The band performing a classic album track from Ugly Beautiful on Later…With Jools Holland in 1996.
Baby Bird goes back to plain old Stephen Jones
Baby Bird goes back to plain old Stephen Jones Stephen Jones has killed off his Baby Bird alter-ego.
Baby Bird attained notoriety with the singles You’re Gorgeous and Candy Girl and the album Ugly Beautiful. Jones now plans to issue a collection of instrumental music recorded since. His forthcoming album, entitled Stephen Jones 1985-2001, was originally compiled to send out to film-production companies. It is Jones’ first release since 1999′s Bugged and his debut under the name Stephen Jones.
The album is reported to cover a wide range of styles, from ambient soundscapes to downtempo breakbeats.It will be released as three CDs.Stephen Jones 1985-2001 is released on October 8 via Easy! Tiger Records.
Review: Babybird: Bugged
The sound of sweet Birdie songs
After inflicting the more-irritating-than-VD slab of cheese that was You’re Gorgeous on the general population, Stephen Jones took his Babybird project and headed for more obscure musical waters. But a man of his workrate was never likely to be out of our hair for long, and on Bugged, his third album since You’re Gorgeous vehicle Ugly Beautiful, he returns to more accessible territory.
Thankfully, Bugged is reassuringly cheese-free, and in parts, is rather fine indeed. Recent single The F-Word is a beat-driven stomper and Getaway recalls Blur when they were prepared to write a tune, while the piano and strings-laden All I Want Is Love is, ahem, gorgeous. Whether it will be enough to restore the gurning Jones mug to Top Of The Pops is another matter. Still, A for effort.
Interview with Stephen Jones
Turn on your Radio on Valentine’s Day and you will know exactly who we are talking about. There is a lot more to the man who recorded ‘You’re Gorgeous.
So here’s the story. It’s 1995 and Stephen Jones is now living in Sheffield. He has now had his four track for seven years and has an enormous 400 songs recorded. He signs a publishing deal with Chrysalis whereby he can release material under his own label, Baby Bird Recordings.
The solo albums that followed generated some enthusiastic reviews, and due to their limited release and Babybird’s increasing cult fanbase, could be found fetching anything up to £50 in second hand shops:
“I was glad that the albums received a certain amount of cult status, but having said that I couldn’t believe that people were paying so much money for them. I think that’s wrong. I’m glad the prices of the earlier stuff have gone down now.” yet continues to record a number of four track and eight track albums, later re-recording many of these tracks for Babybird’s debut album as a band, ‘Ugly Beautiful’.
This album contained the hit single ‘You’re Gorgeous’, a song which, although misinterpreted by most of its purchasers, is the song that Stephen Jones is most likely to be remembered for.
“You’re Gorgeous’ sold 400 000 copies, and so I’m bound to be remembered for it,” admits Stephen, “I honestly didn’t expect it to happen, especially since the track was written 8 years before it was released. I enjoy the benefits now, though!” Then came single ‘Bad Old Man’ and subsequent album ‘There’s Something Going on’, seen by any as the backlash against the (the working title for the single was ‘Commercial Suicide’).
Gathering himself for what must be the umpteenth inquisition about the song, Stephen explains:
“‘Bad Old Man’ was a kind of backlash, but it was also an attempt to make a solid piece of work. It was definitely a lot darker, but the idea was also to show that we are not just a singles band, and I think we proved that with ‘There’s Something Going On’.”
Which leads us neatly into ‘The F-Word’. A single about swearing that’s currently winning the fight for Radio 1 airplay against a flood of US pop punk bands and a bunch of press baiting metal kids in masks.
It sounds like nothing Stephen has lent his name to in the past, and apparently like nothing else on the album, but its offbeat quirkiness has ensured it as a top 40 hit. The subject matter of the song is something that is close to Stephen’s heart: “It’ about the watershed for swearing. Most swear words that I know are very good little hammers! Everyone I know swears – even my Mum and Dad!”
The new material also shows a balance between the band format of ‘Ugly Beautiful’ and ‘There’s Something…’ and the lo-fi recording techniques of the five home recorded albums. “This is the third proper Baby Bird album, but in a lot of ways it’s similar to the first five. A lot of it is 4-8 track recordings that we’ve taken into the studio, so the work ethic was very similar to the early work.
The tracks were all written over the last year, and all the tracks are very similar to how I wanted them to sound when I made the 4 tracks. The only people working on the album were me, Luke Scott playing guitars and 1 guy mixing the tracks. I think it’s more concise than previous efforts. There are ten songs and I would consider them 10 hit singles. The album is called ‘Bugged’ due to how irritated I was. Basically I wanted the privacy to record the album. I didn’t want to be’bugged’!”
Stephen now enjoys the late morning benefits that come with being a musician, yet endlessly recording four tracks wasn’t always what he got up for in the morning: “Before I started making music I was working in a lot of different jobs. I was a bricklayer for about two weeks. I worked for a theatre company, acting and directing. That’s something I would definitely like to take up again.”
So, with this constantly changing musical backdrop to Stephen’s unique lyrical talent, where do the musical influences come from?
“I listen to a lot of hip-hop at the moment at the moment. Ice Cube and Rakim especially, and I like some of the Gangstarr stuff. The Verve were an all time favourite, but I’m not too sure about that Richard Ashcroft solo single, the backing track sounds like a Geri Halliwell song. I really like Belle and Sebastian too. It’s rare to find a band like that whose albums you can listen to all the way through. I am not sure whether I would call any of these direct influences, although I’m sure a lot of the music I listen to has an effect on what I write”
Stephen has channelled his creative talents into writing a book:
“It’s called ‘The Bad Book’. It’s about a child who loses his mother, and spends two days getting to know his father.”
The book revolves around a period of awakening for the child (‘Hit’). While he is searching for his mother, he has to keep tabs on his father – a man he realises he knows nothing about. Check mudmag competitions page soon for your chance to win Stephen’s book.
Babybird will be touring again soon, following the imminent success of ‘The F-Word’. During the ‘Ugly Beautiful’ years Stephen had the chance to play in Europe:
“The best moment I’ve had with Baby Bird was playing in front of 20,000 people in Portugal. We hadn’t played there before, but the crowd was absolutely mad for it. We’ve played in France a lot as well. Once we were there and they asked us for four encores! On the continent they are just less intellectual about their music – they enjoy it more. We always get good press out there”.
Stephen also recently worked on Sheffield combo The All Seeing Eye’s debut album, ‘Pickled Eggs and Sherbet’.
“I met Parrot, their programmer, a long time ago in Sheffield. I never actually saw them during the recording process. I just sang straight on to a four track for them. It was all just due to the Sheffield connection.”
‘The F-Word’ is out now.
by Nick Lisher
Which comic character do you most identify with?
Stimpy, the fat one. Or Cartman – he says what he feels!
What superpower would you most like to have?
What’s your favourite television programme?
Larry Sanders Show.
What was the last book you read?
I’m not a good reader – although I have just written a book.
What was the best film that you have seen in the last 12 months?
The Insider, Fight Club and American Beauty.
Have you always wanted to work in music?
What’s on your wall in your bedroom?
A mirror, although I rarely look in it.
Do you have any superstitions?
No. I don’t believe in God – is that a superstition?
What’s your favourite alcoholic drink?
There’s so many of them! A Belgian lager named Duvel. I like Sangria too.
Do you read your fan mail?
Yes, I try to reply to them all too. There is one woman who sends me about three a week. In that situation you don’t know whether to reply or not – it might encourage her!
What’s the best thing about working in the music industry?
You don’t have to get up too early.
What’s the worst thing about working in the music industry?
Having your manager build you up.
What’s your favourite Baby Bird album?
This one. And Dying Happy.
The Sunday Times Culture
26th April 1998
Still gorgeous to listen to
Interview with Stephen Jones
His new single confirms Stephen Jones – aka BabyBird – as one of our most subversive pop artists, says ANDREW SMITH
Subversion has always been a seductive idea in pop, whose roots are in rebelliousness and transgression and — let’s be frank — parental fear. These days, however, it’s not so easy. What are you going to subvert? There’s no obviously avoidable war, no Thatcher, with her big, sexy industrial disputes and confrontations; sexual taboos have been done from every angle and nobody bats an eyelid at tunes about drugs anymore.
When BabyBird crashed into the singles chart with You’re Gorgeous two years ago, however, it was initially greeted as a rare and delicious act of subversion. With its summery, absurdly catchy chorus (Because you’re gorgeous, I’d do anything for you-ou”), You’re Gorgeous was made for humming absentmindedly between the aisles at Sainshury’s.
Only much later did most listeners notice the darker tone of the verses, which seemed to describe the narrator’s obsessive love for someone who was talking pornographic photos of him/her. This was funny for awhile, but by the end of the song’s 15-week run as a bestseller, deeper questions were being asked.
What was Stephen Jones, the singer/songwriter behind BabyBird, saying? Were his “dark” themes just an attention-seeking pose? Some fans — bizarrely, these include Jackson Browne, Robbie Williams and Sir Elton John, who has invited him to take tea in the south of France — came to view him as a cheeky pop prankster, some critics as a flippant, pretentiously amoral charlatan. Jones wasn’t sure which reputation he liked least.
“I never meant to be funny,” Jones says, over a pint in the bar of a Kensington hotel, just down the road from the flat he shares with his girlfriend. Now 35, he spent many years on the dole in Sheffield, recording on a small portastudio in his bedroom. He released four interesting, home-recorded albums in the 18 months before You’re Gorgeous turned him into a pop star and a fifth, more conventional album, Ugly Beautiful, cemented his relationship with the mainstream.
He has just signed a lucrative American record deal and life is looking good, but it didn’t seem so rosy six months ago, when it came time to begin work on a sixth album. Jones had never had to live with other peoples’ expectations before and the pressure weighed heavily on him. He hadn’t written any lyrics in over a year. He felt misunderstood and feared that success had robbed him of his muse.
In the event, Jones’s fears were unfounded. He and his band decamped to a small studio in the hills above Marbella and wrote the new album in two weeks. Set to be released in August, it is far weightier than Ugly Beautiful, which was essentially a compilation of updated old material and, in that respect, marks a return to the form of the first four albums, Of more immediate interest is the first single, Bad Old Man, which is released tomorrow.
Musically, this is as stunning as anything Jones has written, with its melancholy, descending chord sequence and lingering piano motif, which, once heard, is impossible to dislodge from the mind. The lyrics, too, are characteristically loaded and ambiguous, full of memorable and disturbing images. In the nearest thing the smart arrangement allows to a chorus, we learn that “he drowned his stepson in the duck pond/let the wife beater out to make a pop song/be put razor blades in the ice crean-shot a paedophile in a wet dream”.
Nasty stuff, you might think. Jones won’t agree with you.
“No, my songs are taken from things that have affected me or moved me or are interesting. I’m not using the images in Bad Old Man lightly, to shock people. That song came from watching a lot of satellite TV in recording studios — in particular, talk shows with people such as Jerry Springer and Geraldo. You sit there waiting for a guest to get shot, that’s the only way it can get more extreme than it already is — to have someone executed. The song is just trying to find a way t~ say that maybe we need to think about the implications and effects of these things before we sanction them.”
The life and deeds of presenter and guests are cleverly run together, thus setting up a moral equation between them. Jones sug people up for our titillation, the television star is implicated in the crimes that gave them their freakish fascination. As are we, as viewers.
The singer claims that “the whole album is about that kind of morality” though, in another outstanding song, the slow, elegiac You Will Always Be Mine, he returns to one of his favourite themes, which I interpret as the ambiguity of unconditional love, it being the highest form of emotion, and yet the most dangerous and oft exploited. You’re Gorgeous was concerned with this, though I took You Will Always Be Mine to be about the relationship between children and parents.
“Yes, that’s in there,” Jones says. He has always been interested in dualities, partly because he recognises the different sides of his own character. He declares that on tour this time around, he is going to make an effort to drink less (“I only drank so I had the courage to dance, overcoming nerves, but there were times when I’d come offstage and I’d be so pissed I’d be annoyed about something but I’d forgotten what it was,” he said recently).
At the same time, his awareness that, when he drinks certain things, he gets “a bit nasty” confirms his view that there’s a bad old man in all of us. He wonders where it comes from. “I’m not trying to subvert peoples’ minds,” he concludes. “To write something that’s slightly unusual and make it mainstream, that’s the challenge.” Which, in this age of soundbites and the media’s saturation with trivia, is subversive enough.
One week after “You’re Gorgeous” has gone straight into the national pop charts at number three and Baby Bird are caught in a strange place where the venue is too small and the tour bus is too big. Ok it’s not that strange a place – it’s Leicester.
But the 200 or so capacity pub is rammed so tight, you have to balance with your toes on a ledge and one hand on a cross girls shoulder to see the stage. If you breath you’ll fall down and if you fall down, you’d knock over the plastic glass of one of the many tough beery men chanting for “the hit” and they’ll have to punch you.
“A few nights ago, this huge tattooed skin-head came backstage after we’d finished and told me he liked the songs. but that I sang like a ponce”. Stephen Jones – eloquent handsome singer-songwriter Baby Bird frontman – does sing like a ponce, but so do Bono, Tim Booth, Ian McCulloch and Frank Sinatra, all of whom he has been compared to and the pub in Leicester was long booked before they had their “hit”.
‘Sometimes when I look out, I can see people talking or snogging while I’m singing But this one girl actually stood at the very front by the speakers with her fingers in her ears for the whole show. I’ve asked them to fix the lights so I can’t see.’’
This may not be a bad thing. Previously, Baby Bird audiences have been treated to the spectacle of Jones doing his stand-up and put-down act, leering out between songs like a disturbed drunkard, heckling back at hecklers or the uninterested (“Wanker? Oh Yeah! Anything else? Twat? Shithead? Fuckhead? Yeah Yeah!”)
These outbursts have in the past drawn him accusations of pretentiousness. Such talk has not been helped by Baby birds record sleeves -featuring Jones covered in blood, or pregnant or dead, or sleeve notes proclaiming the band “responsible for introducing classic material into society.” On Jones’ side, he claims he’s determined that live, the baby Bird show will be a show, not some indie wake. Stephen Jones has theatrical bones you see.
When he was a young child, Stephen was taken on a cruise to the other side of the world by his parents, then they settled for a few years in New Zealand and became teachers. He was a shy kid who always had a problem with blushing. His classmates picked on him because the slightest provocation made his face turn bright red. It haunts him to this day.
“When I leave a record shop I don’t like walking near anyone else in case they are a shoplifter and the alarm goes off and I blush, and everyone thinks I’m a thief,’ he explains. “It’ not my fault my capillaries are close to the surface of my skin.” Well a lot of the songs on your new album Ugly Beautiful – especially “You’re Gorgeous” or the necrophiliac love song “I didn’t warn to wake you up”- are pretty extreme compositions, for a man with a blushing problem. Jones starts to blush.
“I didn’t want to wake you up is not a song about necrophilia. It’s a very sad, straight song about someone I know who died. I want to know what it feels like to lose someone really close to you, but I’m just imagining it. And I honestly didn’t mean ‘You’re Gorgeous’, the way people think I meant it. It’s about role- reversal, that’s all’’. “
Gorgeous” is one of Steve’s least favorite words. Uncoincidentally, it is one of Chris Evans’ favorites. “We found out that it was Chris Evans’ catch-phrase” Steve told a journalist at the time of it’s release so maybe he might play it”. Baby Bird performed on TFI Friday last month. During rehearsals Chris wore a ‘You’re Gorgeous” T-shirt.
On the tour bus Steve explains he’s a massive Tom Waits fan and that’s the level of fame and success he aspires to. The tour bus is vast and shiny, with beds, a kitchenette a lounge and a TV and video player (including an Aerosmith live! Video).
Stephen tries to keep everyone chatting happily, like a society hostess. On board are the rest of Baby Bird: bassist John Pedder, guitarist Luke Scott, drummer Rob Gregory and keyboardist Huw Chadhourn.
John, Luke and Stephen are friendly open souls, but Rob and Huw are more cagey and aggressive. I’d like to ask about this song. I say, to which Huw barks “Yes well it would be nice to talk about the music.”
While the songs themselves often occupy the kind of oblique “pop” ground reserved for the likes of The Fall, Baby Bird’s strength undoubtedly lies in Stephens lyrics. Strange and sad, songs like ‘‘Mans tight vest’ (I feel Like a women/yet I was born a man/wish I’d been christened Valerie instead of Stan’’) were written, along with 400 hundred others, between 1988 and 1994 while Baby Bird (at that time Stephen alone) sat at home in Sheffield.
Having moved all over the north of England during adolescence, Stephen took a boh in a Sheffield theatre and acted in performance groups for a time, before using an Arts Council grant to buy himself a four-track studio and record his songs.
“I didn’t expect anyone to hear them’ he says. I don’t want to sound pretentious, but they were written for very pure artistic reasons. No that sounds awful. I did it because I enjoyed it. It was not a big plan.’
Between July last year (95) and March this year (96), Baby Bird Recordings released four albums (“I was Born a Man”, “Bad Shave”, “Fatherhood” and “The Happiest Man Alive”) in quick, 1000 only succession. Now the Baby Bird band plays Stephens songs, recorded in glorious 48-track, and have released their debut album proper. A fifth DIY effort “Dying Happy,” will he followed next year by a “greatest hits” album (the favorite tracks from the five back catalogue LP’s, as voted for by the fans, in re-recorded versions).
Soon Stephen Jones is quite drunk, quite drunk and very maudlin. “I’m worried about this album,” he moans. But the pre-sales alone stand at 60,000, enough for a healthy chart placing (it ultimately comes in at no 9).
I know but it’s not going to be what everyone expects after ‘You’re Gorgeous.’ The songs on “Ugly Beautiful’ are almost willfully diverse. What will the punters make of “Too Handsome to be Homeless” or the bubbly ‘Jesus is my Girlfriend?” And what about a stripped bare ballad like “Dead Bird Sings?” You’re not really sure how you are supposed to take it. If it weren’t for the radio support of Chris Evans, “You’re Gorgeous” could very well have been critically praised and, like those other 400 songs, completely ignored.
“No no! I want people to stop going on about the back catalogue” says Steve. A few minutes earlier he was bemoaning that no one was really aware of Babybird’s back catalogue. A paradox of pop.
I tell him about how when Bruce Springsteen did his recent acoustic Tom Joad” tour, he played for about three and a. half hours, only did the songs he wanted, and stopped dead if any one dared interrupt. Steve is a big Springsteen admirer and this perks him right up.
“I heard the guy from Radiohead does the same thing. It’s not such an outrageous demand is it?” Stephen Jones hops around trying out different bunks His head peeps out from between the drawn curtains of the bed. He looks like a one-year old with a heard.
He has a nice face in the same way Doris Day or James Taylor or Anthea Turner have nice faces – not sexy or outrageously gorgeous, but with pleasant features. It just doesn’t sit with the disgusting photos that have been used as covers for those earlier albums.
He sets these up with Alison Levy, his girlfriend of seven years, who is by profession, a mortuary photographer and is used to taking pictures of bodies with their skulls blown off. Talking to Stephen, you turn into your mother. Why do you want to do all that weird stuff to your face when you’re such a nice looking boy? Does he consider himself the male Tilda Swinton, whose face is a starting point from which to create a character? I ask him how he feels about his own looks and he starts stammering.
“I know people are going to think that I’ve got a big ego because I put my face on the cover, but it’s just easier to use me than to go and find a model and rent a studio.” Actually I thought the opposite. Maybe you’re insecure about your face, so that’s why you’re always defacing it?
“No it’s not defacing my face. It’s just turning the whole beauty thing on it’s head.” I remind him of the Derek Jarman quote about male gay men being artistic because they know they’re not going to have any children but they want to leave something after they die. Ok. Ok. Wait. I’m not tying to “out” you. “Yes, but I’m not gay. Stephen takes every question seriously and thinks before he answers.
He is a fan of Jarman, but not of Damien Hurst “The only thing that shocked me about Damien Hurst was, how do you get hold of a great big shark?”
When was the Last time he felt shocked?
“The last time I felt shocked was just watching TV. There was a documentary about the concentration camps and I didn’t know that the Russians had kept them going after the war ended. Or when I found out that 25 million slaves were killed” He sips his stewed tea.
“And when I saw a budgie in a cage. I didn’t like that. It upset me.
A blustery Sunday night and Baby Bird are in Brighton, staying at the Metropole Hotel. It’s so windy that you’re not allowed to open the glass door to come in and have to use the revolving one instead. The hotel is much, much too hot inside. Stephen has been recognized and approached on the street. What did they say?
“Oh they didn’t say anything. They just pointed like sniffer dogs.” They are playing at another small venue, and he doesn’t want me to be there. ”My throat is gone. You don’t want to see us tonight. Yesterday was good. I really concentrated on singing instead of having a go at the audience. But tonight is going to be rubbish’’ he says insistently like a 15 year old trying to hide a wine stain on the carpet from his parents.
The band are gathered around a table in the stuffy lounge, drinking tea. I explain that I need to speak to Stephen alone, and he relays this to the band who trundle back to their rooms.
“I feel terrible when that happens. You know, the photographer asks me to come forward a step and you know that the others will just be blurred out. We were offered the cover of the NNW as long as it was just me in the photo. We agreed to do it,’ he confesses, and then says, guiltily, ‘but I feel really bad.”
Everyone’s trying to spoil it for them. Three minutes before Baby Bird were due to make their Top of the Pops debut, a record company man told Stephen that “You’re Gorgeous” had dropped to number nine in the midweek chart, adding ‘That’s not going to be very good news for the album sales.’ Stephen performed the record, came offstage and cried. Then when he got back to the dressing room, he offends he shows producer.
“Apparently I turned my hack to him when he was talking to me. I didn’t mean to.” How odd that the man who recorded 400 songs on his own four-track, who is proof that indie is alive is now in a world of mid-weeks and not offending top of the Pops producers.
If Baby Bird hitting number three is significant of anything, it’s the blurring between chart and indie music. Look at a photo of Stephen Jones and you’d know this is an experimental outfit. But hear ‘You’re Gorgeous” on the radio and it sounds like Michael Bali performing a song from a Sondheim musical.
Stephen Jones’ main aim is to be entertaining. He wants you to have a good time ‘‘I’m annoyed that you couldn’t see anything in Leicester. It’s important that you were able to see the stage’’
Suddenly he switches into neurotic housewife mode. “You didn’t like it on the tour bus did you”? I felt really bad. You weren’t enjoying yourself” This is a new experience. Pop stars flexing their meekness muscles rather than their egos.