Boredom drove council estate kid Andrew Cushin to pick up a guitar for the first time and now the Newcastle-born indie hopeful has Noel Gallagher playing on his new single.
Andrew Cushin is about to paint me a picture, and though it will be honest, he can’t promise it will be pretty – but first, he excuses himself: “I’ve got a face full of fucking Sudocrem on, give me two minutes while I make myself look presentable,” he says in an accent that is the textbook definition of a Newcastle native, thick with warmth, character, and a few clumsily dropped ‘fuck’s for good measure. “It is strong, innit?” He at first apologises, offering to “tone it down”, but he and I both know that he’s not in the business of pretence or compromise: it’s all cards on the table, no tricks up his sleeve. What you see is what you get; if you want to take it, great – if not, well, he won’t be losing any sleep over it.
Cushin is a local lad done good, to put it lightly. The kitchen-sink realism of his songs, raised on the concrete turfs of council estates and smoke-filled social clubs of Newcastle, is something the chart-topping Toms, Jacks and Georges of guitar-pop are not only desperately lacking, but entirely unaware of. Andrew Cushin’s music is made in Newcastle’s image: a city trying to outrun the spectre of the breadline which looms close behind, still bearing the industrial scars of Thatcher. But more than that, it’s a place with an enduring sense of community – they look out for their own. It took a city to raise Andrew Cushin.
He sold out The Cluny, the iconic Newcastle venue where Daniel Johnston, Glasvegas and The Vaccines have stood before him, without having released a single song. 350 tickets: all word-of-mouth. His story has echoes to that of Sam Fender, the city’s nominated champion and defender, who, with gritted teeth and dogged determination, carved a path for the lads left behind with a song to play and a story to tell. Fender sold out that very same venue before him just three years earlier. It feels prophetic, almost; Cushin is riding the same current.
He believes, with steadfast conviction, that Newcastle’s thriving music scene owes it all to Fender. But while it may be tempting to write Cushin off as an artist riding on Fender’s coattails, their music is poles apart. “With Sam Fender, listen,” he begins, “if somebody wants to compare me to Sam Fender, let them get on with it - that's brilliant. But personally, I don't see it. I don't think we sing in the same way, I don't think we perform in the same way, and in terms of writing, I think we're writing the flip-side of a coin.” While Fender’s music is loud, kinetic and stoked by the fires of sharp, state-of-the-nation truths and political vitriol, Cushin’s music is about matters of the heart.
His voice and his knack for visceral lyricism he believes he got from his parents. “This is so fucking random,” he tells, characteristically sailor-sweary, the kind of guy you’d prop up at the bar with. “But me mam was in Cheryl Cole’s backing band when she was coming up, so she always had a half-decent voice.” His father was no stranger to poetry, channelling what he saw when he was stationed in the army in Northern Ireland onto paper. “There was a lot of stuff he held back,” he says. “Very heartfelt poems.”
Cushin’s path into music was by no means a linear one. There was none of the ‘the guitar chose me’ platitudes, no candied meet-cute between him and music that was always ‘meant to be’. “I mean, me dad always had a guitar. Whether or not he could play it was another fucking thing!” he jokes. His relationship with music was less to do with craft, and more to do with emulation: “I grew up wanting to be me dad. I’d wear whatever me dad wore; I’d go to work with him on a Saturday morning; I’d listen to what he listened to. It’s that worshipping sort of thing.” It was through him that he was fed a diet of Britpop, where Oasis and The Stone Roses were not just a soundtrack, but interwoven into the fabric of life.
“If I’m being honest”, he says, “I learned the guitar purely out of boredom. As a council estate kid, you live outside, you know what I mean? I was never inside playing on computer games or doing the dishes. I was out stealing lawnmowers and pinching clothes off people’s washing lines and knocking on people’s doors and running away. So when I moved away, going from my whole childhood when I was always outside with my friends, to being sixteen years old and living somewhere quieter, I had fuck all to do.”
Even then, though, Cushin’s heart – much like any working-class lad with grass-stained shirts and muddy knees – belonged to the pitch. His first gig came not from a love of music, particularly, but because he was skint. Money was a reluctant necessity; an inconvenient sort of distraction from what really mattered: playing football. It was his second gig that Lee, his now-manager, came to see. And that, as the his fairy-tale goes, was the night everything changed.
By a strange twist of fate, it was not the stage, but the football pitch, where Cushin would meet Leigh. I made the mistake of thinking that he was his coach, to which he balked, “God no, fucking hell, I wouldn’t be taught football off him!” The pair would, in fact, coach together. The more they got to know each other, the more freely they’d “chat shit about music”. When Leigh mentioned he a friend of Noel Gallagher’s, having been a disciple of Oasis who’d been to see them an eye-wateringly excessive “45-50 times”, Cushin never believed anything would come of a claim that anyone would take with a generous pinch of salt. “When I told him I had a gig, he was like, ‘You have a fucking gig? What do you do?’” When Cushin told him, ‘Well, I play the guitar and sing,’ he said incredulously, “You can’t fucking sing!’” When he was pleasantly surprised that Cushin actually had a “half-decent” voice, and not too shabby on the guitar, he abandoned the heckling.
When Cushin performed “Waiting For The Rain”, a song he had written at fifteen years-old, Leigh at first believed it was a cover. But he liked it, and so he recorded Cushin playing it. The next day, when Cushin picked up the phone to Leigh saying, sheepishly, “Look, don’t be pissed off with us, but I sent that recording of ‘Waiting For The Rain’ to Noel,” he nearly fell off his chair. “I was like, ‘Oh, for fuck’s sake, he’s going to think I’m shit’”, he remembers, but he couldn’t shake the guilty pleasure of excitement as he allowed himself to imagine, for a moment, ‘what if?’
When Cushin found himself on the phone to Noel, reality felt suspended; when he told him that “Waiting For The Rain” was, as Cushin tells me, “quite decent”, and asked if he had any other tracks he could hear, reality shattered, as if the world had tipped on its axis. When he hastily threw together a demo, he felt instantly embarrassed of his sheer inexperience. Playing to a click track for the first time had him tripping over himself; that demo is the version you hear now. “I was never keen on how that turned out,” says Cushin. “which is why it started sounding really slow, like agonising slow. By the finish, it sounds alright. In the middle, it's too quick.” His restless reeling off of his inadequacies were what prompted him to keep gigging, taking anything that would come his way, purely out of learning his craft and honing in on his skills as a performer and an artist.
Like falling dominos, all it took was a nudge for everything to fall into place. When Cushin found himself signing the dotted line with Virgin Records, the world suddenly felt far greater than the city limits. Noel Gallagher saw Cushin as something of an uncut gem, and set aside a week which he would dedicate to him in the studio. “Needless to say, I was fucking shitting it as we were going in,” he laughs. But Gallagher immediately put him at ease. “It made me realise, do you know what? He’s a normal bloke, and he’s doing me a massive favour. The best thing I can do is to not sit here and just lick his arse. I could just get into the studio and work my arse off to impress him as much as I can – which I’d like to think I’d done to the best of my ability.”
The learning curve was a sharp one – almost whiplash-inducing, in fact. On the second day of being in the studio, Noel pulled the bass out and asked if Cushin could lay it down on the track. When he tried him with the electric guitar instead, Cushin remained clueless. “I was a little bit… not necessarily annoyed with myself,” he says, “but I thought, ‘I wanna be able to do more in the studio’. Noel’s one of them blokes where you go in and he can fucking play anything, do you know what I mean? So, I think since I came out of the studio, it’s gave us a bit of a kick up the arse.”
Should anyone ask him the same thing again – no problem. But something Cushin is still trying to cut his teeth with is the drums. “I mean, I’m a dreadful drummer,” he confesses. “I can only compare myself… imagine you give a gorilla the lid of a dustbin and a fucking rock. That’s the best it gets.” Technical prowess aside, under Noe’s tutelage Cushin has matured leaps and bounds – both as a musician, but also as a person.
Before that point, he was trapped in a feedback loop of his own hype. The glory of a record deal, going on tour and being the mentee of Oasis’ ex-frontman was being spoon-fed back to him on a daily basis. “I was finishing gigs, and everyone who came over to us said I was brilliant,” he tells me. “Not one person said I was shit. Not one person. I was getting texts off friends that hadn’t spoken to me in years, do you know what I mean? And slowly but surely, your head fucking grows, without you even realising. And I did change, as a person, for quite a while. I think going into the studio made me realise I’m not fucking brilliant. I couldn’t play the drums; I couldn’t play the bass. I used to go on stage pissed, no set list, not even tuning my guitar. Now I can’t do that. I’m transparent enough, now, to admit that to myself. I think that gives a bit of a kick up the arse - when I realised I'm so far away from being a polished artist, it's unbelievable.”
The sweet spot in music, for Andrew Cushin, is found through words; sound, for him, is secondary. “My songs, in particular, act as a therapy for me,” he confesses. Though the discussion of mental health is something people are more equipped to have in recent years, suicide remains to be the most common cause of death from men age 20-49 in the UK. The underlying causes behind that are heightened in working-class backgrounds, where there is a particularly gendered, societal expectation that men should supress their emotions and curb their self-expression. “I didn’t start writing songs to get us money or get us gigs – or even to please other people” he explains. “I wrote them because I was feeling shit. If I didn’t write a song and get my emotions out somehow, I was going to go out and smash someone’s fucking car up.”
“I was quite an angry child,” he admits. His eyes cloud over as he remembers why he wrote “Waiting For The Rain”. “The verses are about the police coming to nick my father, and the chorus is about me fucking off out the house because there’s a massive argument going on, and I’m off to go and get stoned. I poured all my emotion into that song. I think men’s mental health is something that needs to be touched on more, massively.”
“I’m fortunate enough that I’ve got an outlet for this. If I'm feeling like shit, my outlets are in my room: I've got guitars everywhere, and I can quite easily pour my heart into one of them. Some people - fucking hundreds of thousands of people - aren't as fortunate, and haven't got someone to talk to and haven't got something to do. I'm not the type of person - and listen, it's a massive thing that anyone going through any mental illness needs to speak out. Some people can't speak out! Some people can't. I'm one of those people. If I'm feeling shit inside, the last thing I wanna do is ring a fucking Samaritan and sit and tell them how I'm feeling, or go and see a shrink who will fucking lie us on a bed and say, "Right, okay, just close your eyes and picture a white canvas!" - it's not for me. The way that I deal with any kind of shit I've got going on is the guitar, and it's music. Some people, it's football, or boxing, some people haven't got anything. The ones that haven't got anything are the ones that struggle the most.”
It was, by bitter paradox, when everything was starting to look up with his music that he felt the greatest emotional weight pinning him down. It was then that he penned “Where’s My Family Gone?”, his most lyrically poignant, personal track of all, “That was written in a dark…” he hesitates. “A very fucking dark moment, actually.” After he and his mother had burned bridges, he felt entirely unmoored, living out of suitcases and in and out of hotels. “There wasn’t one normality in my life for six months – not one common factor I could go back to. And it’s shit, because, you know, when you feel like you’ve got no one, that’s when the worst of you comes out. Even when I was going on stage, I was finishing songs and thinking, "I just wanna smash this guitar and go home." But then you don't know where home is, so it was a really fucking dark time, man.”
There is a line in the song, which goes: “The only friend I have is here / He’s built with strings and listening ears.” The constant self-examination in the chorus, wondering if you’re the one to blame for life dealing you a poor hand, was like an exorcism for Cushin. “Out of that dark time came that brilliant song, and if people resonate with it, then it’s worth it,” he says. “That’s why if anyone wants to troll me, or give us hate, or whatever, I'm the best person to deal with it because I just laugh it off. But when people insult songs, then that's it. You've burned your bridge with me. If someone wants to sit and call me a shit singer or a shit performer, that's fine. But I lost my shit with someone tonight, actually, because they commented on a YouTube video of me playing ‘Where's My Family Gone?' and they accused me of not writing it. And I think, "Go through the fucking six months that I went through, and try and fucking write a song - or even just try and get through it". It was a hard time, but if I didn't have music then, I don't know where I'd be. I'd be in a funny old state, wherever I would be.”
It felt only fitting that the music video for “Where’s My Family Gone?” would be a funeral, with many questioning what the scene where he’s standing in the entrance, looking in, before walking away, could mean: is he the one who’s dead? Each possibility gives the song a new texture, where the listener can interpret the meaning they’re searching for, rather than the one Cushin himself believes. So for that reason, it remains ambiguous. “Can I just say that I cannot stand music videos? But funny story,” he begins, as he were nursing a pint on a Sunday afternoon at the social, “I was stood outside The Tyne Bar in Newcastle, where we filmed, and some old couple come over, and thought I was an extra. Obviously I’m stood in a suit, like a pillock.” When they asked if they were filming Vera inside, Cushin decided to play along: “I was going, ‘Aw, mate, she's very busy, she's very busy’. He was nudging his wife and going, ‘Vera's in there!’ and she's going, ‘Vera! I fucking love Vera!’ - little did they know it was just me, making a stupid music video.”
The music video he does hold a sense of pride for, however, is “Waiting For The Rain”. Its premise is simple: him alone, on stage with his guitar in monochrome; behind him is the shimmer of tinsel – the kind you get at the local club; and in the crowd is everyone who ever mattered: the friends and family who buy those tickets, who spread the word, selling out the seats. “The little old woman with all the wrinkles – who I tell on a regular basis to get botox, but she won’t fucking have it,” he jokes, though you can see it’s a thin veneer over sincerity. “So, the little old woman who’s sat there smiling… fucking breaks my heart every time I watch that, and the old man, that’s me nana and grandad. As you can see they're quite old, fucking hell, they're quite old, so it doesn't matter what happens in the future - ten, fifteen years down the line - we're always gonna have that beautiful scene of me nana smiling, do you know what I mean? So that's amazing. And then we've got a couple of extras that were my friends and they're just arseholes, in it for the craic. I think that's the biggest thing that's got me so hesitant about rerecording "Waiting For The Rain". If we've got to do another music video, I wouldn't wanna lose that scene, do you know what I mean? But we'll have to wait and see.”
While having sharks in his staircase and buying a fleet of limos, wouldn’t, of course, go amiss, for the time being, Andrew Cushin is happy to settle for finding connection. “If my songs can help other people to get out of the dark and shit times, then I'm happy. If my songs make no money, and I've got to go back to work in a year, but I've changed thirty, forty, fifty people's lives, then that's fine. I think the best thing you can do in life is help people. I'm a strong believer in that. I know people say, like, you know you've gotta look after number one and you've gotta live for yourself, and it's like alright, that's fine, but people need a fucking hand as well, do you know what I mean? I think if my songs can give people a hand, then I'm more than happy with how I get on. That being said, if people are listening and they want to fucking buy the record, I could still do with the money - but first and foremost, it's gotta be to help people.”