Music has not only been a passion for singer-songwriter Rob Richings, it was also the guiding light that brought him through his greatest challenge yet.
Recovering from a rare and severe form of colitis, which had metastasised into cancer in 2009, he set his sights on the career he had always wanted, but until faced with such a life changing moment, never thought he would experience.
After compiling an EP and embarking on several trips to Australia to work with producer Chris Vallejo of Passenger, his debut album Parkas and Boots (due for release October 7) is the ultimate reward after years of recuperation, hopes and dreams.
I spoke with Rob about the road to recovery, working with his heroes and what he plans to take on next.
This has been a pretty quick turnaround since your EP Half Way Up came out last year. How does it feel now everything’s coming together relatively quickly?
Yeah, we literally finished the EP then went off to Australia to do this album so it was pretty quick going. It’s really exciting but really nerve wracking to be honest. I’m no spring chicken so I’ve given it my best shot and I’ve come away and I can hand this CD to anyone and be proud of it. This is me and this is what I’ve done.
It’s a very emotive album focusing on memories and your childhood. Why did you choose to go down this route for your debut?
The album for me is nostalgic because I was very ill for a long time. I started looking back to my childhood and remembering all the good times and how easy life was when I was a child and growing up. I moved to the country, over in Ireland, for quite a few years when I was young and life was so simple I suppose. We lived down a little country lane, didn’t have a house phone, and this was in the 90s. It was a very safe place to live; you know at the age of 13 I’d be off over the fields camping and our parents didn’t have to worry about us. So the album has memories and stories that still stick with me. It brings me into adulthood where life becomes more difficult when you have work and children. Looking back you realise how simple and easy it was, which I’ve tried to piece together with this album.
How important is the storytelling aspect to you and your work?
When I write lyrics I’m not just trying to find something that rhymes, I’m trying to tell the story of how it is and what it’s about. Hopefully people can listen to the songs and I don’t necessarily have to explain the story, they may be able to get a gist of what I’m going on about in the song. That’s really important to me.
I was previously a lead singer, guitarist and writer in a band that was heavy guitar-driven.
People used to like the music and come away saying, ‘I really enjoyed that’ but no one ever picked up on the lyrics because it always drum and bass. Now it’s nice to just be acoustic and on stage and people come away saying, ‘I got that song’, and that’s important to me.
I’m quite a nervous person on stage, so it’s quite difficult to get up and play for me but it’s one of those situations that I love to play and sing so I force myself to do it, and once I’ve done it I’m happy I’ve done it. I believe in the songs and I believe and trust in what I’m singing. They mean a great deal to me.
Did you grow up listening to a lot of traditional folk music?
I’m a massive fan of Ron Sexsmith and Rodriguez, Passenger… Dad was a massive Motown fan and growing up in the 90s I loved Blur and Nirvana. Then later on when I picked up an acoustic guitar and started playing a bit more delicately, this is how the songs turned out.
How did you come to work with Chris Vallejo, of Passenger, who produced this album?
I’ve been a fan for quite a few years and so Linear Recording was always on my radar because I knew they produced that kind of music and that was the kind of music that I liked.
We had a little chat online but it was a bit of a pipedream. I was doing a little gig in Paris and Chris was there at the same time so we ended up spending the whole day in a bar drinking and having a chat and got on really well. At the end of the day we said, ‘we’ve got to do this album’. I was lucky enough that myself and Chris got on like a house on fire and we just made this album happen.
What was Chris able to bring to the table as a producer?
The team of musicians he’s got there for a start. I haven’t played with musicians that good in my life to tell you the truth. They’re fantastic. He didn’t change anything lyrically but I’d be playing it and these guys would say ‘slow this down, speed it up, strip this away, change tempo, change dynamics’. This is what these guys do for a living and I’ve worked with session musicians before, but not to this level. Chris sits in the background and steers it without being too forceful.
What was the experience like recording in Sydney, Australia?
There’s nowhere else I wanted to do it, I wanted to go to Australia. I saved up for flights and accommodation and went over there for pre-production in August 2015 and then went back in November.
There’s something about going somewhere and at the end of the four weeks it’s going to be finished. You’re there for a purpose and you immerse yourself in it. Even with the EP I recorded it in the New Forest. If I was to record a second album, and fingers crossed I will, I’ll hopefully go to Australia again. It was well worth it.
I’m sorry to hear you’d been so unwell. How are you doing now and how has the recuperation process been for you leading up to the album and EP?
I’m really good now. Obviously, I’ll never be 100 per cent because I’ve had a lot of operations but I use the gym three or four times a week, I’m well and I’m healthy. I wouldn’t have wanted to put myself through that but if I hadn’t have gone through that I personally believe that album wouldn’t be here. I couldn’t even walk up the stairs. I had my large bowel removed. I was really ill but the thing that focussed me every day was I would pick up my guitar and play it. As soon as I was fit enough, I would go down to the local bars and play new songs at open mic nights. Before that I played in a band and it was heavier music – I never thought to go and do acoustic gigs by myself. Being ill definitely clicked something in my head to push me down this route with the music and has brought me here today.
How did the whole experience shape your music and how did it help you through such a life-changing time?
Without a shadow of a doubt it gave me a focus. Obviously I had my family and close friends (support) but every day I would pick up the guitar and write a new song.
I didn’t know if I was going to be around in the next six months, I had cancer and I didn’t know what was going to happen to me.
The song on the album, Ten Seconds, is about the first ten seconds in the morning when you’re not quite awake and everything feels okay and then reality comes back in again and you realise you’re ill and miserable.
I was lucky enough to have a supportive family. There’s a lot of people who don’t have that behind them, but if there’s something you want to do in life you really have to at least try it because you don’t know what’s around the corner for any of us. Make sure you’re happy in life because life’s too short, isn’t it?
It might be difficult in other people’s lives to make that change but it’s possible so long as you believe it and keep believing it. It might take a long time but it will happen.
What are you working on now and what are your hopes for future projects?
I’m writing every day. I’ve got stacks of new and older songs to record. I had close to 80 songs to whittle down (for Parkas and Boots). I’m always writing. I would like to introduce more instruments, maybe brass, and there’s strings and a bit of lap steel stuff on this album but I’d like to venture a bit more into that.
Rob Richings releases his debut album Parkas and Boots on Friday 7th October 2016. Watch the music video for Ten Seconds below: