Saint Saviour: “the more naturally dour I become, the more upbeat my music is”

Rebecca Jones talks letting in the light on her upcoming new solo album, Sunseeker

As the vocalist of Groove Armada, Rebecca Jones spent years in front of enormous crowds, dancing maniacally in spectacular bodysuits. But in reality, the artist from Stockton-on-Tees is a much shyer and more downcast character than her formidable stage presence would suggest. That’s where the close-to-the-heart songs of her solo project, Saint Saviour, come from. Jones’s voice is gentle and light, often harmonising with regular collaborator Bill Ryder-Jones, and it floats upon delicate folk and chamber-pop arrangements. The core of Jones’ songwriting is her melodies – that’s where every song begins – and the result is songs that feel like gossamer yet are deeply emotionally vivid.

On 22 March Jones releases her fourth album as Saint Saviour, Sunseeker. The sonics this time are indebted to 1960s pop, particularly French yé-yé songwriters; there’s a warm, jubilant undertone to all of it. This was deliberate. Jones was writing about her experience of being a mother to two young children, at the same time as mourning the loss of her own mother. Through all of this, she felt what she needed was – as the album’s title suggests – to focus on joy and light. 

This isn’t a deliriously happy album, however. In fact, Jones’ lyrics are constantly engaged in sadness and struggle. ‘A Picture Is All I Have’ (a duet with The Maccabees’ Orlando Weeks) is a heartbreaking encapsulation of grief, while ‘I Just Can’t Take The Risk’ (which features dream-pop duo Jadu Heart) is about the difficulty of sharing your heart with someone. Yet on tracks like ‘Better Than’ (a track directly addressed to Jones’ children, as is the gorgeous closing track ‘Little Bee’) and ‘Poetry’, Jones settles on a tone of gentle encouragement, to accept life’s mysteries and find beauty in them. 

This month Jones will perform a string of three shows as Saint Saviour – her first in nine years – and here she sits down to chat about the making of Sunseeker and the run-up to getting back onstage.

Saint Saviour - A Picture Is All I Have (feat. Orlando Weeks)

Sunseeker came from the idea of trying to bring about some brightness and warmth in your music. Are you generally a person who finds the bright side of things?

My psyche has always been fairly dark. I get into low moods quite easily. I heard a quote by G.K. Chesterton the other day, and it’s, “Solemnity flows out of men naturally, but laughter is a leap.” That really resonated with me, and it seemed to sum up the idea of Sunseeker – I’m just searching for lightness. I try to do that musically as well. I was looking for ways to make the music feel brighter, and maybe even a bit bolder, a bit more fun and a bit more technicolour. I think as I’ve gotten older, and the more naturally dour I become, the more upbeat my music is. It’s just this weird paradox. So I feel like maybe in my songwriting practice I am searching to kind of cheer myself up a bit. 

You’ve talked about wanting to impart certain messages to your children through these songs. Do you feel like that’s a responsibility you have as a parent?

Yeah, there’s a few different things at play. Partly, one of the things I’m conscious of is leaving words behind, leaving ideas behind. And self-editing as well. Parenting is just one of the biggest – well, it’s the biggest challenge I’ve ever experienced by a million miles. And so in the heat of the moment, it’s very hard to make sense of things and say what you mean. So I was very conscious of putting words onto paper and onto a record that will speak for me when I’m gone. I became very conscious of mortality and the shortness of life in recent years, so it’s very much like I’m trying to leave messages behind, like a kind of legacy. 

Quite a lot of my songwriting, just the natural thing that is going on in my mind all the time is, what is this? What am I doing? Am I doing this right, am I doing it wrong? Because I don’t have any female elders. So I don’t have anyone to turn to and ask, was I like this, or did I do this, or how did you cope with this? So I think in my songs I’m sort of trying to work this stuff out for myself and for my kids.

Saint Saviour - Be Gentle (Official Video)

Do you think that becoming a parent has changed your perspective as an artist?

Yeah, I think it’s something that happens to everyone in any context, whether you’re a songwriter, an artist, or you’ve got a normal 9-to-5 job. Your perspective just completely shifts. So you’re no longer mining your own consciousness or your own needs and wants. They don’t go away, but you generate this brand new idea of, it’s not all about me. You achieve a bit more balance where you’re not so self-obsessed, you’ve got to think of other people. Not just my children either; it’s just literally, you stop obsessing about yourself and you take yourself a bit less seriously. 

Musically, the album has this super 60s-inspired sound. What do you like about that sound, and how did you go about creating it in the studio?

That was part of me trying to find that brightness and boldness. So I was trying to work out, what kind of upbeat music do I like and how could Saint Saviour be upbeat? I have to put my voice at the centre, because my voice is very gentle. And so I’d be thinking, okay, what kind of upbeat music goes with a gentle voice? And I got thinking about singers like Margo Guryan and lots of French pop like Françoise Hardy and the Gainsbourg family. 

One of the sounds that I really love is the sound of the nylon-string guitar, so we did a lot of recording of Bill [Ryder-Jones] – I’d give him the chords and then he’d work out plucked arrangements around chords. So quite a few of the songs are layered up with nylon-string counter-rhythms and counter-melodies. [And] across the album there’s lots and lots of mellotron organs and vibraphone and flutes and piano. And lots of Motown drums, and very sort of 60s big wall of sound drums.

Saint Saviour - Better Than (Official Video)

You’ve got these shows coming up, your first live shows in a long time. How are you preparing for them?

It’s becoming a challenge for me, because across all of my albums and thinking about the songs that are popular, they’re so diverse in sound and style. So it’s a real challenge for me to make the songs work in a set. So that’s what I’ve been trying to do, is just think about the songs that are popular, but also think about the songs that work together, and then trying to sew them together. I’m definitely wary of how it’s going to go and what it’s going to sound like, because I really feel like it’s been a million years since I’ve gone on stage with the Saint Saviour music. 

What excites you the most about getting back into the live shows?

I really love performing, I love just being onstage and looking people in the eye. I suppose in a sort of egocentric way, it is an amazing feeling to be onstage and people are listening. It’s just a really incredible feeling of human connection. And as a sort of shy person, I don’t necessarily seek that a lot in my day-to-day life. But when I get onstage, it feels different. It just feels like, wow, I’m connecting with people, and it feels very profound. 

Saint Saviour plays Stockton-on-Tees on 28 March. Find tickets here.

Sunseeker is released on 22 March, available to buy here.