Can something be lovely and terrifying all at once? Beautiful but panic-inducing at the very same time? The final track on Rhys Lewis’ most recent album, perhaps, pulls off that clever trick. ‘What Wild Things Were’ is a wistful, melodic song on the surface, rounded out by plaintive piano and warm strings. But its lyrics tell a story set in a not-so-distant future, as the speaker looks back on green leaves and blue waters as a distant memory, in a world seared by climate destruction.
This is the subterfuge that Lewis often pulls off so well, perhaps — drawing from deep wells of feeling, but with a lightness of touch, an ear for melody, and an always-smiling, playful personality. (I have rarely seen someone inhabit a blood-red velvet dinner jacket with quite such glee.) It might be a break up — the eternal songwriter’s watering hole — or the end of the world. But Rhys Lewis always has something to say.
“That’s kind of why I love writing songs,” he says, “Because you can put something into words that perhaps someone else couldn’t, and they can go: ‘that’s exactly what I needed to hear.’ You feel unified and fortified that someone else has gone through the same thing, perhaps.”
Sometimes the source material is personal. “But that stuff’s almost easier to address, in a way. Empowering, certainly,” Lewis says. “You put something out there in this really vulnerable way — but instead of feeling vulnerable after it, you felt more confident, because people say: ‘I know exactly how you feel’ or ‘you’ve really helped me.’”
At other moments, it’s entirely universal. “I read a book by David Wallace-Wells called The Uninhabitable World,” he says. “And a lot of the facts and figures in it are: ‘by 2030…’, or ‘by 2050…’ That’s very much within my lifetime. It’s certainly within my daughter or my son’s lifetime. I was terrified by the future this book was describing.
"You put something out there in this really vulnerable way.."
“So I put myself in 2050, and wrote about the birds, and the trees, and the blue water. It sounds sort of apocalyptic. But there’s a very real chance that we’re going to see dramatic change and have millions of lives affected. And we have, as a society, to engage in it, in a way that doesn’t terrify us, but makes us feel empowered to do something positive. There must be a way to do that.”
“Very few artists choose to be political these days, and make a social comment, and because of that, people don’t think it’s a musician’s role to do that,” he continues. “If you look at Billy Bragg and Bob Dylan, they were inspiring social change. I would love to see Ed Sheeran and Rihanna, for example, talking about this stuff more. It’s very cheesy to say it, but there is a power to music, and it can be hugely influential.
“People cringe about Band Aid, but it did change things, even if it was misguided to some degree. There’s a huge issue here that we could all be addressing together, in a collective way.”
If the next Band Aid does coalesce around climate change, then Lewis should certainly be on the songwriting committee. His songs always feel charged up and punchy, even when they’re understated and stripped back. I’m still very fond of one of his tracks from 2017 — the low key and taut ‘Reasons to Hate You’ — which begs a departing girlfriend to say they’ve been unfaithful, even though they haven’t, just to make the split a little less horrendous. My 16-year-old self is entirely onboard with that contortion.
“I’m writing an album now, and the new song on that will be similar to the last one,” he concludes. “And I want to leave people with something that makes them think,” he says. The clever thing about Rhys Lewis, however, is that he’ll make them feel it first.