Jeremy Warmsley Interview
Talented troubadours are ten-a-penny of late, the more middle-of-the road options breaking into the mainstream and courting huge commercial success. For every James Blunt though, there is an edgy and experimental singer/songwriter who displays enough creative verve to erase You're Beautiful from the memory. Jeremy Warmsley is one such act, and you'd do well to purchase his debut album The Art of Fiction. Last week, before he took the stage to support Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly in Wolverhampton, I spoke to the man in the braces and here's what he had to say...
I saw you support Regina Spektor back in November 2005 at the Glee Club, Birmingham. Can you remember that far back?
That was a good night. We had a lot of technical problems if I remember – the keyboard died.
You played with another guy on keys that night. Is he joining you on this tour?
We’re playing as a full band tonight – the same guy on piano, a bassist/percussionist and a drummer. We’ve been playing as a four-piece since August. We did all the festivals and toured with King Creosote as a foursome. I tend to switch it up between four-piece and solo. We’re doing a tour with Larrikin Love in February that I think we’re doing as kind of a ‘power trio’ – just keyboard, bass and drums. That should be pretty fun.
You’ve remixed Larrikin Love’s Well, Love Does Furnish A Life. Is remixing something you will continue to explore?
Doing remixes is fun. It’s like dressing someone else’s children, and you can put them in an eye patch and a tutu if you like. Give them a pipe! I did one for Maxïmo Park [for I Want You to Stay] but I don’t think they ever actually heard it. Their manager asked me to do it and the band was always going to use the Field Music one. They asked loads of people to play with it, and I was a bit annoyed because I was really pleased with how it came out.
Is it floating around on an EP somewhere?
No, it never came out. I think the label made some CD-R’s and passed them around sneakily but it never had a formal release. You can find it on the internet.
Speaking of, it seems you have taken advantage of the MySpace phenomenon and how it allows songwriters to interact with fans. What are your thoughts on the website?
For a little while, I was convinced it was all fake and that no-one actually uses it. Everyone makes a big fuss about it but it’s just a very easy way to listen to new music, and a very simple way for people to get directly in touch with people whose music they enjoy. Once you get past a certain stage, it becomes impossible to reply to messages but I still try my best to reply to all those I receive. My record label sometimes goes around adding people, a practice I find a bit forceful. I don’t think anyone likes getting ‘adds’ off bands they’ve never heard of.
I added you after seeing you play live for the first time. Do you find this is the way most listeners discover you?
There were some kids yesterday down in Southampton on the first night of the tour. They had never heard of me but it came to their attention I was supporting Sam so they checked out my MySpace and came to the gig with some knowledge of what I’m about.
Were you friends with Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly’s Sam prior to this tour?
Yeah, we must have met about six months ago at Truck Festival. He’s a really good guy. I spent the night at Bestival on a tour bus with him, the Holloways and Emmy the Great. The Camden Mafia, in other words; they’re heavy drinkers. The second time I met Sam, at a party at a friends’ house, one of my friends fell two stories from the top of a spiral staircase – he went round and round. Dangerous times in London town.
In between playing gigs and chugging on beer, do you get much time to listen to other music that’s out there?
I do and I don’t. At the moment, I’m exploring the furthest recesses and corners of some of my favourite artists’ discographies. I’m really getting into some Tom Waits’ stuff that I’ve had for ages but never listened to like Swordfishtrombones. I got his new one [Orphans] for Christmas, and it’s fantastic.
Your album is titled The Art of Fiction. A few of the songs, such as 5 Verses and Jonathan and the Oak Tree, feature characters and narrative structures. You also ran a short story competition, where the winner had his story adapted into your B-side Photograph of a Hospital. Are you consciously trying to play with the way stories are told via the medium of song?
I think you can do a lot of different things in a song; you can tell a story, express an emotion, create an emotion, describe a character. You get tempted to do a lot of things, and I’m interested in doing as many as possible. I don’t think that you should limit yourself or think that something is out of bounds.
I do notice that there are a lot of bands at the moment that are really just expressing a feeling. There have always been a lot of singers and bands who are just like, ‘Oh, I feel this way so I’m just gonna say it and get it off my chest because it’s bothering me.’ I think he’s fantastic but Bright Eyes is a good example of that. I think a lot of singer/songwriters do that and I do it a little as well; If I Had Only is a ‘this is how I feel’ kinda song. I like to do other stuff though as well. I really like telling stories in songs.
Do you write prose at all?
No, not at all. I love stories. When I watch a film, the thing I’m always most interested in is the plot or the storyline. It’s the same with history; I’m not really that interested in the economic details but more so the narrative of historic events.
The title The Art of Fiction, though, isn’t really about the narrative thing. If I’m completely honest, looking back at that title in retrospect, what I really wanted to do was make people question, ‘Is this honesty in these songs? Is he telling the truth?’ I think a big thing at the moment is authenticity; if you look at Arctic Monkeys, Lily Allen and The Streets, they’re all telling real stories about their lives when they walk down the street. Again, I think that’s a wonderful thing that definitely has its place but I was looking at artists like Sufjan Stevens and Talking Heads who take experiences that are true but they put a different spin on them. One way music can be really great is when it’s a direct expression of what you’re really like. What I was trying to do with that title is give the listener an impression of surface, a layer of deceipt. That’s the sort of person I am, I like to play with people’s expectations and give them an impression that isn’t completely true. There’s still honesty there, it’s just slightly more removed.
At the same time of course, I understand that a lot of people don’t give a flying shit about that so I tried to make the album in such a way that it works on both levels. If people want to just take it on the surface, there’s something interesting in there for them but if people want to look into it and think about it then there’s a further layer.
You mentioned Sufjan Stevens. Any plans to do a ‘Camden Album’, maybe followed by a ‘Wolverhampton Album’?
No, I’m not that interested in places. I’ve travelled a lot; I lived in America as a child, and I’ve spent a lot of time in Europe because my mother is French. I find that, wherever I go, I’m much more interested in the stuff inside my own head and the people that I’m around which, of course, changes from place to place. Every place has its charms, though. I managed to enjoy Hull.
To answer your question, I have got a big project planned that I’ve just finished the demos for. The plan is that my next album’s going to be a double-sided vinyl record but obviously it will be available on CD as well. The first half will be made up of pop songs while the second half will be a continuous narrative. It’s really taking my love of storytelling to the absolute extreme, trying to extend a story beyond just one song and across a whole album.
Have you been listening to Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love in preparation?
Well, that record was an obvious inspiration. I think my album’s quite different because the narrative is a lot more structured and easy to follow. When you listen to The Ninth Wave, unless you go through the interviews with Kate Bush, it’s not really that clear what it’s about. It’s scattered which is good because that’s what it’s about; a girl drowning and the confusion and terror that comes with that, which is why it’s such an arduous and difficult listen although she makes it out at the end, thank God. Mine’s a lot more direct and narrative-driven so I think it’s a different sort of project.
It was an obvious inspiration though, along with the likes of Low by David Bowie and the Bob Dylan albums where it’s half acoustic and half electric. The new Joanna Newsom album [Ys] is a great inspiration because she’s shown it’s possible to take your audience seriously and not assume that they’re going to get bored or lose their concentration. The fact that the album has been so loved by everyone who’s heard it is a real comfort in these times.
Is there a release date planned?
I’ve literally just finished the demos so the label are listening to it at the moment. We might decide to do something else because it might work better as an EP. I’m really keen on doing it, though. I think it’s a great form, and I could see it being taken up by a lot of people. The two-sided thing has been done before but I view it in the same way that when The Beatles picked up guitars and started writing amazing pop songs, it inspired a whole lot of other people to do the same thing in their own way.
You’ve obviously found time for writing new stuff. Have a lot of the songs developed on the tour bus?
A little bit but mostly I still write at home. I had a pretty quiet summer. I think the important thing about songwriting is to keep changing how you do things and never take anything for granted. You should always go back and go over songs so that you make sure every bit of a song is as good as can possibly be.
A number of the songs on the record feature interesting use of backing vocals. How did these come about?
On that record, I had a pool of friends who I had on call. Emmy the Great sings on that one, and so does my friend Mary Bowers. Emmy used to be a member of the band but she decided she hated my guts! No, she’s absolutely fantastic and everyone should check her out. I’m going into the studio with her and Fyfe from the Guillemots, who will be producing her next single hopefully. She’s not signed yet but she will be.
A lot has been made over the electronic elements in your music, with some critics labelling your album as ‘folktronica’. Can you describe how you developed this sound as a young songwriter? Was it a case of learning guitars and keyboards first and then moving over to your laptop?
As I say, I try not to confine myself to anything. I started off like everybody does, mucking about on an acoustic guitar and working my way on to more ‘band’ kind of setups. Eventually, I thought, ‘Why am I limiting myself to real instruments, to stuff that can be played by a band?’ A lot of people think that when you listen to a record, you should be able to imagine it being played live. The incredible thing about recording studios is that they allow you to create impossible music. That’s something I do quite a lot; I create parts that are simply impossible to play in a live setting, parts that are physically impossible. 5 Verses, for example, has this guitar refrain going through it that would need six guitarists to do it live. I think, with all these possibilities open to you in the studio, why not take advantage of them? I had this sort of epiphany about two and a half years ago, where I thought, ‘I’ve got all this stuff to experiment with and I’m just sitting here with an acoustic guitar and a basic drum kit. Why don’t I just use everything?’
I’ve got nothing against people who make music that you can perform live, and I’m interested in exploring that myself. I’ve seen Interpol play and they pretty much play note-for-note the same as the record but it’s still a fantastic experience. Because of the wonderful interplay between instruments and the emotional core of their music, it’s still exciting to see it come alive. As with writing songs, there are so many different avenues to explore in creating a live sound or a live record. It’s a shame to confine yourself to whatever happens to be fashionable or what’s easy to do.
You’re obviously thinking long-term and have a good many ideas to explore. The videos for the album’s singles have been quite impressive. Were you heavily involved in that process?
I’ve been really lucky. I’ve worked with a great director called Ben Rollason who will come up with four or five fantastic ideas, and my job is to just pick my favourite. I’ll occasionally have a suggestion but he’s the genius so I let him get on with it. I’m completely one hundred per cent satisfied with the video for I Believe in the Way You Move; I’m biased but I think that’s one of the best videos I’ve ever seen.
Are you hoping to do a headline tour soon?
I’m sure I will at some point in the year. If the next album comes out this year, which I’m hoping it will, then there will definitely be a tour in support of that. Besides that, I’m going to South by Southwest and touring with Larrikin Love over the next couple of months. Lots of plans, keeping myself busy!
You mentioned earlier that your mother is French. Would you ever consider doing a French-language album?
I don’t think so. It’s not something that’s tremendously natural for me so I think it would be quite facetious of me to jump into that. There’s some French music that I really love. As far as I’m concerned, Jacques Brel is one of the all-time best songwriters.
This may be akin to asking a mother to pick her favourite child but do you have a favourite song off the record?
Well, people do have favourite children in some cases. I feel like Dirty Blue Jeans is the neglected son that ran away from home and came back really successful but slightly bitter. Jonathan and the Oak Tree is kind of the oldest child who grew up and did everything his parents expected, and I Believe in the Way You Move is the spoiled younger child who… I’m taking this metaphor too far now!
Those three and Modern Children are probably my faves. Dirty Blue Jeans is my favourite because it’s got a really twisted heart to it, and it really embodies what I was saying about trying to express my personality through music without being too direct about it. There are a lot of layers in that song to be peeled back but, at the same time, people can just enjoy the surface of it.
They can also enjoy the song’s references to events in nightclub toilets.
Yeah, that was an interesting night!