On our radar: Joe Kelly & The Royal Pharmacy – "Hearing Nebraska by Springsteen was a game changer for an indie kid growing up on a council estate"

Joe Kelly
(Image credit: Eleanor Jane )

For an album recorded remotely during the pandemic, World On Fire is remarkably cohesive and assured. It finds Welsh folk-rock singer / songwriter  Joe Kelly fusing his songs with an expanded line-up to especially stunning effect on the title track and the majestic Richard Ashcroft-esque drama of Old House – the single released in aid of UNICEF and the Ukranian people last year.

"Recording the newer tracks through the pandemic allowed us the chance to explore some different recording techniques," explains Joe. "Everything was recorded remotely so we had gone from having all the restraints of being on the clock in the studio to having these endless options in terms of arrangement."

It makes for a compelling dynamic on the record alongside the Americana influence of Sixty Six, a song that spotlights Joe's finely hewn voice and his roots as a solo troubadour; packing an acoustic guitar and harmonica to showcase his songs to audiences. 

"The production style for recording those earlier tracks was very raw, very little overdubs, some of them are even the first take," he reflects with us. "A lot of those songs had never been written with a band in mind so it really made sense to come at it from a singer-songwriter perspective.  

"The record is a bit of a mix between the oldest of our tracks and some newer material," he adds. "The production style for recording those earlier tracks was very raw, very little overdubs, some of them are even the first take. A lot of those songs had never been written with a band in mind so it really made sense to come at it from a singer-songwriter perspective. "

The current Royal Pharmacy lineup of keyboard player and producer Jon Greening, guitarist and backing vocalist Chris Vinnicombe, bassist Niall Davey and drummer Morgan Wicks has allowed Joe's songs to evolve in the best way; on stage in venues around the UK. 

"We had been gigging those songs for a few years and especially by the time we brought Jon into the live band on keys and backing vocals, the newer tracks naturally took on wider scope," Joe explains. 

"Jon took on the mammoth task of learning how to produce it all and he absolutely knocked it out of the park."

We talked to Joe about his phoenix-like Yamaha, Springsteen's Nebraska and the next album he and the band have already written.  

 

Who are your biggest songwriting and guitar influences?

"Though both wildly different in terms of songwriting, I'm a huge fan of Courtney Barnett and Adam Haworth Stephens of Two Gallants, both very captivating storytellers. The latter is also a phenomenal guitar player and attempting to master that picking style has definitely influenced my guitar playing."

How would you describe your sound to a new listener?

"Considering our sound is constantly evolving I'd say it's deeply rooted in folk & soul, with flavours of indie-rock, R&B and psych."

What artists do you think you could potentially share fans with?

"I've had people cite bands like the Lumineers which is really cool to hear, they're a great band. 

"I'd like to think fans of the Black Keys would dig it but also the likes of Ezra Furman and Father John Misty – their back catalogues are quite varied, they draw from a deep well of influence and that above all is what we're hoping to convey."

Which of your songs best represents your sound and why?

"There You Go Again, the second track on the record is probably the track which has a bit of everything in there. It's got its roots in Americana but there's some grit to it and the band all really get a chance to show off their skills – it's a great one to play live."

What inspired the creative process for the World On Fire album?

"Ultimately timing. The album would have sounded completely different pre-covid but that extra few months to write and record tracks like Amber Glow, The Neighbours and World On Fire really made a difference. They gave the album a bit more context and also gave us the opportunity to add some more contemporary sounds into the mix which we were already starting to bring to the live show." 

What is your favourite musical memory with the band so far?

"We very recently played a three-piece set at Acapela Studios in Cardiff supporting Rusty Shackle. The venue is amazing, every single member of the team were so welcoming and above all the sound was incredible. Although we didn't get to unleash the might of the full Royal Pharmacy, the intimacy of the show really helped us to get across the raw nature of some of our more country/folk numbers."

Is there a particular album that had a big impact on you growing up and how?

"Hearing Nebraska by Springsteen was a game changer for an indie kid growing up on a council estate. For me, the album is synonymous with The Grapes of Wrath (which I was reading at the time) and summer weekends off in the woods or sleeping in my first car down at the beach. 

"That's when I first started to write anything of any substance and where my drive to start telling stories of my own really came from."

Joe Kelly & The Royal Pharmacy

(Image credit: Joe Kelly & The Royal Pharmacy )

If you could put us in Olympic Studios with Jimmy Miller I can guarantee something very good would come from those sessions.

If you could steal the production off one album/track, which would you take and why?

"It would have to be Let It Bleed (the album), surely? There's is so much vibrance on that record, the harmonicas and slide guitars in particular are spot on and I just feel like I'm in the room with them every time I put it on.

"If you could put us in Olympic Studios with Jimmy Miller I can guarantee something very good would come from those sessions. We would need the choir though, of course." 

Do you have any go-to gear for songwriting and demoing ideas and why is it important to you?

"I've had my Yamaha LS16 since I was a kid, it's my workhorse. I wrote pretty much every song on the album and it wasn't until I found myself without it due to repairs that I truly understood how much a part of my process that guitar truly is. It's not an expensive guitar, it's not a fancy guitar but for me, songwriting has to come naturally so being able to pick up an instrument and start playing it seamlessly is very important. 

We heard that guitar has been through the wars a bit... 

"Early on when I first really got on the scene, a family friend recommended the Yamaha LS16 as a solid gigging guitar on a lower budget. Pairing that with the Takamine take on an LR Baggs pickup really served me well for quite some time until an unfortunate mishap involving a bench, a shed window and a whole heap of stupidity left the neck all but sheared off near the nut.

"I was so embarrassed that I blamed it on the cat. She's dead now but I'm certain I made it right with her before the end.

"Luckily an incredibly talented local luthier Richard Meyrick was able to fix up the neck and get me back out on the road. I needed the guitar back in good time so opted for a faster repair job which ultimately left the neck with a real nasty scar which naturally served as a constant reminder of the consequences of stupidity and the fragility of all things (guitars included). The guitar continue to be my gigging guitar for years after until last summer after spending many weeks in a very hot van the old wound opened up.

"Fortunately Richard Meyrick's luthier business is still going strong (check it out here) and he had some adventurous ideas on how to provide a more permanent fix. I left the guitar for a few months this time rather than a few weeks and now it's like a new guitar. The break point is now supported by pins and parts of the neck and headstock have been replaced for added strengthening.

"I've been told that under normal circumstances the guitar should last me a fairly long time now, but with my luck I guess we'll just have to see."

Joe Kelly

(Image credit: Chris Vinnicombe )

I definitely think I've mellowed out enough to start looking for a more sophisticated electric that can cope with the versatility of our ever-expanding live set

What instrument or piece of gear would you like to get next and why?

"I've had my eye on a Gibson ES-335 for long time. I've had an Epiphone Casino for years, using it mainly in a three-piece garage rock outfit. I gave it plenty of abuse and made some great noise with it but I definitely didn't deserve anything of better quality, not with my guitar history anyway! 

"While I'm nowhere near ready for the pipe and slippers yet, I definitely think I've mellowed out enough to start looking for a more sophisticated electric that can cope with the versatility of our ever-expanding live set. And no one really does elegance and reliability like Gibson."

We hear you've already got album two in the can… what can we expect from that?

"We're currently putting the finish touches on the second album, Cast Me Down. It sort of picks up where World On Fire leaves off both sonically and thematically but doesn't linger there for too long before drifting into new territory for us, delving into a bit more soul and '60s psych which we are all big fans of. 

"We held back a few tracks from earlier sessions which felt more at home with this group of songs but for the most part, the album was recorded through the pandemic so we're currently cursed with the task of working out how to replicate everything live."

Rob Laing
Guitars Editor, MusicRadar

I'm the Guitars Editor for MusicRadar, handling news, reviews, features, tuition, advice for the strings side of the site and everything in between. Before MusicRadar I worked on guitar magazines for 15 years, including Editor of Total Guitar in the UK. When I'm not rejigging pedalboards I'm usually thinking about rejigging pedalboards.