Stephen Jones is the all-round music aficionado, singer and writer of “lullabies” behind Babybird. He’s forever associated with “that song”, but the writing prowess has never abated, and continues on through the freedom that Bandcamp affords artists. 3 and half albums already dropped in 2023, it seems the creation of new material is something that comes easily to Jones. So if you want a song writing, he’s your man. Just don’t ask him to mow your lawn!
It’s coming towards the end of the day and I catch up with Stephen Jones, the heart and soul of Babybird while he is at home in Hale, the star studded suburb of south Manchester, home to musicians, actors and Premier League footballers.
I’m talking with him ahead of the F-Word tour to find out more about heading out on the road, and the prolific journey from 90s superstar to lo-fi king of Bandcamp.
There will be plenty who haven’t explored the wide ranging nature of Jones’ output beyond the monster 1996 hit You’re Gorgeous. Maybe not even as far as the album that song graced – Ugly Beautiful. There’s so much more depth to this outrageously productive musician, turning out album after album since the commercially heady days of the mid-1990s. If you haven’t I’d urge you to give Ugly Beautiful a listen – You’re Gorgeous is probably not even the standout track on that album. If not that, then pick up in 1998 with the brilliant There’s Something Going On, which is home to the track Bad Old Man, the song that lent its title to a short tour at the end of 2022.
I’m interested to learn how anyone can take such a vast back catalogue, and turn that into something digestible for a tour?
“Well, we give people what they want,” he laughs. “Basically, it’s the band stuff. I mean, the stuff I do now is very much me on Bandcamp. But in terms of doing live stuff, that’s for another time. I don’t think I’m ready to do my Bandcamp stuff yet.
So it’s just basically from beginning to end from Goodnight, our first single through Unlovable and Bad Old Man, and it just fits really, really well together. And we only tour very rarely. We rework everything, but it’s songs people will know.”
At the back end of 2022, Babybird did a few dates under the title of the “Bad Old Man Tour”. It’s been 25 years since that was released. I wondered if this was a sign of reminiscing, looking back and celebrating the old times? But it turns out, there’s not so much to it, and Jones’ focus remains future focused. When it comes down to it though, he does look back on that song in particular with fondness.
“That’s the one that sticks out to me [Bad Old Man], because…it went to number 31 in the top 40 when the top 40 was alive and well. If you just look at the words, it was like the perfect infiltration, and it felt very satisfying, the fact that we could be in the top 40 which was a shocker. And we got to perform it on The White Room with Jo Whiley. Ian Brown was on it and Ian McCulloch. It was fantastic.”
Babybird was born in Sheffield back in 1995, in the midst of the Britpop hysteria (although Jones has always seen the band as pop, not Britpop), contemporaries of The Longpigs and coinciding with Pulp’s heyday. For Stephen though, it began much earlier than that, creating music for a theatre company in Nottingham to earn a little bit of cash while he tried to work himself off the dole. It was the music he wrote in the East Midlands that set the platform for the rapid rise to fame that followed.
“I wasn’t even singing on that stuff, just putting it on cassette, four track cassette players. I’d go up to Sheffield every now and then and people would take the cassettes and listen to them, saying “you need to do something with this”.
“I moved to Sheffield and then that’s where it all started. That’s where the band began in ‘95. Then we kind of had a feeding frenzy from record companies. It kind of went from me just basically working in my bedroom or on the kitchen table to, in a couple of years, going to an insane place.”
Things changed very quickly, with You’re Gorgeous giving Babybird a top 3 hit with their debut single, and becoming one of the most memorable hooks of the 90s. That brought its own pressures – not least commercially, having to follow up such a monster hit straight out of the blocks. But personally, it also took its toll, and led to Stephen decamping to the capital.
“I have to pinch myself really, because I literally was on the dole just writing in a tiny room and then suddenly Ugly Beautiful came out and You’re Gorgeous became this monster and I had to move because I was just getting so much grief and shouted out…not in a nasty way, but you couldn’t go anywhere. Literally. I’d never experienced anything like that. So I moved to London to escape and you can kind of blend in more, and then going back to the way I used to write”
That ‘escape’ allowed Stephen to rediscover the lo-fi way of working, and began to pay dividends as the conversation started to shift from their biggest hit.
“Things have always come along, the F-Word was used on the Gordon Ramsey series for 13 series. Everything’s always come along, and it’s always taken it away from You’re Gorgeous, which is really nice! And then working with Johnny Depp, I could do interviews where people would talk about that, not You’re Gorgeous!”
Don’t misunderstand this though. He’s not at all resentful of the way that song changed things. If anything, it’s the opposite. To this day, it provides the opportunity to create in a more authentic, natural way, something which Stephen readily recognises might not be the case without it.
“You’re Gorgeous funds me – that and the F word” he admits. “That’s the way I look at it now…I don’t dislike that song or those songs, because I can now basically have a bit of a career from that funding.”
And that means the benefit of freedom to write how and when he wants. Which is pretty much all the time! As I speak to Stephen, he’s released 3 and a half albums onto Bandcamp already this year. It’s a relentlessly prolific output. Is that a good thing?
“I may be shooting myself in the foot!” he laughs. “But people stick with it. That’s what’s amazing. And I warn them you know, if you don’t want this don’t buy it, too much stuff!”
There are few artists out there that could match this level of creativity, on a daily basis. But the process here is not one that takes over Jones’ life. If anything, it’s a kind of 9 to 5. Work that’s done in a concentrated period of time so that the rest of his life can continue. But just where did that work ethic come from? It goes back to those early days in Nottingham.
“I think that was being on the dole and…apart from looking for the odd job here and there, I literally had to fill the time. So I think that’s where I learned it all. I just do it in bursts. I mean, I have a family. I do other things. I do it in five/six hour bursts. I think people think I am literally doing it 24 hours a day, but I’m not. I just do it very, very quickly, you know, five or six tunes and then put lyrics on them. And it’s just really as simple as that. It’s just one thing I can do.”
Stephen jokes, “It can take me days to work myself up to mowing the lawn, but writing music, that stuff’s just a pleasure. So I’m very, very lucky, incredibly lucky to be doing something I like.”
In past interviews, Stephen has spoken about the influence of Joy Division and Peter Hook’s melodic basslines. As a sixth former, these were captivating to the young artist, something which he’d not heard before. And that still influences the way Jones writes today. But he is something of a musical magpie, drawing on influence from a wide variety of genres.
“I listened to a lot of soundtrack music, classical music.” he explains. “Ólafur Arnalds, Max Richter and people like that.”
And then something which, if I’m honest, I didn’t expect…
“A lot of hip hop as well. Obviously I would never say I could do hip hop, but I think the use of beats and the use of samples is something that’s totally influenced what I do. Erik B & Rakim, Public Enemy and Ice Cube all that stuff and all the way through to NF and Eminen, Juice WRLD and Travis Scott and people like that. I just always, always dip into that first.”
As I said, it wasn’t the influence I expected, but when Stephen explains the “process”, then it starts to make sense.
“I think you’re just finding a beat first. And that’s all I do. I go on GarageBand and just loop something, and that’s where everything starts. I layer it up, I’ll try and put strings on it, so that’s the kind of soundtracky, classical side of it. Just see how it mixes. They’re lullabies, tune wise! All I can write if you listen to a lot of it, the singles, they’re all just lullabies. Really, they’re just two notes!”
One of the other things that sets Babybird apart is the incisiveness of the lyrics, a tension between the melodic nature of the music and the message that’s delivered, if you just listen carefully enough. Just take the biggest hit – seen in many ways as a wonderfully romantic gesture, if you just remember the chorus. But scratch the surface into the verses, and it’s quite a different story of obsession and exploitation. So what’s the driving force behind that poetry? It doesn’t come as easily as the music.
“I think lyrics are the hardest thing to do. Everything, absolutely everything I see, everything I watch, listen, goes in and then it comes out and mixes up with whatever’s personal but I don’t write really from a personal point of view. I think that the ‘tortuous’ artist’ thing is not really my thing. I want to write in a realistic way. It’s a cliche, isn’t it? “Personal to me”, and then you find that it’s been written by a load of writers very often!”
It doesn’t seem to stop Stephen from writing though. Bad Ideas 1, 2 and 3 have all seen the light of day this year, and just ahead of the interview, I’ve listened to the extracts from I****Life, which looks like being the next thing to emerge from this wildly productive mind. This is an interesting feature of the process. Essentially, a “try before you buy” offer to his listeners.
“I always do tasters. So I do like mixtape things. 11 minutes, and I’ll have a minute of each song. What you probably listened to there – I think it’s just extracts of stuff. It’s just to show that as soon as people start saying they’re interested and they want it, I go and work on that stuff first.” He laughs, “I need to find out first if I’m going to sell so I need to get the orders! And then I work on songs so it’s fresh. And so when they get it eventually it’s been written, since they kind of ordered or listened to those snippets.”
The most developed of these ideas so far is a track called Feelings, a disconcertingly simple piano melody, with a Bowie-esque lyrical delivery over the top. The layered vocal adds to the dissonance, and then we come to the lyrics.
You can hold my hand under the water, as long as you want to.
But I can’t, no I can’t talk about it
You can force my face into the flames
As much as you burn my eyebrows off
I won’t talk
“That one…really that was the centrepiece of the whole album. How we’re numbed and how are we supposed to feel? There’s so many ways you can project the way we are at the moment. We don’t really have anyone. That’s what the album’s about.” Jones continues, “We don’t really have anyone to believe in since COVID, I find that really hard. The feeling’s gone out of the world a little bit, because people have just stuck one finger up – “fuck you” a little bit.”
It’s an interesting, if slightly worrying thought. Are we worse off than we used to be in an emotional sense?
“It’s a funny one, but that definitely feeds in, particularly this album as well feeds into that all the time. It’s an undercurrent all the time – just trying to find a feeling you can believe in.”
It’s what he describes as “typical happy Stephen / Babybird stuff”, tongue firmly in cheek. The future sounds bleak doesn’t it? Well, for now, Jones is riding a more positive wave, just looking as far as getting back on the road, playing music for his fans again.
“There are some great venues” he tells me. “Brudenell (in Leeds) is like our second home, we’ve been there 7 or 8 times I think.”
This brings us to tour support Tony Wright, dynamic Terrorvision frontman and West Yorkshire coffee shop owner. Theirs is a long-standing friendship, and I wondered if Stephen had ever stopped by for coffee and a cake while he was on the road.
“I haven’t” he admits “but Tony always invites us over there after a show. You’ve reminded me so I must stop by this time!”
It all kicks off in Bristol on May 2nd, running through to London on 6th and calling in via Cardiff, Manchester and Leeds on the way. Something else to keep him busy alongside the continuous writing.
Looks like that lawn will have to wait for a little while longer.