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Interview: Rumer talks songwriting and new album Nashville Tears

The acclaimed UK singer-songwriter will release her latest album on 14th August.

Credit: Alan Messer

It’s been 10 years since Rumer burst onto the UK music scene with her debut album, Seasons Of My Soul.

The record was a huge hit, eventually being certified platinum and earning Rumer a MOJO Award for Best Breakthrough Act, as well as critical acclaim for her songwriting. She’s also won praise for her ability to interpret classic songwriting, such as the work of Burt Bacharach & Hal David on her most recent album, 2016 This Girl’s In Love. Now she’s back with her new album, Nashville Tears, which spotlights the songs of Nashville Songwriters Hall of Famer Hugh Prestwood.

Ahead of the album’s release, I caught up with Rumer to talk about what inspired the record and the process of making it, as well as how it’s influenced her own approach to songwriting and what her upcoming live shows might look like.

Your new album Nashville Tears is coming out in August – can you tell us more about it?

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Yeah, so the album was made in Nashville with all Nashville musicians, Nashville string section. The idea of the album started – I had the title of the album, and I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be cool to do an album of material from songwriters who didn’t quite get as much credit as they deserve?’ And once I started digging into all these different songwriters and songs that were deemed lost or didn’t get as much attention as they deserved I stumbled on Hugh Prestwood and realised very quickly that I was going to have to do a whole album dedicated to Hugh Prestwood, because of the magnificence of his work. And I was just so surprised I hadn’t heard of him. And I was just really thrilled to find him actually, and to listen to his work, and it really got me back into music again and really excited about music again. Because I’d just come out of a few years of having a baby and this sort of domestic life of looking after young children. So it really got me excited about music again.

And I just found a good partner in Fred Mollin. He was excited about the project too. And the label were open to the idea of me just getting on with it and doing it but they didn’t really understand what I was doing. They were just happy for me to just get on with it which I appreciated. And we just had the best time doing this record. I worked with Alan Messer, legendary photographer, on all the artwork and everything. I just had the time of my life making this record. I laughed so much. I worked with the greatest musicians, the best in the business. And it was just a joy from start to finish – the material, the musicians, everything. Just the whole experience was just wonderful.

What was it about Hugh’s songs that particularly drew you to them?

Well, that they are deemed in the country genre but he’s very earthy, and explores universal human themes. But there was a kind of an esoteric quality to his writing, a sort of otherworldliness. Almost like another dimension. Like his songs had a fourth dimension. And I felt like as a singer that was really exciting, because then you get to try and summon up within you as an interpreter another dimension of yourself. So I love – I’m a songwriter, but I’m a better singer than I am a songwriter, to be honest with you. So I’m limited by my own material in terms of what I can do.

So I find it so exciting to work with a catalogue where I can pick a selection, a collection that resonates with my heart, and just really study them. Because it’s not easy to tackle this kind of material. So it’s challenging from a musical point of view. It’s challenging vocally. It’s challenging emotionally. It’s just you’re firing on all cylinders as a singer, you’re firing on all cylinders to emote, and you’re firing on all cylinders in the studio with all these absolutely brilliant musicians. So it was just something that I found really exciting and I felt like I was ready for it, I had enough experience. It was just fantastic. The whole thing was fantastic.

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Was it difficult to narrow down the songs you were going to include on the album?

Well, it was reasonably easy. I mean there are many more songs that I didn’t do that other people love. There’s enough of his catalogue for other people to do songbooks with different selections on. But I picked songs that I felt like I could do well. There’s lots of reasons why a singer picks a song – it’s in your key… For me I like an unusual melody, like in June It’s Gonna Happen. I thought, ‘wow, I’ve never heard a melody like that before’. Or the rhythm is different. Or the subject matter is something really poignant that you want to experience. Because when you’re performing the song you’re kind of living that story and that emotion, so that’s exciting as a human being not just a singer. I picked songs that I felt would make a really good collection too, that would have a range of styles, a range of melody. Just a nice range of material that would take the listener on a journey, that would be a good initial introduction to Hugh Prestwood’s work.

Because while I understand that people in Nashville are familiar with Hugh Prestwood because he is great and he’s in the Country Music Hall of Fame, and many people are aware of Hugh Prestwood in Nashville and in America, I was excited to share Hugh Prestwood with England and Germany and Japan, where I have audiences and people that are interested. So I was excited about that because I knew if I hadn’t heard of him many other people wouldn’t have heard of him. I was just talking to the Times – Will, the music editor, he hadn’t heard of him. And he’s the Times music editor and he really knows a lot about music. So if we haven’t heard of him then a lot of other people haven’t too. So I was excited about that.

One thing which stood out to me about the record was the range of styles on there – from 60s-influenced sounds to blues and rock. Was that important to you to have that variety?

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Definitely, definitely. Because for the listener you’ve gotta have variety anyway. And I felt that I wanted to show the diversity of his writing as well. And also to be playful with the colours of what I felt were like a portrait of the South. Because it’s an Americana record – I think it’s more Americana than it is country. But I moved to Arkansas in 2013, which was totally random. And then I lived there for a bit and then I moved to Georgia. So I’ve never lived in Nashville, because Nashville weirdly is kind of quite commercial now. But I liked it in the South, and I’ve enjoyed being here and I’ve had very much an ordinary life out here. You know, having a baby and doing dishes and going the store and I worked a little bit in a hair salon. So I feel like I’ve kind of immersed myself in the culture, and made friends and felt part of the community. So I felt like I wanted to create the atmosphere of what I was seeing outside my car window when I was driving around. Just something that resonated with my experience that I was having in the South.

Has delving into other songwriters’ catalogues impacted your own writing in any way?

Definitely. It always does. Because you’re studying the greats, and anyone who’s an artist whether they’re a painter or a piano player, anyone who’s studying photography, anything – you always study the greats. If you’re a director you study the greats. So that is part of the process. I would have liked to have been able to do an original record after Bacharach because there was a desire for that from the fans and I wanted to be able to do that. But truthfully, I had a baby, and I was so grounded by that experience. I was so kind of in the physical world of dishes and laundry that I just couldn’t find the poetry in myself at that time. And I felt I was drifting further and further away from it. And in a way this record has been a lifesaver because it kind of brought me back.

And I thought, ‘oh God, people are gonna judge me for not writing an album’. But I said to myself, ‘I’m just gonna tell them the truth, I couldn’t do it’. I just couldn’t do it. But it doesn’t mean that I’m not proud of my songwriting. It doesn’t mean that I’m not a decent songwriter and I will do it again. It’s just been a different kind of experience that I’ve been having. But it definitely affects your songwriting, studying the greats. But also it can be intimidating because you’re just like, ‘oh my God, I could never write anything as good as that ever’. But more than anything it just got me back into the studio, back doing what I do. And it was a huge thing for me to do because I felt like, ‘I’m never gonna get back in the studio. I don’t know who I am, I’m in this sort of domestic Groundhog Day’ [laughs]. I think any woman who’s had a baby probably knows what I’m talking about.

You’re hopefully coming to tour in the UK next year. What’s a typical Rumer live show like?

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Well on this record there are some very talented musicians, like Tommy Harden on drums and his wife Laurie sang backing vocals on some songs, and on Bristlecone Pine they feature on that track. And so I wanted them to come and be part of the tour and be part of the band and also be the support act. So I was really looking forward to that, because that was gonna try and bring some of the album sound to the backing sound and bring that Nashville sound over. So hopefully they can still come next year – we haven’t really nailed that down.

But what my shows are normally like… I try and get as many musicians on stage as I can afford. I tend to play a lot of Seasons Of My Soul, and then a few others from the other albums here and there. Because most people wanna hear Seasons Of My Soul. And on this show I’ll probably do maybe six Nashville Tears songs, and maybe five Seasons and then a few of the others. But it’s basically all the best ones that I’ve done. I’ve released a lot of material actually in the last 10 years. And also I’m gonna try and rotate, on different shows I’ll have different songs. But mainly what people say is they just sink into their seats and just relax. That’s something that they like to do at my concerts. I don’t know how this is gonna work next March but I usually stay behind and meet everybody that wants to stay, and talk and sign things. So yeah, you’d have to ask them what it’s like, I think.

It’s 10 years since Seasons Of My Soul came out. How do you feel you’ve evolved as an artist since then?

Well I think some of the songs on Seasons are really good songs. I’d be hard-pressed to express some of those sentiments better again. Like for example I don’t think I could express grief better than I did. But then you only lose your mum once in your life, and at an impressionable age. So that was really potent, that time. The whole time of my 20s that I was writing this album, was a very potent time, very emotionally up and down, very wild emotionally. All over the place. And so from that I did catch a bit of lightning in a bottle, in terms of channeling images and ideas I’m very proud of. So I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to catch lightning in a bottle again like I did on Seasons, because I don’t know if I’m ever gonna wanna live my life as sailing as close to the wind as I did.

And now I’m 40, nearly 41 and I’ve got a three-year-old, I’m not as adventurous emotionally as I used to be. I don’t wanna do some of the crazy things or have some of the crazy experiences or go down some of those roads or go to the depths of my emotions like I did. Because sometimes I’ve gone so far into things I don’t know if I’m ever gonna get out. And you can’t get like that when you’ve got a child. You can’t explore emotionally too much. So I don’t know how my writing’s gonna be.

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I think I’ve evolved in a different way. I’ve become a better interpreter, I’ve become a better vocalist, I’ve got so much experience in the studio. I’ve become a producer. I’m at that stage in my life. When I first started I was like a rabbit in the headlights and felt like I didn’t deserve any of it. And now I feel like I’ve done my time. I’ve really learnt a lot. When I was standing in that studio with all those big guns, those big players, I felt like I was one of the boys. For the first time ever, I felt like I was on a par with these great musicians. I could stand there and be with them because I’ve done my time. I didn’t feel like that at the beginning.

Have you started thinking about what’s next at all in terms of another record?

Well obviously I’ve gotta work on my songwriting and that’s the next thing. Now my son’s three it’s a lot easier. So that’s what I’m doing. I’m just gonna start really improvising and working on seeing what comes out, seeing what comes through.

Rumer’s new album, Nashville Tears, is out on 14th August on Cooking Vinyl.

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