STEPHEN Jones – the creative force and face of Babybird – has been responsible for producing some of the most finely-crafted pop songs to come out of the UK in the last 20 years – it’s just a shame that most people haven’t heard the vast majority of them.
The art of crafting the perfect pop song is where Jones’s heart truly lies, although you’re unlikely to see the 49-year-old father-of-two sat behind his beloved piano as he weaves his way up and down the UK on his latest UK tour to promote the latest Babybird album The Pleasures of Self Destruction.
It’s a pretty low-key affair these days for Jones and the rest of the band – the Brudenell Social Club in Leeds typical of the kind of venue they now find themselves in – and it’s all a far cry from the brief, almost accidental foray into pop “stardom” which came on the back of the worldwide hit single You’re Gorgeous in the mid-90s.
Back then, there were tour buses and lorries full of equipment hurtling around the UK and Europe. Nowadays, it’s more or less just five men and a van, albeit a rather nice one.
There were other hits after You’re Gorgeous, but within a few years the band had been dropped by their label, subsequently splitting to allow Jones the time to concentrate on a number of solo projects, including two novels.
But after returning with 2006’s Between My Ears There’s Nothing But Music, Jones has stuck around, albeit without the same kind of commercial success enjoyed 10 or so years previously
But when talking to Jones, you get the impression his time in the music business has never really been about any of that. Take him back to his Sheffield flat in the early 90s where he built up a catalogue of more than 400 songs and you’ll probably find him at his happiest.
Fast forward almost 20 years and it’s behind a piano where Jones still achieves his greatest satisfaction.
“It’s the kind of thing I’ve always done since I was on the dole many, many years ago,” says Jones ahead of a 14-date tour which will have seen him return to Yorkshire five times.
“My mum and dad always had a piano in the house – they never forced us to go to it, or to practice or to even go to that instrument – but it was there then and it still is, so I think that is the one thing that is always going to be a constant for me.”
And while the songwriting process still holds the greatest attraction for Jones, taking his latest offering out to the public genuinely gives him a thrill, even more so perhaps given the low-key nature of it.
“I have really been looking forward to this tour. We don’t tour that much, so when it happens I try and make the most of it,” he adds. “I do actually enjoy sitting in a van, going round the country – I enjoy all that. It’s a proper, nice van – but not a bus. We did have buses and articulated lorries and all that years ago. Never had a plane though.
“You never know what you’re going to get from one night to the next on tour. For us, there are some songs which are harder to get through, just because you’re trying to remember them but, you just know if you’ve got it right.
“I like to talk to the audience and if I get that right as well – because that can be very complicated sometimes – then it’s generally been a good night.”
The Pleasures album may have again failed to set the charts alight, but it has benefited from some unexpected publicity which will certainly have helped shift a few more units, while reminding people that the band are still knocking about, still churning out some of the most intelligent pop music around.
The controversy surrounded Pleasures’ opening track Jesus Stag Night Club, a typically dark Jones offering which tells the story of a group of teenagers who hire a Jesus lookalike to organise a stag night in the north of England. It all goes wrong when the “impersonator” dies, but then it turns out he really is Jesus.
It will never be proved whether such a furore would have been whipped up by the offended Christian right had actor Johnny Depp not been involved with the song – he guests on guitar after first striking up a friendship with Jones on 2009’s Ex-Maniac album – but, as they say, all publicity is good publicity, although Jones simply laughs it off as “plain silly.”
“I think it just makes you realise that with what’s been going on with the News of the World and other stuff in recent months what a load of rubbish it all is and how the truth can be twisted and exaggerated. It was just laughable really,” he says.
Life outside of Babybird for Jones now sees him adapting to life in a more rural setting, following 15 years or so in London. Based in the heart of Cheshire, he’s more likely to bump into Roy Keane in his local coffee shop than any household names from the pop world.
You get a sense that while the pace of life may be slower for Jones and his family, there’s unlikely to be any let-up in his ability to craft songs that, while not attracting the always hoped-for sales, will continue to thrill the band’s loyal following.
Babybird are on tour now and play Sheffield O2 Academy tonight, Fruit, Hull, February 6, Brudenell Social Club, Leeds, February 7 and Stereo, York, February 9. The Pleasure of Self Destruction (Unison) is out now.