Dusty Cut’s Phil Jones walks us through the songs that have made him the artist he is today.
My mum loved Motown, so I love Motown. I didn’t grow up in an especially musical house, but the few tapes and records we had were mostly best-ofs of Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations and the Four Tops. Most of all, ‘Baby Love’ by The Supremes brings back memories of dancing in the kitchen. In my own music, no matter how hard I try different narratives, I always come back to the bitter-sweet break up story that’s in so many Motown songs.
There was an upright piano at my grandparents’ house and this was my first experience of making music. I used to play around – completely unstructured and untutored – finding patterns, melodies and rhythms that pleased me and probably only me. The sound of upright piano is like a door straight back to there and then. ‘Avril 14th’ by Aphex Twin is one my favourite songs to use this instrument. When I first heard its simple repeated melody in the film Sleep Furiously I thought “oh, that’s nice,” but it lodged in my mind and I kept coming back to it. It took me straight back to those uncomplicated and playful times I spent entertaining myself at the piano while Grandma is cooking tea and Grandad is cleaning machine parts with an oily rag.
One Christmas, one of my uncles gave the extended family a series of mixtapes. We listened to these every car journey, and ‘Constant Craving’ by K.D. Lang was one of my mum’s favourites that has stuck with me since. I feel like my mum is a very creative person who hasn’t had the chance to explore that in her life. It was her that sent me to all the music lessons – sometimes against my will – but now I’m grateful that she pushed me in that direction.
When I started to discover music for myself one of the first great revelations was late nights listening to John Peel. An early find from that show was Coldplay. Songs like ‘Don’t Panic’ were so different from what my family listened to and immediately I caught the bug and wanted to start collecting. I owe so much to radio DJs who have introduced me to countless acts and in more recent times have started playing songs I have written.
I couldn’t afford enough CDs to feed my insatiable listening habits, but then came the early days of downloading music, when an album could take a whole day, one track at a time on painfully slow dial-up. With this, boundaries of what I listened to started melting away. Songs like ‘B.O.B.’ by OutKast landed on my computer very alien and very exciting. I went to school in the Midlands where someone said about me “he’s a rocker”. I was flattered, these were cooler kids than me, but I didn’t feel like a rocker. There was something in the back of my mind saying “yeah, I listen to rock, but I don’t want to be defined like that”. Even then I knew I was someone who liked music, not just a certain type of music.
Then I arrived in Wales at Ysgol Dewi Sant where just about everyone in my year played guitar and music was a big part of life. My friend Dylan John leant me some Jeff Buckley and I was swept away by ‘Last Goodbye’ which became the blueprint of what I thought music by a singer-songwriter should be. I can see why people think his music is overblown, but the earnestest with which Buckley infuses it all carries it for me. Unfortunately I’ll never be able to sing like Buckley, but I try to write with the same sincerity and openness that I loved in his songs as a sixteen year old.
I started writing music soon after and once I had enough finished songs I wanted to get them to an audience. But going on stage was terrifying. I could just about conquer my stage nerves to be a guitarist, but the struggles of finding a reliable singer in my early bands forced me into stepping up to the microphone myself. I took lessons to improve my singing, something I would recommend to anybody lacking confidence. One song that helped me when I was dragging myself, terrified and shaking, on to open mic stages in Bristol is ‘The Gardener’ by The Tallest Man On Earth: my first cover as Dusty Cut. Even with a performance style starting to emerge, I often hated being on stage. So where does my desire to get back up in front of audiences come from? Certainly not my immediate family: that same uncle who gave us the mixtapes is an extrovert, which is something I always admired from my shy corner, but other than that we are a quiet bunch. I can only think it’s something to do with that constant craving K.D. Lang sings about (to be heard? to be recognised?).
While I was taking my first steps as Dusty Cut on the Bristol open mic circuit I was working some afternoons as an intern for a record label collective. One of those afternoons I got to listen to an advance copy of a record by one of my heroes, Sufjan Stevens.‘I Walked’ quickly became one of my favourites by him and I listened to it over and over knowing I was one of only a handful of people to have heard it at that point. It was one of the most exciting times of my life having found a group of friends through playing music, some of whom joined the band and it felt like we could do anything we wanted. I’m proud of what everyone has done since then – two of them got married this summer, one has become a leading music critic, those who were making music are still making music, still listening and reading voraciously. But last month I heard that one of the group passed away. It was a shock that I’m still processing. We are still young and have a lot ahead of us, but we are not immortal and we’re not going to get through life unscathed.
Still in Bristol, I got a job that was a 45 minute bus ride away. A chance to read a lot of novels and listen to a lot of music. On these bus journeys I discovered Talk Talk, best known for the eighties hit ‘It’s My Life’, who went on to make music that enigmatically sits between popular music, classical music and jazz. A lot of the lyrics are pretty much indiscernible and the singer Mark Hollis has said he selects words for their emotive qualities only, not for any particular sense or meaning. In ‘I Believe In You’, for example, atmosphere and emotion are everything. As a listener, I don’t concentrate on lyrics until maybe the third or fourth listen to a song. This might seem like negligent listening but I think reading is the closest you can get to someone’s thoughts, while music can take you to someone’s wordless, abstract emotions. Talk Talk dive into this aesthetic, capturing the devastating and passionate struggle of being alive in a way that I think only music could.
Having said that, the form of song is a flexible thing, and lately music has shaped what I believe about some of the most pressing issues of our time. Growing up in the nineties in largely white communities I feel that the general consensus was that issues around race were largely sorted. Now in 2018 it seems nothing could be further from the truth. After a bit more reading around the subject I can now see Hip Hop’s importance in communicating how far we have to go before we have a fair society. One of the most important voices is Kendrick Lamar: the jazz-infused ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ album is a modern masterpiece, with ‘King Kunta’ the stand-out single. Peppered with references to slavery, to the highest and lowest in society and his own position in culture; it’s an exhilarating mix of social commentary and thrillingly inventive but catchy music. Lamar is, as those closest to me are sick of hearing, the genius of our time.
It’s been a pleasure to make music and perform in Cardiff, where I’m based now. It’s a supportive music scene and that’s all down to the people that work in it. I won’t name names because there’s too many to include but I’m grateful to people who have booked me for gigs, helped record, designed artwork, danced into the wee hours, even let me sleep on their sofas. I’m still humbled that people are willing to pick up an instrument and play songs I have written. I could have picked from any number of the very talented musicians in Cardiff, but the last song I want you to listen to is ‘Health’ by Teddy Hunter, who supported us on two of the legs of our first tour. She runs a regular night called Electric Soup, a label called Sweet Pea Records for all women artists and musicians and makes some of the finest music to be heard in the city. It’s people like Teddy who keep me optimistic and looking forward to being busy in the Welsh music scene for years to come.
Dusty Cut’s new single is out now.