Jeffrey Lewis: ‘Each album feels like some miraculous thing that I might not ever be able to repeat’

New York singer-songwriter Jeffrey Lewis discusses loneliness, luck and his love of comic books with Samuel Hornsby.

It’s the end of January but Jeffrey Lewis still has his Christmas tree up. On the wall hangs a homemade collage of ‘The Terminator’ with the head of ‘Lou Reed’. The off-kilter appearance of the interior matches the appearance of its occupant, who some might judge as a bit of an oddball. Such things do not bother him though.

As he potters about his cramped New York apartment on video call, there is a sense of self awareness about his eccentricities which he has often embraced and elaborated on in his art.

“Just because something isn’t in the charting Top 100 doesn’t mean that it’s a failure or that it has no great quality or spirit,” Jeffrey says.

“I don’t think there could be a world in which artist like Kevin Coyne, Daniel Johnston and Jeffrey Lewis are at the top of the charts. We don’t make music that makes sense for most people. It isn’t what they’re looking for. When you’re making stuff yourself you just do what feels exciting to you. I don’t make a song or a comic book with the intention of having a sales target or popularity.”

The music of Jeffrey Lewis has often been labelled anti-folk. The artist himself describes his style as “New York City rock ‘n’ roll with a lot of attention to the lyrics” and draws songwriting influences from the likes of Lou Reed, Jonathan Richman, Bob Dylan and, in particular, Daniel Johnston.

“Hearing the work of Daniel Johnston showed me a way to make music in the vein that I was making comic books. Daniel showed a way that just your own personality, humour and emotions could translate into making great songs. That was really a revelation to me.

“I graduated from school and suddenly I was out in the real world without much of a social scene. I was just living a very typical starving artist life. I was home most of the time and working jobs, but I had no money,” he says.

“At that point making comic books wasn’t enough to fill all my loneliness and boredom so I started writing songs. Then I found myself going to open-mic nights and performing them. My musical career came out of a big personal void and the pain of being alone. Humans are tribal creatures and if we’re severed from a social scene you almost feel this physical pain from the isolation. All of that emotion went into the music which were like lullabies that I would sing to myself, along with a bit of humour.”

Though Jeffrey found a cathartic release through music his first love was comic books, a passion he has had since childhood and has persisted ever since.

“It’s funny. I was just stumbling on a batch of old comics from when I was a little kid from six or seven years old. Just look at those comics I remembered how much they meant to me and how many of them I read. It was just my whole world. Music was just not part of my life as a kid. It was just comic books enveloping 100% of my brain.

“Comic books are something I feel I was born to do. It’s also something I feel I’m still on the path of learning how to do. I’m aware each one I make is just a further step towards the better comic that I’ll make next time after that.”

Though Jeffrey puts a great deal of time and effort into both of his two primary creative outlets, his approach to making and evaluating them is a contrast. On the one hand, he views drawing as a challenge and a craft that requires constant improvement, whereas coming up with good lyrics and melodies is something he puts more down to luck than his own intentional decisions.

“An album feels like a product of luck and a comic book feels like a product of skill. It’s very hard to feel proud of your luck. I feel lucky about the songs I write, not proud. I don’t know if you can say you’re going to be more inspired next time,” he says.

“Each album feels like some miraculous thing that I might not ever be able to repeat. Just because I wrote 10 songs that I feel excited about for one album, doesn’t mean I’ll write 10 more great songs for the next album. It’s almost the opposite. It’s more like ‘man, I can’t believe I came up with this album’ and then I think that I’ll never be able to come up with one again.”

Both Jeffrey’s comic books and music have a very hands-on and homemade approach. He provides all of the writing and artwork for the comics and album art as well as writing and performing the songs. His latest lo-fi release ‘2020 Tapes (Shelterat-Homerecordings & Pandemos)’ was recorded at his home during the New York lockdown. Although, as he explains, this is not just a stylistic choice but also a necessity.

“I don’t have the technical know-how or even the recording gear to make anything high quality.

“The song is the important bit and if I can just record the song in whatever way is available, which can be in the studio or at home,” Jeffrey says.

“However, I don’t apply that mindset when I make my own album artwork. Though it is a do-it-yourself project because I am literally doing it by myself, that does not equate to being a lesser product than it would be if I were to hire somebody else. I feel like nobody is going to do a better job of the illustrations and the packaging design than I can because I think I’m quite good at it. It’s kind of DIY from the opposite perspective than the music.”

A usual staple of a Jeffrey Lewis live performance, whether in the flesh or screened digitally, are documentary style history songs accompanied by his own illustrations, combining his two artistic ventures. This unique audio-visual display is one that had early roots in his musical career but has been expanded over time.

He says: “Around 1998 I started to be offered to play little shows around New York City. When you’re only playing one gig every five weeks you really have a chance to make every performance a special thing. Each show was a new chance to experiment.”

One idea to come out of that period of experimentation was illustrated songs. After a few years he ventured into non-fictional topics for them for the 25th anniversary of Rough Trade Records and soon after created one depicting the history of ‘The Fall’ when he opened for the band. Eventually though he ambitions for the format grew.

“I thought ‘what would be the most gigantic historical topic with a huge story that has nothing to do with music?’ The crazy idea I came up with was to try and tell the history of communism. I’ve been adding installations in that particular series ever since.”

His illustrated songs are emblematic of his enthusiasm for both comic books and music as well as his unique creative vision which has allowed him to persist as a cult figure for over two decades. Sure, as he admits, an artist like himself will likely never hit the charts but his passion and originality will make sure he will always stand out and be remembered.

Five Get #Cancelled on Social Media: is it okay to enjoy classic children’s stories written by authors who had bigoted views?

Photo by Corrie Barklimore. flickr.com/photos/80144821@N00/2767723506

Last night I broke the lockdown rules, writes Nikita Sharma. I went to a place I have been visiting since I was a child. Kirrin Island. I spent my time jumping over rocks encasing natural pools of crystal-clear water and feeling the soft as powder sand beneath my feet as I explored the castle ruins.

Of course, I wasn’t there physically but who said you couldn’t feel something so vividly so wholly, you feel as if you were truly there?

I think that’s the magic of books. The ability they have to transport you to a different time and different land. That’s what I like best about the children’s books I still keep close to my heart. But whilst reading them in these past few years, I’ve had guilt and outrage swirling inside and then like smoke, hanging over me.

Finding out your favourite childhood authors held racist and sexist views and realising now that they incorporated those views into their writing? It doesn’t feel good. And rereading today, you can see a line here and there not sitting right, suddenly you see the hidden messages and understand the double meanings.

Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl. These were my heroes. Their works are legendary.

It really is upsetting thinking that if I were to meet my favourite childhood writer, they probably wouldn’t like me very much. And the reasons would simply be because of the colour of my skin.

Being a woman of colour, issues like these really mess with my conscience. But I can celebrate the books that mean so much to me without excusing the person behind them

Someone of my generation shouldn’t be enjoying these books after finding out the truth. Nowadays, typed in bold HASHTAG CANCELLED on social media platforms is the only direction you need to know what persons should be avoided. Everything is either black or white. But it was one of the things that welcomed me with a warm embrace. The words called me back.

And it wasn’t just me – millions of others felt it too! Introducing us to a world of giants and witches and made-up nonsense languages to decoding secret messages and catching smugglers; these books had humour and originality, they encouraged us to broaden our imaginations.

So, we have these clearly wonderful pieces of works unfortunately written by problematic people, what do we do? Is this just a case of separating the art from the artist?

Should we even judge people for ideals that were the norm to have ‘back in the day’ with values we hold today? Was Roald Dahl and his anti-Semitism simply a product of his time? These are outdated views, and we must accept that it was a different time.

But this frame of debate takes me back to the essay I was forced to write on Winston Churchill a few years ago. I remember my blood boiling as my teacher chattered about what a great man he was, knowing his racist views and inactions were to blame for the three million people who starved to death during the Bengal Famine.

However, apart from collecting ‘woke points’ on Twitter, holding dead writers accountable isn’t doing much. It gives no productive support to movements and organisations that aim for change. Being a woman of colour, issues like these really mess with my conscience and to ‘forgive and forget’ isn’t something I can apply. But balance is helpful. I can celebrate the books that mean so much to me without excusing the person behind them.

We can enjoy literature and art that have outdated views as long as we accept that they are just that, outdated, while we work towards creating pieces that are tolerant, kind, and fair to all.    And with that, I’ll be off on my next adventure! So long.

Kurupt to the core: Bafta-winning People Just Do Nothing star Steve Stamp gets set for the BBC TV sitcom’s big screen debut

It’s been seven years since People Just Do Nothing first aired, and in that time this niche, rather underrated BBC Three mockumentary has steadily gained a devoted cult following, writes Fin Kettle.

“It was a few things that just came together at the right time,” says star and writer of the show Steve Stamp.

Seven years on from its pilot, the Kurupt FM guys have almost done it all, they’ve toured as their musical alter egos to the likes of Glastonbury and Ibiza, had a failed US remake, made a highly anticipated spin-off film releasing this summer and have even won a BAFTA for best scripted comedy in 2017.

Stamp is well known for his role as the creatively named DJ Steves, whose drug-fuelled antics and all-round obliviousness lead to some of the funniest moments in the show. Such as his anecdote on his relationship with drugs. “I wouldn’t say I’ve got a drug problem, I’ve got the opposite of a drug problem to be honest. I’ve got no problem with drugs whatsoever. I’ll try anything!”

“I’m quite lucky in many ways, but people seem to love Steves. He’s a soft, sensitive character that people are genuinely really nice when I see them in the street,” he says.

While many know him from his screen persona, he often goes under the radar in terms of his writing talent. After all, it was the script that ultimately got them the BAFTA win, but Steve explains that their writing process is uniquely collaborative.

“Because all of us work on the script, we sit down and talk about it, but I was basically given the role of main writer although it is very collaborative, which isn’t unique to our show, but the fact that all the lead actors are so involved in the writing is quite special,” he says.

“I’d say I’m most proud of the Valentine’s day episode, where Steve’s nan dies. I think that was like the big emotional moment. That is the one we won the BAFTA for as well.”

It is safe to say the BAFTAs were a surreal moment for the Kurupt boys, being surrounded by childhood heroes and red carpets, but Steve says it was just like a fancy wedding.

“It’s surreal man, it’s a bit like going to a wedding, like everyone’s in suits and there’s all this champagne knocking about,” he says.

“At first it was a bit stiff and awkward, like I don’t think I really belong in a place like that. It’s also nerve-racking being nominated because deep down you want to win but you know if you do you’ve got to get up in front of everyone.”

Steve reveals that he isn’t into the whole celebrity culture and rarely gets starstruck, but there were a few ‘pinch me’ moments at the BAFTAs.

“I remember seeing David Mitchell and I don’t really get starstruck, but he’s Mark from Peep Show!”

“Steven Graham came up to us and was just saying that ‘you lot are all so funny,’ that was mad for me,” he says with an excited grin on his face.

People Just Do Nothing, a sitcom about the hapless crew who run a pirate radio station in West London, had simple origins: just a group of friends messing around trying to make each other laugh with a bit of MC’ing on the side.

“It started with me and Hugo (Chegwin) MC’ing over these beats and doing these characters, trying to make each other laugh,” he says.

“Then I met up with Seapa (Grindah) in Thailand while I was travelling and we would do these characters that we’d seen in these pirate radio documentaries and just make each other laugh. When we got back, I thought there was potential for it, so we filmed some of it just to showcase that we were funny.”

Eventually they were picked up by BBC producers who saw potential, but Steve says it wasn’t an instant process.

“We had a little bit of YouTube fame, which in those days wasn’t really a thing as it is now. It kind of naturally evolved after that. It wasn’t like the next day we were on telly or whatever,” he says.

“Originally we were scared of those TV people, like we didn’t want them to ruin our authentic idea, but actually they developed it more and encouraged more of the drama and family elements.”

In terms of what it’s like on set, you may think it would be relaxed with improv encouraged but that isn’t always the case.

“None of us really know our lines a lot of the time,” he laughs.

“Most of the talking head portions are 80% improvised, whereas the other scenes are 80% scripted. You have to be careful with improv as there is a rhythm to each episode and you have to stick to that and make sure the viewer is carried along with it.”

“Improv is fun to do, but sometimes it can sort of take away from what’s important.”

People Just Do Nothing was clearly influenced by classic British sitcoms like The Office and Peep Show, but it was also just as much inspired by documentaries. This was the case when it came to finding a story for the much-delayed spin off film, People Just Do Nothing: Big in Japan.

“When you’re writing a film, things have to be more cinematic in that you have to have scenes that feel bigger with more impact, otherwise it will just feel like a long episode,” he says.

“We had a lot of ideas like going to a festival or Ibiza, but they seemed obvious and cliched. So we started talking about their song becoming famous in Japan and it kind of made sense and felt believable. That came from this documentary we’d seen about a Grindah-esque music manager being completely lost trying to get his client a gig in Japan.”

The film was scheduled to release last year but with the rise of the global pandemic it was decided to delay the release till August 2021.

It is safe to say that Steve’s career in the entertainment industry is only just beginning. He has various other comedy projects being commissioned at the BBC written by and starring himself but says he wants to take more of a backseat from acting, instead focusing more on his skills as a writer and maybe even directing. The sky is the limit for the multi-talented Steve Stamp.

“I’ve got a couple projects lined up, mainly writing jobs and some acting gigs with the PJDN crew. Honestly, I mainly see myself as a writer.  I’ve done acting but I want to write and who knows maybe go into directing.”

People Just Do Nothing: Big in Japan is due to be released on August 18.

Lights, camera, stupefaction: filmmaker stunned to find herself on the Forbes tip list

The Forbes 30 Under 30 Europe list is an incredible place to find yourself, no matter your age, writes Izzi Rix. It indicates significant achievement before you’ve even hit your prime, with previous year’s line-ups going on to become stars on a global scale. To her surprise, on the morning of April 8th 2021, at just 19 years old, that list is exactly where Ella Greenwood saw her own face gazing back at her.

“I was just scrolling and saw my face and it was literally incredible, I think it was 7.30 in the morning and I thought ‘oh my god I need to have cake and I need to have prosecco right now’,” she says.

Ella is one of an increasing number of female filmmakers disrupting the industry. For her, the world of film was clearly where she belonged from the get-go.

“I just always loved films. I would see the same film in the cinema so many times just because it was my favourite thing to do, all I wanted to do was sit in a dark room rather than be outside or anything,” she says.

While some children become obsessed with their favourite superhero or Disney princess, for Ella is was Lucy from the Chronicles of Narnia.

“I can’t remember what age I was, maybe about – god time is a weird concept – maybe about eight. I would be like, ‘please I’ll use my pocket money on it’ and then for my birthday all I wanted to do was see it again and again,” she says.

Besotted with watching films, she knew she had to become a part of that world. She assumed acting was the way in, “For so long I thought that was it, that would be my only passion, if I didn’t do that, I would just be such a failure,” she says.

After years of auditions and landing a few projects, at 18 she realised acting wasn’t fulfilling her creative desires and decided to take things into her own hands.

“I just wanted to do something myself, to have more control and not just wait around for other people to decide how I spend my time and what I’m able to do.

“Now that I’m on set I have no urge to get in front of the camera. I still love acting, I really enjoy it, but I love film making more,” she says.

As well as being an ambassador for Stem4 (a charity promoting positive mental health in teenagers and their support network) she hopes to increase the number of representative portrayals of mental health by featuring them within her own films. Her first, Faulty Roots, delves into what it’s like for teenagers with depression.

“I wanted to do it on something that I thought could be important and potentially help people, because I have experience with mental health that just made it a bit easier,” she says.

Faulty Roots was met with great success, being nominated for an award by Film The House, a competition run by MPs to find ‘the filmmakers of the future’, and is now a feature film adaptation.

“I just felt like I didn’t have much to lose, I thought, well if the review’s bad then I just won’t share it I’ll just try and forget that it exists and hope that nobody sees it,” she says.

Being taken seriously as a female filmmaker is a struggle at any age, never mind at 19 years old. Ella decided she wasn’t leaving people’s perceptions of her up to chance, it was time to get serious, so she created Broken Flames Productions.

“I just thought ‘I’m nobody’ if I go to people like ‘Hi, my name’s Ella, I’m making a film can I hire you?’ people were going to skim past me, so I thought, if I’m going to do it let me try and do this properly and make it seem more professional.

“I had no qualifications, no training, I was like the least qualified person ever, but if you have a story you want to tell and if you’re passionate about what you’re doing then people are really nice,” she says.

In addition to a lack of personal expertise, Ella finds herself in the midst of an industry half frozen in its archaism and half hysterically trying to encourage equality.

“There is just so much in the industry based on structures that only help a certain group of people and elitism and nepotism that, I don’t know, I’m not sure I want to be a part of that,” she says.

A main aspect of her dedication and drive is to create change through her own work. In terms of mental health, the areas she sees as lacking representation are, “just everything.”

“I watched so many films growing up and so much TV and I just had no clue what mental health was at all. You’d see these really dramatic suicide scenes, it made it seem so intense and unrelatable. It just needs to be more normalised because so many people struggle with their mental health.

“For me, something that sticks in my mind a lot is the suicide scene from 13 Reasons Why, it was so graphic,” she says.

One of Ella’s upcoming films, Self-Charm, focusses on self-harm, but Ella made the decision to never show a cut or anything graphic.

“I think you can still get what you need to across and tell a story without, because it seemed like that (scene) was put in there for dramatic and entertainment value,” she says.

As a newcomer Ella wants to ensure she makes the right decisions socially and ethically, this means constantly assessing her options. “It’s so important to get it right and I’m very conscious of what I’m putting out there. It can get hard sometimes, I’m the only person making the decision.

“When I wanted to hire a fully female crew it was such a struggle to find females, but I was like, ‘No I want to do this and if it takes extra effort, it takes extra effort, but it’ll be worth it’,” she says.

Ella’s new projects are raring to go, with four currently in the works all progressing fantastically.

“I love working on different projects, it’s just nice to get to work with different people and different actors and different stories and themes, it’s really nice to have a variety of things going on,” she says.

When asked if there’s been any standout moments since she began producing, Ella encapsulates the typical manic beginning of a blossoming career, saying, “It’s all been a bit of a blur.”

It will be a Good Friday for Leicester as Leicester Comedy Festival launches event

By Abigail Beresford

Leicester Comedy Festival is set to celebrate Leicestershire talent through virtual showcase ‘Leicester’s Good Friday’ to raise money for the live entertainment scene in Leicester.

The event is set to go ahead on Friday, April 2, at 7pm to showcase talents of Leicester, and to raise money for the arts and entertainment industry in Leicester.

Guests are set to include Grace Petrie, Jess Green, The Bed & Breakfast Men, Seetal Kaur, Kesha Raithatha and other fantastic talents.

“All the sets for this performance will be filmed in empty Leicester venues, following all the relevant Covid guidelines to ensure the artists and crew are safe,” said Geoff Rowe, the founding director of Leicester Comedy Festival.

“We hope people will watch the final show and be reminded of what a great cultural city Leicester is.”

Leicester has suffered during the coronavirus pandemic, surpassing 100-days in the national lockdown in the toughest restrictions. This has had a damaging impact on the arts and entertainment industry in Leicester.

“Hardly any live performances have taken place in Leicester for 12 months and we know artists, promoters, and venues have found it a really tough period,” added Mr Rowe.

“If this performance can help sustain the people involved, and make sure everyone can bounce back when things open again, that has to be a good thing.”

People are being encouraged to donate to the fundraising event, alongside the purchase of their ticket to show support for the Leicestershire Arts.

The profits made from the event will be given to support venues and the artists that are taking part.

Tickets are £1 to attend, but people are being encouraged to donate to the fundraising event. 

Tickets are available to purchase at https://comedy-festival.co.uk/event/leicesters-good-friday/ .