Jamie Lenman – “I didn’t believe in writing songs as catharsis… until it happened by accident”
Welcome back, good sir…
Words: James Hickie
After a few weeks of dropping hints and teasing music, Jamie Lenman has finally released his new single Mississippi – the ex-Reuben man’s first material since 2013’s double album Muscle Memory. But what’s he been up to during that time? Well, he’s made cameos on some very cool albums – including Black Peaks’ debut Statues – and also has something of a line in tinkering with other people’s songs to improve them. Clearly, though, he’s saving the best formulas for himself: Mississippi is an early contender for the best song of 2017. It’s also, as you’ll discover, one with a great deal of sadness behind it. Listen to the song below and then read about its creation…
HI JAMIE, HOW DOES MISSISSIPPI COMPARE WITH WHAT YOU WERE DOING ON MUSCLE MEMORY?
Jamie Lenman: “Muscle Memory was a splitting of the two things that I do. I like to write – and listen to – strong melodies, but I also like to write big riffs and make heavy music. On Muscle Memory I decided to separate those things out: a disc with riffs and no melody, and a disc that was melodies and no riffs. I’ve now brought them back together with this track. You get both at same time, which is how I naturally write.”
WAS IT HARD WORK SEPARATING THOSE ELEMENTS OUT?
“I certainly had to think a lot more about it. With things like this track and the other new material I’m working on, it flows a lot easier and is more natural to me. With Muscle Memory, I’d get the germ of an idea and think, ‘Hold on, which direction is it going in?’ If it had a big riff then I would cut the melody out, or if it was very melodic but a bit heavy then I would soften the music.”
AND THIS TRACK HAS AN EVEN MORE DIRECT RELATIONSHIP WITH MUSCLE MEMORY, DOESN’T IT?
“Yes. While musically it brings the two strands together, it’s a good bridge because it’s called Mississippi and it uses elements of a song called Mississippi that my dad used to sing to me. The song features on Shotgun House from Muscle Memory, where I sing the mnemonic ‘M-I-double S-I-double S-PP-I’ at the end of that track.”
HOW DID YOU COME TO REVISIT THAT IDEA?
“There were a number of tracks that I was writing during Muscle Memory that fell into the gap right in between heavy and melodic and they just wouldn’t fit into either category. Some that I’m working on now are revising those ideas, and Mississippi is one of them. I was thinking about themes of family, especially my dad, who died while I was writing Muscle Memory. So this track is generally about bad memories. Not that my dad was a bad memory… certainly watching him die was a bad memory… well, in a funny way it’s a good memory… it’s weird like that.”
GIVEN THE PAIN THAT INSPIRED IT, WERE YOU EVER RELUCTANT TO SEE THE SONG THROUGH?
“When my dad died, I found myself singing the little song ‘M-I-double S-I-double S-PP-I’ an awful lot. I don’t want to get too pretentious about it, but the only term I can use to describe it is a mantra, because a mantra is something you repeat in order to clear your mind. The meaning of the words is eventually lost, and you just concentrate on the rhythm and the sound of it. This song wouldn’t get out of my head and unfortunately it became linked to a lot of bad feelings and it came to signify having bad thoughts and things I couldn’t get rid of in my brain. That’s what the song became about, all the things I can’t let go of – that’s why ‘I can’t let go’ is the big hook of the song.”
IT’S CATHARTIC, THEN?
“I didn’t really believe in writing songs or making music – or creating any kind of art – as catharsis until it happened by accident. Throughout my career, there were a couple of songs that I didn’t realise were cathartic until they’d come out. When they were out there I could finally be objective and go, ‘Oh right, that’s what I did that!’ I used to do a similar thing when I was young: I used to write lists of everything that was upsetting me so that I could see it all. I’d agree that this song is, to an extent, cathartic – even though I didn’t do it on purpose.”
MISSISSIPPI SEEMS TO HAVE A PRONOUNCED NINE INCH NAILS INFLUENCE, TOO…
“I’ve always been influenced by Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails, right from the start of my career. I felt that with the most recent NIN record [Hesitation Marks], Trent was going back and mining the old material, but who am I to talk because I’m mining his back catalogue, too. Even in Reuben I was trying to make those influences shine through, but it was tough to reconcile that with the scrappy three-piece grunge act. As a solo artist, together with [producer] Space who’s much more experienced in that area, I think you’ll start to hear a lot more of that in the music – lots of layered vocals and electronic bits and bobs.”
SO WHEN CAN WE EXPECT TO HEAR MORE MUSIC?
“We’re just going to release these tracks as they become available. I’m working with my producer [Space] all the time, so when they’re ready and sounding good we’ll let people hear them. You’ll hear more music throughout 2017!”
DOES THIS MEAN YOU NO LONGER BELIEVE IN THE ALBUM FORMAT?
“People talk to me about the death of the album. As a child of the ’90s, I’m still quite wedded to the concept of 10-12 tracks as a piece of work, in the same way that a visual artist might have their gallery show with a collection of works. I think you can tell a more satisfying story over 10 or 12 tracks than you can by releasing stuff individually.”
WHAT’S BEEN THE OVERALL BRIEF FOR THE NEW MUSIC?
“I don’t want to come out of leftfield, but the watch words when Space and I have been working on this stuff is ‘Heavy Beck’, with lots of falsetto vocals and concentrating on grooves that make you want to dance and riffs that make you want to nod your head.”
YOU’VE DONE A LOT TO CHAMPION THE UK UNDERGROUND AND APPEARED ON ALBUMS BY SOME VERY EXCITING ACTS. HOW IMPORTANT HAS THAT BEEN?
“Very. Since Muscle Memory, I’ve spent a lot of time doing a lot of different things. I’ve been collaborating with a lot of new artists. Black Peaks were my top pick for last year – not that having ‘Jamie’s top pick’ has got them to where they are – they’re a fantastic band. When they asked me to be on their album I was over the moon, and it [To Take the First Turn] is a great track. I’m not exaggerating: being on that album is like being on Nevermind – that Black Peaks album is the Nevermind for this generation! Down I Go aren’t really a new band, but they’re pretty fucking underground. I had their singer Pete Fraser play saxophone on my single a couple of years ago [All The Things You Hate About Me, I Hate Them Too], and then I went and recorded a track on their latest album [You’re Lucky God, That I Cannot Reach You], which is just tremendous.”
YOU ALSO HELP OTHER ARTISTS WITH THEIR SONGS. IS THAT ABILITY TO SEE THE WEAKNESSES IN SONGS A BLESSING OR A CURSE?
“People come to me in a professional and non-professional capacity to help them write their songs and fix little bits. It’s my absolute favourite yummy treat to help someone else unpack their puzzle. It’s a blessing for my own music, because I think it gives me the ability to be judgemental and objective; but it’s also sort of a curse when you listen to other people’s music, because you see the Matrix code instead of hearing the notes. Any songwriter, I imagine, will suffer from the same sort of thing: as soon as you see how it’s done, you see the code. I have to shut that off sometimes. When I hear a band’s song and they’ve repeated the same fucking distance between notes and the same phrasing – that drives me absolutely nuts.”