E-mail conversation with Richard Owain Roberts

Recently, I e-mailed author Richard Owain Roberts whose debut book All The Places We Lived is out on Parthian later this month (Amazon link $$$: http://www.amazon.co.uk/All-The-Places-We-Lived/dp/1910409650), asking if he would talk to me about his perspective on the personal brand and creativity – two subjects on which Richard has a lot to say. What follows is the unedited e-mail thread.

—— MT > RO ——


You asked me about brand building the other day. It got me thinking about the blog that we’re doing at Small Joys. One of the things that I was hoping to do was to publish some transcripts of e-mails threads that I’ve had with interesting people. Would you be interested? If you agree, I’ll publish everything from the start of this e-mail until it gets boring for us. Kind of an e-mail interview or something more useful to use e-mail for.

Are you interested? 

I’m interested in what branding means to you as an author. I mean, is that what you’d even label yourself? What is a Richard Owain Roberts? 

Feel free to sell yourself. We believe in advertising as long as it betters the person being sold to in some way. 



—— ROR > MT ——

i am interested

should i start now, or do you want to start a new thread?

—— MT > ROR ——

Let’s carry on in this one.

—— ROR > MT ——

i would say i’m a person. i’ve got a book coming out on the first of may. i’m writing another book. i’m writing another book. i’m doing 2 x other projects. i would say i’m a person who is writing books and trying to make things.

i read on facebook recently re an author who was complaining about not getting enough attention for their work. this sounds like ‘an author’. i didn’t relate to that. either be happy with what an outdated model can give you or make your own attention, i suppose.

branding is important because if you expect people to buy your products then i think it’s right that the product doesn’t end with the book or film or whatever. for example, kanye made yeezus and it’s maybe half an hour long; but there’s probably 3-4 hours worth of video interviews he did around the time it came out. and these were the interviews where he went in and said what was on his mind rather than giving generic answers re what were your influences when making this album etc etc. this feeds back into the music and then back out again. this seems very relevant to me.

there is an impression maybe that branding is somehow disingenuous, i know a lot of people just hate the word because of associations to business culture. i think, maybe in 2010, some people heard a contestant on the apprentice use the phrase ‘personal brand’ and it made them angry. instead of being angry, they should have enjoyed it. the business jerk was entertaining them on a fictional programme. in 2014 someone on twitter got very angry because i referred to ‘my brand’. this was in 2014: four years after the business jerk on the apprentice. this is funny to me. i favourited and retweeted him. it’s okay.

branding is about honesty. or it doesn’t have to be. everything in my book is real, one way or another.

this isn’t to say that some people aren’t being disingenuous, although most of the time, if they are, this is reflected in an uninteresting product or nondescript brand.

—— ROR > MT —— 

rather than a fictional programme, the apprentice is probably better described as ‘fiction’ lol

—— ROR > MT —— 

the idea of striving to impress anyone (i suppose traditional gatekeepers in whatever industry for example) or acting ‘political’ in terms of being careful about what you say / attempting to manipulate people, seems very outdated. if you have confidence in what you’re making, and how you present your brand, i think everything will be okay. brand is way less cynical than pretending to be everyone’s friend.

—— MT > ROR ——

I have so much stuff to say about what you wrote in your last messages. It’s hard to know where to start. I think what I really want to say is: 

Kanye comes across as a real weirdo, right? But I think that’s not necessarily a bad thing. He’s really good at what he does as his primary outlet for creative work. But what interests me specifically is that he has blurred the boundaries between Kanye the rapper, the artist, the personality and also as Kanye the fashion designer. I like that about him. Do you think that’s the new mode? 

—— ROR > MT ——

i think kanye, to me, comes across as being a very honest person. i think he’s doing what a lot of people are doing to be honest, in terms of not limiting himself, but he’s doing it to a large audience, some of whom are ready to listen. when he talks about designing uniforms for cities, designing buildings, i appreciate that. for example, in cardiff we have a couple of brilliant buildings, maybe some more on the way, but i still see a lot of generic new builds going up. as a young capital city we have the advantage of having no current reputation internationally. someone else might choose to see that as a negative (truly a boring, defeatist opinion) – it’s a positive though because it means we have a blank canvas to create something incredible. but we still have over-ground car parks, and we’re still putting up office/residential blocks that look a decade old already. every single piece of new architecture should be the boldest statement of individualism, within an overriding city narrative. we should be building a city that looks like 2115. and this is possible. go to sci-arc or the rdafa and give someone a chance to make something awesome for us.

—— ROR > MT ——

if you feel like you can make something, anything, you should work on it and then do it. i think that’s what kanye is doing. it’s pretty simple and it’s sad that people make fun of him for it.

—— ROR > MT ——

you put a post up on facebook about the revamped morgan(?) arcade creative spaces and how it was now being pushed as ‘a lot like london’ with a ‘fairly soho vibe’. i mean, that is the worst branding i can imagine. it’s also a dated ghetto mentality being spoon fed to people who who earnestly read the western mail and don’t know better.

the merger of a load of universities no one had heard of internationally to make USW was good. i think some people lost their jobs but that’s okay if you believe in collectivism or are a perfectionist. if you want to make a product that is interesting or exciting, i think disappointing/angering other people is inevitable – but that’s their decision to be angry or disappointed, it shouldn’t effect the creative person’s approach to their work

—— ROR > MT —— 

have you watched the movie ‘jobs’ with ashton kutcher as steve jobs? i suppose it’s a boring film for maybe 70% but i’d recommend it to anyone who has an interest in what hard work and genuine commitment to a brand is

—— MT > ROR ——

One of the interesting things that has happened since we last spoke is that there was some discussion over Twitter/Facebook/elsewhere about DIY culture. For example, I mentioned that I’d been with someone who had applied for funding to do a thing that she could have done with her phone for free. And her main concern was that if she did it on her phone, there wouldn’t be a high production value.

That really annoyed me because 1) It seems dumb and 2) It’s such a cop out. 

What’s your view on DIY stuff? 

—— ROR > MT ——

the idea of ‘high production values’ seems cringeworthy somehow. mark duplass did a talk at sxsw that felt relevant to this point. i’d encourage people to google it.

‘high production values’ in films: you could watch ‘the theory of everything’ and it probably conforms to what ‘high production values’ means in a traditional sense, but i can’t imagine what anyone could possibly get out of it on an emotional level. read the wikipedia page on stephen hawking or something.

diy seems like a better way of approaching things. you can learn editing on youtube, you can learn any technical skill on youtube. what mark duplass is saying is relevant: there are no barriers to telling stories.

if someone wants get in touch with me about making a film together one weekend i’d be happy to listen and talk about it.

Song At Midnight

I know nothing about Chinese history. Well, not nothing actually, it’s just that nothing that I do know about it is connected to anything else I do know about it and all of the details are fuzzy. So, basically nothing.

One of the downsides of this is that I found it quite hard to place what was happening in Song at Midnight. That, coupled with not ever having seen or been told the story of The Phantom of the Opera on which the film is loosely based makes for some pretty difficult stuff when attempting to understand what is important and what is not.

Part of Chapter’s Electric Shadows, a season of film programmed by the British Film Institute (BFI), Song at Midnight represents the earliest of examples of Chinese cinema. More importantly though – especially given the topic of the film itself – Song at Midnight is also the first full-sound production of the the Phantom myth.

It is hard to comment on what is so obviously a classic for many reasons. But the use of cinematography in this production is really quite wonderful.

For example, the way that a camera pans across a body of water and then up to a path where people are walking is a technique that seems way out of its time. Additionally, the scenes where Song Danping escapes from a crowd who are chasing him with torches are sublime – multiple shots overlaid on each other to give the impression of a much larger crowd.

Although as I have already mentioned, I am no expert in adaptations of Gaston Leroux’s story, even I can tell that there are several special elements to Director Weibang Ma-Xu’s version.

First and foremost, Song Danping the man who sings a song every midnight to his love – who he appears to live across the street from – is a monster not because of a birth defect, but because he was attacked by the local don (who happens to think that Song Danping is not quite feudal son-in-law material) and his henchmen. After a nitric acid attack, Song is subject to facial melting. Of course, this has the effect of making us really sympathise with a man who’s actually super nice referring to lots of people in the subtitles (more on that later) as ‘pal’ or ‘perfect pal.’ This is different to other interpretations of the gothic story which pitch the Phantom as a man to be feared.

Secondly, there is a really political history happening throughout this film. As it turns out, Song has already spent a large amount of his life in tragedy. Having changed identity once because he was a revolutionary fighter, he hides for years so that no-one will try to execute him. Then he assumes the identity of Song Danping who has a wonderful voice. Even the opera in which Song appears in flashbacks is a political one entitled ‘BLOOD’ – which compares the hero to an early period Robespierre of the French Revolution.

While the film itself was a very entertaining and compelling account of what 1930s Chinese attitudes to women, art and politics were, the most entertaining thing about this version of the film was the translation of the Chinese. Or rather, not the translation, but the errors in translation which appear so frequently.

Of course, no one will blame a translator for losing some of the sense of the original when it is translated into English – a language so utterly far removed from Chinese – but there are many instances in this reel where hilarious mishaps have occurred. For example, during a very serious conversation between Song Danping and the modern day hero of the story Sun Xiaoou, Song reveals that during his last ten years of torment, he has spent time: “Changing BLOOD and writing new material” which somehow places him next to an indie kid with a garage band rather than the enigmatic Phantom.

But really, these errors only add to the charm and entertainment that watching a film set in a place and time that have no relation to my own life whatsoever brings.

Electric Shadows continues all month at Chapter.

Pyramid Scheme and the Cardiff literary scene


Recently, the literary scene in Cardiff has undergone something of a renaissance.

Traditionally Cardiff is a boring place for writing: most of the names you could list under the title of young writing are well past the proper age bracket. Many of the institutions you would be forced to label as avant garde are strictly apres garde these days.

So it’s pretty refreshing to see that there’s new blossom on a rugged old tree.

Take for example, Parthian books who are proving to be a formidable talent finding force. With the appointment of Susie Wild as an editor at the firm a little while ago, the company seems to have found its feet again.

Most notably, the publication of Dan Tyte’s Half Plus Seven earlier this year and their encouraging level of support for new literary voices such as Richard Owain Roberts (a Plastik contributor) whose debut collection All The Places We Lived will be published by Parthian early next year.

Perhaps more exciting are the quality grassroots events that are happening in the city for the first time in years. Take as an example Pyramid Scheme which takes place at Kings Road Studios this week organised by Tyte and Roberts.

“We wanted to put together something that felt relevant and spoke to us as writers and citizens of Cardiff, but was outward looking too. Pyramid Scheme seems essential, a great product,” the pair said. “It’s a fresh take on the usual warm wine and stale conversation of most literary nights. The Kings Road Artist Studios will add an air of creativity a cut above the normal reading spaces of chain bookstores.”

Joined by a host of new authors and also some new writers, Pyramid Scheme will demonstrate that a page has truly been turned in Cardiff literary life.

Also reading:

  • Joao Morais

  • Guillaume Morissette (New Tab, Vehicule Press) live from Montreal, Quebec

  • with music by Summer Ghost

  • Pyramid Scheme, 19h August 28 2014, Kings Road Artist Studios, Pontcanna CF11 9DF

    Welsh Music Foundation to suspend operations today

    The Welsh Music Foundation (WMF), one of the organisations responsible for offering support to the music industry in Wales, will cease to operate today following a Welsh Government decision to end its financial support.

    Until yesterday, the WMF was funded in a three year core funding agreement with the Welsh Government which saw them offer advice and financial help to record labels, publishers, studios, promoters and musicians as well as many more.

    However, when that offer came to an end yesterday, a similar agreement was not offered to the WMF despite the board’s efforts to prove the worth of the organisation such as forming part of the group who delivered WOMEX – an event which had an economic impact of over £3M in Cardiff in 2013.

    Welsh Government had offered a six month extension of the organisation’s funding to enable them to “secure an alternative income stream” but this option was deemed unviable by the board.

    In a statement released this morning, the board of the Welsh Music Foundation said: “We are extremely proud of the value and leadership we have shown within the industry and how, on an extremely modest revenue grant of £160,000 a year, we have leveraged much more money in project value, served many Welsh music businesses and developed the music economy of Wales.”

    The statement in full:

    A Press Statement from the Welsh Music Foundation Board

    It is with great sadness that as of today, Tuesday 1st July 2014, Welsh Music Foundation (WMF) is suspending the company’s operations.

    WMF’s existing three-year core-funding agreement with Welsh Government expired yesterday, 30th June 2014. Despite our efforts over the past nine months to negotiate continued core-funding, the Welsh Government’s offer of a six month extension to enable the company to secure an alternative income stream whilst continuing to provide the core service was deemed by the Board an unviable proposal.

    The Board therefore decided not to accept the offer of funding and to proceed to suspend the company’s operations and as a consequence all 3 members of staff will be made redundant.

    As an executive and board, we are extremely proud of the value and leadership we have shown within the industry and how, on an extremely modest revenue grant of £160,000 a year, we have leveraged much more money in project value, served many Welsh music businesses and developed the music economy of Wales.

    Over the past year we have:

    • Delivered the World Music Expo WOMEX to Wales, with through our partnership with Arts Council Wales / Wales Arts International (Cerdd Cymru : Music Wales) with an economic impact of £3,177,000 for Cardiff
    • Produced 36 bespoke training events across Wales in areas such as music copyright, royalties, radio play, live music promotion and festival organization.
    • Answered 1708 enquiries from the music industry in Wales
    • Launched a Wales music directory with serves 1705 music companies in Wales.
    • Delivered an international music presence for Welsh music companies in Womex and SXSW and explored new markets in Porto Musicale (Recife, Brazil) and PrimaveraPro (Barcelona, Spain)

    WMF’s annual report, published for our AGM last week, and available to read below, outlines WMF’s benefit to and activities to develop Wales’ music industry over this past year.

    It is highly regrettable to be closing our office and operations and we are extremely concerned for the hiatus in service to the music industry of Wales that this causes. However having carefully considered a number of options, and in the knowledge that there is no further commitment from Welsh Government to fund our service to the industry, it is the only responsible option currently available to us.

    The Board of WMF remain committed and will seek new investment and partnerships to support the development of the music industry in Wales.
    If you are working in the music sector in Wales and require support, or if you are looking to work with the music sector in Wales, then please contact Business Wales 03000 6 03000 or http://business.wales.gov.uk/contact-us

    The Annual report can be downloaded here.

    CSAD Graduate Roundup 2014

    Every year, I must mention how great it is to have the School of Art & Design in the city hundreds of times. When people ask me what it’s like to live in Cardiff – CSAD is one of the first things I talk about because they produce such great work: in the community, research and young artists and designers.

    So every year, it’s a pleasure to get to go into their buildings and get a feel for how the students leaving the School to go work in jobs all around the world have done.

    In one sense then, it’s a pleasure to write this piece every year because it’s a chance to praise the creativity of a large number of people. On the other hand, it’s sad because there’s only so much time to write about the work – a lot of people’s work gets cut out of these roundups. Usually, there’s no reason other than the volume of great work on show versus my own capacity to see it all.

    More notable than ever, this is the year when CSAD waves goodbye to Howard Gardens – its home for several decades – and moves to another building across town to begin a new era in the institution’s history.

    Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to discuss the furnishing of the new building with Richard Morris, he mentioned the idea of looking at existing furniture differently and so here we start:


    Lydia Spurrier-Dawes questions the social norms of acceptability and entitlement that we have built for ourselves in the western world by taking a sideways look at the idea of a table and a teaset.

    If for no other reason than the playfulness of her work, Spurrier-Dawes deserves recognition for her piece Milk and Two Sugars – during the brief minutes I spent looking at it, several others entered the room and squealed with joy. Art should do that to people.

    To those who read the previous paragraphs and thought: that’s not art, my child could do that, graduating Fine Art student Esther Burns has some things to say to you. Or rather, she’ll let you do the talking.

    Her series of cut out mannequins allow you to put yourself into the art. Just like at the seaside, you can place your face into the hole which she has cut out. Picture yourself as a boxer. As an artist. As x, y or z. The point is: by allowing you to play at art, she’s putting herself onto your level and encouraging you to create something. She’s saying, ‘If I can be an artist, so can you. Your child could do this.’


    Dementia affects a huge number of people and so it’s quite normal that an artist tries to portray the idea of coping with dementia. Beth Marriott does this with a fantastic installation of matchbox dioramas.

    Marriott explores her own relationship with her grandmother who suffers from dementia in these collections. The dioramas each look into a word that has been played in their long Scrabble games together or seeks to solidify a memory that would otherwise be lost by her grandmother. There is something very touching about the idea that a memory can be solidified through something so fragile as an empty matchbox.


    Probably one of my favourite pieces in the degree show this year is Elle Barnard’s illustration work in A Sense of Solitude. Really, I am not sure what she’s trying to illustrate other than possibly the feeling of quiet and calm.

    Her work is a cut out which allows the sun to blaze through it – on Saturday afternoon when I saw the show, the heat through the window was unpleasant but the light was beautiful. Perhaps there’s an esoteric message in there somewhere, I don’t know. But when I stood in front of this wonderful little piece, I felt as if I had been transported to some empty Maltese cathedral, an after hours viewing of Sainte Chappelle, when it’s only you and that peculiar feeling that it’s not only you.

    One of the remarkable things that has come out of the illustration department this year is a collaboration with the Department of Anaesthetics, Intensive Care and Critical Care Medicine at Cardiff University.

    Both departments have the breadth of vision to see value in one another and have encouraged joint work.

    One way that this has come across is in the work of Helen Turnbull who has spent time observing the day care wards. Her illustration in red make medicine and its daily practice look almost charming.



    Finally from the Howard Gardens show, I was quite struck by this painting of muslim men at prayer. Helen Bur seems to have captured a moment in a way that painting does not normally capture.

    In a room of bowed men, you can not avoid the one man who is looking up.

    Later in the week, I finally made it to Llandaff to the new campus. I can see the new building from my studio window. It’s a work of art in itself and is principally what an art school should be: a blank canvas waiting to be worked in and to find out who it is going to be.

    Inside, there are students who are already trying to paint on that canvas. This year, the show there was limited to graphic communication, textiles, architecture and some photography. Next year, it will contain everything that the School has to offer.

    But it’s this year, with the former, that we continue.


    More specifically, let’s go with what Michael Boulton’s doing. His display is a series of playful slogans which find common ground between people who are very different. His brief was apparently esoteric and he’s probably gone seriously off course with it – at least I don’t see it – but regardless, his comparisons of interior designers and astrologists based on their work with space are very funny.

    Those who were looking through the posters beside me found the comparison of the carpenter and the porn star very humorous. I’ll leave that to your imagination.


    I happened to bump into three students who were waiting around at their show. They agreed to show me their work and it just so happens that their work is also great. First of all is Alex Meek.

    Alex explores the idea of Anarchy by creating a series of posters which are tearable. In fact, you are encouraged to tear the poster right down the middle to reveal more information.

    Next up is Richard Paterson who has an unusual amount to say about the nature of a chair and a table. Or rather, he has not so much to say as he has questions to ask. His is a book which examines (graphically) what makes a chair or a table and even where one begins and the other ends.

    His work is entertaining and definitely worth more of a look.


    Finally, Poppy Matilda Reay takes a turn showing me her work. She has created work in response to a brief to celebrate one album from XL Recording’s 25 year back catalogue. Her piece looks at Radiohead’s ‘In Rainbows’ which was a pay what you want release.

    Interestingly, she picks up on the idea that Radiohead were putting across by only mentioning the album title at a certain time on the album which fits into the golden ratio.

    While I fail to remember the details, Reay’s piece echoes the band’s obsession with the golden ratio and it appears throughout her work.

    Before we finish, a quick mention of the incredible piece by Steffan Cummins – a person who is sure to go on to have some really really great work behind him wherever he goes.

    Cummins’ work is based on the word innovation. He set up an iMac and a board which the viewer holds in front of them. There are a series of cards with objects printed on them. When two cards are stuck onto the board, the iMac creates a layer of augmented reality which shows what those two objects together could make.

    Innovation indeed!


    And so as this year’s show comes to an end, so does the life of Howard Gardens. There are those who will be resentful of that, those who will be sad and some who will be happy too but let’s face it, the building is not what makes the School. Wherever the people are, that place will be great.