Carwyn Ellis – songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, collaborator and producer – is, more than anything else, a music obsessive.
When I phone at the agreed time to interview him in Cardiff, he tells me that he’s “just relaxing at home with a pile of nice new records.” Of course, I need to know exactly what he’s bought and he obligingly reels off the details. His day’s haul includes soundtracks by Ennio Morricone, Francis Lai, Vangelis and Michel Legrand; a library album on the Bruton label; the new album from Swedish retro instrumentalists Death and Vanilla; and the Record Store Day release of Sly and the Family Stone live at the Fillmore East. Another of his choices, an obscure Peggy Lee LP of Leiber and Stoller songs, will later see me frantically scouring the internet for a copy of my own.
Carwyn’s tastes as a record buyer provide a good introduction to his own musical projects: atmospheric and instrumentally diverse, but steeped in a classic songwriting tradition. A graduate of the Royal Academy of Music, his band Colorama have released seven albums and their most recent, Dere Mewn!, gathers together the group’s Welsh language songs. Earlier this year, he released an album under the name Zarelli which combines an instrumental soundtrack with a mid-1970s recording of Leonard Nimoy reading Ray Bradbury’s short story ‘There Will Come Soft Rains’.
His credits as a musician include work with Oasis, The Pretenders, UNKLE and Shane MacGowan. He has enjoyed a long working relationship with Edwyn Collins, whom he appears alongside in The Possibilities Are Endless, the 2014 documentary which movingly charts Edwyn’s life after two cerebral haemorrhages in 2005. Carwyn and fellow Collins associate Seb Lewsley have also just co-produced Red Kite for Sarah Cracknell, the first solo LP from the Saint Etienne singer since 1997.
During an entertaining half-hour of conversation, we would chat about Carwyn’s enthusiasm for MiniDiscs, 8-track cartridges and UK pressings of Bobbie Gentry albums. But as a starting point, I asked Carwyn how his early career in pop had developed alongside a formal musical education.
Graham Tomlinson: What were your musical ambitions when you arrived at the Royal Academy of Music, and what were they when you left?
Carwyn Ellis: My prime reason for going there is that I was growing up in Anglesey and it was my only way of getting out without getting a job at 18. A lot of folks who grow up in the countryside want to get out and go to the city and see what it’s like, and I was no different. I’d been doing classical music and playing in bands at the same time and I knew I could do classical music, but I don’t think even then I had any notion of continuing that beyond getting a degree. I went to London so I could get into more interesting bands and have more interesting opportunities, I suppose.
Did you have a bit of a double life going on at the Academy – composition classes during the day and playing in bands at night?
Yes, exactly. Being a conservatoire, the onus is on instrumental technique and excellence. I was kinda lazy and didn’t like practising that much – I like picking up new instruments, so London was great for that as well. You’d meet other people and find secondhand shops or whatever, so it was a good place to pick up new instruments and learn those. That’s what I really like doing. So yeah, moonlighting in bands when I was supposed to be in college, not turning up for things, spending lots of time listening to records at home. . .it’s not a new habit that I’ve acquired (laughs).
Did studying at the Royal Academy have a big impact on your listening habits? Do you think you’re more broad-minded as a result?
I don’t want to sound conceited, but I always have been. I started off listening to music seriously – from the point of view of buying records and being properly interested – when I was about eight or nine. The Beatles were my first love. But it’s weird, I’ve rekindled this love for Vangelis in the last couple of years. The first cassettes I had – because that’s what I was given stuff on when I was a kid – were the Beatles’ 20 Greatest Hits, the Chariots of Fire soundtrack, the Thompson Twins and Culture Club. That was still the Smash Hits era. Even then I had this little world of my own with the Beatles and sixties music. I’d do what I could to go through my folks’ records, but also buy Smash Hits and know what was coming out at the time. There was nothing more exciting back then than listening to the Top 40 on the radio. Every Sunday was really exciting! So I’ve been really into lots of different types of music all the way through. I had a great secondhand record shop near to me in Anglesey – Cob Records in Bangor. If I had ten quid pocket money I’d go in there and go home with two or three records: blues stuff on Chess, or something on Blue Note, or a reggae album on Trojan, or some classical thing on Deutsche Grammophon, or any number of sixties hippy records. Everything across the board. I used to love spending rainy afternoons in Cob.
Some of your earliest collaborations, with Southern Fly and North Mississippi Allstars, are rockier than the first Colorama records. Is that where you were at musically, or was it simply because those were the opportunities that came your way?
In a nutshell – both things. Southern Fly was a little gang, a bunch of guys that had come together from various bands and become a band. That was the last time that I really did that, and that was for four or five years I think. We didn’t really get anywhere, but we had a really good time and we were good mates. We tried lots of different styles in there too. Even with Colorama, every so often I like to throw the toys out of the pram and make a raucous tune. I might like Noel Harrison’s folky records, but I also like Fu Manchu – it’s good to get my rocks off either way. And as far as the Allstars was concerned, I met them at some crazy jam session night in London, and we became friends. I just sat in with them, playing the kind of stuff that they were doing. We had a lot of shared loves, musically speaking, and they asked me to come out and play with them, which was a joy. We never had a rehearsal or anything. I just went out and walked on stages with them and played.
Which would be terrifying for a lot of musicians.
I guess it would be. The first gig I did with them was at either the Reading or Leeds festival, walking out in a tent with a few thousand people in there. There’s an organ, and a stool, and I don’t know what I’m going to be playing! But it was so exciting with players of that calibre.
Had it always been your intention to put out your own music?
No, quite the opposite. I was always a musician, a player. I didn’t sing, I didn’t really write songs. I could write music but at that point I firmly believed in bands and being in a band. Not being a specific instrumentalist as such – I could play guitar, or bass, or keyboards, or drums, but I wanted to be in a band, in a unit, with a gang. I thought that for quite a long time, but then I got to my late twenties and realised that luck hadn’t really smiled on me. So I just started writing some songs and being able to call the shots myself. I’d always been at the mercy of other folks, and you can get a bit bitter or you can start blaming other people for your own situation. The only intention I’ve ever had with music is to keep doing it. The only thing I’ve known is that I can’t do anything else – I won’t do anything else and I can’t do anything else (laughs). So to facilitate being able to do music, I had to adapt. I left London when I was 30 and went to Liverpool. A dear friend of mine up there, Dave, gave me a room in his place and said “Stay here, rent free, and get on with it – go and practise.” So when he was out working I’d just stay in, all day, and sing and make a horrible noise, until such a point that I felt comfortable enough to play and sing to other people and gauge what their reactions were.
If someone asks me what the music of Colorama is like, the word I always use to describe it is gentle. It’s not whimsical or twee – it’s different to that.
I like to do things sometimes that are tender, and I like dynamics on records. And I like – not wilful eclecticism, but I like variety on records. So if I’m talking about my favourite records – Paul’s Boutique, or Dark Side of the Moon, or Sgt Pepper’s or whatever – great, great albums – they’re not borne out by the similarity of all the tracks. But that seems to be the vogue. There seems to be a general lack of risk-taking and an unwillingness to explore, you know? There’s a reticence to try new things and to be good at them. Why not write a jazz song, and then write a heavy tune, if that’s what tickles your fancy? Why can’t you put them next to each other? Nowadays, people make two or three records and they’re gone, or they make ten records that sound pretty much the same and are very successful at it. Most journalists like to know what’s in front of them and how they can describe it and pigeonhole it. If you fall between the cracks with nearly every song on your record, you can’t be looking at the fiscal prize as such. It’s more about personal gratification for me. And if someone’s listening, that’s great.
When did you start working with Edwyn Collins?
It must have been around 2003, 2004. It came about through a mutual friend of ours, Andy Hackett, in London. He has a music shop called Angel Music. I was in the pub one night with Andy. He’d been playing with Edwyn, and at that point Edwyn was doing acoustic shows, just him and Andy. He’d gotten tired of having bands, after the whole ‘Girl Like You’ era and the album Gorgeous George, and he reverted to being in the studio. He’d won the right to build his own studio and do production work, and every so often he’d venture out and do acoustic shows. I think he’d got the urge to have a band again, so I just got asked do I want to play with Edwyn, to which I said, “Of course.” I only knew him for about a year and a half before he had his awful stroke.
Had you worked with him on the Home Again album before he had the stroke?
Yes, we were working on that when he got ill. I think he’d done half of it on his own before I was involved. He was really good, and a good mentor to me, but he gave me a lot of freedom on his work, which looking back is unusual, given that he’d already done half of it himself. But he just gave me free rein in the studio. He’d be there with me and just direct – he’d say, “I’d like that instrument now”, or “Can you make that a little bit more like this, or a little bit more like that. . .” It was good to learn from him and to play with him.
Was that the point when you started to think more seriously about production work, rather than just being in a band?
Yes, and he also gave me my first opportunity to properly record. I didn’t have a name for it yet – it became Colorama. He allowed me to record my song ‘Sound’, which was my first single. So I’m very grateful to him. He just gave me room to try my own things as well as working with him. And it was a shame he got so sick. Home Again is a hell of a record.
The circumstances of making the album are touched on in The Possibilities Are Endless – it must have been incredibly difficult for everyone involved, working on those songs with Edwyn in the studio again as he was recovering.
All the stuff on it was recorded before he got sick. The music was done and the vocals were done, but it hadn’t been mixed. It was mixed afterwards. It’s a very interesting thing emotionally, where you have songs that are about a certain subject matter and then there’ll be a cataclysmic event, unrelated to the work that’s happened, but it reflects totally on the work. The most moving and the most obvious track is ‘Home Again’ itself. Listening to that after Edwyn had come home again, after being in hospital – everyone was bawling. You could not believe it. How could somebody write that with such unintentional foresight? But life throws these things at you and often songs do that – they can have a totally different contextual depth due to something unrelated happening. But it’s never been anything other than fun working with Edwyn in the studio. Always.
What particular skills do you think you bring to the role of producer?
Musical (laughs). I’m not a technical person so I tend to stay away from the mixing desk and the computer. I like to collaborate with good engineers for a start. I’ve just done Sarah Cracknell’s new record with Seb Lewsley, who is also Edwyn’s engineer. I’ve known Seb the same amount of time as I’ve known Edwyn. He’s a dear friend and a hell of an engineer. And Sarah’s someone else who’s given me total carte blanche to do whatever I wanted musically. Obviously we discussed the parameters of what we wanted to do and who our influences would be and what we were into. With Saint Etienne it’s interesting because you see pictures of them and see them talking about stuff, but when you hear the music it sometimes doesn’t sound like what the image of them is. I tried to do something that was more in keeping with their record collections and what I have in common as a record collector with them and with Sarah in particular: Bobbie Gentry, Marianne Faithfull, Dusty Springfield – great singers from ’65-’75. They’re real devotees of pop music of all eras – that’s the great thing about Saint Etienne.
The Leonard Nimoy record you’ve sampled on the Zarelli LP looks as if it might be the result of striking charity shop gold. When did you first come across it?
If I’m honest with you, it was eBay. I had made a bunch of instrumental tunes, and they were quite disparate. I went to my friend Andy who runs the Seriés Aphōnos label and played him the stuff and said, “Would you be interested in this. . ?” And he said, “Yes, in whatever form you do it, of course I’d be interested. It might be good to give it a more thematic structure, somehow.” I thought about that and I came to the conclusion that maybe a spoken word thing would be interesting. So I scoured eBay in the spoken word section on records, as you do – I spent hours and hours looking and I just came across that one. And out of everything that I saw, I thought, “Ah – there’s a real voice. There’s a very, very interesting voice. And it’s going to be conceptually compelling because Ray Bradbury is such a fascinating writer.” So I bought it, took a punt – it didn’t cost much – and did that thing where I had two stereos next to each other and played one of my tunes and put the Nimoy record on to see what it sounded like. And I thought, “That’s really good. I’ll go with that.” And that inspired me to write other pieces as well and gave me a context. I had a lot of music, but then I was able to arrange it in a way that was satisfying and would marry with the subject matter. So that’s how it came about. I’m not a Trekkie. None of that at all (laughs).
Do you know if Leonard Nimoy was aware of it?
No, not as far as I know. Obviously he’d been poorly for a long time. I’d actually done the thing a couple of years ago, and it took a while to get the clearance. There were two levels of clearance we had to go through: we had to get the copyright cleared for Ray Bradbury’s story, and then for the recording that I’d sampled. I’m hoping that they ran it by him, because it would have been nice, but unfortunately we’ll never know now.
Are you planning to release more work under the name Zarelli?
Yes. I really enjoyed the experience. I like doing abstract music. That’s kind of my first love, if anything. That’s what I started doing when I was a kid before I even had music lessons, just arsing about on my Mum’s little Hammond organ. I loved making sounds. And as I was having lessons and getting more technique, what I preferred doing was mucking about and making stuff up. I don’t class myself naturally as a singer. I came to that and I do that, but nothing gives me more pleasure than just sitting at a piano or a guitar and making stuff up.
Colorama are appearing at a few festivals this summer – are you planning to go back in the studio with them?
Well, I’m going in the studio. I think I’m going to do a Carwyn Ellis record, so hopefully by the end of the year that’ll be out. I’ve got a bunch of – what was the word you used? – gentle songs. Up until this point I haven’t made an album entirely comprised of gentle songs, but I thought I might change that a little, but maybe not under the Colorama banner because the idea is that on all our records we try and do a sonic spectrum of things, whereas this one will be low-key, musically. But I’m really looking forward to that. So that’s the next thing. And there may well be a Colorama single in the summer too. I try to keep hurling things out into the void.
Colorama are appearing this summer at the Port Eliot, Green Man and Caught by the River Teifi festivals. Soft Rains by Zarelli is currently available from www.seriesaphonos.com. Red Kite by Sarah Cracknell is released by Cherry Red on Monday 15th June.
Photo credits: Maki Kita