With lyrics about cults, torture and dark overloads to his name, songwriter and label-owner Joseph Coward is out to puzzle
Blue and grey shirt by Umit Benan
With lyrics about strange men in his bedroom, allusions to getting head off a fella and a song called Rentboy, it’s safe to say singer-songwriter Joseph Coward’s sexuality is up for grabs. The 22-year-old Brentwood boy is working through his issues on debut album The World Famous Joseph Coward, a title which is an clear-cut joke that certain people didn’t get (“some people think I’m taking myself too seriously. I also thought, ‘What’s the most ridiculous thing I can call it to stop people calling their albums Echoes and Tremors and Visions and all that fucking bullshit?’”).
When he sings “I can hear him breathing, he’s on top of me. My God, my Saviour, has abandoned me” on new single Idle Boy, it’s not a glib religious reference. Coward was brought up in “an Evangelical cult called New Frontiers International” and only formally stopped calling himself Christian when he was 18 or 19. Still now, his upbringing has a grip on him. “You know footage of American footage of super churches with people speaking in tongues and shouting and jumping up and down?” he asks. “Well it’s basically that. I used to get sent to Jesus camps and go to seminars on the evils of masturbation. So yeah, it was pretty intense. It took me a long time to get out of it. It was tough and it’s still something that I live with today, but I’m stronger for having lived it and I’m more informed and hugely interested in religion as a result.”
It’s easy to see the Morrissey influence on this young Essex boy, but he’s also cited Elton John, The Smashing Pumpkins and Jesus & The Mary Chain as favourites. What strikes you about Coward’s own music is the startling honesty of the lyrics and the clear way they are spoken/sung. Live too, he’s determined not to become a performer – something he clearly sees as fake and insincere – and wants each of his shows to be raw, real…confessional: “I just come on stage and play the songs honestly. I want to write in such a way that whenever I go up on stage, the songs retain their original feeling for me.”
Which is the reason why Coward has set up his own label, Stiffy Byng: to make sure he can keep his music and lyrical content as true to himself as possible. “Labels will try and push and pull you in directions they want, so it’s best to represent yourself. It’s a shame when you see artists being manipulated by big companies for their own ends. Lots of young artists are left by the wayside after they’ve been used up.” Through the independence that comes with his own label, Coward was able to make the record that he wanted. “It’s about me communicating the ideas that I have through stories from my life. I think there’s a kinship in finding out that people feel the same things as you. It’s about feeling strange and being sad, but overcoming that and accepting yourself.”
Words: Stuart Brumfit
Photographer: Liam Warwick