Here at Gentleman’s Journal, we began our ‘Live Sessions’ during lockdown. As such, many of our early performers — everyone from Tom Grennan to Jake Bugg — were forced to record their exclusive acoustic sessions in front of rather drab backdrops. A set of curtains here; a standing lamp there. The odd wardrobe. Thankfully, it’s a sign of how far the world has progressed that our latest singer-songwriter, Rhys Lewis, performs his latest single from the shores of an Italian lake.
This is also a sign of how far Lewis himself has progressed — as the 31-year-old hadn’t even released an album before the world plunged into pandemic-fuelled panic. But today, one debut studio album, two long years and well over 100 million listens later, and the Oxford-born balladeer is back with a full-voiced vengeance.
From Berlin to Bergen, Lewis is freshly back from a whirlwind European tour. He hit Milan, Brussels, Paris and more with his hits, but tells us that one particular continental destination — the city he sold out his first show outside of Britain — will forever hold a place in his heart.
“It was my first proper tour of Europe,” Lewis says, “and it was a 500-person venue in Amsterdam. My parents and some friends came over for the show. And it was a real ‘pinch me’ moment to see a room full of people in a different country singing the lyrics to every song back at me. It was very special, and that feeling still is. I remember thinking, if I never do anything else in music, this gig has made me realise I’ve achieved something with my career. It was very affirming”.
Gladly, there was more to come. Much more. And, despite the pandemic’s stinging blow to singers around the world, Lewis is both thankful and relieved to have emerged unscathed back into the world — and onto the stage.
“Playing for the first time again in two years — to 2,500 people in Glasgow — was terrifying and electrifying at the same time,” he admits. “It felt great to be back, and made me appreciate how special live music is. There’s a level of performance for any musician that’s impossible to reach without the presence and energy of a crowd. So it was exciting to share that experience with loads of people in a venue again”.
Last year, when Lewis covered the Gentleman’s Journal ‘Young Musicians’ issue, he opened up about his approach to songwriting. “You can put something into words,” he told us, “that perhaps someone else couldn’t. And they can go: ‘that’s exactly what I needed to hear’. And you feel unified and fortified”. It is this empathetic process that the singer always clings onto in his music-making, even if he’s having a troubled time of things himself. And Lewis knows that, after the last two years, people need comforting, life-enhancing songs now more than ever.
“We’ve seen, throughout history, just how unifying music can be,” he reasons. “How powerfully it can amplify a message. And by nature, the music industry is full of compassionate, expressive people. So I think harnessing music and musicians to create a sense of community, locally and globally, can have a huge impact on the world.
“I feel like a lot of the world lacks real community these days,” he adds. “And, when that breaks down, people feel less responsibility to help, and less empathy towards, the people around them”.
So would Lewis call the quest for community the main thread or throughline to his music?
“That’s a tough question. I think a lot of my songs come from a shift in perspectives. Whether that’s born out of a break up or the world going into lockdown, or a headline in the news that makes me sad, I feel inspired to write when my view of the world is changed by something. Is that a theme? Or just a long-winded answer!”
It’s perhaps a bit of both. But we wouldn’t expect anything less from the contemplative creator of songs including the reflective, heart-rending ‘No Right To Love You’, soulful ‘Be Your Man’ and his latest release; the plucky, poppy and oddly optimistic ‘Alone’. Lewis’ wide-ranging repertoire tussles and scuffles with big questions; ones that can be hard to ask, and sometimes even harder to answer. And the role of ‘singer-songwriter’, Lewis says, has proved the perfect day job with which to explore such emotions.
If he hadn’t made it as a musician, Lewis believes he’d be a chef, or a tennis coach. But, happily, his lyrics and riffs have resonated with a wide audience. Not that that was his plan. Originally, Lewis had set his sights on being a songwriter or composer for other artists.
“That was after reading a book called The Song Machine,” he says. “Which is about the Swedish songwriters behind lots of huge hit songs. That book made me believe I could make a career out of writing songs, so I decided to give it a go. I never really decided to be an artist in my own right, I just sort of fell into being one”.
Lewis cites musicians from Alex Turner to Bill Withers as inspirations, and he merged these influences with his own inner thoughts to create his first studio album — the one he released during lockdown — titled Things I Chose to Remember. A wistful, welcome distraction during the summer of 2020 and beyond, the album has the unique distinction of being recorded on analogue tape.
“The process of recording to tape is defined by its limitations,” says Lewis of the creative choice. “So I think it encourages you to be more musical and deliberate with what you’re trying to do. It’s also nice to not work on a screen whilst making music — it changes the way you conceive and judge your ideas”.
While Lewis also adores singing for a crowd, not every gig can carry the significance or singularity of a sold-out Amsterdam debut, or even a stripped-back session by an Italian lake. So would he consider the recording process, whether that be analogue or otherwise, a more rewarding creative experience?
“I know it sounds like I’m sitting on the fence here,” he says, “but I love both for different reasons! It’s like choosing between pizza or pasta. You can’t beat the energy of a crowd, it’s a proper adrenaline rush performing for people and travelling around on tour.
“But I get a similar rush from the studio, the moment a lyrical idea comes to you comes to me, or nailing the take with other musicians after hours working at it. So the creative process comes with its own thrills — but it’s more like micro-dosing adrenaline than a big hit of it like with playing live”.
On that note, why not watch Rhys Lewis’ Live Session for Gentleman’s Journal above, or revisit his interview for the Winter 2021 magazine here…
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