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Escape Velocity

Absolute Truth: Joseph Coward Interviewed
Luke Turner , January 20th, 2011 11:28

He might have only a few gigs under his belt, but Brentwood Boy Joseph Coward has a determined eye set on the future

Joseph Coward is a musician of the old school. Quiet, handsome and smartly dressed, he has the air of the recently demobbed, his eloquent and thoughtful speech delivered over my left shoulder to somewhere in the middle of the Pembury Tavern, Hackney. The currently homeless singer has just walked eight miles around London checking on the various properties where he house-sits and keeps guard. From Brentwood, Essex "a very bleak little commuter town. It's a grey, unforgiving and intolerant place, which is why I don't like to go there very often" Coward quit school at 16, left home at 17 before coming to London, initially attracted by "whispers of what unfortunately became the nu-goth thing, but at times it was quite exciting. There was nothing in Brentwood, and there still isn't. I was looking for something else."

Joseph Coward - Worry Wart (demo) by theQuietus

Joseph's Coward's music is a take on that often most reviled forms around these parts, the singer songwriter. He also has affection for Morrissey: "he commands a powerful presence. At the age of what, 53, he has grown men throwing themselves at him". Similarly to solo Moz, Coward's music is never indulgent or fey – the 18-year-old displays a toughness and confidence that recalls a day when young men doggedly got along with things, rather than cheerily pratting around pretending to be chums. As Joseph Coward explains, he's always been self-sufficient:

Joseph Coward: I've been writing songs for half on my life. I wrote songs before I knew how to play an instrument, but I was developing lyricism and learned to play guitar. I was in lots of bands, but they fell apart because there never seemed to be any real sense of direction unless I was providing it. I wasn't interested in just making music for fun. I've always had a direct purpose. All the bands I was into, and still am, like The Smiths and Smashing Pumpkins, were real dorks, they're not trying to be cool. Music to me is about communication.

Do you have a plan?

JC: As far as the music is concerned, I am quite sure of its trajectory. I don't know what it's going to mean for me personally, but I know what I want for the music. I don't think that's contrived in any way, I think it's natural.

On your blog you've got links from our piece on Sleazy to Arthur Russell and Ben Frost. Have you always listened to a lot of different music?

JC: I think I have because in my formative years I didn't really do anything except listen to and read music. Because I was so captivated by the idea of music I wanted to get my hands on as much as possible. I didn't know what was good or what was bad, so I was listening to Elton John at the same time as the Jesus And Mary Chain. I think that's been beneficial.

Was music an escape for you?

JC: I think so. I wasn't well liked socially. I didn't really go out, I was just listening to records. I used to get into a few scrapes for growing my hair long and dressing oddly, and looking back I can see why I provoked such an angry response at times. I became really involved in everything that I was interested in, I really lived and breathed what I was loving at the time, and I'd be really open about this. That meant I wasn't very accepted, which I can understand. It isolated me.

Did moving to London inspire you?

JC: It probably did at first because when you move to a new a place it's interesting, but not really. Mostly I find it quite bleak, especially in East London. It's the greyness and the everydayness, and when you're walking along and see someone in the street you can tell that to them you're just another face, an automaton. I've tried not to feel like that, but you do, and you just fall into the same trap as everyone else, and it just becomes a repetitive… well, it seems like life becomes a repetitive, strenuous exercise sometimes. I suppose that's where art comes in, because it's different, it's something different. I tried to work for a while, I tried to participate, but it just turns out that I'm pretty unsavoury as far as everyone else is concerned. I'm unemployable really, there must be something about me, maybe a defiance that people can sense about me that makes me want to reject me.

Music and art is the means of communication to end this isolation though isn't it? It's a positive thing?

JC: I think so, that's essentially what I want to do. I want to be able to communicate with people as far as I can and speak. I don't want to speak for anybody but I want to speak to them. That's an aspect of kinship.

What non-musical inspirations do you have?

JC: I read, I read a lot of literature. I think one of the things that inspires me more than most are religious texts, especially the bible. I love the poetry of it, the way that every syllable is in the right place. It's what I try and do with my own writing, to make everything count. I was brought up in a fundamentalist Christian background, in a Pentecostal church. It was a pretty positive experience most of the time, though again it singled me out as being strange.

Did religious music have an impact?

JC: I was exposed to huge amounts of it, and I'm sure it did. The theological aspect to it aside, the swell of voices in unison is a really powerful thing. And that led me to the roots music where the hymns originally came from. The sense of common purpose has always stuck with me, and now I associate it with music. One of the things I want to bring to the live experience of seeing me is something very welcoming, because I come from a background that is very unforgiving and very unkind, and I don't want that. I want my shows to be, dare I say it, fun.

What's your ultimate ambition?

JC: Who can say what's going to happen? But somebody has to do well, so why shouldn't it be me? It really annoys me when I read emerging artist pieces because they're always very humble. And humility is so overrated. I might as well talk myself up because at this stage, nobody is going to do it for me. And I can't be disingenuous enough to say I don't believe in it, because I do. I want to get as far as possible really. I think most groups say things like if anyone else likes it then it's a bonus because most musicians are going through the motions, they're saying it because everyone else does. They're trying to be nice, and trying to be likeable. I have no interest in trying to be nice. My one interest in life is really being honest, that's the nature of my work as well. Absolute truth, that's the nature of art.

Joseph Coward plays the Quietus gig at the Lexington next Wednesday, January 26th, supporting Anika and Gyratory System. You can buy tickets here

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