What does it mean to be really happy? And where does this utter happiness, the kind that makes you and everything around you glow like never before, come from? A place from within ourselves or actually that new fancy thing for us to go and show off? These are only a few of the questions Man-Made Sunshine, better known as Conor Mason, singer of the famously sought-after alt-rock group Nothing But Thieves, asked himself when he went on a journey to not only find his own happiness, but rather a version of himself that he seemed to had lost in a whirlwind of commercial success, global stardom and masses of enamoured fans. What he found, however, weren’t just final rays of warmth shining through the cracks of ice his surroundings had become, but more so a beautiful and painstakingly honest musical project and EP that led him to share a lot more of himself with the world than many others would ever dare to.
Clasping the sun in his arms, set in the vastness of space and surrounded by an abundance of glimmering stars – that is how we see Conor Mason on the cover of his debut self-titled EP as the solo powerhouse Man-Made Sunshine. Futuristic and modern, yet familiar and comforting in a way, it is a design that would naturally look good hung up on someone’s bedroom wall, but as with the five tracks adorning the record, there is more to the cover than what first meets the eye. “The project was inspired by a poem by W H Auden, in which he says that he wants to dismantle the moon and pack up the sun because he doesn’t need them anymore. And for me, it is the opposite, I really need them,”, the singer explains. “I really want them. So I decided I’m going to build my own sun, I’m going to man-make it.” Born was Man-Made Sunshine, a project designed to serve Mason as a path of solitary healing and a release of all the things he couldn’t and wouldn’t control.
But before there even was a name, let alone an EP, it was one emotionally heavy day spent at a barbecue with his band that birthed what would once become ‘Little Bird’, the heartfelt stunner ballad of the record. Ridden by a devastative depression, but the wish to not spoil the joyful get-together, Mason sought some silence and calm – a sudden change in pace that not only led to the first lines of ‘Little Bird’ being written, but also to the understanding that something had to change, as the artist remembers: “The song is so about depression, about keeping that thing controlled and underneath the surface. It’s funny because a lot of people think it’s this ridiculously hopeful message about freeing yourself, which it is. But also, the little bird is insanely sinister, where you don’t really know what’s going to happen when you finally decide to let it out. When you suppress something for so long, it can just come out in so many wild ways. And that’s why the last lyric is, “are you ever coming out?”. Because at that point in my life, when I was writing that song, I was like, “nope, that’s staying there”.”
Thankfully, what did come out in the end was a ravishing explosion of emotions, colours, sounds, profound vulnerability and Mr Sunshine himself on what would find its way to his many fans’ ears a few years down the line in the form of his five-track strong debut. Unabashedly creating from a place within himself, with a perfectionistic eye and never settling for anything but the utmost sentiment and that special warmth, Mason put as much of himself on the plate as he could. But what could easily be seen as risky or scary to others – because sharing your own truth and the fullness of yourself to this often cruel, judging world can be – felt only natural to the talented artist – and like the only possible way forward. “When I say it more poetically, I kind of soul-bonded with all of the songs essentially. I worked really, really hard to make sure that every second from start to finish affected me and made me feel something. I didn’t want to let any stone come unturned. And I think it’s really easy to do that when you’re under pressure in this industry,”, the Essex-born musician tells while shining a light on the production process and his belief that sometimes the first shot at something might just be the best one. “A lot of the EP is actually my demo stems and the way they made me feel when I was first creating them. Because when you’re first emitting a song into the world, you’re birthing it and you connect with it so purely that you want to leave it in that way sometimes. It was lovely to have that freedom to just pour my soul into every second of them musically, lyrically, vocally, melodically, everything. Every single nuance of the EP is so purely whatever I am made of, whether people like it or not.”
Unsurprisingly, the solo endeavour sparked an abundance of support from family, friends, his Nothing But Thieves crew and management, and, once the official announcement had hit the airwaves, also from the excited fandom. As Mason retells, it’s what gave him the needed push and vigour to turn what at first had just been standouts of his musical vault into a complete affair, merch and upcoming, but yet unannounced live shows included – which, by the way, are guaranteed to be ones you won’t want to miss, as the singer teases: “I want to create a sort of art within these shows. I’ll have a band with me. Avi Barath, who I worked with on most of the EP, is going to be my music director and my pianist and we’ve got some other people as well. I want to create an atmosphere and make theatre in a sense of connecting. I’ll talk about everything within the breaks of the songs and then describe what we’re going to go into. It’ll be magical.”
Music, for me, is my soul’s reflection when I’m creating it, and my soul’s connection when I’m sharing and then listening to it.– Man-Made Sunshine
With the path ahead planned out to the tee, there was only one more thing to do – release all of it into the world. After a more than successful first taste with the heartfelt ‘Life’s Gonna Kill You (If You Let It)’, a tale about the dark places we sometimes get pushed to and the strength to hold on to the light, there wasn’t really any question of whether the EP would be welcomed with open arms or not. But listening to all of its five emotionally stirring and astonishingly bold and honest tracks, there is one specific song that has hit almost too close to home for many listeners, and also Mason himself – the brutally beautiful ‘Big’. A lofty-sounding, but gut-wrenchingly dark chronicle about a time when his father was suicidal and the back then very young musician had to pick up the remaining pieces of his youth that had come to a sudden halt. As the most hard-hitting song of the bunch, it allowed Mason to finally face something that he had long pushed away, but he wasn’t the only person involved: “That was the only one that was hard to navigate, because there’s someone else included in it. For me, it’s easy to talk about the ramifications of the trauma that it left me with and how I felt. That switch, the role reversal, the trying to grow up immediately, overnight. But I had to have a conversation with my dad. I thought it was really important for us to spread the message on mental health, especially with men his age, and he agreed. When I first played the song to him, he pulled over in the car and started sobbing. Our relationship is so close because I had to switch and become his parent for a while. And it stayed the same. Obviously, he’s still my dad, but you change.” Turning the project into an even more personal sonic adventure, Mason’s yearning to grow and reflect during the isolating pandemic had him stand face to face with all his unprocessed emotions and memories he knew he had to confront and process to come to terms with himself, as he states: “I trapped what happened for years and that caused me so many issues. I don’t blame anyone or myself, I was young. The way I thought I had to deal with it was to trap it. And it manifested. But you get to a point when you realise you need to do the work on it or it will stay that way. So what I believe with this song, and the way I talk about it is, be honest, because it will stay trapped and you will only suffer. Whatever pops up now, I do the work on it or accept it. I go over the motions of it. I let it be.”
From within the haunting depths of isolation, it was therapy and a lot of self-work on self-love and mindfulness that finally helped Mason reconnect with a fuller, more honest version of himself, one free of the past and open for what is to come. Well, that, and how could it be any different for an artist, the creative expression in form of music. In reality, Man-Made Sunshine was never really meant to exist outside Mason’s audio-visual sphere, but once the songs had been created, the now London-based vocalist understood that he had stumbled upon something very special. He felt it underneath his skin, one might say, as he exclaims: “Music, for me, is my soul’s reflection when I’m creating it, and my soul’s connection when I’m sharing and then listening to it. It’s so important, it’s the purest, most visceral form of art immediacy we have. And I believe with this EP, if I can be that raw and honest with myself, someone else somewhere will hopefully relate to and connect with it because they feel similar things.”
That connectedness, a bond that has already proven to be strong enough to extend around the whole planet, has also been what has for Mason proven to him that releasing the project had been the right thing to do from the start. Taking a look at his recently resuscitated Twitter profile, it becomes clear very quickly how the young artist was able to create a safe space for not only himself, but rather for a whole community of people who had only been waiting for such a place of communal healing and solace. But next to countless speckles of praise from the fans, it is also Mason’s continuous interactions with his dedicated audience that add yet another level of goodness to the project, despite the singer’s constant dissonance with social media and its many dark sides: “I hate the word business, but that’s what this project is and I’ve got to keep it alive, and the best way to do that is via social media. It’s tough because I don’t like it, the poisonous side of it, what it does to people. The devil you know is greater than the one you don’t. But it also clearly is working for getting out your art and for connecting with the right people. So I’ve naturally wanted to make an effort to reply to the fans and to connect with what they want to say because it’s part of a story and of bringing the project to life.” After jumping off the Twitter train at the end of 2020 and suddenly reappearing with a joyful ‘Hello Twitter’ in September this year to set the fanbase ablaze, it’s never been much of a secret that Mason, as well as many of his Nothing But Thieves confidantes aren’t the biggest fans of today’s uber-digitalisation and those small screens our eyes are locked on for probably way too long every day. A theme that has long found itself woven through the rock band’s stellar discography, and has now also found a new home in Man-Made Sunshine’s musical repertoire, as the serene, but haunting ‘Brain In A Jar’ retells. Inspired by the very Matrix-y ideology that we’re all just brains in jars on shelves being fed the same information and fake realities, it’s a song about an awakening and sees Mason gaze through the haze of today’s society. And, naturally, social media has long been part of the fog, as lyrics utter, “And I don’t think, so therefore I’m alive / I’ve been surfin’ on a simulated silver surfboard / Tell me this ain’t where I’ve lived my life”. But what seems to be so fully nestled in darkness, also features a surprisingly heartfelt reference to Mason’s childhood, as he elucidates: “That line is about surfing the web, but it was also a nod to a thing that my dad and I shared growing up, which is this Marvel comic hero called The Silver Surfer. Basically, I was describing things that we label ourselves as and we think we are, the things we own and think we have ownership over.”
Every single nuance of the EP is so purely whatever I am made of, whether people like it or not.– Man-Made Sunshine
Staying within the realms of the world of entertainment, Mason also took inspiration from the cult-classic Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’ epic tale of a publishing tycoon’s rise and fall, for the closer of his enthralling EP. Featuring lyrics like ,“And how can I get out of the cold / When that’s all that’s left of you now? / How can I get out of the cold / While clinging to my shivering soul?”, the rip-roaring ‘Rosebud’ revolves around the end of the singer’s last relationship and the realisation of having to let that person go, no matter how much it may hurt. “In Citizen Kane, his rosebud was the sledge that he had growing up and his memory that he’s held on to. For me, the song was me trying to find and grow a new one from a cold, tough, but loving, obviously at a time, relationship. And me trying to leave that frozen ground,”, Mason explains, while continuing, “I was so connected to this person and that frozenness was the only thing I had left. So I’m getting over it, wanting to free myself and grow that rosebud, but that means I have to let this person go fully and let her fall. Which is a tough decision to make, but you’ve got to do it to move forward.”
Whilst being settled in the depths of lockdown and having just moved to Leigh-on-Sea in Essex, it was specifically Mother Nature that helped Mason deal with his past and channel his personal demons into the sublime solo endeavour we can all listen to today. “The lyrical content and the whole project were very influenced by the fact that I could be alone and just be with nature. I would find a patch of grass on a hill in Leigh, and see where I grew up on my own. I would just sit there all day, and listen to music and write and be in the sun and then go and jump in the water,”, the Nothing But Thieves frontman remembers fondly. However, in the middle of it all, the artist was pulled back to the busy city life in the Big Smoke, but that didn’t stop him from taking that patch of grass with him. “When I got to London, I needed something familiar. I needed to be in a similar place where I was in Leigh, with all the sun and the sand and the grass and water. I needed to find a version of that in London, to carry on that journey of being in nature and how important it is to me.” Going over the motions of his released five tracks and specifically the visual elements of his “Sunshine Project”, the sonics and natural elements immediately suck you in and welcome you to the meticulously crafted palette that draws pictures of lofty walks, long nights and the sun melting the ice around you. In a nutshell, it seems like you’re stepping into Mason’s world and the life he’s been living for a quick second while feeling like you’re earning and learning so much for your own.
Creating a whirlwind rollercoaster of an EP, laden with vulnerable yet powerful musical magic, the all-round sonic sorcerer has used the past couple of years to come to terms with himself and offer the world a new side of himself under the name of Man-Made Sunshine. Digging deep into the emotional turmoil of his past and moving through waves of self-discovery, inner growth, and honest vulnerability, the five-track tale sees Mason hand the listener a piece of his very soul, in the hopes of connecting to people who may just be looking for a place of calm and frequencies to tune in to. But above all, the project is about nobody else than Mason and his own way to happiness and peace. And, in the very end, it only begs for one question to be answered – are you able to make your own sun or does it have to come to you? “You can definitely man-make your sunshine. I almost feel like I have to set a declaration before I speak because these are all my views of what’s healed me and is helping me. I am not a therapist with all the answers. But, I definitely feel like it can be a choice. I was in a state where the things you do, the things you are, the labels you put on yourself, the things you buy, you consume, the man-made ones, the consumerism – that was my identity. I am Conor, big singer of a big band, I have these things, I paste over the cracks with this stuff. And I know it was all wrong, we all do. Your inner child is constantly niggling at you, that’s why you feel empty and lonely. Because you’ve disregarded your true self and your true feelings by being very, very, very overly masculine and locked up. But I’m not talking about genders, I’m only talking about energies. I believe there’s a masculine and feminine energy, and we need both symbiotically to work and thrive. And I pushed away what came naturally to me growing up, which was my feminine energy, my kind of love, my empathy, and my sensitivity. So, for me, bringing that back, and choosing acceptance and love and happiness each day by day, that’s how I found healing.”
Written by Laura Weingrill // photography by Lewis Vorn