Interview: Bo Bruce
From runner-up of The Voice UK in 2012 to becoming one-half of Equador with Henry Binns, the singer-songwriter reveals all
Wiltshire-born singer-songwriter Bo Bruce first came to prominence as a contestant on the first series of TV talent show The Voice in 2012. Coached by The Script frontman Danny O’Donoghue, Bo made it to the final and finished competition as a runner-up. Following the show, she was signed to Mercury Records and released the album Before I Sleep, which made the Top 10 in 2013.
Although her solo career didn’t go any further, one of her collaborators on the album, producer-musician Henry Binns, certainly made an impression on Bo – they hit it off as a writing duo and went on to get married. In 2015, the pair holed up in the Zero 7 studio (Binns being one half of that hugely popular Mercury nominated group) writing and recording early versions of what would become the new album by Equador.
As Equador prepared to release a brand new EP in November, we had the pleasure of chatting with Bo and Henry, between shifts of parent duty. Here’s our conversation with the duo’s singer, who spoke candidly about the challenges she faced before, during and after The Voice. Our interview with Henry will follow here soon.
You became known as a successful contestant on The Voice, but tell us about your life leading up to that moment?
“Well, I guess I started in my late teens and I lived in New York for a bit. I had an EP [Search The Night] that came out when I’d finished The Voice – I don’t think I’d ever released it, but I’d written it and it was kicking around before. I was trying to do a self-funded thing, but actually spent more money trying to survive in New York, so actually [The Voice] was free promo!”
What were you doing in New York?
“I had been schlepping around the Lower East Side and doing all those little songwriter nights; Pianos bar, The Living Room, Poisson Rouge. Then I did a showcase for a record label and an English music industry guy, who’s huge on the American side, said, ‘You should do the American Voice,’ and I was like, ‘No way!’ But when I came home to England, I sort of worked out what it all was and how it could be really good considering I already had music ready to go. So I did the English one.”
With your first EP, were you collaborating with anyone?
“Yes, I’d been writing a lot with a guy called Nick Southwood, really intensely, and with Tom Marsh who is actually now the drummer for Lana Del Rey. [Tom] is an amazing songwriter and producer, and he produced that EP.”
How did you meet Tom?
“His father [Henry Marsh] was the first guy to say to me, ‘You can take this seriously,’ so he was a real key guy. He was once in a 70s glam rock band called Sailor. So his whole family were really musical, and that’s how we met.”
Did you have a whole load of songs you’d written yourself?
“When I left school I think I had a terrible song that I’d written on the guitar, Henry heard it and developed me for a long time. So he was my mentor and we wrote together for years and years. Those songs never did anything, but it was him teaching me the craft and educating me in stuff I might not have come across – he was massively into The Beach Boys and harmony, and he gave me a real understanding of where it all started.”
What did you think of your time on The Voice?
“I think I was really lucky. I went saying I had a style, I want to do my own thing throughout, and they were really respectful of that. Danny [O’Donoghue] was really behind that, too – he just kind of let me do my thing. So I really did feel like it was just the greatest promo for what I already going. So that was nice. On the flipside, I was really ill at the time, my mum was dying and I was really very thin, and pretty traumatised, so it’s all a bit of a blur. When I look at those performances, it’s like, ‘I don’t remember that!’ I did try to quit and there were lots of meetings with producers where they would sort of barter with me, and it got to the point where I did just show up and then leave. So… it worked out in the end.”
What did you learn from the experience?
“The whole thing was so live and so terrifying, I had to really get a hold of my stage fright. It’s difficult because I had quite a perspective with the fact that my mum was so ill, and I knew she wasn’t going to make it, so it was equally quite profound.”
After the show, you went on to make your solo album Before I Sleep and worked with a lot of different co-writers. How did you find that process?
“It was weird because there were so many people that I wrote with and, in the end, I just hunkered down. But it was a bit of a mish-mash that record because I was sort of trying not to be pop, and yet it was kind of pop and I’d come off such a commercial show. I was concentrating more on the little songs I’d done with Johnny McDaid, who obviously now is a huge songwriter but at the time he wasn’t really. We were writing really special songs which weren’t ever going to be singles and would never get on the radio, but that was what was really important to me. I don’t know… maybe if I could go back, I would’ve pushed harder against the label to not have the more commercial, poppier songs on there like the songs I did with Danny O’Donoghue, or Save Me, my single.”
I suppose you weren’t really in a position to dictate the situation, and just had to go with the flow.
“Actually, the guy who signed me [to Mercury Records] was moved on and, in a way, I got kind of lost in the system. There was no A&R, so it wasn’t like I was under huge pressure, song-wise, actually. It’s kind of amazing that I stayed on that label for as long as I did, without an A&R man. So we ended up A&R-ing it ourselves.”
So did that mean you were able to choose your collaborators on that record?
“There was a list of people that I’d longed to write with and could never get in the door because they want you to be signed and hot right now. One of the songs on that record is a Sia collab, so she was one of them, and I think I’d wanted to write with Joel Pott for quite a while. Karen Poole was someone I wanted to write with, but hadn’t done – I’d been writing with [her sister] Shelley and they’re very different songwriters.”
Is that when you met Henry [Binns, who co-produced and co-wrote five of the album tracks] for the first time?
“Yeah, our publisher Sam Winwood put us together with Ian Dench. We went into the studio and wrote one song and then went on to do what feels like the majority of the album.”
Do you remember whether it was purely professional or if there was any romantic chemistry in those early exchanges?
“There was definitely romantic chemistry! Maybe not on that first day, but we went out for a drink afterwards and we were both like, ‘This is very weird, it’s like we’ve known each other forever!’ We were very similar in character and there was a lot of banter, and we were both slightly intrigued about each other’s lives, in that way you do when you meet your soulmate, I guess.”
Do the pair of you do any songwriting for other people, outside of Equador?
“Both of us have toyed with writing songs which we’d never do ourselves, but I’m not that interested in it, actually. We’ve talked about it a lot and I think Henry wants us to really focus more on doing it… So we’re thinking about it.“
What was the story behind you and Henry working together as a duo?
“We were writing for my second album and it had such a stamp of how Henry writes, so it didn’t make sense to be just a Bo Bruce record. And I think that’s really how it started.”
Did you have any obligation to Mercury by that point?
“No I hadn’t and that was kind of an amazing feeling because I think I realised too late what I wanted to do, so I had the freedom.”
Tell us about your new music. How do you think your sound has evolved?
“I guess the album took forever and was kicking around for so long. I got new management and there was a new label, and all of those things, so we had a lot longer to ponder and navel-gaze. Whereas with the EP, I had just had my son and we were living out in the countryside, and I think we spent a lot less time on it – not caring less, but it just wasn’t the same intensity because there was so much else going on. I think that has really paid off. I don’t know if ‘upbeat’ is the word, but it’s just a bit more snappy and less cerebral; it’s less airy-fairy. It just feels a little tougher than the album.”
Do you think you were influenced by becoming a mother, directly?
“I want to say yes, but parts of the EP were kicking around like they didn’t make the album. So with Treble Oh, that chorus was around, and there’s a song called Prisoner which is really dark and slow – probably our favourite – that was nearly on the album. So it was just a different approach. Before we’d get in the studio, open a bottle of wine and we’d be up all night, trying a million things, then scrapping it and starting again, and lyrics were a joy… And it’s just so different now because it was, ‘Right, the baby’s gone to sleep, we’ve got a couple of hours before I pass out,’ so it was a quicker, more efficient approach, and probably less drunken!”
Is there a particular process between you and Henry, where he’ll have a backing track and you’ll write a vocal to that, or does it change around?
“Yeah, there have been lots of different ways but I think particularly for this EP I sort of felt he worked a bit harder than me! He would have an idea and mock it up, production-wise, and play it to me, then I’d hate it or love it! I think what was really difficult is that part of Treble Oh already existed, so we had to be really grown-up and kept disagreeing about how the song was going to go. So there were lots of variations of that, so quite frustrating for him because he was in the studio whilst I was with the baby. Then, when he could get me to come in and approve or disapprove, it was tricky. I would eventually like it but want to change it, so then I’d sit in the studio for ages at the computer, changing stuff!”
Do you have any plans to perform live as Equador?
“We really need to! Because the record, in particular, was so studio-based we felt it was like a secret studio project and it was a real privilege to call it Equador and put it out on a label, but it wasn’t like we ever had planned to get in a van and go up and down the country. And we kind of struggle with that, still, particular now with a kid in the middle of the countryside. So… we’ll see! It is really important and people are asking us to do it, but we’d have to have a proper tour – there’s no point doing a one-off, you’ve got to have a real plan. I mean, I’m not frothing at the mouth to get on stage and be in the spotlight, and it’s difficult to conjure up that want and passion to do it. But I also have always been a bit freaked out about performing and always loved being in the studio, so maybe I should’ve just been a songwriter.”
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Equador’s Tribal War EP is out now. Find out more at equadormusic.com