“I always seem to be writing about nostalgia…” - hmv.com talks to Rhys Lewis
In the normal run of things, singer-songwriter Rhys Lewis would be halfway through a summer packed with festival appearances, in-store signings and promo appearances to promote his debut album, Things I Chose To Remember.
But, amid the coronavirus pandemic, he’s had to make do with gigging to fans on Zoom instead and promoting the album in phone interviews.
It’s a particular shame for the Oxford native as his debut album has been a long time coming. He first signed to Universal imprint Decca at the very start of 2016, doubtless planning to get an album in the diary straight away. A change of management caused a bit of delay and then Lewis, who’d largely completed work on the album, decided he could do better and scrapped the whole thing.
In the end, Lewis recorded Things I Chose To Remember in Talbot Studios in South London with producer Aidan Glover, putting the tracks down on tape, literally. Analogue tape, where editing requires the use of a razor blade.
It’s a raw, soulful collection and it arrives in hmv stores this week.
We spoke to Lewis about the making of the album and why it’s taken him so long to get it out...
You’ve got your whole life to write your first album, how much of your life is on this one? Are the songs all recent or do they go back a long way?
“They’re mostly pretty recent, actually. That’s largely because I wrote a whole album prior to this one and ended up putting it all to one side. That was about two years ago. As far as I was concerned, the album was ready to go, then I ended up firing my manager and it all got delayed. I used that time to write more songs, and, by the time everything got sorted, I’d really moved on. There’s one song that’s an old one, it’s maybe five years old, the others are all recent though.”
Putting a whole album aside must have been a big decision…
“It was. But it wasn’t like it was a sudden thing. It was more an accumulation of songs that I thought represented me better. I’m kind of glad I’ve done it. I feel a bit like that was my debut album and no one got to hear it, so the daunting task of writing a whole second album is already done and the next one will be my third…”
What was it about those songs that didn’t inspire you?
“I’d just moved on, I think. I’d released half of them as singles anyway, so I needed to be really excited about the other half to make it worthwhile doing it and I wasn’t. I feel like I’ve made a big step up in my songwriting since those songs. It’s something I’ve had to get used to though. The waiting. This album has been done, mixed and mastered for almost a year now, so I’ve got lots of new songs already.”
Are you somebody who’ll write lots of songs and then pick your favourites? Or do you chisel away at a select few?
“I write a lot. For this album, it was 50 songs, more than 50, and I got that down to the 11 that are on the album itself. I feel like I’ve got about six songs for the second record, but it’s good to have space. Songs have to make themselves feel like you want them to stick around.”
Do you have much of a sense about what you’ll do for your second album?
“This album, as a lot of debut albums are, it’s a collection of songs. It’s not a body of work. The next one I want to be a body of work, a real long-form record with a cohesive sense of narrative. I want it to have more of a vision.”
You did the album with Aidan Glover, whose a relative unknown, why did you decide to work with him?
“There’s one song on the record that’s not with Aidan. That’s ‘Be Your Man’, which I made with Askjell Solstrand, who has worked with Sigrid and Aurora. The rest are with Aidan. The main reason I worked with him is we were working in his studio, which is Talbot Studios in Bermondsey. It’s an amazing place. It’s a tiny room with this huge tape console, so you basically have to shuffle everywhere.”
You made the whole album cutting to tape, what’s that like? It sounds like it’d be very time-consuming…
“It is and it can be very frustrating. You can’t lean on the computer for any corrections. You pretty much have to get it right in one take. And, if the placement of any of the microphones is off, the whole thing is worthless. Me and Aidan spent a good four or five days moving microphones around, trying to get the way the guitar and piano sounded to be just right. There are days when you just get nothing right and there’s no Logic or Pro Tools to fall back on.”
The limitations must focus the mind though…
“Oh absolutely. You’ve got 24 tracks. That sounds like a lot and a lot of those classic 1960s and 1970s albums sound enormous despite the fact that they’re working on 24 tracks, but any modern song will have hundreds and hundreds. I’m not a total purist. A lot of the songs do have bits that could only be done on computers, but I love beginning a song on tape like this. It gives a song such strong foundations.”
Was there any pressure on you to bring in a bigger name producer?
“I didn’t consider it. There was some talk from the label, but after we made an EP, which I co-produced with Aidan, I felt so confident in what we were doing. There is something to be said for inexperience. You’re freer and not tied down to something that you know has worked in the past. Naivety makes you try things, even if they end up going nowhere. There were definitely times when I yearned for a steady hand. Just someone with that bit of experience. But it never came from the label.”
That must have been a confidence boost for you. Major labels aren’t known for their carefree attitudes…
“It really was. I felt validated, both as an artist and as a producer, I knew I could be self-sufficient, but it was great to have that backing.”
What kind of album is this lyrically? You’ve said there’s no one theme…
“My songs are all autobiographical. They’re documenting what I’ve been through. I always seem to be writing about nostalgia and being regretful and reflective. I tend to go to the guitar or piano when there’s a feeling I can’t shake. I’m always very honest in my songs. But there isn’t one theme or anything to unify them. I didn’t try to do that. Even when I was doing the tracklisting there I didn’t try and match up songs that have similar feels. They’re all their own little worlds.”
When did you settle on the title? Did you have any others in contention?
“I did, but they were all terrible. Really pretentious and vacuous. I just tried to think of something that sums up the album and it is a very nostalgic record. That’s probably the best way of getting that across.”
Do you have any sense of what your live plans might look like?
“At the moment, we’ve got some small shows booked in November and I’m really hoping they can go ahead, but it’s obviously very tenuous. I’ve got a headline tour booked for April next year, which will be almost a year after the album drops. In the meantime, I’m doing lots of online stuff, Zoom gigs. I’ve enjoyed that, I think I’ll keep that going, regardless of whether I’m able to play physically live again, they’ve been good fun.”
It must be really frustrating, you’d probably be midway through a very busy summer of festivals…
“It is. I had a lot of festivals lined up and I was going to be really busy. They will all be back though. Just have to wait a bit longer and remind yourself that it’s for the greater good.”