With over three quarters of a billion streams to date, Oxfordshire-based Rhys Lewis has captivated listeners with his emotionally rich, powerful music and thought-provoking lyrics. Ahead of the release of his third album, I got in touch to ask about his journey to music and where he finds his inspiration, as well as contemplating the best love song of all time.
Tell us a bit about your new album.
I started writing this album in the first lockdown we had, I’d just got back from a writing trip in America and then went straight to a studio in the middle of nowhere and started writing there. I didn't realise I had started writing an album, I was just writing songs because there was nothing else to do. It was amazing to have something to put my time into and focus on during a very strange time. Naturally there were so many other things to be thinking about, writing about, and questioning, but I think the album started off in a place of existential questioning as opposed to other times where I might just write about what’s happening in my day-to-day or what was happening emotionally in my life. I think it was interesting and useful to start from a different place in that period of time. We all had the privilege of looking at our lives in a different way and when the world literally stopped, I think everyone started questioning what that meant for their lives and their happiness – I certainly did, and found myself wondering, ‘when things go back to ‘normal’, am I going to want to go back to that?’ Change is something that I’ve always found inspiration in, whether that be a change in a relationship, moving cities, growing up or whatever form it may take – these moments of change often throw up lots of things for me to write about and with every day throwing up new questions for me, it was an interesting time to be writing.
It all seems so long ago now.
I think that’s one of the problems with the way music is released; you’re kind of already bored of the stuff you’re about to promote and release by the time you get there because you’re already onto something else, which is kind of happening now because I’m starting to write my third album before people have even heard the second.
So, I’m reaching you in London, but you mentioned that you wrote this when you were in the middle of nowhere, which do you find more conducive, creatively?
I think they both are: every environment invites a different kind of energy and a different creative process and atmosphere. For example – and I know it sounds stupid but – when you’re in LA, you drive around more because there’s no public transport so I was always listening to music in the car louder than if were on the tube; or maybe slightly more upbeat music if the sun’s shining – even little changes as simple as that can provoke a new energy. The same goes for living in the countryside, you may go on a morning walk through the fields or the forests whereas if I go grab a coffee in London, the second I step outside I’m already seeing people, hearing conversations, and thinking about completely different things. Any environment for me can be inspiring. When it comes to producing, I often find being in a city is a bit more conducive to making music because you can say, ‘What’re you doing tomorrow, I’m in the studio please come down.’ whereas if you’re in the middle of nowhere, it’s more of an ordeal to make these things happen. Creatively though it’s nice to vary where you are, so you can vary your inspirations.
Speaking of these inspirations, who were your early musical idols?
When I first started playing music, I wanted to be a guitarist, so as a long-haired sweaty teenager, I would sit in my room and learn guitar riffs and tracks. I was massively into the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, and all of these incredible guitarists but when it came to the lyrics, they didn’t particularly hit me – when you’re 13 you’re not exactly singing about taking acid, so I think some of that was a bit airy fairy and went over my head. When the likes of Franz Ferdinand, Alex Turner, and Arctic Monkeys, came in though, that genre took over for me because what they were writing about really jumped out at me in a different way and felt relevant to the now. It was cool to find this music where I wanted to learn the riffs but also wanted to listen to the lyrics and understand. After that I was obsessed with song writing and I got really into James Taylor and Stevie Wonder – the list goes on from there, there’s so many amazing songwriters from the past so I sort of went back again and listened to all of those people like Bill Withers. What I loved about their writing was how economic they were, as in and they could sum so much up in one line. The way they load that sentence and how they build up to it was always fascinating to me; it takes you on a journey and that’s what I really strive for.
You grew up in Oxfordshire, do you have a favourite venue?
When I was growing up, I used to play at The Cape of Good Hope every other Thursday and I got to know the Cowley Road really well, so The Bullingdon, The O2, Cafe Tarifa, Kazbar – it’s a great road for music. Oxford in general was a really amazing place to be a musician when I look back: it was big enough to have a scene and feel varied and exciting, but small enough that you could feel like you could find a place in it. I feel really lucky to have had early memories and early experiences on Cowley Road in particular because that’s kind of the road that everything seems to happen, so I gained a lot of confidence playing in bars and clubs because it’s a really exciting part of the scene.
What are you currently reading, watching, and listening to?
I’m reading a book by Mary Oliver, she's a poet but she's written essays and other things, I don’t often read poetry but her’s just grabbed me. I found a book from her called Long Life which comprises of a collection of essays about her life and it’s beautiful. I’m watching a series called The Bear which is about a family restaurant, set in – I think – Chicago, and I’m listening to Low Island who are an Oxford special. Their album Life in Miniature is incredible, I’m obsessed with the song Robin – that’s been on repeat.
What would you say is the most romantic love song?
See, I don't know if its romantic but the song that I wish I’d written which is a love song, is She's Always a Woman by Billy Joel because when I hear those lyrics it’s the most realistic love song. It’s about there being so much to a person that you can and can’t contain, there’s so much about someone that you can love, but can’t control.
It feels very honest.
Yeah, sometimes brutally, like ‘She steals like a thief’ – so critical at times but also saying I love her because of that, she's human and I love her, and I can’t ask her to be perfect because nobody is. For me it’s such a profound love song in the way that he expresses his love for this person – it’s just really beautiful and real.