International Songwriters Association (ISA) Songs And Songwriting ē Jona Lewie Interview

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Jona Lewie Interview



Introduction by Jim Liddane
Born John Lewis in 1947 in Southampton, England, Jona Lewie has had a lengthy and varied career, from performing gigs in the late sixties with Hawkwind guitarist/vocalist Dave Brock to supporting Eric Clapton with his band Brett Marvin & The Thunderbolts. This was the same band by the way which in 1972, changed its name to Terry Dactyl & The Dinosaurs and hit No 2 in the charts with a Lewie penned number, "Seaside Shuffle"!

Jona however began his music career much earlier, at the age of fourteen, with a school outfit The Corsairs (who once got to back Gene Vincent no less!) before he moved on to the Johnston City Jazz Band in 1963. He quickly emerged as an accomplished session musician, playing keyboards for various artists including Kirsty MacColl. Then in 1978, he achieved his own commercial success with the hit single "You'll Always Find Me in the Kitchen at Parties," which reached the Top 20 in the UK Singles Chart. The song's quirky lyrics and catchy melody earned it contemporary popularity and, more important, enduring radio appeal as well.

Despite not achieving widespread commercial success on par with some of his contemporaries, Lewie's music always had lasting cultural impact. His anti-war song "Stop the Cavalry", which brought him a Gold Disk (not to mention a reputed £120,000 in annual royalties since!), was not written as a Christmas song but became indelibly associated with the Christmas season and still receives heavy airplay during the run-up to December 25th. Yet at the same time, the song also managed to showcase Lewie's uncanny ability to create music that resonated with audiences on a deeper level.

However, it is his unique style and many contributions to the new wave genre which have earned him a deserved place in the history of popular music.

Jim Birmingham interviewed Jona Lewie for the International Songwriters Association.

How old were you when you realised how important music was to you?
I was very young. I remember I was watching a cowboy film on TV and my dad came in to the room and put a record on by Fats Domino. I couldnít concentrate on the TV anymore - I was so taken with the music. That was a prime defining moment for me. I also remember hearing "Hound Dog" by Elvis and it was so powerful - it had that "gut" which British music didnít have it at that time but which developed later with the Beatles and the Stones. At the time, that type of drive was precious and rare.

You were a session musician on a few sessions. What sort of material did you work on?
One of the few was an album by Big Boy Crudup. I was basically his session pianist for the whole album with Hughie Flint on drums and Tom McGuinness on guitar. Tony McPhee helped to produce that album, and that was an important experience for me - it linked up to the kind of thing I was in to, as Big Boy had written a couple of songs for Elvis "My Baby Left Me" and "Thatís All Right Mama".

When did you start writing for yourself?
It sort of came out of playing the piano - playing like a jazz musician might play and then I started to capture things I had written and put lyrics to them later. There was a piano in the house always as my grandmother was a classical pianist. I just enjoyed playing and then sometimes I would come up with things that I would work on and keep as a final piece.

"Seaside Shuffle" was a big hit for you when you were Terry Dactyl & The Dinosaurs. Some people unkindly said it was almost a parody of "In The Summertime". Was that deliberate?
It wasnít deliberate. The irony of that was that we as Brett Marvin & The Thunderbolts, would do a regular Sunday gig in London and Mungo Jerry would come down and see us! They didnít copy us and we didnít copy them. Both songs are twelve bar blues anyway - it was just that we both dipped into the same genre for the sound we came up with.

Because there is so much humour in your music - do you think people donít take you seriously?
Iím not really aware of what the response to my stuff might be to be honest. Iím pleased to have any kind of response.

What song are you particularly proud of?
Of course Iím proud of "Stop The Cavalry" as itís done so well for me but Iím proud of different things for different reasons. A good example of just making it up as I went along is a song called "Iíll Get By In Pittsburgh". I happened to have the cassette recorder running but as I sang it - that was it! It took three minutes to write and that was the final song! Sometimes you write and re-write. "Stop The Cavalry" took three months to write.

"Stop The Cavalry" was one of those tracks, where every thing just works. The arrangement, the tune, the vocal sound, all all just right, When you were working on it, did you think "this is something special" or was it just another song?
I think it was the latter. But to qualify that, as a songwriter and musician, whatever you are doing at the time - thatís whatís important and you are totally involved in that creative process. So from that point of view, it was just another recording. Itís a funny thing really if you think about success and non-success. There are so many factors - timing, good promotion, distribution. There are a lot of factors, all of which must come together, but the final arbiters are the public when it comes to parting with their cash.

How do you present a demo?
At different times I would do demos in different ways. If I already had a deal, I would do the demo just to show how the songs went. Then another time, I would be doing the demo in order to try and get the deal so I would be showing off how much I could do. I could do demos now for myself just to show how things are shaping out on a track but as I have a studio where I can do masters, my demo just becomes my master. Funnily when I had just an eight track, I remember that parts of the demo of "Stop The Cavalry" were so right, we just took them in and copied them over to use on the master. So the distinction between demo and master can be a very fine line.

Have you had many covers by other artists?
Mathews Southern Comfort covered "The Baby Sheís On The Street" and Ida Cox who was like a blues/cajun female diva covered a song Iíd had a minor hit with called "On The Saturday Night" and there were a few covers of the hits. Brass bands and symphony orchestras have done "Stop The Cavalry" so Iíve had covers, but Iím not really the kind of writer people cover a lot.

Finally, what are you up to currently?
I am working on the proverbial album and Iím hoping to score a release date on that pretty soon. The important thing is to enjoy the creative process.

Copyright Songwriter Magazine, International Songwriters Association & Jim Birmingham: All Rights Reserved

Postscript

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