ABOVE: SAINT SAVIOUR IN LONDON, OCTOBER 2014. PHOTOS BY VITA HEWISON.
Listening to Saint Saviour’s sophomore album alongside her debut, the shift is palpable. On 2011’s Union, pumped-up percussion and layers of synthetic oomph acted as the sturdy pedestals for Becky Jones’ breathy, ethereal vocals. Following a stint in Groove Armada, Union was a logical next step for the singer—an album that built off the electronic world Jones’ voice had so easily fit into before.
Now, three years and a whole lot of soul-searching later, Jones returns with In the Seams, a record that sounds almost austere by comparison. Here, rich piano pieces and delicate string arrangements create a soft bed for Jones’ wraithlike deliveries. There’s an otherworldly quality to the songs, but they’re anchored by lyrics that are both highly personal and tenderly empowering. Helped along by producer/arranger Bill Ryder-Jones (The Coral) and the Manchester Camerata Orchestra, In the Seams finds Jones laying herself bare for the first time ever and finding her voice in the process, resulting in a record that’s as much about personal transformation as it is about fostering connection.
ALY COMINGORE: I want to start off by backtracking a bit, I wanted to ask you about touring your last record. What worked and what didn’t?
BECKY JONES: Actually, touring Union was the most positive part of the whole cycle for that album. I felt a little bit like I lost control of it in the studio. When I started to tour I could rearrange the songs a little bit and get a greater feeling of coherence across the set.
COMINGORE: What exactly did you feel like you lost control of?
JONES: I feel like what happened was I had every hat on—I wrote the songs, I arranged them, I produced them electronically, and then I mixed it with an engineer. I think I was just given too much control, ironically. Artists often complain that they don’t have enough control, but I think at that point in my career I needed to just be the songwriter. I kept on polishing it and polishing it and polishing it, and after a while you go deaf to it and you start adding things that don’t need to be there. Essentially I kind of overdressed everything. Also, if I could go back I would rethink the way I was singing. It’s actually a bit hard for me to listen to it now.
COMINGORE: I know that you’re constantly writing. Do you feel like there was a specific time when the new album started to come together?
JONES: I had a really low ebb after the last album. Union came straight off the tail end of Groove Armada, which was a real roller coaster. I realize now that it’s really important to build time into your schedule to take things in, whether it’s taking in a muse or inspiration. I didn’t ever do that; I just wrote and wrote without any thought to it, without any kind of organization. After the album finished I took a lot of time—I finally gave myself a break—and let myself gestate for while with new ideas and reset myself. That took about six months. Then I went to the countryside, to a house in Wales, and I started to write. I think that space and time allowed me realign myself and come at the next album at with much more clear artistic vision.
COMINGORE: Who or what was the muse you were chasing this time out?
JONES: Starting out, I wanted to try and regress into my teen years and my childhood, which I’ve never really done. In fact, all of the songs on Union were based on characters and stories and things I’d read in the news. With In the Seams I wanted to tell stories about me, so I spent a lot of my time giving respect to that. I didn’t want to put something out that was so personal unless I’d given it proper time.
COMINGORE: Was it hard to transition into writing about yourself?
JONES: It happened really quickly, actually. The first song I wrote for the album is a song called “James,” and in a way it’s quite an adventurous tune because it was still a little bit of a fairytale—it’s about a personal experience, but it still had a madness about it. I remember sitting in this little writing room in the house and it was snowing, and I remember just feeling like I didn’t know what I was doing and I didn’t know how to start. I was looking out the window at the snow and daydreaming for ages and not really thinking about anything in particular, and then a memory came back to me about this boy at school called James. It suddenly hit me that whenever I see snow I always have that memory because of a really significant thing that happened to me at school. Once I’d written that I said to myself, “You know what Becky, you’re an idiot. I can’t believe you’ve never written a song about things you’ve been through yourself.”
COMINGORE: Is there a track on In the Seams that you feel like resonates the most?
JONES: I never thought it was possible to listen back to an album of yours and be genuinely proud of it, but I actually enjoy it like you would enjoy an album. Sometimes I listen to it on the way to work. I feel weird saying that. It’s a perverse idea for me to like my own music. But I think “I Remember” is a particularly special one, just because I reckon it represents the spirit of the album really well. It’s a song about me in my teen years in my hometown, but it also represents Bill’s contribution in that it’s got a beautiful string arrangement and my singing voice is really intimate on that track.
COMINGORE: How did you and Bill originally link up?
JONES: I was actually at a gig one night. It was at this real trendy place in London called The Shacklewell Arms, and Bill’s manager was there, who is an old acquaintance of mine. I told her the kind of music I was making—I said I was going back to writing piano songs and I wanted it to be really intimate and I wanted beautiful string arrangements and the only thing I’m looking for is someone to help me create that. I basically wanted a really sympathetic producer, almost like an artist producer, and she was like, “Bill Ryder-Jones! It’s perfect.”
COMINGORE: Did you reach out to him?
JONES: Truthfully, I was really down on my confidence and ready to just give up music, so I didn’t follow up with it or anything. Then maybe a week later I thought that maybe I should just send a track over, so I sent him my horn demo of “James” and he replied straightaway and said he loved it. We started talking and he recommended a studio back in Wales, so at Christmas of last year we moved into this studio that used to be a barn. It was storming and the electricity kept going out in the village, so we were stuck in this pitch-black studio.
COMINGORE: So the writing and the recording were both in the dead of winter?
JONES: Yes. The studio was quite spooky and it was really windy. In a funny way I think the mood of that carried into the album. I think the album is quite wintery. I don’t know if that’s a really daft thing to say, but there’s something about the album that sounds like the studio we were in—it’s really craggy and old and falling apart. It felt haunted and ghostly. When I went to Wales to write the year before it was winter and I was sitting in this cottage on the grounds of a castle, looking out at the snow every day with my back to the radio, just trying to keep warm. I think the record’s got a real feeling of wintery nostalgia—Christmas-y fireside type stuff. Lots of red wine was drunk. [laughs] That might have fit its way in.
COMINGORE: Why did you end up titling it In the Seams?
JONES: I wanted to make a reference to the idea that in nature often the goodness of things is underneath layers and layers and layers. In the ground, the coal and the diamond and the gold we mine out of it is under layers and layers of stuff, and that’s where the goodness is. That’s what I felt like I was doing with my songs—I was just mining them out from under the layers of production and arrangement and unnecessary sounds and rescuing them again, pulling them out of the seams.
COMINGORE: Looking back, what’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
JONES: I think it’s a piece of advice that Joni Mitchell also got. I remember reading in an interview where she was talking about when she was young she thought she was pretty hot at writing and literature and poetry, and a teacher told her that she was being too flowery and too self-conscious and she should just write what she knew. Because of that teacher she took it on board and started writing about her own experiences and stuff like that. I kind of stole that piece of advice from her. When you write what you know, no matter how simple it is, it comes out with such clarity and honesty and other human beings feel it and they accept it and it resonates. I think it’s just generally being true to yourself.
SAINT SAVIOUR’S IN THE SEAMS IS OUT NOW ON SURFACE AREA. FOR MORE ON THE ARTIST, VISIT HER WEBSITE.