“This was the first time I’d had to…live”; Meilyr Jones interviewed
By Fergal Kinney
“There’s a band on the radio/
This is my generation/
Again and again…”
“Dun Juan” Meilyr Jones
Sometimes, British indie music doesn’t half feel like it’s in something of a stalemate – in this corner, the dark and the difficult, in the other corner, floppy undergraduates droning earnestly for other floppy undergraduates. For a generation of indie musicians, bright and dextrous pop with serious songwriting has seemed somewhat out of the question. Stumbling on ‘Refugees’ last year – the first single from Welsh singer songwriter Meilyr Jones – felt something of a revelation. At last! Earlier this year, Meilyr released ‘2013’ on Moshi Moshi Records – by some distance one of this year’s best and most engaging debut albums. It reminded me so much of music that I love – Jonathan Richman, early Stuart Murdoch, John Cale circa Paris 1919, even Sparks – whilst owing very little to any of the above. A great chunk of the record is orchestra led, and can fleetingly feel discordant, visceral and experimental. .
Certainly one of the most interesting things about the record is his cut and paste approach to other people’s music – snatches of songs appear as though whirring through a city late at night, with bursts of tinny radio and music leaking from passing bars. Wasn’t that the riff to ‘Rebel Rebel’? Too late. Doesn’t that sound an awful lot like Carly Simon’s ‘You’re So Vain’? You’ve missed it. The city in question, incidentally, is Rome – the album was written after a revelatory trip to Italy in 2013 after the break up of Meilyr’s old band Race Horses. Middling guitar indie’s loss was serious pop music’s gain, and Meilyr Jones has emerged as one of the sharpest and most promising new acts this year. Ahead of his forthcoming UK tour, I sat down with Meilyr in his manager’s central London flat to discuss ‘2013’ over a cup of tea.
I went to watch you at the Round Chapel gig where you performed the album with the full strange arrangement (as oppose to the stripped down, band line-up Jones usually tours with), tell me about that
I went to see loads of concerts and see different players playing and I’d go and ask them…people from bands, some jazz musicians, where it’s kind of more inward. So we decided to do it live, and I decided to contact all the same people, of course some of those people weren’t around…it was cool, the agents I work with are so great, and it’s odd – I never think about it really, or you never talk about it much, but the people I work with are so great at putting gigs on. I didn’t want to do it as a gig, but also wanted it to be like an open party thing where you could turn up and listen, and they were really cool with us doing it. And it was so nice having that direct contact, as a different thing…
This album definitely has its beginnings in splitting from Race Horses, at what point after that did you decide to decamp to Rome?
It’s strange – it’s hard thinking about what led to what because you could say, maybe in a way, that the interests that eventually led me to Rome – which was music in a different way – and literature, and sculpture. Those kind of things informed me splitting the band, the band coming to an end, in a way. That had been coming for a while. It’s odd isn’t it with classic stories of bands and they’re all completely different in their own way. When you’ve developed from school with people your relations are just so…you change so much in that time and you get different friends and have different interests, different girlfriends, all that sort of stuff. And new members in the band, new management. And that’s hard enough as an individual but at least as an individual you can….hang out with friends. But if you’re a bunch of people in a group…how that stays together is tricky. So I guess…changes. It kind of emerged that we’d end. And then straight away I kind of thought, I had a little bit of money, not much, but I thought I could either live in London or go to Rome.
Go to London and watch it disappear in a month…
Yeah or go to Rome and watch it disappear in style in a completely different way in a month and a half!
So what was it initially that made you think about Rome?
I was out there for a month and a half, from March 5th to mid-April. And yeah, it was just absolutely amazing, it’s an amazing place.
Were you writing while you were in Rome or did that come afterwards?
I didn’t really think about it, I was just kind of having a break and getting excited about stuff. Living with foreing people who spoke a completely different language but I felt really at ease with. I was just excited. In a way you think of being in a band as being an exciting thing to do, but also in terms of socially it’s weird, because if you’re in a busy band – and we weren’t crazy busy or famous – but you can be in this kind of loop of playing loads of gigs, feeling excited, coming back, and finding time for friends and building things gradually – it’s difficult. This was the first time I’d had to…live…
You associate being in a band as being quite liberated, but…
Yeah it is really liberated, but also you’re not… You can’t go on holiday because you’re on tour and you haven’t got any money. It was the first time I could actually be on my own and meeting new people and friends in a completely new city. I’d visited somewhere for like a week or two, and a lot of people don’t get a chance to do that, but I did, and I made a way, and I was lucky and fortunate and kind of developed in that way. But with writing songs, I didn’t have an idea about writing an album or being a solo artist, I just thought I’m a bit burnt out, so I’ll live, read.
What were you doing on a day to day basis?
I was kind of – a bit of what I do here – walking, I’d go running, I went to make a video there for ‘Strange/Emotional’ and that idea for that video was trying to recreate what a day is like. So I kind of got up, had breakfast, wrote a bit, read a bit, tried to learn Italian, failed, walked the dog a bit, my friend’s dog, went out all day to churches, bumping into people, trying some different food. Like a tourist but in a homely way, it’s such a lovely city – the eternal city, yeah. And then in the nights, I’d come back. I was living with lovely Italian, down to earth people, which meant I couldn’t get into my head too much. In the nights they’d say “Oh we’re going over to this person’s house for food”, they wouldn’t invite you, they’d just say “oh, you’re going”. A few nights in it was just like “fucking hell, great”. All that. It was really really great.
Was there a contrast in an approach to life, that seems to be a bit of a catalyst on the record…
Yeah, there was. Weirdly, the way people treated me felt more similar to Wales or the North of England. In certain ways in that outwardly you’d think it was judgemental or just traditional and conservative – there’s a younger generation who are really obsessed with technology, love technology and this American idea of freedom – which probably think ahh it’s old fashioned, judgemental, and when you do live in those places you do feel like that. But I think, in a way, people are outwardly judgemental – if you’re wearing something daft and you expect someone not to say anything, well that’s bullshit ,because they’ll say “well what the fuck are you wearing” and you say “I’m wearing this, fuck you!” so they say “Ah cool”. It’s like a child’s way of seeing difference but with a deeper acceptance. I’d go running in tiny shorts at a time that they would find it freezing, old women in shops, builders, and it’s fine, in that way it’s more similar to Wales.
I’m from Blackburn, which isn’t similar but it’s certainly not really metropolitan or city-ish…
Exactly, and that was something I really wanted. More than anything it was just nice to go there to see a different kind of culture that I didn’t feel was here, but I’d been reading of in books. And I suppose, when you feel like you’re growing apart from something you find a lot of comfort in…people that used to be alive (laughs). You can kind of really get into that person’s life so I just followed my instinct, I read loads of writers that were writing about Rome, and all the sculpture, so it just kind of felt right and instinctive.
It’s interesting you talk about having left the Race Horses, was it important that you would do something musically more textured and less constrained with more instrumentation?
That’s really interesting, like, usually you’re reacting to what you’ve done before but it felt different with this because it’s just a simple thing. Feeling strange in some way, as you always will at the end of something, no matter how amicable, you’re always going to feel a bit of an overhang. A bit of horror. So I felt a little bit like…I wasn’t interested in records, so that kind of steered me more into classical music. I studied classical music but while I was there I hated it and I got into rock’n’roll music, so when there was that pressure it drained all interest. But it took a while and it gradually grew back. Towards the end it started growing. I’d been listening to Beethoven a lot and Berlioz, seeing things in landscapes, so field recordings and orchestral music – it’s over simplifying it but just that feeling. The music I was listening to, the feeling of the place, it kind of made me want to do that kind of music. And in terms of things being textured I guess variety was the thing I was most interested in. Sometimes you want to write something really close, or you want to write something like ‘Rome’ – my favourite song on the album – there’s a distance there, there’s more texture. It’s lighter, it’s further away, I kind of wanted just to experiment it seems. And then on coming back I started getting interested in making music from YouTube clips and recycling electronic music, and that kind of thing, that kind of lowbrow idea that I saw in Rome through you know, the tourist side. But obviously I did write the bulk in Rome and before I went that spirit was building, and after I came back that spirit carried on. And I wrote a lot after coming back.
It’s interesting you mention about the lowbrow thing, because there’s an element of using that on the record – the nod to ‘Rebel Rebel’ in ‘Strange/Emotional’, or ‘How to Recognise a Work of Art’ having that Dexys style riff, that cut and paste thing is something you’d more associate with hip hop. A lot of people would, when they’d got to that point, turn away but you’ve really embraced that.
Yeah I think that, exactly like that hip hop idea, and it was only after that the producer said “oh it’s quite a hip hop thing”. But yeah completely, I suppose that…I had complete freedom doing this and that was a hard thing, but that was what I wanted the album to represent and to be. And in those hip hop records, they come out of complete poverty in a way, a lot of those records. Initially, you just go for the feeling – if you don’t have anything to lose you can be as adventurous as you want. So I think maybe that comes from freedom. In a way. Which I had. Complete freedom, the place I’d put myself in. But it is an interesting thing whether to shy away. But I got into this idea of whether, you know this thing that “I’m not the most important thing in it”. I’m just exploring things and showing them, so rather than think “oh I borrowed from this, I’m going to try and conceal that”, I’m not really worried about originality so much. The moment I start to worry about originality is often when my aspiration comes in. If I want recognition for something, which I often do, then I probably…then I’m likely to play down influences. But if you’re not worried about that and you want to make something to share, I wasn’t really worried. I’d be like “yeah, because that’s a really good song and I’m making something that sounds like that” or even “yeah that sounds like that and it’s quite funny”. It’s a joyous act. Rather than a cynical act.
It’s about ideas of authenticity
Absolutely. And success has an angle on it, because if you are successful or if you pursue that and care a lot about money then in a way you’re foolish to show what your influences are in case they come after you and sue you. And…but then, if you’re in that mentality of covering your tracks then your music isn’t going to be that open and joyous. And that’s why a lot of free music – maybe – comes from the 50s and 60s before the industry was established, before the idea of records being a thing. And money, and pop, and contrivance, and appearance and videos in the 80s, you do feel that carefree joyous thing kind of disappear.
I read you saying that you were quite unconcerned with it being a fashionable record and trying to not really worry about it being fashionable, and there is something really quite uncycnical and unfashionable on tracks like ‘God’ or ‘Refugees’. I mean it’s obvious there’s quite a bit of distance, singing about God, but it’s quietly a call to arms…
You always go too far sometimes and it’s important to step back and have that movement. I think in a way, it’s interesting to see – I never think of this first and foremost, it just comes out subconsciously – it always should be through, like poetry, lets more come out by not being too explicit or instrumental music you can often feel a feeling that’s really clear and strong but not too explicit. And that’s something I think about, and in a way I think that it’s interesting…in the time we live in where it’s spoken of as a liberal time, if you asked anyone, the idea is that in our time, in Britain, in the West, we’re in the best time possible because we have equality and freedom and these things. And so it gives you the impression that there’s no taboos. But it’s interesting what the taboo’s are. Because religion and God are the taboos.
You end up replacing one set of taboos with another?
Yeah. And in some ways we are in a fantastic time, but the only way of judging is your intuition on whether you’re in a good time or not. Freedoms, on paper, but deeper down no freedom. And I think in a way a couple of those things I was interested in and kind of came out. It seems the two things you’re not allowed to do is criticise progress and technology, but if I say I’m not on Facebook people think I’m having a go at them…and the other thing is talking about religion, if you don’t go “ahh I think religion is terrible and the world’s better off without it”, if you even pose the notion that a lot of people in the past didn’t have that mentality and I respect it, you know, it’s interesting that it seems like there are no taboo’s, but you start talking, and you realise that what you thought was an open platform does naturally…people do have boundaries.
Did that become more stark going to Rome and picking up on a different attitude?
Yeah definitely, I guess at least I noticed more, that thing that if someone was unhealthy…if someone’s not into going to the gym and not into eating loads of amazing food that’s good for them, here – and I think it’s an LA thing – there’s that judgement of “oh God! They’re wasting their life”. Whereas in Rome and many other places, it wasn’t important, you’d get someone who loves eating, who’s jolly and fucking loves life and drinks loads – and that’s them – and they’re friends with someone who’s really into sports. But there wouldn’t be this irritation from one to the other. There’d just be like an acceptance of “oh yeah, that person’s like that”. Not that, trying to convert – which weirdly, is the things I think are the worst about religion. Actually in a country that you’d think has that kind of idea actually allows for more variety than you at first might think. And it’s interesting – sorry to yap on – with Greece as well, you had Gods for different things. It wasn’t just the one God, Bacchus was wine and getting pissed which is really important – which was seen as a God – and then another God is Apollo – which is also important. It’s different Gods for different things. There are so many records that are just one mood – it never occurred to me to make a record that was consistent, you know, just orchestral. And I think that roughness and smoothness, it’s important they live together. And it’s not always an orchestra in a traditional sense, it’s one in an older sense – in early music you’d have an orchestra but they’d be like bands, in that people would play different instruments for whatever they’d need to do on that night. Songs written for parts but not for instruments, and I realised that that’s what I like doing in my music. And also in those orchestral sessions, my friend Pippa played recorder on one song, and then piano on one song, and organ another, and a lot of people I’ve worked with are really great musicians, really great well rounded musicians, and I wanted that energy rather than just hiring in a group that play together a lot, so that it remains that very vital thing.
There’s a couple of tracks I’m interested in discussing specifically – ‘Refugees’ for one, you watched that after watching ‘Spirit of 45’ (the Ken Loach documentary about the 1945-51 Labour governments) which is really interesting. I remember coming out of having watched that feeling so righteous and furious, I didn’t know politics could be like that…
Exactly, I had that mixture of excitement, euphoria and a shame. That there was a time where politicians were brave enough to speak the right thing and actually bothered to dedicate their lives to going to the streets and, seeing their job as that properly, not just pretending to show up and wave. Aneurin Bevan showing up to soup kitchens, people in the real world realising we need to sort this out, this out, this out, and the simplicity of language of Bevan – all those people – but that kind of bravery really made me think about the time we’re in now. Watching that film, watching Aneurin Bevan speeches after that, I just really admired it and then I wrote that song (‘Refugees’) quite quickly after it and developed the words. Different bits of freedom.
It’s a very urgent lyric – “get up, switch off your television”…
It’s a weird line that, in a way I said it to myself as much as to, you know, the audience. With that song I wanted to make a video and a recording at the same time, at that time I wasn’t sure about recording an album, I just thought “oh I’ll make a film”, and this will be one part of the film, and I’d go to the piano and there’d be that playing and then we’d go out and there’d be birds, and the ensemble comes in, and then we’re in Rome…my idea was to make a film. It’s just kind of ways of working around the idea of making an album – which I don’t still feel like it’s an album, though it is, but that’s a weird thing.
To me, it’s a visual thing. It’s possible to do something on a flat visual thing, a painting that feels more like a sculpture than a painting – genre wise it is an album, it’s on vinyl and takes up two sides, or it’s on CD and takes up this amount of space, it is an album…but to me it isn’t. It’s like a collection of music and it doesn’t feel like a studio-y thing. It doesn’t either feel like a live thing. It feels like a compilation. And to me compilation things aren’t really records in a way, they’re kind of more like scrapbooks. But it does feel like a whole. I kind of see it like a piece of music with a missing film. But that’s just me…people could see that as pretentious but it’s just me being honest about how I feel.
‘Featured Artist’ – I’m interested in the lyric on that. If someone was to ask me what does ‘2013’ sound like, I wouldn’t play them that…
No, no. It’s odd, because the layers build up around the song it’s really interesting what comes out when you talk about something. When I did the video, after I’d recorded ‘Featured Artist’ I started to think more about what I had done and what I thought about was the way that really genuine people, really brave people, get appropriated into culture. And I guess, I found it funny always seeing these free magazines that you’d get with the Guardian or the Times where they’re kind of talking about, you know, re-discovering…that really journalistic view of people and stuff. In my mind I just kind of imagined between an old actor or someone who’s just fallen back into fashion, whether it be Lou Reed – he didn’t really fall out of fashion I suppose – and it’s either the early stuff was good and it’s called return to form, and then I thought of the wealth of people’s lives…and I know that’s what journalism is, and I understand that, but all that wealth of life. Kevin Ayers, maybe he was in Paris for six years and a journalist would say that was a reclusive period, but maybe it wasn’t, maybe he recorded loads of stuff that no one ever heard or did loads of gigs that were never written about. So it’s about that idea of a real life and a secret life; what you see and what you don’t see; and it’s like conjury. You can see me like this – I wrote all these hits in the day – you know like Brel, or even Orson Welles – I am this, but also that is as much as it is, but if you want to look a little bit closer then I can’t be appropriated. I straddle so much history – and everyones lives do – but his character in the song does play up to it. It’s this idea of somebody who’s been domesticated by culture. And they are their own caricature but they’re reacting against it. And it’s kind of fun, it’s really nice sometimes writing words that are really cheeky.
All words by Fergal Kinney. Fergal runs the Let’s Make This Precious club night in Manchester.
‘2013’ is out NOW. Meilyr is on tour in September and October, tickets at http://meilyrjones.com
28 Sep The Rainbow • Birmingham
29 Sep Thelka • Bristol
30 Sep By The Sea • Margate
1 Oct Bleach • Brighton
3 Oct Leeds • Brudenell Social Club
4 Oct Manchester • Deaf Institute
5 Oct Liverpool • Leaf 6 Oct London • Village Underground
7 Oct Leicester • Cookie 8 Oct Oxford • The Bullingdon
21 Oct Cardiff • Tramshed Festival
22 Oct Kendal • Kendal Library
3 Oct Brudenell Social Club • Leeds
4 Oct The Deaf Institute • Manchester
5 Oct Leaf • Liverpool
6 Oct Village Underground • London
7 Oct The Cookie • Leicester
8 Oct The Bullingdon • Oxford
21 Oct Cardiff • SWN Festival
22 Oct Kendal Library • Kendal