“If you’re not being political, you’re not being an artist.”
The above quote is paraphrased from something Nina Simone once said and though Rhys Lewis prefers to call himself a musician, it’s a statement he agrees with. At least to some degree, anyway. “And I think I’ve been scared to put that into my music,” he says. But that was then, this is now, and with this set of releases, he’s recorded his most notable and impactful body of work yet.
Like nearly every artist – see Bob Dylan through to the latest upstart on Spotify – Rhys started off writing love songs. Some of them are on his debut EP, 2018’s ‘Bad Timing’. There are others here, too. But behind everything is a deeper message. “A song shouldn’t be something that rhymes, it has to matter to me and has enough emotion or integrity or stimulus to affect someone else. That’s what I think art and music is – it’s about communicating,” says Rhys of his approach.
Before getting into all that though – diving into all the intricacies and nuances buried within Rhys work – some backstory. To keep it brief, he grew up in Oxfordshire, he played open mic nights, he moved to London, he’s been in a wedding band (“every weekend I’d be up and down the country in a Mini Micra with my brother and best mate, playing anything from Stevie Wonder to Ed Sheeran to Al Green.”
He’s grown up around eclectic, iconic taste too. On his mother’s side, the MoTown era. Stuff like the Temptations, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye. James Jamerson. The Jackson 5 as well. Then, from his dad, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, ACDC and The Doors. As a result, some two of his favourite artists are Bill Withers and Carole King. “I loved the directness of their lyrics – the way they say something to you as opposed to simply singing. They seem to sum up something in a sentence or a phrase that encompasses something huge. It’s really simple but really profound at the same time.”
And so – whether through inspiration, osmosis, talent or a combination of all three and more – Rhys lyrics can be similarly upfront yet meaningful, where a few words explain or get into the nuances of a whole world. To get into this space, to shed ego and to get directly to the point of things, Rhys worked for several months without any time constraint from a studio in south Bermondsey. “It was a weird nice time in my life, I felt free. Before that when you have a diary, every moment is filled. I could spend time doing what I wanted,” he explains, referring the mechanics of the music industry and how there’s freedom to be found in letting stuff just happen as and when.
Lead single “Hold On Your Happiness” is intimate but frank with its message. “Hold on your happiness, because life is a moment and one day it’s over,” he sings over delicate, stripped back guitar. “It’s a reminder to myself to be in the present. That’s all that matters. It’s the only thing that exists,” he says, touching on philosophical ideas you might have read in the work of Eckhart Tolle or simply thought yourself, after a moment of heartbreak or nostalgia. “Because if you feel something in the present that’s the most valuable thing.”
Across his work, Rhys touches on the multitude of anxieties that plague this generation – whether that’s millennials, Gen Y or Z. Take “Better Than Today,” a poignant and hopeful message which touches on a similar idea of being in the present – even if today might not be as good as tomorrow. “We’re living in a weird time where we’re all anxious. Everyone has their own thought and fears, but it’s probably the same thing unifying them,” he explains, “and even though that divides us it should unite us and bring us together.”
Then there are the love songs, all three of which are written upon a meaningful bedrock. “Lonely in Love” is about when you’re falling out of love; those tense moments when you fall asleep without saying goodnight, laying on opposite sides of the bed. Where you feel like strangers despite being so close. Next track “End Like This” follows up on that idea, about when that couple finally splits.
Closing track “Things You Can’t Change” is based on a post Rhys saw on famous photo-blog Humans Of New York, where a photographer documents and tells the life stories of average people on the street. There was this guy was on there talking about his divorce. He changed what he could: “his pants, picking his nose in public, but when you’re done changing the things you can, you’re left with the things you can’t – and that’s when you know it’s not going to work,” says Rhys of the post. “So I saw that, it was touching but I wanted to put a positive spin on it.” In the end the song is “a message of loving someone for the things they can’t change” – a pure a statement as any.
Ultimately, all five songs on this EP have a strong message, relating somewhat back to that quote about art and politics. Though Rhys Lewis might not be overtly singing about political parties and the like, he is singing about meaningful moments – the politics of how humans are brought together or thrown apart. It’s an important and essential thing, especially in today’s world of disposable pop music.
Essentially, he says, his music “is finding a big idea, then making a big comment and talking about it for three minutes.” It’s the stuff of longevity, written purely from the soul and with a strong heart.