Singer-songwriter Steve Jones releases his own brand of folky guitar music under the moniker of Stylusboy. Having enjoyed his Whole Picture EP last year, and excited at the prospect of his latest Four Walls EP, GoldFlakePaint had a chat with Steve along with accompanying-vocalist Rachel Grisedale. The pair are now embarking on a process of writing collaboratively so we wanted to get the lowdown on their musical histories and find out what the future might hold.
Hi, thanks for talking to us today. Steve, how long have you been making music?
Steve: Probably about 12, 13 or 14 years. I had a few guitar lessons and then did the whole sixth form rock band – “we’re gonna change the world” but clearly we didn’t – kind of thing. Then I played in a 3-piece rock band that did quite well and got some Radio 1 coverage and Kerrang! Radio coverage. Then I joined a 7-piece trip-hop band which was amazing. They’re still going – they’re called Kanute – I played guitar for those guys and sang. I wasn’t really involved in any of the writing. While I was doing Kanute I started writing songs because it’s just part of who I am really. Put them up on Myspace – back in the day – and I got a booking for the mainstage of Godiva festival, which is a big festival in Coventry. I thought “great I’ll finish my EP cos that gives me a real incentive”. I finished those songs and went from there.
And Rachel, what’s your musical history?
Rachel: I’ve been into music my whole life: growing up with The Beatles – my parents were into all that 60s stuff. And I started to teach myself guitar when I was 14. I’ve always wanted to do songwriting but never really found the confidence to do it. And I’ve been in acoustic duos and done acoustic covers and then just bobbed along like that – not done anything major with it. And then met Steve and we’re now songwriting together so it developed that way.
So you’re a writing duo now then?
Steve: Yeah, we’re working on an album. Whole Picture’s got ‘Beyond the Flags’, which was very much a collaboration, and on ‘Something Worth Keeping’ (to Rachel) you’ve got a credit for one of the lines in the chorus. So, very much, we’re well into writing the album and there’s probably only a couple I’ve written on my own really. Very collaborative, which is really a nice challenge for us both.
What’s the songwriting process for you then? Does it just come out fully formed?
Steve: Yeah, like ‘A Song for Noah’ just came out practically finished. But yeah, really different (methods). Sometimes it starts with chords, sometimes it’ll come with a title. I’ve got various funny melodies I’ve sung into my phone. When I drive home from work often I’ll get a melody, and I have to sing it all the way home. And I pull up onto my drive and go “lalalalala” and then I play it to Rachel and she goes “that’s rubbish, it sounds like a funny ringtone”. But yeah, there’s a recent song that’s come from that process.
And is songwriting often a therapeutic thing for you?
Steve: Yeah. It’s quite a celebration for me. I’ve got two young children and a lot of what I write will be concerning them. Also I’m quite a hopeful chap.
Rachel: I say we’re the yin and the yang. I’m more into the heart-wrenching depressing stuff and Steve’s like “ooh, let’s put a little sunshiney slant on this”.
Steve: Yeah, it is therapeutic but I guess celebratory, hopeful, questioning, challenging. Subtly.
What about narrative songwriting? Are you into the story-telling aspect of lyrics?
Steve: Yeah again: recently. I’ve kind of experimented with it in the past but it’s never really hit the button.
Rachel: There are a lot of influences (on the writing now), like Laura Marling and Johnny Cash. They’re very narrative. And we’d maybe like to go a little more on the country side and kind of investigate that type of songwriting.
Steve: Songs have started as maybe writing about someone, something, and then turned into a story. There’s one that kind of wrote itself – it started being about a bloke, ended up being about a lady and there’s a story to it.
And do you find yourself drawn to particular themes?
Steve: Yeah. I know we’re talking about new songs that nobody’s heard but we’ve written one called ‘Goodbye Day’. I often go for a cycle round Coventry War Memorial Park and I cycle past benches and memorials to all these people that have given their lives. And for me, as a father and as a husband, I kind of go “really, how did they do that? How did they do that?”. And so we’ve written this song about how somebody… you know, you get that call and you feel that duty but what about the protection of your family? “I need to go and do this cos it’s for my country but equally I have a priority here”. It’s how someone dealt with that, cos I can’t comprehend that. So that’s very interesting. Yeah, we’ve got quite deep.
But good songwriting can cover any theme, as long as there’s a way in for the audience. And whether that’s metaphor or various levels of subtlety…
Steve: It’s interesting I did another interview a few weeks ago. They asked me why I decided with Whole Picture to explain every song. And they challenged me and said “I don’t think you necessarily have to do that so people can interpret it”. It hadn’t crossed my mind. It really hadn’t crossed my mind that actually a song like ‘Whole Picture’ could be interpreted in a different way. Maybe naïve, it wasn’t deliberate, I thought “there’s a story behind it, I’ll explain it”. Equally, somebody’s got their own attachment to that and that’s exciting.
Rachel: I think it’s interesting that between us we both have different perceptions of the same song sometimes. Which is quite interesting when we come to perform it.
Steve: The decision to collaborate came for me when we were recording Whole Picture. This guy called Chris Smith recorded it with me . He wasn’t a producer, he’s a musician . If I got very emotional he’d say “I’m not sure about that bit”. “What do you mean you’re not sure about that bit?” “Oh no, you can tweak it, you can do this, you can do that”. That made me go “actually I need that”. It’s a healthy process to go through.
Let’s talk about being a singer-songwriter. There’s been a real resurgence of those sorts of artists in the last few years – it’s been the default set up – just guitar and voice. Has that had an effect on the sort of audiences you get or the amount of gigs?
Steve: I think as a singer-songwriter you’re a kind of entity. I think as a band there’s only certain places you can play. As a singer-songwriter there are certain places where it works better. But I think also there’s a sense that people really love to discover something new. I think that and the (influence of) the internet and Facebook and Twitter and all of that is just brilliant. Yeah, you can get lost in it and spend 2 hours doing something when you’re meant to take 5 minutes but just the whole process of “oh, I’ve found this, I’ve got to tell somebody, I’ll share it”. And that’s brilliant. (To Rachel) We’ve always gone “oh, have you found this person?” “Yeah, I’ll lend you their cd”. I subscribe to NoiseTrade and some of it I go “Oh, that’s amazing” and then I’ll share it. This week I’ve had 6 sales completely out the blue. That’s fantastic and I always reply to all those people and we get a bit of a dialogue. This morning I sold one to the States, to a guy who randomly found me through Bandcamp and he went “really like it can’t wait to get it” and that’s just brilliant. You know, my stuff is just there, he’s physically ordered it, paid what he wants. I’ve got it, I’ll put it in a postbox, you know.
And that’s the thing about the songs having a life beyond your original stories – they become something else to those people. And, as you say, they can end up on the other side of the world.
Steve: Yeah, I like knowing about the stories in songs. But it’ll make me think when the album’s done what we do with them, whether we explain them again.
And if you need to explain them or if you want to...
When’s the album going to be emerging then?
Steve: Who knows, really? We’ve got 7 tracks that are virtually finished in a completed state; they need tweaking. I’m gonna put a song off the first EP on it – ‘A Song For Noah’ – cos it constantly connects with people for lots of different reasons, so I’m gonna put that on there. I set myself a challenge in August to write two songs a month. We’ve almost reached that. We’ve got to a point where we’ll record these as demos – these 7 – listen to them, decide where to go from there. It’s not something I’m gonna rush. I would anticipate possibly this time next year. But the live house show recordings (the Four Walls EP) have come out on 27th Feb; I’ve got the remixes sat there waiting; and the video will be finished when my film-maker comes back from Iceland. So that will probably be around May that’ll come out. And we’ll keep working. The studio will be where we recorded Whole Picture, I’ve also got a set-up at home so it’ll be a kind of gentle process. Whole Picture was recorded in fits and spurts, as it were. We’ll keep going, we’ll see… and then I have an interesting idea in terms of the artwork that will hopefully come to fruition.
Well, you’re very much in charge of all aspects of Stylusboy – you man the Twitter (which is how we met you) and the Facebook sites yourself, and all the aesthetic aspects are always coherent. It feels like you have a strong overview.
Steve: Yeah, I mean the artwork isn’t drawn by me. It’s drawn by a very talented young lady but I did a Fine Art degree so I love visuals. I like corporate image. I like the consistency of things. I love hand-drawn stuff: really, really love it so I’m fortunate that I’ve got a friend who will produce stuff when I ask her to.
So it’s really important to you as an artist to keep hold of that and work with people you trust?
Steve: Absolutely yeah. It’s lovely that people are willing to do that and just collaborate really. Similarly with the videos, it’s my friend Laura Mead – who’s just gone off to shoot in Iceland – that I met, again, via Twitter. Somebody recommended her: “she’s looking for some projects” so I thought “brilliant, let’s do something together”.
Talking of collaborations, what about in the dream scenario – who would you like to collaborate with (living or dead)?
Rachel: There are too many. Most recently I’m a bit obsessed with The Civil Wars. Their songwriting just astounds me and the chemistry they have together is unbelievable. Watching their live stuff on Youtube it’s just them and it’s unbelievable. But then Johnny Cash – “it’s the story and I’m telling it” – and yet he’s just a man with a guitar, and he does it unbelievably well.
Steve: Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen. He’s constantly reinventing himself. Just anyone like that. But then I’d love to watch and to be involved in Laura Marling’s writing. It seems very, very personal to her and very precious. But then equally I’d love to do stuff with someone like Faithless. I got sent a track to sing on that is a kind of dance track. It’s by The Suit Corps – a friend of a friend – again, no deadline on it but it’s a collaboration between this guy The Suit, a rapper he collaborates with and I’m doing it. It’s all via Facebook. And that’s an interesting process cos it’s a completed song and he said “do what you want with it”, which is the backwards approach completely. An interesting challenge. I’d love to work with someone like The Beatles – just classic, classic songs. How many did they write that we didn’t hear?
Talking of the classics, what are your favourite songs or albums that you always go back to?
Rachel: When Steve turned up at my house earlier to pick me up I had my iPod on and he walked in and I’d got Johnny Cash on and then it flicked to the next song and it was Gwen Stefani. And I thought “genre has become nothing now” – everyone likes everything.
Steve: I really like Foy Vance and his album Hope is pretty stunning. That would be one of my defaults.
Rachel: Along the lines of no genres I was thinking The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill. It’s a brilliant album and it comes out every couple of years and I have one or two months of solidly listening to it.
Steve: Most played stuff? I love Idlewild. I love their early stuff. I saw them on their first tour – pure energy was just squashed in a song. Like, Hope Is Important – I can not listen to that for a year and then go back and go “oh yeah”.
Rachel: Biffy Clyro. The songwriting behind it.
Steve: Yeah. Quite contrasting things that we like.
And as you say Rachel, across genres...
Rachel: I think that’s the biggest thing. I don’t think genre is a particular issue any more.
So in the short term we’ve got the recent live EP Four Walls to listen to; what else is in the pipeline?
Steve: I haven’t done a Youstream gig in a while. We will do one of those with the new songs to try it out and see how people like that. Probably in the next month or so. We’ve got two gigs in March and then there’s writing, writing, recording and trying to focus on that. We’re really excited.
Interview by Amanda Penlington
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You can buy Stylusboy’s music from his Bandcamp page