Royce Wood Junior
One To Watch for 2016
There are few new artists that come with the matured humility of Royce Wood Junior.
In a pool hall in his recently adopted neighbourhood of Peckham – lured by its cheap studios and creative community – he remains as endearingly light-hearted about his bar game qualifications as he does his musical ones: “Shit at music, great at pool. Put that in the interview,” he tells me.
Perhaps it’s because Jim Wood (his pseudonym was crafted from his middle name and his Dad’s name) carries a few more industry scars than most. For the past five years, Wood has toured the globe with best mate and musical compatriot Jamie Woon – only now preparing to step out into his own spotlight with a run of singles last year, and this year’s debut album The Ashen Tang. Citing everything from ‘90s television, 16th-century court verse and Prince as an influence, it’s an engrossing, lush, dense blend of modern production technique, witty lyricism, and older funk & soul. But after being in and out of Woon’s world for so long, what was the catalyst for stepping out solo now?
“Well, I was doing it all along, but didn’t quite know how to do it! I thought I did it two years before, but I spent a bit of time away from it, and went back to it thinking it was dog shit. But then I wrote some more stuff for it, and liked it again. You find that with a lot of musicians – they kind of love and hate their own work consistently throughout its creation”.
“Shit at music, great at pool. Put that in the interview”
For all its wealth of reference and inspiration, The Ashen Tang is very much a product of its means, written and played in full by Wood, bar a couple of drum contributions. The financial and practical restrictions of a breaking musician might not be anything new, but it’s something that Wood speaks intelligently to.
“I always thought that the ambition of what I wanted to do with my music outweighed the possibility of doing it,” he explains. “It’s always a bit more aspirational than what I can achieve with a computer. I like big sounds and big arrangements, lots of musicians, which unless you’ve got money, you can’t really do. My album’s kind of cobbled together – it must have been made over about three or four years in about 15 different places. Unless you have loads of money you have to do everything yourself!”
However, rather than being limited by the medium of being one guy on a budget, Wood recasts his vigorous creative ambition to fit his circumstances. “I didn’t even want to sing these songs” he jokes, “but just out of necessity, it panned out that I had to!”
He might call it a “patchwork job”, but it’s just one of the many charming things about the record. After making his name in the blogosphere through more production heavy, off-kilter R&B in early tracks “Nuff” and the 2014 Rover EP, The Ashen Tang is bursting at the seams with the aesthetic of a cultural crate digger. “I like Dilla as much as I like Rufus Wainwright,” he explains. “I’ve noticed that other people seem to be able to streamline what they do – ‘cause everyone’s influenced by all sorts of shit – but I don’t seem to be able to sit down and say ‘I’m gonna write a Prince song.’ I get dragged in weird little directions, and it all ends up being in the same track sometimes”.
As a result, beautiful, yearning ballads like “Stand” sit alongside the fizzing R&B of single “Midnight”, the orchestrated soft-folk of “Midas Palm” and the multi-part epic “Stickin’”, all built ground-up from Wood’s production magic and ever-soulful songwriting chops.
However, they’re influences he’s proud to stand behind and admit the presence of. “The right kind of robbery is an art in itself. Not that I just sit about robbing stuff, but of course you’re a product of your influences, a little phrase here or there. I’m constantly thinking – where have I got that from? There’s four billion songs or more in the world, there’s no way that it doesn’t exist somewhere. So much is theft in music – now the skill is how you nick it, the panache with which you steal”.
Wood also works as a songwriter for other soul-focused British singers – not least Denai Moore, Nao and his recent production credit with Jodie Abacus on "Halfway to Mexico" – which he enjoys “equally as much”, and gives him an insight into some modern methods of songwriting, even if they’re not his own. “It was a lot easier to be original twenty years ago,” he explains, “but now the clinical aspect of songwriting, where writers get put in a room specifically to conjure a hit – it’s all reference points and ‘how much can we legitimately steal from this Seal tune?’ It’s okay to be explicit – if people can reference what you’ve stolen from. It’s a bizarre time”.
It’s an ethos that Wood doesn’t just apply to his music – the artwork for his releases to date are littered with old corporation logos and 90’s television shows.
“In modern life you get stolen from by corporations constantly,” Wood justifies, with a glint in his eye. “I had a war with BT recently, on a domestic level, and everyone’s nicking your money, so I thought it might be nice to steal some corporate imagery.” Sadly, the skirmish continues – with the telecoms company cracking down on a recent image judged too close to the bone – but the sentiment remains.
The record itself contains much more than just mischievous borrowing, however – with the two-part “Remembrance” re-interpreting Thomas Wyatt’s “old school love poem from the 1500’s” into a feverish, close-harmonied electronic chant. It’s at points like this when some of the record’s most thrilling points thrive, when the juxtaposition between genre, sound and words come together in a brand new light. As Wood explains, “at the end of the day, it’s a love poem – it’s eternal. I just thought of the idea of doing that, in a Prince way – bringing some funk to the 16th century. I like the way the two things meet in this central ground. It’s a good example of what I’m trying to do!”
For those like me who aren’t savvy with Tudor lyric: a reference that might appear more familiar is the nod to Stars In Their Eyes in the title of Wood’s first EP, Tonight Matthew, from an era that crops up in much of Wood’s visual output. “I’m a Saturday night child of the 90’s!” Wood explains of the appeal, “Blind Date, You Bet – when there were only 4 or 5 channels and you had to watch Bruce Forsyth. If you watch that stuff now, it really hasn’t aged well, but you remember it fondly. People were a bit more innocent before the internet – now everyone looks incredibly cool, as it’s possible for everyone to get the memo about ‘what’s okay’. But some of the contestants…it’s brutal, the hairstyles [followers of his Facebook feed will know he’s had a few of his own] and everything. But I thought it was really charming”.
Like so much of Wood’s writing, it’s a breath of fresh air in the context of a dusty trope of modern-day culture: nostalgia. The humour and delicacy of taste with which Wood treats his touchstones feels stylish and familiar, rather than cold and forced. Is that something he’s aware of when he’s styling the aesthetic of what he’s doing?
“I like nostalgia, but we’re at the point now where everything’s nostalgic because no-one knows where anything’s going. I love it – but you have to do it with some style. Right now, when people reference something from the past they do it so brashly. No-one gets any of my references. I could be shooting myself in the foot, but that’s part of the craft. You can’t just write for the lowest common denominator – you’ve got to have a bit of wit. There’s nowhere music can really go now, because everything’s been done – we’re always looking backwards, every piece of music’s looking backwards.”
Any exceptions, I ask?
“SOPHIE. I can’t even begin to explain it. It’s bold as fuck!”
This lack of direction chimes with, for me, the most lasting point of The Ashen Tang. Hedonistic dark tales, being skint, the sense of overwhelming disappointment and lack of self-achievement – these are all symptoms of a late-20’s malaise that Wood’s artistic standpoint movingly unpicks on the record.
“Oh god, yeah – there’s a lot of personal failure on there,” Wood agrees, “a lot of disappointment. Getting a lot of stuff wrong. Being slack, being lazy. Apathy, self-entitlement – very 20’s. I’m in my 30’s now, but all of that stuff was written back in my 20’s, which were just as clusterfucky as everyone’s. Pathologically getting everything wrong, and kind of cleaning up the slack from that.”
It’s best summed up in the lyric of “Clanky Love”, which opens: “I’m not the lightest or the darkest one / I’m in the middle like a tepid grey icy sun”. Above a bright, poppy West Coast piano line, Wood’s words jaunt at a perfect, upbeat walking pace. It’s as if he’s found a comforting contentment in the ordinary – at peace with imperfection. It’s a moving ode to the bittersweet feeling of that age, in realigning your objectives, in finding joy in the average.
“That’s the thing – when you realise that there’s every chance you’re just completely mediocre. You get taught that you’re a special snowflake or what not, and then you get to 28 and realise you’re just a normal snowflake.”
It also contains, to these ears, one of the more funky uses of the word “clanky”. “In that context,” Wood laughs, “it’s just meant to mean bumbling or clumsy. I’m quite shit at life, but I will try to be as good as I can for you – but I probably will be quite shit”.
The grin on his face betrays another of Wood’s great knacks for juxtaposition, where in spite of the album’s darker lyrical content, these songs often glow with a positive heart. A major cadence or seventh chord at the end of a passage helps to pique sad songs with a glimmer of light – reflective of Wood’s infectious personality and spirit.
"You get taught that you’re a special snowflake or what not, and then you get to 28 and realise you’re just a normal snowflake."
“The whole sentiment of the album is that it’s bitter and sweet,” he agrees. “It’s nice to throw those things into the same context.” He goes on to talk about “Ophelia”, a new track included on the upcoming reissue of the record by 37 Adventures, which is “this all-majors ballads, but it sounds really sad. I knew that the lyric was going to be hopelessly miserable,” Wood continues, “so I thought – how can I get something positive out of this? I decided I wouldn’t use any minor chords – so keep the sentiment of the lyric, but only use majors”. It’s hinted, too, in the bittersweet meaning of the album’s peculiar title – in Wood’s words, “the taste of ashes in your mouth, but…tangy ones. Tangy ashes, I like the idea”.
In a modern climate of instant gratification, Wood’s created an album of slow-burning, soulful songwriting – drawing as much from the old as it does the new, and as much from the brutal as it does the beautiful. But where will he turn his creative spark to next, I ask?
“I was happy with it in the end, but I would have really liked to have done it more concisely, in one place, over a couple of months. The classic way of making a record. It ended up being very songwriting based, too, but I really like the other stuff. I’d love to get my voice out the equation and just make some beats!” There is one thing off the cards, too. As Wood explains, “I’m so bored of love songs, generally – so I’m annoyed at myself that I let it slip into my own work so much. At this point, every song’s a love song. For my next thing, I’ll be avoiding it like the plague…”
He’s ever self-deprecating, casting his writing off as too “provincial” and from the “old school method of songwriting, nowhere near immediate enough for the modern world”, but Wood’s growing fanbase and run of sold-out shows suggests that they might be more hope for his craft than he predicts.
As we leave, his beloved Liverpool triumph over Man City 4-1. Long live the underdog.