If we were playing word association, after a few listens to Architecture of the Ages the first word that would come to my addled mind is elegance. It’s there in the artwork right down to the final note of the blissful-bosa nova shuffle of Northern Europeans.
We are in the land of musical giants but experiencing the lives, loves and disappointment of flesh and blood people pretty much like you and I. Which giants? Well Bacharach style melodic flare is all over Architecture of the Ages, Burt’s name that gets casually thrown at much less deserving records, but it fits here. Yes of course there are plenty of indie touchstones from Brilliant Corners to Pale Fountains but don’t forget the Hepburns were there representing Wales back at the dawn of C86. Their achievement, and it’s a rare one, is to have evolved over the years while keeping their essence intact. The genius move was to team up with Estella Rosa, one half of jangle poppers Nah…, her honeyed tones are all over this record and it’s all the better for it.
The result is a tight and concise ten song gem that breezes by in 30 minutes.
Single, The Other Side of Grey, swoons and shimmies while Five Miles of Line takes the mundane (a train journey) and elevates it to the heavens, musing on home and belonging along the route.
I’d like to think David Berman would have loved the song referencing a song that is What Was Not Became What Was, if Matt Jones was one to crow about his abilities he’d probably say, ‘see what I did there?’ thankfully though he just leaves us to enjoy the wry, loving cross reference with no more than a knowing wink.
Far be it for me to get political but right now we need stories about real ‘ordinary’ people living in the world rather than a scared and xenophobic nation state. The venerable Hepburns, ably assisted by Estella, give us a warm and affectionate collections of songs that do just that. The whole story of this album is a hopeful one, for all the evils of the internet here it allowed people to connect across borders and create something quite lovely.
But I’ll leave them to explain all that… as Estella asked songwriter Matt Jones a breakdown of all songs below.
The Other Side Of Grey:
Estella: I guess this is where our collaboration started! I remember it started with me being at a station during a stormy October day. Care to elaborate on that?
Matt:”Yes, you were at the station in Haarlem and I was sat at my laptop in Felinfoel. I wanted a lyric that reflected the moment it was written in – well, your moment and mine, but the two stories were taking place simultaneously. It then occurred to me that the contrast between you being on the move and me being motionless was interesting, lyrically. What if I created two characters? One marooned in a big mansion; and the other, observing in a frank but friendly manner, that he was stranded in time as well as space, living off former glories like Norma Desmond. I added some literary references to accentuate the bookishness of ‘the prisoner of time and space’, but also to reference Estella in Great Expectations. Then I contrasted the sterile, bookish world with the extremes of nature – hurricanes and lightning bolts, like in King Lear. I’d never written a duet before, but the dynamic between the two characters, one mobile and active, the other immobile and passive, seemed to work well.”
Five Miles of Line:
Estella: This song is old? Why have you decided to brush it up?
Matt: “The new version is much more up-tempo. We were going to include a slow bossa version on ‘There’s No Such Thing As The Hepburns’ but it didn’t make the cut. It wasn’t just because it was slower. It lacked a certain magic. Speeding up a song won’t automatically improve it, or make it magical, but I thought that it would suit your voice, and the poppier, breezier, sound of the album. I rarely re-vamp old songs but your vocals gave us a whole new set of possibilities. The new version tells me that a song is not a fixed thing but can change into something totally different and come alive in the right hands, or with the right combination of music and voices.”
On The Telephone:
Estella: You have to be from the past to write a song about being on the telephone, right?
Matt: “Right – no point trying to hide it! But what with the current cultural obsession with the past, if The Hepburns are from the past, then we are very much a ‘now’ band as today’s ‘now’ is so besotted with the ‘then’! Seriously though, most our songs are rooted in the here-and-now and reflect the time and place they’re written in. They’re full of ‘real-life’ details, whether that’s a reference to a place like Burry Port or Ferryside, or a telephone conversation. Some people think of us as ‘Eighties throwbacks’, you know, a quaint anachronism from the C86 era, but that’s not how I see things. Perhaps the very fact that I write lyrics with stories in them about actual events is old-fashioned – I get that. But we’re evolving all the time as a band and as rooted in the present as it’s possible for us to be.
Move To Wales:
Estella: When you first sent this, I thought it was an invitation instead of a critique of sorts. Was it inspired by Dudley Moore? How annoying do you find the English living in Wales?
Matt: “Ah, Dudley! I know you’ve got a soft spot for him, too. Most of my cultural reference points occur around the late-60s and that was Dud’s golden era, well, in my mind it was, anyway. The Arthur films and Ten aren’t my cup of tea. So, yes, with some encouragement from you, the song sailed off in a Dud-ward direction. As for the English living in Wales – ha! – I don’t find it annoying. I moved from England to Wales myself in 1972. The song is about an English writer who moves to Wales to write the great Welsh novel, and who becomes a fervent advocate of Welsh independence. In other words, it is about a curious anomaly.”
Seagulls On A Frozen Lake:
Estella: Obviously about the states of flux and stasis?
Matt: “Yes. The lyric mentions a vision of hell as imagined by William Blake. What could be more hellish than an endlessly repeating cycle of identical days – apart from being permanently on the move and never being able to settle? ‘Seagulls’ is rooted in the pandemic, a time when people have experienced the exquisiteness of doing practically nothing, while having their wanderlust stoked to boiling point. I must admit I’ve enjoyed sitting here in my draughty house in Wales, day after day, drinking tea and reading Kate Atkinson novels, but I’m not sure I could survive an eternity ‘with a paperback and a cup of tea’, as the song says. Some chocolate might help, mind.”
Estella: The song is about a Dutch “legend” of The Mermaid of Edam or the Purmer Meermin, a tale that intrigued me for ages. You gave this ancient story a twist and decided to combine it with the Raid On The Medway. Why?
Because I’ve got too much time on my hands?! You sent me the story of the Purmer Meermin and while I loved the fish-out-of-water tale, I wanted to ‘write back’ to the myth and to give the Mermaid some power. I mean, she’s a mermaid, right? A semi-aquatic superhero. We were looking for another duet and I thought this was a chance to build upon the characters and dynamic in ‘Grey’. So, what better place to start than the naval wars between the Dutch and the British?! The story starts in England in 1667 during the reign of Charles II and the Medway Raid, then flashes back to North Holland in 1403, when the mermaid is taken captive by the people of Edam. She is taken to Haarlem then escapes – with help from a local, but under her own steam. She returns to her natural habitat, the Zuiderzee, where she lives for two centuries, until one night in 1667, when she rescues the young British sailor whose ship was sunk by the Dutch on the Medway. She rises above her mistreatment by humans to help the stricken teenager, regardless of his nationality or species. This would make a good film – like The Shape of Water – but it would have to go some to rival the song, which owes most of its emotional power to your incredible vocals.
What Was Not Became What Was:
Estella: This song was inspired by songwriter David Berman. The title is confusing. What do you mean by it?
David Berman is my favourite lyricist. He wrote a song called ‘What is not but could be IF’. However, I misheard the lyric as “What is not but could be IS”. This seemed a very fine title to me: what if the latent, the possible, the ‘could-be’ was granted the status of actual being? Hamlet wouldn’t have to worry about whether to be or not to be if not-but-could-be were a state of being. Suddenly, the conditional tense would belong to the land of the living, rather than to philosophers, poets, and dreamers. I was disappointed to discover the actual title but realised that my very mistake was tangible proof that ‘what is not but could be is’. I vowed to make good on the situation and to write a song, which I knew would convert my error into something more tangible than logical proof, namely – a song!
Creature Of The In Between:
Estella: Your gorgeous ode to the postman, the invisible mediator. What inspired it and have you been listening to Steely Dan lately?
To answer your second question first – yes! As you know, I held Steely Dan in some disdain before you pointed me in the direction of ‘Aja’. My rites of passage and early musical tastes were supervised by John Peel, punk, new wave, indie, etc. Upon hearing Aja, my old punk prejudices evaporated like clouds of spittle in a Clash gig! The inspiration for the lyric was Vic Godard, the ‘godfather of punk’ who became a postman, and a video made by Mandy Prowse of his final post round. The video is a gem. It shows Vic talking us through his round, the old Georgian and Edwardian houses – the ‘architecture of the ages’. I loved the idea of this brilliant songwriter delivering mail to people who probably had no clue who he was – if they ever even saw him. He was my musical hero in one era, long ago, and then he was someone’s postman in another – like Elvis driving taxis for Uber! He’s still writing and performing with The Subway Sect, of course, so I’ve used some poetic licence here.
Lockdown To Liverpool:
Estella: My Norwegian friend Ole insisted on us using a song written by him and his brother Jørn, as he, like you, is a bit of a song factory. It works really well and is starting to lead its own life in Norway. But you have never done anything of the sort. Would you do it again?
Yes, of course. I loved co-writing with the Åleskjær brothers. It’s the combination of the beautiful chord progression and your vocals which make this song. It’s a beautiful song and I’m not surprised it’s leading its own life in Norway – I wish it all the best! I have co-written songs once before with my friend from Tasmania, Anthony Rochester. As with Jørn and Ole, I was the lyricist on that occasion. I’m hoping to work with Jørn and Ole on some of their new material, and possibly with Heiko Schneider and TheCatherines, too. The world needs a Catherines-Hepburns collab! And last but not least, there’s the new material that we’re working on ourselves – quite a lot of it, as you know!
Estella: I thought it sounded like Cat Stevens, Hywel said Albert Hammond. You insisted on it, and decided to give it this name you alway wanted to use. Aren’t you afraid the “woke” movement is going to interpret this wrongly?
Matt: The song is an anti-Brexit statement and a celebration of our collaboration with you, but also Jørn and Ole – so – a woman from Holland and two Norwegian brothers. It would be a real shame if a song celebrating this joyful project of ours caused any offence, but I apologise if that is the case.