Cosmo Jarvis isn’t quite a household name. Yet. The proud author of hundreds of songs, four albums, including a double, and a self-penned, produced and directed feature film, Jarvis’s career trajectory is slowly but surely upwards. Anyone familiar with his work will be aware of the heart-on-sleeve autobiographical nature of many of his songs, along with a powerful ability to tell an engaging and thought-provoking story. TGTF was lucky enough to be able to catch a few words with the man himself before the gig, which we will come to in a moment. But what of the gig itself? There’s no polite way to say this – from his hooded lids to gently shuffling demeanour, Jarvis appears a bit stoned. The band is mostly electric tonight, so the more delicate arrangements are abandoned for a faster, barer approach.
Favourite ‘Love This’ is rushed through in the first couple of songs, and the fear is that some more subtle moments might be lost in the mayhem. But as Jarvis becomes more comfortable with the limelight, things settle down, and the set broadens out into a fine run through of Jarvis’s best moments so far. He’s clearly a fine guitarist, the voice sounds big and powerful, and I’m reliably informed that the man himself is considered to be very attractive to the opposite sex… or to the same sex, for that matter. In a welcome contrast to the modest sets becoming all too commonplace, he kicks on for well over 90 minutes, with little pause. When there is a break in the set, the shout of “Look at the sky!” is rewarded with a rendition of that very song. As a new Jarvis composition, and with the potential to be a true breakthrough track, it bears mention here. A wide-eyed ballad, with a loping, downtempo feel, Jarvis breaks out his finest Transatlantic accent and emotes like his life depended on it, which in a way it does. It’s got great commercial potential, but still contains a gently sardonic lyric, even when it on the surface it’s a love song. Great stuff.
Inevitably the set ends with ‘Gay Pirates’, but there’s few songs which could bring a set to a close so well and with such a final crescendo. There’s such a breadth to the material on offer here tonight, the audience are left with a feeling of tired sufficiency, which of course is a fine excuse to head downstairs to the bar and mull things over with a few pints of imported lager. Milling around in the bar afterwards are Jarvis’s cohorts Dave Egan and Tom Hannaford, co-stars in The Naughty Room, deputising as roadies, merch stand guys, and whatever other tasks they can perform to keep the Cosmo show running. There is the sense that this is a little family business, running on goodwill and a shoestring budget, the absolute opposite of the big corporate shindig going on across town. And all the better for it in terms of credibility.
Before the show, TGTF had a quick chat with Jarvis. He comes across as lucid, easy-going, and utterly candid, with no hesitation in answering some of the more personal questions put to him. This is how it went:
Why do you make the music you do?
I didn’t really try anything else. Music was always the thing. I felt a need to make pieces which were thorough and credible in themselves, and which had to have a good reason to be made in the first place – be that a message, or a story, or a moral argument the audience was supposed to take away from the song. It’s very easy to make a three-minute song that’s just a throwaway description of something. I like proper ideas, fictional stories that are pieced together into a rhyming narrative.
Such as ‘Love This’, where you take on God?
He pisses me off a little bit sometimes. What I find incomprehensible is that some people are incapable of seeing the truth of the point of view expressed within that song. I find the fact that they refuse to consider the fact that their belief may be false more frustrating than the belief in itself. For me it wouldn’t be a lack of faith that would stop me believing, it would be my realising something else; rational thought if you will. Good [not God] isn’t necessary for anything other than our own well-being. Things will still live and die and nobody cares if that happens. We are clearly the ones that need good to be around – to prevent genocide or whatever. So we should be the ones to globalise its necessity, rather than localising it to a God, a God that will limit us in other ways. ‘It was meant to be,’ they always say. Unbelievable.
What’s it like growing up in Devon? You can hear the Southwest influence in your music.
Living in Devon, you’re automatically at a disadvantage if you want to do anything: it’s isolated, and not just geographically. If you’re from there, it doesn’t have a lot going for it. People don’t realise that there are real regular human beings living in the beautiful place of Devon – it’s not all sheep and fields. If you’re skint in Devon, it’s worse than if you’re skint anywhere else. At least in a city there’s things to do, there’s options – all there is in Devon is the pub.
That aspect of Plymouth is pretty well documented in ‘The Naughty Room’.
All the guys in the film, like Dave Egan who plays Subaru, are from Devon; they improvise around the lines that I write, so what you hear is a true reflection of Devon culture. I’m working on next movie with him as well – it’s called Abandonhope, a black comedy about a really vile metal band from Plymouth, who are really skilled at what they do, but they’re making music that doesn’t really need to be made, and that’s what the rest of the world seems to think about them. It’s really about competing with your father’s success, and escaping becoming your father yourself. The character Howard’s father used to be a big metal-head in the ‘80s, but he’s now heavily into drugs, and they play out a stubborn relationship and uncompromising view when it comes to the art of metal, which is their downfall. It’s about realising that you can escape the fate of turning out how your parents wanted you to.
Which brings us to the topic of parents. If I may say, there’s an Oedipal aspect to ‘The Naughty Room’…
I had a very, very weird upbringing. That’s where it comes from, definitely. I try not to let it manifest itself too much in Lars von Trier-like depictions of personal fantasies, but many of the wider viewpoints the story needs to exist, the opinionated philosophies of the film, are because of my background.
But your upbringing doesn’t seem to have held you back – you’re taking inspiration from it…
It’s only bad if you’re very traditional and you go by what society expects your relationship with your parents to be – and I happened to grow up comfortably deviating from that. But at the same time I learned very useful things from people who weren’t my family, and I saw early on that parents are very flawed human beings, with fucked-up heads, agendas, and things they can’t say to you because they’re afraid of how you’ll see them… And to a certain extent you have to take them at face value… until they snuff it! They’re proud of what I’m doing, but it’s still a weird relationship.
Do you feel mainstream?
Do you want to be?
No. Definitely not. Not any more, not after I heard Ludacris confirming what I suspected about the music industry, they whole soundvertising thing, where these girls will be sponsored by soft drinks companies to make music. Professor Green’s got his big advert doing the same thing. With that comes the death of artistic integrity, which is the part I’m dreading. All along the way, I was constantly advised to do the right “business” thing, to change my approach and not piss off Radio1, rather than do what I thought was right for my music at the time. [Presumably a reference to the Radio 1 ban on potential breakthrough single ‘Gay Pirates’ for using the phrase “gang rape”.]
It would be good for the mainstream to at least acknowledge my shit. But I don’t want to be ass-kissed like they ass-kiss Ben Howard.
After which TGTF went off on a tangent asking questions about the technicalities of guitar technique which are far too dull to be repeated here. So let’s just let that last, pertinent answer hang in the air for a second: “I don’t want to be ass-kissed like they ass-kiss Ben Howard.” As fate would have it, two important live shows were happening in London that night, and the other one was the Brit Awards. Indeed, it’s quite possible that Ben Howard was collecting his second Brit of the evening just as Cosmo Jarvis was invoking his name. The comparison between the two artists is entirely appropriate. Both are roughly the same age. Both are from pretty much the same place in Devon. Both are acoustic-y singer-songwriters. The figures are entirely in Howard’s favour – his only full-length album reached number four in the UK, whereas none of Jarvis’ four albums have troubled the charts.
Jarvis boasts a decent 1.5-million views of ‘Gay Pirates’, but Howard dwarfs that with 8 million views even of his pointless cover of Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘Call Me Maybe’, and similar figures for his own material. Howard makes music for coffee tables bought from Next, Jarvis’s voice sounds like he’s just about to cough up a coffee table. Howard makes music that’s as inoffensive as a pint of milk, Jarvis releases a single that questions the very existence of God and then offers to take him for a cup of something Fairtrade. Jarvis releases 9-minute epics featuring stream-of-consciousness questionings of his own sanity, Howard releases safe, four-minute dirges which endlessly repeat the same tired platitudes. Howard is a poster-boy for bland, safe, pointless, unit-shifting music for people who know no better, who have never been exposed to anything more exciting than Pinot Grigio and oven chips, and probably don’t want to be.
Jarvis is an unashamed British eccentric-savant, encapsulating the true meaning and heritage of folk music, executed in a range of different musical and visual forms – imagine Bob Dylan brought up in Devon with an always-on internet connection. Howard spent Wednesday night supping champagne and being photographed by the world’s media; Jarvis spent it slightly stoned, in front of a rapt crowd in a north London pub, being photographed by TGTF. Howard has two Brits, Jarvis has none, and even though that’s the way it should be, it says everything you need to know about the cynicism of the pop music machine as expressed through the prism of mainstream media. One final comparison: Jarvis will still be making music in 10 years’ time, and probably for the rest of his life… but Howard? I’m not so sure.