Interview: Beth Rowley

Beth Rowley

The velvet-voiced songstress prepares to return with a sophomore album that’s been four years in the making. So what happened?

Beth Rowley

Photo by Lydia Garnett

ack in 2008, Beth Rowley and her dinner party-friendly smooth jazz-soul were everywhere. Her debut album Little Dreamer had gone Top 10 of the UK album charts, lead single Oh My Life was a BBC Radio 2 Record of the Week and she’d appeared with Burt Bacharach on the BBC Electric Proms, performed at the Live event at Wembley Stadium and then kicked off her first headline tour. This was all in less than six months, so by January 2009, when Beth Rowley was nominated for a Brit Award for Best British Female Solo Artist, it seemed her path was destined for the stratosphere.

But after extensive touring, Beth took the decision to jump off the rollercoaster, got away from her record label, and took a long break. Other than the odd guest performance, and a cameo appearance in Oscar-nominated Brit flick An Education, it seems Beth has been out of the spotlight. That is, until now.

We catch up with Beth backstage at The Fleece in Bristol, the homecoming leg of her recent UK tour, and a chance to show off her new rougher-edged sound. This is helped by a new-found love of the harmonica which handily tilts Rowley in the direction of fashionable American folk, but is actually more true to her first-love: old blues, country and gospel. Which seemed like a good place to start…

How long have you been playing the harmonica? Is that a new thing?

“Kind of. I haven’t been playing it that long actually, maybe four years. It’s definitely starting to be a staple part of the gig. You just have to dive in there with it and hope for the best. It’s a confidence thing, it’s not that hard. More of a feel thing. It’s tempting to put it on lots of songs and it just sound really irritating after a while! With some songs you just get in there and put it down. Harmonica’s the only thing I think ‘Yeah, I can do that.’ Well, enough to get by when there’s nobody else around me.”

Beth Rowley live at The Fleece

Photo by Sam Braithwaite

What other instruments do you play?

“I play guitar, and I also play piano a little bit, but mainly only for songwriting purposes. I find my way around a piano easier whereas on the guitar I only know about five or six chords. I always try and get too complicated and I can hear what I want to do, but I won’t know the chords! For some reason I’ve picked up some blues chords on the piano. Actually it’s fairly even between both guitar and piano at the moment.”

So where are you up to with the long-awaited second album?

“After the first album came out in 2008, there was a good two years of full-on touring in Europe and America – it was really non-stop. Then I came back to Bristol and felt that I wanted to stop for a while. Not stop the music altogether, but really to avoid the pressure of having to quickly follow it up with something. I think it takes over when you get so busy and it starts to feel like a job. I’ve been really fortunate to get the opportunity to do what a really enjoy for a living, so I was like ‘This is supposed to be fun!’ Don’t get me wrong, I was still really lucky to be touring, but I’d gotten over those songs by that point and didn’t want to sing them anymore. So I just wanted to chill out for a while and write some more songs. So it’s been a good three years that I’ve been writing and gathering songs. I guess why it’s taken so long is that I don’t feel it’s ready yet. It’s really frustrating because I’m really eager to get it out and I know lots of people are waiting – I get so many messages saying ‘Can you just record something?’!

“This is supposed to be fun!”

“When I finished the touring and moved back to Bristol, I went through this period of thinking I’m really proud of that time and what I’ve got, but I want to draw a line under that and move on. So I changed pretty much everything to do with that album. It was a five-album deal but I managed to get away after Little Dreamer. [Blue Thumb] wasn’t necessarily the most perfect label, but they did a really good job – it went as well as could’ve been expected for the type of music that it was. There was a long time of not knowing really – we worked on that album for about four years. It was about 2006 that I got signed. Until that point I’d just been doing open mic nights in London, and then a guy from the label came down to Shepherds Bush and said ‘We want to sign you’. I was like, ‘Really?!’. So I had to suddenly find a manager, a lawyer, an accountant, and I had to find all these people and I didn’t have a clue about any of it. Well, I had a vague idea because I’d been to music college, but only a bit.”

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What did you have in terms of material at that point?

“I’d been writing loads with Ben Castle [son of Roy, known for his work with Jamie Cullum] and two years before when I was at BIMM [Brighton Institute of Modern Music]. I did two EPs with Ben and that was where we met, through the UK soul singer Carleen Anderson. She’s incredible and had such an influence on my music, especially in the early years – she was my singing teacher at BIMM. I got to know her quite well and went on tour as her support, and Ben was in her band. So we met and he asked me to sing some backing vocals on some of his stuff, so that’s how we started doing music together.

“Ben had this cool music room with a whole wall of CDs – his musical knowledge is incredible – I learnt so much when I hung out with him. All sorts of jazz stuff – I didn’t really listen to Miles Davis or Coltrane before then. I was always told, with jazz, that you have to turn a corner and you’ll get it and I was like ‘Hmmm…still waiting!’ It was amazing being exposed to all sorts of different world music, stuff like Matthew Herbert and Bjork and loads of random stuff.”

So did you have any sort of process in your collaboration with Ben?

“Not at all, we’d just meet up and jam ideas. He knows how to do the whole Pro Tools thing, so he would set up a basic sketchbook and add some instruments on there, then maybe put down a bit of me or him – whoever comes up with a melody. He’s got a Wurlitzer set up there, a piano in his living room and loads of different instruments everywhere. There would always be new instruments arriving at the door! I was getting bombarded with different musical influences every day.”

How do you find lyrics and melodies come to you?

“I don’t ever sit down and just write a lyric. I write a lot of poetry and I used to write loads of poems when I was younger. I used to put some of the words to music, but I didn’t like to change the poetry just to make it into a song. It’s not the same thing. It CAN work and sound really beautiful as an abstract piece, but as far as there being the hooks that make a song really catchy and that sort of thing, it helps to have a few more things happening. Generally I love setting up instruments in the living room of my flat and just play and sing – I’ve got this old Wurlitzer that I bought for £800 on eBay and it’s really cool!

“I’ve got reams of started songs like that. With some of them the melodies are cool, but nothing else, so you can take that idea and it’s just like having a sketchpad. I don’t have GarageBand or Logic or anything like that – it’s literally just having an iPhone and pressing record. It’s funny because some of the things like that that I try to record in the studio hasn’t got the magic that it had in my living room!”

Have you ever persevered with recreating that sound in the studio?

“Yeah there’s a couple that I put up a while ago, and I took them down, because I thought I haven’t got something else out at the moment. I think it’s cool to put them out, but I want to wait until I’ve got a few so it builds up as apposed to having a couple randomly. Because it’s sporadic whenever I feel like doing it. It’s not like a regular thing and I’d just like to have an album out now.”

So how many songs have you got for the album now?

“We’ve narrowed it down to about 10 or 11 of my own ones, but I love old blues and gospel songs. So I think I’m just going to put them on because I like it and…I can do what I want to do! I really want to have it out in the new year. Although I’ve been saying that for about three years now, so if it doesn’t happen I’m just going to give up!”

You had a song that ended up being used in the film The Edge Of Love. How did that come about?

“There was a guy at the label who worked in the sync department and knew the publishers who had their antennas up and they were quite specific about what they wanted. Angelo Badalamenti was the composer who wrote the score and he did quite a lot of David Lynch’s stuff, which was a wicked thing in itself – I watched Twin Peaks religiously when I was in my early 20s and loved it, so I was totally in awe of him. So I didn’t write any of the songs for that film – he wrote The Edge Of Love and Careless Talk and I was the vocalist on it.

“There was always a washboard around”

You were born in Peru. Have you ever been back to South America?

“No I haven’t. Me and my brother are the only two who haven’t been back and we feel a bit bad about it. But we will go back, definitely. We were really young when we came home – I was two – but you can see how it’s a massive influence on the rest of my family and how important those years were. It’s an awesome place and been exposed to a lot of things regarding it, but I’ve never been back…yet.”

So were your family musical?

“Yes, they were really musical and it was normal to have lots of instruments around. My dad loves old blues like Leadbelly, Hank Williams and Howling Wolf, and also Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison. It’s like proper music y’know! There was always a washboard around and after tea there would be musical sessions.”

Beth Rowley live at The Fleece

Photo by Sam Braithwaite

You’ve been writing with Ron Sexsmith as well, is that right?

“Yeah, we had different publishers but they knew each other and said ‘You should both write’. He writes with a lot of people and I was a fan beforehand, so I was like, cool, that’ll be amazing. He’s a songwriting machine! I had so many songs I was thinking I don’t know what to do with them. Several times we’ve met up in hotel rooms when he’s been over from Canada and I just record the whole thing. It might be for a couple of hours and we’ll get loads of ideas, and he might be just singing a rough idea and just sounds beautiful. His voice is so sad and full of emotion.

“I wrote a song with him called Brother. Me and my brother were on the Tube going to the session and I want to write a song about family, because we’re all really close. So we wrote this little poem about siblings which was kind of about my two brothers. I went in with this poem and came out the song… it was like no effort involved. I just had the lyrics and we were in this really sterile room at the publishers who were struggling to set up some recording equipment, and I’ve still got that initial recording of us singing that duet together and it was really cool. It doesn’t happen very often where I’m like ‘that’s really cool, I love that’. I wouldn’t really say that about lots of my own things – not many of them get past the critical sieve. But that one felt instant and like I didn’t feel like I was part of it.

“I think it was how I was feeling – I was really excited to work with Ron. We hit it off and became friends. I went to stay with him in Canada and had a songwriting couple of weeks, so we’ve got quite a few songs stashed away.”

Your musical tastes and styles are very mature and cool, and your influences all seem to be from gospel and blues… do you have any guilty pop pleasures?

“Oh massively! Of course I do listen to old blues and gospel music, but when I’m in my car I have the whole box set of cheesy ballads and 80s music. Actually I did have a hilarious episode in Nashville with my sister a couple of years ago when I got up and sang Tina Turner in a karaoke bar. It was Simply The Best. I was really hideously drunk, dancing on the stage and didn’t realise I’d got wrapped up in the microphone cable.”

While we’re all waiting for Beth’s album, here’s a chance to watch an intimate performance of Forest Fire, one of the tracks written with the aforementioned Ron Sexsmith, who’s also playing guitar here:

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