Music has always been part of Rod Jones’ life. His parents, both orchestra musicians, encouraged him to start playing a variety of instruments from a very early age but interestingly, Rod was sixteen when he got his first guitar. We all know the rest of Rod’s story, as a founding member of Scottish indie rock bands Idlewild and The Birthday Suit, a solo artist and co-creator of the Fruit Tree Foundation. Our reporter Gemma met the singer-songwriter ahead of his Songwriting Saturay event for an in-depth conversation about music, mental health and being part of the Festival.

When asked what music has taught him, Rod says ‘pretty much everything’. “For the past 20 years of my life, it’s completely shaped my life, all my experiences, the people I’ve met, the places I’ve been. And it’s funny, I said this to someone yesterday, It’s really difficult to listen to music you made yourself ten years ago because it’s the equivalent of looking at a photo of yourself ten years ago, which nobody likes to do, because it’s who you are and it’s essentially music is a reflection of yourself at that time and I don’t want to look at myself from ten years ago. When I started to write my own record, I felt comfortable putting myself on the record. I wrote music and then maybe spent two years writing the lyrics, because I’d keep writing, and then think ‘no, no, that’s not it‘ [Laughter].”

Rod Jones published in 2009 his first solo album A Sentimental Education, named after the Gustave Flaubert novel. Rod recalls discovering the influential French writer. “In my late twenties when the band was coming down a bit and I had some time to think, I thought I really want to read some classic novels rather than big poets and stuff, and I think someone gave me a short story by Flaubert and I enjoyed the way it was written, as it was very earnest and overly descriptive, without many metaphors. And I like that, rather than trying to find fancy metaphors to describe things, he just described how they made him feel. That was something I could understand directly. I don’t think I’ve ever been that great at writing metaphorically so I much prefer to write earnestly. Not in a sense of ‘everything is great and sunny’. But more in a sense of a stream of consciousness, sort of trying to express what’s going on in your head and not really hiding it.” All songs on A Sentimental Education are very introspective indeed. Rod locked himself away for about two years to write his lyrics. “It wasn’t the best time of my life, and so the lyrics do show it. It’s like therapy. And somehow the listener almost becomes the therapist.”

Coincidentally, Rod became involved with the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival at that time. “I had been contacted by the festival asking if we’d play a gig because they wanted a headliner in the festival. However, because we had just taken a break at that point, we couldn’t do it. So I said ‘We can’t do it as a gig, but I’ll help out because it’s something I’m interested in.‘ The SMHAFF had put a night at ABC in Glasgow but hadn’t booked bands yet. ABC’s a pretty big venue that hosts about 1500 people and we had two months! So gradually, Emma Pollock and myself tried to organize a night of music. At first it was easy, because I hadn’t asked anybody favors so I phoned everybody I knew in the music industry in Scotland and asked, ‘hey, can you do me a favor? We are doing a gig in ABC and we can’t pay, but it’ll be good fun.’ In the end we had Frightened Rabbit, The Twilight Sad and Norman Blake from Teenage Fanclub too. We called it Music Like A Vitamin. It sold out, so the people at the BBC got interested, and it was fantastic. Then we sat down and thought maybe we could expand the idea. People at gigs would come talking to me because they had been to the Music Like A Vitamin gig and seen others involved and it had opened the door. I think we got rid of a lot of stigma. If you go to the concert of your favourite band for that reason, it makes you feel more comfortable. But I thought we could do something that has a longer lifespan. That’s when we created the Fruit Tree Foundation. What I found over the last few years running this project is that making music and making it together in a collaborative way can have a monumental impact on mental health and positive thinking and well-being. A huge impact.”

The culmination of The Fruit Tree Foundation’s first years of existence came with the release of the collaborative album First Edition and the launch of a program to mentor young artists who suffered from mental health issues. They would come and work with a more established artist and get some experience in order to encourage them. “It had a big impact as well, but I thought what was making more of a difference than anything was the collaborative nature of the project. Meeting other people and working with them. Sharing. And so I’ve been running some song-writing workshops in Edinburgh. The purpose of that at the time had been to get people into education and to jobs in music. As an introduction to maybe get them onto a college course. And although that did work and we did get a few people onto college courses, which was great, when we evaluated the project at the end of two years, we realized that actually we’ve missed something; that the biggest outcome that’s positive from the project was not the people going on to further education, but the fact of how it made people feel, so I had this idea that maybe if we ran a similar project again, I would actually try to fine tune it so that it’s specifically for that purpose.”

Rod is convinced that music it’s a different language. “By all means if you’ve had experience with mental health – and everybody has – then talk about it. It’s difficult to do, but that effort makes a huge difference. Someone talking about his or her own personal experience with depression removes so many stigmas. Because a person who’s suffering sees and feels it’s ok to also talk about it, because it makes it more normal. Songs used to do this well, I mean, before it became this “pop-culture business conveyor belt”, because they connected to people. Nowadays, the nature of music is in such a way that people often don’t really think of music in that way anymore. We listen to it once and we move on to the next thing. We don’t have the time to digest it. So maybe we have to be a little bit more direct with people. So if you’re a musician and people are listening to you, tell them. It can make a huge difference in someone’s life. Once I did a feature for the Edinburgh Evening News and I was really jetlagged because I had just come back from California. As a result, I was much more open than I intended to be. I went to the news agents the next morning and it was on the front cover of the paper and I thought, ‘oh jees, did I really say all this?’ but then it had a huge impact and people I knew came forward to me and talked to me about their own experiences. That’s the power of it and what it can do.”

Interview by Gemma Torras Vives