As Colorama release their first album in three years, Getintothis’ Cath Bore caught up with main man Carwyn Ellis for a bit of natter.
Carwyn Ellis, the Welsh singer, songwriter, composer, multi-instrumentalist, producer, radio presenter, and musical collaborator with many, has been involved in notable releases these last months alone; as writer and co-producer of two songs on St Etienne’s album Home Counties; and on Fulmar, a response with Edwyn Collins, to Bert Jansch’s 1979 Advocet, found on a new EP, Advocet Revisited.
And in August, Bendith, his project with alt folk band Plu, won the Welsh Language Album of the Year Award 2017; Getintothis will be shocked and more than a little appalled if it doesn’t win a place on the Welsh Music Prize shortlist later this month. His previous albums – Colorama‘s Box and his electronic project Zarelli‘s Soft Rains have both been previously shortlisted.
Right now Carwyn on a short break from playing keyboards, guitar and percussion with The Pretenders on tour, and last week released a new Colorama album. Some Things Just Take Time is Colorama’s eighth, if we include a compilation of their Welsh language songs, and is, in Carwyn’s own words ‘a big departure’ from 2014’s Temari.
Calling the carefully collated collection of eleven songs as an ‘artefact’ because ‘it implies that it’s been lovingly created’, is a perfect description. He’s wanted to do an acoustic singer-songwriter album for a while, but Some Things Just Take Time was born and completed because of two songs he recorded, the self-penned Halcyon Days and a cover of R. L. Burnside’s Long Haired Doney, made for a completely different project, an unreleased record called London Mississippi.
‘I was proud of those particular recordings and I’ve kind of hung the album around those two songs and things I’ve felt adorned those two songs well enough for it to fit as a whole,’ he tells us.
The record also carries a cover of Sonny Bono’s Baby Don’t Go, but the remaining songs are Carwyn’s own. In many ways, Some Things Just Take Time is a long musical love letter; romantic love, fondness for friends, those playing on the record (‘my very own Wrecking Crew‘), a love for times gone by and traditions lost. Inspired by Tobacco Road songwriter John D. Loudermilk‘s penchant for extensive liner notes, the album has detailed written accounts of each song; how, why and where.
Recorded over a period of ten years, in Toerag Studios and Edwyn Collins’ West Heath Yard, Some Things Just Take Time is a complete and beautiful piece of work, yet also, in parts, a very sad one. Two of the songs to pull on the heartstrings the most, I suggest, are It’s Not You and In Your Memory (The Miner’s Letter). One follows the other, a double whammy of hurt.
It’s Not You hits hard. There’s little more tragic than a child taking on responsibility before its time, and this story of a youngster confronted by a parent’s personal failures, documents that painfully.
‘I read something in a book and it made me feel exactly what you’ve just said, a kid having too much responsibility early on. But it’s not a rare thing. It happens to a lot of kids. It’s not just a loss of innocence, there’s far more weight to it than that. Young people having to deal with things that are foisted upon them that aren’t their choice because of the frailties of adults. There’s things not sung about and it’s a shame they don’t get dealt with. It’s heavy. It’s heavy subject matter.’
In Your Memory is the tale of a miner trapped underground, penning a letter to his sweetheart in the hope that when his remains are recovered, his dying wishes and affections will be relayed to her. The instrumentation – the gentleness, the low murmur of a choir, a violin to break your heart to, I think, has the potential to be very popular at funerals…the coffin, sliding away, behind the curtain, to meet its inevitable fate…
‘On the countdown!’ he laughs.
Where did the story come from? It sounds like romantic folklore.
‘I had a few different inputs from totally different places. I was also talking to my friend Grace (Edwyn Collins’ wife) and Grace was talking about her grandfather, how he’d been a miner (in Scotland) and he’d been in an accident where he’d banged his head underground but they managed to get him out in time. And it was around the time there was a mining accident in South America, about 4 or 5 years ago, they were trapped down there for days…thankfully they got all of them out if not most of them. It was a big deal and also there were other things…that didn’t get reported so much. I think there was a disaster in China where a bunch of miners got trapped and they didn’t get rescued. That wasn’t a positive bit of good news so I felt for them,’ he reveals.
‘And I also knew that people were talking about the practices that went on in these countries where they sell much cheaper coal than Britain could, back in the day which is the reason they gave for stopping the mining industry in Britain, we’d been undercut by competitors in South America, increasingly China but there were still practices where corners are being cut that affect the workers. It’s sad but I didn’t want to do a song about corner cutting by management, I wanted something a bit more dignified. And something that would hopefully respect the memories of miners and mining. The wider story of mining and mining communities that aren’t with us anymore.’
There’s a definite religious undertone to In Your Memory.
‘It’s a bit…kind of hymnal. They call Wales the land of song which is nice, but historically a bit of a myth…it’s the land of the bards and poetry and literature and language. It gained the epithet land of song because of the industrial revolution and the choirs that happened because of the workers and the mines more specifically, but also the steelworks and suchlike.
‘The kind of music the choirs sang was very much based on choral music and…very much 19th century classical choral music, the reputation was built on that and it was large numbers of working men and women singing together in their time off. It’s part of our heritage and our culture. It was trying to give the song a fitting context and one that hopefully has some beauty to it.’
Carwyn wasn’t always a singer or songwriter. With a classical music degree under his belt, in his twenties he was an instrumentalist, playing in a number of different bands. But he wasn’t content. ‘My dream wasn’t to be a singer and it wasn’t to write songs. I liked playing instruments. But it got to a point…I wasn’t really getting anywhere and I was playing in other people’s groups and it was too easy to blame other people for not getting anywhere.
‘They were the ones providing the songs, they were often the singers. I thought maybe I should grasp the nettle before it was too late and try and do it myself if I wanted to have a chance at staying in the world of music, which I desperately wanted to do. I thought I’d have to diversify a little bit more, not just play all the instruments but learn how to sing as well. After all, it’s the one instrument that everybody has.’
So up to Liverpool he came and stayed in the city for two years. There, he ‘had the freedom to get away from the constraints of being in London. London tends to be full of little flats and the walls are paper thin in most places that you live in London so when…I lived in Liverpool I had a big old flat – an attic flat down in Aigburth. I felt totally free. Because the one thing about being in London is that I could hear all my immediate neighbours so I figured they could hear me, so it restricted me from trying to practice but you have to practice at anything to get any good at it.’
‘It helped to get me de-Londonised as well,’ he adds.
Armed with his new skills, he flourished. He formed a long standing collaborative relationship and friendship with Edwyn Collins which continues to this day, created Colorama, and has worked with bloody everybody, frankly. The list is endless, including Oasis, North Mississippi Allstars, The James Hunter Six, Roddy Frame, and Shane MacGowan. Saint Etienne’s new single Dive, released today, is written and co-produced by Carwyn, remixed by him and friend Shawn Lee. He also co-wrote and co-produced Sarah Cracknell’s 2015 album Red Kite.
‘After we’d done Sarah’s album we were very happy about how it had turned out. I had a bit more music that I wanted to give to Sarah to see if she fancied doing it, and she did. I thought it’d be great if we went in with Shawn Lee who I’m a big fan of and they knew him from way back and admired him too. We did Dive first and it came out so rambunctious and pop filled …it kind of spurred St Etienne into action really and to get on with the rest of the record. Thankfully they stayed with Shawn and did the whole thing with him. I think it’s a really special album. And Shawn’s got a lot to do with that. Shawn’s production with them and the sounds that he’s able to conjure have been a real asset to St Etienne on this album I think.’
You’re touring with The Pretenders at the moment. As a contributor but not permanent member of the band, how does that work? How do you approach things with them, compared with Colorama?
‘There’s a lot less pressure. I learn the tunes, go to rehearsals, we figure them out and then we go out and perform them. From my point of view, it’s very uncomplicated. I get to go and play with a great rock n roll band, The Pretenders is a group where I can go in and make sure I play to the best of my ability, and people seem to dig it. It’s brilliant. I get to go and play in lovely exotic places. I’m a fan anyway. One of the first records I bought was Don’t Get Me Wrong when I was a kid, I still have the 7” here. I love the songs.’
Speaking of records and the music he loves by others, Carwyn presents a weekly radio show on Soho Radio, playing exactly that. Is this always something he wanted to do?
‘No.. (but) I love doing it so much I find the time somehow to dedicate my 2 hours a week. I really love doing it,’ he says. It keeps me honest as a musician. I’m researching this stuff and finding all this music, I learn a lot.’
Carwyn Ellis‘ X Marks the Spot is at 10 pm every Monday night on Soho Radio.
Colorama play London Welsh Centre on Sunday 10 Sept.