When we first wrote about Saint Saviour, the alter ego of UK singer Becky Jones, she was transforming the ubiquitous M83 song “Midnight City” into something more fragile and chilling earlier this summer. Chasing Jones’ captivating voice down a rabbit hole of winding musical paths led to her work in her own early electro outfit the RGB’s, and a stint as the front woman for wildly popular London electronic duo Groove Armada. Her first solo full length, Union, released this week, finds Jones bifurcating her musical personalities into one half introspective and minimalist piano balladeer in the Bat for Lashes mold, and one half risible beat-driven artsy-electronic diva a la Florence and the Machine. We spoke to Jones about her musical background, crowd-funding her album, and her love of America.
How did you get started in music?
I started to write and record and produce properly — well, not properly — around the time the Klaxons released Myths of the Near Future. I was completely obsessed with new-rave music so I bought a copy of Ableton and a laptop, and started to make crazy dance music. I started a band called the RGBs, that was like 2008.
Had you had any prior traditional music experience or was production-style writing the way you got started? Didn’t you go to school to study music?
I first started writing with production techniques. My degree was in contemporary music. I’m not trained on piano or anything like that. My music degree was more music business and performance and that kind of stuff. I think some people think that when I’ve said I’m traditionally trained in music I mean classically trained, but I’m not.
Had you always been interested in electronic music?
To be honest, no. When I was studying music I was more of a musical snob. I listened to a lot of funk, and session musicians, went to jazz clubs, and I appreciated the kind of music that would be difficult to perform. Then I started to read kind of culture music magazines and that kind of stuff. In the UK we have a really cool magazine called Fact. I started to read it like a bible, downloaded everything that they talked about, and I started to get inspired by the youth of London. At the time M.I.A. had just come out with “XR2” – “Where were you in 92?” and that kind of thing, and I just started to explore, ‘How did they make those beats? What is that synth noise?’ I was also writing songs about nothing. That’s what I was interested in. Nothing to do with anything about how you’re feeling, just abstract songs, that’s what I started getting into.
Is that how you’d described the RGBs?
The RGBs was very much about getting on stage and jumping and screaming and throwing yourself into audience, getting really sweaty. I wrote a rap once about Chicken Little and the sky falling. It was just weird glitchy beats. We were really inspired by Devo, and Kraftwerk and that kind of thing.
That led to you getting sucked into the Groove Armada orbit.
Yeah, I co-wrote some of their last album with them. I started as a writer, after about 6 months to a year of writing they invited me to be in the band.
Were you thinking, ‘Wow, this is my big break!’?
Yeah, it was amazing. They kind of took me from the RGBs when the RGBs came to an actual end. It wasn’t like I dumped them or anything, which I’d be in a bit of trouble for. I could’ve done ten bands at the same time, to be honest. Grove Armada was fantastic.
What was touring with them like?
My favorite experience was touring America. America is this incredible kind of Technicolor place. I always felt whenever I visited like I’d been there a million times, like I grew up with this person, I’ve seen this my whole life, like the Hollywood sign, or Haight-Ashbury, it felt so familiar, and had a home feeling when I’ve been there. The people are amazing, all the different characters from different areas. The interesting thing about the crowds in America, which is completely different than the UK, or anywhere really, is that it’s all ages of people. I just find that really weird. I remember playing in LA, or at Webster Hall in New York, or the Filmore in San Francisco, and you look out and there’s like a 70 year old man next to some kind of street, black culture kind of kid, then some Hispanic kid, then some husband and wife. It’s just crazy, there’s a real mix of people. It’s almost like music isn’t a cool thing that young people do there, it’s open to everyone. I find that endearing and fun. It makes the audience less snobby and fun.
That’s funny, because I have the exact opposite reaction when I’ve been in London – like, wow, so much music has come from here. So have you transferred any of those lessons from touring on a big scale with how you’re going about your solo career?
To be honest, no. I learned so much with Groove Armada, but it’s all about money. I can’t take anything I’ve learned and apply it to my own band really, because I can’t afford the crew. When I go out on my own I take one guy, he’s a sound man and a tour manager and mans my merch stall. So he’s,like, frantic, and we’re all frantic. I went on a European tour two weeks ago. I was driving a lot as well. I drove from my front door to Zurich, which took 15 hours, did a gig, then drove like crazy to Cologne. Every drive was dangerous, smashing the speed limit. We’d get there late, have a stressful soundcheck, then go on stage not having gotten changed. I smelled of b.o. constantly. One night in Berlin I had two boiled eggs for my dinner. It’s rock and roll!
You haven’t toured America yet as a solo artist, right?
I’ve not been to America as a solo artist. I went to South By Southwest once, but that was because I was in a film. I played a few songs at the premier, but it wasn’t like a gig really. The film is called Sound It Out. It was about a record store, a documentary about a store in my home town, this tiny little town in the northeast of England, like a mining town. There’s a record store clinging on to dear life, despite the fact that HMV came through and trampled everything. Now it’s doing okay again, as people are more interested in vinyl…
You crowdfunded your album? Do you think that’s the way forward for a lot of musicians?
I used PledgeMusic, which is like, you set yourself a target, then you kind of launch it. It was funny, like one of those charity things where they use a thermometer to show the money going up. I was worried at the last minute thinking ‘Shit, no one is going to give me money and I’m going to look bad and it will be embarrassing.’ I tried to change my target the night before. I was told it was too late. I shit myself, ‘Oh god this is going to be awful.’ I went to bed and the next morning I’d hit the target already. It was a completely mental experience. It’s not been around that long for me to be aware of all the amazing stories, but there’s Amanda Palmer, didn’t she raise like half a million? [more actually]
You can wax lyrical about it how amazing it is, ‘People have faith! See, the music industry isn’t always right!’ But I just think it works for certain people, it might not work for others. You have to have an existing fan base. I wouldn’t advise people without a fan base to use it. It helped me do what I needed to do though so it’s been wonderful.
On the record it seems there’s a pretty big split between styles here. There’s quiet piano stuff like “Reasons” and more beat-driven stuff like “This Aint No Hymn” and “Jennifer.”
It’s a personal battle. If there was a support group I would be attending. I have a problem with sticking to one thing. And it’s informed by the fact that when I do a live performance, if I’m doing the big dance stuff and then sit at the piano I lose half the audience. But half loves the piano stuff. I couldn’t just do stuff the fans like, the sentimental songs, so I had to do some that might get played on the radio, might get remixed… I need the tools that might help break the album. On the other hand I’d get bored stiff if I had to write a load of sentimental love songs. The love songs I do write aren’t personal at all. I hear a lot of female singers saying ‘My album is about being broken hearted.’ I can’t imagine anything more boring than that. Moping on and on about being broken hearted.
I say that a lot. Imagine dating someone like that? Must be awful.
Imagine being an artist going on tour having to sing that every night? Honestly it would just kill me.
Speaking of using the tools to get noticed, you came to my attention with your covers of M83 and Joy Division. Do you feel like covers now, more than ever, are a way to grab attention in an over-crowded music blog circuit?
Yeah, I think it’s just another tool in the box. I’m encouraged all of the time by my management and my PR — they’re always kind of like, ‘What have you got? Give us something, we need to engage people.’ I have to constantly make videos and do acoustic versions and this and that. Once somebody said this to me and it always stuck with me, it really makes sense – I’ve been quite snobby about covers, I didn’t ever want to do them, thinking, unless you can do an amazing version that’s better than the original, don’t do it – but it’s that the general public are so much more likely to engage with you if you do something familiar to them. It’s like a step for them to step up and listen to what you have to say. I kind of do it for that reason as well. It also gives you an opportunity to show your integrity. You can pick a really obtuse cover, like I don’t know, “In A Manner of Speaking” [by Tuxedomoon]. I heard Amanda Palmer cover that, and I thought that was brilliant. It’s such an amazing tune, so obscure, no one will know it. Already you’re reaching your hand out to those brilliant people in the public who listen to music, music fans, who are more likely to support you if you cover something weird. Not meant in a cynical way, I enjoy covering things like that because it’s fun.
Then you can do a big hit like M83.
Right. I just got told by my team that they want me to do another cover, but it has to something modern. They’re sick of me doing Siouxsie Sioux and Neil Young. I’ve not started to think about it yet, have you got anything in mind?
I wouldn’t mind hearing some Morrissey.
I’d probably get into trouble. People hated it when I covered Joy Division. They’d probably go crazy if I did Morrisey.
Stream some of Saint Saviour’s music at her SoundCloud.