in his songs, whereas I’m more introverted and abstract.”
“She’s a very dark lady,” Walbourne says. “I can be dark too, but what I’ve tried to do is offset the dark lyrics with a more upbeat song.”
Cancel The Sun was an easy album to make. The songs were written between September 2018 and January 2019, then recorded in London between January and March, with Stephen Street producing. “We’d been knocking some names around,” Thompson says. “On the last record I had kept thinking about Graham Coxon’s solo records, and that in your face guitar. I was talking to James about that, and he said, ‘I wonder if that was Stephen Street.’ We unravelled the thread of Stephen’s discography and realised we would absolutely love to work with him. I loved that there was no fucking around: get there in the morning, work solidly, and then go home knackered. He’s a serious producer, he was involved in every little element of the sound. It’s produced by him, completely.”
Street helped The Rails connect with their musical lineage, highlighting the strength of Walbourne’s guitar playing. He made Cancel The Sun sound both classic and timeless – and despite the fact that lovers of guitar music can revel in this record, the very fact that so few others are making this kind of music means it has a summery freshness that makes it stand out.
There was another factor in the ease of the record’s making: the fact that since The Rails made Other People, Walbourne stopped drinking. “It’s made a difference to everything,” he says. “I wasn’t liking the person I became on it and on tour in the States there were a couple of close shaves. I thought: ‘This is going to end in tears.’ I just want to play music. So waking up clear-headed really works for me. I couldn’t write the other way: I’d stay in bed, watching TV. Being clear-headed has been like waking up.”
“And if one of you is not drinking, the other drinks significantly less,” Thompson says, laughing. “It’s been really good for us; we feel a well-oiled machine at the moment. This is what we like to sound like. This sounds more like the stuff we like to listen to. I just feel we’ve gotten there. It’s exactly what we’ve wanted to make for a while.”
The Rails are right on track with Cancel The Sun. It’s a record to make you hope they stay on them forever, the end of the world notwithstanding.