Stephen Jones Babybird promo poc

BEAST OF STEPHEN – Babybird’s Stephen Jones On Being Drawn To The Dark Side, Johnny Depp and New LP ‘Photosynthesis’

Heard of Trucker, The Arthritis Kid, Outsider, Deluder? How about Black Reindeer, The Great Sadness, or Death of the Neighbourhood?

Nope? Well it might be worth your while checking them out – seeing as they’re all incarnations of the mercurial Stephen Jones – the bedroom composer who as Babybird took You’re Gorgeous into the UK’s Top Three in 1996.

Despite being chronically unsuited to pop stardom, he rode the wave for a while, becoming pals with one Johnny Depp along the way, before jumping off the bandwagon.

Not that he ever went away. Far from it, Jones has been stolidly composing and releasing music by the bucketload to a small but devoted coterie of fans ever since.

Despite suffering from an inner ear problem and a recent heart scare, Jones this week to plays The 100 Club, among a series of shows to promote his latest Babybird release Photosynthesis.

Lovingly compiled by friend Ben Scott of RW/FF Recordings – “he wanted to show me something new” – it’s Jones’ first ‘proper’ vinyl album in 21 years.

It’s a typically wry look at society and relationships, with shards of light and optimism occasionally penetrating the prevailing dark beats and subversive lyrics.

EP’s Matt Catchpole caught up with Jones shortly before his performance at London’s 100 Club and found him in typically uncompromising mood.

Babybird Photosynthesis cover art
The Vinyl Countdown – ‘Photosynthesis’ is Babybird’s first vinyl offering in 21 years

Asked about his late ‘90s flirtation with fame, Jones seems equivocal, grateful for the artistic freedom success afforded him, but resentful at being expected to play the game in the first place.

“Hit singles are stupid,” he says. “You do kids’ shows, Top of the Pops, Later, and they all blend in. Whoring yourself for money, most of which goes to the record label.”

While conceding he’s not immune to craving more attention, he’s content to operate completely outside record company influence.

“Obviously I’d love for more people to hear my music these days. But I had my very lucky star into success, to have it again is greedy, so I lie at the bottom of my pond, under the radar, brooding.”

Central to that flush of fame was You’re Gorgeous, a song about coercive control, masquerading as a love song, with a chorus seemingly bespoke tailored for daytime radio.

With surprising equanimity Jones refuses to rebuke the masses who failed to pick up on the song’s double meaning.

“People should never be told how to interpret a song,” he says with real feeling. “So, if they thought it was romantic then fine.

“Sadly, very few people got the true meaning, which is about male predatory behaviour, but in popular music most critics are a little blind to correct interpretation. Look at Born To Run.”

Jones admits the song is something of a millstone around his neck, but “one that’s allowed me to go on to do what I wanted to do, no music business constrictions”.

Part of the reason he records under so many different pseudonyms is to escape “the cliched expectations” engendered by You’re Gorgeous.

“Big hits haunt you,” he contends. “Just go to my Bandcamp and see how I exorcised that demon.”

While he accepts there’s a subversive element to his work, Jones says he’s simply writing about life as he sees it.

“I like the word subversive, but I prefer to think of my lyrics as honest and realistic,” he affirms.

“That is not a formula for success, on the whole you have to lie in ‘popular’ music. Say shit like ‘Ooh my baby left me, and my girl she done me wrong’. I started doing music because I hate that crap.”

Despite his curmudgeonly nature, there’s also an underlying warmth and optimism to his music, which is keenly felt on Photosynthesis.

Pushed to pick a favourite song he selects Cave In.

“It echoes the 2001 album Almost Cured By Sadness,” he explains. “A very happy time when my daughter was born.”

Notwithstanding his loathing for much of what he hears on daytime radio, Jones retains a touching belief in the power of pop music.

“I love a perfect pop song, it’s the dream to write one,” he confesses.

That said, Jones admits he’s drawn to the netherworld, the parts of us we’d all prefer to keep hidden.

“I like dark, David Lynch, the ear in the grass [from Blue Velvet], for example. I worked with Johnny Depp, because he likes the underbelly. The humour in the filth.”

Jones’ friendship with Depp has been enduring and rewarding. The actor contributing guitar to recordings and even financing the release of Babybird’s 2010 album Ex-Maniac.

Johnny Depp and Stephen Jones
Lovely Man – Johnny Depp and Jones on the video shoot for ‘Unloveable’ which Depp directed

The pair first met around the time Depp was making Finding Neverland, which was released in 2004.

“He was around with his mate Marilyn Manson,” Jones remembers. “He loved Bad Old Man and Take Me Back. We hit it off!

“Lovely man with a wonderful calming influence and a mind as dark as fuck. Right up my street!”

Understandably for someone who now relies on online sales to make a living, Jones describes social media as “a necessary evil”.

“I’d love to stop tomorrow, but, you know, 5% of the people on my feeds are genuine. So I hold on.”

He relishes the “punk ethic” of online music publishing and the absolute control it affords.

“You still pay a cut, but the freedom is there. Naïve as it sounds.”

Fittingly for a man who’s recorded under the name The End of Europe, Jones has fervent views on Brexit.

“Why the crap would you want to leave Europe,” he says incredulously. “Some of the laws, maybe, but it’s Xenophobia, full frontal.

“People say: ‘But it’s democracy, 52% voted us out. It’s shit, I don’t want to be part of that bad taste majority. Like Nick Cave said: ‘People ‘aint no good’.”

Stephen Jones Babybird promo picture
“I’m normal, but people think I’m mental” – Stephen Jones tries the temple mic

While Jones is resigned to the solitary nature of the creative process – “100% freedom of expression is absolutely a solo and selfish thing,” – he’s effusive about his “brilliant” bandmates and excited by the prospect of playing live.

“Live is naturally harder to control, but when the flukes and mistakes come together – can’t beat the live drug,” he says.

Asked about the music he admires, he reels off an eclectic list, which – assuming he’s serious – perhaps explains why he produces such otherworldly, eccentric and yet resolutely melodic music.

Ambient artists like A Winged Victory for the Sullen and Olafur Arnalds, sit alongside hip hop stars like Public Enemy, XXXTentacion and Erik B and Rakim.

Classical composer Vaughan Williams also gets a namecheck, along with household names like Coldplay, Nick Cave and Bruce Springsteen in Jones’ canon of influences.

Like the man himself, his music remains impossible to categorise, dark, mad, weird, playful, melodic, commercial.

You pays your money, you takes your choice.

“I’m normal, people just think I’m mental,” he asserts at one point.

Disregard this internet outlier at your peril.

  • Photosynthesis is available through RW/FF Recordings here.
  • Babybird play the 100 club on Thursday, Nov 21, more live dates here.
  • For more about Stephen Jones and his prolific range of projects and recording visit his Bandcamp page.

 

About the author

Full time journalist, music lover (obvs) and truly terrible guitarist. You can find Matt on twitter @matcatch

Comments

Leave a Reply

Please help us with running costs – donate here

%d bloggers like this: