In conversation with musician, producer and activist Jelly Cleaver

I first met Jelly Cleaver met at a Normal Not Novelty workshop led by mastering engineer Katie Tavini at Red Bull studios in Covent Garden. The session was focused on recording electric guitar, using one of Jelly’s songs as an example. I was immediately drawn in by her soulful guitar playing and artistry as she laid down some luscious chords and funky solos.

Multi-tasking as a guitarist, singer-songwriter, producer and activist, Jelly delivers acute social observations and messaging through her music and live shows.

Her new single, VI II V, is a hypnotic, dreamy track blending elements of jazz, soul and psychedelic rock, accompanied by a captivatingly surreal music video.

I had a chat to Jelly to find out more about her work, influences and plans for the year ahead…

Hey Jelly! Tell me about how you first started making music…

I’ve always played the guitar and sung. I guess I started writing songs from quite a young age.

When I was about 15 I started getting into recording myself, and producing on some dodgy software. It’s been a completely self-taught process but it’s given me a pretty individual approach to production and music making.

Photo: Fi Smart

I love your new single, VI II V. How was the song written and recorded?

Thank you! I actually wrote it quite a few years ago. It started as a stream of consciousness poem that I quickly wrote the chords and melody to.

The recording process was quite long – over a year – because initially I didn’t know what sound I was going for. The drums (by James Vine) ended up having a massive impact on the sound and gave me real inspiration to give the piece more space. The organ intro was just me messing about improvising one day and I decided I actually wanted to keep it like that. Similar to the wavy horn sound in the chorus, I got that through messing with plugins.

Often when I write, I have the whole sound already in my head and try to achieve that through the recording process, but maybe because VI II V has been with me so long, I was more willing to reinvent it and experiment with taking it somewhere else.

The music video is wonderfully surreal and seems to feature a lot of symbolism. What were the ideas behind it?

I worked closely with my friend and incredibly talented director Jasmin Selen Heinz on the video concept. We spent a whole evening just discussing what the lyrics meant, and another one with art books strewn over the bed looking for inspiration.

Visually, we were drawing on post-impressionist and surrealist imagery like Odilon Redon, Salvador Dali and Gustav Klimt. But because the lyrics were so open we wanted to keep the message of the video open and playful, hence the sad clowns in the playground and the Klimt-inspired scene at the beginning.

You describe yourself as an activist as well as musician and producer. Is it important to you to combine political and social issues with your art?

For me, it just comes naturally as that’s my main source of inspiration.

Music is a beautiful way to spread a message, but I also feel it needs to come from the heart to be truthful. I find it’s the best way to express my truth and make sense of these crazy times; by writing a song about it. But I would also love it if my music caused more people to take action against things like the UK’s detention and deportation system.

We met at a Normal Not Novelty event at Red Bull Studios, which was so much fun! Did you enjoy the workshop?

Yes! The session was run by Katie Tavini who is an incredible mastering engineer. I found that session so fun because all of the women there were such pros and masters of their craft, so the session was able to be really focused and everyone was just bossing it.

It’s mad how underrepresented women are in certain aspects of music making, but it’s very hopeful when you can get that much female talent in one room.

Still from VI II V music video. Photo: Jasmin Selen Heinz

What’s the best advice you’ve received as a musician?

Oh, that’s a hard one. One thing I try and tell myself more and more is to not take it so seriously. I’m trying to have more fun with being creative and to be less hard on myself.

I’m always telling fellow creatives to be kind to themselves and to just let their creativity lead them. So maybe I should take my own advice?

What’s coming up for you? Is there more music on the way?

I’ve just announced my album launch which will be on 21 May at The Windmill, Brixton.

I’m really not sure what people will think of my album – I’ve tried to pack a lot of stuff in there. I’m excited to find out!

Feature image: Pat Pascal

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