With the release of his new album Battery and Electrical under the moniker R S Rowen I interviewed Jonny Rowen about the record, his influences and how and why he writes songs.
A solo record, 25 years after Pelvis, 10 after Lofires, why now?
I’ve always been a songwriter, at least, in my own head. And the song ideas keep coming. I’m not a businessman, nor a hustler. I’m not in any way, an extrovert. But I write songs.
Not having had an album out for so long is what happens when you don’t advertise yourself, beg for help, busk, hustle, hassle, or other.
I’ve learned there’s no point in putting an album out yourself no matter how good the songs are - you simply don’t get noticed. So, having been introduced to the owner of Zen Ten Records, I asked for advice.
On hearing a few recorded songs, Carlton, already a fan of the Pelvis album from many years earlier, was blown away and that’s where this album began.
You have taken your dad’s moniker? Why did you go for that?
My dad was a battery wholesaler who had started out in business on his own the year I was born.
Whilst toying with name possibilities for this project I remembered one of his first vans still parked at his house from around that time. I knew it looked it’s age, as do I, and it was roughly the same age as me.
Red rust on a blue background, the painted letters attempting to ‘hold their own’ against time and decay. The battle-weariness of the image really appealed.
I was aware, at the same time, that my dad, elderly and unwell, would not be with us for much longer so it was also, in my mind, a tribute to him and his hard work down the years.
Why the title? - it was all there in front of me, as it had been my whole life. The beauty of something which already existed, having such a rich history for me, needed only to be captured in photograph.
You have talked about growing up in a room full of records of big brothers. What of those records back then have influenced Battery and Electrical?
I’ve always been drawn to melody - or that’s what I would have said when I was younger. But now I realise now what I meant, was, in fact, the combination of melody, harmony, rhythm, arrangement and production.
The importance of lyrics came later for me.
All of the records I listened to, as a kid, were from my older brothers’ collections, so I did get a great education from the earliest age. Space Oddity was a big album in our house in the mid 70s, as well as Transformer, the Top of the Pops albums, I recall a Hallmark album of rugby songs, no idea who brought that one in. Oh Dear! What Can The matter Be? - but it was played for its comedic value on occasion. Monty Python Live At Drury Lane, Ziggy Stardust, Revolver, Handel’s Water Music, Jim Reeves - 12 Christmas Carols. I know there were so many 45s I loved, to add to the list.
As regards influences for Battery & Electrical, I’m sure there’s lots in there. I focus more on moments in songs from the past that resonate strongly with me - there’s so much tied up in my childhood, I’m very nostalgic, so those records are hugely important. The big names for me from those really early days are The Beatles and Bowie and a host of singles by other artists.
Songwriting? What inspires a song to start?
My early memories are of the amount of singing that happened in my home. For me, songs were as commonplace as speech. I preferred songs. Most of my time was spent listening to records and singing along, or going to church/Sunday School and singing the hymns, or every car journey was me singing the whole way there and home.
But it wasn’t only me; my dad often sang with us, my brother and I would both sing along with him - if we knew the hymn, and if we didn’t have to listen to Brian Johnston ‘Down Your Way’ half-tuned in on the LW battling the white noise and fading signal. In the rain. Heat on full. Wipers, brown-tinted windows, and condensation for added claustrophobic effect as we squeezed into the loaded car in our three-piece suits, shirts and choking neck ties. Sundays had a habit of returning very quickly.
When you looked back on this collection were there any interesting things you learned about yourself and your views on the world?
With the background I have described, there was no other way it was ever going to be, as far as I’m concerned. I love music. I was born to be a songwriter; I believe it’s a gift from God. That doesn’t mean I was born to be a successful songwriter, just a songwriter.
It’s has such a cathartic effect on me, like prayer, but for the obvious differences. Of course, some songs are prayers. My best songs usually have such small beginnings. Great songs are, most often, I think, very simple in their essence. It can be the hardest thing to do; to keep it simple, clear, obstacle-free in structure and melody whilst presenting something with some originality from the writers’ own experience and vulnerability.
The Artists’ job, as I see it, is to detail the world around them, and in them, as they see it, and, sometimes, hopefully, to even hint the next move, or at least, question what it might be.
I often sit with the guitar and mess around with intention of writing, I suppose, waiting for a happy accident - a flash of inspiration. The connection for me when a song begins to suggest itself, comes when something happens with melody against the chords being played that sparks an interest, emotionally.
Once that fragment of melody has appeared, the continued melody begins to suggest itself and I find the chords to suit. That can take a while. Often by the time I have the melody, I’ll have come up with a decent line from which the completed lyrics begin to take shape around that one line.
A lot of the songs on Battery & Electrical are dealing with themes of loss and isolation, but not without hope. It wasn’t planned that way, but as I look at the songs that’s what they are. Sometimes the journey is messy but when we know what awaits us at the end, that makes the hardships along the way worthwhile from the point of view of what we may have learned, and how we continue to grow.
The record business has changed utterly since Pelvis? What are your hopes for this record
The record business has changed utterly since the late 90s, I’m not sure what to expect.
But for me to have an outlet, somewhere to bring my songs where they can be accessed by anyone who may be interested in hearing them, that’s a real bonus and a step in the right direction.
I think being on a great independent label, Zen Ten, and working with Carlton, is a pleasure, and I hope to be releasing more in the future.