Gruff Rhys: 'I’m interested in the power of melody to uplift people'

Making your 25th album is an achievement for any musician, but for Welsh singer-songwriter Gruff Rhys, former frontman of the band Super Furry Animals, the milestone he’s just reached is especially notable.
Gruff Rhys.Gruff Rhys.
Gruff Rhys.

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Sadness Sets Me Free, which climbed to number 22 in the UK charts when it was released in February, has now outsold all of his previous solo records. “It feels like people are enjoying it as well,” he says modestly.

The 10 songs on the new album were recorded live at La Frette, a mansion near Paris. After 35 years of music-making, he’s keen to find new ways to surprise himself. “The reasons we were there were quite prosaic – that’s where the engineer (Maxime Kosinetz) suggested we go,” he explains. “I wanted to work with a particular engineer who’s good at recording acoustic music, so we learnt the songs on tour (in Spain and France) and he suggested this place where they have a big live room where we could all set up and play together.

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“They also had lots of great old analogue equipment, so we went there for technical reasons rather than romantic reasons, but I do try to change the environment or add a different element to the record to try to create the possibility that it will be a different-sounding record even if there’s not much I can do about my voice and my playing a musician.”

As with Babelsberg in 2018 and Seeking New Gods in 2021, Sadness Sets me Free was recorded in just three days with a band; he’ll then spend months distilling further ideas – in this case adding strings and brass with a group of musicians in Cardiff. “I usually sit on the recordings for a few months to check whether they still sound good,” the 53-year-old says. “I often edit the songs down if they’re long or add orchestral elements or synthesisers or I change lyrics, if I feel they haven’t aged well I’ll tweak them. I usually spend three days recording, after that it’s maybe a week(’s work) over a six-month period and then I mix it.”

Working relatively speedily is a way of reining in his natural tendency to be a musical magpie, he admits. “I was looking to record an album that had the same sounds over every track,” he says. “So it’s a very simple album in a sense – there’s piano, double bass and drums pinning it all together, all recorded acoustically so that creates quite a warm sound, and then there’s a string quartet on every track, which is also acoustic and very warm, that created a distinctive sound for the whole record. Sometimes I get sidetracked, I’ve still added a couple of synths and guitar solos, but for the most part it’s the same sound, so if I switch up the style of music hopefully it still sounds in the same family.”

Despite Rhys giving himself freedom to write “sad songs and songs of complaint”, the new album is ultimately uplifting. He says he wanted to offer hope in a troubling period. “I think these are extremely sobering times so it doesn’t feel right to make a party album, but I’m interested in the power of melody to uplift people,” he says. “I find I’m really interested in how melodic music can suddenly change my day.”

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He’s always guarding against sentimentally, though. “My music can be quite predictable in a melodic sense or very twee, so with my lyrics I have to make sure it doesn’t become too much of a confection or it becomes unlistenable,” he says. “Often the music’s so sweet I have to add some salt to it.”

Sadness Sets Me continues Rhys’s Rhys’s creative partnership with the graphic artist Mark James, with James’ artwork extending beyond the record itself to projections for live shows. Rhys says: “I’ve been working with Mark James for over 25 years, which seems ridiculous, but we always have a really good time coming up with the ideas around an album. Mark likes to create three-dimensional artwork, he often wants to go beyond the sleeve. For this record he came up with the idea of a shipping container stranded in space, so there’s a fictitious logistics company behind this shipping container. I suppose we are the workers of the fictitious logistics company. He’s created a really simple film of the container stranded in space, there’s extremely little movement in it because we didn’t want to distract people from the music, so there’s film there but hardly anything happens, it’s almost static over the period of an hour, although the image is slightly changing.”

Earlier this year saw the passing of Emyr Glynn Williams, co-founder of Ankst Records, the label who signed Super Furry Animals and their contemporaries Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci. Paying tribute, Rhys says: “Emyr was extremely important to a lot of music in Wales because he was a nurturing person and a documentarian – he documented the scene with beautiful Super-8 film and video. He looked after the release of countless records as a kind of nurturing A&R person, he was also a provocateur who set music on the right path, who stood up to mediocrity and is going to be sadly missed.

“He was a really knowledgeable and fun person to be around, he was always a pleasure, so it’s a big shock (that he is no longer here) and extremely sad, but his legacy is going to live on through not only the countless records he released. He wrote on film theory as well, he released a book on his journey in the world of film (Is-Deitla’n Unig) and he was a great admirer of German directors, especially Fassbinder and Wim Wenders. So he turned a lot of people onto different music and different films and I feel a great debt to him for releasing a lot of my early records.”

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Last year Rhys composed music for a stage adaptation of Oliver Jeffers’ children’s book Lost and Found, which ran at Factory International in Manchester in December. He hopes that it will one day be released on record. “I had a great time putting the music together for that,” he says. “It was a new experience for me because the cast were singing the songs, so that was really magical. I spent quite a lot of last year putting the music together, working with Luke Abbott. I’m not sure what’s going to happen to it, but I hope it’ll see the light of day one day.”

Gruff Rhys plays at the Get Together festival at Kelham Island in Sheffield on May 18. For tickets, visit:

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