The Welsh indie scene was left feeling bereft as 2013 dawned and beloved five piece Race Horses called time on proceedings with only two albums to their name. Out of the ashes of that band have risen several new projects (though sadly none called ‘Glue’) and most exciting of all is the burgeoning solo career of their frontman, Meilyr Jones. Having graced the more refined points of the festival circuit this summer, his debut solo single ‘Refugees’ made quite an impression. A one-take performance which was captured for the accompanying video, it features only the artist at his piano and a beguiling knack for melody. Far more than a conventional singer-songwriter figure, Jones’ music is hard to define, at times evoking thoughts of Randy Newman, Pulp, David Bowie and Field Music, to name just a handful.
With an album on the way that functions a little like a musical photo album, gathering together various snapshots from a year of writing, there’s clearly a deliberate desire to not get labelled. “I liked the idea of making a compilation record of myself over the period of a year and I want to try loads of different things out. I feel differently all the time and if I see pictures of myself, I always look really different, like most people do. I think it’s an attempt to get things to be full of life rather than the pop idea of streamlining or the trend of making things narrower and narrower. I like the idea of it being something completely different every time and just letting the song dictate what the world around it is.”
“I’ve been lucky to work with some really interesting and open-minded people. I went for a trip to Rome and I started to listen to really early music. I had friends who were at the Royal Academy of Music, where I studied for a while, who are into historical performance on really old instruments. I heard a lot of recorder music and harpsichord and baroque violins so I got really interested in that sound.” These influences leave their mark, especially on the new single, ‘Don Juan’ which has quite the backstory. “I read Byron’s ‘Don Juan’ and really fell in love with it because it was portraying this hero as really soft and gentle and he’d keep falling into these situations of falling in love with someone and then something would go wrong. I was never a big reader but my brother got me a few books of poetry. Byron’s really open about his strengths and his weaknesses which is really rare, so I wanted to write from that point of view. It’s a love song about the pain of denial and feeling detached from pop culture, finding comfort in nature.”
The album, due to emerge early next year, will be titled ‘2013’, a name which is already splitting opinion. “I was going to call the album ‘Anthology’, as a collection of pieces, but I kind of thought that because I wrote it in 2013 that’s the most honest title. It’s a weird one, because every time I’ve said it, people go ‘oh, that’s terrible name for a record’.” This idea of honesty extends to the use of field recordings across his music, with various sounds incorporated into songs and a piece of birdsong having appeared on the flipside of ‘Refugees’. “I really like the idea of it feeling like someone walking along and then opening another door and then hearing something and getting the inner thoughts of the song. All the field recordings I’ve used have been ones that were done at the time when I was writing the songs, so I haven’t retrospectively gone back to put things together.”
Already picking up emphatic reviews from those who have seen his initial solo performances, Jones is particularly keen on the visceral charm of being in the moment. “I really like the idea of things being done completely live. I did some recordings with an orchestra where I was singing live in the room with them, like Frank Sinatra recorded, because I was really interested in that sound. When you hear a Duke Ellington recording, it feels so much of the era largely because you hear the space, something happening far away in the background. I thought of doing something with a really big orchestra in that situation. Usually you’d get tense because of all the money being spent, but I wanted the orchestra to be like a punk band or a rock’n’roll band, where I know every player who’s in the orchestra in the same way you would do a band and then it feels, every time you go for a take, like anything could happen.”
Having been so keen to capture that immediate nature in the studio, when it came to facing the crowds again, even with unheard material, it was all rather reassuring. “I’d been working on the record for so long that I forgot the fun of playing live and there is where the music is done differently every time. I always feel weird when I haven’t played for a couple of weeks and get a bit on edge. It seems to normalise everything for me. The fact that people haven’t heard the songs makes it a lot about the words and it has felt genuine and really playful.”
Although the focus will soon turn to the album, Jones is enjoying testing his own songs as he unveils them to the public. “I’m enjoying exploring with the singles, like with the artwork and the video for ‘Refugees’ being the actual take of the song. It feels nice doing that before presenting the record so that it lets me sit with it for a bit and think about the order a little more and about the journey of the whole thing. It’s like the old fashioned way Bowie had a different look for every album, but doing the same for every single until it feels contrived.” The six songs Clash has heard are wonderfully varied, gloriously emphatic and a hugely encouraging sign that when ‘2013’ does come around, it may well help to define 2016.
Words: Gareth James
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‘Don Juan’ is out now.