Monday, 14 May 2012

Keepers: Wall Street Journal Interview: Gabriella Stern

Once again, Trevor Jones, an obscure British singer-songwriter, has produced a gorgeous pop album that few will hear — unless there’s justice in the world. Those of us who’ve followed Jones for years savor his new releases, playing and replaying them because that’s how best to absorb his moods and fresh tunes. Then comes a reliable wave of enthusiastic reviews from a select following of pop-music critics from the U.K., Italy, New Zealand, New York, followed by, well, meager sales. 
Jones’s new album, “Keepers,” due out Oct. 25, has already received raves, and indeed it surpasses “Hopeland,” his prior, and first, solo effort combining song and spoken word. “Keepers” now ranks among my top-three favorite Jones creations — the others being the “Limbo” and “Alaska” albums produced byMiracle Mile, a group comprising Jones and collaborator Marcus Cliffe.

I recently contacted Jones to ask him about his new music and his career.
The Wall Street Journal: Basic stats - how old are you?
Trevor Jones: Fricking Fifty!
Where were you born?
Ely, Cambridgeshire but, as my Dad was in the RAF, I spent much of my childhood abroad. (Singapore & Cyprus)
Where do you live?
I live in a small cottage in a little village near Henley, between Oxford and London.
When did you start being a singer-songwriter?
When I returned from my early years abroad I was sent to a boarding school in North Yorkshire. There wasn’t a lot to do but play rugby and gaze at my belly button. One Christmas I asked my parents for a guitar. I received a cherry red Gibson SG copy and taught myself (badly). My friends all wanted to mimic Clapton and Page so it was out on permanent loan; I was more interested in the stories and songs of Paul Simon and Tom Waits so I traded the SG in for an acoustic guitar and painted it blue. It was all mine after that…
Where do you write, record?
I have a special chair (the ‘cinnamon chair’) in my back room that looks out on to the garden. Most MM songs start there, although the genesis for the solo stuff is a similar chair that sits in our dining room in Corsica. We’ve recorded everything since ‘Alaska’ at Marcus’s Norbury Brook studio. We’ve had our house in Corsica for nearly 10 years now. It’s become our ‘other life.’ We alternate between the two lives; London and Corsica, and have been amazed at how one lifestyle enriches the other. Although my songs with Miracle Mile are personal, the inspiration for ‘Hopeland’ came from a very particular place and time. I was feeling disconnected in London: there was so much noise that I couldn’t hear. I wanted to retreat to a quiet place and try to reconnect with simple virtue. I felt graceless and needed to sit in quiet, and then take the time to stand and stare, to recognise the wonders, the delights and shadows of life. As I’ve said, my girlfriend Di and I have a house in a small village (population 60) half way up a mountain in northern Corsica. Over the course of a year I wrote ‘Hopeland’ in that house. The poems and songs are very much rooted in that wild, authentic environment and I hope that the simple, traditional existence is reflected in the directness of the writing. I wanted the recording of the songs to reflect that simplicity and directness.
Are you seeing your acclaim and popularity pick up over the years — as measured by disc sales, attendance at concerts (do you ever perform?), reviews, whatever other metrics?
As the music got quieter I found myself more comfortable in a controlled studio environment and less willing to expose myself to the vagaries of live performance. In doing so I removed myself from the everyday contact that might endorse my work. Critical acknowledgment is important in that it encourages my mumblings. It’s heartening when informed journalists take the time to listen. My music is important to me; I take it seriously. It is ultimately my attempt to observe, communicate and connect with the world. Where some folk seem engaged by the grand gesture, I’m more interested in the small pulses of life. That is not intended as a criticism of others: gesture is a vital part of any dialogue, but for me the challenge is to make the mundane interesting, to illuminate everyday miracles and small dramas without making them seem dull.
Frank question: how does it feel being so good and yet being relatively undiscovered? Does it anger you? How do you deal with the frustration?
I suppose that there’s cold comfort in knowing that a lot of great music goes unheralded. I guess I’m resigned to life in the margins. The benefit of independence is that you can remain true to yourself. You don’t have to manicure your work to suit some corporate template. You can develop naturally. The danger of course is that you might make the same unchecked mistakes over and over. It suits me though; I’m not good at taking direction.
Is it fair to say you work hard via word of mouth, Internet, and social networking to spread the word? Do you have champions out there doing the same? Have their ranks been swelling?
Our fan base seems to be increasing; sales remain modest but folk who take the time to listen seem to be incredibly engaged and loyal. There’s no denying that the Internet connects us with kindred spirits. The Italians seem particularly interested. Our music is available to download through the usual sites and the benefits are undeniable, although I’m a little uncomfortable with the MP3. I think that we might suffer a reaction from the listening habits of the modern music fan; folk listen to iPods rather than CDs, often with the ‘Shuffle’ on. With MM and particularly the solo stuff the sequence of listening is vital. I believe the albums are best heard in order and in one sitting; maybe too much to demand in these transient times. We take care in developing the progression on an album. One thought leads to another; a development of sound, mood and thought. The hope is to engage the listener, to present a listening experience akin to a journey. That sounds a little self-important I know, but there has to be ambition attached to any creative process.
Personal question: some of the autobiographical songs are awfully sad–what happened to your sister? On “Pink Jesus (Limbo),” what is the old recording we’re hearing?
I’m always prodding Marcus to feature his bass playing more, and he came up with a lovely piece that I’d been sitting on for a while, waiting for the light bulb to flash. My sister Kerry is never far from my thoughts. She took her life nine years ago. I had already placed that moment in ‘Sister Song’ on ‘Alaska’ so was mindful of not being overwrought in her remembrance. There was a dignified melancholy suggested in the quiet beauty on Marcus’s piece that somehow seemed appropriate to her now distant memory. For some forgotten reason I had recorded a conversation with my parents just after Kerry’s passing. Some phrases reverberated; Mum has a framed picture of Kerry and, in the recordings, she talks about the comfort of “dusting her everyday”. We took some of the spoken sections and flew them into the music, and I wrote some brief thoughts and sang them. So, just a bass guitar, my Mum and me. Where ‘Sister Song’ was raw, cathartic, vital as a means of dealing with something unthinkable, ‘Pink Jesus’ feels more like a goodbye kiss.

On “Plasticine (Limbo)” — whom are you singing to?
The easy ambiguity of much popular music invariably allows listeners to inhabit a song and make it their own. I wonder if our limited commercial success is because my lyrics are too specific, refining our appeal. I try to illuminate the everyday stuff that might seem too mundane to be worth a second glance. Nothing original in that, many writers attempt to connect by observing those ‘penny-drop’ moments, but for a song to resonate, for me, there needs to be personal investment, specifics that might alienate, or at least take the ‘that’s me’ moment away. ‘Plasticine’ started as an observation of a friend’s disintegrating relationship and his attempts to re-launch himself as an independent spirit. Moving forward helped him to look back with clarity; resentment became understanding and he began to “talk about the good things” again…as Paddy MacAloon noted “all of my insights in retrospect”; isn’t that simply ‘wisdom’. I didn’t want the song to be voyeuristic or too specific to him, so I imagined myself regretful at the end of my current (long-term and very happy) relationship. This provided the tastes and smells of that last verse and took away the possibility of the song ever being a single!
Do you agree with AmericanaUK (a music web site) that “Keepers” is sadder than “Hopeland” and if so, why is this so?
‘Keepers’ is essentially a collection provoked by loss. My previous album ‘Hopeland’ had been bathed in optimism’s glow after the retreat to a simple life in Corsica had gifted a startling clarity of thought. What followed was no regression, just an unsettling feeling that those peaceful waters were about to be disturbed. It’s inevitable that small dramas set the ripples forming and here they were again. And again, it was through writing that I tempered that turbulence. Once more I withdrew, simplified and learnt to be alone. I started writing ‘Keepers’ on the shores of a lake in northern Portugal, and stumbled towards a moment of grace on the roof of a shepherd’s hut in Corsica. Always close to water, always with a small yellow notepad in hand. Inside the cover of that notepad I had written the words of American poet Galway Kinnell: ‘Maybe the best we can do is do what we love as best we can’. It’s the ‘Maybe…’ that moved me. ‘Keepers’ is also a collection provoked by the loss of a good friend. A recognition of the importance of touchstones; objects, places and people that inspire us to keep eyeing the horizon, yet offer safe harbour should things go awry. These bellwethers colour our lives daily, helping us to go on. We bottle their benevolence and call it ‘home’. We carry them with us; their absence is company enough. Their kindred spirit can haunt inanimate objects; a toy plane, a letter, a button, a bible, a key…These are not pious custodians, just plain folk with the same vulnerabilities as the rest of us and yet something sets them apart, moving us to burden them with our wellbeing. They become the keepers of our faith in other people. We are comforted in their presence and diminished by their loss.
What’s next?
I’m still writing, always hopeful that my next song will be my best. Song writing is like breathing to me. I feel blessed to have retained enthusiasm for my creative outlet. There’s nothing sadder than looking at my girlfriend’s dusty dancing shoes in the attic…


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