FIRST PERSON: Newport singer-songwriter Jon Lilygreen
6:02pm Wednesday 16th October 2013 in News
LAURA LEA meets Jon Lilygreen, one half of singing duo Lilygreen and Maguire, to talk record deals, songwriting and that Cypriot Eurovision performance.
“I’M a Newport lad. I went to Bettws High School, when it was still the old Bettws, and it was all right. I didn’t like school much, mucked about a bit and was happy to get out of there to be honest.
I started playing the guitar when I was 15 years old. That’s when I got my first Gibson.
After I left school I became a groundsman for Newport council. It was fine, you were outside a lot. Then I went to Cross Keys and did music, but I just didn’t get my head down. After a year I went back to my job working for the council.
I wasn’t going to do that forever, so I went back to Cross Keys for three years to do music. I really enjoyed it.
By this point there were a lot of younger people there and I did feel more mature. I was like I actually want to learn about this now.
In my third year of Cross Keys, I was singing for John Oliver’s band doing weddings and events at the Celtic Manor and stuff. Matt Sage, my lecturer, was a guitarist for the band. It was all tributes and covers. I was happy doing it.
With covers, they’re crowd pleasers – you’re playing what the audience wants. I’m confident performing them and I know they’ll like it.
Although I’d had a go at writing some of my own stuff I just didn’t really perform it before I met Jon Maguire. It’s terrifying singing your own song.
So Eurovision... well, I was playing in the house band for the Rent musical and the MD of the band Sylvia Strand asked me to come out to her place in Treherbert and record some vocals for a few tracks they were producing. Her and her husband have a got a small home studio set-up.
Months later she got in touch saying ‘remember that track you sang on, well they want you to go to Cyprus and sing on it for Eurovision’.
In Eurovision, only the songwriter has to be from the representing country, the performer can be from anywhere.
So we played it on this TV show out there and yeah, it went really well. They loved it and they voted and we got through to the final.
There was a lot of travelling back and forth to Cyprus for about five months.
On the night of the final, my family and friends had a party in Kama Lounge for me. It’s a bit weird not going to your own party, but it was good because they weren’t taking it too seriously but were just really supportive.
The whole thing was such an amazing experience – I’m really lucky to have had it.
After that, I came back to Newport. One of the guys from the John Oliver band, Dave Bebbington, was a lecturer at Chester university and he’d come in and spoken to us at Cross Keys so I decided I’d give it a go.
To be honest, it just wasn’t what I was expecting at all. One day we were outside just before a lecture and Dave walked by and I asked him, so do all you lecturers just get together when we’re gone and have a jam? And he said no, you don’t learn anything from jamming.
That just did it for me, there and then. Because for me, it’s through jamming and playing with other musicians that you learn and get better. So after three months in Chester I left and came back to Newport.
The night I met Maguire, I was playing in Kama Lounge and after the gig, I was outside having a smoke and he came up to me and said he really liked the performance. We just started chatting from there. That was the beginning of a very important relationship.
After that he asked me if I wanted to come down to his studio. And we just started jamming and making music. He’s really good with all the tech side of stuff – he’s done a lot of producing for people – so he would just be pressing all this stuff on the computers and I just left him to it.
Then a friend of mine who was in London saw an advert from the record label Warner and put my name forward. I wasn’t aware of it.
I got this call one morning, I was still in bed and it was the record company saying ‘do you fancy coming to London and playing us some stuff?’ So I was like, yes.
I spoke to Maguire and at first he said it must be fake but we checked the guy out and realised, woah, this is real! I asked Maguire to come with me, as I needed someone who knew London, and the guy I was speaking to at the label asked if my friend sang any music too. And I was like, yes funnily enough he does.
So, it kind of all happened by accident.
It was crazy, I moved to London and they gave us this amazing flat. They constantly had all these ideas for us and we would play them stuff and they’d be like ‘yea we like it, but how about something more like this?’ They’d give us stuff other people had written and we were happy to co-write and work with other people but we wanted some input.
While we were with them we toured with Olly Murs, Westlife and Scouting for Girls.
In the end they dropped us just before last Christmas. That was pretty hard. But it was a good lesson to us – it taught us we have to keep to what we want creatively.
When we were signed to Warner, we were going on a lot of writing trips. Beautiful Life, now with band Union J came from one of these trips. We wanted to see if we could write something for ourselves – but we ended up writing this big song with three other writers. It was a song originally for us but it was a bit too epic so we thought it would be great for someone else – because in the end, we’re just a pair of happy-go-lucky acoustic chaps.
It’s been playing on radio and that’s pretty cool. It’s weird because I’ve heard the song so much. The next step though, will be when I look in my bank account and it’ll no longer be empty. That’ll be nice.
It still feels like our song though. I really hope it kicks off for the band, then big things might happen for us too.
I do like writing with me and Maguire, but I prefer writing in a group of three.
Some songs just fall out. Falling out of love – one of the songs on the album – that just happened. We wrote that in two hours. I’m really proud of that song. The chords were quite simple and it was just me and Maguire jamming in an old industrial estate down by the Harlequin roundabout.
It always takes longer to write when you’re with a label and a guy in a suit wants something different. At the label, it’s hard when you haven’t proved your worth. But now, here we are trying the best we can with what we’ve got.
After our time with Warner, we had this whole bank of material we’d worked on so we’ve used that in the new album. We’ve produced it ourselves and it’s so nice that it’s pretty much all our music.
We’re touring the new album, playing the Globe in Cardiff, Manchester, Glasgow, Newcastle and London. It’s going to be fun.
So yeah, we’ve got an exciting few months ahead now. Hopefully, this Christmas should be a lot better than last year’s.
London was great, but I love Newport. It keeps you grounded.”
l Lilygreen and Maguire’s album, Have a good time all of the time, is out November 4. Follow the boys at @lilygandmaguire or lilygreenandmaguire.com
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