SHE’S playing hooky from song-writing, but that doesn’t mean Rumer’s too cool for school, she tells Aidan Smith
ONE of Britain’s bestselling female singers is playing truant. Tired of the promotional treadmill for her second album before it’s properly begun, Rumer is bound for Sheffield when I catch up with her, to play a secret gig with her clandestine band. “We’re called Stereo Venus,” she says, “and we’re early 1960s bossa nova lounge-pop. I want some freedom before my life goes mad again because when you get locked into a record company schedule it’s like you’re 14 and back living at home.”
So did the woman with the milky, ghost-of-Karen-Carpenter voice rebel as a 14-year-old? “Oh yes. I was a life model. An artist friend painted me in the nude. My mum never knew.” Rumer – real name Sarah Joyce – who turns 33 today, laughs at the memory, but she can’t pretend to be a puppet of her label, a singer without a voice at career strategy meetings. Just look at the record she’s released.
Boys Don’t Cry features not a single Rumer original; it’s all covers. Her debut Seasons Of The Soul saw her baring her own soul and was a huge hit. The songs were inspired by her remarkable back-story, being born to British parents in Islamabad, Pakistan, the lone brunette among eight fair-haired siblings; discovering her father was the family’s Pakistani cook; nursing her mother as she died of breast cancer; attempting to trace her real dad only for him to die first; suffering a breakdown of her own. Her bosses would surely have wanted more of the same but Rumer knew she couldn’t deliver.
“It’s not been writer’s block,” she says, “because I didn’t even try to compose a song for this record. I knew I was so exhausted from the experience of the first album – the shock of it being so successful and having to go round the world at the speed of light on the back of that, but mostly the whole emotional process of writing and recording the songs. I knew there was nothing left. For that process to happen all over again I need time. It will happen, just not yet.”
Boys Don’t Cry is no stopgap, however. It’s a covers album with a theme: all the songs are from the 70s, all are written by men, none is what you’d call a standard and some are very obscure. Cult singer-songwriters Tim Hardin and Townes Van Zandt regularly get dusted down and Todd Rundgren is enjoying the approbation of a new generation, but who has covered the cream-suited troubadour Stephen Bishop recently, or the ex-teacher with the long hair, Clifford T Ward, or Gilbert O’ Sullivan, the overgrown schoolboy with the excitable dog?
“I treated this album like a PhD,” she says. “There’s so much music in the world now but I wanted the focus to be very specific, like a student working in a narrow field of study.” Although too young to have heard the tracks first time round, Rumer says they’ve become favourites through turning up on lonely late-night radio, or in the case of Just For A Moment by Ronnie Lane – who, like Ward, was a victim of multiple sclerosis – wafting over the speakers of her local cafe. “Music can find you,” she says. “That’s the lovely thing about it.”
She wasn’t, with some choices, trying to be wilfully obscure. “Maybe people will be surprised that I’ve covered Clifford and Gilbert, but I find this British idea of what’s cool and what’s not to be extremely offensive. Then, as someone who turned up at secondary school in a blazer, proper satchel and socks pulled right up while every other girl seemed to be wearing a short skirt and smoking, I’ve always distrusted the whole notion of coolness.”
Rumer sounds like she was the sort of pupil who would have had a crush on Ward the teacher while the rest of the class made fun of his girlie hair, and who would have befriended O’Sullivan as a fellow misfit in a corner of the dining-room. She certainly fell in love with their songs right away: Home Thoughts From Abroad and We Will. In the former, O’Sullivan draws strength from the small things – kicking a ball, eating Corn Flakes – to get through a personal crisis. Ward uses a similar domestic list almost to cause himself more anguish: “Do you still use television to send you fast asleep? Does the cistern still leak? Or have you found a man to mend it?…” And the melancholy of these tracks suited a bereft Rumer perfectly.
“I really think this album tells the story of the past 18 months better than I could have done myself,” she says of the splits, in quick succession, from a boyfriend, manager and producer. “Thankfully Sam, my ex, is still a part of my life. We’re like cousins now and still speak most days.” It is the break-up with Steve Brown, producer of the first album and half of the follow-up, that hurts the most. She underwent treatment for depression while trying to finish the record. “I felt like I was betraying Steve. I’d hear him breathe on the tracks where he’d played flute and burst into tears.
“We were the best of friends. In his bachelor days he’d eat dinner in his local pub every night, taking his black Labrador with him. Then Sandy died and he started taking me. This was when we were making the first album and I’d sleep over at his place in the spare room. He’d get two bottles of wine and fall asleep on the sofa and I’d have to put him to bed. In the morning we’d have breakfast in our pants then get back to work.” Brown is known to comedy fans as Alan Partridge’s musical director Glen Ponder; Rumer thinks of him as “a British Stephen Sondheim”. Without him, she embarks on the next phase of her career reassured that she’s sung for the world’s most powerful man but still needing the sisterly support of other women in the music biz.
Unsurprisingly, she was a bag of nerves before her recent White House performance for President Obama. “But there was a lovely school play-type atmosphere backstage thanks to guys like Mike Myers and Lyle Lovett, and the Obamas were charming.”
Her “ladies group” has already met twice, pooling female experience and also wine. “Music is so male-dominated. Then one day I was like, ‘Where did all these men come from and why are they being so annoying?’ It’s when they team up that they seem to lose their intelligence. So we have a good old gossip about all of that, me and Duffy and Joss Stone and a few others. The last time I couldn’t drink because I was doing Later... with Jools Holland, but at our inaugural meeting I got smashed. Next day I couldn’t get out of bed until 6pm.” «
Boys Don’t Cry is out now on Atlantic
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 18 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 18 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 9 C to 18 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North east