If you were to think about the English countryside, you’d likely conjure the sort of imagery you’d find in calendars and chocolate box art: rolling hills, verdant fields, an idyllic landscape resplendent with pastoral charm. While there are parts of England where that’s not far off (I confess to getting moony-eyed over pictures from the Cotswolds once or twice), that bucolic dream will eventually butt up against mundane reality: boredom, conservatism, scowling farmers with incomprehensible accents.
Jonah Corren, the young songwriter behind the impressive “Dreaming & Petty Crime”, hails from Dorset, a rural county in southwest England. “Dreaming & Petty Crime” is the title track of his upcoming EP, which deals frankly with what it’s like to grow up in the countryside. It’s not exactly a love letter: over a stark, twangy electric guitar, Corren sings about how alienated and trapped he feels in his hometown. The bus only comes once a day, and only goes one way; the busiest the town gets is when “tartan-clad elderly people” go out to do their weekly shopping. For an artistic young man, it must seem like Hell, or at least Purgatory.
Another songwriter might have written a sneering, bitter indictment of provincial life, but Corren is too empathetic and sensitive a songwriter to leave it at that. He sings for all the bored, aimless teenagers with nothing to do but drink, do drugs, and commit petty crimes while pining for something more. We should all be glad that Corren found his outlet–his lyrics are wry and writerly, and the mark of a young talent to watch.
“Dreaming & Petty Crime” thoughtfully evokes the peculiar alienation of living in a rural area. What particular challenges did you face in Dorset? Do you suppose it’s similar or different to what young people feel in other rural areas around the world?
Well, as the song outlines, transport is a big one. It took going to university to realize that, for friends of mine, going to gigs was a large part of their experience of growing up, something I’d never really had access to due to the lack of reliable public transport. It’s not often in the city you spend over an hour waiting for a bus only for it to never show up. In my experience, anyway. I think Dorset in particular is one of the least diverse places in the UK, something that I explored more in my BBC New Creatives piece “Borderlines” than I do on this EP. At school, any remote delineation from the norm lead to no end of teasing, and this, other than thirteen-year-olds just being nasty creatures, was partly due to that. Having a rural upbringing has made me connections with other people with similar experiences across the UK though; there’s a certain satisfaction in just going “buses, am I right”, and both of you nodding in solemn understanding.
How did rural Britain shape your songwriting sensibilities? (Some of the details in your lyrics remind me of another native of Dorset, PJ Harvey.)
I would definitely consider myself a folk musician, though I’m not actually certain my musical output fits in that genre particularly neatly. Weirdly, PJ Harvey never really entered my sphere (especially given I went to her sixth form), but Show of Hands were a huge influence on me early in my songwriting career, and more recently Fenne Lily’s incredible successes have both inspired me and given me hope that someone from our corner of the UK can still make it on the world stage. Growing up in the countryside gives you a semi-permanent melancholy that’s very useful for writing songs, I think. Fenne captures that wonderfully.
Do you see yourself as a musician first or a songwriter first?
Songwriter first. Much of my three years at university were spent writing and performing poetry, so this song, and the rest of the EP, came out of a period were songwriting had rather taken a backseat. Coming to it relatively fresh gave me the tools I needed to write these songs. I’m not a talented musician, my band will attest to that. The only instrument I play on 90% of the EP is my voice.
There has been much discourse, both in America and Britain, about the way rural areas are seen from the outside, which can be condescending at best and contemptuous at worst. What’s something you’d want people who live in the cities and suburbs about living in the countryside?
This came up in a seminar at Uni, and I was actually on the receiving end of a fellow country bumpkin’s scorn for condescending country-folk. Naturally she was very surprised when I told her where I had grown up. I think the countryside is very idealized in much of Britain’s collective consciousness (“this green and pleasant land” etc etc), and this, whilst helpful for tourism, is often to the detriment of the people who live there. The countryside is full of real people with very real socio-economic issues, and this is something that needs more attention. Will Toledo puts it very well in Car Seat Headrest’s “Vincent”: “The past year I’ve been living in a town that gets a lot of tourists in the summer months/ they come and they stay for a couple of days/ but me? I’m living here every day.”
How has the pandemic altered your plans going forward?
Well it halted recording for my forthcoming EP (of which this is the title track), that was the big one. I was meant to have another couple months in Birmingham to finish it and play some gigs, so obviously that hasn’t been able to happen. Thankfully though I’ve been working with a very talented (Dorset-based) producer on the last two tracks to get them where they need to be, so the whole EP should have a release date very soon. I miss gigs, though. I think we all do.
What are your hopes for the future?
World domination. A nice gig would be a good start, though. And that whoever reads this goes and listens to the two tracks I currently have out, and becomes a lifelong fan.