WORDS CHARLIE NEWMAN - PHOTOGRAPHY EVA PENTEL - FASHION SOPHIE EMMETT
Singer-songwriter Rhys Lewis's musical journey began like everyone else’s, disappointingly bland on the recorder. But it grew more colourful as he watched his mum dress up for themed Motown nights at the local village hall, dancing to Jackson Five and the Supremes, and obsessing over his dad’s extensive record collection, favouring Led Zepplin and AC/DC. Growing up in the provincial pastures of Oxfordshire, Lewis mastered the grades in clarinet and guitar, but having learnt the blues from his dad, he fell for the latter, “when you’re a kid you just want to express yourself in a way that relates to you at the time and for me that was guitar.”
Download/Listen to Rhys Lewis' In Between Minds EP
OPENING IMAGE: Rhys wears padded gilet NORSE PROJECTS; denim jacket FRENCH CONNECTION; t-shirt and beane ARTIST’S OWN
The teenage cliché continues, his first gig was at the Birmingham NEC to see Rush and he religiously followed the NME line up, “I just remember them always being so sweaty, getting there really early to get to the front, trying to get your mates older brother to buy you a pint and then going mental at a song and just throwing it. Now when I see that at a gig I just look at them and think, ‘What idiots!’ but at the time you think you’re the coolest kid in the room!” Lewis’s love of music bloomed further once he felt the buzz of performing live for “a cover band in town halls for functions and things, even then you could see how music was powerful enough to change a vibe completely in a room.” He studied songwriting at LCC and struggled to settle into life in the Big Smoke. So far so normal, but Lewis’s voice and view on the world is anything but.
Rhys wears jacket STORY MIG at www.mrporter.com; t-shirt ARTIST'S OWN; trousers MAISON KITSUNE
Once his throaty voice soars over his guitar, lamenting on all things from heartbreak to loneliness, to mental health, you can’t help but be transported to one of the great soul, rock and blues artists from another era. Lewis’s appreciation for the past goes much further than simply the sound he projects but also the creative process, preferring to record on tape in his South Bermondsey studio with co-producer and keys player Aidan Glover. Before you make any presumptions, this isn’t an attempt to sound kitsch or pretentious, “not for an old school sound, more for an old school method because obviously you can’t chop in and edit the whole time. I would much rather have a whole sound, a certain energy, and mood that runs through it from beginning, middle and end. Music has a tendency to lose that when you’re working from a computer because everything’s to a grid and you start producing with your eyes and not your ears. Not only do you get a better sound on tape but you also get a more fulfilling perspective on the sound of your music, that’s been a really great shift for me. Don’t get me wrong it is slower but hopefully, it’s worth it and you can hear that it feels more considered and centered.”
Lewis defies the fast-paced world of music we live in today, preferring quality over quantity. As a teenager, he recorded 8 songs a day for his brother’s band, whilst now he enjoys nothing more than “moving a piano around a room and testing different mikes to get the right sound and atmosphere. I’m so much more patient, I love that part of the process so much. I’m not trying to criticise anybody who can create a song in a day, because that can work and that’s amazing, but I think there is more of a danger creating songs that way.”
Rhys wears shirt MAISON KITSUNE; t-shirt URBAN OUTFITTERS; jeans LEE JEANS
His attention to detail is certainly paying off, with sold-out tours across Europe, supporting fellow British singer-songwriter James TW on his European tour and drawing in 3 million listeners monthly himself on Spotify- and counting, Lewis has a lot to look forward to. Rhys doesn’t take social media too seriously, he, of course, understands their significance but not at the expense of his art and wellbeing, “the more you invest in these outlets, the more unhappy you basically become. Likes are a form of currency. If you use it you can’t get away from it.” He chooses not to use socials for his personal life, instead employing his artist pages/channels as a means to communicate with his abundant fans.
When speaking of social media and its effects, Lewis sights his 14-year-old cousin for example, who thinks about the colour scheme of her Instagram. “We all see ourselves as entrepreneurs in a sort of Neo-Liberal way. Weirdly that’s infiltrated the minds of the consumer to see ourselves as a commodity. We’re all hyper-aware. It’s not a new phenomenon to have a brand and a style but now it feels a bit more explicit and less personal. It feels more curated as a consumer market place rather than of personal interest and originality.” This has filtered down into the music industry too, what with some artists now making music purely to get on a certain Spotify playlist, a managerial move maybe but also a game Lewis isn’t interested in, “music is there to make you feel something so you can’t make something that’s purely designed, it has to be real.” It’s Lewis’s authenticity that shines through, with a finger on the zeitgeist, his lyrics push boundaries. In ‘Better than today’ for example, “we’re all reaching for something, we’re all craving change, hoping tomorrow is better than today.”
Rhys wears jacket and sweater AMERICAN APPAREL
But unlike those safe artists, Lewis stands his ground, “I don’t want to have success on someone else's terms. If you listen to too many people’s opinions then it no longer becomes your music.” His main concern is directed at the lack of control over his music, “as soon as it goes onto the internet it becomes a product, so even if you make something with certain intentions, people then view it as commerce. It’s this weird thing I have about being honest, open and genuine, but then knowing that there’s this pay off to the whole thing. Sadly when you put music out there your relationship to the music changes; my label starts thinking in numbers, and my manager in ticket sales, etc. Suddenly your value in the music becomes insignificant compared to the financial sides of things and the streams or the audiences.” Lewis seems to have resolved this inner battle by stripping it back to its core, “I feel like I’ve already made it because I get to go to a studio and make a record and put my heart and soul into it. If you can enjoy that bit, then you’ve made it! I’m not compromising. The process is it. I enjoy the details in life so much more because I’m now looking at my music with such a magnifying glass.”
Indeed Lewis’s whole life has become enriched by his meticulous and fastidious nature, even coming up with a solution for the warped world of the internet, “Social Media is a drug but all other addictive substances like smoking, for example, is banned until your 16. I think there should be more laws on phones because it’s simply damaging, there has to be some form of policy. A phone, let’s face it, is more important now to people than their passport- there’s more information on your phone then there is on your passport. I think your phone should be regarded as highly as your passport, so everything on their needs to be valid. You plug it in, you need to put your passport number in there and then your age. There’s so much out there on the internet, we need to protect people.” Impressive, eh? Not just another singer-songwriter wearing his heart on his sleeve after all.
Rhys wears shirt NORSE PROJECT; trousers FARAH; shoes R.M. WILLIAMS
To understand the fleeting nature of success within such a fast-paced and transparent industry is something even artists with decades of career behind them struggle with, but Lewis has an innate sense of perspective beyond his 27 years. “If you love music then you should make music you love because then there’s no doubt that you’ll love what you do. If you make music you don’t really stand by then you won’t enjoy it. It becomes such a lottery with what music becomes big. We all know those really bad songs can do really well and some of our favourite artists are ignored. The whole scene is so unpredictable, so as long as I can make music that I love then hopefully other people can hear that. Only then you can control the process and the process is all you have control over really.” It’s this exact process in the studio that he’ll be devoting his entire summer to, so don’t expect to see him performing at many festivals. It’s a highly risky and respectable move for him not to be racing his way through the music industries relentless treadmill, rather choosing to practice what he preaches. So who does he respect within the industry now? Sam Fender, Billie Eilish, and Lianne La Havas “her voice makes me melt.”
It’s not all profound thoughts but profanities too. When asked what his favourite F word is, like the British bloke he is, Rhys, of course, chooses fuck, and food if he can’t swear-two pretty solid answers for a pretty solid guy. “What would you do without the word fuck? I use it all the time and get told off by mum for it. It’s such a good word you can use it so many situations, in anger or surprise. I’m not saying it to be the bad boy, it’s just such a good release.” And so we wait impatiently for his next release, although somehow I don’t think Mum will be letting him swear in it.
Words: Charlie Newman
Photographer: Eva Pentel
Fashion: Sophie Emmett
Fashion assistant: Elshadai Gore
Rhys wears shirt MAISON KITSUNE; t-shirt URBAN OUTFITTERS; jeans LEE JEANS; shoes R.M. WILLIAMS
Rhys wears shirt YMC; t-shirt STYLIST'S OWN; trousers FRENCH CONNECTION; shoes ADIDAS
Rhys wears jacketj LEE JEANS; shirt ALL SAINTS; t-Shirt ARTIST’S OWN; trousers FRENCH CONNECTION; shoes SUPERGA