To Be Himself Completely: A Conversation with Stevie Jackson

Stevie Jackson
(I Can't Get No) Stevie Jackson

Amidst a crowded field of good recent pop albums, this summer’s catchiest set of tunes comes courtesy of Belle & Sebastian guitarist Stevie Jackson. Solo debut LP (I Can’t Get No) Stevie Jackson, released in the U.S. in July, is the product of Jackson’s time between albums and tours with his regular band, whose eighth studio album Write About Love was christened by Jackson:

“I think we were finishing the record or towards the latter part of it, like mixing it or something. And I was in a pub with Stuart [Murdoch] and Sarah [Martin] and we were talking about titles. And I just cast my eye down and went, ‘Well, that one’s about love and that one’s about love, why don’t we just call it Belle and Sebastian Write About Love?’ And they both went, ‘Um, yeah’, which is really surprising because usually all the album titles are generated from Stuart. So I was actually quite surprised that he kind of went for it.”

In the years since Belle & Sebastian formed in 1996, Jackson’s valuable assists have resulted in some of the group’s most memorable moments. Songs he’s written for the band include The Boy with the Arab Strap‘s “Seymour Stein”, Dear Catastrophe Waitress’ “Roy Walker”, and quite possibly the best song of the group’s entire discography, non-album single “Jonathan David”.

Seven members strong, Belle & Sebastian is a band that increasingly allows for any member to take the spotlight from song to song. As Jackson describes, “It’s just nice. All ideas are open. It’s a kind of democracy where you’re involved as you want to be, if you know what I mean. It’s not like a committee. We don’t sit and vote on every issue. We’re still driven very much by our leader Stuart Murdoch. He still writes most of the songs. He is still the main creative hub, you know? But right from the start he didn’t want to be carrying it all himself. It kind of worked because we’re still here after God knows how many years, what 16 or whatever it is?”

Having endured and indeed strengthened throughout more than a decade and a half of music industry whims, Belle & Sebastian’s sound seems to be somehow foolproof, even as it has evolved in an ever “livelier” direction. Yet this is both a blessing and a curse for Jackson, whose solo debut is inextricably linked to his group’s well-established artistic identity. To hear him tell it, most critics have a hard time separating the man from the band.

When I comment on the variety of styles that add up to a very good collection on (I Can’t Get No) Stevie Jackson, he says, “It’s funny. You’re the first person to think it’s got variety. Cause I kind of thought that as well, but you’re the first person to think that. All the reviews of the record say ‘Belle and Sebastian-like indie pop’ — pretty much every single one of them. I’m kind of questioning myself, going ‘I didn’t really think it was like that.’ But there you go, what do I know?”

As for the similarities that do exist between the two: to cite the 1960s has long been critical shorthand for describing Belle & Sebastian’s brand of pop, and it’s a decade Jackson embraces in sometimes literal terms on his album. The year 1963 comes up more than once in the lyrics, something which he calls, “a total accident. I didn’t even notice. I think it was only when I was making the sleeve that I noticed I had managed to mention 1963 not once but twice.” There’s little use denying the influence of the period on most pop/rock songwriters of Jackson’s generation, with 1963 particularly significant for being “when the Beatles came out.”

Always precise about his musical history, he adds, “although it was ’64 for you guys. It was ’63 in the UK.” He’s also aware of how his own contemporaries have acknowledged the decade. “I always liked that Radiohead song, it’s on The Bends. There’s a line that goes, ‘I wish it was the 60s / I wish I could be happy.’ It’s a great song. It was just kind of pushing that a bit further, you know?”

The Beatles appear in the lyrics for “Richie Now”, a biographical sketch about Jackson’s friendship with a schoolmate. Recounting teenagers’ rock and roll education and aspirations of stardom, “Richie Now” is emblematic of Jackson’s writing on the album — its lyrics possessing general appeal despite their roots in his memory. He’s aware of the interplay between lyrics originating from his own experiences versus the more generic sort: “In any case, even if you start off from a less subjective point of view, you always end up in there anyway. You can’t help it. Even the songs I wrote as just kind of exercises, they always end up about personal experience anyway.”

Of “Richie Now”, he says, “I do really like that song because I think people can relate to it. At the same time, I’m being very specific about, you know like ‘I only have one Beatles record, he taught me about all the other ones.’ Hopefully everybody, if they were lucky, had a best friend at school or someone they remember in that kind of way. Hopefully they get that kind of feeling from it as well, just what I’m feeling.”

By virtue of the timespan over which the songs came together, (I Can’t Get No) Stevie Jackson is an effective summation of the past few years of the songwriter’s life and the people and artistic influences that occupied his free time. Though he’s careful to point out that years-in-the-making is a specious way of describing the album. “Well it wasn’t like Fleetwood Mac doing Tusk in the studio for months and years . . . it wasn’t like it was being slaved over. It was just being done in sections.

“Basically I had nothing to do for a period, which was between The Life Pursuit and the Write About Love record. There was a sort of hiatus. I’ve always just given myself to the band, if you know what I mean, and been busy with that. I got involved in lots of different areas round about 2007, 2008. Just working with lots of different people and stretching myself in different ways. I was working on art projects and working with other writers, just doing bits and pieces, trying to keep busy. I generated a few tunes. I thought it would be fun to record them. Not having a sort of huge burning sensation like, ‘this is the solo debut . . . this is what I’ve been waiting for all my life.’ It just kind of happened really.

“I wasn’t even thinking of an album. I thought it would be fun to get them down, to record them. I think it was last year, I happened to be in Canada visiting a friend. There was a studio there. I’d done three or four songs. A few of the songs were recorded about 2009, I think, or 2010 — I can’t remember . . . and then it just kind of got left because I was working with Belle & Sebastian again. We’d done another album and tour and all that. And that took another year and a half or whatever. I think it was last year I recorded some more in Canada. I went back and listened to what I’d done before and I thought, ‘Well that could be a record.’ It almost feels like a compilation of that period.”

As for how the people and places he encountered might have shaped his songwriting, Jackson says, “I like the notion of making stuff up, or letting your imagination go away with you. Take a song like “Just, Just So to the Point” — it started off as an exercise . . . to write some songs about movie directors. It was almost like a little art project. I wrote about five or six. I think a couple of them ended up on the record. That one was about John Houston.” Artist Nicola Atkinson, whom Jackson describes as “a collaborator friend of mine,” asked him to describe Houston’s directorial approach. He recalls, “I said he’s just, just so to the point . . . I kind of veered off from John Houston and to other people who I think are very to the point and some of them are people I’ve known.”

Atkinson’s influence on the songs appears to be significant. “She’s someone I work with quite a lot. She’s made me think in different kinds of ways. And she’s not a musician, but she’s an artist. I’ve gotten involved in some of her projects and installations and things, and I’ve gotten a few songs out of that. In fact, there’s one on the record called “Bird’s Eye View” that was written specifically about a project she was working on, or in fact we were working on because she involved me as well.”

To talk with Jackson about the inspiration for these songs is to recognize the importance he places on having fun with music and being careful not to take it, or himself, too seriously. He says, “I was involved in this thing called the Company which was just me and a couple of friends would get together every week and write songs just for a laugh. Most of the time, it was just like being a teenager or something, just purely for fun — no expectation. Just having a couple of drinks and having a laugh with it. I got a few off that, and a few working with Nicola and a few just sitting about.”

Another artist that Jackson cites as influential is David Bowie. “I never got a sense of him sitting with a guitar wanting to really express himself in a confessional way. He just kind of makes stuff up, he generates things or ideas and goes with that. I think there are a few things on the record that are like that. And there are a couple of songs that are . . . more like James Taylor where I’m expressing myself in a personal way. And there’s a couple that are just having a laugh.”

Although the intermittent recording sessions and diverse assortment of inspirations don’t lend themselves to a unified concept, the most recurrent theme of (I Can’t Get No) Stevie Jackson is romantic communication and all the complications therein. One of the cleverest takes on that theme is “Man of God”. Jackson describes the song thus: “The narrator’s trying to convince a girl that she should stop the path she’s on and she could go with the narrator, you know? He has such conviction, he feels like a Man of God. He feels almost spiritual, [singing] ‘Holy Moses I feel like a Man of God and I’m trying to reach you.’ And then talking about the guy she’s with at the time: ‘You hear his voice . . . an invitation for another bad choice. But to hear my voice, I’m the voice of reason. I’m the voice of truth. You should follow the voice of truth.’

“I wrote it with my friend Roy Moller. The song actually wrote itself in the sense that — I always hear of a lot of people doing it and I’m going ‘that sounds amazing’ but in this case it actually did — we’ve got a tape of it somewhere where we were just making it up as we were playing it, and it’s pretty much 90% of what’s on the record. We went back and polished it a little bit. It became trying to seduce her with Donny Hathaway and the Detroit Emeralds — soul, gospel fervor records. It kind of got more tongue and cheek as it went along, but it’s still heartfelt.”

In addition to divine command and soul records, more conventional means of communication are also explored. Jackson says of his songs’ references to telephones (“Telephone Song”) and e-mail messages (“Press Send”), “I guess in a sense it’s sort of a conscious update. I’m writing pop songs that . . . I suppose in the 40s, 50s, and 60s there were a million pop songs like, ‘I’m going to sit right down and write myself a letter’ or ‘got to get a message to you’ . . . ‘Long distance operator get me Memphis, Tennessee.’

“Communication’s always been a key thing. I suppose in those days it was about writing letters and things. So now it’s the Internet. I think it’s kind of an update. Of course in “Press Send” it’s a total comment on the technology. Maybe it’s the instantaneous thing of pressing send buttons. And it’s there and you can’t do anything about it anymore. I suppose in the old days, I know I would write a letter to someone and it would take me all afternoon. With communication now, everything’s so instant. It’s not necessarily a good or a bad thing. I think it’s a mixture. I think it’s good that people are talking a lot more, it seems. You can be on Facebook and be having five conversations at one time . . . so maybe that’s a negative thing [laughs]. I think essentially human nature is human nature, and people have the same concerns and the same hang-ups.”

These days, any discussion with a musician about the march of technology inevitably includes talk of transformations in recording and distribution in the digital age. Jackson assesses the effects of these issues on Belle & Sebastian. “I’m just kind of rolling with the punches, you know. You just got to take it as it comes. It affects me in that across the board, everyone’s selling a lot less records. There’s a lot less income. So we do well, but it’s a lot less money coming in, and there are a lot of us, so we’ve always just made a living at it, and we’ve done okay. At the moment we’re okay. It’s that simple. How do we survive? By survive I just mean, how do we continue to make a living off it?”

Like nearly everyone else affected by the changes to the industry, Jackson has more questions than answers. He’s also forthright about his own habits as a music listener. “I’ve got Spotify. I use it. I’d be a hypocrite to say that I didn’t. But at the same time, when there’s something I find that I like, I’ll go and buy the vinyl. It’s hard for me to even know where it is, because the industry doesn’t even know what it’s doing. I think it’s important for artists to get paid, but at the same time, if you’ve got a situation where it’s more and more people making records in their bedrooms, then why should they?”

The irony of the current crisis in the music industry is that many veteran acts (some of which were major influences on Jackson and Belle & Sebastian) have stayed popular or experienced career revival, decades past their perceived prime. So despite questions of how to survive, there are examples of longevity in the industry. Jackson welcomes the presence of acts such as The Beach Boys and The Rolling Stones. “I’m up for it. I think times have changed. It used to be really scorned upon, like old timers just doing nostalgia type stuff. But if it’s good, it’s good. I’ll always go see the Rolling Stones and they’re always good. Jagger’s still amazing live. He’s like 70! [laughs] I went to see Jagger a few years ago, and I’m watching him, going, ‘Who’s better than that?’ I think of anybody, Prince maybe in terms of dynamics of being a great performer. He was astonishing, so good. He was amazing.

“I hate this, ‘You have to pack it in when you’re 30.’ And I think that has changed because in this day and age it’s totally changed, even in my lifetime, or in the time I’ve been doing it, you know? Thirty used to be a bad word. But there are so many young, new bands coming out and they’re like 31. They’re seen in a totally different way. It’s kind of okay to be 30. I don’t know about 40, but the scene’s sort of changed in a way. People that are teenagers tend to be more boy-band type stuff. I think the audience has become more sophisticated and less bothered by the superficial aspects.”

Jackson’s own future will include more music with Belle & Sebastian, and he’s already preparing for his next solo outing, as well. “The funny thing is I’ve got a kind of taste for it now, so I’m going to do another one next year. I think that will feel more like an album as a piece, you know. Have the same musicians on it and things.” Until that more concentrated effort arrives, (I Can’t Get No) Stevie Jackson more than suffices as a great introduction to the artist via a strange brew of tunes fashioned from down time well spent.