By Dan Charles.
Constantly listening and re-listening to Jeremy Loops’ latest album for this cover story has caused a major disruption within the sombre and sardonic echo chamber that has been the recent state of my Spotify algorithm. Right from the start of the perky synth stabs and syncopated reggae-pop rhythms of the opening track “It’s All Good”, I could picture the perplexed-looking streaming-service- avatar of Elliot Smith looking up to me to ask: “Really? Is it all good?”
As someone who routinely listens to a curation of songs tailored to hurt my own feelings, it comes as no surprise to me that I would meet a song called “It’s All Good” with a great deal of resistance – shielding myself from its unbridled optimism with a callus of cynicism that is grown when one bestows an imbalanced amount of reverence towards art that tends to eclipse any hint of earnestness with a veil of anguish or irreverence. However, to completely succumb to one’s cynicism would be to wholly disqualify the courage that is shown when an artist puts in the work to allow themselves to be earnest and vulnerable in what they create.
Much like the meticulously stitched album cover created by the masterful embroidery-artist Danielle Clough, Heard You Got Love is an immaculately crafted folk-pop offering with a rich sonic tapestry that is bolstered by an impressive ensemble of collaborators such as Ed Sheeran and the incomparable Ladysmith Black Mambazo. But the beauty of this record lies within the core values woven within the songs – the importance of human connection and the fragility that comes with growing into and accepting one’s self, all tied together with a golden thread of Loops’ unbridled optimism.
Loops’ ability to process the things in life that force us to grow as people – pain, disillusionment or the collective trauma of the 2020 pandemic – is what has propelled his colossal trajectory as a performing artist, amassed him a devoted global following and enabled him to sell out multiple headline tours across the world. Because the best art has the ability to impart meaningful lessons that can teach us how to live or, at least, how to aspire to live, but this can only be done effectively when the art is presented earnestly and devoid of any cynicism.
In an essay written about watching Carly Rae Jepsen performing live in 2016, poet and music journalist Hanif Abdurraqib wrote: “This is the difficult work: convincing a room full of people to set their sadness aside and, for a night, bring out whatever joy remains underneath; in a world where there is so much grief to be had, leading the people to water and letting them drink from your cupped hands.”
This is the work that artists like Jeremy Loops do and why so many people continue to congregate at their concerts and carry their songs with them in their algorithms: because it’s important to be reminded that, sometimes, it is all good.
The album cover for your latest release “Heard You Got Love” was embroidered by the incredible Danielle Clough. What is the significance of utilising a more tactile artwork such as embroidery for the album artwork?
I think the embroidery is symbolic of a few things. One, it’s the beauty of doing this slowly and by hand. Tactile processes of work. It would have been way quicker to rely on photography and graphic design to get this art over the line, but the result would have been very different.
Similarly, the threads in the album represent strands in our lives. The continuous threads we make through passage of time and through the connections we create with each other. And that metaphor, especially during COVID when we had those natural overlapping threads interrupted, spoke to me.
It helps, of course, that the artwork itself is so dangerous! Just so incredible! I guess I could’ve just given that as a short answer.
The album was initially slated for a 2020 release but was delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. As an artist who is particularly known for your electric live performance and whose songs are most realised when performed in front of a live audience, did the global lockdown shift your perspective on the way you produce and view your own work?
I don’t think the lockdown shifted my perspective so much as reinforced it. I’ve always written music as a soundtrack to people’s lives but with the purest experience of it being live in concert. So I was grateful for the extra time to write music that the pandemic gave me, but, at the same time, it reaffirmed there was no way I’d release an album I couldn’t perform live to the folks who love this music.
Your single “Better Together” was written by another accomplished loop-based songwriter, Ed Sheeran, who you connected with during a Q&A session ahead of his Cape Town stadium show in 2019. Was being recognised by a prolific and influential figure such as Sheeran particularly validating in any way? Was there anything in particular that you learnt working with him and how do your writing processes differ coming from your backgrounds as acoustic loop-based writers?
Being acknowledged or recognised by peers is also something special, especially someone of Ed’s stature, for sure. I think, more than anything, working with Ed reaffirmed that I knew what I was doing. It’s that thing of playing team sports against the best athletes in the world, and still holding your own. At the same time, I was impressed by his relentless pursuit of great melodies. In our sessions, we came up with tens of brilliant, brilliant riffs, but the two that really stuck were the ones we came up with for Better Together and another. Had we just settled on the earlier melodies, which I think maybe other songwriters would do, we wouldn’t have even gotten to the great ones that we did. So that was a great lesson to learn – just added patience because gold was somewhere around the corner.
Your single “This Town” featuring the incomparable Ladysmith Black Mambazo is a standout track on the album. What was the thinking behind having them on this particular track and what was the experience of working with a group with such an iconic legacy within the realm of South African music?
“This Town” is a story of hope in a place, a town, of hopelessness. Who’s seen and experienced and vocalised the transition from abject despair to something a bit more hopeful and perhaps even eventually prosperous more than Ladysmith Black Mambazo? Yes, they’re wonderful musicians, but I see them as orators of history. Vessels of time, of the best of humanity. And that was the experience, the surreal experience I had of working with them.
In a way, they’re bigger than music, if you think of what they’ve meant to our country, and if writing “This Town” and inviting them to collaborate with me on it was a lengthy excuse just to hang out with them, it’s the best excuse I’ve ever made.
As your international profile as a performer and a songwriter continues to grow to more impressive extents with every tour and album cycle, do you feel
A growing responsibility to champion the South African music abroad and help pave the way for more emerging local artists?
I’ve never felt the pressure to champion South African music. I’ve never felt it as a ‘growing responsibility’, so to speak. Since the very beginning of my career, I’ve screamed from every hilltop that I represent South African music. I chose not to move to LA or London when all our international partners said we should for the betterment of my career because I felt it crucial to show myself and ourselves as South African musicians that we could do it on the global stage while still living here at home.
So no, there’s no added pressure. This is what I’ve always been about. It’s just with a growing platform, my voice is more effective. You know, we even had all of our walk-in music at our shows in Europe being exclusively South African acts. So between my set and our openers’ sets, the 40,000 or so people who came to our shows were hearing South African music. If just a small smattering of them Shazam a song and find something that moves them, we’re making progress.
The album deals with a lot of themes revolving around growth. Are there any songs apart from the singles that hold any particular sense of significance to you and your own growth? Have there been any notable shifts in your own personal perspectives on growth from before you started the record to now?
“Mortal Man” is probably the album’s centrepiece, while “Head Start” is the
album’s driving narrative. Something quite beautiful happens when you understand the urgency and the fragility of life. It moves us to be less wasteful with our time and more grateful to our companions while we’re here.
And “Head Start”’s narrative is that we can’t grow too fast! Don’t dwell on growing up! Just go with it. You’ll mess up anyways – that’s the folly of youth – but when you learn that to be the folly of youth and you stop obsessing about growing up, magical things happen in one’s life.