An overarching sense of realness was what I found most striking about 24-year-old soul singer-songwriter Rhys Lewis. At a recent London showcase, he was as polite and unassuming on stage as he was whilst being interviewed; there was no preconceived character, no pretense.
It was this relatability along with the bluesy riffs in his 2016 single debut ‘Waking Up Without You,’ which catapulted him to number 1 in Spotify’s Viral Charts. His latest single ‘I Know The Feeling’ – a portrait of life’s frustrations, has recently been released on Decca Records with a full album set to be released later this year.
As we speak about influences, songwriting and production, the subject of “realness” – about things being “raw” and experiences being “genuine”, becomes a theme.
Hi Rhys, thanks for speaking to me straight after a show.
RL: “Not at all.”
I know your latest single ‘I Know The Feeling’ is based on the experiences of a friend of yours who was going through a difficult time. Do you have a particular songwriting method?
RL: “For this album I probably wrote about 100 songs and whittled it down to 15. I did a bit of co-writing, a bit of writing on my own and a bit of writing from the heart of things that were a part of my life, as well as writing as if I was putting myself in the situation. I think the ones that ended up on the album were the ones that came from my life, that came from a real place. I think often its like a turn of phrase comes out in a conversation and it just feels like something quite truthful that can be explored more in a song. I often find myself writing notes after a conversation I’ve had with friends about- you know-, a break up or something kind or hurtful or emotional. As a songwriter you’re always listening for something that jumps out at you, even in other peoples’ conversations!”
RL: “Sometimes. But most of the time I’m talking to my friend and they’ll say something.”
Lyrically his songs don’t try to be too abstract, they speak of the aspects of the human experience, of which we’re usually least proud (being the victim of infidelity, heartbreak, dissatisfaction with life) which makes him relatably pop. It’s the occasional scratch in his otherwise seemingly effortlessly controlled voice which hints at his earliest Motown influences, blue-eyed soul not dissimilar to Paolo Nutini.
What was the first time you were truly touched by music?
RL: “It’s hard to explain. I played guitar for a while but I wasn’t really grabbed by a band until, like, The Arctic Monkeys, because at that time I was learning to play guitar, and they were a guitar band, they had amazing lyrics, amazing stories and they were talking about something that felt original and unique and quite youthful. That was the first time I considered writing songs. Before then I was just really eager to play guitar. The first song I remember wanting to learn was ‘Wild Thing’ (The Wild Ones) – the Jimi Hendrix version, so I asked my Dad if he could teach me.”
Maintaining that it was the riffs and “heavy nature” that drew him to what I would call “Dad Rock” (The Who, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones etc..) it was the iconic voices and personality of performers which he says first attracted him to Soul – “It was just so honest vocally. They just put everything out there. If you listen to like, Otis Redding or The Jackson 5, they do things with their voices that’s almost…otherworldly.” There’s also the indelible effect on his style of having played in a functions band with his brother whilst growing up, doing mainly Motown covers.
What was your favourite request?
RL: “Ooh..maybe it’s ‘Heard It Through The Grapevine’ by Marvin Gaye…Yeah.”
You’ve met considerable success in a short space of time. Was there a moment where you thought “This is working”?
RL: “The first London show. I played a headline show at The Borderline in Soho… I remember it being the first gig where I looked out into the crowd and there were people I didn’t know.”
After these sorts of experiences has your concept of music changed? What’s the wider goal now?
RL: “For me, music definitely started as a kind of puzzle. As soon as I heard a guitar riff I wanted to know how to do it…When I found out I could express myself through music I think I found a new appreciation for it. And now having expressed myself with the album…it’s so much about how things happen live. I feel so comfortable with the songs, after putting them under the microscope in the studio I know every single detail. So now it’s about enjoying it and selling it. Gigs like this make it feel real.”
Written in London, Stockholm, Nashville, LA and Berlin, the upcoming album was finally recorded on the Isle of Wight with the help of production duo (and brothers) Boe Weaver, in a converted water tower.
RL (on songwriting and production): “I find it easier to write a song, put it to one side and then come back to it and record it as opposed to producing it right after you’ve written it. For example there’s one song on the record called ‘I Blame Hollywood’ – the song was about masculinity, about what it means to be a man in the modern day. It was kind of upbeat and fun and we just had an idea months after writing it when we brought it back to the studio, we said “let’s slow it down” and it was so much more meaningful. The more you produce stuff and the more you assume stuff of a song before you record it, potentially the more limiting it can be.”
It surprises me that you say you prefer there to be time after writing a song, maybe to put a different spin on it during production, because a lot of what you’ve talked about…it seems like “realness” is very important to you as an artist, about sounds being “raw” and “honest.” Have you ever written something and thought “I want this to be, like…incubated in the feeling it was in when I wrote it”?
RL: “Yeah! There were some songs on the record that were really hard to record because of the fact that they should have probably been done straight away. So going back on that point (about waiting to produce a song), not every song works like that. Songs that are more emotional…they probably deserve to be recorded at the time, because there’s a danger of overthinking a song and you then start second guessing your emotions. There was one song called ‘No Right To Love You’…we went around the houses, I think I recorded it like six times. We put it on piano, then we tried it with piano and guitar, electric, acoustic, every single combination and it just wasn’t working. I think I’d lost the emotional connection to it, so yeah certain songs maybe you need to capture the moment and the emotion of the time that you wrote it. I needed to get back into that space, so I ended up recording it in my bedroom where I wrote it.”
How difficult is it to perform emotional songs live?
RL: “Those are so much harder to sing. It’s a strange feeling still…speaking so openly about your own emotions. In the studio you forget [there will be] people in front of you. I’m pleased I still feel a little bit shy. I don’t know if it’s gonna go away…maybe it’s a good thing.”
The new single ‘I Know The Feeling’ is available now on Decca Records.