Rumer: Careful whisper
Unanimously acclaimed as one of Britain’s most promising new musical talents, 31-year-old singer/songwriter Rumer this month releases her eagerly-anticipated debut album ‘Seasons Of My Soul’.
Which - currently pioneered by its soulfully swaying offshoot single ‘Aretha’ - boasts an array of classic-yet-contemporary new compositions, its timeless quality being influenced by a unique upbringing that encompasses a childhood spent in an enclosed, ex-pats colony in Pakistan alongside a later relocation to England’s New Forest. Where, as a schoolgirl, Rumer - on discovering television for the first time - first began to marry her love of the folk tradition with the sweeping melodies of the technicolor movie musicals.
All of which can now be heard in tracks ranging from the solidly thumping ‘Am I Forgiven’ and dreamy ‘Come To Me High’, to the sensually haunting Top 20 single ‘Slow’ and liltingly evocative ‘Blackbird’. Meanwhile, lyrically ‘Seasons Of My Soul’ resonates with key moments from Pakistan-born Rumer’s often-turbulent life... Beginning with the traumatic discovery (at 11) that she was actually the love-child of an affair between her English mother and the family’s Pakistani chef, before moving on through her time spent living in a caravan - not to mention a decade spent slogging away on London’s acoustic music scene while working as anything from a pot-washer to a popcorn-seller!
Relaxing alongside her guitar at Atlantic Records’ Kensington HQ, a personable and forthcoming Rumer (birth-name Sarah Joyce) gives Pete Lewis the lowdown on her already-acclaimed debut LP: “I think all the songs have elements of different things that have influenced me, and different MUSIC that’s influenced me”, she begins in well-spoken tones: “You know, songs like ‘Slow’ and ‘Come To Me High’ have little dreamy, (Burt) Bacharach-type chords and those lilting, gorgeous melodies that remind me of songs that I’ve heard and loved in films that were written by the fantastic composers from the Thirties like Irving Berlin and Rodgers & Hammerstein. Then ‘Take Me As I Am’ is very Laura Nyro & Labelle - soulful with a gospel feel -as is ‘Am I Forgiven’, which has that ‘Wedding Bell Blues’-type trademark Laura shuffle. While ‘Thankful’ I think is very Joni Mitchell from her ‘Hejira’ phase, where it’s like a poem which describes a season in each verse... So yeah, there’s LOADS of different elements and influences in the music. While lyrically it’s largely just classic autobiographical storytelling.”
The album’s pivotal soul moment meanwhile arrives in the form of its aforementioned bittersweet single ‘Aretha’ - a soulful pop ode where Rumer interweaves her relationship with her mother into a tale of a girl seeking solace in soul Queen Aretha Franklin.
“Well, I certainly had problems at home. In that I had a mother with a mental illness, and I was vey lonely”, reveals Rumer openly: “So basically what ‘Aretha’ is about is how powerful music is, how it touches us all, and how we all have artists that help us through difficult times. Which is why I’ve used the vivid images in the song to convey that special listener/artist relationship. Then musically, because it was about Aretha Franklin and music that’s got soul, I knew it had to have a soulful FEEL. So I took it to my producer Steve with a sketch - ‘I’ve got the blues; I’ve got Aretha in the morning; High on my headphones and walking to school’… But, though my original ideas on the guitar were very country-soul, he then took it and gave it this beautiful, piano-led arrangement that really lifted it and gave it the cinematic quality it always needed.”
Indeed, it was Rumer’s somewhat surprising choice of producer - award-winning TV and musical composer Steve Brown, perhaps best known as the face of bandleader Glenn Ponder in Alan Partridge’s ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’(!) - that played a major role in shaping the subtle sounds that helped bring her album to life musically - on moments ranging from the pin-drop beauty and optimism of ‘Thankful’ to the rousing singalong appeal of ‘Goodbye Girl’.
“Yeah, Steve is definitely my co-pilot”, confirms Rumer: “Because, though I was cool with doing the indie singer-songwriter thing, the fact is my music had always begged to be BIGGER! You know, a song like ‘Slow’ always wanted to be HUGE! It’s just that I’d never had the RESOURCES. So, when Steve first came up to me after a show and was like ‘That was fantastic - would you like to come to my studio and work with me?’, I AGREED! And we actually spent like a year just singing and playing songs we liked, playing old records, looking at YouTube clips of old great singers...You know, we spent a lot of time in pre-production. Even though, at the time, there was no evidence to suggest he was going to be a good producer - simply because he’d never DONE it before! Basically all he’d done previously were jingles and award-winning musicals. So my manager at the time was - understandably - like ‘Oh my God, you’ve gotta be JOKING!’!.. But, while there was no logical reason why Steve and me WOULD work, the fact is we DID!”
“So yeah, ‘Seasons Of My Soul’ is very much a collaborative effort between the two of us”, she continues passionately: “Because, while the words and melody and basic sketch of the songs are mine, Steve was the one whose arrangements fleshed it all out to make it DEFINTIVE. Which is why I suggested he take credit as co-writer for that, because he was the one who gave it the largeness, that epic widescreen quality that I’d always WANTED. You know, with him being a theatre composer who’s written musicals like ‘Spam Spam Spam’, he was able to totally get the theatre of a song like ‘Aretha’ straightaway and just give it that pizzazz - for want of a better word - that it had always been crying out for.”
Interestingly, Rumer attributes much of her musical creativity to her very early life in Pakistan. Where (with her father being the chief-engineer involved in the construction of the enormous Tarbela dam) she was born the youngest of seven children who found themselves living in an ex-pat colony with no TV or newspapers - an enclosed community where the kids would run wild while often writing and singing songs together, determined to make their own entertainment: “Yeah, though I was very young and so I don’t remember much of it, it obviously did shape me”, she relates: “Mostly because my parents, since 1963, had been living abroad. My dad was basically a working-class hero who decided he wanted adventure. So he became an engineer, married my mum - who was much, much posher - and went to Australia as one of the first 10-pound-pommes! Basically he and my mum went to live in the outback - where they had a couple of kids - before then moving to Tasmania and Africa, and eventually to Pakistan, where I was born.”
“So in a way it’s not how long I spent in Pakistan, but more that from 1963 on my entire family had been living in an alternative reality, and so the Western culture of the Sixties and Seventies - when there was so much going on - had never really influenced them. Which was incredible!”, she remarks: “And. because we were generally living in isolated places that were cut off from society, the whole environment around me and my brothers and sisters was one of innovation and creativity. You know, though we were cultured and intellectual, we were actually kind of living the way people did in ancient times! I mean, by the time I was born (in 1979), the atmosphere around me was unique. Because I had all these brothers and sisters who all played the guitar and were always creative - because they’d had no exposure to the things that dull and depress our natural spark.”
Nevertheless, life changed upon the family later returning to the UK and settling in the New Forest. Where, feeling adrift at school and unsure of a new society she had no connections to, Rumer found solace in music and old films… Indeed, following her parents’ eventual split, she left school at l6 and began to drift - studying at Art College in Devon before joining a moderately successful indie band called La Honda. Following which, after her mother becoming diagnosed with breast cancer, Rumer next moved back to the New Forest to be near her.
During which time, while living in a caravan in a wreckers’ yard, she began to write her own songs.... Until her mother’s death in 2003 found her hitting rock-bottom and ending up in a stately home in the countryside. Where she essentially lived as part of a commune before eventually returning to London determined to throw herself into the music - working every job she could while simultaneously PERFORMING everywhere she could, in the hope of meeting someone in the industry who might give her a recording opportunity... All of which, almost 10 years later, has finally led to her current recording contract with Atlantic Records and ensuing across-the-board critical acclaim - with her music reaching such influential ears as Sir Elton John (she performs as special guest at his forthcoming BBC Radio 2 Electric Proms concert) and “the godfather of song” himself, Burt Bacharach. Who earlier this year prestigiously invited her to his Los Angeles home, just to hear her sing!
“Yeah, he heard some of my music through the grapevine - and, because he loved it, he invited me over to his house!”, recounts Rumer with pride: “So I flew to California and sang for him! Then we had a drink, a chat - and it was all pretty profound, because he’s very much a no-nonsense person! You know, he doesn’t take any prisoners and he gets straight to the point - which I actually found quite intimidating! It was like one minute I was sitting on the sofa, and the next minute I felt like a tiny, yappy little puppy-dog - because he’s just so ‘THE MASTER’! You know, he’s like ‘I could live 10 more lifetimes and STILL not get done what I need to do in this world! I could live 1000 years and STILL have my heart bursting full of beautiful music!’… And all this time I was just standing there at the piano, looking at photographs of his family, and thinking ‘This is UNBELIEVABLE! Six weeks ago I was working at a deli counter making cappuccinos!’… You know, I was almost crying for joy! Because, when Burt Bacharach says you’re good, it’s time for YOU to start believing you’re good TOO!”
Rumer performs as part of BBC Radio 2 Electric Proms at Roundhouse, London on October 28 and headlines her own show at The Tabernacle, London on November 2. Meanwhile, her December UK tour takes in Glee Club, Birmingham (13); Band On The Wall, Manchester (14); Classic Grand, Glasgow (15); and Shepherds Bush Empire, London (17)
The single ‘Aretha’ is released October 25. The album ‘Seasons Of My Soul’ follows November 1, both through Atlantic
Words PETE LEWIS