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.

Leicester united through song: the lockdown choir bringing hope in times of darkness

By Jessica Smith

A Market Harborough opera singer has created an innovative lockdown choir, digitally mixing recordings from 95 members across Leicester for a performance of Michael Jackson’s ‘Heal the World.’

Olivia Slatter, 22, the choir leader, stated: “I decided to create the choir, as singing has helped me so much through tough times, and I feel that it is important to try and get people young and old to communicate with something that they have in common.”

Prior to lockdown, Olivia undertook an internship, on top of studying at Trinity Laban, a London-based school of music and dance, but with the challenges COVID introduced, her difficulties living with dyslexia and autism were exacerbated, stating: “Lockdown affected my daily routine, as routine is vital for my ASD; I lost a lot of motivation and drive, my anxiety was very heightened, with constant changes and not knowing the future, it was incredibly stressful.

“The choir has been an amazing experience and I’m so pleased I could make a small difference; it’s been a great learning experience for me and ‘Brick Work Studios’, who have helped combine the individual recordings for the track.

“This choir is a non-bullying, no judgement choir, to relieve stress, even if you sing into the shower or sing whilst cleaning up, please join – because this choir is for you!”

Funded by the National Lottery and free to join, the young singer emphasised the choir’s success, as she stated: “The project has done incredibly well, we have certainly hit our targets! With restrictions lifting, and a slow return to normality, we’re keeping an eye out for future performances together, and we’re considering an ‘Olivia’s recovery choir; singing has been a resource helping mental health, and especially with the pandemic and rising suicide figures, this choir is something I felt a responsibility to do for the community.”

An interactive Facebook poll unanimously chose the hit ‘Heal the world’ to perform, a song of positivity and hope at a time when it was much needed. With almost 100 members already, this chorus collaboration looks no signs of slowing down.

To join the choir crew, and for more information, follow the link: https://bit.ly/36idcIK?fbclid=IwAR3hzMl9JwEg-czzz4ZtNpK7tevzxbQPJfKvZjt49ICIvpOIgZp95Z2iSYM

ALBUM REVIEW: Murky melodies and melancholic crooning on Carnage, the new release by Nick Cave & Warren Ellis

Samuel Hornsby reviews ‘Carnage’, the newest musical outing by Australian duo Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.

Warren Ellis and Nick Cave: Photo by Takahiro Kyono via. Creative Commons

The musical content of ‘Carnage’ swoops in and hovers calmly like a kestrel. It looms there in a desolate sky filled with the haunting sounds of gloomy hope and downcast romance. The album encourages you to gaze upon its twisted beauty, as do I.

It is the first non-soundtrack by the Australian duo Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, who had previously worked on the scores for several films together including the epic western ‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford’, the dystopian survivalist story ‘The Road’ and the gritty Aussie odyssey ‘The Proposition’.

Their first venture into an album of independent vision as a duo is a powerful piece filled with stunning melodies and carefully crafted lyrics. It is peppered throughout with some of the usual markings one may be accustomed to from Nick Cave releases but at the same time remains its own beast thanks to the help of experienced sideman Warren Ellis.

Ellis first began working with Cave in 1993 as a session musician for The Bad Seeds’ album ‘Let Love In’. Soon after he would become a permanent fixture and an integral collaborative force for Cave helping write songs for the band and co-founding the side group ‘Grinderman’.

At this point in time, they feel like equals at their craft. The duo fuse their expertise creating such a well-blended, inventive sound it can often feel like a ballroom dance in which you cannot tell which partner is leading.

The compositions the twosome have conceived are masterfully crafted with layers of dark and murky melodies placed neatly on top of a solid foundation of hypnotising, meditative electronic loops.

This style feels like a natural progression of the sound developed by Cave and Ellis on the previous Bad Seeds album ‘Ghosteen’. The sonic landscape is a clean and ethereal piece of chamber pop with splashes of ambience and the odd jolt of rock poking through in the form of quick snippets of distorted guitars.

As the album progresses, it leads you in to bathe in its placid aural waters, but if you are not careful it will pull you out to lonely depths. Luckily, Cave’s vocal prescience acts as a poetic anchor in the desolate ocean of minimalistic sound.

His voice drips with melancholy as he croons harrowing lines that paint lyrical stories about the touch of the hand of God, crazed men dancing on balconies and a masculinised version of Venus De Milo shooting people with a gun made of elephant tears.

Though often cryptic and surreal, Cave weaves in profound meaning and weight into the songs. He does this by lacing references to current day social issues such as the George Floyd murders which inevitably add a more serious and touching piece of emotion to his lyrical broth.

‘Carnage’ proves to be a triumph for both Cave and Ellis showing they still have the strength of their creativity and talent even as they descend into what one could consider the Autumn of their years. It also proves they can craft excellence as a pair without the direction of a film to guide the music or a wider band to flesh out and form it.

Entering Jaya’s dream

Over the coming days and weeks, Leicestershire Press will be showcasing the work by some of this year’s graduates from the Journalism programme at De Montfort University. Our Class of 2020 series kicks off with a profile of JayaHadaDream by Rosie Vacciana-Browne

It was an overcast afternoon in mid-January, terrace houses stretched up and down the street grazing the drizzly skyline. Everything was grey. Everything but a single burst of colour beaming from a window; it was wide open, the vibrant green and yellow of a Jamaican flag dancing in the blistering wind. X marks the spot.

This window belonged to 20-year-old rapper and student JayaHadADream (Jaya). A Cambridge native, Jaya started her musical journey in 2019 after moving to Nottingham to study. Like many creatives, she balances her art alongside other responsibilities. “I rap, I sing, I produce, and I study at the University of Nottingham.” Diverse in every sense of the word, JayaHadADream is a self-sufficient musical entity with the brains to back it.

Her music is powerful, as much a challenge to society as it is rhythmic in its beats. Her debut album, titled Hypersensitive, was released late last year. It explored love, life and the experience of a mixed-race woman living in a culture that is quick to label people as “hypersensitive snowflakes”. From top to bottom throughout every inch of her music, Jaya is trying to spread a message. She challenges austerity cuts, politicians, misogyny and explores her Irish/Caribbean heritage, emotions and mental health. A bucking of the rap trend that often focuses on monetary and physical booty.

With a warm smile, JayaHadADream opens the door to her student digs. “Come in. We’ll go upstairs. My friend uses the living room to sell his Depop clothes.” On paper, this could be a house share in gentrified London or the plot to Netflix’ next big series ‘The Rapper and the Fashion house’. “Do you want a tea or anything?”, her hospitality was beyond anything I had experienced in halls. We headed upstairs to discuss her music and upcoming ventures.

Her room was vibrant and energised. The walls painted a mustard yellow, covered in pictures of friends, family and her boyfriend. There were incense sticks and a mic already set up. It felt like her music, the consciousness of her lyrics scrawled across her room. “I try and get the most run-down places, so they can’t complain about me smoking weed.” This bedroom was the beginnings of a rap star, I was sure.

While some have greatness thrust upon them, others seize it by choosing a stage name like ‘JayaHadADream’; an intentional nod to Martin Luther King Jr’s ‘I Had A Dream’ speech. It seemed fitting to ask what Jaya’s dream for present-day Britain would be. “It’s quite unrealistic, but if I could eradicate inequality, a lot of other things wouldn’t be a problem. Like cultural appropriation wouldn’t be a problem if everyone was equal and respected equally.”

In recent years, the right-wing press has made its views on British rap abundantly clear, tearing down artists and demonising the genre. One of those leading the charge is Daily Mail writer, Good Morning Britain presenter and online troll, Piers Morgan. Piers is ever labelling liberals as ‘snowflakes’ and loves to head to his Twitter to have online spats with those who he does not agree with (popular rapper Stromzy being amongst them).

It seems at this point to be a rite of passage for those at the forefront of activism to receive an online attack from Mr Morgan. As a political, black female rapper, I knew that Jaya could be at the top of Piers’ list if she were to burst into the mainstream, but to block or to reply? That is the question with Twitter. “I’d 100% reply, he’d probably end up blocking me, but I’d reply. I’d love Piers to message me. It’d make my day because I hate him so much. I’m sorry it must be said. The whole Good Morning show needs to be banned. They can’t be reproducing that.”

The 14-tracks on Hypersensitive take listeners on a journey through JayaHadADream’s mind; it’s honest and real. I asked her to pick her three favourite tracks for people to listen to if they wanted to get to know her music.

The first song she chose was ‘Admittedly’. “It perfectly encapsulates the daily routine of my life before I was proper making music and came to university; writing music, smoking weed and feeling angsty and depressed. Things weren’t right and so much was unfinished before I left (home). It reminds me of where I am now and of habits that everyone has like ‘admittedly I spend too long on my phone’.” The track features rapper Ben DSP.

Her second choice was ‘Challice’ 99’, a song that challenges the (unwanted) opinions put onto us by older generations.

 

“I wrote it in summer, I was just chilling, I had no Wi-Fi, and my head was in a weird space, but I made some sick music. I like the way I mixed my harmonies and what it’s about. I re- spect a lot of my elders. But, I think a lot of them can be quite condescending when it comes to music because it’s very different now and it’s way more possible (to make it), I think some of them try and hold you down for their ego. Not all of them, a lot of them have helped me, but there’s a few I get a vibe off. The songs quite vengeful but sometimes that’s necessary.”

Jaya’s third and final track was ‘Real Love’ a modern-day sonnet and love letter for the youth. “It bounces up and down it’s so hard to perform because it’s singing, then slightly singing, then rapping, then singing – there are no breaks. It’s just about the difficulties in love because I think social media and expectations have ruined a lot of things.”

JayaHadADream is only just at the beginning of her career but at the start of 2020 she looked to have a bright year ahead of her, with numerous performances lined up across the country, including the Nottingham and Cambridge stops of rapper Shay D’s Queens of Arts Women in Hip Hop Tour 2020. “That was going to be a big thing for me, especially to meet and network with all those female artists,” she says.

We all know what happened next. But live music will be back, one day, and seeing JayaHadADream is an experience that goes far beyond your average gig, so catch her when you can.

JayaHadADream’s Hypersensitive is available on all platforms.

Autism and the bass guitar: “A music lesson saved my life.”

By Alexander Hodgkins-Jones

For aspiring Leicestershire musician Oliver Major, the greatest lesson of his life did not happen in a classroom. It took place while walking circles around a school field talking music. His teacher was a fellow pupil called Miguel who he had only met an hour before.

“I learned more during that conversation than I had in 14 years of life,” says Oliver, 23.

Those first 14 years of life had been difficult for Oliver because of his autism. He had no friends before meeting Miguel. “Behavioural issues” had caused him to be kicked out of two schools. Getting through a maths or English lesson was a chore.

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Autism made Oliver’s early life a struggle

“I could talk to Miguel because he was so much older than his years. He had the sort of patience with me that nobody else had ever had.”

Up until that conversation, Oliver didn’t have much interest in music. He describes his early music taste as “a bit crap”, borrowing superficial influences from his older brother Knill (sic) who listened to generic rap which was all about “sex, partying and drugs”.

Unlike Oliver, Miguel had benefitted from years of rock music education. Oliver was awestruck the first time he went to his house. It was like visiting the hall of fame for guitars. Miguel’s dad collected them. They were all autographed by rock ‘n’ roll legends and hung throughout the place like trophies.

“Miguel taught me what music could be. I started listening to all of these heavy metal bands he told me about. Slipknot. Mindless Self Indulgence. Rammstein. Then I kept discovering more bands. Better bands,” says Oliver.

“I found that I could relate to what they were saying. It was unlike anything I had heard before. The music sounds aggressive, but if you truly listen to the lyrics they tell you about the artists’ lives.”

Relating to other people had always been a struggle for young Oliver. Kids at school never really “got” him. He remembers the bullying and frustration of not being able to express himself. That changed when listening to metal.

“I wish I had known metal music was out there before I was 14,” he says, recalling a troubled youth caused not only by his autism but because of his fractious home life.

Oliver never met his womanising father. He has “three or four” siblings on his dads’ side all with different mothers. Oliver’s mum was severely disabled throughout his childhood due to a car accident, leaving his sister Jo and Knill to raise him.

“I got everything except my music taste from my brother. He would never admit it, but he was pretty much my dad.”

Autism made writing and arithmetic particularly difficult for Oliver. He would never choose to sit down and study, but he jumped at the opportunity to take music lessons when they were offered.

“For autistic people learning is very sensory. With music, you’re engaging at least three senses at once. I can see the music, I can listen to the music and I can feel the music. That’s why finding metal helped me so much.”

After their first music lesson, Miguel jokingly told Oliver they should form a band. Admitting he took the thought a little too seriously Oliver says he “almost immediately” hunted down the music teacher and suggested the idea. The sharp needled response of “well what instrument can you play?” quickly burst Oliver’s overzealous balloon.

Unsure of what instrument to learn or even if he could learn an instrument Oliver went through a few false starts before picking the bass guitar. Often overlooked and underappreciated Oliver was drawn to it like a kindred spirit.

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Oliver with his Les Paul guitar, he has learnt to play a variety of instruments but always comes back to the bass

“I thought the bass was just this boring thing you play in the back and guitar was where all the cool stuff happened. But then I listened to Primus. Their bassist is incredible. I wanted to be like that,” says Oliver.

“Playing bass meant I had something to focus on. I had something to do with my hands and my mind. I had a passion and a purpose. I could look back and think ‘wow I did that’ after learning a new song. Trying to learn anything else had always ended in failure and disappointment.”

Nine years later, Oliver is still playing bass.

“I’m glad I didn’t pick drums. I think I would’ve been kicked out of the house because I practised so much,” Oliver jokes.

Bass guitar helped Oliver through some difficult times. His social anxiety slowly, but surely, dissipated as he found like-minded metalheads who he could talk to “for hours”. He ended up going to college to study music.

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Oliver is “all about the music”, playing gigs has improved his confidence

He had almost given up hope of being in a band when a small Leicester outfit, Every Rope a Noose, put out the feelers for a replacement bassist.

“They had played gigs, so it was a serious band. It was a big step, but I went to a session and played with them. I wasn’t sure what to expect. They liked me. They thought I was good.”

The validation came as a surprise for Oliver. To him it playing bass was just a bit of fun, but now he was getting the appreciation from other musicians.

Like many small bands’ things broke down. They became more about their image, Oliver says, and less about the music.

It didn’t bother him too much. He now has the confidence to form a band of his own.

“I just want to write and play the sort of music that helped 14-year-old me. Hopefully, I will.”

Oliver does admit to cheekily poaching the drummer from old friend Miguel’s hardcore group, Voidwalker, for the new unnamed venture he is putting together.

Oliver tries to get to all of Voidwalkers’ gigs. He feels he owes his support to the friend who course-corrected his life.

“It’s amazing to think if I hadn’t been out on that field on that day nine years ago, I wouldn’t be where I am now,

“That conversation with Miguel was the most important one of my life. It came just as I needed it. Just as I needed that music and that instrument. I’d still be a lonely kid struggling with autism without him.”

Photography by Alexander Hodgkins-Jones, feature photo by Charlotte Coburn