If music be the food of love, Meilyr Jones is having something of a feast just now. The Welsh singer-songwriter’s debut album, 2013, released, somewhat confusingly, in 2016, revealed a set of baroque pop vignettes on love, romance and being a stranger in a strange land. Born out of an extended trip to Rome hanging out with actors, the record was awash with artful arrangements, orchestral flourishes and references to Shakespeare.
Two years on, and Jones is in Edinburgh, where he is composing a soundtrack and new set of songs for Wils Wilson’s 1960s-inspired take on Twelfth Night, Shakespeare’s cross-dressing rom-com that opens the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh’s autumn season in a co-production with Bristol Old Vic.
“It’s complete madness,” says Jones. “It’s quite full on, working with all these different people. The only thing I find difficult about this is that in a gig, I can change anything at any time. Obviously with theatre you can’t, because with lighting and all that stuff it’s all mapped out, and I think that’s the biggest challenge for me, because I love being able to completely change anything at any point. But what’s exciting about theatre for me, that you see something you’ll never see again, and there’s no record of it. You go there, things happen, and they disappear.”
As a classically trained teenage Beatles obsessive who spent several years fronting well-respected under-the-radar indie band Race Horses, this will be Jones’ first foray into composing for theatre. Given the series of happy accidents and coincidences that led to Twelfth Night, however, he seems like a natural fit.
“I’d worked with Wils on a community project, doing some music with some other people, and enjoyed that,” Jones explains. “We kept in touch after that, and I started getting interested and excited about theatre – not modern theatre. I’m not really interested in modern theatre in terms of big produced theatre. I like bare-bones theatre, like a gig, so it’s happening live and always different and isn’t massively produced.
“We started talking about doing a comedy together, and I’d been reading Twelfth Night when I was away, and then by complete coincidence Wils suggested we do Twelfth Night, so it’s all come from her. She was such an amazing director on those videos, because it was such an amazing thing having such a sharp eye and intelligence, and her idea for story on it.”
Jones’ involvement with Twelfth Night continues Wilson’s use of music as an essential component of her theatre, from the use of border ballads in The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart and directing Karine Polwart in her song cycle, Wind Resistance. Wilson also directed The Insatiable, Inflatable Candylion, a staging of Super Furry Animals vocalist Gruff Rhys’ 2007 solo album, Candylion, penned by Tim Price for National Theatre Wales.
Jones played in the touring band for Neon Neon, another Rhys project with electronicist Boom Bip. Neon Neon had performed as part of Praxis Makes Perfect, another Wilson/Price/NTW collaboration in 2013, and when Jones recorded 2013, he asked her to direct videos for two songs. The results for both How to Recognise a Work of Art and Featured Artist are tellingly theatrical.
Lyrically too, songs such as Don Juan and Strange Emotional are dramatically inclined, while Refugees and Olivia may or may not relate directly to Twelfth Night. The fact that the script for the play was one of the few books Jones took to Italy with him long before Wilson asked him to work on her Lyceum production suggests fate, happenstance and synchronicity were working their metaphysical wiles on where Jones is now.
“I was never really that interested in Shakespeare,” he says, “but for some reason became interested, and Twelfth Night was the first thing that I read. My copy has got has got loads of Italian words in it I was writing down in the back. I met a bunch of Italian actors who were really passionate and obsessed with Shakespeare. I’d never really thought about doing a play ever at that stage. A girlfriend I had was an actress, and she used to read scripts, and I found it such hard work to work out who was saying what, but when I read it I found it completely incredible that something so light could have so much depth.”
An extra element to Jones’ contribution to Wilson’s production comes from a set of home-made instruments built by Giles Leaman, the polymathic artist and musician, who has played with the likes of The Penguin Café Orchestra, Rip, Rig and Panic and John Hegley.
“He’s amazing,” gushes Jones. “I met him in an internet café. He was selling some drums, and I got talking to him, and he’s ended up making some instruments for Twelfth Night, which add a whole new dimension to what we're doing in terms of rhythm.”
Watching Jones in the rehearsal room surrounded by instruments he blows and bangs seemingly at random, this all fits in with his own playful attitude to both music and theatre.
“In our time,” says Jones, “there’s a shyness about the idea of fantasy and magic, and things being playful, where everything has to be serious. Here, there’s a real lightness and magic to things. It’s a real imaginative thing. Even that thing of ‘If music be the food of love, play on, give me excess of it,’ it’s really ephemeral and fleeting, and then it feels like currents coming over you. So it’s nice to do something where you’re going on a journey, and it’s really emotional, but isn’t harrowing.
“Alfred Hitchcock maybe said something about how films shouldn’t be like life. He said he didn’t want to give people a slice of life, he wanted to give them a slice of cake, and I think it’s like that. Rather than going into a theatre and saying, okay, everything has to be about Donald Trump, it’s about the imagination, and the freedom of being able to imagine things turning into other things. But deeper than that, there’s the feeling within the play itself that fate has a force, that basically things can happen to people that they never expected to happen, and out of that there’s transformation.”
Jones is of course expounding on the ideas that power the heart and soul of Shakespeare’s dramatic world-view when he says this. Given his own peripatetic path, from Aberystwyth to Rome, from indie-pop to theatre soundtracks and whatever lays beyond, he could easily be talking about his own life and artistic trajectory.
“That feeling of transformation is really important,” he says. “Rather than thinking that we control everything, sometimes things control us. You’ll fall in love with someone you weren’t expecting to fall in love with. Or you’ll end up shipwrecked somewhere and you’ll have to do the best with what you’ve got, and then something brilliant happens. It’s good to show that aspect of things that are beyond your control.”
Twelfth Night, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh; Bristol Old Vic, October 17-November 17.
The Herald, September 11th 2018