While Babybird will always be associated with the global hit ‘You’re Gorgeous‘, the prodigious talent behind the name, Stephen Jones, has never ceased creating sublime indie pop over the course of his career. In a sense, the music industry may have moved away, but Jones’s songwriting magic has remained a constant.
Jones might have the luxury of being able to create and record his music independently without pandering to anyone, behoved to no-one, painting aural landscapes within his BandCamp site for devoted followers, but it is delightful when he pops his head up above the parapet to let us see his fine work.
Under the Babybird moniker, Jones has compiled the brightest gems from a sea of jewels over the past few years entitled ‘King of Nothing’, which will be released on 22 September 2020.
The common thread in Babybird’s oeuvre is creating dual meanings and nuances over the most sublime melodies. The track ‘London, I Love You’ is a prime example. Despite the title, the main chorus is London how I hate you, London how I miss you’ – capturing the love/hate relationships you can have with a place. This is, in a sense, an elegy to a lost place and Jones’s voice is filled with ache and sorrow.
And Jones has an amazing voice – his vocals in ‘Feel’ are so deep and rich and Bowie-esque as they glide over a sixties-infused instrumentation wrapped in a monumental melody: heart racing and dramatic.
‘The Greatest Thing’ shows off Jones’s rock credentials – a buzzsaw fuzzy blitz where true to form when he sings you’re the greatest thing in my life you can’t help delve for alternative meanings (see link to song below).
‘Vacuous’ oozes disdain and punk sensibility with a pretty melody and louche delivery – a ‘Pretty Vacant’ for the modern times.
The analogue sounds of ‘Three Little Words’ put on display Jone’s musicianship – at times low-fi and at times layered and complex – looping sounds and instruments that provide comfort to the air of despondency and cynicism in the lyrics. Never did the three little words I love you sound so confusing.
The title track, ‘King of Nothing’ is pure pop mastery. You have the feeling that Babybird as a band is capable of being a hit machine if Jones felt that way inclined. ‘King of Nothing’ is visceral and pointed: melodic and sharp both musically and lyrically with a rousing chorus delivering a sharp barb to a deluded protagonist.
This theme continues in ‘Demons, Demons, Demons’: sandwiching a nursery school ditty between Jones’s reflection on the demons that invade our psyche, complete with a doo-wop backing. A bitter pill wrapped in a bouncy tune.
‘In the Place of Love’ is a haunting piano driven ballad with the most gorgeous instrumentation over a tale of seeking comfort and safety within a shelter.
There are nine main tracks on the album and an additional four extra tracks including a very amusing cover – see the interview below for more details.
This is a sublime collection of songs – infused with a brittle melancholia and sadness, touched with an element of bittersweet nostalgia and a weariness of the world in which Babybird inhabits. And yet deep within you can detect a hopeless romanticism along with a wry sense of humour. There is no doubt what a talented musician Jones is, and it seems such a waste that his songs are not given a wider audience. “King of Nothing’ is therefore a delightful opportunity for us to see what is inside his head and it’s a fantastic trip.
I had a lovely chat with Stephen Jones about the effects of being what was ostensibly a one hit wonder, the voracious music industry and his creative output.
You have been described in the All Music Guide as one of Britpop forgotten heroes – what do you think of that description?
Well, number one, I’m not Britpop! I think there was nothing like that when I started. Before that song I recorded five low-fi albums which were originally all started on cassette and then we decided to record ourselves and had the huge hit ‘You’re Gorgeous’, but I think I always regarded it as pop music not Britpop, even though you’ll find it on the odd Britpop compilation CD. I always thought of it as something slightly separate. I guess it was a media construct wasn’t it? It’s a was always Blur verses Oasis and then you had all the other second division bands…
I confess I always associated ‘You’re Gorgeous’ with Britpop – it came out when I was living in London in ’96. At that time, it was always about who was better, Oasis v or Blur and I thought the correct answer was Pulp.
Yes well I moved to Sheffield so yeah I know Pulp’s history and the fact that Jarvis and co had been trying for 15 years or something even doing some performance arts stuff and that everything followed through and you have to respect that. Nowadays, everyone gets there in 15 seconds and Pulp absolutely put the work in.
And these days you’re too old by the time you reach 20…
Oh I know that’s really sad and people wanting to be an influencer on Instagram – is this the pinnacle? Not in my day!
To go back to ‘You’re Gorgeous’, in my news piece for Backseat Mafia I described it somewhat tongue in cheek as being an albatross round your neck – what do you think of the song now?
Well I like albatrosses, so that’s a good start! (laughs) Wanderers of the seas! The thing is, if I didn’t have ‘You’re Gorgeous’, I couldn’t do what I’m doing now in Bandcamp. You still get money from that hit, you still get played almost every other day on the radio, so I can fund what I’m doing now but yeah, I’m fine with it now. And don’t forget there were nine other top forty hits, there was Gordon Ramsay’s use of ‘The F Word’ in his TV series and various different things that happened, but obviously ‘You’re Gorgeous’ is the song that people point out.
I think around 1996, you know when you were in England, for me it was insane. I think you don’t really enjoy that because when you have something like that, it’s huge and I didn’t particularly enjoy it – I wanted to go back to writing music and making a bit of money – where I’m back to now …(laughs)
It’s no exaggeration to say you are extremely prolific – just looking at your Bandcamp page, it’s almost as if you get up in the morning, write a song, have breakfast write another song, do the dishes, write another song and so on. What’s your creative process, what inspires you?
It seems so much material, but I’ve accrued a lot of that stuff over many, many years – even before ’96 or ’97 I’ve always had a bank of cassette tapes or music that I can use and then I just write very quickly.
I’ll write a song and maybe halfway through that it will suggest another tune so I’ll save that and move on to another one, so I could write between four and five piece of music maybe a day if I’m lucky and the I’ll go back to the original one and I’ll write the lyrics which is obviously the longer process.
Writing the music is one thing I can do! I can’t cook and I can’t garden very well so what I can do is sit in front of a piano and empty my head and it just seems to come very naturally so I’m incredibly lucky really. And that’s it – there’s nothing else to it really. I think the thoughtlessness of just writing the music is great – it’s completely mindless in a way, and then you add the lyrics which is the weight of the whole thing.
And the lyrics certainly seems to be something you take very seriously
Yes – I don’t want to write, you know, simple stuff – I think that was the problem with ‘You’re Gorgeous’ because people just saw the chorus and thought it was a pop song and didn’t look at the verses, which is fine: I’m not going to tell people how to look at a song. I think obviously I want to write about realistic things in life, I don’t want to write ‘I Love You’ and ‘I’ve Lost My Baby’ and all that rubbish. I would rather write something with some real meat to it
What is your recording process?
My recording process is really simple. I started on a four-track cassette machine which you can just put four tracks down there and bounce tracks to create eight tracks. I always knew how to be simple and to cut away everything that wasn’t necessary, and I think that’s what I do now.
I’ve just got a laptop in the fourth room in the house which is like the fourth bedroom that is not used, but I’m sure I’m still doing what I did 20 years ago except it’s on a computer, but even that computer is almost 20 years old. I just trust in this – even my microphone is worth £10 – so if it works and it’s good I will stick with something that’s cheap. Obviously a lot of cheap stuff breaks, but I’ve been lucky but that’s really all there is to it, there’s nothing more complicated.
It would be hard to find a computer that would last that long these days.
I know, but it’s a beautiful thing, it’s an all-black MacBook, it’s really heavy and every time a fault comes up it’s like the end of my world but it seems to be – touch wood – ok. It’s just so easy to use and I use GarageBand – I don’t know if you record yourself and if you know – an 11-year-old kid can do that – you just loop loops and play on top of it and it’s very easy and if you want to record you can get your ideas down as quickly as possible. I’ve done big albums with Babybird the band particularly and it’s just endless – getting the right drum sound – and I’m not interested in that – I just want to get to the heart of the music.
I’ve used Protools…
I’m not clever enough! I would love to use ProTools – I’ve always been told by Luke, my guitarist to use Protools but I’m just too stupid to use it. I kind of need tutoring. I recorded on four track cassettes for way too long and I was being persuaded by people to get a laptop for god’s sake, but I resisted that. But it worked out for the best for me.
You are described as a multi-instrumentalist – what do you play?
I play the piano and guitar and I play a lot of bass on the guitar and play bass – if you play guitar, you can play bass. I use a lot of rhythm tracks and samples and loops. Drumming is the one thing I can’t do – when we’re on tour and I’m sitting behind Rob our drummer’s kit, I couldn’t play for five seconds. Everything else – I’ve used violins I’ve used trumpets but in a ‘droney’ way – you can sample the sound and then you can do whatever you want with it.
Is ‘King of Nothing’ basically you or is it a band as well?
No, it’s me. Our bass player is great at mastering and doing production, so he basically mastered that and played various bass lines etc and did the drums on there. So, I had all the songs ready and he collaborated in that he made it sound very big and huge. It is basically me and he took it on to master and produce it.
Mastering is a mystical art…
Again, it is something I could never do. I’ve been to mastering sessions, you know when we were on record labels and sat there…it’s fantastic and the people I’ve always come into contact with who master stuff are wonderful people: they really bring out things that you’ve not noticed and I can’t do that. And dynamically, that’s why I got Danny, who mastered this albun, he brings out those dynamics and I think very often my music can suffer from not having those dynamics. It’s always good to have someone like that there.
When you released ‘Ugly Beautiful’ you asked for fans to write in to vote for what song should be included on the album. With ‘King of Nothing’, how did you choose 13 songs from years of material?
I think I’ve had these songs for five or six years but they were all recorded at one time so they were all – like I was saying before – I’ve always had old stuff which I can go back and redo and work afresh. The ‘King of Nothing’ stuff was all written kind of in a two-month period so like I was saying, when I record a song and I get an idea and I jump on to the next one. There were 35 originals from the ‘King of Nothing’ sessions so it all flowed at one time, so I knew this had to be the best thing I’ve done basically you know, since the end of the nineties and the early two thousands. There’s been a few songs released on a few albums before, but I knew this should all to stick together.
Your Bandcamp site has lots of bits and pieces and scraps of ideas…
Yes, it’s all out there – my Bandcamp page is very localised to people who stick with me but now hopefully this album will get a wider audience and go beyond that bubble of the Bandcamp supporters. They are good songs – it’s such a long time ago now I can look at like it’s almost not my stuff and analyse it that way – it just deserves a bit more attention hopefully. I’ve been here before so I don’t know if it will (laughs). Let’s see.
Are you looking to have a physical release of the album?
I would love to. I’m looking at cassettes and obviously a 12” so I desperately want to do that – there is a while until it comes out at the end of September so I will be doing that for definite.
It’s common to have a pre-release order to help fund this…
Yes – that’s what I do on Bandcamp – I do a lot of packages for supporters and I do a lot of the artwork by hand or painted and it’s always addressed to the person who’s buying it, they’re numbered and they are very limited. I always like to give that personal touch – there’s gifts in there and little things that fits with the whole package. I’ve done that on Bandcamp, and I need to keep that up. It’s very time consuming but it’s great because these people have stuck with me for nine years on Bandcamp.
One thing that fascinates me about your music is the kind of tension that’s there – we talked about ‘You’re Gorgeous’ and that it sounds all nice and romantic but is in fact a nasty tale of exploitation…
An anti-male tale, I think! Yeah, I was brought up in Nottingham and it was when I was going to college and gangs of men, really, it just something I’ve always written about.
It’s a precursor to the ‘Me `too’ movement
Yes, except if you are a white middle-aged man its almost impossible to get away with that. I think I’ve always done that to the extent that I was accused of misogyny in ‘You’re Gorgeous’ but it’s so obvious when you read the lyrics it’s the absolute opposite.
What about ‘Old Car’ – it seems nostalgic but could be construed to be about suicide.
(Laughs) No it wasn’t – not deliberately. I don’t think I’ve used the suicide word – I think it’s about contemplating a death or a life beyond death. I would never write a song about suicide – even though I’ve written a song called ‘Failed Suicide Club’ – it’s meant to be the next step where you hopefully go beyond that – I completely understand what you mean about ‘Old Car’ but I think I’ve always written a lot about walking out in to sea but it’s that danger about facing death full on, really, and try and find a way past it or beyond…
I love your cover version of ‘Get Lucky but I think it’s the most incredibly threatening version of this song I’ve ever heard, considering it is such a benign and poppy song.
(Laughs) I don’t know, I didn’t mean it like that, but I completely get where you’re coming from – that’s good, I’m glad, that’s great what you’ve said that because it’s such a hedonistic, sun coming up, Club Ibiza song and the Daft Punk thing – I love perfect pop and that is a prefect song. The lyrics are totally throw away, it probably took them five seconds to write it but there’s just something very beautiful about it. I’ve done that with a series of twenty songs – a whole lot of covers from Britney to Neil Young to some Bob Dylan stuff, so that will part of a collection of covers I’ve done and hopefully give my twist to that
Your themes are often about darker side of humanity and the absurdities of existence. I assume the state of the world in the last few years must be fuel for your creativity.
(Laughs) Yeah, I think everything is. I thought the state of the world gets to me because I’m getting older, but I think I was singing about this thirty years ago. I don’t think it’s an age thing, strangely. Yeah everything goes in, it’s Brexit and Governments and stuff, but I wouldn’t want to write a directly political song, but I think everything sifts through your head and comes out about those things, but not directly. About xenophobia and the state of the world. I’m not Jewish but my family is and having to deal with stuff – I wouldn’t write a song specifically about that but it all comes in and comes out again. I haven’t had to think about this to be honest. As soon as I was eighteen and left college, I was just going to be grinding my head against what was normal, I guess.
I do detect a recurring north/south divide theme – ‘London I Love You’ which actually repeats the line about how much you hate London, and the song ‘North of England’?
Yes, that was very deliberate. It is really difficult because I lived in London for fifteen years so I feel I can sing that song – if I hadn’t have lived in London, I would have no rights to sing that, you have to experience what you’ve been through. My kids were born there so obviously it has very, very wonderful memories for my children but in terms of a place to live, and I think with COVID, seeing pictures of the people crammed on the tubes – petrifying really, and I think that’s why that came out. I don’t think I would have written that if we hadn’t been in this lock down and with all the problems that are happening.
‘North of England’ is just about freedom. North of England, I relate to the countryside and where I live now, I can get on my bike and I can be in the country in five minutes. I know that is the key to all this dark writing I do – the key is nature, but I also worry about when you see a wonderful view, I’m looking at it for five or ten minutes and I’m thinking ‘what’s next?’. I think that’s a real human condition that I don’t like in myself. I’ve got to change that somehow, just to be happy doing nothing and looking at something beautiful. That’s an odd one.
Where do you live?
I live just outside of Manchester in a place called Hale in Altrincham and it’s really nice. We were living in a maisonette flat in London and the kids had no garden, so we moved up here and everyone – it’s a cliché – but there’s more time for people up here and down in London it’s too buzzy when you get older (laughs).
Are there any contemporary bands you’ve been listening to?
I was listening to Fontaines D.C. the other day. I love a lot of the – do you know Ólafur Arnalds? Icelandic guy. I like a lot of that – not neo classical – but that kind of very simple, beautiful music. I’m listening to a lot of classical music lately – disgraceful I know (laughs) but I like very simple music. One of my favourite pieces is by Vaughan Williams, ‘The Lark Descending’ – I just think it is music that actually describes what he is writing about.
I’ve been listening a lot to Clem Snide with Eef Barzelay on vocal and guitars – worth looking up – beautiful lyrics. I’ve been listening to a lot of Nick Cave and I just find it heart breaking after the death of his son and I think Skeleton Tree – I listen to it a lot and it’s just so moving, and I think Ghosteen is just wonderful. So, I’ve got way back into Nick Cave again – I mean I was there at some of the early Birthday Party gigs and his book ‘Stranger Than Kindness’ is just a fascinating read. So, I think I’m quite obsessed by all that at the moment. It’s just so horrible what he’s had to go through.
And the way he dealt with it creatively…
Amazing. And the two films that have come out. Hypnotising, fantastic stuff.
Hunter S Thompson allegedly said
The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.
Given your vast experience, what do you think of the music business?
Pretty much that really (laughs). I don’t what his connection was with the music industry exactly, but I don’t know…it is difficult.
When we first signed, I was sat in a pub with a really nice bloke from Liverpool and he bought me a half a pint of bitter with peanuts and that’s how we celebrated me being on a record label. I remember that moment and then from that point with recording of ‘Ugly Beautiful’ and ‘You’re Gorgeous’ and stuff, it just falls out of your hands…especially since I had just been recording low-fi songs and was on the dole. I wasn’t intending on anyone hearing my music except for friends and family. Even ‘You’re Gorgeous’ was written in that period – it wasn’t intended to be a successful song – I was just doing that to kill time. I always try and remember those times, even though I didn’t have any money and I was unemployed, and I was probably miserable a lot of the time (laughs). I was still writing to get me out of that.
Now that I’m back to Bandcamp and in the last ten years I’m back to doing something which I have as much control over as I can. You know Bandcamp are really a record label and they take a cut, but they don’t interfere, and you don’t get told what to put on your covers, so I do have that freedom. But in terms of the music industry, I’ve been to the Brits, I’ve seen that side of it, how you are taken to the head of the record company’s penthouse and gently persuaded to maybe release this single or that song. But I knew that anyway – I was thirty when I got into this so I knew what to expect I wasn’t naïve. I was watching a program about Sam Cooke who had the most beautiful voice in music but was never paid and completely abused by the industry. I think Hunter has it spot on.
There a lot of complaints about social media, but it has made it easier these days to have a direct relationship with your fans.
Absolutely. That’s a weird one as well. I have such a small following on these things that I can reply to people, but I think even the social media gets taken over by the bigger labels and the bigger bands and they don’t have an interaction with their fans – it’s just blanket emails isn’t it? It’s just the internet – there’s negatives and positives. I think for a young band that the only way to do it now.
Will there be any live gigs to support the release?
I just can’t see it – I would love to but it’s just impossible. I know you’re living somewhere where you’re not affected but I used to go to watch Manchester United a lot with my son and to be in a stadium of 75,000 people, it’s fantastic feeling but I can’t see me doing that for a very, very long time until there’s a vaccine. I think we even had gigs planned for November/December but you could wait until November to see what happens but…I had a bit of a heart attack three years back so I’m in kind of a higher risk category – not high risk but a higher risk than a normal person. I’m perfectly fine now but for me – although I guess I’m on stage aren’t I? It’s for the people who have to be crammed together. It needs a few months. It probably means the death of live venues, it’s very sad.
You’ve had a worldwide hit, you’ve even played with Johnny Depp…
It’s funny you were talking about Hunter S Thompson, because I’ve known Johnny Depp for about ten years and he shot Hunter S Thompson’s ashes out of a cannon, so there’s the connection…
You’ve had a opening song on a Gordon Ramsay TV series, written a couple of books, and had a song an official soundtrack for a movie…
Yes, I had a song on the Avengers movie (not the Marvel one – that would have been interesting) – a song called ‘Bad Twin’. That was a good song that, I’m quite proud of that!
So when are you going to do something with your life?
(Laughs) Well, that’s probably going to happen after death, isn’t it? I don’t know. I don’t know what you’re like but I’m sure some people are very, very happy now but there’s always something more to be done, and that’s part of the frustrations of life.
So what’s next?
Well at the moment I’ve been sat on my living room floor sticking packages into envelopes and then I’m going to the post office which, again, is risky because I’ll have to queue with who knows what. (Laughs) So that’s my life, basically – they are all hand done so they are all painted and hand drawn and it’s been quite a few days of hard work and I just want that over then I can really relax and write a few more songs!
‘King of Nothing’ is out on 22 September 2020 and you can pre-order below: