The Dolorous and Beautiful World of Anthony Reynolds

By Erik MorseSeptember 18, 2013

The Dolorous and Beautiful World of Anthony Reynolds

THOUGH YOU MAY have never heard of Welsh musician Anthony Reynolds, his albums surely belong next to those of Morrissey, Scott Walker, David Sylvian, and Nick Drake inside the same hallowed hope chest of disaffected youth. A Cardiff-born songwriter, poet, biographer, and vocalist, with a soft, treacly baritone roughened by cigarette tar and spirits, Reynolds first gained European plaudits as the singer of 1990s baroque pop band Jack and its amusing Francophone offshoot, Jacques. Alongside guitarist Matthew Scott, Reynolds released a pair of the most painfully heartfelt records of the Britpop era, care of the Too Pure label: 1996’s Pioneer Soundtracks and 1998’s The Jazz Age, and, in his solo work, How to Make Love Volume 1 and To Stars — though his dérangée persona was always antithetical to the New Labour swagger being cultivated by fellow acts like Blur, Oasis, Pulp, and Suede. Jack/Jacques songs were often melodious analogues of the morose and demotic verses of Philip Larkin or Ted Hughes, garlanded with violins, cellos, and minor-chord piano figures. The lustrous product was not unlike the gilded balladry of classic Walker or Drake or contemporary group the Divine Comedy. Jack survived through a final 2002 album and tour and stumbled into the kind of narcotic obscurity relished by indie cultists and Anglophile completists.

Undeterred by the band’s demise, Reynolds retreated from London and continued producing more melancholic and string-laden pop symphonies under his own name, recruiting philosophers, poets, and chanteuses like Colin Wilson, Dan Fante, Vashti Bunyan, Dot Allison, and Kirk Lake to contribute their own eccentric voices to Reynolds’s pasquinades on British life. Along the way, the songwriter turned to publishing, releasing a book of poetry, These roses taste like ashes (2002) and three hefty musical biographies — Jeff Buckley: Mystery White Boy Blues (2008) and The Impossible Dream: The Story of Scott Walker and the Walker Brothers (2009) and Leonard Cohen: A Remarkable Life (2010). Having returned to Wales after years abroad, Cardiff’s prodigal troubadour mounted a performance cycle on his childhood, A Small Spit of Land, and plans an upcoming spoken word EP, Language as Virus, dedicated to the incidental sounds of cities across the globe. A new solo album, A Painter’s Life, will follow in the fall.


ERIK MORSE: Let’s jump back to the early days of Jack, the band you formed with guitarist Matthew Scott in Cardiff in the 1990s. Even in the first recordings for Pioneer Soundtracks, you were making references to Georges Bataille, Charles Bukowski, the Lake Poets, the discontented world of Philip Larkin, et cetera. You’ve said many times that you are not a musician. As a child, what came first for you, literature or music?

ANTHONY REYNOLDS: I grew up in an age where pianos were part of the furniture of a house. My first erotic experience was under a piano at six. With a girl, I should add. But I remember looking up and being fascinated by the sight of keys from below. Guitars, too, were everywhere, although no one in my family played an instrument. Although we found out much later on that my mother's mother played piano in prisons. Anyway, what I’m saying is that I wouldn't have bought a guitar — it was just always there.

EM: When did you first pick up a guitar?

AR: I remember seriously writing on one when I was about 13, and it had three strings. I was sort of determined not to learn chords; I have an inverted laziness that is almost aggressive in some ways. But, of course, I did learn, via The Bert Weedon Chord Book, and haven't progressed, as a guitar player, since I was 18 — but me playing a solo is a sad sight and sound.

EM: Since your most recent performances, entitled A Small Spit of Land, are composed of a song cycle about your youth in Cardiff, perhaps we should discuss how Cardiff — both as a physical place, and as an idea, a product of a child’s imagination — conferred its mark upon you. Americans don’t really understand the English perspective of Wales, whereas when we read about growing up in Manchester or Sheffield we have some sense of the poverty and boredom that produced a Morrissey or an Ian Curtis. Did you have a relatively happy childhood? Did the bucolic surroundings of the countryside give you a lot of freedom to wander, get lost, live in your own head?

AR: I did have a happy childhood. It’s only in retrospect that it seems less than ideal. There was no countryside available to me as a kid. Cardiff is very industrial, urban, a port with a steelworks industry. But there were swaths of wasteland and the like. Some rivers and parks. Cardiff — or my experience of it — strengthened the parts of my character that Cardiff would have killed, if you like. I came from a very working-class environment starburst with occasional supernovas of beauty via pop music. Other than that, the pressure was to play sports, pass exams, and get a job at 16 until retirement — as everyone in my family did. I rejected that at a very early age, and, in effect, was my own mentor. I felt, looking back, kind of guided by the next life, if you like.

EM: As a published author and poet as well as a singer/songwriter, do you have a very different working method for lyrics as opposed to prose or poetry?

AR: Cocteau said, “We have to be inspired to read, as well as write, poetry.” When I'm at my purest, not sinning against myself, I can only read poetry. A drug lord in Valencia, Spain, once asked me what the difference between poetry and prose was. I huffed his uncut and told him that a good poem was like a depth charge. Compressed. Or a dum-dum bullet. It entered compact, but once it exploded it had the fallout of an H-bomb — or the equivalent of a symphony or a novel. There's something about a true poem that fucks with time; the emotional resonance doesn't match the effort involved in reading it. In the same way a song you loathe can seem to go on forever, but a 7" you love — “Be my Baby,” say — can seem simultaneously epic and over too soon. Like an orgasm I guess.

EM: Do you sometimes find it difficult to write when there is not a musical component surrounding it? On the other hand, does the process of writing lyrics give you some kind of freedom, perhaps in their brevity or how they develop as miniatures?

AR: My attempts at poetry always came across to me as fragments of lyrics without a song. This is why I don't rate Cohen as a poet and I do rate Ted Hughes, or even Carver, although Cohen is a great lyricist, no doubt. I rarely write if it’s an effort — songs I do, but as there is no market for my poetry whatsoever, it was only ever an indulgence. The further I am from my essential self the further I am from poetry.
Also, let's be practical here: I've been paid to write songs but never poetry. And yet, “poet” is the one vocation I would have been happy with. The older I get the harder it becomes to take pen to page. Lyrics, by contrast, are written by the larynx.

EM: I suppose I’ve never understood why musicians sometimes harbor these secret desires to be poets/writers. If I might claim to be a writer, it is only because I have not so secretly longed to be a singer — with a hairbrush pressed to my lips cooing Morrissey to an imaginary audience. So, what is it precisely that separates the singer from the poet as a cipher? (We should, of course, keep the medieval tradition of the troubadour and the grande chanson (love song) in mind here, as they are indispensible to the modern origin of both the singer and poet.) Is it the primary medium — of the page versus the soundtrack? The emphasis on the absent or virtual presence that comes with reading versus listening? Or is simply that the mantle of the poet has, to some degree, been passed to the musician as the dominant artistic figure?

AR: I still go with Cohen's idea that to be a poet is “a verdict.” As for myself, I gave up questioning why I sing. Singing is unlike any other activity — other than maybe sex — where one is the audience and the star at the same time in some way. Of all my urges, singing is among the least destructive. A poet can sing but a singer is rarely a poet — “music is the condition to which all other art aspires” — singing is of one but not one.

Joseph Beuys: “When we are creative we are involving the most essential part of our selves.”

But then aren't we all unsatisfied with what we are? The actor wants to direct, the director wants to write, the singer wants to produce. You mention Morrissey, who, to my mind, is a consummate singer, a vocalist, like Sinatra, unhindered by music almost. I would never want to see either play guitar. When I see Morrissey sing it’s as if his body is secondary, he's the embodiment of pure voice now. Such commitment, such giving. I remember seeing Nina Simone sing on her last tour. Although she was drunk, even then she inhabited every part of the music, even when she was herself quiet. She was so there she was absent. That's when I realized the meaning of “getting over yourself.”

EM: You’ve now written three music books — on the Walker Brothers, Leonard Cohen, and Jeff Buckley. After years of dealing with the frustrations of musical journalism, what caused you to cross over into writing about musicians?

AR: I fell into writing via desperation. Well, music writing — journalism. I'd always dabbled with short stories and poetry, but by 2004 my means of making money from songwriting was unsure. To that point I'd made bits and bobs from recording contracts but the bulk of my living came from music publishing. And although I was still published then — by Ryko — nothing about the advances were certain. So, I was living in the middle of the English countryside with a partner and various animals and what was I going to do? Work as a caddie on the nearby golf course? I’d become institutionalized by now. The idea or prospect of me working in a “job" sent me running for the syringe. So I had to find a way of making money without leaving a room.

EM: Do you believe that musical writing, as a genre, continues to suffer a lack of respect from the literary community, despite the sophisticated works of David Toop, Simon Reynolds, Simon Frith, et cetera?

AR: I love music biography. I must have read Elvis: The Last 24 Hours and Sammy's Yes I Can countless times. I love the trash aspect of the genre, but it can transcend that — Tosches's Dino springs to mind, and Careless Love. But music writing will always be derivative because it’s a reflection of another art, rarely an art in itself. It’s a mirror — not a source.

EM: Let’s discuss a little bit about the image of Jack as a “literary” band. It seems that at the time of Jack’s first album in the late 90s, pop music in Britain had begun celebrating lad culture again, the kind of hyper-masculine, pub-trolling style that didn’t fit the image of the band. I can’t recall a reference to Nabokov or Cocteau in an Oasis song. You went so far as to put a picture of someone resembling Alain Delon, c. 1960s, on the album cover of The Jazz Age, which not only was very intellectual and anti-Britpop but also a stylistic reference to the kinds of sleeves the Smiths put out a decade before. Did you feel as though Jack were working against the tide of what was popular at the time?

AR: Well, first off, that's not Delon — it was our rhythm guitarist, Richard Adderley. My philosophy with Jack, as far as cover art went, was to use the other guys in the band. They were such characters. I figured a while ago that if you stopped anyone in the street and wrote his biography it would be fascinating. A story to match Mussolini or [Herbert] Huncke Jr. So the long-term plan was to have the portraits of each band member with me on the "Best of."
But as to Britpop or “lad culture,” I wasn't involved in anything going on around me. I remember the record company saying, “Have you heard the charts?” I didn’t listen to that stuff even though I was rubbing shoulders, socially, with Blur, Pulp, Suede, et cetera. I didn't want to compete with Shed Seven, I wanted to compete with Bowie, Nina Simone, Lennon, Roxy — in terms of classic writing, not commercially.
I've always been autodidactic, autonomous. When I first discovered Nabokov and Fante, no one else I knew was reading these guys. But they had a huge effect on me. And I wanted to share that. I've always lived outside fashion, plus I loathe the sound of applause. “Applesauce,” as Hank Kingsley would say. My work was dictated by my own weather, an ecosystem that I shared with lovers and friends.
I dreaded being commercially successful. I figured — why is music made this year particularly relevant, when you've got 50 years of recorded sound to choose from? It’s so object... subjective. I recall driving around the slums of East London with a girl in ’97, and we watched some kids playing. I told her: “Today for them is what 1978 was for us.” Time is not linear.

EM: One of my favorite elements of all the Jack/Jacques records and your subsequent solo work is the attention you give to production detail. It seems you’ve always been unapologetic of your love for lots of strings and keyboards and various synthesizers in a way that always sounded very big and crisp. In other words anything but the sloppy, shambolic indie production that must have come out of the folk tradition of the “more ragged, the better” and is often mistaken for “serious.” I call it the Stephen Malkmus effect. Where did you inherit the passion for sound production?

AR: In my formative years I was never a fan of “indie” — apart from maybe the Smiths — but even then I'd call them pop. I didn't aspire to the ethic or the production values of indie music. I wanted my records to compete with Motown, Bolan, Duran, Roxy, and, yeah, the Smiths. I was never a fan of John Peel and his ilk. It didn't speak to me. My listening was broad but my taste narrow. So I was kind of surprised when we were considered indie, even though we'd signed to Too Pure. The only act they had I knew of was PJ Harvey. Whereas the other guys in the group — Matthew — were into Stereolab, I was more into Sammy Davis Jr. I was so uncool in a way I was hip.

The producers that Jack came into contact with weren't indie at all. [Producer] Pete Walsh came from Scott Walker/Simple Minds. For The Jazz Age I spoke and met with Steve Nye (Roxy Music, Japan) and Gus Dudgeon (David Bowie, Elton John) although we settled on Darren Allison (Spiritualized). I was writing lyrics that mostly dealt with intimacy, sometimes in a quirky way, going by the dictum that the most personal is the most universal, but I wanted that wrapped in a big, expansive, expensive, accessible sound.

EM: How closely do you control all the accouterments of recording?

AR: In the studio I was purely concept. I never deigned to touch a nob or slide a slider. I would just explain, with Matthew sometimes, what I wanted the engineer/producer to get. I made mistakes. Both Jacques albums are failures, production-wise. The first one was recorded, not produced, and the second, I asked for the voice to be just another instrument and it’s way too low. The drummer was wrong too. Simon Raymonde was supposed to produce that album but the record label insisted I go with another guy who had worked with U2 and was their friend and an “up and coming.” He wasn't up to it. I should have stuck with Simon...

EM: I caught the video of the song cycle/operetta, A Small of Spit of Land, which you performed recently in Cardiff. It consisted of a narrator, a church choir, a symphony, and you skulking about the stage, often singing from a La-Z-Boy recliner. I thought it was absolutely brilliant. Will you tell me a bit about how this project came about?

AR: A Small Spit of Land came about — I wanted to write about something outwardly geographical rather than inwardly geographical, and I got a grant from the Welsh Arts Council to do so. About 30 people were involved. It was my “Glass Spider” tour compressed into one night. Small Spit was an attempt at something more symphonic, not quite theatrical, not quite operatic. I’m still not sure how successful it was.

EM: Is this the first time you have attempted to put on a more “theatrical” work?

AR: I’ve played Freud in a theater show before, and I also did something called “An Alcoholic Afternoon with Anthony Reynolds” where I drank a bottle of JD and did four grams of coke in front of an audience and improvised.

EM: You recently recorded a spoken word album with Colin Wilson called A World of Colin Wilson and you’ve collaborated with Kirk Lake and Vashti Bunyan, all of which portrays a very distinct rural Englishness in your work. With A Small Spit of Land the narrative of the purlieus has a central thematic presence for you. But you’ve also spent quite a bit of time in London and in Spain. Can you tell me a bit about how rural life has influenced the way you imagine “sound worlds” and how that is reflected in your particular interest in production?

AR: I have lived and made music in various locales around the planet, my ultimate thought on having done so is how trapped we all are in our immediate vicinities, i.e. our bodies, although, maybe less so our minds. I know Burroughs disagreed, but I’ve only ever found sex and intoxication to be a real way of escaping — or maybe extending — the flesh wall. I’d like to extend on that by saying how swayed we are by the effects of our bodies on our psyche and mood. In short, wherever I found myself in the world, I found myself ultimately to be a melancholic depressive. And that inner weather was stronger, usually than anything outside it — beaches, sun, snow, sleet. So it didn't matter too much where I was in terms of composing.

That said, I do believe topography influences art on a genetic level. Some years ago when I lived in rural England my then-girl and I visited some peat fields — a kind of scrub land with pools of water, quite flat. It was summer, but the weather was cold, on the brink of rain — typically British. I remember realizing that this terrain in a foreign locale — where the hot weather was a reliable constant — would have meant that it would have been populated — couples picnicking, listening to music, et cetera. But in England — Britain — you rarely get that option. It’s not physically pleasant to be in those surroundings, your urge is to return indoors. It promotes introspection. And for some reason I remember thinking — this is why the continent or Hawaii never produced the Smiths or Joy Division.
I haven't lived in the countryside since 2007; been in cities since then. British Ballads was a product of country life, focusing on the weather indoors; the dynamic between me and my then-partner; us and the cats. You can tell that the Jack albums were much more citified.
On the forthcoming EP, Language as Virus, I'm orchestrating the whole thing using only found city sounds, recorded on my smartphone. I'm assembling an orchestra of buskers, field noise, traffic, announcements, and aural kipple to back writers narrating their words about cities.

EM: Are you very sensitive to the space (perhaps in the Bachelardian sense) of your surroundings whenever you begin imagining the way you want to create a sound environment?

AR: I'm horribly sensitive to light — overhead light or naked bulbs. I'm a lamp freak. Sound — I cannot sleep if there's any kind of rhythm going on anywhere. I wonder if this is anything to do with a traumatic experience I endured as a kid when incredibly loud pop music was used to mask other sounds. For years I slept with earplugs. In short, I am a pain in the ass if you were likely to go into a restaurant with me.

EM: You’ve fortuitously hit upon one of my favorite topics, weather. Well, psychic weather. Your songs always seem to fall within a certain typology of music, with certain sounds, tones, et cetera, that lends itself to these discussions of invisible climates and descriptive clamoring for words like “drifting,” “slipstream,” “hazy,” “tidal” — all these experiences of evanescence which we often associate with weather. It is here I am reminded of Johann Gottfried Herder’s Ideas for the Philosophy of History of Humanity, in which he says, “man is, like everything else, but a pupil of the air.” I sometimes wonder from where all these modern associations between weather and music come? And why it is that weather and music always have the power to put us in a very particular kind of climate space?

AR: Weather — physically we're very elemental — full of air, gas, water, with just a thin membrane between "us" and "outside," with various portals — fleshy USB ports — that allow out in, so I'm not surprised that we're so sensitive to the weather. But my friend Colin Wilson once told me that he felt that man was attracted to terrain, especially natural terrain: hills, mountains, et cetera, because it was a reflection or a manifestation of our inner landscape. In art, and especially in songwriting and poetry, I've wondered if the goal isn't to reflect or manifest the inner weather in the work. Who hasn't looked at a sky and felt, “That's how I feel right now”? Plus, weather, still to my amazement, is beyond our control. We're still at its mercy. Nobody can stop snow, and that's a beautiful thing. To wake up snowbound and feel the wheels of industry and commerce ground to a halt — it’s a God-given gift, a temporary heaven. There is a still beauty in a power cut.

EM: Even the most casual listener of your music could probably discern that nostalgia plays a big part in the music, perhaps of an imaginary past. But not only in the way that you evoke a longing for the past, but often the way that each album is specifically a feeling of a musical period of time. Do you ever sense you are fighting the seduction of nostalgia?

AR: I sometimes wonder if I'm capable of living in the present. I am often instantly nostalgic for something — a previous evening, a week just gone. I feel mostly as if I live in a state of terror and it's only when something has gone — happened — that I'm able to relate to it. I also fixate on the possible future. At one point I called the phone number of an old flat I had lived in, when I had been happy, hoping for what...? To access that time again? Through music we can feel again, emotions long spent or even emotions that happened to others. I sum this up in the spoken word part of “The Ballad of Mickey and Me.” Some day I expect to get out of the car, look up at the window of my apartment, and see my own self looking down at me.


Erik Morse’s most recent work for LARB was a three-part series of interviews on Los Angeles Hotel history.

LARB Contributor

Erik Morse is the author of Dreamweapon and Bluff City Underground: A Roman Noir of the Deep South, and contributor to The New York Times, Vogue, Artforum, Art-Agenda, Sight & Sound, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Guardian, among others. He is also an Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writer grantee, a former lecturer at SCI-Arc, and a contributor to Semiotext(e). He has just completed his third book.


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