For singer and keyboardist Jez Wing, there is a family history behind the trilogy of records he’s releasing as COUSIN JAC. Joshua Potts speaks to the songwriter about his first release, Believe Me To Remain and the ever-lapping influences of the sea, and of family ties.
“It’s not a fable,” he says, leaning forward with wide eyes. “It’s an old truth.”
A letter is placed on the table. It could be a copy, although its laminate covering suggests something precious and coveted. The date reads 21st November, 1911. In elegant type, a Mr Fred Luke is testifying about an organist. “Should you appoint him, I feel sure you will never regret the choice,” it reads. “Believe me to remain.”
The letter ends at that, eschewing the traditional follow-up (“your loyal companion”) and leaving the line as a bare bone of poetic thought. It’s confident, romantic, and a little obtuse, and chimes perfectly with how Jez Wing, the man on the other side of the table to me, thinks. His great-grandfather, whose talents have inadvertently inspired Wing to work on a new trilogy of records as Cousin Jac, happens to be the subject of Mr Luke’s glowing recommendation. For Wing, there is sadness in never knowing what has truly remained for our families and the history they inhabit, generation after generation. One thing’s for sure: for as much joy as that line gives him, you can bet there’s more in tackling a “great big Victorian synthesiser” in St. George’s Hall. He’s talking, of course, about the building’s grand concert organ, built in 1855 by Henry Willis, and which featured on at least one of the tracks on Cousin Jac’s first record, Believe Me To Remain. Maybe some propensities are hard to ignore.
Cousin Jac has been a concept for a while, and not just in the mind of Jez Wing. The name was given by Cornish miners to their brethren looking for work across the Atlantic; now, it is Wing’s three-year project shuffling to the end of a beginning, an alias on which to launch his own voyage of personal conquest. Believe Me To Remain is an album born out of escape, reconciliation and jaunts to and from American airports with the smell of the ocean still in your nose. The singer and keyboardist, who has been a member of Echo & The Bunnymen’s live band since 2009, has eulogised a corner of the past that is often idealised but rarely articulated this well: the time of the New World, when making a life could mean leaving a family, and the call of the horizon was both noble and dangerous. Ships, ports and sacrifices drift on the record’s lean course towards spiritual promise, casting a long goodbye to an imagined shore where a lover stands waiting for the pain of separation to be justified. “I started writing from that point of view,” says Jez from the embrace of a suitably plush armchair. “What I would call ‘auto-fiction’. Primarily, the sea ties us all together. It also provides a life for people, which is why it makes me think of my family. My granddad was a navy man. It represents a life-blood, a lifeline.” One, then, that has crucially never left him as unchartered experiences tried to lay claim to his attention.
“Recently, I heard that the impact of these huge ice meteors helped form the oceans we know today. I don’t necessarily believe that’s true but it fascinates me! Essentially, the sea is an asteroid!” he laughs, aware it sounds like bollocks. His commitments to the Bunnymen occasionally come between him and progress of his own work, although touring with one of the most quietly admired bands of the last 30 years sure has plenty of perks. A few weeks ago he performed in front of an audience of millions on David Letterman’s late-night show, and many of the musicians who contributed to Believe Me To Remain were picked up on tours in the US. In fact, the last couple of years have been vital for allowing Wing the security and brashness to bring his baby to life. The story in his head never got stale – on the contrary, the research he did in-between shows added a wealth of depth to his barnacle odyssey. Waterwitch, a favourite track of his, was written after he saw a framed painting of a vessel in a Dutch hotel. Like his great-grandfather’s letter from over a century ago, the combination of words sent ideas careering through Wing’s head, even though he admits to not knowing what the song is about exactly. Which is an unusual turn for Believe Me To Remain: the majority of the record’s lyrics, from the musings of Passing Place to Atlanta’s nostalgic longing for home, are rooted in specificity. The same care translates to the album’s cover, which was painted by one of Jez’s close friends. It depicts a sooty hill crashing down towards a steeple and thin, imposing houses, while a white-sailed ship grazes by, heading out to the unknown.
Storytelling is so attached to this music that it’s sometimes hard to talk to Wing about much else. To be frank, it’s a miracle that his original inspiration carried him this far, that it didn’t sit and rot on the shelf after so long. I wonder if the imagery he seems obsessed by – the torrent of cannons, feathers, masts and setting suns – is his tool for coping with reality, as all stories tend to be. “Yes, it is our way of coping. But that doesn’t make it any less wonderful or completely immersive. Who’s to say I’m not playing with reality by spinning a yarn?” In particular, there is a recurring feminine presence keeping the narrator from abandoning himself. It’s very cyclical, I tell him. “In a loose sense, it draws from relationships,” he says. “Collective male/female struggles are part of what I’m talking about. [second track] Lightning And Thunder might come across like I’m a moody git. However, it’s come from a place that’s made up of intense laughter and a shitload of tension. It’s come from family.
“There’s a Steely Dan lyric,” he continues, “that goes: ‘a woman’s voice reminds me to serve and not to speak’. In order to honour your wife, partner, community… we look to the harmonious female spirit.” All of this takes some getting used to. Seafaring is a myth that’s still broadly masculine. Yet if you think about it, cracks emerge beneath the deck of the Ahab figure, who, harpoon in hand, may be trembling in our collective conscious. After all, boats are feminised by default and many carry the names of women, as if there needs to be a maternal force to organise passage across chaos. For the ocean can also be pure, frightening space.
Jez is safe with his own identity back home. He’s glad the Cornish have been recognised as a minority by the EU, and speaks fondly of the “tribal nature of British-ness”. By the end of his first outing as Cousin Jac, that divided land has melted away. Parts two and three of the narrative will be released when he gets around to recording them; writing has already begun, and he’s nervous about his ability to play it all live (the full backing band can reach a dozen in number, with the optional string section). Eventually, he’d like to go for the grandiose ploy of performing his triptych in full over successive evenings, though we’ll have to wait for them to mature, the narratives apparently setting course to traverse afro-beat and jazz next time: morsels from foreign shores, ready to gaze at the dwindling light on the horizon and add to the chase.
Believe Me To Remain is out now.