Stephen Fretwell: 'Gavin and Stacey song equated to a part-time job'

By Paul Glynn
Entertainment reporter

Image source, Holly Whitaker

In 2007, burgeoning UK singer-songwriter Stephen Fretwell received a call from his friend and publisher Joe, asking him to approve the use of his track Run on a "small BBC Three comedy" by the similarly up-and-coming James Corden and Ruth Jones.

The heartfelt acoustic single from his debut album Magpie had, along with the even more popular Emily, already helped Fretwell to bag support slots with the likes of Elbow, Oasis and Travis.

And he went on to receive an Ivor Novello songwriting award nomination later that year for his follow-up LP, Man on the Roof.

"I was like, 'No, no, I don't wanna do that'," he recalls of the sitcom proposal. "And then we talked about something else.

"Then about two months later it came out and it had the song on it," he continues. "I saw Joe a few nights later and I said to him, 'Hey that song is on that show' and he said, 'Yeah, it's great isn't it?'

"I was like, 'I told you not to put that on that show'. And he was like, 'No, you said you wanted it on', and he was smirking at me.

"And... it's the best thing anyone's ever done for me."

'Cheques from God'

The show in question, of course, turned out to be the eventual Bafta-winning hit series Gavin and Stacey, bringing Fretwell's music into millions of homes.

The 39-year-old now admits he didn't watch it at first, but was drawn in because he had enjoyed Alison Steadman (aka Pamela Shipman) in Mike Leigh films.

He's now "incredibly proud to be associated" with the programme, which he describes as "a masterpiece". Oh, and the royalties came in handy too.

"It equates to like the money for a part-time job, or it did [at the time it was regularly shown]," adds Fretwell.

"I used to think they were like cheques from God, four times a year, a couple of thousand quid."

"It's good at dinner parties as well," he laughs before adopting a posh voice. "Oh hi, what do you do?"

"I'm a musician."

"Oh, a musician, anything we'd know...?"

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Fretwell is a good name for a finger-picking folk singer. However, in the years that followed Gavin and Stacey, instead of becoming a big name like Corden, the Scunthorpe-born musician stopped fretting his guitar at all.

The "fire in my belly" went out, he admits, after his two critically-acclaimed albums failed to bring commercial success and he was dropped by his major record label. "I'd lost confidence in what I had become," he confesses.

Ultimately, becoming a dad in 2011 made him feel like he had to drop the act entirely and focus on domestic duties. He and his partner, who later had a second son, moved from south London to Brighton to raise their family.

"At that point, I wasn't making any money out of it [music]," he says. "It felt wrong to say, 'Children, daddy must create'.

"It felt indulgent, it felt neglectful."

Image source, Holly Whitaker
Image caption, Fretwell's new album arrived on Friday, 14 years after his last

It took the best part of decade, the breakdown of his marriage and a brief stint washing pots in a Wetherspoons pub to bring about his return to recording and performing music.

As well as some cajoling from his longstanding manager Ian, and former musical peers/family who he would bump into at the odd social event.

Now, his musically sparse and haunting third album Busy Guy finds him back working "without compromise" and poetically reflecting on fatherhood, life and loss.

'Let this come out'

It was recorded in almost one take, in around two hours last summer, with producer and Speedy Wunderground indie label boss Dan Carey.

The writing was far more painstaking though, with several false starts down the years, as the singer - who cites poets Simon Armitage and Seamus Heaney as influences - had to rediscover his own knack for evocative melodic wordplay.

Earnings from his Gavin and Stacey song, he says, were even leveraged as an insurance policy in the event of him giving up again before the album was complete.

But moving between his tiny new central London apartment, having left the family home, and the nearby British Library, Fretwell began chasing what words he had around the page.

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Initially, he says, he "really didn't want to make a break-up record" because it was "such a horrible thing to go through".

"I thought, I'll just make a really abstract record because I don't want to be on the make out of this awful situation," he explains.

"Once I started really digging in, there were a few more tunes [on which] I suppose I allowed myself to have a few more private things that alluded to that. And then it just took over. I kind of thought to myself, this is only gonna work if you let this come out."

Lead track Oval depicts lovers crying softly and slowly, while on the album's other single, Embankment, the narrator's hands are bleeding but his heart is beating once again.

Image caption, He supported The Last Shadow Puppets at the Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool for the BBC Electric Proms in 2008

"I kept saying to myself, if you're gonna deal with this subject, you're really writing this for your wife and your children. That's got to be your priority. They've got to be that private audience in front of you," he goes on.

"You can't be posturing and standing up and making a point. It looks like you can't stop yourself from going down this road, so you're gonna have to imagine that those three people are in the room."

'A bit embarrassing'

Back in 2008, before the first chapter of his musical story came to an end, Fretwell moonlighted as a bass player on tour with The Last Shadow Puppets - the side project of Alex Turner from The Arctic Monkeys.

Turner was in fact the first person to hear an early version of another new track, The Long Water, during a quieter moment at the wedding of his aforementioned manager, who he shares with the Sheffield band.

Evidently still fans, the Monkeys covered the untitled closing track from their old friend's debut album for a widely-shared Spotify Singles session in 2018.

Fretwell was about to do a sociology presentation on modern-day slavery, having returned to college to do a crammer course - the equivalent of three A-levels - with the aim of doing a law degree, when his trusted publisher got in touch again to text him the news article about it.

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It was a little awkward, he admits, when his classmates then found out about his previous incarnation.

"If you're hanging out with someone new and you say you're a musician, they don't know you and then they Google you in front of you, and they're either not bothered or they are like, 'No way, Gavin and Stacey!'" he says.

"It was a bit embarrassing. And they think you've been lying to them, but it's like, 'I just didn't say anything'."

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Having dropped out of the University of Salford almost 20 years ago to chase his dream of being a star, it was perhaps fitting that one of the first gigs of his second coming was in the modest surroundings of the city's Eagle Inn pub last month.

This time around, Fretwell is seeking satisfaction as a songwriter, not fame or fortune.

"It's so intimate, it's almost… uncomfortable," he joked nervously from the stage to a crowd of around 30 fans, friends and associates.

They all think it's well lush, as Stacey might say, to have him back.

Busy Guy by Stephen Fretwell is out now and he is on tour in July, August and November.