A few weeks ago, Bored In Pittsburgh featured the track “VI II V” by London-based artist Jelly Cleaver. A true polymath, she ties together threads from classic rock, jazz, philosophy, poetry, and politics to create a rich musical experience on both her 2017 debut Cure For An Existential Crisis and her new release The Dream Jazz Manifesto. It’s hard to believe that one person can conjure such an immersive experience from her own bedroom, but Jelly Cleaver pulls it off with aplomb. She was kind enough to share with me her thoughts on music, epistemology, and current events; check it out below.
Who are you? What is Jelly Cleaver all about?
Well, I am Jelly Cleaver. I’ve been playing guitar since I could hold one pretty much, and writing songs on it came pretty naturally. I wouldn’t say I’m a particular genre, I love folk, alternative R&B, classic rock, all kinds of things, but I’m definitely part of the jazz and DIY/punk communities in London.
I always get the cliché question out of the way first: who are some of your influences, musical or otherwise?
In terms of writing music, the things that influence me to write a song tend to be activism, politics, social issues, spirituality and philosophy. I’m not all that into writing love songs. In terms of musical influences I’m a big mix. I love the sixties and seventies, musicians like Joni Mitchell, Curtis Mayfield, Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles. For some reason that period of pop music really speaks to me, maybe because it was the time of the flower child and all the peace and love and revolution business. I’m a big jazz head, loving the blue note era, the classic singers, the greats. I like a lot of what tends to be classed as ‘world music’, I used to lead an African Singing and Drumming Choir and adore flamenco music. I can’t forget Jeff Buckley, I’ve been in love with his voice since I was fourteen. And a couple of modern artists who really push the boundaries of convention, James Blake, Esperanza Spalding, I weep. And I’ve got to pay homage to people on the London music scene, I’ve seen so many mad gigs the last few years I can’t believe it. You’re in a room of about fifty people or less listening to the music of your dreams and you’re just like “I can’t even process what I’m hearing right now”.
How many instruments do you play, and what are some of your favorites? It seems like The Dream Jazz Manifesto features a bit of everything. Any instruments you’d like to learn that you don’t play right now?
I hammer my way though quite a few instruments. Probably a product of trying to be a bedroom producer and having no friends. Guitar is my baby but bass and drums are more fun to play. My absolute favourite instrument to play is the wind chimes. I’ve also recorded myself playing piano, synths, banjo, mandolin, ukulele, harmonica, recorder, percussion and djembe. Of course, being a jazz musician, I would trade all of them to play the saxophone.
The Dream Jazz Manifesto and Cure For An Existential Crisis both seem to revolve around strong central themes. When working on an album, do you start the process with a theme in mind, or does one arise naturally while you’re writing songs?
The strange thing about those albums is that both of them came from different collections of songs which I’d written over a number of years. I lumped them in the two different albums more because of genre and instrumentation than anything but some of those songs I wrote ten years ago now, mostly when I was still a teenager. I really had to have a long sit down and think what the songs meant, and both albums naturally fell into similar conceptual narratives – the breaking down of structures, loss of meaning and existential crisis giving way to activism, community, comfort in nature and death.
Your lyrics touch on some pretty heady topics. What kinds of things inspire you to write?
It’s strange, I often get a song or lyrics pouring into my head almost fully formed. I guess often the inspiration is the subconscious processing of something I’m trying to work out. Turns out it’s mostly spiritual angst and anger at capitalism, who knew!
You have a song on The Dream Jazz Manifesto is called “What Is Understanding.” In your opinion, what is understanding?
Well, that song was inspired by an introduction to Zen by Dr. Suzuki. We actually have little scientific understanding of what understanding is, what knowledge is. One message I took from that is that so much of knowledge is outside human language. When I’m singing “don’t be a slave to your own creation”, part of that message is allowing yourself to “think” outside “thought”, outside language, outside conceptions. The apparent nonsense of Zen teachings and poetry expresses how you could never explain enlightenment, or Buddha, or the meaning of life; the expression goes beyond language. There’s also a lot of interesting philosophical discussion around language, such as Wittgenstein, and scientific discussion by Noam Chomsky. Well, that’s all just part of it, I don’t think I can outline all of epistemology in this interview. But I think mulling over a question like “what is understanding” is a good starting point for unravelling learned structures and thinking a little deeper.
There’s another song on The Dream Jazz Manifesto called “Yarl’s Wood.” What is Yarl’s Wood and what about it made you want to write the song?
Yarl’s Wood is a detention centre in the UK. The whole immigration system in the UK is pretty barbaric. We throw people with uncertain immigration status into detention centres with prison-like conditions, and bare in mind a lot of these people are awaiting asylum claims, they may be rape and torture survivors, and the mental health of people in detention really suffers.
The UK is the only country (currently) in Europe which detains people indefinitely instead of with a month time limit, meaning people can be in detention for months or years with no charge. As it is, 80% of the women in Yarl’s Wood are released without being deported, meaning their lives were completely unrooted for no reason. It’s sickening.
“Yarl’s Wood” is a song about the protests outside the walls of Yarl’s Wood detention centre, where thousands of protesters went and chanted and banged and danced just to show the women inside that we haven’t forgotten about them and that they are loved and that we want to get them out. Ex-detainees led the protests.
I wish everyone knew what was being done in their name by the UK government in terms of detention, deportation and the whole hostile environment, because I honestly hope decent people would not stand for it. I would love for this song to do something to raise awareness.
A lot of your lyrics seem to discuss the dichotomy between hope and despair. With everything going on in England, the US, and the world right now, how do you find hope?
You have to find hope. There is no other way.
On a slightly lighter note, any other local British artists that are worth checking out?
Yes! So many. If I start listing I’ll miss a bunch out but here we go… Nihilism, Invariance, Mermaid Chunky, Stanlaey, Hypernova, Roella Oloro, Waldo’s Gift. All those artists are super fresh and juicy and some don’t have any stuff out yet, but believe me, they’re good.
What comes next for Jelly Cleaver?
Well, I’m planning a UK tour later this year and hopefully lots of festivals next year. I’ve got quite an exciting project I’m working on at the moment so look out for some new music from me coming soon. In the meantime I need to spend more time in the shed (that means practicing guitar for non-jazz-nerds) and I guess at some point I’ll start writing some more tunes too.