Huw Stephens

Multitalented Welsh DJ, broadcaster, and now author, Huw Stephens, is one of the most diligent tastemakers in the UK.

The spirited journalist may have started his career at the BBC in 1999 as a wide-eyed, passionate teenager. Yet his musical knowledge and dedication to his craft, have only enhanced tenfold over the last 25 years. From his time on BBC Radio 1 and ensuing move to BBC Radio 6’s drive-time, Huw is always championing every level of music, whether it’s an emerging or niche artist or one at the very top of the industry. But admirably the Welshman has never forgotten his roots, and he’s made sure that Welsh talent, no matter the genre, is heard on a nationwide level.

There are plenty of examples of this in action. Alongside his spots on BBC Wales or some of the documentaries he has presented about music and art in his beloved and picturesque country, the creative also co-founded Sŵn music festival in 2007. It’s a music festival that celebrates an eclectic range of Welsh musical acts, and the event is now run by the iconic Cardiff venue, Clwb Ifor Bach. And that’s why he’s diligent, the broadcaster doesn’t do anything in half measures and uses his platform in many different ways to bring Welsh artists to the masses.

Now, Huw has taken his almost encyclopedic-like music knowledge and has pivoted into the book world, with his debut release, Wales: 100 Records which is being published by Y Lolfa on May 25. It’s an informative deep-dive into some of the biggest and some of the most niche Welsh bands and artists that have impacted the country’s musical landscape over the years. Full of short essays and imagery, Stephens examines successes like Tom Jones, Bonnie Tyler, and Shirley Bassey to Manic Street Preachers, Sterephonics, Duffy, Super Furry Anmals and many other eclectic, important acts. Some you may be familiar with and some you may not, either way, the author has penned a book that’s a treasure trove of Welsh music.

1883 Magazine’s Cameron Poole sits down with Huw Stephens to discuss his debut book Wales: 100 Records, his radio career, and what makes Glastonbury Festival so special.

Hi Huw, thanks for chatting with 1883 Magazine, why was now the right time to write and put out your debut book this month?

Well, Cameron, what happened was, I’ve been obsessed with music and music from Wales since I was about 15. I did a series for BBC Television called Wales Music Nation about two years ago now and during that, I thought, right, I’ve got to do this book now, as I collect Welsh records and music from Wales. I was fed up with nobody doing this book. I was frustrated that this book didn’t exist, so I did it myself. I think some books are there and the books that you want on your shelf essentially, I’ve always wanted this book on my shelf.

I’d prefer if somebody else had written it because it’s always interesting to find out what other people would have chosen when it comes to the 100 records. Even though it sounds like a lot, when you talk about records from anywhere, it’s not a lot really,  it could have been 1000 records from Wales, truth be told. But it’s 100 and what was important for me was not overthinking it, and not kind of dissecting it too much and not over worrying about which records went in. I chose records that were interesting, that had something to say about Wales, that represented an era or part of Wales and that’s why the records I’ve chosen the ones in the book.

You’ve always championed Welsh music, art, and culture throughout your radio career so far, through BBC documentaries like The Story of Welsh Art and you founded Sŵn back in 2007. How has creating Wales: 100 Records brought you even closer to your home country, if at all? 

Yes, because I think music can make you feel connected to a place. So if I go to a new city or town, I think about who’s from there musically. And the minute you hear that The Specials are from Coventry, or that The Proclaimers are from Edinburgh, or that Joe Strummer worked as a grave digger in Newport for example, then, I think you can understand a place better through its music. I think US rap music is great at that, various rap artists from different parts of the states tell you a little bit more about that part of the world. So I find music really educational, and it’s the same with the records from Wales. 

There’s no such thing as a Welsh sound. In the same way there’s no such thing as an English sound or a Scottish sound. There’s a lot of nuances and every every record in this book, I think, it tells something different about Wales. Every corner, every part of Wales has a different story to tell through its language, through what was happening at the time. A lot of the artists in the book like Tom Jones and Badfinger went to London to find fame. But also a lot of artists in the book came from outside of Wales to make the albums that I’ve picked like Public Service Broadcasting talking about the making an album about coal mining in Wales.

Or Daedelus making an album about Snowdonia, they’re based in Los Angeles usually. So,  learned a lot and that’s why I wrote the book, to be honest, is because of your question like because it makes you feel that connection to a place and you know the world is so noisy and everything is so homogenised now, you could spend your life not caring where anybody’s from, and that’s fine because music knows no borders. But when you go ‘I want to know what’s happening in my patch’, my town, my part of London or wherever you live, then it can be really interesting, I think. That’s the point of the book really is to shine a spotlight on these records. Some of the records in the book include Stereophonics’ Word Gets Around, Duffy’s Rockferry, but some are not as well known but are very interesting, I hope.

As you say in the introduction, there were many records you would have liked to include. So can you tell me about that gut feeling you had which helped whittle down what could have been a very long list of records?

Yeah, I hope it’ll make people think, ‘Oh, why isn’t so and so in there?’ But you know, at the same time, when I’ve said to people, I’m writing a book about 100 records. Some people name five artists and can’t think of any more. So that’s interesting, but to answer your question, I’ve chosen some albums that I absolutely love. Super Furry Animals, I could have chosen any of their albums, but I went for Mwng, which was their Welsh language album from the early 2000s which is a fascinating album. I chose it probably because it’s the most successful Welsh language album of all time, by the well-known, band Super Furry Animals. I chose the latest Tom Jones album, Surrounded by Time, as opposed to an early record where it was Tom in a different era, because I appreciate the last Tom Jones album, I suppose. Another album that was chosen because they’re kind of anomalies is Goldie Lookin Chain’s album Greatest Hits, even though it was their first album. I’ve put it in because the humour, it was probably the only time loads of people have ever heard rap music from Wales. 

To kind of counterbalance that, I suppose, I’ve put in an album by a rapper called Mace The Great, who is an amazing and is making really incredible rap music. I put in some Welsh language rap music, a band called Tystion. So I suppose every record kind of leads on to the other in a way and everything is sort of connected, that’s where the index in the book will come handy. If a record and artist is sort of linked, even though Wales is quite a big country and spread out, there’s a lot of overlapping through the language, through record labels, through scenes. 

There’s a John Cale album in there for example called Paris 1919, which is an incredible album. I could have chosen any of John Cales’ records, I could have chosen The Velvet Underground, but I went for that one out of all of his records. To be honest, I enjoyed listening to the records as I wrote about them as well. So I’m not reviewing the records, we’re past that, it’s not a critical book,  It’s a coffee table book. It’s a book that’s meant to introduce people who are interested to new older music I guess.

I loved the addition of the map with the 20 Welsh record stores included, with that in mind, could you recount the first time you stepped into a record store for the first ever time and how it made you feel?

 I think Cob Records in Bangor, north Wales, would have been one of the first times I went into a record shop, but it was probably HMV as well in Cardiff as well. In my teens, it would have been Spillers Records in Cardiff,  which is the oldest record shop in the world and it’s still going. My friend James worked there, so I’d be buying music from him. I was quite late I suppose getting into record shops but since then, anywhere new I go, the first thing I do is find out if there’s a record shop there. So if I go to a city abroad or anywhere in the UK, it gives you a good sense of grounding, I think going into into the local record shop. It feels familiar, but everyone is different as well and that’s what I love about record shops is that is that they all have their own personality, if you like.

As someone who’s been on the airwaves for national radio since 1999, what are the key pillars that have helped you navigate your career so far? From BBC Radio 1 to now 6 Music’s drive-time show, presenting TV coverage for Glastonbury Festival and more, you’ve achieved so much!

Oh, I suppose, well, it sounds very obvious, but I’ve sort of tried not to overthink things. You’ve just got to enjoy what you do and you have to take an interest in what’s happening around you, I suppose. Radio in particular is, for me, it’s about communication and it’s about talking to people and listening to them. It’s the same with music really as well. You know, you can’t listen to all the music in the world but you have to kind of try and make sense of what you like and what you want to listen to. So in terms of my career, I genuinely haven’t overthought it to be honest. I know that sounds frustrating, and jammy but you’ve got to have to go with the flow a little bit in careers I think. It’s certainly  the way I’ve done it anyway. 

I haven’t overthought things too much. I’ve just enjoyed every job, every moment and you also have to be patient. You have to be very patient and if things aren’t happening, you’ve got to keep yourself busy creating things that’s why I co-founded the Sŵn Festival that you mentioned,  I don’t run it anymore by the way, Clwb Ifor Bach runs it now and they do a great job of it in Cardiff. So, I’ve always kept busy I suppose and I was very lucky, I was given an opportunity to start broadcasting at a very young age by the BBC when I was 18. So I was in a very lucky position and that doesn’t happen very often. But once you’re in somewhere, you’ve got show willingness and then keep your head down.

Speaking of Glastonbury, sadly I’ve never been yet, but over the years, I’ve always heard from my friends who have been is that there is no other UK festival like it, why do you think that is?

Yeah, I’ll be there with the BBC. It is unlike anything else on Earth really I think. It’s unlike any other festival in the world. It’s truly unique. I think it’s special because it started as a labour of love for Michael Eavis on the farm. It’s grown but has retained that independence, they still give millions of pounds to charity, and they still do it for the right reasons. I think that’s why Glastonbury is so special.

Is there anyone you are looking forward to seeing this year?

I’m really looking forward to seeing LCD Soundsystem actually, because it’s brilliant that they’re back and I think they’re on the Pyramid Stage.

This may be too hard to answer as a lot must come up, but as a music lover, what have been some of your favourite career highlights or interviews you’ve conducted over the years?

There’s a lot you know, I was lucky enough to interview John Cale, who is in the book, so I’ve spoken to him a few times, down the line from LA. He’s fascinated with Wales because he left the country at a young age, but he’s still very Welsh, you know? And still very proud of his Welshness and so possibly John cale I’ve lenjoyed talking to the most I’d say.

Finally, Following the forthcoming release of Wales: 100 Records, would you like to release more book projects? And what do you hope readers take from the book?

I’m thinking you could do 100 Welsh records every two years probably, and pick a completely new set of records. Whether I’ll do that or not, I’m not sure but I hope that what people get from the book is hope they find it very interesting. I hope it’ll introduce a lot of people to some really great records that have come out over the years that they might have missed. 

I hope it’ll just be a nice kind of document, I suppose, of records that have been lost, records that have sold millions of copies around the world, and just kind of put them side by side. But I suppose putting records side by side to each other, putting a lot of big records next to some lost gems, should hopefully be interesting for some people, I would say.

Wales: 100 Records is available May 25.

To follow Huw Stephens, click here.

Interview Cameron Poole

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