For singer-songwriter Rhys Lewis, there is beauty at going back to the beginning.
Record. Edit. Re-record. Edit. Apply filter. Post. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? In a day and age when everything from photos to videos to even art is over-analyzed and over-edited, how can a songwriter remain genuine whilst presenting their true voice? In the case of British singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, Rhys Lewis, it is back to the beginning. Recording exclusively on tape, the album captures the rawness of live performances, displaying beauty in the imperfections. It’s the magic that made and still makes, Springsteen’s 1982 album Nebraska special. A moment in time is open to you every time you hit play.
1883 Magazine chats with Rhys Lewis about touring again, supporting the K-Pop artist Eric Nam, his thoughts on TikTok and Instagram, and the change he’s experienced in self-doubt throughout his career so far.
You’ve just come off your UK tour supporting Eric Nam. You’ll be back on the road in May/June time for the European leg. First off, how’s it been to be back playing live shows, especially supporting someone like Eric who has such a strong following?
It’s been amazing. Eric’s got this incredible community of fans. They’re just so friendly and supportive. As well as being a musician, he’s an actor and celebrity but I think what he’s always kind of preached on his social media is what his fans have given to me, which is being friendly and supportive. Considering I haven’t played in like 2 years, his fanbase was the perfect crowd to play to. Playing in front of 2,000 people in Glasgow on our first night. I was so nervous.
Do you often get nervous before playing a show?
Oddly enough, no. I think as I’ve played more regularly it becomes a bit more something you just get used to. I was touring for about 6 months in 2019. So you kind of get used to it. You still enjoy it but it perhaps becomes a bit more normalized. But playing in front of 2,000 people after not performing for so long you realize how truly special it is. It’s nice to see venues full of people again and have people singing and enjoying live music. I sort of feel I need to get my match fitness back up as even after 4 shows I was just exhausted [laughs]. It made me think about how did I get through months of touring around the world.
Talking of that, would there be any exercises you’d do or is it just more gigging that means eventually you’ll build up your stamina?
Yes. It’s sort of like going to the gym. The first few times you go you’re like “oof” and you have to brush the cobwebs off. But as soon as you get to a certain level you feel like you have at least a base level to go out and do a gig. Weirdly it does feel like fitness because it is a muscle you’re using and your whole body is engaged when you’re singing. Also, it’s getting through the long drives and lack of sleep. You know, these are things that although maybe kind of champagne problems, they are things you need to manage.
Is there anything you’ve learnt directly from Eric whilst supporting him on this tour?
From watching his shows and seeing how he connects with his fans I think the one clear thing is just how authentic he is and how much the music is a part of who he is. He’s able to go on stage and just really be himself whilst connecting with his fans and that’s something that I’ve always wanted. The strength of his authenticity is inspiring. And his attention to detail. You know I see that he’s rehearsed so so much. That’s from everything to the dance movement, the lighting and the music of course. He’s a man of detail and that’s been very inspiring for me.
Speaking about authenticity, that’s certainly a word that springs to mind when listening to your music and engaging with your lyrics. I read that your latest single Alone came about during a time when you felt overwhelmed. Could you share a bit more about that period?
I wrote it in 2020 and then I decided I was going to leave London, which for me was a realization that I didn’t have to be living in a place that I didn’t enjoy or didn’t have to be working in the same way I previously was. There are chapters in life when either thing start to go wrong or you start to live in your head a bit too much and you begin to let me spiral in your mind. Or that’s certainly something I do. You know. Is your career going the right way? Start thinking about money or your relationship with your family. Sometimes I seem to have that things feel like they are stacking up and it all happens at once. And sometimes at that moment I just want to run away as opposed to facing it. I just want to find a way of releasing that anxiety in my head.
Was this quite a recent feeling?
It’s a recent feeling and was actually born towards the end of a tour where not only had I spent a lot of time around people, from tour buses to hotels, but it was also that I had missed so much of other stuff in my life. I guess I started to question the sacrifices you give for being on the road as a musician. So things like a friend’s birthday or family events. I think for me it’s very easy to let those thoughts spiral. And when family or money problems come into play they can overwhelm you. There’s a lyric in the second verse that says “Scared you started living too late / You should have been making better mistakes.” The sense that you look at your life in that moment, where you’re feeling that pressure, and you start to judge the rest of your life through that lens. You know I found that sometimes even just dreaming of an escape plan is enough for you to feel less claustrophobic. It’s like the freedom of thinking about it is the release itself.
When writing Alone, what came first was the music or the lyrics?
I had the lyrical theme first. It was more when I wanted something hypnotic underneath to create this perpetual running feeling. That came afterwards when I started to think about what the song wanted to feel like and what the lyrics were saying.
Talking of songwriting, I was wondering as a songwriter how has your relationship with self-doubt changed throughout your musical journey so far?
That’s a really good question. I think it’s something that we don’t talk about enough. I probably doubt myself just as much if not more now than I did when I had no validation of streams. For me, I think the standard I have for my work has gone up. Also now there’s an expectation to an extent. I think I doubt myself more in the production of a song because there are so many ways to dress a song. I always seem to write a song bare bones. Just a guitar or piano and voice. So when it comes to producing it I start to doubt myself if this is the right direction. Is it quick enough? Is it the right key? However, when I’m writing a song it feels like a very much isolated process where I’m not thinking if it’s going to be a hit or not. I’m just writing something that I like. But when it comes to producing it. You think well how people are going to hear this song. And I start to doubt myself on whether it should sound like this or like that. Also being with a label you can’t help but think they would like a commercially successful song and what would the production for that look like.
Interestingly, you say that because your most-streamed song is the acoustic version of your single No Right To Love You…
Yes! And that’s what I’m saying. Sometimes it’s not even from the label but more from my perception of what the production should be as an artist on a major record label.
How do you then find a balance between other people’s opinions and listening to your own?
Interestingly I’ve recorded the whole album on tape, which means if you want to play someone the album then they have to come to the studio and you have to load up the tape. So it’s not like you can send a demo of where you’re at. So what’s interesting is the feedback I get from people is much later in the process. In a way I’m producing something that I love and feels right for me, then when that’s done and the vision is almost executed people come to the studio and hear it. It means they analyze it based on the finished product as opposed to a demo or an idea. At that stage, it’s almost too late to doubt yourself.
Several artists have recently come out talking about how exhausting it is as a musician to make music and tour whilst keeping up with social media and the ‘algorithm’. How have you managed this so far and what are your thoughts as an artist in 2022?
I’m really bad at TikTok and Instagram. I find it anxiety-inducing to try and find things to post. I don’t know if I’m looking at it the wrong way but it feels like you have to constantly be posting therefore you have to be constantly thinking of things that are worth posting about. There’s pressure about creating content and then the music almost feels secondary. Truthfully I like writing and recording songs and playing them live. I don’t discredit what TikTok is and what it does, but then again I don’t believe that being on TikTok and Instagram is ultimately psychologically a healthy thing for anyone. For the time it takes to be good at it, I find it bizarre that we spend so much time living in that way these days. I find it all a bit weird.
What 3 songs would you choose to soundtrack your perfect day?
Evening – ‘The Downtown Lights’ by The Blue Nile
Midday – ‘This Must Be the Place’ by The Talking Heads
Morning – ‘Friday I’m in Love’ by The Cure
Interview by Dean Benzaken
Alone is out now.