With his Decca Records supported debut album on the near horizon and having recently completed a robust slate of live shows with a new string of gigs forthcoming over the next six weeks, UK singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Rhys Lewis has been in full-on workhorse mode. And even the most cursory listen to the handful of stirring songs he has unveiled to date reveals that his steadfast commitment to refining his songcraft over the past few years has paid dynamic dividends.
With a refreshing combination of confidence, humility and sincerity, Lewis’ emotive and evocative compositions veer toward the intensely confessional, offering the listener a revealing portrait of his life and love, his heart and soul, his joys and fears. As he prepares to set out on the road once again at the end of this month, beginning with a string of European dates with fellow songsmith JP Cooper, I was fortunate enough to catch up with the musical renaissance man to discuss his burgeoning career, his restless creative spirit, and the many inspirations that have helped him become the gifted songwriter he is today.
Justin Chadwick: You’ve released a handful of excellent songs over the past year or so, which have offered listeners a fairly deep preview of your forthcoming debut album. What else can we expect to hear on the album that maybe we have not heard yet through the songs you’ve shared so far?
Rhys Lewis: Thank you. Yeah, I guess all the songs I’ve released so far are all quite different emotionally. I wanted to make sure that new listeners and fans got a sense of who I am as a person quite early on, so it was important to me to put out songs like “Living In The City” and “I Know The Feeling” because they kind of sum up where I am at personally. I guess the rest of the album continues to be quite confessional, but drawing more from experiences of past relationships. I’m really bad at being honest and vocal about my feelings when I’m in a relationship, so I think a lot of the songs say something I wish I’d had the guts to say at the time, but never did. Sonically, I’ve drawn inspiration from so many different places musically, and I think that every song has its own identity so I’m excited to share the other sounds on the record with you all.
JC: You’ve written various parts of the album in a number of different cities, including London, Nashville, Los Angeles, Stockholm and Berlin. What compelled you to city-hop? And has each locale provided you with unique sources of inspiration for your songwriting?
RL: Traveling and writing in so many different cities all in such a short space of time has been fascinating. Each place has its own way of thinking about songwriting and recording, and in a lot of places writing and production are becoming one and the same. When I wrote with people in L.A., Berlin and Stockholm, there was much more emphasis put on the melody and the track, the production. It’s not to say that lyrics aren’t important, but they serve the melody. Often the concept of the song came after creating an atmosphere and vibe musically. Nashville on the other hand was the opposite. Concept is king, and the story and lyrical twists and turns dictate the journey of the song and the production. Each and every process is valid and has its pros and cons, it just depends what kind of song you are trying to write. I guess for a song to speak to someone else you have to be true to the emotion you are trying to serve. I’ve learnt and grown a lot musically from collaborating with so many different songwriters and producers around the world, I feel like I understand my own strengths and weaknesses a lot more and I’m more able to create inspiration for myself as opposed to waiting for it.
JC: “Be Your Man” seems to derive from an intensely personal place. Can you talk about what inspired the lyrics? And more broadly, how much of your songwriting would you say reflects your personal experience as opposed to your perceptions of others?
RL: It came from a past relationship that I was in, and I just felt like I was living in someone’s shadow. I was really into her, but I started to sense that she wasn't really over her ex. She spoke about him a lot, and at times I felt like she was comparing me to him, wanting me to be more like him in a way. I felt kinda stupid, and it wasn't until it all ended that I felt like writing about it. Which I think sums up how I tend to process my emotions. I’m terrible at working through them with someone or talking about them at the time, instead I bottle them up and process them on my own later. Songwriting has obviously become an outlet for those emotions, and I think the best songs I’ve written have come from a genuine place. All the songs that made the album are very autobiographical, it makes sense to me that the songs I chose to drop were the ones that weren’t really important to me or didn't necessarily feel authentic emotionally.
JC: Perhaps my favorite song of yours—at least thus far—is “Living In The City,” which examines the joys and hardships that invariably accompany life in the big city, with evocative lines such as “Like London in the rain, the pleasure’s got pain.” I’ve called New York City home for quite awhile now, so your words certainly resonate with me. Can you talk a bit more about what the song means to you personally? Do you have a love-hate relationship with London?
RL: I definitely have a love-hate relationship with London. I’m from the countryside so moving here seven years ago on my own was a big deal for me and a real shock to the system. I didn't fall in love with it straight away, it took me ages to make friends and get to know the city, find places I liked, et cetera. But after about a year or so it started to feel more like home and like I’d finally gotten used to the pace and energy of it. But there are still so many bitter sweets with London. It’s relentless and tiring, but there’s always something to do. After a few years I had some amazing friends, some regular gigs and it felt like the best place to be to make any kind of real headway as an artist. But every other day I would wake up and think “is it worth it?” I could barely afford my rent, I was constantly tired, I hated getting on the tube at rush hour and I missed the fresh air of the countryside. The thing that kept me here was that romantic idea that tomorrow something might happen that completely changes your life. Living with that kind of optimism in the back of your mind is a good thing, it certainly kept me in the race I think.
JC: What (and who) initially inspired you to embark upon a career in music? What other artists have had the greatest influence on you, as you refine your craft?
RL: The guitar was my first love and inspiration musically. I learnt recorder and clarinet as a kid but didn't enjoy it much. It wasn't until I picked up a guitar that I really got into music. My dad taught me the blues and from that point on I was obsessed. I went through the grades and learnt all my favourite songs at the time. Got into Led Zeppelin, Hendrix, Clapton and bands like Arctic Monkeys, Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party, The Strokes were all coming onto the scene, so it was great time to be a teenager with an electric guitar. I was also playing in a covers band learning more of the old soul and funk stuff, like Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Temptations, Doobie Brothers, so I think playing lots of different music at a young age definitely gave me more ideas to play with when I started writing my own songs. Alex Turner was the first modern songwriter I idolized. He wrote modern tales of being young and growing up, his lyrics were very visual and unique, quite different to anything else at the time. And then I remember hearing “Lean On Me” and wishing I could write as simply and conversationally as Bill Withers. I love how he seems to be able to sum up a song in one line, and it’s like he's sat next to you speaking to you when he sings his words.
JC: Obviously, your voice is a powerful instrument in itself, but you’re also a gifted multi-instrumentalist. How important is it to you that your guitar and piano playing are recognized alongside your vocal prowess?
RL: It’s obviously really nice when someone comments on my playing or my singing, and I’m really proud of my musicality. It’s something I’ve worked hard for and practiced a lot over the years. But I’m by no means Jimi Hendrix or Stevie Wonder, and vocally I still think I have a lot to improve on. The thing I want to showcase on my album is my songwriting. It’s what I’ve focused on the most the past few years, probably at a detriment to my guitar and piano playing. I’m constantly trying to improve as a songwriter, so I’m often writing if I have time at home, therefore I tend not to practice guitar or piano much anymore. It’s a shame, and sometimes I think it holds me back in certain areas of songwriting because by learning more about your instrument you can unlock or discover fresh ideas for writing. But my aim for the last year or so was to write and record an honest and emotional album so I hope that’s what people think about it when they hear it.
JC: You’re slated to launch a headlining tour next month across Europe and the UK. What can fans expect to experience at your live shows?
RL: The live show is very much its own thing. I want every performance to feel different and have its own energy, depending on the night, the crowd, the venue. I’m lucky to have a great band behind me and it’s so much more fun to be able to feed of their energy too, so I want to make the most of that when playing live. So it won’t be exactly like the record every night but I hope that people enjoy hearing the songs played in a slightly different way with a different energy.
JC: OK, last question, keeping in the spirit of Albumism. What, if push comes to shove, are your five favorite albums of all time?
RL: That’s a tough question, there are too many!! Ask me next week and some of my answers would probably be different, but here we go: Bill Withers’ Live at Carnegie Hall. The crowd makes that show. Such an amazing energy in the room. Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, Arctic Monkeys’ Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, Led Zeppelin’s Led Zeppelin II and Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange.
SEE Rhys Lewis on tour | Dates