Thomas Dolby is "a good halfway through" his first new album in nearly 20 years, and he plans to have the first music from it out in June -- for his online fan club, at least.
Dolby tells Billboard.com that the "A Map of the Floating City" album -- which features guest appearances by Mark Knopfler, Regina Spektor, Imgoen Heap, Natalie McMaster, Eddi Reader and Camera Club's Bruce Woolley -- is comprised of three suites. "Amerikana" focuses on a fondness for American roots music Dolby developed while living in the United States for 22 years. "Oceanea" was inspired by "returning to my spiritual home" in the eastern coastline of England, while "Urbanoia" is "kind of a dark place, a dark city-state, so there definitely are some slightly more twisted songs on there."
Knopfler and McMaster perform on "17 Hills," which will be part of the "Amerikana" section. Reader and Woolley are part of "Oceanea's" title track, while Spektor portrays an Eastern European waitress in a song called "Evil Twin Brother."
Starting with "Amerikana" on June 12, Dolby will release all three parts to members of his Flat Earth Society at thomasdolby.com. The other two sections will come out as digital EPs during the year, and Dolby hopes to have the full "A Map of the Floating City" album, with additional tracks not released online, out "before the end of the year."
"I don't know how I'm going to release it, whether there will be a label involved or what," says Dolby, who's best known for his '80s hits "She Blinded Me With Science" and "Hyperactive!" "With technology making music so accessible to everyone right now...I still feel the music industry is important, and I'm sort of hoping a new entity will emerge that...really helps the artists get to the right fans. I'm near enough to the end of the album to be going out and talking to people in the business and seeing what's out there, hoping to form a partnership with somebody who can help me get the album out."
Dolby's last set of songs was "Astronauts & Heretics" in 1992. After that he took what he planned to be "a couple years' sabbatical" and devoted himself to working in Silicon Valley, developing technology platforms with companies such as Headspace, Beatnik Inc. and the award-winning Retro Ringtones LLC. But, he says, "eventually it became all about engineering and sales and it wasn't very interesting to me. I decided to get back to music -- frankly, I was missing it. And it was exciting again because of all the changes that were happening with amazing new toys, self-publishing and all of that. I really feel energized."
Although he's embraced those new technologies, however, Dolby says he took a decidedly old school approach while recording "A Map of the Floating City" in a converted, solar-powered 1930s lifeboat in the garden of his home.
"What I think I always did best was write songs that told a story...beyond the usual pop relationship songs," says Dolby, who started playing live again in 2006 and plans to tour in 2011. "I was using electronics, but I was looking for a lush sort of ethereal sound. I've come back to those songs, that storytelling that I do best. I'm focused on that rather than on the frills...so many of the songs on this album I could sit down and play on a piano like a singer-songwriter, and that was never the case, really, in the old days. The motto for this album has been 'only do what only you can do.'"