Interview: Cosmo Jarvis
Unconventional is a term that seems to fit Cosmo Jarvis like a glove. When applied to his highly original music the word certainly seems apt – but it’s also a good way of describing his outspoken responses to certain questions too.
For a 22-year-old songwriter tipped by many to break through to mainstream prominence, some of his remarks are unusually forthright, even cavalier.
When asked how he sees the current musical landscape in Britain, he’s startlingly blunt.
“Shit. Except Crazy Arm, Mad Dog Mcrea, Bellow Head and stuff. In my opinion. I hate all that indie shit.”
He’s not pulling any punches when talking of Radio 1’s decision to blacklist his terrific single Gay Pirates, either.
“I don’t understand Radio 1, and I never will. They said that they wouldn’t play it because of me saying ‘gang rape’ in the song, but it’s OK for Rihanna to openly describe sexual penetration. Hell knows. I suppose I was disappointed.”
The Devon singer even gets in a couple of crafty digs about this elsewhere, noting that Brian Eno’s recent praise – in which he enthusiastically described Jarvis as ‘a new kind of artist’ – instills “the kind of positive creative validation that mainstream radio can’t offer”. He also jokes that a future compilation album or online library of his many unused compositions is likely to include “instrumentals, drum and bass, and songs about Radio 1”.
But you really don’t get the impression that Jarvis is setting out to be provocative just for the sake of it. Instead, he simply seems dryly humorous and unwaveringly honest and direct – unafraid to call things as he sees them. Combined with his distinctly original take on songwriting and dogged refusal to be pigeon-holed, he cuts quite a refreshing figure in a music industry that has become increasingly bland and sanitised.
It helps that he’s armed with an impressive array of songs. His forthcoming second album, Is The World Strange, Or Am I Strange? (“it was going to be called ‘the kind of shit you don’t want to be in’ but my managers didn’t share my enthusiasm for that title”), showcases the same kind of genre-splicing craft that Jarvis turned heads with on his critically-acclaimed yet commercially neglected debut.
He musters off-beat folk ballads, alt-punk and hip-hop grooves – sometimes all in the same song – resulting in a heady mix that manages to be both instantly enjoyable and strikingly original at the same time.
“I would describe the album as a collection of recordings from the last four years or so, arranged in a manner that creates an illusion of cohesion,” says Jarvis. “The influences are folk, punk, hip-hop, reggae, acoustic and what the English have now claimed as being ‘indie’ origins.
“I just want to make wholesome work and try and achieve a comfortable mix between subject and music presentation.”
There’s also a great deal of variety in tone and emotion, with the album taking in compositions that are variously angry, contemplative, darkly-funny and even child-like in their sense of bemused wonder. Imagine Syd Barrett doing hip-hop and you’ve got a good idea of what the title track sounds like.
And then there’s Gay Pirates. From its title alone it sounds like a cheap throwaway joke, but the song – a substantial online hit despite Radio 1’s refusal to play it – blends infectious, jaunty upbeat folk with a genuinely visceral, tragic and bitter story of two lovers tormented and murdered due to hateful, vicious bigotry. It’s received praise from Stephen Fry among others, and is just another example of how out-of-the-ordinary Jarvis really is: it’s hard to imagine any other young songwriter on the fringe of breaking through into the big-time composing such a track – never mind putting it out as a lead single.
“The idea of a musical work being responsible for young men who normally, inadvertently or by choice, adopt levels of homophobia or stereotypes that belittle the gay community, dancing around passionately to a strong beat, the energy of the story and intention overpowering their preconceptions, was a concept that intrigued me,” he explains.
“I’m extremely satisfied with the reaction it’s received, and I’m glad the gay community recognized my efforts to avoid the gay subject matter being exploited as a gimmick.”
Born in New Jersey in the US to an Armenian-American mother and British father, Jarvis moved to Devon at a young age, where he found his interest piqued by both the wonders of cinema, and music as varied as John Lennon and Frank Zappa. He began writing songs at the age of 12, and as a teenager combined his interest in music with experimentation in short films.
Even now, while his music career is in full swing, Jarvis has continued these film-related endeavours, producing a great deal of shorts, and he’s recently been hard at work writing, directing, scoring and acting in his first feature film, provisionally entitled ‘Naughty Room’.
“It’s about parenting and how your friends can raise you better than your parents can,” he explains. “It’s the story of a young man called Subaru who lives alone with his mother, and is way too into smoking pot because his dad died when he was a kid, and he thinks that life is not worth putting any effort into.
“I play a guy called Todd who’s been locked in a bathroom because his mother blames him for inadvertently causing the death of his father when he was four. Rescuing Todd ends up being Subaru’s salvation emotionally – they kind of help each other though some fucked up circumstances. It’s a black comedy type thing.”
Jarvis has an eclectic taste in cinema himself, citing a wide range of favourites and influences.
“My ultimate goal in life is to act in a Coen brothers’ movie. I like the sparseness of anti-plot films, and I really like movies like Wings Of Desire, but I also like cheesy Hollywood stuff too. I’m a big fan of Lars Von Trier, JJ Abrams and Spike Jonze as well.
“My own film is nothing like how I wrote it in the script. Not enough money for that kind of creative translation. It’s been a year since we started shooting it and what a fucking nightmare it’s been. I’m still cutting it and trying to find somewhere cheap to get it graded. Seriously, it’s a miracle it even got finished.”
Before we get the chance to see his directorial handiwork, there’s the new album of course – and Jarvis is also hitting the length and breadth of the UK with a tour that gets underway next week.
“I am diabetic, so life on tour can be trying,” he muses. “But I like meeting new people and talking with them.
“The most memorable gig for me so far was when I played a pub shed in Dagenham. This amazing family had an actual pub in their garden. Loads of people came and it was a really good atmosphere. Their hospitality toward the band and I was totally unexpected and hugely appreciated.
“I guess, with gigs generally, if everyone is enjoying it and feeling it then it’ll be good. The bad ones are when you just know it’s going straight over the heads of people in the audience. Then you want to kill yourself.”
Is The World Strange, Or Am I Strange? is out on September 26th. Cosmo Jarvis tours the UK from September 14th to October 2nd. For more information, visit http://www.cosmojarvis.com/shows