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Stevie Jackson: Being Himself Completely

Stevie Jackson 1
27 May 2012

Stevie Jackson is well aware of the stigma tied to the inevitable solo efforts of successful British guitarists. But for the longtime Belle & Sebastian riffmaker, a little Glaswegian modesty goes a long way. Having already penned and performed his fair share of B&S classics ("Seymour Stein" and "Jonathan David" among them) Jackson, 43, is hardly stepping outside his element on his ingeniously titled and instantly enjoyable solo debut, (I Can’t Get No) Stevie Jackson. Nor is he remotely interested in following in the footsteps of former bandmates Stuart David and Isobel Campbell, who jumped the indie-pop ship to pursue completely new avenues. With his career ambitions more than satisfied within the confines of one of Scotland’s all-time great bands, “Stevie Reverb” is simply doing what good musicians do when their band is on a brief hiatus. They keep making music.

In anticipation of his album’s official international release on July 3, Jackson chatted with The Big Takeover about going solo, getting older, and Glasgow pride—not to mention a healthy tangent about his reputation as indie-pop’s pre-eminent loser in love.

ANDREW CLAYMAN: It seems like (I Can’t Get No) Stevie Jackson has been on your website and floating around the UK for about a year now, but it’s only now coming out in U.S. stores (July 3). Why the long delay for the American release?

STEVIE JACKSON: Well it wasn’t even actually properly released in the UK, either, in the sense that initially you could only get it online, you know what I mean? It was really just available through the website, so this is the first time it’s going to be available in stores in Britain and the U.S. and pretty much everywhere else.

As for why it took so long, that’s a good question [laughs]. I think once it actually got mastered, we decided to just throw it up online as a kind of experiment to bypass the whole normal process-- just to see what would happen. So it was an experimental business plan. And in the end, it was okay. It didn’t quite work—if I did it again I probably would have just waited and had it distributed properly. But hey, what’s done is done.

AC: Were you tempted at all to tinker with the album in the year in-between, or is this the same version that was downloadable last year?

SJ: No, no, it’s the same [laughs]. It’s kind of strange, because it’s great that it’s coming out, of course. But for me, it’s kind of old news, you know? I’ve moved on to thinking about other things. So yeah, it’s done! It’s a finished product, for sure.

AC: It seems like there’s been chatter about you possibly putting out a solo record for the better part of a decade. What finally brought it together for you, and how long have some of these songs been gestating?

SJ: Well, it’s interesting because I hadn’t really thought about doing it that much, myself. It was definitely something other people would talk about more than me. I think that-- with Belle & Sebastian-- I just kind of devoted myself to that, you know? I don’t know what it is about me, but I just didn’t have a huge desire to strike out on my own. I guess I just like being in a group or something like that. But yeah, we had an album out back in 2006 called The Life Pursuit, and we toured that. And at the end of that stretch, we’d been going for about ten years as a band, so it was kind of time for the obligatory hiatus to try out some other things. So I found myself with time on my hands, and eventually got involved in working on various art projects, putting on some shows and events, and just writing songs with my friends [Jackson played gigs with the Vaselines and the 1900s, among others]. You know, just having fun, basically. So I was sort of doing that through 2007 and 2008, and over time that activity started to generate quite a few new songs. So it came down to me saying, ‘Well, I’ve got these songs. I may as well attempt to record them.’

AC: And then the Belle & Sebastian hiatus ended.

SJ: Right, exactly. By 2009, the record was nearly finished, but I sort of missed my window because the band started working again (on the Write About Love album). So I only just came back to it again last year really—recording a few more songs and putting the finishing touches on. So yeah, getting back to your original question, most of these songs are at least relatively new. The only kind of older one is called “Telephone Song,” and it’s probably from the ‘90s.

Stevie Jackson 2

AC: Since you have a reputation as a pop historian… once you decided to release the record, how much thought did you put into the sort of ancient rock n’ roll custom of guitarists from great bands venturing out on their own? Were there examples of solo albums by guitarists that you particularly enjoyed?

SJ: Well usually—historically speaking—taking that route is a pretty bad idea [laughs]. I mean, there’ve been a few good ones. But yeah, actually, when I put the album on the site last year, there was one review in a Glasgow paper where they said it was the best solo album by a guitarist since Mick Ronson’s Slaughter on 10th Avenue (1974). So that was obviously my favorite review. You know, me and Mick Ronson. Yeah!

AC: Well I was definitely glad to hear you were putting out your own record. Because even going back to the early Belle & Sebastian albums—before I knew anybody’s name in the band—I seemed to gravitate toward tracks like “Seymour Stein” and “The Wrong Girl” and “Jonathan David.” And it was only later that I realized, hmm, I must be a Stevie Jackson fan.

SJ: Ha, well thank you. I like those ones, too [audible sarcastic smirk].

AC: So as far as these newer songs are concerned, I wanted to ask about one of the catchiest, in my opinion—albeit also one of the silliest: “Man of God.” What’s the story behind that track and have you ever actually tried to woo a woman with Donny Hathaway records, as the speaker in the song does?

SJ: Oh sure [laughs]. Well… maybe not. It’s a little more tongue in cheek, I suppose. But yeah, that song was really just about sitting down at the piano and having a laugh—which I quite like. But it’s funny, when you write something down and record it, it starts to feel like it was real. So in my head, I probably do feel like I have wooed a girl with a Donny Hathaway record. But actually, in the course of singing that song, I’m doing the wooing myself, if you know what I mean. So it’s working on a slightly different level.

AC: Kind of as a contrast to the playfulness of that song, then, you’ve got “Pure of Heart,” which touches on some of the same themes as one of your Belle & Sebastian tracks, “I Took a Long Hard Look”—basically re-assessing what’s important in your life versus some of the pipe dreams of youth. Is that a fair description?

SJ: Yeah, totally. Generally speaking, I have never really been into confessional songwriting so much. I just don’t feel the need to tell people about my life. It’s just not that interesting. You know, the spirit of rock n’ roll is more about using your imagination and actually creating things. And Stuart [Murdoch of Belle & Sebastian] is obviously really good at that—not to say that he just makes stuff up out of the blue—but there’s definitely the element of imagination there. So I kind of like that. But yeah, “Pure of Heart” is unusual for me because it actually is quite straightforward. I suppose it’s kind of like that Neil Young song where it goes, “when you were young and on your own, how did it feel to be alone?” [“Only Love Can Break Your Heart”]. It has that kind of feeling for me. Because when you’re young and on your own, you tend to have maybe a more romantic view of the world—it’s a very real and powerful feeling of how things can be. And as you get older it’s easier to lose sense of that. Of course, you want to get it back! The problem is, if I want to go back, that means I’ve already moved past it. So it’s like a question that provides its own answer. That’s kind of what that song is about.

AC: Do you find that you’re getting more nostalgic with time, or is it getting a bit easier to leave things to the past?

SJ: Well I try not to be too nostalgic. I never really long for the past whatsoever, honestly. I don’t get nostalgic for the early days of the band or anything like that. Sometimes you can get nostalgic for a period of your life when you could drink a lot and not have a hangover. You know, like when I was 24 or something and could do whatever I want. So, I suppose physically I miss things, because I’m getting older and deteriorating and all. But overall, I’d say I don’t look back too much. I don’t mind getting older. I quite like it. It’s interesting.

Although there is the whole idea of running out of time, and if you don’t have a family—which I don’t—that kind of troubles me a bit. …Hmm, it sounds like I stumbled into something really personal there [laughs]. But yeah, with each passing year, your history gets longer. I just might have a history of trauma.

AC: Well, kind of along those lines, it does seem like a lot of your songs with Belle & Sebastian and on this record paint you as this sort of hopeless romantic character, who’s always the odd man out or the hard luck underdog. A lot of Belle & Sebastian fans, for example, probably still think of you as the poor guy from “The Wrong Girl” video.

SJ: Right, yeah.

AC: So do you still feel a kinship with that version of Stevie Jackson or does it feel more like a caricature now?

SJ: Ha, well… I’d say he’s probably gone now. I’m not sure it was a caricature, though, so much as just a West of Scotland trait—a working class trait. Something about that culture; it’s just naturally self-deprecating, you know what I mean? I’m never going to cast myself in a video as a stud [laughs]—someone who's incredibly successful. It should probably be said that it was basically by accident that in the videos for “The Wrong Girl” and “Jonathan David” I wound up playing the exact same character—the loser in love who couldn’t get the girl.

AC: That seems like part of what resonated strongly with people, too, though-- a pop singer who's just a regular bloke; dealing with unrequited love. There's an appeal to that.

SJ: Ha, well sure. And thank you. I mean, that’s a very human thing. I certainly feel that way, as well, listening to a lot of music. Those are the kind of things you reach for a lot of the time. But overall, no, I don’t really think of myself as a loser in love, necessarily. But there is a lot of truth in the character. I mean, “The Wrong Girl” video was fairly literal. I actually went to the real places and shot the footage there—where I grew up and went to school. If you recall, there’s a bit where I go and buy a Dylan jacket at a store called Flip, and that was absolutely, completely accurate [laughs]. So it’s kind of funny. But it was also quite easy. I mean, the information is there, so it’s quite easy to draw upon it.

Stevie Jackson with Belle and Sebastian

AC: Since you mentioned it, I definitely wanted to ask you about Glasgow. For me personally, I’ve always had a sort of romanticized concept of the place, just from listening to all the great bands from there.

SJ: Sure, yeah.

AC: But whenever I’ve interviewed Glaswegian artists, we always seem to wind up talking about this sort of melancholy, underdog mentality that comes from being from that city. What is it about Glasgow that creates that, and how do you think it’s affected your songwriting?

SJ: Well, like I said, it’s just part of our DNA. You know, if you have a romanticized view of Glasgow; if you came here, I don’t think you’d be disappointed. It’s a very magical place. It’s a beautiful place. It’s funny. I was having this conversation with someone the other day about identity, and they were asking whether I feel Scottish or British or European, etc. And I can feel differently about those from one day to the next. But the one thing where I do have a really strong sense of regional identity or sense of self is as a Glaswegian. I just have this very intense love of the place. And you know, I can’t say for sure where the Glasgow mindset comes from, except that—psychologically—it’s a working class area, and music has always been an escape here. It’s something that people really get into.

As far as Glasgow music goes, though—obviously there is a sort of great pop tradition here. But having said that, a lot of our contemporaries-- bands Belle & Sebastian came up with—were groups like Mogwai and Arab Strap, who were nothing like us at all, aside from some core sensibilities, certainly. So, it’s quite diverse, as well.

AC: What locales do you tend to recommend to people visiting the city? Or, what best captures the Stevie Jackson Glasgow experience?

SJ: Ha, well I’d just suggest wandering around—the cathedral and the graveyards. There’s beautiful scenery for getting lost in. And go to gigs, of course. You know, it’s not like we have the most amazing tourist attractions. It’s just the whole thing really—the cafes, the buses, the bars, the streets, the river. It’s a very beautiful place.

AC: I know a lot of Belle & Sebastian fans also like to visit the clubs you guys first played or certain locations from your videos, etc.

SJ: Yeah.

AC: Do you ever get used to something like that-- the idea that people might have the kind of fandom and passion for your music that you may have had as a kid listening to the Stones or the Beatles?

SJ: Well, I just hope it doesn’t go away, because I love it. I mean, it’s totally fantastic. And it’s actually nice of you to say that now, because I was maybe more conscious of it a few years ago. I think I don’t really think about it too much anymore, just because I’ve been in the group so long. It’s to the point where I can barely remember not being in the group, you know? It’s been like 16 years or whatever. Maybe more. So I remember at the start, when people were taking Belle & Sebastian tours—checking out locations and such—I got quite a kick out of that. But I’m not really conscious of it anymore. We just get on with life. Although I was in a bar recently and someone asked me for a photograph. That hadn’t happened in a while [laughs]. But for the most part, it’s like everyone is in a band, you know? People aren’t that impressed by it.

AC: Well the Belle & Sebastian fandom does seem kind of different from a lot of bands, because it’s less about the celebrity aspect of things. A lot of the band’s mystique kind of grew around how you guys maintained a low profile in those early days, and there was an appeal to that mystery.

SJ: Right.

AC: Do you think it’d be possible for a new band to follow that sort of path in 2012, with the way social media and constant communication are basically integral to getting noticed these days? Or were you sort of the last of that breed of band?

SJ: I really don’t know. Because it is a completely different world now. We were really lucky at the time, actually, because we were starting out at a time when the internet was really just beginning to pick up steam. We were riding the first crest of that wave, in a way, where we were one of the first bands, I think, that was able to kind of bypass the older channels to becoming well known— like getting written up in NME or Melody Maker; things like that. There was a kind of a sense that people got into us and it spread like wildfire through the internet. And nowadays, that’s pretty much become the norm. It seems like it’s all you’ve got. But there’s just so much information out there. I don’t really know how to deal with it, and I think a lot of people don’t. I think the music industry is obviously still trying to work out where it’s at, especially since younger kids don’t buy records anymore. They’re streaming it or downloading it for nothing or whatever.

But anyway, I suppose a mystique can still be calculated in a way. But for us, it really wasn’t. We didn’t set out with a plan of ‘let’s create a mystique!’ It just kind of happened that way. Our thing was that we wanted to make records, and all the other stuff—we were just going to ignore it all. And we did. At the time, it probably seemed detrimental to our popularity, like we could have gotten bigger possibly. But it also might be why we’re still here after 16 years. You know, we just started making our records and getting on with life like nothing was new. And people seemed to appreciate it.

AC: Well it didn’t hurt that the songs were really good, too.

SJ: Well, that’s the thing. This is also kind of tied in, as well. The thing that people latched on to—it wasn’t the pictures of us looking cute or something. It was the songs that people were into. And a lot of the interest was in the story songs, where there was quite a lot going on, but people just sort of went for it and decided that they liked it, which was great. In America, a lot of college stations picked up If You’re Feeling Sinister [1996] and played it as much as any record that year. So yeah, the purest form of communication is always just the songs and the stories. And, in a sense, we didn’t really need to have an image other than that. ...I suppose you could say the album covers and the stories in the back were kind of a calculated element, but they weren’t really. It was just an honest aesthetic choice.

But as far as new bands that are trying to make their mark now, I’d say a lot of the same rules apply. You’ve just got to be brilliant and original and something new for that time. I’m not saying we were necessarily brilliant or original ourselves, but we were kind of lucky in our timing, in that there wasn’t anything quite like it at that time, during the heyday of Brit Pop. It had a different vibe and just kind of stood out. I think if we’d tried the same thing five years later, it wouldn’t have worked.

AC: As far as current Belle & Sebastian activity goes, I know Stuart [Murdoch] was planning to try and make a film version of his God Help The Girl project. Since you played on that album a few years back, are you involved with the movie, too, or is it just Stuart’s thing at this point?

SJ: Oh yeah yeah, it’s happening. It’s exciting. They start shooting in like a month. It’s actually happening.

AC: Oh wow.

SJ: Yeah. There’s going to be live music in the film, so I’m basically in charge of organizing that; getting the musicians together, rehearsing and all that.

AC: When do you think it might come out?

SJ: Oh, I don’t really know. Next year, I guess? I’ve never really been involved in anything like this, but that’d be my guess.

AC: Sounds good. Final question: I know you played a couple American dates earlier in the year. Can we expect a more prolonged tour here in 2012 before it’s all said and done?

SJ: Oh sure. We’re looking into it. I don’t really tour with a band and I don’t know if I could afford to bring one to the U.S., but I’ll certainly be doing the troubadour thing—just me with a guitar and suitcase like the Paul Simon song.

Stevie Jackson solo album


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