Name: Grave Jones
Occupation: Singer, songwriter
Current release: Grave Jones's new single ‘Smithereens’ is out via Sinners & Records.
If you enjoyed this interview with Grave Jones and would like to stay up to date on his output and activities, visit him on Facebook, Instagram, and twitter.
Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?
It always seems to come from a deeply intimate, personal emotional experience for me. Past relationships, memories, heartbreaks, longing, my relationship with myself, my inner rage, melancholy, my refusing to cope with ageing. It’s almost never an outside source like politics or other forms of art.
For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a 'visualisation' of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
No visualisation or planning whatsoever. The initial spark usually comes from me waking up with a particular melody in my head and building everything around it.
Sometimes I could be just noodling on the guitar or any other instrument and I accidentally stumble upon a riff or a chord progression that resonates with me, then I try to come up with a vocal melody and build everything around it. On other occasions, it can also be that I’ve spent a day listening to a particular band and it inspired me to noodle on one of the instruments in a particular way.
For example, the main riff of “Smithereens” that was released a few weeks ago came up after I’d spent the whole afternoon listening to the Smashing Pumpkins. And I’m pretty sure that played a role somewhere, especially that Billy Corgan tends to write a lot of his riffs using octaves the way I do too.
Is there a preparation phase for your process? Do you require your tools to be laid out in a particular way, for example, do you need to do 'research' or create 'early versions'?
Not really, no. That’s also because I don’t think I’ve ever had to have a prior vision in mind. Most of the time it’s really just one initial melody that pops in my head, I usually record it quickly on my phone so I don’t forget it, then as soon as I have time I go in the studio, lay down a drum beat, record the melody and build everything around it.
I’m lucky to have my own recording studio at home, and everything is already plugged and set up the way I want it to be. It makes everything much easier because I can come in at any moment, press a button and start recording.
Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating? What role do certain foods or stimulants like coffee, lighting, scents, exercise or reading poetry play?
No rituals for me. I just need to have enough energy. Usually if I know that I need to be productive but find myself low on energy, I pour a few bags of ice cubes in the bath and give myself a nice freezing cold bath for a few minutes then I’m good to go.
What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?
As I said earlier, it’s always the melody that comes first, very randomly and intuitively. Words are the very last thing in the process. I do record vocals early, but it’s never the final lyrics I’ll be using in the song, it’s usually just gibberish and random words that I sing only to lock in the melody and see how it works with the arrangement.
It’s only when the instrumentation is fully done that I sit down, write lyrics and then re-record the vocals.
What makes lyrics good in your opinion? What are your own ambitions and challenges in this regard?
In my previous project Slutterhouse, I really didn’t care much about the lyrics. I just wanted them to sound good, so to me the particular musicality of vowels, consonants and syllables were far more important than the actual meaning of the words.
But things are very different now with Grave Jones because I do put in quite some effort into writing lyrics that I want to be proud of. My ambition is to be able to express myself with memorable, original lines that can hit the right spot in people, the same way some of my favourite songs have specific expressions or lines that seem hit the right spot for me.
I guess the biggest challenge of writing lyrics in general is to stay away from the clichés. A lot of songwriters seem to just recycle lines that we’ve heard in hundreds of songs before, and that’s the kind of things that I consciously try to avoid, unless it’s done in an clearly deliberate manner to sound cliché.
For example, no one wants to hear “pain” rhyme with “rain” anymore, or hear typical pop song expressions like “walking down the street at night,” or “wash away the pain,” etc.
Once you've started, how does the work gradually emerge?
Some songs seem to write themselves rather quickly. After the initial melody of that particular part of the song – be it the verse or the chorus, - the other melodies come very naturally. But sometimes, especially if the initial spark of the song wasn’t a particular melodic line but a guitar or a synth riff, it can take me some time, sometimes days to be able to find a particular vocal melody that I’m convinced of.
I generally don’t like songs where verses are just an excuse to get to the chorus, so I try to have my verses be just as memorable as the chorus. On rare occasions I’ve found myself stuck for weeks or months with a piece that had a very solid verse, but absolutely nothing interesting for the chorus. In that case I just have to wait until it comes to me. Or if I happen to be hanging out with another musician they can sometimes help too.
For example, the melody of the chorus on “Babylon Street” was written by fellow musician Rayan Sayegh from Wondergaap. I had the whole song in place except for a vocal melody on the chorus, and he happened to be in the studio. The moment I played it to him he naturally started humming a melody and I just knew that that was the right fit.
“Babylon Street” is one of the singles off the upcoming record “Heartrage Hotel” but it’s not out yet. Hopefully it will be sometime toward the end of the year.
Many writers have claimed that as soon as they enter into the process, certain aspects of the narrative are out of their hands. Do you like to keep strict control over the process or is there a sense of following things where they lead you?
I don’t think I have that experience for two reasons: 1- I usually don’t enter the process with a strict vision in mind, so I’m always open for new possibilities and intuitions wherever they take me, and 2- because I write, arrange and play all the instruments myself (guitars, bass, drums, synths and vocals,) I never have to give up control to anyone else at any stage of the process.
Often, while writing, new ideas and alternative roads will open themselves up, pulling and pushing the creator in a different direction. Does this happen to you, too, and how do you deal with it? What do you do with these ideas?
This does happen a lot. Personally I’m always trying to stay quite “pop” in my song writing, even if as a sound, I always include a variety of elements that aren’t pop at all, like guitar solos or aggressive singing.
My main focus is to keep the vocal melodies as catchy as possible, and if I sometimes am willing to venture into more bizarre or experimental areas, it would only be restricted to a particular part of the song, and not the piece as a whole.
There are many descriptions of the creative state. How would you describe it for you personally? Is there an element of spirituality to what you do?
The way I look at the creative state comes from what I know from evolutionary biology and neuroscience, so there’s definitely no spiritual element to it.
Creativity is a faculty of the brain destined to solve problems of survival in all species. The more complex the brain, the more creative the organism can get. Now, in the case of humanity, things are very different because for one, we have extremely complex brains, and two, once our species was freed from the burden of having to resort to creativity to solve problems related to survival, we managed to redirect and use this creative energy and produce art with it – which, by definition, is the production of useless objects. And by useless I mean from a biological perspective, because they’re unrelated to survival. So once our ancestors managed to settle in caves for relatively long periods of time, having made sure they had enough food and a safe shelter, they were then allowed to use that energy to start drawing on walls.
Or take the voice, for example: its primary creative use was very functional: to signal danger, the presence of food, or cry for help. But once we were freed from those concerns, we were allowed to redirect that creative energy and use it differently: we started singing. Now the fascinating part is that creativity then became extremely rewarding for other reasons: by sharing our creations with others, we were able to satisfy a lot of our social instincts, from which we do derive a lot of pleasure. And from the audience’s perspective, these creations manage to trigger the parts in the brain that are responsible for faculties such as empathy, for example. That’s why we are moved by a singer’s voice, by a mournful melody, or a sad painting expressing the inner state of the artists.
Especially in the digital age, the writing and production process tends towards the infinite. What marks the end of the process? How do you finish a work?
I think this comes with experience. Knowing when to stop can be very tricky in the beginning of one’s artistic journey because there’s always a tendency to overdo or to overedit.
But over the years you kind of intuitively learn it. I guess that there are two important things I try to keep in mind: 1- the song has to be something I personally enjoy performing and listening to, and 2- I have to make peace with the fact that it might not trigger the same emotions in other people, that some people might be left completely indifferent by it, or that I might even listen to it again in a few months or years and not like it anymore. And that’s fine by me. If I produce something that I think is meaningful in a particular space and time for me, I have the confidence it has a big potential of resonating with other people as well.
Once a piece is finished, how important is it for you to let it lie and evaluate it later on? How much improvement and refinement do you personally allow until you're satisfied with a piece? What does this process look like in practise?
Usually, if I finish something and I’m satisfied with it, I try not to sit on it for too long because, like I said earlier, I am aware that the piece as it is represents the person I was and what I wanted to express at that particular time, and it’s time to let it go.
If I sit on something for too long I’m always a bit worried to get caught in the vicious circle of editing forever and not finishing anything.
What's your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering for you personally? How involved do you get in this?
I am very involved in the production process because I have my own studio and record most of the instruments myself. I am by no means a producer who can deliver finished products, and at this stage I don’t even think I’m interested in that. What I do is take the songs as far as I can to make them sound as close as possible to how they would ideally sound in my head. After that, I am lucky to work with people – notably producer Etyen – who know me well, artistically and personally.
What Etyen does is basically re-process a lot of the instruments, magnify my sound and finalize the mix. The tracks are later sent to a third party (recently, Lopazz) for mastering, because I think it’s important for that final piece of the puzzle to be done by someone who has not been involved in the previous stages at all. A set of fresh ears is always a good thing.
After finishing a piece or album and releasing something into the world, there can be a sense of emptiness. Can you relate to this – and how do you return to the state of creativity after experiencing it?
Usually after something is released, I’m just excited about performing the songs live. Because I do enjoy studio work, creating and recording, but ultimately the real reward and pleasure for me is performing the songs with a live band. By doing that I get to revisit the songs and the album on a different level. That’s the full circle experience for me.
I don’t really worry about the state of creativity disappearing. I’m someone who experiences emotions very intensely, and though that has its downfalls, it can be extremely practical for creative purposes.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you personally feel as though writing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
A thousand percent. I find that there’s something inherently dysfunctional in artists. We’re people who would not survive in the wild because we are just not well adapted to life in general. My guess is that without the protection of the other members of their tribe, our ancestors who had artistic tendencies would not have survived.
It’s a double edged sword because I think of artistic creativity as a biological anomaly, a mistake, almost, but one that managed to accidentally open the door for an experience that is exclusively human. Why are we so moved by the voices of singers who resonate with us and touch us on a deep, indescribable level? It’s because their singing is nothing but a melodic cry, or a scream against the pain of existence. And that’s a kind of magic that you can’t possibly find in other type of mundane tasks that are sometimes called “art.” It’s just not the same at all.
Because ultimately, any good chef can teach you the secret to a great coffee or a delicious pesto sauce. And while someone can teach you musical skills like singing techniques or how to play the guitar, no one can teach you what you end up doing with those skills: because a piece of music that is capable of moving someone is a primitive, visceral mode of expression that cannot be replicated because it’s inherently unique to the person expressing it. That’s why art, and music more specifically lead to sublime experiences that cannot be found in any other type of activities.