Rhys Lewis is well-spoken, self-aware, and instantly likeable. And the fact that he’s articulate and good at expressing himself is self-evident, seeing as he’s a songwriter who’s just spent twelve months writing his debut album.
Originally from Oxford, Lewis was influenced by his time in London to write his most recent single release ‘Living in the City’. But it was his debut single ‘Waking Up Without You’ which really put Lewis on the map, after it hit the #1 spot on Spotify’s Viral Chart.
Only 23, Lewis was signed by Decca last year, and is about to spend a good part of 2017 performing live. He’s off to a great start - he recently sold out a headline show at Servant Jazz Quarters in 48 hours. He has more shows ahead on his UK tour, before he hits Germany in April. His first full album is set for release this summer. 1883 met Lewis at The Draft House beside Old Street to find out more.
I’ve been listening to your music and I really like your sound, it’s really soulful. When people ask you to describe it, what do you say?
I suppose in terms of the sound of it and the musicality of it it is quite soulful, and I think it’s quite emotionally driven and often quite personal in terms of the lyrics and what I’m talking about. So I suppose that is often what soul music is about. So I’d say emotional, heartfelt, and yeah, soulful I guess is good.
When you say your music is emotional and quite personal, are all of your songs based on your own stories?
I suppose it’s hard being a songwriter because sometimes, if you’re writing everyday, you can’t draw from your own life all the time. But I think a lot of the songs on the album are definitely my story. You know, sometimes you have to tweak things a little bit and, weirdly, sometimes you have to have conversations with an imaginary person to kind of understand what you would have felt in a situation. You almost have to think about things in a different way but extrapolate from the truth.
You studied music. How did that experience influence the way you treat music now? Has it taken some of the art away, or made it easier for you?
That’s a really good question because I felt for a while that learning about theory and harmony and the technical side of music started to take away my naivety and playful creative nature. The better I got at guitar, the less I was allowing my fingers to fall somewhere unexpected. And sometimes the happy accidents are what make you do something unique and original.
Your song ‘Waking Up Without You’ hit #1 spot on Spotify’s Viral Chart and and got over 170,000 streams in two weeks. That must have been a crazy two weeks?
Especially considering it was the first thing I’d released under my own name. You know, there’s a lot of anxiety and expectation and pressure with releasing something. You don’t ever know how it’s going to go down. But you just gotta know that you’re proud of it, and that it represents what you do. And so, when people responded to it and resonated to it in that way it was really nice. But I suppose, at the same time, it could so easily have been the other way. You just have to always remember that so long as you’re pleased with what you’re putting out… I mean the numbers are quite romantic, you can say, ‘Oh, a million streams in a month’, but I guess sometimes that can be a bit of a buzz and you don’t want it to affect how you create your work. So I’m trying to see it as a good thing, but also not let it get to my head.
Speaking of Spotify, a lot of artists have a contentious relationship with it. Because it’s been a bit of a springboard for you, how do you view it?
I suppose the complaints are more to do with the royalty rates and the way that artists and songwriters get paid, because at the moment it’s a very small amount you get for a stream. But it terms of a platform, it’s so social, it’s so easy to share music, it’s so easy to let people know what you’re listening to, and to curate playlists. And certainly when I’ve put my songs out, they’ve been added to loads of different playlists, and I’ve reached audiences that I wouldn’t have been able to do on my own. And people can share your music so easily, and talk about it, and create a buzz just on one platform, and that’s something that music didn’t necessarily have before Spotify came along. I think Spotify is amazing.
I hadn’t thought about it in terms of playlists, but in terms of you making a living out of this, do you feel like it’s pooling away resources which could be going to you?
I think there’s sort of two sides to the coin because obviously if you get to million people listening to your music then that’s amazing and it can generate a fanbase. That’s when you can go out and tour your record and you can sell merchandise and tickets to your lives shows. I think maybe at the moment we’re in a transition period, where music isn’t making as much money for the artists or the songwriter as it was maybe in the CD age, where there was lots of money going into the artist’s pocket. A million streams a month is still a lot, and I suppose we’re kind of hoping that Spotify can start giving a bit more money per play or per stream and it might be a more viable income stream for artists that aren’t necessarily huge.
You grew up in Oxford, but you have a new song out called ‘Living in the City’, which I presume is about London.
Yeah, it’s basically about having been here for seven years. I came here to study and stayed once I graduated so basically it’s about having been here for such a long time, and feeling like you’ve given so much to a place… and at times it feels like you haven’t got much back. It’s a very demanding, a very expensive and a relentless place to be, and so there are days where you just feel you want to escape it and kind of give it all up and go and live in the countryside. Especially because I’m from the countryside. I lived in a little village just outside of Oxford, so there are times when I really crave that, and I wonder what the point of getting on the tube at rush hour is when it costs so much to live here. You know, sometimes I guess the grass is greener, if I moved out I’d probably want to come back to the city and be a part of it again. And that’s the conflict you have and a lot of people feel that way, I imagine. They want to leave but then there are so many great things about living here as well.
Speaking of cities, you’ve been recording in London, Nashville, Stockholm, L.A., Berlin. Which ones do you love out of all of them?
Well, they’re all so brilliant for different reasons, and I think I’m very lucky that I’ve been able to travel to those places with music. It’s hard to say what my experience would have been like without that, because it was such an intrinsic part of why I was there. I feel like they’ve all got something very unique and very different to offer. For me musically, I think Nashville was such a great great place to visit, because of the whole songwriting history there. There’s a real romance to songwriting and songwriters out there and that was a great thing to be a part of. Sweden and Berlin were a bit more edgy, and a bit more cultural, a bit more creative. I think Nashville kind of does its thing, whereas Sweden and Berlin are a bit more multi-cultural and exciting musically. But yeah, they’re all so great. And actually, it gives you more appreciation for a place like London because we have a very varied and eclectic musical culture here. I think it’s a melting pot, not just for music but for all types of art. Anything goes, whereas there are places like L.A. and Nashville which to a point are kinda pigeon-holed into the kind of music you expect to come from that place. Whereas London doesn’t really have that, which is quite a luxury, and maybe it changes what you think you can achieve as a musician because you are open to all of these different options.
Did you find any of the Nashville twang has leaked into your music at all?
Not really actually. I think the main thing I drew from Nashville was the lyrical importance and how they make every word count and they have a real story, and a real narrative to a lot of their songs -- especially the classic ones. And also thinking about title and how that can subvert people’s expectations, that’s a really typical Nashville thing to do. So I don’t think the sound’s affected my work, but I think lyrically thinking about the narrative of a song and putting the song together, that’s really affected it.
I think country music gets a hard time, but I think you’ve really touched on why it’s… not a bad as people think [laughs].
Yeah exactly, and I don’t know loads of country music but I think being there for a few weeks and listening to the radio there are some amazing acts. But I think maybe they’re not doing country in the same way in terms of what Nashville was famous for. I think it’s almost pop that sounds like country. So it’s kind of progressing into this mainstream sound. So it’s country sounding guitars, with very typical country lyrics, like driving your truck, and going fishing -- which resonate with people from that area of the world -- but you don’t necessarily get the same twists and the same lyrical stories that you go the the olden days of the classic songwriters. Which I guess is a shame, but it’s just kind of moving on and progressing.
You did you first ever radio interview last month, you were only signed last year, what has last 12 months been like?
2016 was probably one of the best years of my life.
At least someone had a good year!
I know! And I didn’t do one of those roundups where you look back, because of course globally it was quite a depressing year. And it was a strange time to be going through America, where the politics was sort of on fire. But aside from all the politics, I had an amazing time with travelling around the world. I hate saying ‘living a dream’ because I don’t even know what that means, but in terms of if I could have imagined what being a signed musician/songwriter was, it’s exceeded the expectation, because I think there is a romance to being signed, and it is romantic, it’s not realistic. But I’ve had so many experiences where I’ve gone ‘I can’t believe I’m here, for music, writing music with amazingly talented people. And yeah, it’s opened up many doors and I’ve experienced lots of different cultures and music -- it’s been amazing.
You recently played a sold-out headline show at the Servant Jazz Quarters. How was that?
Yeah, again that was amazing. My first headline show with my own sort of set of music and new band. It was a nerve-wracking thing, having been in the studios so much and writing all this music… I suppose playing live when you’re out on the road you kind of know a set and it’s under your fingers, whereas when you do a one-off show it’s kinda more nerve-wracking, you don’t know how it’s going to go. But it went really well, and my family was there and my friends were there. It was just a really fun thing to do. It was kind of like a good sort of check-point I guess, a good milestone after having been in the studio for so long with all these songs. And I was nervous knowing I hadn’t played any of these songs live before really, especially with a band. But the fact that it went well is really cool.
Is that the reason you’re a musician? It is for those lives shows, or is it to record your music and put it out into the world?
I’m going to sit on the fence here, but it is a little bit of everything because I really enjoy so many different aspects of the process. I like the fact that you do a load of writing and then you record and so your life is so varied. And you’re in this sort of private space where you’re writing songs that no one has heard of and you’re working away on something that you really want people to kind of resonate with and kind of respond to. And then you get to the bit where you’re thinking about how you record those songs and make them the most effective recordings as possible, and how you can get the meaning across in the most powerful way. And that’s another really interesting thing working with musicians and producers in a studio environment . And then I guess the live side of things is having that connection with a crowd -- that really instant connection and that energy you get. That’s the only place you really get it, really. But that again is really tiring so the fact that there is a variety makes you really appreciate each part of it more. If you were in the studio for a year at a time you’d kind of lose the love for the studio, and if you were on the road for a year you’d hate playing live.
You have some live gigs coming coming up, including hitting Oxford in February and London in March. Are you excited?
Yeah I’m really excited. I’ve actually never done a headline show in my hometown of Oxford. So that will be a great thing to go back and do. And it’s been such an important city for me growing up with lots of different bands around that time. Even like Radiohead and Foals, they’re the bigger bands. But yeah it’s cool, I played so many gigs there as a young musician, so to go back and play my own music is really exciting. And again with the London show -- second headline slot so hopefully a few more songs, a bigger band. Yeah, it’s going to be really fun.
I saw online that you make balloon animals...!?
[Laughs] Er… I mean, that is a wild exaggeration! So I got given a balloon animal making kit from my aunty.
Did you request it?
No it was just a surprise. It was a really cool gift because she put a bottle of whiskey, some balloon animals, some dice, and a pack of cards…
...That’s a winning combination!...
...And she said, ’I don’t know what all this stuff is, but enjoy it’. And so me and my brother were going to try and make a drinking game around all of those components. We were thinking, ‘Well, we’ve got the whiskey, you’ve got all of these little things you can make’... it’s probably quite an interesting drinking game, with balloon animals featuring as part of it.
You could make that really stressful.
I know! Wouldn’t it be amazing? And I thought maybe like next Christmas we could package it as a Christmas game and just say whoever makes the best game at Christmas… it’s quite a cool idea. So we started that and realised quickly that I had no idea how to make balloon animals. So I said I’ll do a little crash course and try to make a dog. So I was on Youtube searching how to make a dog. You didn’t see the failed attempts. So there was one video where I finally got it... I think I killed around ten balloons.
Ten dogs! Although, some dogs were deformed -- only had one leg.
I think that’s a Facebook Live that you should do. I would watch that.
I know! Just try and make different animals. Snake are really easy…. Just blow it up, tie a knot.
And I saw you posting from the Women’s March in London the other day. How did you find that experience?
I was only able to get there for the last hour in Trafalgar Square, so I didn’t get to make it to the march.
The march was absolutely freezing.
Was it? Yeah, I went to the student rallies a few years ago in the same place, and it was inspiring to be surrounded by people -- especially at this kind of time -- who are striving for positivity for change and for humanity. And I think you forget that, because we don’t often come together in that way and share a view in that public space. So i think it’s just a really nice thing that we should do more often because it does change people’s opinions, it does change people’s minds, and it starts debate. And it shouldn’t be debate, it’s just awareness of the things that are not fair and are not right. So it was really nice to be a part of, even if it was just for a small part of it.
And I guess you’re lucky in that you have a platform as well, so you can channel that sentiment through your songs, if you ever chose to.
Yeah, definitely. I was actually having this conversation with a friend of mine. There was a time when music was very political and it was trying to break down barriers and change things. And I think maybe we’ve lost that. It feels like being political with music... it’s so easy to be preachy because there aren’t enough people doing it. And I think, as you say, celebrities are now almost as powerful as politicians. I mean, Donald Trump is a celebrity, so i think we underestimate the power of a celebrity to change political opinions. And you have to be very careful I suppose of giving your opinion if you’re not very well read-up, or if you don’t understand a situation very well. So that’s the danger of celebrities giving their opinions. But at the same time, it does really change things and maybe music is a place where we should do it more. But it’s difficult because so much music is trying to be cool and… it’s escapism isn’t it? You don’t want to listen to something that reminds you of a problem. You want to listen to music that takes you away or helps you get through something. So I think maybe we’ve lost the space for political music. I don’t know.
What’s the future looking like for you now?
Erm, so I’ve pretty much finished recording the album, so it will probably be a lot of promotion, a lot of live shows…
...a lot of interviews…
...yeah probably a lot of interviews. And a lot of travelling I would imagine, around the UK. And then I guess it depends on how things pan out and the reaction the next few songs get when I release some more music. I’m really excited to play live now. I’m really hoping that we can go on a small support tour, or get a few more dates in, go travel.
Random fact I discovered when I was researching you… Your name is also a book. Have you read that book?
My name is a book? Rhys Lewis is a book? What’s it about?
I actually have no idea, it was written in the late 1800s.
Wow. What if it’s a premonition?! What if I read it and I’m like, ‘what!’?
I feel like you should read it and let me know. Although I think it’s in Welsh.
There are a lot of people called Rhys Lewis, it’s a very common Welsh name. I’ll have to check it out!
For sure. So this morning I got a surprise email from myself, which I sent to myself a year ago. So, if you had to send yourself an email that you’re going to receive on this day in a year’s time, what would you tell yourself?
Such a good question… That’s such a good idea. It’s so hard. I’d probably just say, ‘Wherever you’re at mate, it really doesn’t matter’. I’d probably just do that. Just say, ‘It really doesn’t matter. Nothing matters really’... That’s a terrible answer [laughs]. You know when you just worry about stuff? When you hope a song does well or… it really doesn’t matter. I’m trying to explain what I mean…
I think it’s going back to what you were saying about the fear of putting a song out, but when you trace it back all that matters is that you’ve put something out there that you’re proud of. It doesn’t matter if people don’t like it, if you’ve put something of quality out.
Yeah, yeah. Just not worrying too much about what other people think of you, I guess. I think that’s probably the thing when you put your music and your art into the world, you have to expect other people to comment and critique and criticise, and I think there’s a danger of letting those comments and other people’s opinions -- whether they’re positive or negative, it doesn’t matter -- letting other people’s opinions affect what you do. And I think I’d just be like, ‘You’re going to be putting loads of music out, whatever people have said, whatever people do. I’ve already recorded the album, I can’t change the music, it’s done. And so just remember that what you did you were proud of at the time’.
That is a good letter.
Yeah. ‘What you did, what you’ve recorded, the music that you wrote, you’re proud of. So I hope you’re still proud of it’
You don’t even need a letter now, you can just read this in a year’s time [laughs]
Yeah true! Let’s do another interview next year! Ask me the same question.
Rhys Lewis’s single ’Living In The City’ is out now via iTunes and for his latest new and tour dates head to www.rhyslewisofficial.com
Words by Louise Jo McLoughlin
Photography Anna Urik
Grooming Lynda Darragh
Fashion Jheanelle Feanny
Styling Assistance Toyosi Osifeso
Shot at Draft House, Old Street