Ahead of his gig at Studio 2, Getintothis’ Cath Bore chats to Meilyr Jones about Keats, Bryon and writing about art.
I went to see Richard Hawley in October last year at the Dome Grand Central, on the first night of Liverpool Music Week. With John Joseph Brill opening, I got down early. Brill was good, bluesy and bold.
Then, the main support came on stage. He was very tall, with a pudding bowl haircut. His clothes didn’t fit quite right, too small but oversized at the same time. His songs were Scott Walker-y, dark and clever and passionate at every turn but witty too, trumpet and violin baroque pop. All elbows and knees, he sang with a soft Welsh lilt and between songs a smile puckered his mouth at the audience’s applause, turning him into a kid on Christmas morning. The entire set was weird, and totally beautiful.
The man’s name was Meilyr Jones.
There was a long queue of men and women at the merchandise stall in the break, each and every one a smitten kitten. I bought a CD of Jones’ live work and Marc Riley 6 Music radio sessions, zipped it in my pocket. Richard Hawley came onstage next and yeah, he’s the coolest cat in town and what a show, but all the way through I kept my palm pressed against my jacket pocket, checking the square cardboard CD case I’d just bought was still there, and safe. Back home I played the CD, and loved it. The internet told me that Meilyr has worked with GIT Award 2016 nominees Stealing Sheep, played bass on tour for Gruff Rhys and Neon Neon. And he’s been in a group before, meaning there were two albums by Race Horses for me to buy. I’m not sure if it’s possible to wear out CDs, but I gave these a bloody good go.
Five months on, and Meilyr Jones’s debut solo album 2013 is newly released. It’s pulled in rave reviews from everywhere, of course it has. It was never going to do anything less, with such songs performed like that. But Jones’s journey to the point of releasing 2013 was not straightforward, nor smooth. He studied tuba of all things at the Royal Academy of Music in London, but dropped out before graduating.
“Everybody thinks they come from an ordinary family, don’t they?’” he tells me. “But I do come from an ordinary family, not private school or anything like that. It didn’t fit for me somehow. It seemed the obvious thing to do (dropping out). I was playing gigs at the weekends, and my tutor was really nice about it, said you need to do make the music you want.”
His group Race Horses released two albums. Three years ago, a few months after the second came out, Meilyr split up the band as they prepared to support the Kaiser Chiefs on tour, citing the ever mysterious reason of creative differences. He headed to Rome for a holiday, to clear his head. “I wasn’t even sure what I wanted to do at that point,” he admits. “I was on my own for the first time, and without a band.”
On his first full day in Rome, he wrote morning pages of sorts. Morning pages are something writers are meant to do but rarely bother with; scribbling one’s musings upon waking loses its charm after a while. Reflecting on how well or badly you’ve slept grows old, and quickly. But Meilyr’s notes that day pretty much sum up why Rome was the inspiration for 2013.
“I was woken by a pink-red light. It was the sun coming up and the sky was pink, soft and romantic. It was so strong, I was tired, but had to sit up and look. I can see mountains soft in the distance close to the low clouds on the blue sky. Not a blue sky like at home, warmer and fainter. I went to the market and bought an orange, it was red and tasted incredible, a taste that was foreign and new. I will try to learn Italian. I like the shape and sound of it. I want to wander. I feel something.”
“On the first day in Rome, it seemed the right thing to do. I had everything planned out, breakfast at such a time, go for a run after that…” he says of the notes he made. “I don’t keep a diary, no – I wouldn’t like to write something like that down, my thoughts, in case anybody read it! With music it’s different.”
Jones gives many reasons why his short stay in Rome brought about as remarkable an album as 2013. He visited art galleries, museums, debated and talked with new friends, enjoyed the way the people of Rome follow their religion and spirituality but live life to the full and embrace it. But 2013’s influences are not confined to a warm romantic city miles away in another land far away. Indeed, it’s an international album; the songs with orchestral arrangements have Stealing Sheep’s Lucy Mercer on drums and one of the album’s highlights for me is on Return To Life, when Jones cries out “Big nose! Berlioz!” the words thickened and made glorious by The Glad Café Choir from Glasgow.
That moment is heart stopping, perfect. There are field recordings on the record as well, of an elderly Italian woman reading poetry, and blackbirds singing both outside his parent’s home in Wales and in Rome. Listening to it, it’s like the whole world joined in on making this record.
He cites the great poets, Byron, Keats as influences, thanking them on 2013’s credits. Ironic he admits, seeing as “When I was young, I hated reading. Then my brother gave me a book of poetry.” Culture is a big motivator for him. In How to Recognise a Work of Art, Jones attempts to “write about art, and not in a wanky way.”
Meilyr lives in London now and has been for six months. “Do you like it?” I ask.
“That’s a good question,” he says, as if he has to think about it. “You know, yes, Yes, I do,”
2013 is an unashamedly romantic and emotional record, but political too, with a small p. On Refugees, he opens with, “Get up and switch off…switch off your television…start talking…”
I don’t want to be too literal, but does he have a telly?
“My brother hasn’t got one, he wanted to watch a documentary but couldn’t work out how to put Flash in his laptop because it was so old and ancient. In the end I just thought, you know, fuck it. I’m susceptible, and end up just sitting there watching episodes of Come Dine With Me, anything that comes on! Even things like box sets, I was watching one – The Killing, or something and all of a sudden it feels like big chunks of time have gone.”
Meilyr’s pop music loves are everywhere on the album, and raise a smile because they’re so cheekily slotted in. Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain is given a nod on Don Juan. Cat Stevens’ Wild World is paid tribute to in the song Rome but we’re treated to psychedelic pop throughout, harpsichord and pretty elegant strings a knowing wink to Left Banke. He shows his influences proudly on the album, I suggest; Bowie, classical music, poetry, karaoke…high and low brow culture combined. Even on Race Horses’ first album he lists the music listened to when making that.
“I don’t think it should be like you’re too scared to admit who your influences are, as if you’re going to be found out in some way, like it’s a guilty embarrassing secret,” Meilyr says.
I wait until the end of the interview before I tell him how I bought his live CD last autumn and how excited I was to hear 2013 for the first, second, dozenth time. He seems genuinely delighted. Something tells me it won’t be long before Meilyr Jones hears similar sentiments over and over again, wherever he roams.
2013 by Meilyr Jones is out now. He plays Studio 2 on Parr Street, Liverpool on April 29.