RUMER INTERVIEWED (2011): Thankful, and slowing it right down

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Rumer: Love and Affection
RUMER INTERVIEWED (2011): Thankful, and slowing it right down

With her debut album Seasons of My Soul; the British singer Rumer has delivered an album destined for many 2011 Best of the Year lists come December.

For Rumer – born Sarah Joyce in Pakistan 30 years ago – it has been the culmination of a long and quite remarkable journey. After she and her mother returned to England, she grew up in London, tried her hand in bands and waitressing, her mother died of breast cancer in 2003 and she had a breakdown.

She was spotted singing in a bar by Steve Brown who had mostly been working writing for theatre, they spent months honing her sound, her first single Slow made a fan of Burt Bacharach who invited her to his home in Miami . . .

In Britain Seasons of My Soul, released at the end of 2010 has gone six times platinum and Rumer has been swept up in a lightning fast ride of fame and photo shoots – which doesn't sit comfortably with her.

And there is more: her natural father was her family's live-in-cook in Pakistan and that story – which she has known since childhood – has inevitably made it into mainstream media.

Yet that hasn't distracted from the acclaim for her album where her pure voice has drawn comparisons with Karen Carpenter and the arrangements by Brown are grounded in classic Bacharach – and yet the songs are deeply emotional, three of them dealing specifically with her mother's death.

Rumer_006It is an album of rare musical beauty but also great sensitivity. Her song about a child finding comfort in the songs of Aretha Franklin sounds like contemporary classic.

Despite the whirlwind of attention, Rumer still found time to offer a free download of her version of Joan Armatrading's Love and Affection for Valentine's Day. (See here.)

She's quite something – but the hurricane around her has caught her by surprise.

I guess this is what you wanted to happen for many many years – but has the speed of the last four months taken you by surprise?

It is an absolute shock.

But what did you think was going to happen, that everyone was going to hear this wonderful album and just go quiet on it?

No, I thought it would be like a jazz album, like Melody Gardot or something like that.

But you've been embraced by the mainstream media.

I was not expecting that at all, I thought it was still niche.

I spoke to Norah Jones just after her first album and she said exactly the same thing. These things have a momentum of their own. What has been the most difficult part for you then?

Well, as you notice on the album there has been a lot of exploring my own inner emotional environment and there is the natural world in there: the wind, the breeze, the flowers, fires and clouds . . . You can feel the physical atmosphere and Nature in there. And the problem I have is that I'm just not feeling the rain on my face anymore.

I get out of my house, get into a car, get out of the car and go into a building, into a studio and into a car and . . . It's like I'm in a vacuum.

You feel you have lost a large part of yourself and have become the property of others then?

I was in danger of that, so I had to take control and re-establish my boundaries and rules and principles. I had to cut a lot of things out of my schedule.

Like what?

Just to have week-long blocks when I can be at home and go to the studio and be on the train or on the bus. Just to walk to the bus stop, wait at the bus stop with other people, get on the train with other people, sit shoulder-to-shoulder with other people . . . I need that, that's my thing, that's what artists do. We wander about, we watch and observe and want to feel a part of life.

I guess if you don't, the problem is your next album will just be about hotel rooms and your isolated life – and that's not very interesting to us out here.

You could explore you inner world but I literally am rejecting it like a bad kidney, this celebrity bullshit. It's literally just spitting me out. I'm not compatible with it at all.

51Hhf3SzzBL._SL500_AA300_Do you find it difficult in that there are songs on the album which were very cathartic to sing, I'm talking specifically about your mother's death which informs a number of songs. Do you find it difficult that now that is all out there in the public domain – and your private life now is too?

I don't know. It would be a very cowardly person who would have a go at someone who is that vulnerable.

I think sometimes vulnerability by its nature disarms people – so it would be a very cruel person who would be mean to me about my songs and about my mother's death. And I don't think human beings are that disturbed.

It's okay, everyone has to go through this at some point, we lose people we love, we have an existence which ends. Some people lose their mums and dads, some people lose their children, some lose babies, some lose friends. We lose people, that is the name of the game – but no one really talks about it.

Well, no one talks about it in popular culture because we're all busy dancing and enjoying ourselves. Adult music talks about and yours is music aimed at adults.

Definitely, so I don't mind that it's in the public domain because my experience is not unique, it happens to everyone. I get letters from people . . .

There are degrees of optimism throughout the album too though. Thankful is an especially beautiful song in its eloquent simplicity about what we need to take account of in our daily lives.

Thank you. It's a lovely little song, like a meditation. When my mum was alive she used to say if I was depressed, “Oh, for God's sake!” She had no tolerance for my depressions. And in that last verse I'm standing at her grave and she's still saying, “For God's sake, be thankful. I'm dead, live your life!”

You were one of those moody girl teenagers?

Yeah, definitely. Estrogen, who knows? But my dad is still traumatised by me being 16.

How does he feel about all this, the fact that your family's story is out there in the world.

Well it's horrible for him because obviously it's his dirty laundry as well. But he's a nice guy, a nice man and its uncomfortable for him. I actually called him before the campaign started and said, “Look, I've been very straight about this whole parentage thing” because I think if we control this information we can get it out of the way.

Yes, and we then talk about the art which is more important.

Rumer_1Exactly, and we don't want to make it a mystery and keep secrets from people. And he understood that and he genuinely was quite proud. He's done nothing wrong and he only ever tried to do the right thing by everybody, and it was unfortunate he was a victim of the situation.

He's a good person and I think he's very proud of me. He lives in Australia so he had to get BBC on his Sky box thing to watch me.

To be honest I haven't seen much made of that story anyway and people are concentrating on the music – because it is such extraordinary music. I can't remember where I saw it, but I saw you referenced Judee Sill as an influence at one point and I thought how few people talk about these days.

Oh, you know her too? I love her. Do you know John Grant?

Yes I do, a wonderful album [The Queen of Denmark].

Oh yes. He and I were having this conversation on e-mail the other day and he said, “Do you know Judee Sill? I love that song The Kiss”. I said, “Oh my God. I found this old article of me saying it's the song I want played at my funeral.” Me and John are madly in love. He's gay but . . .

I find it interesting that you would mention Judee Sill because she is an invisible person these days, but wrote such spiritual music.

I love it because it is exalting and quite Blakean and visual, and she's got this Christian imagery in there, the hymns and all of that – which I relate to because I was brought up in the church as well. So I get that and that access to spirituality and mythology.

We tend to be very dismissive of organised religion but my experience is that people who even just have smidgen of it have a deeper well to draw from, especially artists.

I agree. If you don't know the Bible how can you understand Michelangelo or great poets or buildings or culture? There is so much that it has influenced. Religion has influenced so much art that you really to need to know it even if you don't agree and it's not your thing. But you really do need to understand where it's coming from.

And the emotions and imagery that people imbue in these things?

Yes. I'm grateful for my Catholicism.

Do you have any particular faith at the moment?

I think I'm a Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Hindu . . . A mix.

The global citizen of religion?

I think they are all beautiful, probably Muslim mostly because even though I don't have any cultural association with Islam and I don't participate, the very idea of it in its purist and abstract form is the most beautiful. It incorporates Christianity and other religions.

It is much more inclusive than many think.

Yes. However heads of state and countries and landscapes influence and distort it is not my business or interest. I'm interested the purity of the intention and the purity of the abstract nature of it.

You sing about Aretha and there is a woman who is utterly imbued with the spirit. I was looking a video clip of your the other day (here) and it was interesting in the way that song came about. That is really one which has come from outside of you.

It's too theatrical to be true but I've used theatre as a way of conveying the story. Because [producer] Steve is theatre composer he understood it straight away, theatrically, in the way that it comes to life. There are a lot of true elements to it, but it is a fiction.

You were never that child?

I think I was that child, but not directly at that moment in time as the story suggests. That song tells my story better than the truth.

It also transcends its time and person. The “Aretha” in it, we understand who that is – but it is about looking for faith and solace and support from someone who is beyond our reach, a sympathetic soul?

Yes, it is just by imagining – and that's how I have survived my whole life, by imagining. You can escape at any time just by imagining.

I understand Come To Me High had been around for some little while?

A lot of the songs have been around since 2004. Not all of them.

This is the awkward thing that happens with an album like this, people immediately say, “How can she ever top that?” But I understand you are going to sidestep this a little with an album of covers, some of which has already been recorded, or was recorded prior to this album?

rumer_joyce_006We're working on it at the moment, it's in preproduction. Not so much a second record as like a special. It's something I really wanted to do, songs which are quite obscure, songs which are not necessarily the most famous. It's like I'm covering old masters, polishing them up and presenting them in my way. A bit like Long Long Day [also a free download at here website].

You did a lovely job on Love and Affection, that was a nice discovery for Valentine's Day.

Thank you very much.

What prompted you to do that?

I just thought it would be a nice thing to do, but a couple of month ago I'd looked ahead and thought I should do something nice.

Got one up your sleeve for Easter?

Not for Easter, but for Mother's Day.

And you are off on tour soon. Are you more comfortable on stage as a solo artist than you have been in the past?

Hmm. I always feel a great responsibility to hold a crowd, and also you think, “Oh my Lord. I'm only 5'4”, I'm just a little girl and I've go to entertain all the people". I'm going through a process at the moment of owning the space, trying to own it, not with arrogance but with grace. It is a difficult balance with all the attention. You have to be very careful spiritually.

It's very challenging, spiritually, this job. Extremely challenging.

I'm sure it is because you are the sole focus of attention for thousands of people at that moment – and it's a long moment of more than hour on stage. But you can centre yourself before you go on?

I try to – but there's always someone fiddling with me, doing my hair. It's like, “Can you just go away” but there's always someone chasing you with a can of hairspray.

I try to breathe and do visualisation.

I breathe in light and I breathe out smoke.

Breathe in light, breathe out smoke . . .

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