Blues and bruised in Brighton: Jamie N Commons interview
'When I woke up, The Strokes were playing ping-pong next to me'
“I sat next to this guy who was howling like a wolf the whole time! I couldn’t figure out why their entire
backdrop was mushrooms. I remember being taken away, transformed, to some magical place.”
How’s that for a first gig? If anyone thinks Jamie N Commons’ rasping Bristol-via-Chicago blues voice sounds whisky-soaked well beyond his 22 years, it’s worth remembering that he had an early start when his Dad took him to see the Allman Brothers: “I was 9 or 10, so it was quite a baptism of fire!”
Indeed, parental influence looms large on the music: “My Dad was always playing stuff in the car. I always liked the old blues and country stuff, but it took me a while to get into Tom Waits, I was like, ‘this isn’t music, he’s not even singing!’ I came around pretty hard on that!”
The fire and brimstone that swirls around Commons’ debut EP ‘The Baron’ from last autumn also chimes, in the finest blues tradition, with his own experiences: “My mum works for the church and is very religious, my dad’s an atheist, so we had both ways - there’s always that thing in my mind, like ‘is it right or not?’ I wouldn’t say I’m religious at the moment, but it’s a big part of my upbringing.
"I think I’m attracted to people like Nick Cave and Tom Waits because of it, Especially something like [Cave’s]‘Into My Arms’, where the first line is ‘I don’t believe in an interventionist God’, but then the entire song is religious references, but put in the context of this girl he loves. So he’s obviously learnt these things early on and expressing himself through that, but he doesn’t believe in that.”
With songs like ‘Now Is Not The Time’, ‘Hold On’ and ‘Nina’ full of revenge, redemption and death, themes that Cave and Waits have used to paint such vivid pictures in the past, does Jamie see himself as a storyteller? “There’s a lot of songs which are more my own thoughts rolling around, but If I’m trying to tell a story, I try and put it through the mind of someone else,” he explains. “Obviously, a song like ‘The Preacher’ didn’t happen to me, it’s about murder! That one’s exploring whether the voices in your head are the voice of God or just you going crazy. I was trying to put in the most dramatic narrative possible.”
Such drama, and a striking live show, has led to a growing live following, and some unexpected daytime radio attention. “People are taking notice faster than we thought they would,” he enthuses. ”We got playlisted for ‘The Preacher’, and I’ve got to say hats off to the radio plugger for getting a four-and-a-half-minute song about a man killing his wife and kids playlisted on mainstream radio!”
Jamie made the longlist for the BBC Sound Of 2012, and with the intense debate the annual list always generates, does he fear the slow burn option is now over? “I was surprised, and super happy, to get on the list, we’re the only unsigned artist on there. Everyone assumed that because we licensed the EP to Luv Luv Luv, we were signed to Island, which we’re not. Pretty much everyone on there has their album ready to come out, so I thought maybe it was a next year kind of thing. I think we’re going in in April/May to record ours, but we’ve got to sort the label stuff first to finance it first,” he says.
Whoever he signs with, they should know there’s not much chance of a dubstep remix, with Jamie happy for the list’s winner, but maybe not so much for the Number 5: “I thought it was good for music that Michael Kiwanuka won it. He’s writing great songs, and some people might say that’s it’s the Sound of 1973, not 2012, but that’s missing the point. No one on there is doing anything particularly new, apart from Skrillex, and God help us all if he’d won it! New doesn’t necessarily mean good!”
Actually, maybe there is still hope – not only is Jamie the latest in a long line of musical talent to spring forth from Goldsmiths (Blur and Katy B are also alumni), he was in the same class as dubstep wunderkind James Blake: “We had a mutual friend, and we hung out, but it wasn’t ‘til near the end of third year that I knew he did stuff outside of class, because we both did a classical course. I really like the album. I played La Cigalle in Paris and he was playing a show with Laura Marling the night after, so I stayed out. It was really good seeing him again.”
So, any chance of a collaboration? “He always goes on about this song I had three years ago that he really liked! I don’t even have a demo of it anymore! Maybe in the future, who knows?”
He also has support from some old-school musical heroes, with Elvis Costello now a confirmed fan: “I heard off a publisher he was looking to work with a newer artist so I covered ’15 Petals’, they sent it to him, he liked it, and invited us to his album launch. I ended up talking to Roger Daltrey and Chris Difford about steam trains!”
On the back of rave reviews at Dutch festival Eurosonic Noorderslag earlier this month (including a 9/10 from us) – “It was one of the best festivals I’ve ever been to” - Brighton beckons for Jamie in May for a slot at The Great Escape: “We’re playing The Haunt at the Luv Luv Luv night with Spector and Willy Moon. I went last year and saw Anna Calvi, Villagers and Josh T Pearson, a dream line-up for me.”
That’s not to say things always go smoothly by the seaside for him: “Bad things always happen to me in Brighton! I always get in fights! I went down there last Halloween, and tried to jump over this nine-foot gate when I was off my face, and my hand got caught on top of the railing, and I broke it in two places and dislocated it.”
“The worst fight was when my friend threw a chip at these girls who were sitting down, and they thought it was me! So I got set upon by these 3 drunk girls with WKD bottles! I just kind of parried and jogged off. They were wearing high heels, so I got away!” Well versed in Great Escapes then.
As for his own favourite festivals, there’s hope for a place at Bestival or Camp Bestival this year – “Rob Da Bank’s been really good to us” - while as a punter, Jamie prefers to keep things compact: “I’m a really big fan of End Of The Road, I’ve been there two or three times. It’s nice and small. I’m not a big fan of the massive festivals, you spend most of your time walking.”
You never know though, if you don’t walk around so much, you might be able to witness sporting prowess from New York’s finest: “I went to Reading last year, and I’d been up all night the night before, so I went straight from my friend’s house to get driven down by the management to meet this American booking agent who was there. I ended up passing out on this picnic bench backstage, and when I woke up, The Strokes were playing ping-pong next to me!” he laughs.
Who knows if Julian’s forehand smash shot or the perils of throwing chips will make into a Jamie N Commons song one day, but it looks like this is one story that’s only just beginning.
Catch Jamie N Commons at The Great Escape Festival 2012, alongside Africa Express Sound System, Spector, Dry The River, and more than 300 other artists at 30 venues across Brighton from 10-12 May.
For the full Great Escape Festival line up and ticket details click here.