In this interview with Liam O’Donnell, the man behind the fabulous new band Various Cruelties, we chat about his music influences, his possible connection to the late Amy Winehouse and how his debut song to the world, ‘If It Wasn’t For You’, came about. Read on…
Hello Liam. What are you up to today? And where are you?
I’m at home. Waiting to be reconnected to the Internet.
Your band’s press bio says that the name ‘Various Cruelties’ is taken from a painting by American pop artist Ed Ruscha of the same name. (View it here.) How did you decide on this name? What drew you to Ruscha’s artwork?
I came across his artwork pretty much by chance. I knew very little about him. As soon as I saw his artwork I thought it was brilliant. There’s several pieces that I thought were pretty special. However, after seeing the ‘Various Cruelties’ painting I couldn’t get it out of my head. It seemed to resonate with my character and the music I was trying to make. It seemed to fit perfectly.
The New York City-based indie band the Drums have indicated film has influenced them and their music greatly. Considering you named your band after someone else’s painting, is the visual (painted) medium where you draw an important influence for your music?
I draw influences from lots of different things. Not only paintings, but also written words or tv or film can figure in my mind when I’m creating something. I think whatever it is, it normally finds me rather than the other way around.
People have described the Various Cruelties sound as being tinged with Motown and soul. How would you respond to that? Or rather how do you explain that a kid from Leeds got into that kind of music and decided to make music from that vein?
I guess I was intrigued by the sound of those old records and also their longevity. I also had a couple of friends who ran Northern Soul nights in Leeds and who used to dress like mods. It was something that I was drawn towards and I used to like hanging out with my pals. It’s not just soul and Motown, I’m a fan of everything, so long as it’s good. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve been able to listen to pretty much anything I wanted. Its as easy to listen to the Kinks as it is to the Arctic Monkeys on YouTube. In terms of making music, I generally just make music that I like.
I also feel like you might have had a kindred spirit in the late Amy Winehouse. Agree or disagree, and why?
It’s hard to say if Amy Winehouse is a kindred spirit. But I remember I was in Los Angeles when I heard she had passed. The video for ‘Tears Dry on Their Own’ is shot along the Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame. One of the things that struck me walking around there was the thought of that video and of Amy singing that song at her peak. I couldn’t claim to have met her but am undoubtedly a massive fan. Everyone knows that sentiment poured out of her songs. They seemed totally real. There’s not many singers I would pick to listen to over her to tell the truth either. She was an utter genius in my mind.
Who do you consider your biggest musical heroes? Who helped you / how did you discover them? What effect have they had on your musical direction?
My mother was a singer. So growing up, it was just one of those things that was taken for granted in our house. I didn’t particularly love it all the time, but it was always something I reckoned I could do. When I was about 16 I was shown how to play ‘Honky Tonk Woman’ by the Rolling Stones on guitar. That was it. From there I found out about loads more music from that era including soul, Motown, Dylan, that sort of thing. I was a big fan of hip-hop too. Found lots of soul music through that.
Who do you aspire to be like and why?
I aspire to be successful, but apart from that probably myself.
Let’s examine the first Various Cruelties song that people probably came across, ‘If It Wasn’t For You’. The twangy guitar intro reminded me of Dusty Springfield’s songs for some reason, or maybe great ’60s guitar instrumentals. Am I in the right ballpark? Talk me through this song and how it came about?
Yes you are, actually. This song actually started as very sparse piano demo. Literally just piano and vocal. It was quite a dear song to me and I knew that it had a soulful edge to it. I’d spent hours listening to Etta James and other stuff like that. So I had an idea that I’d try it out in the studio a bit more like that. It came together really quickly and the version your familiar with took about an hour to complete. It was quite spontaneous and I think that’s evident in the recording.
I first heard about Various Cruelties thanks to a New Favourite Band feature you did with Steve Lamacq on his 6music show a while ago. Describe what it was like to be interviewed by Lammo at the 6music studios.
Beanie took a picture of me on my phone that day at the BBC. I can’t really describe the look on my face. I think it’s bewilderment. I tried to sound cool but not sure I was. It was the first time we’d ever done anything like that. It’s great that Steve Lamacq is a fan of Various Cruelties. He’s a very well respected guy. We also got to play his stage at Camden Crawl, which was tremendous.
I believe this headlining tour of the UK for September and October (dates here) are your first big set of live dates, is that right? How have you and your band prepared for it? Are you elated? Nervous?
Well, we’ve done about a week of rehearsals for it. (We’re) also coming off the back of a set at Bestival, which we thoroughly enjoyed. We’re excited to be having the opportunity to play to as many people as possible. One of the dates is in my hometown (of) Leeds, so I will be a bit nervous about going back there.
Finally, what’s next in the pipeline for Various Cruelties?
Besides our new single ‘Chemicals’ coming out on the 3rd of October [see video below - Ed.], there will be a couple of shows towards the end of year. All being well, our debut record should hopefully be out early next year as well.
Many thanks to Kat for sorting this interview for us at TGTF.