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Black Country, New Road, a Breakout Band, Starts Over (Again)

MANCHESTER, England — Last month, the six members of Black Country, New Road were joking around in a cramped rehearsal room about to try something new: everyone singing lead vocals.

First, Tyler Hyde, the group’s bassist, sat forward and sang — her voice jumping between a smooth pop cry and a raucous shout. Next May Kershaw, usually on piano, took over, her voice gentle and brittle like a folk singer’s. Then Lewis Evans, the saxophonist, crooned two songs.

“Dope as hell,” Charlie Wayne, the band’s drummer, said as Evans finished. Evans didn’t seem too sure. “I was a bit too slow!” he said, sounding frustrated.

Just six months ago, Black Country, New Road, one of Britain’s rising rock acts, was a very different proposition. Back then, lead vocals were the domain of just one frontman: Isaac Wood, an intense and sometimes anxious-sounding singer, whose lovelorn lyrics helped Black Country, New Road win fan and critical devotion. The group’s debut album, “For the First Time,” was nominated last year for a Mercury Prize, Britain’s most important music award. Its second, “Ants From Up There,” was named a New York Times Critic’s Pick.

But just before New Year’s Eve, Wood sent his bandmates a Facebook message. He couldn’t be in the public eye anymore, he said. The stress of pouring his heart out onstage was too much. He was leaving.

Wayne said that when that message arrived, the band’s first thought was “the safety of our friend.” But once that was assured—Wood is in a much better place now, Evans said, happily working in a cake shop—the remaining members had to decide what to do next.

Several of the bandmates gathered to discuss that moment in a sunny yard after the rehearsal last month. Splitting up was never an option, Kershaw said, since “playing together is so important to us.”

The bandmates seemed to disagree on how hard restarting had been, though. When Evans said that beginning again after Wood’s departure “didn’t feel like a big deal,” Hyde and Kershaw gave each other confused looks, and laughed nervously. But his departure from him did make everyone appreciate more fully just how much pressure a band’s lead singer can be under. So they found a solution: share the load.

At Wood’s urging, they kept the band 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 occasionally stressful, months writing nine songs to fulfill European festival dates this summer. Without the income from those appearances, Evans said, they would have had to get jobs, so they would have hardly been able to play together at all.

The growing financial and emotional pressures on musicians have long been the focus of media attention in Britain. In 2017, Help Musicians, a nonprofit, set up a 24-hour help line to offer support for those with mental health issues or financial anxieties. Such worries only grew when the pandemic shut live venues, while the cost of living crisis has caused further concerns.

Wood’s departure illustrated those pressures, said John Doran, a music journalist who has long championed Black Country, New Road. Being in a successful indie band could once lead to a good lifestyle. Now, Doran said in a telephone interview, acts exhaust themselves “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 do not send them that at all.”

This is, in fact, the second time the members of Black Country, New Road — all still in their early 20s — have had to restart.

Four years ago, almost all of them were playing in another act, called Nervous Conditions, which was on the verge of breaking through in Britain’s competitive indie music scene. With only a couple of tracks online, taste-making websites declared the group one of the country’s “most exciting propositions,” and representatives from record labels flocked to its shows. But then its frontman, Connor Browne, facing anonymous accusations of sexual assault, issued a statement apologizing for the hurt caused, and the group disbanded.

Hyde said that the bandmates had learned lessons from that moment. After the split, “the whole ethos became, ‘We’re doing this for us and because we want to,’” she said. Since then, the band has rewritten songs and changed lyrics whenever they’ve become bored of them, she added.

When asked how they managed to keep reinventing themselves, the musicians said that having so many band members with different interests helped. But for the group’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, he said in a telephone interview that the group’s members were virtuosic musicians. That 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 communal bond, Greep added. “These guys genuinely go out of their way to just hang out as friends,” he said, sounding a little bemused. Most bands, including his own, do not do that, I have noted.

Even for such a close group of musicians, the process of stepping up to lead vocals has not always been easy. Evans said that he “got shakes” the first time he sang a track he’d written to his bandmates from him. Kershaw said that she had found it “nerve-racking,” and told everyone “not to worry” if they thought her tracks from her were n’t “the right vibe.” She squirmed on her seat as she recalled the memory of her.

But with shows looming, the band members had to overcome their nerves again to sing in front of paying audiences. A few days later, the band walked onstage at the Pink Room, a music venue in Manchester, northern England, filled with 250 people (the group canceled a sold-out 1,800-capacity show in the city shortly after Wood left).

If Evans was still nervous, he did not need to be. As soon as he started playing a jaunty saxophone melody to open the track “Up Song,” he was greeted by whoops from the audience. When the band got to the raucous chorus, the crowd started jumping up and down and chanting along, as if they’d heard the song hundreds of times. “Look at what we did together,” the band sang in unison, “BC, NR/Friends forever.”

A few tracks later, even the bar staff fell silent as Kershaw sang “Turbines/Pigs,” an eight-minute song in which she plays a gentle piano melody while singing, “Don’t waste your pearls on me/I’m only to pig.”

After 45 minutes, the band walked offstage with a few polite waves goodbye. Some fans shouted for more, until they realized that Black Country, New Road couldn’t come back for an encore even if they wanted to. The new incarnation had played all the songs it had.

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