Interview by Gareth Ware
When you take a step back and think about it, in recent years Wales has thrown out some prodigiously talented and unique songwriters. Think Gruff Rhys, Euros Childs, and Steve ‘Sweet Baboo’ Black (just think, two of those three are playing over the weekend. You lucky, lucky people). The latter has built on his early recordings, via a pair of wonderful EP’s released via Cardiff’s Shape Records, to culminate in last year’s Moshi Moshi-backed ‘Ships’ which saw Black proclaim ‘I will battle the open seas, I’ll fight the pirates in the next years’ in his quest to be “Drinking coconut milk on the beach, baby, baby, just you and me, oh, what a life would it be.” Jam-packed full of gorgeous melodies and adorned with Black’s wry, endearing lyrics it shows a songwriter comfortably in his stride and thus the perfect time to talk all things Sweet Baboob with Mr Black himself
Let’s begin by talking about the festival a bit – what have you learned about it so far and is there anything you’re particularly looking forward to/excited about?
I’ve heard about it a lot over the years because some of my friends have played there. Like Rob, who produced my last record, has played there with Voluntary Butler Scheme a few times and some of the Cardiff bands like The School have played there too so I know a fair few people who’ve been. They’ve always said that it’s a fantastic place and that it has a great atmosphere so I’m just really excited about going, really, because I’ve never been. Isn’t it Derby way? I’ve never been that way before so I’m excited about going.
Your lyrics seem to possess this deep-rooted sense of romanticism – is this a conscious consideration and how big a part does it play in your songwriting make-up?
I don’t really think it’s that conscious, really. It’s just what comes out of my mouth. Must just be me being a soppy bastard, I guess! So yeah, it’s not really conscious at all.
As an extension to that question, you have an early song called ‘Jonathan Richman’. With your own output not sounding light years away from his is he someone you feel you’re similar/comparable to in terms of musical and lyrical style?
He’s always been a massive influence on me – I’ve loved his music ever since I’ve been about 16 or 17. That’s a long time to have been listening to his music seeing as I’m in my 30s now. It’s bound to rub off to some degree or other, though I’m not sure comparable is necessarily the right word. He’s definitely been an influence on me and to be honest I think he should be an influence on everyone. He’s just one of the best songwriters ever.
When you look at the likes of ‘Motorhome Songs’ and ‘Ships’ you also seem to have an innate ability to inject a sense of place to your music. Do you feel that this is an important lyrical framing device?
I don’t know, really. I find it really difficult not to write from some kind of first hand experience and everyday things so I guess it’s bound to seep into what I write about. I wouldn’t say it’s a conscious thing but as I said a lot of my lyrics are about everyday things and real-life situations that have happened to me, so place is going to be a big part of that in terms of memories and what have you, so I suppose in that sense it is.
As any long-standing Sweet Baboo fan will attest to, you seem equally at home doing solo shows as full band equivalents. Do you find yourself approaching the two differently in any way and if so, how?
With solo shows you can be a lot less rehearsed, which is good, and can some times get some… interesting results. I choose a wider set of songs or if it’s not going well I can change the songs. Then with the band it’s a lot of fun to go out with your friends playing and we get to make a bit more noise. So they’re the main differences, really, but the general approach is essentially the same: go out and try to have fun and entertain people. If you can’t, never mind, eh? We’re having a nice time anyway.
When writing new songs do you find yourself considering how well they’ll translate on-stage, especially given them varying nature of the shows you play?
Hmmmm, not really. When I write songs it’s difficult so say who they’re for, really. It’s just a very natural thing and if someone likes it that’s great and if no-one likes it then we won’t play it live but I don’t think I necessarily consider the listener when I’m writing them. Which I admit is quite a selfish thing.
A fact some Indietracks-goers might not know is that you’ve been nominated for two out of the three editions Welsh Music Prize to date. How much does it mean to you and on a personal note how important is it to you to be recognised in your home country in that way?
It’s been really nice that I’ve been nominated and it’s nice to be recognised anywhere, I guess. I mean even if the award was ‘Best Artist In France’ – even though I’m not French – that’d be good. It’s a nice ego boost to be nominated for anything.
Lastly, sum up what folks can expect when they go and see – and what you hope people will take away from it – in a handy, snappy soundbite, and in the event of a clash why should people come and see you?
People should come and see us as opposed to anyone else because it’ll be the first time that we’ll have played there so they can expect something different. As for the first part of the question….that’s too difficult. I don’t really want to have to say what we sound like. That’s too difficult. You can come up with that one!