Richard Conway-Jones: England’s Self-Proclaimed Greatest Living Artist

Ned Raggett

By Ned Raggett

on 09.02.14 in Features

Richard Conway-Jones is England’s greatest living artist. Just ask him. The claim is in the URL for his website (though it’s not the only place he offers updates). He paints regularly, loves poetry and movies and books, describes himself on his blog as “an Englishman of Welsh descent who sometimes grows a beard and is frequently described as amusing.” Perhaps above all else, he’s a musician, with something like 35 mostly CDR efforts to his name, a corpus of work not simply shadowy but utterly obscure.

But now, Conway-Jones is on the cusp of releasing his first proper American album. Already up on Bandcamp, The Best of Richard Conway-Jones will also be issued on cassette by Ba Da Bing! Records (the label will also oversee the digital release of a number of his full albums). It’s a long overdue opportunity for others to discover his rich, idiosyncratic work.

In late June we conducted an interview, via email per Conway-Jones’s request, about his life and work.

Could you talk a little about your upbringing and personal history?

I was born in 1964 in Slough which is a light industrial town to the west of London. I still live in Berkshire at Twyford near Reading, so despite having traveled all over Europe I have not moved my home more than 20 miles from where I was born.

What first interested you musically?

I don’t know when I first got into music exactly, but my father had vinyl singles and played me Bill Haley and Beatles tapes in the car. I remember I would collect vinyl singles from the local town that I had heard on the radio, odd records like Hank C. Burnette’s “Spinning Rock Boogie.” I was educated privately at a fairly formal boarding school in the 1970s where I first discovered my love of rock music — the Stones, Pink Floyd, Supertramp and Yes were the big bands of the time, all of which I saw in concert in London.

‘Instantly something gelled with me: I wanted to be an artist and a musician.’

I got into Pink Floyd and David Bowie after some kid played me some at school and instantly something gelled with me: I wanted to be an artist and a musician. I grew up with David Bowie’s early albums. Albums like Hunky Dory really fascinated me, as they seemed to have rough edges. Ziggy Stardust was a very important record, not only for the quality of the songwriting but for the mix of straight-ahead rock and space rock. Tracks like “Moonage Daydream” seemed to take off into infinity thanks to Mick Ronson’s guitar

At school, I was in a band called Ekzoa Rok. We did Stones and Police covers as well as songs I would write, so I was writing songs at 17. Later, I went to art school in Reading, then to film school at a technical college on the edge of London. I hung around with a group of musicians from Slough who I met at art school. I recall as well as the main band, which I was not in as they had all been at school together, there were many other side projects called things like Mellow and the Ducky Boys.

What were the origins of the Marilyn Decade? Was it strictly a studio concern or did you play live?

‘Pure music — we were trying to push boundaries musically and free ourselves from the tyranny of the song, though I’m not sure we articulated it thus at the time. It was more a case of tune up, have a beer, and see what came out.’

I had trained as a filmmaker and traveled, notably to jungles in Malaysia, where I recorded monkeys and waves on a beach and so forth with a Walkman. It was only when I got a house in Twyford in 1989 that I came up with the concept of making recordings at home. After a long while of just recording my 12-string guitar on my own, I decided to ask Michael Beard, who was in every project going, as he was a very good guitarist, if he would like to come and play lead guitar to my rhythm guitar and make some recordings. We did this every Friday evening for five years. At first, I had no furniture and you can hear the room reverb of the empty house on the Marilyn Decade recordings.

We never played for an audience but the magic on that record was that the tracks were cut live with no overdubs. We did not record the tracks separately — we just went for it! The lyrical interplay between two guitars, like a conversation, was what interested us then. Pure music — we were trying to push boundaries musically and free ourselves from the tyranny of the song, though I’m not sure we articulated it thus at the time. It was more a case of tune up, have a beer, and see what came out.

Your solo work appears to touch on a wide variety of approaches, from straightforward singer-songwriter efforts to instrumental compositions and more besides. Is each album conceived in advance of recording or does it just happen as the mood takes you for recording?

The albums are not conceived in advance. In general, I start writing, then I record when I have enough material. If I feel it coming together as a record, I start compiling tracks and get to thinking about artwork or a name for it.

I remember the name for a record called Friday Street came to me when I was driving to get some groceries. I saw a sign which said “Friday Street” which seemed to leap out at me as significant. That is what I think of as my “London record,” the London novel I was always trying to write and never could. I had worked mostly as a photographer but also putting on exhibitions of paintings in London for 15 years. Friday Street is not in London — it’s in Henley on Thames — but the title refers to working for a living, the old 9-to-5 of commuting, the “Thank god it is Friday” feeling.

Do you have any particular figures, artistic or otherwise, famous or obscure, you feel a particular affinity toward?

Dylan Thomas, for his love of words and influence on Bob Dylan At some point, I made a decision that my songs were better than my poems, which at the time I thought were derivative or influenced by him, as my family came from New Quay, a small fishing village in west Wales where he lived at one point. Although he died before I was there as a child, people still talked about him as if he were very much alive.

Bob Dylan, though not as a child growing up, just for those songs and again the love of words. David Bowie, especially the early records, also his work with Brian Eno in Berlin and Young Americans — the whole record and especially that track, just fabulous! Phillip Glass I got into when he released Glassworks — I recall that made a huge impression on me, as did the gamelan music I heard in Malaysia and have on record. The idea of the repetitive drone always drew me as it did John Cale (also very good). I liked the writing of John Cage as a student though did not have access to his music as I was a student pre-Internet.

‘I work pretty much all the time; I take Sunday off when I sail a small dinghy on the River Thames.’

I’m also drawn to Exile on Main Street Stones, the Mick Taylor period — messed-up bluesy Stones recordings — and am recently rediscovering the Doors’ LA Woman. Always a huge fan of Led Zeppelin — is it really necessary to explain why?

My sense from your website is that art for you is not divided into separate spheres (music vs. visual art vs. poetry) but are facets of an overall impulse. Do you find yourself working in phases, in short overlapping bursts, or something else entirely?

I do think all the art comes from a strong desire to express myself and sometimes that is visually or otherwise with words or music. It all comes from the same place with me though I can tell if I am writing a song or a poem. The songs have a chorus for one thing if it is a proper song. I work pretty much all the time; I take Sunday off when I sail a small dinghy on the River Thames.

I seem to make time to do both the painting and the music; this morning I stretched a load of new canvasses which are drying in the sun. I have no idea as yet what I will paint on them. I found with the music that the songs would come in batches though I have to collect line one at a time in a notepad when they come to me. I am generally always working on something, trying to keep the ball rolling forward creatively so as to speak.