Spike Lee was the mentor of Kyle Bell in the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative 2020 - 2022. Photo by Arnaud Montagard / Rolex
Jarvis Cocker
Photo by Tom Jamieson

Jarvis Cocker: “It’s like seeing into the future”

Short Profile

Name: Jarvis Branson Cocker
DOB: 19 September 1963
Place of birth: Sheffield, England, United Kingdom
Occupation: Musician, singer, songwriter

Jarv Is's new album Beyond the Pale is out now via Rough Trade.

Mr. Cocker, has your relationship to music changed over the years?

Probably, yeah. The first time you go into a studio and you record something, that changes your relationship to music quite fundamentally. From it being something that you listen to as an aficionado, suddenly you've made something and then in a way, it kind of spoils or breaks the spell a little bit. You've seen behind the scenes of how it's done, and it alters your relationship to music.

And does that also influence how you consume music afterwards?

Only in a way where when I was playing a lot of concerts and touring a lot, I didn’t have much time to search out new music. That was the good thing about when I wasn't playing concerts, I did a radio show on the BBC in England, and I got sent a lot of new music, and that kind of woke me up again. But I've never had a period where I've not listened to music at all. The stuff that I do listen to has changed over the years. And then there are some songs that still move me whenever I hear them even after like 40 years.

“That's the good thing about music; you can't quite define why it works, but you know when it does.”

There are some songs you just never see yourself getting sick of, even if the meaning changes over time.

A song can mean something to you when you're a kid, but you don't really understand what the words are about most of the time. And then maybe you hear it 20 years later, and you suddenly realize a whole new story going on in that song. And I think that's quite extraordinary. An example in my life is a song by a guy called Gordon Lightfoot, who didn't write that many good songs but there's one song called “If You Could Read My Mind.”

That was a hit in the seventies, right?

Yeah, and when I was a child, I was kind of scared of this song because he kept talking about being able to see inside his head. It frightened me. And then when I heard the song on the radio maybe five or six years ago, after not hearing it for a long time, it's obviously a story about relationships and how in relationships, you can never tell what's going on in somebody else's mind. It’s an adult song, and the adult side of it completely passed me by! But it still didn't stop me from appreciating it in my childhood. That's the good thing about music. It's different to films and books in a way that you can't quite define why it works, but you know when it does work.

And that’s true of music even after the childhood wonder has worn off.

Right, it’s still mysterious in later life! I still find that you can be grabbed by a song and you can't really say why it is. If a song moves you or touches you in some way, it might be something to do with the lyrics or the story or something — but it's usually a combination of things and it's something that you can't quite describe. That’s the amazing thing about it.

As a songwriter yourself, do you often find yourself thinking about another artist’s lyrics?

Well, Leonard Cohen has always been important to me. My first time listening to Leonard Cohen was quite a mind-blowing experience — I guess because of his use of words. His songs were melodic and accessible, but they weren't trying to be like a pop song. And they were talking about grown up relationships. And for me that at the moment I listened to him, it was like music grew up, it moved from being an adolescent thing to being a thing that could talk about what it was like to be an adult. I think that was a big revelation to me. So, sometimes it's almost like seeing into the future.

“I just used words, I didn't know where they came from, but they ended up kind of telling a story that I couldn't really appreciate until I was a bit older.”

What do you mean?

A word or a line from a song sticks in your mind and then it’s almost like somehow you premonition that that piece of information was going to be useful later in your life. And I think that can also work with your own songs. I've found when I write lyrics, some of it’s thought out, but a lot of it is kind of spontaneous and something that maybe sounds right or feels right to me at the time. And sometimes I'm not always sure what a song means, I just have to know that it feels right to me and feels genuine. And sometimes it's happened that I may be out and listen to or perform a song three, four years after it was written and suddenly realize more about why I wrote it.

Can you give me an example?

Like the Pulp song “This is Hardcore” was written at a time where I was not very happy and not in a good place, psychologically, and the words were written when I was completely intoxicated, and so I couldn't even remember having written it. And yet when I played it years later, I realized that it's a song about the situation that I was in at that time, and it expresses it in in a pretty good way. But I wasn't aware of that at the time, I just used words, I didn't know where they came from, but they ended up kind of telling a story that I couldn't really appreciate until I was a bit older.

Is it important that your music tells a story in that precise way?

I always liked songs to have a narrative, yeah. If you're brought upon a diet of TV and films, things are woven together in some way, and I think people instinctively would kind of wish that their life was like that, you want your lifetime story. Well, one way to create that story is to write songs. And I think I have used that a lot through my earlier life to try and give my life a bit of internal structure because it didn't have an external structure. I left school, I was unemployed for a long time… I didn't do any kind of normal things that would give your life a structure, so I had to kind of invent one for myself.

In your new album Beyond the Pale, there’s a lyric that asks “Must I evolve?” And your bandmates answer, “Yes, yes, yes.” Is that a personal narrative for you? Are you always pushing yourself to evolve?

Yeah, I was really aware of it for this record, I thought because it had been such a long time since the last one — I made Further Complications in 2009 — I thought there was no point in making a new record unless it was different in some way. I had to have something new to say, but that it would also say something about me, that it would be in some ways yet another level in my development. And so I was very aware that I wanted the record to be some form of evolution, for it to have moved on somehow. And for a long time I wondered how I was going to do that.

“That's the story of this stage of evolution, it’s letting other people in and seeing how combining your ideas with theirs can lead to something neat.”

And how did you find your answer?

Strangely enough, the answer was to be in a band — which is, if you think about it, really ridiculous that I didn't realize that because I've been in a band! That's how I started when I was 14 years old. But as soon as I got a band together now, and Serafina, Emma, Andrew, Adam, and Jason came in, I realized that that was what was going to help me make a difference. That's the story of this stage of evolution, it’s letting other people in and seeing how combining your ideas with theirs can lead to something neat. And learning not to try and control every step of the journey.

Would you say that’s true of life, too? That giving up a bit of control can help in your personal evolution?

It’s interesting because you have to have an idea of who you are. I think the problem is that a lot of modern stories, like if you think back to say Citizen Kane or even Scarface or something like that, they're all like people who try and control things, who tried to be the top dog and it always ends up being a disaster because you can't control life. It's too complicated. It's too complex. It's too interesting, really, to be controlled. Life is about the right to complex diversity, and that's what makes it interesting. And once you kind of open yourself up to that and just say, “Okay, bring it on, let's see what happens,” life becomes so much more interesting.

There’s also a certain amount of ego connected to trying to control everything.

Sure, and the ego is useful because you might not get out of bed in the morning if you didn't have any, you can't just be that passive. But I think just to open yourself up, you will notice things more, I think that's the thing. Instead of being stuck in your head, thinking about what this should be, this has to be this way and this has to be that… If you're thinking like that all the time you miss what's going on. You know, I'm 57, and when I was when I was younger, I would have thought that is like the middle age, that's an old guy. I mean, nobody likes to get old. But I do think it does give you a bit more of a perspective. And I think the only one of the few positive sides is that you just might get to know yourself and know the good things about yourself. And that's why I always come back to songwriting. It's the way I kind of try and make sense of my life.