Jelly Cleaver is an eager and fiercely ambitious up-and-comer singer-songwriter on the London gig scene who recently self-produced and released her album, Cure for an Existential Crisis. I met Jelly in Primrose Bakery in Covent Garden in late October and we talked about Morrissey, the Buckley men, and performing at an all-you-can-eat.
Brooklyn: One of the songs on your new album is called ‘Ode to Morrissey’. Gonna go out on a limb and assume you’re a Morrissey fan?
Jelly: I wrote this song at 18, so I see it from a totally different perspective now. As you may know I’m a super-mega fan of Jeff Buckley
B: Yes, I did see that on your profile. And Tim Buckley! So, both the Buckleys!
J: Both the Buckleys! [Jeff Buckley] did a cover of one of the Smiths songs which is how I got into them. I read Johnny Marr’s autobiography who has just the best life, but Morrissey is a nice counteraction because he’s miserable. I try and get in a lot of references to different artists: there’s a Hendrix reference in that song [Ode to Morrissey]. I like [Morrissey’s] lyrics, they stay with you.
B: I notice you also quote Dr Maya Angelou in ‘Caged Bird’, what do you like about her work?
J: Caged bird actually wasn’t directly inspired by her. My other political songs probably are more like her work than the one that quotes her! [Caged Bird] was inspired by the fact that, at the time, 36 people had the same wealth as a few billion people, and now it’s the richest 8 people that have the same wealth as the poorest half. I mean love songs are great but I don’t see why people aren’t writing about this and how our priorities are so shifted.
B: You play a lot of instruments on the album. How many was it in total?
J: I think 10, but percussion counts for 3 or 4…
B: That still counts!
J: It certainly makes it sound more impressive. And I play a drum-kit as well…
B: It’s always nice to meet female drummers. we need more female drummers!
J: We really do! It’s the instrument that I think is most underrepresented.
B: I agree! People say “well look at the White Stripes!” and that’s great but can you name four more?
J: And HAIM as well! I’ve had discussions with friends about how HAIM is not an all female band because they choose to have a male drummer when they perform live.
B: HAIM makes me wish I had two more sisters I could form a band with…
So you play a lot of instruments, when did you first get into music? You said you started playing the guitar at 5?
J: My dad is a guitar teacher, so it was literally lying around the house. I didn’t play the piano properly till I was 15 when I started taking lessons. Piano wasn’t that hard to pick up. And bass as well, I play the bass a bit like a guitarist so I’ve tried to stop that.
I recorded all the instruments in a week, because that was all the time I could get off work. I’d get up at 8 and work till midnight. I would do a day of each instrument, working out all the parts by ear, recording them, and then edit them later.
B: And you’ve been gigging in London for a while now.
J: It’s been about a year, I’ve been gigging since I was fourteen around Southampton, and then at Uni later on.
B: And do you find that London gigs are different?
J: So different. The places I used to play were very small, there were maybe five main venues and you’d appear at them regularly. It’s so much easier to be part of the scene in smaller places, knowing who’s in charge, having in-built audiences. In London you have to bring your own audience. There are so many different places as well, so it’s a novelty if I play at a place more than twice.
B: And do you find it hard being an acoustic musician to get gigs at certain venues?
J: Oh my god yeah. It’s weird because you have to know how to market yourself. I know I can do jazz and I can do soul and indie and funk but it’s really hard to keep an audience with you if you genre-hop. I never plan a set before I go to a place, because it’s easier to go and judge by the venue and the acts that go on before and after you.
B: So your album was self-produced, you wrote everything, arranged everything, and pretty much played everything. How did it come about?
J: Basically I had no other option! I had help with the mixing and I had help with the artwork, and actually my land-lady helped me learn how to use Photoshop. It was very, very, very labour intensive, I can’t stress enough how much labour went into this thing!
B: I mean it shows, it’s a beautiful album
J: Thank you! And all the songs are from when I was a kid so I see it as an eight-year work in progress.
B: So, your bio on Facebook says that you’re inspired by a lot of artists from the 70s, Joni Mitchell, Tim Buckley etc.
J: So when I say inspired I mean obsessed, with their whole being and their whole life story. I feel like I internalise an artist.
B: Something I noticed about your work is that your lyrics are very poetic, a lot like Jeff and Tim Buckley. Was that something you did consciously?
J: Definitely. I was listening to them the whole time and I love the way they tell stories. When you write a song you’re not really sure where it comes from, but it comes from your whole life experience and all your influences in a weird mesh, where somehow Morrissey creeps up.
B: So, what recommendations would you give to other musicians looking to do the London circuit?
J: The Roundhouse was really helpful for recording, and I’d recommend their Emerging Artist scheme. The Harrison is a lovely venue where I did my album launch gig. I mean I did a gig in an all-you-can-eat once for two hours and I got to eat in-between. The gigs I’ve played in London have been very eclectic and I’m sure they’ll make good stories one day.
Jelly Cleaver’s new album Cure for an Existential Crisis is available to buy now on Amazon here. You can catch her performing around London through her Facebook page.
Image: Jelly Cleaver