This may not be the most mature jokethat the Sheffield-based songwriting prodigy Steven Jones (aka Baby Bird) has ever cracked, but in the circumstances, it is quite funny. Indecently handsome, in a Keifer Sutherland sort of way, he stalks the stage in a horrible white suit and matching shoes, pulling Max Wall faces and assuring the laughing-too-heartily assembly that they are going to have to grant him sexual favours if they want his signature on a contract. Not so much a frontman as a force of nature, Jones twirls an enormous comb, spits all over his bass player and mockingly challenges the big names of contemporary Britpop to "write a song that's not the Beatles".
Offstage, Jones is far from the paragon of arrogance this performance might suggest. In fact, he is polite to the point of being demure. He's just getting a bit fed up with jumping through hoops for record companies. A couple of months back, a deal with EMI was more or less finalised, and he was flown to Dublin to perform for an international conference. Sandwiched somewhat incongruously between Cliff Richard and Louise out of Eternal, Baby Bird sang a blockbusting ballad of sexual unease called "Man's Tight Vest". It wasn't the song that caused problems so much as the dedication: "My dad died yesterday, and this was the last song he ever wrote for me."
Now the subject of renewed inter-corporate competition after EMI mysteriously sacked the man who wanted to sign him, Steven Jones has already released two of the albums of the year - one on the last day of July and one last Monday - on his own label in 1,000-copy limited editions. On first hearing Baby Bird's debut, I Was Born A Man, or its successor, Bad Shave, the most popular response seems to be "What the hell was that?" The Flying Lizards play Frank Sinatra, maybe, or U2 sing Astrud Gilberto? It takes only a few listens, however, to realise that standout numbers such as "Dead Bird Sings" are anthems of a new suburban dreamland.
In an era when most new bands are only too eager to wear their record collections on their sleeves, the impossibility of pinning down where this music comes from only adds to Baby Bird's allure. The number of styles on display makes it hard to believe these albums are the work of one person, let alone that they were all recorded at home on primitive four-track equipment, and that there are several hundred more completed songs where these came from. Who knew there were this many classic pop songs left to be written, never mind that one man was going to write them all?
Perhaps mindful of the danger of assassination attempts by Menswear and others even less talented, Baby Bird has been somewhat inscrutable up to this point. The sleeve of the first album tells how he got his name - he trod on a bird, and its spirit entered his soul, much as those of the Indians on the highway entered Jim Morrison's. Bad Shave has pictures of its author after what looks like a horrific bathroom mishap,sporting Union Jack underpants beside the legend "English ostrich... back from Spain".
Three more Baby Bird albums will be released within the next six months, with a Greatest Hits selection to follow, compiled on the basis of the polling cards that accompany each CD - "Your choices will shape Baby Bird's future!" Once the big record deal is finalised, Jones and his band - who only got together in April to start playing the songs live - will re-record their best material for mass consumption.
This career plan is so bizarre that it's small wonder misconceptions about Baby Bird already abound. The commonest of these is that he's spent his whole life locked in his bedroom, writing songs and "eating nothing but fish fingers". In fact, Jones had been around the world by the time he was seven (his parents were teachers who took him from Telford to New Zealand via the Panama Canal, and via Suez on the way back). Baby Bird is not his first showbiz venture, either. As a partner in a "multi-media performance group" called Dogs In Honey, he spent more years than he cares to remember travelling the country, performing to very small numbers of people and eking out a living from subsidy and sponsorship.
His songs were written on whatever instruments came to hand. "As I moved from place to place," Jones says, "I'd get a new drum machine or have to sell a guitar." Initially, at least, it was for friends and family only. "I know it sounds a bit naive, but I had no intention of releasing them. I secretly thought it would be nice; I just never thought it would be possible." Convinced otherwise by a canny and enthusiastic manager, he opted to release them "more or less as elaborate demos", but now this ruse has been overtaken by its own success, as the five-album Bird cycle has built up a momentum that is all its own.
Jones is not just a master of the snappy title (one being "Too Handsome To Be Homeless"); he writes complete songs that, given half a chance, will claim squatter's rights in your brain. With the hilarious "Valerie" and the bewitching "CFC" ("I look up at the sky and a plane's flying by, smoking around the loops of your nickname"), he achieves a perfect balance of cynicism and romance. Baby Bird will grow up to find the sky is not the limit. "People do see it as pop music," Jones insists. "Even my brother, and he likes Sting and George Benson."
n 'I Was Born A Man' and 'Bad Shave' (Baby Bird CD only) are both out now. Baby Bird plays the Dublin Castle (0171-485 1773) on Monday and a fortnightly residency christened 'Ont' Nest Wi' Baby Bird' at the King's Cross Water Rats (0171-278 3789) from 1 November
BEN THOMPSONReuse content