I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be. — Joan Didion
It’s two degrees in Brooklyn and raining a relentless, New York rain - the horizontal kind that soaks through boots and parkas, flooding the sidewalks and tearing autumn’s last leaves from the trees. A back wall in the lobby of the Wythe Hotel is lined with puddling umbrellas and glossy black Wellington boots. Inside Reynard, the hotel’s restaurant, Jamie Treays scans the menu and suggests it’s the perfect day for tea.
Twelve hours earlier, Treays was on stage at Music Hall of Williamsburg, his first New York show since 2007 when he was touring his Mercury-nominated debut Panic Prevention. If the capacity crowd’s rowdy singing, dancing and, in the case of a few eager front-rowers, incessant high fiving were any barometer, they were pleased to see him. His third album Carry on the Grudge arrived in September 2014, five years after the release of his critically acclaimed sophomore record, Kings and Queens, and with it came a landslide of analysis on where he’d been, what he’d been doing and how he’d changed.
“Yeah, ‘we thought you were dead Jamie!’” he laughs. “Everyone made such a big deal about it. I mean I’d done two records, I’d been on tour since the age of 18. It’s not out of the world of possibility that I’d want to take a year off, and then you know…” he shrugs. “Life kind of caught up with me.”
His so-called disappearance wasn’t really that at all, he says, between sips of tea. He travelled, spent time with his family when both of his parents became seriously ill and played acoustic gigs where he road-tested new songs (“people asked me, ‘what guise were you playing under?’” he says, “and I was like, ‘Jamie!’”). He read piles of poetry, the musings of critic and author A. Alvarez and the works of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (“all the stuff that fifteen year old girls are really into”) and tinkered with new styles of songwriting until he found a way to convey power and emotion without relying on rapid-fire words and tempos.
He wrote Carry on the Grudge in chunks, and all over the place – New York, Nashville, London – eventually whittling the volume of material he’d amassed down to 12 songs. They’re more melancholic, tender and introspective than his previous work, but are still streaked with the rebellion, wit and originality that coloured his first two records.
“I come from a place, songwriting wise, where narratively, everything is straight down on the page – this is what’s happening, this is where we are, this is what we’re doing – and it felt to me that I’d said everything I wanted to say in that particular way,” he says.
“I did two records of a certain style and I think they’re good records, for what they are, but it was time to move on and try something different. Otherwise, we’d all be bored. And especially, most importantly, I’d be fucking bored.”
Treays, 28, is excellent company. He’s articulate, funny and incredibly well read - a good 20 minutes of our interview time is gobbled up with talk of books - and, like many artists, he’s a mass of contradictions. He bounces between candid humor and thoughtful reflection, confidence and vulnerability, fretting about what people think and a carefree disassociation. Was the reaction to his new material what he expected?
“I was quite nervous. I find it all a bit draining really, what people think. I don’t know why I put myself through it, to be honest. You know what I mean?”
He pours more tea and frowns.
“I’m not sure I really care. Like, the idea of acknowledging it I find an affront to myself, so one side of me is going, ‘I don’t care, whatever’, but I know that’s belligerence and I do care and I worry what people think. People seem to like it and it’s obviously a new direction but I see this record as a bit of a stepping stone. I didn’t want to make a statement record where I’m like, ‘this is me, I’ve changed! I’m not gonna do any of the old stuff ever again and fuck all of you!’ because that really isn’t my intention. I’m just trying to grow as a musician.”
Born the youngest of three in Wimbledon, London, Treays grew up wanting “to be in Rancid or The Clash”, and says music has been part of his identity since he was little.
“My brother was the funny one, my older brother was the clever one and I played drums – that was my thing,” he says.
He never thought of music as a profession, “but to contradict that, I do remember being at school and the teacher would make us go on the computer and find a job. So he says ‘none of you can leave here until you come to me with a job’ and I wrote down ‘musician’. He looked at it and went, ‘a real job’ and handed it back to me. I went back with ‘a baker’ and he let me go.”
Panic Prevention and Kings and Queens, with their sharply observed, clever vignettes about disaffected youth and urban life, were both rapturously received, and, by 24, Treays was pegged as a social commentator for his generation and described by NME as “a national institution.” He grew weary of writing “all those fast lyrics” though, and approached Carry on the Grudge with a laser-like focus on what he wanted to say (of the album’s opener, Limits Lie, he recalls “spending 23 hours in a room pacing around rewriting lyrics to it. I completely lost my shit.”)
“I tend to write in books a lot,” he says. “I’ll underline things I like, pretend I’m doing the soundtrack for the book and write a track listing at the beginning. It always gives me something to write about.”
He has hundreds of books he’s made jottings in that he dips in and out of for inspiration, and, despite an upcoming studio move, can’t part with any of them.
“People are always like, ‘oh, you should get a Kindle!’” he says, scrunching up his face. “But I need to be able to write and underline and see things, then I can look through it quickly and know what I was feeling. If I had to go into like, a desktop file, I mean, it would take all the lust out of life!”
Though word economy was a priority on Carry on the Grudge – which does feature some gorgeous lyrics, such as the haunting line in The Prophet, ‘I’m glad you came and turned up next to me / like a grenade with a pin out at the party’ – he insists he’s not a perfectionist.
“If anything, I’m the opposite,” he says.
“For example, The Prophet right? There are lyrics in it that I love and then there are lyrics in it that I totally hate that I wrote just to get something on paper. I think it’s funny how as an artist you’ll put yourself out there and worry so much about what people think, but if I really gave that much of a fuck, maybe I’d look twice at the lyric before I threw it out there. It’s two sided. I’m incredibly thought-based on what I’m doing at the time but sometimes I feel like I’m at my best when I just don’t care.”
He drinks the last of his tea, glances outside, where the rain is still torrential, and shrugs.
“You have to find a balance between over-thinking things and being brash.”
Jamie T plays: The Metro Theatre, Sydney, January 21 // HiFi Bar and Ballroom, Brisbane, January 23 // Forum Theatre, Melbourne, January 24 // Astor Theatre, Perth, January 26.