Dead gorgeous – Baby Bird’s sick sense of humor
BY JASON ANDERSON
There are two ways to read the situation for Baby Bird. One, they are another British pop act coming off great chart success — like such longshots as Skunk Anansie or the Lighthouse Family or Alisha’s Attic — with remote chances of doing the same over here.
Or two, they are a unique project — almost a performance art prank — that showcases a very impressive writer of laconic, often perverse songs, one of which inexplicably happened to be a huge hit (“You’re Gorgeous,” No. 3 in England). Guess which I prefer.
Baby Bird is both a band and the handle for Stephen Jones, who toiled for much of a decade in avant-garde theatre (“It was a very embarrassing time for little amounts of money”) before arranging the release of four albums in brief succession, consisting of a fraction of the 400 songs he’d written and recorded alone on a four-track.
The debut, I Was Born A Man, came in spring ’95 in a run of 1,000. Like the next three discs, it included a card for people to send in their votes for their favorite songs (which were eventually recorded by the five-piece Baby Bird band for the fifth album, Ugly Beautiful, out in late ’96).
These four albums — the first two, I Was Born A Man and Bad Shave, are now available in Canada via Handsome Boy with the third, Fatherhood, to come — are full of odd pop pleasures and creepy stories in which lovers, however happy, are always planning to murder each other. Brash, strange and black-hearted — Jones cites Charles Bukowski as his sole literary influence — the songs are also a peculiarly English take on lo-fi pop, simply designed with a minimum of gimmickry, alternately cute and cutting.
“I always used to write,” says Jones whilst in Toronto to visit Handsome Boy headquarters.
“I’ve got three manuscripts for novels and basically what they are is a bunch of ideas and I can’t really get the structure right over 70 or 80 pages, I can’t do that. So what I love about writing music is just keeping it on one piece of A4 paper so I can write the lyrics very, very simply. That’s also how the music works. That’s similar with soundtrack music. The soundtrack music I like is very, very simple. It should almost exist separately.”
Except in the big pop numbers like “You’re Gorgeous” and “Too Handsome To Be Homeless,” in a Baby Bird song the lyric works against a very simple backdrop, like a story being sung over music with which it often has only a tangential relationship. It’s like he’s attaching words to an imaginary soundtrack score, modifying a technique that was revived in the ’90s by Barry Adamson’s Moss Side Story and continues with more electronica albums than I could list.
“I haven’t listened to a lot of Barry Adamson’s stuff. I like a lot of the systems music, like Michael Nyman and Gavin Bryars. Have you heard Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet?” asks Jones, referring to English composer Bryars’ piece built around a sample of a hymn-singing tramp, released in the early ’70s for Brian Eno’s Obscure label and popularized in an early ’90s version featuring Tom Waits warbling along (a true snob, Jones prefers the first one).
“That’s fantastic. I kind of like hypnotic music — that’s what music should do. It’s not like dance music or techno which is just mindless, because you can use it in such clever ways. It’s meditative music, and that’s the way I like playing the piano. I don’t like to think about anything when I write music. Lyrics, yeah. But music is ‘just take your brain out.’ ”
This is all very intellectual stuff, but one of the more amusing results of his success in England is Jones being labelled a nutcase. That’s got less to do with a penchant for English avant-garde music and a lot more to do with his live-show demeanor and ability to abuse hecklers. “That comes from being onstage and, y’know, that’s after a couple of drinks and entertaining people, acting up onstage.”
He relates it to his theatre days and his general contempt for artistic structures. “You’re looking at something and you don’t notice the acting,” he says.
“That’s the kind of thing we were going for. No real styles behind it, no Stanislavsky or anything. Keeping it very, very simple, using a lot of talking to the audience, and we used a lot of video stock which we could blow up on big screens so you could amplify hand movements and facial gestures and whatever — trying to deconstruct theatre or get away from that stuffiness and the structures of theatre, similar to the musical structures. So that’s kind of where it started off and I think that comes off in the show. It’s not acting when I’m doing Baby Bird.”
So does pop music remain the most effective means of art terrorism?
“It could be. I think it should be subversive — all good art should be subversive. The great thing about ‘You’re Gorgeous’ is, if you listen to the lyrics, there’s a very subversive message in there, but half a million people bought that and I think 99 per cent were just singing the chorus. You’d have workmen on building sites singing it — it’s really infiltrated everywhere. You get it as background music for sitcoms. There was a gospel choir singing it while a greyhound race went on for this dog called Gorgeous. Yet it’s very cynical, sarcastic. People sing it to each other, but I wouldn’t want someone singing it to me.”