Not so long ago our attention was grabbed and shaken up and down by a song called 'Gay Pirates'. It was amazing and sweet and funny and touching. When the Westcountry genius behind this song (singer/songwriter/producer/director Cosmo Jarvis) was recently in London for a gig (review: very good indeed) we sat down with Cosmo in a small room in a venue basement to ask him a few questions.
We covered topics from imaginary friends to who made the tea at his video shoot, and came away with one of the most industry astute and politically savvy interviews we've done. Cosmo Jarvis is one bloody smart individual...
One of your early songs is called 'Jessica Alba's Number'. Were you inspired by her moving portrayal of Invisible Woman in Fantastic Four?
Fantastic Four wasn’t amazing, but after Sin City I got well into her. I read up a bit about her, she seemed nice in the interviews…and so smoking hot. Any new picture that came out I had. I’d just get home and talk to Jess and be like how was your day and she’d ask me how my day was, and so I wrote her that song. Just in case.
So essentially Jessica Alba was your imaginary friend?
Yes. I'm glad I did it. It beats drugs. Even if she wasn’t really there.
Your music’s been compared to professional moaner Billy Bragg. How do you feel about people using music as a political platform?
Better than using it for things like “come in rude boy are you hard, hard, hard enough”. It’s good because if you can make propaganda catchy then you’ve won. There’s a time and a place for meaningless songs too, I do plenty of that, but if there’s something worth sticking your neck out for then go for that.
So if Britney was to call and ask for a hit single would you oblige?
Definitely. I don’t hate Britney. Her production’s amazing. I was going to write something for Gabriella Cilmi. It never happened, but it could have. The song suited her voice better than it suited mine.
You came to our attention with ‘Gay Pirates’. How did that song come about?
I just thought that, to my knowledge, there weren’t any classic stories that were ‘gay’. And if there were, if kids were being told stories like that in school, [homosexuality] would be a lot less of an issue. It would be like having brown hair.
Most artists representing the ‘outsiders’, like Ke$ha and Lady Gaga, are saying you should make yourself stand out, but if you go to school covered in blue paint and wearing pointy shoes that’s not addressing the issue...
Yeah, it’s adding to the potential difference that could be recognised in someone who’s gay compared to somebody who’s straight. I wish that nobody ever said anything about the gay thing [in ‘Gay Pirates’]. It was inevitably going to happen, but it kind of defeats the object. If it just flew by and was categorised in the same category as any other love song that’s ever been written then that would be cool. I didn’t want there to be any reference to anything that anyone would recognise as being ‘gay’ because there is nothing to recognise about being gay other than if someone says “I’m gay”. You can’t go on anything else. So I know what you mean about Gaga. She’s making it trendy, but in making it trendy she’s making it ‘different’.
Why pirates as opposed to gay ninjas or gay wizards?
I wanted to try and write a story to seem like it was derived from something that happened a long time ago to make it legitimate. Anything in history when referred to from the present gives it a validation. And everyone likes pirates. They are supposed to be these big manly mother fuckers at sea who can withstand anything, live on maggot infested cookies, and so I thought: what if one of them was gay?
Also, the isolation that the two have on the boat. You’re on the boat with people who hate you because of your sexuality. The only thing that’s keeping you alive, your will to live, is this other pirate who he loves. The whole thing was a futile battle. The only way they’ll ever be together is by walking the plank.
But obviously the key thing is that it’s a fucking great song.
Even people with no musical sense whatsoever can stamp their feet to those tom toms. Like the lairy, thick, semi-homphobic-but-not-homphobic-enough-to-be-called-homophobic-just-ignorant-to-the-gayness-in-general, those kind of people would be there stamping their feet to this song and not really having any inkling to the fact that they were really into a gay love song in effect.
You directed the video too. Tell us about that.
We had four days booked in that hall to do it. It took two days to rehearse. I wanted it to be one take so it was like a performance, which again was trying to add to the idea of people being on stage like a pantomime, it means there’s an imaginary audience there accepting the story as just a love story.
How did you cast the role of Sebastian?
It’s my mate Dave! He’s in quite a lot my films. Dave’s mum did catering for the shoot. He’s into acting and he loved the song. I was just like do you want to play Sebastian? He said yeah, and I said you’ll have to kiss me, and he said alright. Also, it was cool to do choreography. Nobody there had any background in it apart from one guy called Hugo who was a ballerina. So we made him move the sets.
As ‘Gay Pirates’ has caused such a buzz, do you worry about being known forever as the man who did that song?
I do, and that’s why I try and answer questions about it carefully. I don’t want to give it more recognition than any other song that I’ve written simply because it’s about gay people. I think Attitude magazine wanted to do something, but if I’d wanted to play on that then I would have had pirates wearing pink, shit like that. That was never the idea.
So how do you plan to follow it up?
There’s a couple of songs. Groove wise they’re a hell of a departure from the instrumentation of ‘Gay Pirates’. That’s the problem with my album. I try and keep it diverse, which is totally the wrong thing to do to market yourself as a musician and find an audience. You’ve got to pick a genre, tick a box, and that defeats the purpose of being a songwriter.
It’s interesting because you’re young and new to the music scene, but you do seem a little jaded…
Well Radio One wouldn’t play me on new music because I already had an album out last year! I wonder if [radio stations] realise how hard they’re making people who really appreciate music as an art form work. Generic shit is commended because it’s so easily applicable to a massive audience. The thing with ‘Gay Pirates’ is that every bit I wrote and recorded myself in my room, but if you think when that comes through in someone’s room on a radio they’ll hear it and they won’t have any idea that it’s a song that’s been crafted, it’s been built.
Yes, the definition of 'new music' seems to revolve heavily around ticking a box on a playlist.
You listen to bands from the 70’s like Chicago Transit Authority and they have these epic songs and yes there’s a lot of instrumentals, but a lot of the best music ever written is instrumental, and when you sit there with somebody and the radio won’t play it unless you cut this section out, unless you start with a chorus. There are these rules that you just have to abide by, and if you’re abiding by rules then it’s no longer self-expression. But if you want to play the game play the game, if you don’t want to play the game don’t play the game. I did a session with 6Music last night. I played Gay Pirates acoustically. My mandolin was a bit out of tune.
Not to worry, it's not like it was national radio or anything. You've done well coming out of the Totnes music scene. We went there once. It has nice shops.
There’s this one record store called Back Tracks. They’ve got a Zappa section. Just Zappa. You could spend hours there. Also there’s this shop, I don’t know what it’s called, but you walk in and there’s top hats and stuff. There’s nooks and crannies with old wedding dresses and World War 2 uniforms. You could waste away in there.
Well try not to please because we'd like some more music. Thank you Cosmo Jarvis, you have been most insightful.
Gay Pirates is out now
Check out Cosmo's films here