Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Interview with Anthony Reynolds

Anthony Reynolds is perhaps best-known for fronting ‘90s band, Jack, and for his solo albums British Ballads and A World of Colin Wilson. He has also written well-received biographies of Scott Walker and Leonard Cohen. His latest project, A Small Spit of Land, is an autobiographical symphonic song cycle, set to be staged in Cardiff later this month. Anthony kindly agreed to answer a few questions regarding the forthcoming production:

Anthony, I guess there has been an autobiographical dimension to much of your songwriting output but why with your forthcoming live song-cycle, A Small Spit of Land, have you been so overt in saying: this is all about me.

I suppose every work is in some way about its author. It's hard to get away from that even if you're writing fiction or using invented characters. Whatever you do – I'm sure that when Kraftwerk wrote Autobahn, it must have been based on their own personal experiences or feelings relating to that road system in some way, even if it was only a marginal reflection. Connie Plank or Holger Czukay wouldn't have written the same song about it... And didn't someone say 'fiction is the truest biography'? I know there's more truth in an episode of Emmerdale than there is in an episode of Big Brother...not that I watch either, like.

But... A Small Spit of Land is no more about me exclusively than my début solo album British Ballads was. That album was about me and a girl I was with for ten years and the life we had together- albeit from my point of view. (One plus one = Three). A Small Spit.... is about growing up in a very particular part of Wales at the end of a century: Splott and Tremorfa during the 70s and 80s. Some of the songs touch on what the TV was like then (Dear Melvyn). On what that area sounded like at night (Tidal Sidings). The power of the Catholic church in the community (St Albans Church Upon the Moors). The title song itself - the verses come from me sticking a street map of Splott up on my piano and putting it to music. It’s a musical 'walk' from Pengam through Splott to the outskirts of town... But invariably, this is my reaction to that time and place and you're right – there are two songs very specifically about me - I Was Born, which is self-explanatory and Waving and Drowning which is me imagining my own death. Which I always imagined, from an early age to happen on the road outside the old Airport Pub... in high summer, for some reason... When the band first ran through I Was Born Carl Bevan (drums) asked me: 'Tone, this is supposed to be funny, right'? And yes, of course, if you want. That song takes the idea of the classic Blues premise of 'I was Born... in a muddy field... on a rain lashed night' etc or whatever and amps it up 'til it’s almost comical, a caricature. (My version goes : 'I was born/in 71/The Golden age/of Aquarius/Conceived thanks to the Catholic church/delivered via NHS....' etc. 'Cos, being born is pretty fucking audacious, right? I mean, the cheek of it... beating all those other sperm to the egg...

You have a louche bohemian image but what kind of a kid/youth were you growing up in the working-class district of Splott/Tremorfa in the '70s and '80s?

It’s hard to say what you were like as a kid. I can't remember how I felt. I was very religious; Catholic. I believed in the whole Catholic model completely. I remember when I was about 9, the whole class had to write an essay on what it was like the last time you'd felt lonely and I couldn't do it; I'd never felt that way up to then. It’s easier to say what one liked and disliked – I loved comics, riding my BMX, being out – in parks and by rivers and railway lines with friends... but I also loved drawing and reading and being on my own. So I had a good balance between being introspective and sociable. I remember there were two things you had to do where I came from and I hated them – fighting and sports. I was quite good at scrapping but I lacked the killer instinct. I remember knocking some poor sap down and the 'harder' kids urging me to kick him in the head while he was prostrate. I couldn't do it. Rugby I just felt was boring and unsavoury. I didn't like the 'maleness' of it and couldn't see what was so desirable about getting the funny shaped ball from one end of a muddy field to the other... Jesus, I remember when it was cold and the ground was like fucking Iron… and when my balls dropped there was no way I wanted them near boots with fucking studs in them... and the 'coach' was always so excited. I once ended up with the ball by mistake and he screamed at me for not running with it. But I didn't want the ball. I couldn't care about it or relate to it... it was just a ball. I think I limply offered it to someone in the other team and the coach almost beat me to death in his fury. This would have been in Tremorfa park on some rain soaked black afternoon in March... It’s safe to say I didn't 'get' sport and I certainly wasn't competitive. That said, I liked football at dusk as much as the next kid... maybe I didn't like have to take games seriously... But, in short, I was just a normal kid with the occasional very pretty girlfriend (Claire Walentine, where are you now... Claudia…do you remember me?). I had a pet Newt ('Lefty'- raped and chomped to death by Lamby Way guillemots) and I visited my nans every weekend... one in Tremorfa, one in Ely...

There's a book and a website which I'm sure you're aware of Cardiff Before Cardiff. I'm in one of the photos - a kid in a black Harrington jacket, surrounded by toughs, and I’m playing space invaders. That would have been off Walker Rd on a Sunday after mass. My mum was a typist and my dad worked at the local steelworks. I ate fried spam for tea with eggs and chips, watched The Two Ronnies and Tiswas, loved Star Wars, had a paper -round, bought the occasional pop 7” and I loved 2000AD and Krazy comics. But I was addicted to reading and also loved pop music and making noise - and more importantly - I loved recording that noise and writing my own comics. The only real culture in our house was films on telly, the radio – Radio One - and my mum's fantastic record collection. At 13 something changed though and I knew I had to get away - from most of my peers and friends, my school, the area and my parents. At 15 I moved out...

Having lived in various locales (London, Shropshire, Spain) how does contemporary Cardiff compare to the city you grew up in? Culturally, is it a good place for a creative person like yourself to live and work, or would you be on the first plane to LA, New York etc given half a chance?

I think Cardiff now is a fantastic city. I left Cardiff for London in '93 and didn't move back till 2007. A year later I moved to Spain and came back again in 2010. As you say, I’ve travelled a bit and have lived elsewhere, which is different from merely visiting a place... and Cardiff has a lot to offer all types and looks great. It’s very poor in places and also very posh. A great combination. Some excellent restaurants and shops have opened up lately, we've got world class music and theatre venues, Chapter arts centre is going strong and as weird as ever, there's still a reasonable amount of used bookshops, some great places for vinyl, an excellent museum, fine libraries, hotels... it’s a brilliant city to be either poor or rich in. You’ve got your charity shops and you’ve got yer Vivienne Westwood. You can walk it, bike it, have a cholesterol bomb omelette-chips and white plastic bread in a caff' on City Rd or get a limo to the Hilton for breakfast... it has wonderful extensive parks... the weir, the bay, the Penarth Marina, the foreshore... the older I get and the more familiar I become with Cardiff, the more exotic and foreign a city it becomes to me. My major complaint is the extinction of pubs, particularly the old man boozers. I will never recover from the loss of The Vulcan. That place was a world unto itself, a home from home – homelier- a joyful Church of Booze. It can also be tricky now, to find somewhere quiet to drink in this city after 4am... But sure – I could have lived in NYC, Berlin or Tokyo or Montreal and in some parallel life of the imagination I did... but compared to the City I grew up in, Cardiff is now much more Welsh and European, simultaneously. It is a city of extremes and soul, of disappointment and opportunity - what more could you ask for?

A Small Spit of Land appears to be a major collaborative effort. You've roped-in a chamber orchestra, choir, and bunch of cool musicians including ex-60FT Dolls drummer Carl Bevan and ex-Gorky's Zygotic Mynci guitarist Richard James. From an organisational point of view what has it been like putting such an ambitious show together and have you enjoyed the large-scale collaborative process?

A Small Spit of Land is a broad project. I'm involved in overseeing and organizing everything from the artwork for the posters to the songs and set and everything in-between. It’s an effort but I find not working much more draining. I also like the extreme personalities involved via the musicians. On one hand you have very instinctive and soulful musicians like Mr Bevan and then to my right, the more studious and meticulous approach of the English RWCMD graduate, our arranger and pianist Christopher Fossey. These are not guys who would necessarily work together in any other situation and I find the combination amusing and inspiring. The Adamsdown Choir are wonderful too… much more together and odd - in the best way - than I could have hoped for. They've written some fantastic songs themselves that will open the show. Real heartbreakers that I'd like to record and produce at some point.

A slightly indulgent question - who would your dream musical collaboration involve?

Most of 'em… the ones that spring to mind… are dead. I've had a sly fantasy over the years of having a Michael Ball life… minus the weight and grab-a granny issues – just doing a nightly singing gig in musical theatre... you know, get up at noon, do some shopping, then pop into the theatre, pick up the gifts, bouquets and pressies left by the adoring public, clock in, meet your dresser, get the slap on, home by midnight... two shows on Saturday and a day in bed on Sunday... My current life is so precocious (precarious?) that the idea of a kind of routine really appeals... so… maybe my ideal collaborators would be Tim Rice and the sluggy frog alike looking guy... Andrew summat...

A Small Spit of Land comprises a song-cycle - something I normally associate with opera or musicals - was there any kind of specific musical template for the show or has its development been more of an organic process?

Porgy and Bess was the original template. Now it’s just a group of thematically linked songs with bits of dialogue in between, read by Christopher Brooke. He's the MC. The show is structured as a kind of memoriam for a fictional me, although everything in the songs is true. It’s still taking shape. I'll have a clearer idea once we've done a dress rehearsal. But ultimately, it’s a bunch of strong songs, with beautiful arrangements and interesting players about atypical subjects: the nocturnal sound of the Eastmoors steel works in 1978; being an altar boy in 1982; being Welsh but not speaking Welsh – i.e. does that make you less Welsh? My Death.

You've written music biographies of Jeff Buckley, Scott Walker and more recently Leonard Cohen, and you've had your own poetry published. Are you a musician dabbling in the literary world or a writer dabbling in the musical world? What is the dynamic between the two disciplines for you?

I'm not being falsely modest or disingenuous but I wouldn’t call myself a musician or a writer. Having worked with the former, I know I'm not a musician. I can write songs, bash out and hold a tune on a guitar and piano but it’s an extremely limited skill I have, technically. Proof of this being I find it hard to cover, convincingly other people's songs. With Jack, we'd sometimes have drunken after-shows at a flat and the acoustic would come out ... my then drummer, Paul Cook, would always say 'Tone, please... no... even The Beatles sound dead when you sing 'em,' and its true. The simplest songs sounded mortified by my singing them. I never wanted to be a great or even accomplished guitarist or even a proper singer when I was discovering my musicality. I wanted to make music, songs, overdub, speed sound up, slow it down, play it backwards, hit things. I wrote 'poems' and would put that over the noise. I started as a drummer/songwriter and ended up singing by default. But I have good musical ideas, or interesting ones, sometimes I can write a proper song, and I can choose the right musicians for it and direct them well. I know what to do in a musical context even if I can't do it myself.

I'm not a writer either. But I'm good at and love research. I couldn't write a novel, I just don't have the hunger for it. I've written books to pay the rent but I write songs because I do and always have done. I don't question why. I've never felt as complete and whole and alive as when I’ve finished, properly finished, a song and done it right.

What's on the creative horizon after A Small Spit of Land? I've heard a whisper that a follow up to your excellent solo debut album British Ballads (2007) could be in the offing. Any truth in that particular rumour?

My plan is to find more investment for A Small Spit - we've put so much work into this one show that we may as well do it again elsewhere. I'd like to try it at the masonic hall in Cardiff and at a Welsh chapel in London and maybe even in Patagonia if I can find some more dosh. I must give credit to Antony Owen-Hicks and the Welsh Arts Council for getting us thus far. Plus Leonard Cohen, the royalties from the book I wrote on him being another source of fuel that is feeding this thing. I'm also doing an album with my old mate Kirk Lake and then I'm appearing in a short film for some English film makers as a Richard Burton-type character. Then I'm playing Sigmund again in my brilliant friend Charlotte Greig's Dr Freud’s Cabaret. After that I plan to spend some time in a health farm. All the while, hopefully, raising money for my next solo album – via Pledge music - the album is provisionally entitled Underwater Wildlife or A Painter's Life.

*Thanks to Anthony for those very generous responses. The song cycle A Small Spit of Land will be performed live at the Eastmoors Community Centre, Sanquhar Street, Splott, Cardiff, on Saturday, April 27. Ticketing details can be found here.

**The above illustration is ©Virginia Roberts-Head.