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Interview – Cosmo Jarvis
August 18, 2012
Cosmo Jarvis is an editor’s nightmare. Seven hundred words I was asked for, for my recent review of his latest album ‘Think Bigger’. First draft was twice that. I reluctantly shaved-off a couple of hundred and handed it in with a disarmingly cheeky smile and crossed fingers. It made it in – all of it.
I like to think that Ed and I share a common conviction; that a review of Cosmo Jarvis transcends mere product. Intrigued by my own research, I was understandably thrilled to be able to pin him down in that always-limited window of opportunity between returning from a promotional tour of Australia and the onset of jetlag.
Harrison Cosmo Krikoryan Jarvis (“my passport name is ‘Harrison’, but people have always called me Cosmo – I guess it has more artistic punch”) has a favour to call-in from the airline which contrived to send him down under and his laptop, hard drives, guitars and clothes to the Abu Dhabi desert. Worry not – his beloved external hard drive ‘Lacie’ was safely tucked-away in his hand luggage and he was eventually re-acquainted with the rest of his belongings, although the arid diversion rendered his insulin unusable (Cosmo is diabetic).
So, calamities aside, how did the trip go?
“Yeah, pretty well I think. The gigs were intimate, acoustic ones and seemed to be well-received – they seem to ‘get me’ over there more than in the UK”.
Cosmo is on the road again from next month, Germany first before returning to the UK in support of fellow-Devon folksters ‘Mad Dog McRea’. Cosmo has recruited a rhythm section and I asked him to contrast this set-up with his tendency to fly solo on his recorded output.
“I’ve always been very possessive of my material creatively and always wanted to control how it’s played, but I think live musicians add to the performance and atmosphere and the stage dynamics are better”.
These themes of support, ‘real’ music and idealism giving way to pragmatism will be revisited later.
I asked Cosmo how ‘Think Bigger’ was being received and he is relieved that reviews are favourable; “relieved”, because predecessor ‘Is The World Strange Or Am I Strange?’ garnered a mean-spirited appraisal from the NME, which Cosmo laughs-off (“I was going to get it printed on T-shirts”), though the fact that he still remembers the journo’s name leaves me wanting to be around should their paths ever cross again.
‘Think Bigger’ is certainly less multi-genre in its arrangements and I posed the question as to whether Cosmo had retreated into his creative shell as a result of the lack of appreciation of his approach.
“Not really. When I started out I had a long-term plan that I hoped would pay-off, but with this album I’m essentially an established artist and I don’t have the same ‘breakthrough’ opportunities that up-and-coming-artists get. It’s not exactly ‘last chance saloon’, but I had to compromise a little. To be honest, I care a bit less about having to do it. Rather than being less musically adventurous, I would call it a deeper exploration of a narrower spectrum of genres”.
Any decisions on possible single releases?
“Not yet – for the UK I thought about ‘Train Downtown’, but it might be a bit too niche rock and the subject matter (a dystopian future) isn’t particularly radio-friendly. In Germany it might be ‘Tell Me Who To Be’ – they tend to have much narrower musical tastes over there”.
The recording has an essentially North American tilt; Cosmo was too young to have imported any personal tastes when his parents crossed the pond from New Jersey, but he was certainly influenced by theirs. By the time he and his friends were ready to sacrifice themselves on the altar of popular culture, they found the UK’s music scene somewhat underwhelming.
“American music just seemed more relevant to our lives, stuff like Creedence Clearwater Revival and Grateful Dead. I’m even listening to some amazing Bulgarian choral music! As far as genre-experimentation goes, there’s no excuse for musical ignorance these days, because everything is so accessible” (practically rather than artistically).
So when you started song-writing aged 12, was this an attempt to redress the balance, or was it therapeutic – a musical journal if you like? (His parents’ marriage eventually disintegrated).
“No, I was just writing random, silly stuff to entertain the kids at school. I couldn’t get away with playing them anything more serious, I would have lost my street-cred. The more serious stuff that came later wasn’t so much therapeutic, but my experiences were a catalyst for song ideas”.
Much of Cosmo’s work – music or film – is social commentary. His website biog describes him as “observant yet naive” (which implies a degree of ignorance – Cosmo Jarvis is anything but). I offer up “disillusioned idealist” and the ensuing conversation meanders through various issues such as parenting standards (including his discomfort at seeing protesters at a local ‘English Defence League’ rally with kids on their shoulders), to his frustration at what he considers a missed opportunity during the student riots (“they had a platform of respect and a profile and there were so many issues they could have addressed and it was just self-interest”.)
Cosmo has finished his latest film ‘The Naughty Room’, a black comedy which challenges the concept of parents being best-placed to influence their children and extols a more discerning approach to seeking guidance. It is borne of a retrospective recognition that his own parents were essentially as flawed as any other human being (“it isn’t strictly autobiographical, but I wouldn’t have had the ideas without having gone through what I did”). The film utilises the unstinting enthusiasm of local youngsters with no acting experience and will get an airing on BBC Four. Herein lies a delicious irony; ‘Gay Pirates’ (the single which should have been a launch pad) was denied Radio One play, supposedly because of some objectionable lyrical content. Hypocritically, they suggested that he might have got away with it had he been a more established artist. Cosmo was not impressed; “in my opinion, they should be delivering legitimate output which grooms listeners to be open-minded, not pandering to the closed-minded”.
Cosmo has always kicked against the ‘networking’ aspect of the business (“people aren’t prepared to take a risk on you unless someone will vouch for you”) but reluctantly accepts that this is a necessity, which should address some issues I touched on in the review. I’d also suggested that Cosmo was spreading himself a bit thin – too many distractions, not enough strategy. With this in mind, I asked him what he’d like to be doing in five years’ time.
“I’ll just ride it and see where it takes me. I’d like to be an actor; the idea of just turning up and being told what to do and getting that instant feedback of how good or bad I am. But as long as I’m still making music, regardless of how commercially successful it is, I’ll be happy”.
What about theme music? (He wrote the music for his film).
“Yeah, that’s something I’m really interested in and still trying to learn. I was asked to write some music for a Barclaycard ad and came up with this classical piece that would have been perfect for a Pixar film – turned out it wasn’t what they wanted”.
“I want a piano, a proper grand piano – I’m fed-up with the artificiality of keyboards”.
Cosmo Jarvis has always tried to make it despite – rather than because of – the intricacies of the music business yet, throughout our conversation, there was a thread of resignation. That he was tired of, and frustrated with, his relative lack of success in trying to do things his way. That’s a shame. There was also a sense of his finding some comfort in the moral-support of having other musicians on stage with him, in being able to defer to other people’s judgement in terms of career strategy, even that envy of the jobbing actor, which hints at the intolerable pressure of responsibility, maybe even dented confidence. However, that long-term plan might yet come to fruition.
I’m happy to admit that I got it wrong. Like the shark that dies if it stops swimming, Cosmo believes that prolific output is the best potential door-opener, and he’s been proved right. Who would have guessed that BBC exposure would come through his film work rather than music? And now that it has, he can vouch for himself. This is important, because Cosmo Jarvis needs to be heard. He needs the opportunity to influence his own generation (one he sometimes despairs of), to encourage them to think more, to question contemporary attitudes, to challenge. Or, as he puts it, “to refuse to recognise the importance that other people place in trivial things”.
Sounds simple, doesn’t it?
‘Think Bigger’ is out now.
‘The Naughty Room’ will be shown on BBC Four on Monday 20th August.