Tony Cummings quizzed singer/songwriter GARETH DAVIES-JONES on The Troubles, dead and living poets and a mystery harmonica player
Northumberland's Gareth Davies-Jones has done what thousands of acoustic singer/songwriters have tried and failed to do, make a living through his music. And though stardom's glittering prizes have eluded him, his sheer songwriting craft has brought him a loyal clutch of supporters who are now enjoying Gareth's latest album, 'The Beauty & The Trouble'. Now in the middle of a 10-date UK tour, Gareth found the time to visit Cross Rhythms and talk about his life and music.
Tony: How long have you been doing this, mate?
Gareth: It's nearly 15 years now, as a professional. I thought I'd get a year out of it but here I am, still carrying on.
Tony: It's been a hard road, hasn't it?
Gareth: It has been a hard road. I think being independent, self-employed in any field is particularly hard but the music industry is very difficult. I was very fortunate when I started off, a good friend, [singer/songwriter] Ian White, gave me some very good advice. He said, 'Don't do it!' He spent a whole weekend trying to convince me why I shouldn't do it, which was actually brilliant because it made me think about everything. But in the end I took the step because I thought there was probably nothing else I could do.
Tony: What kind of gigs do you play?
Gareth: If you look at my gig list, I play churches, I play secular venues, I play pubs and clubs and all the rest but actually a large proportion of the concerts that I do are because folks from my mailing list are interested in putting something on in their local venue. A long time ago, I think I gave up trying to interest those who don't really like what I do, in what I do. There's no point in doing that. But there's every point in keeping in touch with people who do like what you do and that's your mailing list. People who are interested in what you're bringing out next, people who like the sound, and like the way you approach the music, and what you say and what you bring. Those are the people that are good to work with because they're the people who will attract others; they'll be enthusiastic about what you do.
Tony: Tell me a bit about 'The Beauty & The Trouble'.
Gareth: This album is the first solo album that I've produced since 2013. I've had other albums in between but they've been different projects and collaborations and themed, whereas this is the first completely solo album that I've done for three years. A lot of these songs have been gestating for probably that long in between times. I think anybody that's creative, who does any kind of creative work, whether it's music or another art form - we're all enthused about what we've just written or just produced and we can tend to think it's the best thing we've ever done. And then perhaps maybe a week or a month later we'll look or listen back to it and think actually, do you know what, maybe my enthusiasm got the better of me. Letting things lie for a while and then coming back to them - and even that process of refinement when you revisit something and hear it with fresh ears and perhaps with just a little bit more experience is a good thing. It's not always the way you should write but in this case for me this album is a bit more like that; these have been songs that have been gathering pace. A lot of personal experience, a lot of life changes have happened to me particularly over the last few years. I lost my father two years ago, that was a very significant and a very difficult time.
Tony: Is that reflected in a particular song on this album?
Gareth: It is. I didn't really say anything on the CD notes because I suppose I didn't want folks to particularly listen to it in that way. It's called 'Lost'. When you lose someone very close to you, it's always a difficult time. Everybody has a different way of grieving and for me it was a tough year and a half. I live in England and my father spent most of his life, if not all of his life, in Ireland. We got to see each other not very often, maybe two or three times a year and it was very intense, in a good way. We had to cram all of that time in together. He died after a very short but intense period of illness and it was a difficult time for the whole family. Seeing how everybody within my own sphere dealt with that, understanding how I dealt with it, asking those big questions of God when you're coming out of a period like that when you've lost somebody so dear to you and you hear about Jesus has conquered death and Jesus is bigger than death and all these kind of things but yet the person you loved dearly, you've had a relationship with, is gone completely. It makes you question a lot of things. And I think that song comes out of that place. But you know what; God's big enough to deal with those questions. And sometimes we're a bit dishonest about them.
Tony: When you say "we", you mean Christians?
Gareth: I think so. Or even people who are just dabbling in the edges and are not quite sure about this Christian faith. They ask questions like 'What about all the suffering? What about the heartache and the pain that we have to go through as human beings? How do you explain that?' And the answer is you can't explain that away. There's no glibness about it, you've got to live it; you've got to experience it. You come out the other side, if that's the right way to even describe it, but you come out having that faith refined and tested and you maybe come to a place where there are some things you have to have faith about, you have to trust. The last track on the album is a hymn that I've done live a few times over the years, 'Love That Will Not Let Me Go'. I thought it was a fitting one to end the album with because that's probably where I've arrived; this love won't let me go. No matter where I've got to in my life now, however many mistakes I've made (and I've made plenty and taken a lot of wrong directions when I ought to have known better), but through all of that God has held on to my ankle, has held on to me and wouldn't let me go. I found that to be true. And maybe it was important to put that on the album.
If you ask most songwriters, they write songs primarily for themselves, to help themselves understand different things that they're wrestling with. 'Lost' went in a drawer for a year and a half and I was still in two minds even the week before going into the studio whether I was going to put it on, largely because I didn't know if I'd be able to get through it in the studio. Would I be able to sing it and get to the finish of it? When I wrote it, it probably came in a 10, 15 minute flurry and that's very rare as well. Sometimes songwriters can get 50 per cent through a song then can't get finished or it takes months to finish it, where we revisit it and we're looking at hooks and lines and bridges. It didn't happen with that. It came all at once but I did go back to it a number of times and would sing it again and sing it again just to sort of convince myself that it really was something I had to share with everyone.
Tony: 'The Beauty & The Trouble' has some interesting collaborations, a couple with dead poets and one with a live poet. The song "Rosa Mundi" used words from W B Yeats.
Gareth: I've been to Sligo many times. In my childhood we went over to the West [of Ireland] on holiday and I visited where W B Yeats is buried. There's the very famous headstone where the inscription reads 'Cast a cold eye on life, on death, horseman pass by.' I was very inspired by that from a young age thinking what does it mean? How can I work it out? I think it was at a jumble sale or a second hand bookstore somewhere when we were on holiday and I picked up Selected Works of W B Yeats. It was an edition that was published in 1968 or something like that. I've revisited that book many times over the years and had a delve into some of the very famous poems like Lake Isle Of Innisfree and been inspired by some of the Celtic mythology. I guess being from Ireland and seeing how Yeats interpreted his place in his landscape and the aesthetic that he grew up with and all those different things. But there was this one little poem, Rosa Mundi, which I was intrigued by. Every time I read it I wasn't really quite sure what it was about. So I thought I like it so much I want to give it a go. So I put it to a tune and I'm not even sure that I really know still what he's talking about. But in a way that's the beauty of it. It's the pictures that it conjures up; it's the atmosphere that it conjures up. As you know, sometimes people have tried to put poems to music and it doesn't always work. I've tried to do that in the past and I've walked away from it thinking it's going nowhere. But with that one, I felt it arrived in a place where there was something special about it. So it ended up going on [the album] and I'm quite pleased with it. So that was the dead poet collaboration.
The live one is with the wonderful Stewart Henderson who I first met a couple of years ago at Keswick Unconventional which, for people who don't know, is an arts fringe that has begun to arise out of the Keswick Convention. I've been very pleased and delighted and privileged to be involved with it for a number of years now. Stewart was there as one of the guest artists and we got talking after one of the performance nights. I've always been an admirer of his anyway for his poetry, the work he did with Martyn Joseph, his radio shows and the insightfulness and his 'wordsmithery', it's just so fantastic and well crafted. And I worked out there's a real deep wisdom in his work. Long story short, I run a small festival up in the North East of England called Wylam Winter Tales and I invited him to come and be part of that, and he agreed. It's in our home village. We run it at the turn of January/February and we have all sorts of arts across the week. I run it with another friend of mine and we've really enjoyed doing that.
Tony: And you got Stewart up there?
Gareth: We managed to get Stewart to come to Northumberland in the winter, from London, which was quite a feat. We enjoyed what he did. He delivered a poem called Be The, that's the title, and he delivered it as part of the performance he gave there. I was completely blown away by it. It's a beautiful picture of the intricacies and the complexities and the juxtapositions of the second half of life. And I suppose now, being 45, I've arrived, I think, in that place and I'm beginning to think about what it means, thus far. Where am I going? What am I going to do next? What does it mean to be at this stage of life with lots of different things going on? And with a bit of trepidation I asked him is that one up for grabs, could I have a go at turning it into a song? And he agreed. I wrestled with that song for about a year and a half. It had many different tunes, many different guises. Stewart was very gracious; he said there might be a lot of editing and cutting down needed to be done so he was very gracious in letting me try and do that. I went back to him about six weeks before the recording with something that I finally felt was going to work and he liked it. I was very chuffed. He agreed that I could put it on the album. So on the album it's called 'The Luminous Years', which is one of the lines from the song. Conversely, it's also in a collection, an anthology of his selected works that Stewart has brought out this summer. In the anthology it's called Be The.
Tony: What is your favourite song on the album?
Gareth: Maybe I wouldn't say favourite, maybe I would say the one which intrigues me personally the most and because it's a song that I've waited a long time to write is the one that shares the title of the album, The Beauty & The Trouble. I've never written about growing up in Northern Ireland and I don't want to give anybody the wrong impression; I wasn't involved in the midst of the violence and The Troubles and things like that. But life was certainly affected by it. I had many friends whose parents were in the security services and I witnessed second hand what they had to go through. I understood the divisions and the sort of contradictions in our society. Growing up in Northern Ireland it would have been very easy to become quite sectarian. But my parents brought me up in a way that they were very determined to make sure that I had friends on both sides of the 'divide', if you want to call it that. I'd never really gone there and written any music about it. I don't really know why, I guess it had just never come around. But I wanted to; I wanted to say something and I think again my father's passing had kind of thrown that into the light for me. I thought maybe now is the time to reflect on how I was brought up and what it was like. So that song, I think, I'm probably proudest of because it probably has been 45 years in the making. That is the story of my upbringing and where I've come from and the values that I was given and the hopes that I have; and, indeed, the love that I have for where I come from. Although I live in Northumberland now, which, I have to say, is a fantastic place, I feel very much Northumbrian, as much as I do Northern Irish now. But Northern Ireland I will always call home as well. So, if I had to have a favourite, that song would be it.
Tony: I told you that "Lost" is probably my absolute favourite, but one of my favourites in addition to that is "Alternative". I'm reading from my review now: "It manages the difficult task of portraying the bigotry and selfishness of a modern world not with the rant of the political polemicist, but with the gentle poignancy of a loving father."
Gareth: Yes. I think all of the political landscape, the geopolitical landscape here at home and abroad, has definitely fed into the song. I've always tried, as a musician, to broaden my own horizons and understand a little bit more of what's going on in the wider world and not just necessarily stick to familiar themes and topics that are familiar to Christians. I'm a musician who's a Christian. My faith influences absolutely what I write about but there's the whole of life to write about and if we don't to that I don't think we are good stewards of the gifts that we've been given in the world of the arts. It's kind of the obvious thing to say but let him without sin cast the first stone. We're all guilty, we're all subservient to the capitalist god in a way, we've all bought into it, forgive the pun. We're all part of that system but we ought to challenge ourselves regularly about what is happening and be honest again about that. I think everything that's been happening this past couple of years politically, it's very disturbing. Can we find anyone in the country who isn't disturbed by it in some way or other? Or at least challenged by it or concerned about it in one way or the other? I guess the duty we probably have, as Christian people, in showing the love of Jesus is to say yes, we know that this isn't a perfect world; we know that it's fallen, we know that there's lots going wrong but ultimately we're still going to have to get on together. The answer is not to draw a little circle around ourselves and say all of you lot are outside and we're in it. So that song is probably wrestling with that as much as it is with some of the themes that have come across with Brexit, with Trump and with terrorism and "them and us"; you know, you look different to me and therefore I'm very suspicious. All those issues are kind of all jumbled up in that song. It was a tough one to write but hopefully it's landed in the right place.
Tony: Oh, it definitely has. I wish you every blessing with this album. There are just two more very small questions and you'd better have good answers to these. Why isn't the harmonica player, heard on Nature Report, credited on the sleeve?
Gareth: I think I forgot. It's me, actually. Being an independent musician putting out his albums I don't have armies of copyrighters checking the sleevenotes. It's not that I'm not proud of it. I'm not a harmonica player really but we got away with it.
Tony: That brings me to the other question. Why isn't there a vinyl version? Or is there one on the way?
Gareth: I suppose for me, again as an independent musician, it really comes down to cost. You've got to have a reasonable amount of capital to get them pressed. So "maybe" is the best I can say.
Tony: Here is the deal. If you announce through your supporters that you need to raise X pounds so you can manufacture a vinyl, I'll contribute a hundred quid because I know at least five people who'd love a vinyl.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.