An old fishing town with an open port, Paignton sits on the southeast coast of England. When you read about it in an encyclopaedia, it’s painted like many other coastal towns in Europe: wide streets dotted with restored Victorian buildings. It looks pretty in the pictures, with bathing boxes and boats with fishing nets dry docked by the pier. It was home to Bishop Miles Coverdale, who published an English translation of the Bible in 1536, and more recently, to Cosmo Jarvis, the poetic singer songwriter.
“Paignton is a fucking shit hole, it needs to be bombed,” says Jarvis, to the contrary, at the onset of our discussion. We’ve been on the phone for less than a minute and he’s already unleashed a rhetorical diatribe on the town he grew up in. “I’m only here because we have a few days off between shows and it beats sleeping in a van,” he says.
It’s not unusual for an artist to describe their surroundings at the start of an interview. In fact, it’s almost protocol. But it’s usually more mundane than Jarvis’s description, starting with the local shopping strip and almost always ending with: “It’s very beautiful here, what a shame we don’t have more time.”
But Cosmo Jarvis is no ordinary singer songwriter. Like so many great British artists, he’s deeply affected by his immediate surroundings, and for better or worse, his songs are a manifestation of his environment. As you might have guessed, Jarvis has a conflicted relationship with his hometown, so he’s overjoyed at the prospect of touring Australia this summer.
Having largely written and recorded his three albums from his bedroom in his hometown, Jarvis’s records are full of unfettered scribbles that could, in reality, have only been self-produced. The single from his sophomore album, Is the World Strange or Am I Strange? , explores the perils of love between two pirates. Indeed, Gay Pirates is delightfully tongue-in-cheek and the film clip (which he directed himself) was reposted by celebrities like Stephen Fry and John Barrowman on Twitter and became a significant viral hit. Gay Pirates also helped to break Jarvis in Australia, where the song went on to feature at number 85 in last years Triple J Hottest 100.
Paignton largely inspired his first album, and his boredom with the place has coalesced nicely with his transition into the main stream. “I find that back in the beginning when I was writing stuff on the first album, I was writing about people and places around me in a pretty close proximity in the scheme of things,” he says.
On his second and third albums, when Jarvis’s audience was growing more quickly, he switched focus to the wider world. “Now when I’m writing stuff, it’s about things I’ve seen in other places, you know out on tour. I don’t know why, maybe it’s because I’m bored fucking shitless of where I live,” he laughs.
Our chat moves in a funny direction from then on, focused less on music and more on world affairs. Jarvis has a way about him – it comes out in his music too, a sort of unrestricted stream of consciousness that he puts out into the world, without fear or favour.
“I sort of wanted to move to Syria, to join the Free Syrian Army, but I was told I couldn’t,” he says at one point. I laugh like he’s joking, but am shocked a second time when he goes on. “I sent them an email and saying ‘I’d like to join up’…but I got a reply from somebody saying ‘If we need any help we will let you know how to help the cause.’ But I think they were thinking in a social networking kind of way.”
Again, it may seem like a ridiculous thing to say, but Jarvis’s desire to join the Free Syrian Army was just another extension of his unencumbered stream of consciousness. There’s precious little editing in what he says or films or writes, and he acts on his emotions. “I saw this movie with a kid who’d has his jaw blown off,” says Jarvis, citing his reasons for wanting to help the cause.
Whatever your opinion on Cosmo Jarvis, you can’t dispute his originality, nor his passion to create. On coming to Australia in December, Jarvis can hardly contain his excitement when I tell him he should expect quite a crowd. “It’s such a good surprise man,” he says.
Cosmo Jarvis is performing at this years Falls Music and Arts Festival and doing a sideshow in Sydney on 2 January on The Annandale.