As the afternoon sun reaches its warmest point, Tobias ben Jacob leans forward and gazes across the busy pedestrian plaza;
“I have these voices” he reflects, “I call them aesthetic personae and they say things like ‘you can’t write that! , or ‘that’s a cliché.’ Often they’re helpful arbiters of taste and they stop me from falling into various traps…but I decided with this album to put all that aside and just write down everything I wanted to write. As simple or as cliché-ridden as it might turn out, I decided not to try to ‘be’ anything or fulfil any of my existing aesthetic ideas. I thought if I want to write a song with just three chords, I’ll do it.”
At the point I meet with Tobias, it’s two weeks since the completion of recording of his first solo album. As we sit outside an Italian café in the Brick Lane area of London discussing the process, the people who were involved and his creative and commercial aspirations for the record, it becomes clear that the album is not just something that the Devon-based artist is intensely proud of; it’s a vignette hinting at his own life journey….
With a contemporary and exciting acoustic sound underpinning haunting vocals, Tobias ben Jacob has been offering great promise since releasing ‘The St Sidwells Session’ EP two years ago. More recently, combining his talents with those of bassist and vocalist Lukas Drinkwater has resulted in an outstanding live act and last year’s acclaimed ‘Burning Low’ EP.
The new album however, represents a shift from Tobias’ recorded work to date with the promise of a bigger band sound; “It’s a much broader sonic landscape” he explains, “which is what I’ve been hearing for years. Sometimes it’s a source of frustration. When you hear these sounds you really want to experiment and serve the song…give the song what you feel it deserves. I think we’ve achieved that. It’s two weeks since we finished and it’s a real sense of achievement. Everybody involved feels like we have something that’s quite special and I feel that too. It’s something that people ought to hear.”
‘Everybody’ in this case is a highly accomplished collective of musicians assembled to help the realisation of Tobias’ vision. He pulled in his old friend John Elliott, more commonly know as the frontman and leader of ‘The Little Unsaid’ handing over production responsibilities to John in the process. Alongside John, Tobias secured the guitar-playing services of Phillip Henry, another old friend, and ex-bandmate. Completing the line-up were Tim Heymerdinger on drums and percussion (“who proved himself to be brilliant” Tobias remarks) and finally Tobias’ partner in crime, Lukas Drinkwater on bass with further prestigious guests planned later to complete the arrangements including Hannah Martin, Emily Barker and Jess McAllister.
Creative talent assembled, they met up in Cornwall to begin rehearsals for the recording process. “The thing that really helped it to gel was that there was a lot of mutual respect amongst the musicians” Tobias explains, “maybe individually we all thought ‘I’ve really got to up my game now!’ We did some live recordings and some of the musicians were saying it was like the pressure of a gig thinking ‘If I balls up then everyone has lost the take!’ There was this real healthy tension, anticipation and creative engagement; everybody was so behind it…everybody believed in it.”
The recording process took place at the ‘Cube Recording’ studio in Cornwall. A combination of the impressive recording facilities and the collective prowess of the assembled musicians allowed life to be breathed into the songs Tobias’ had written for the album.
“It’s autobiographical” he confirms when I ask about the subject of the album’s narrative, “I surprised myself, I never thought I’d want to write about some of these retrospective themes. The central concept of this album traces my biography…how my identity was formed and how we’re shaped by our life, our choices, our social background. I explore a mixture of historical and personal reference trying to create a real sense of place and time.”
From the moment that Tobias settled on the core idea of the record, it created its own impetus; “Once I’d decided that I was going to write a song about growing up in the 80’s, or being a teenager in the early 90’s in Preston, I found it sort of compelled itself…I was writing more material than I needed. I’ve always found that if you have central concepts that are strong and creative enough, then the writing compels itself”
“There are songs about childhood” he continues, “then songs about adolescence and youthful bravado where the music has a more of a rock’n’roll urgency, songs about lost and unrequited love.. It’s also got really soft poignant acoustic finger-picking against a double-bass and Phillip’s Henry’s gorgeous lap-steel tones. There’s a huge range musically. It really goes from my childhood on a council estate in the North-West and comes up to the present day. It’s not that I’ve had a particularly more colourful life, but every life is interesting in its own way when you start to unravel it…”
Tobias’ song-writing allowed room for John and the rest of the team to layer in their own contributions. “There are some songs on there that have more c(h)ords than a Levi’s shop” Tobias laughs, “then there are others that have three chords and are almost like indie numbers. I had a sense of faith that it’s Ok if I keep my part simple, because I’m going to have these other musicians that are going to be painting textures on them. As a self-sufficient fingerstyle-player, you’re always doing accompaniment and melody; you’re trying to keep it interesting and entertaining. So it was quite a challenge just to make it simple again.”
“I was almost intimidated sharing the demo with the band” admits Tobias “because on the simpler stuff…I was worrying whether they’d think I’d forgotten how to play guitar or something! But it wasn’t like that; everyone could see the bigger picture and everybody added something. There was a real sense of everyone serving the song. It wasn’t about egos; everyone was like ‘Right, what can we do to make this as good as it can be?’ That was really inspiring…”
The enthusiasm that flowed from the other musicians involved with the project left Tobias with an important sense of validation regarding his own songwriting ability;
“I’ve got to a point in my life where I feel justified in calling myself an artist” he reflects, “and it’s only through many trials that I’ve got to this point. This is definitely not something I could have done even two years ago…I had to almost chisel myself out of the rock to get to the point where I could present this to the world. It’s confidence as a human being and confidence as a songwriter. I’ve learned to trust myself. This project is a like a convergence of a lot of themes in my life…it feels like now is the right time for it to happen. I think my music is quite intimately bound up with my life’s path. I’m not writing abstract songs…I’m trying, in a way, to distil my experience. It’s always quite intimately connected with my reality.”
Encouraged to press deeper in our conversation, I probe Tobias about what drives him as a musician;
“I feel like there’s an important place that artists have in society” he concludes after some consideration, “It’s enlivening and humanising, playing your part to make sure that something stays alive in human culture. You realise that there’s this really reductive and homogenising thing that’s happening that wants to make us all the same and that wants to make us all consumers. You feel like in your little small way you’re doing your bit to create some kind of bulwark against that. All that deadness and cold intellectual rationality that’s there…you’re talking about your feelings in a way that invites other people to feel in a way they don’t always feel in the mundanity of modern life. These are very big themes for me..along with love of course. I’m with Deleuze when he says ‘All art is an act of resistance’… I don’t want to sound lofty, but I do have a sense of vocation.”
Our conversation leaves me with a great sense of anticipation to hear the new album. I’m even more intrigued to learn that there’s potential for the band that made the album to convene for some live performances;
“We did live rehearsals in the studio and a lot of the build up to going into the studio was just us in a little room playing the material” Tobias explains, “so it won’t be a massive leap for us to translate that into a stage show because we’ve arranged the music and everybody knows what they’re doing.”
In terms of a release, the band’s sense of excitement about the record they’ve created has led to a heightened commercial ambition.
“I feel like people really must hear this album and there’s no way I’m going to be content just doing a smaller self-release. It will first go out exclusively to those who pledged or pre-ordered. Then we’re looking at various ways to release it. We’re going to be playing it to some record labels and stuff. I don’t want to get too carried away, but I would say that I’m quietly ambitious.”
As we wrap up I ask Tobias what the most positive aspect of the process has been so far;
“I think hearing those songs realised by such an incredible bunch of musicians, hearing everybody’s contribution and bringing them to life. I sort of knew this would happen but hearing it and seeing everybody else’s enthusiasm…there was a great feeling of validation and creative catharsis. One of the best things about it is just feeling like you’ve made something. There was a tremendous sense of achievement, even though we’ve not actually presented it to the world yet, it’s there, it’s metaphorically in my back pocket. It fills me with hope and a feeling of creative achievement in that I finally managed to get to this point…”
The video above features John Elliott (The Little Unsaid) on piano. A live rehearsal recording as part of the Indiegogo campaign during sessions for the new album ‘A Polyphonic Life’.
Fri Oct 14 – Brook Inn, Plymouth*
Wed Oct 19 – The Lamb, Surbiton**
Thu Oct 20 – Betsey Trotwood, London**
Sat Nov 12 – Coolham Village Hall, Billingshurst*
Sun Nov 13 – Wiltshire Music Centre, Bradford-on-Avon**
Sat Nov 19 – Hope Hall Arts, Exeter*
Fri Dec 09 – Kingskerswell Parish Church (St Mary’s), Newton Abbot***
Sat Dec 10 – No 14 Bacon Street, London****
* Tobias Ben Jacob
** Tobias Ben Jacob, Lukas Drinkwater
***Tobias Ben Jacob, Jess McAllister
****Tobias Ben Jacob, Phillip Henry