Interview: Roxanne de Bastion
Rising star of the independent music scene discusses her new Bernard Butler-produced album ‘You & Me, We Are The Same’
Singer-songwriter Roxanne de Bastion released her debut album Heirlooms and Hearsay in 2017 and has gone from strength to strength with slots at Glastonbury and the Cambridge Folk Festival, as well as tours of the US and UK. Roxanne resides in London but was raised between the West Midlands and Berlin where her late father worked as a musician.
It was his passion for music – as well as her own – which inspired Roxanne’s path and helped her complete the new album. The 10 songs were written by Roxanne during the two-year period she was losing her father. However, You & Me, We Are The Same is not a sad album, it’s life-affirming.
Firstly, I wanted to ask how lockdown has affected you?
“For me, lockdown happened just a couple of months after my dad died and I had to have a rest. I know that I wouldn’t have taken that break otherwise. So I’m grateful that I had that time to grieve and reflect and get myself together.”
I think you’d completed the album by the start of lockdown?
“We literally finished mastering at the end of February, right before everything shut down. So, then I really enjoyed trying to solve the puzzle of how do you release music and find a new audience. I really enjoyed live streaming and. that steep learning curve technology.”
At the time I first talked to you at the end of 2017 you had been looking forward to recording in a Devon studio. Obviously, things change?
“It has everything to do with the things that life throws at you. So my dad became ill and then the original Devon plan didn’t work out. I spent those two years basically just spending as much time as possible with my dad. And I got to work with Bernard [Butler].”
Tell me a bit about how your songwriting was impacted by the death of your father?
“The songs were all written while he was still here. The songs that are most directly about the grief and about him are Smoke and Heavy Lifting and actually the title track You & Me, We Are The Same. That is a direct: I’m talking about me my dad. But on a wider level, the title I thought works because I generally believe that we all have more in common than what divides us. You know, we live in a society where we tend to focus on all the things that we don’t have in common and that doesn’t help progress and that doesn’t help understanding one another.
“So those are the songs on the album that deal more specifically with that – there were others. I mean songwriting is cathartic anyway. I feel so lucky that I have that outlet. So there were many more very sad songs that didn’t make it to the record. The challenge for me is, you know, my dad was a musician himself and my best friend and he would always be the first person to hear a song so. The hugely daunting thing is: how do I even know if songs of mine are good or not, if my dad’s not there to listen?
“I had this quite significant moment I wrote the final track The Weight right at the end of the process. We had almost finished recording and I wrote this song and I knew immediately ‘Oh, this has to be the closing track’. And I just made a conscious decision to not play it to my dad immediately. I thought I’m just going to go into the studio and do it. It was a really beautiful cathartic experience, recording that song with Bernard.”
And you obviously got a lot of support from your dad and when he was poorly you were playing the songs to him?
“I played the saddest songs to my dad way before I’d even recorded it, so I played Smoke to him, which is a song directly about him. Mum was in the room as well, sitting there crying whilst I’m playing it. And then my dad, who was so analytical as a musician, just said, ‘That’s great, but in the chorus you just have to make sure that you hit those notes.’ He just dealt with all of it, but for both of us to have this project to focus on was great. He was so happy with the musical direction it was going, that I was having so much fun in the studio. I’m so grateful to Bernard for being so empathetic and working around everything.”
What was it like working with Bernard Butler?
“I loved it. I didn’t know this at the time, but when we met for coffee after the initial email exchange he’d already made his mind up that he was going to do this project. And he just said could you should come around to my house and we should just start making music and we ended up working in his house, which was very nice because there was a very relaxed atmosphere.
“I’m a very confident songwriter and I also come into the studio with a very clear idea of what I want musically. But, or because of that, I was all the more enjoying working with someone who had all these brilliant suggestions and who knows things that I hadn’t thought of. Some of the songs definitely did go in a little bit of a different direction. Above anything, he was just very encouraging and I needed that I think because of all the grief.”
How long did it take to bring the album together?
“We kind of worked through most of 2019 and that was mostly just down to well the nature of things that I was going back to Berlin [to see her father], so we’d steal days here and there.”
Let me ask you about a few of the songs on the album. You mentioned earlier the songs Smoke and Heavy Lifting, most related to the death of your father. Tell me a bit more about them?
“Well, Smoke… I might get emotional because this is the first time I’ve talked about this. It’s about preparing yourself for that loss and already feeling that loss. That was the biggest thing I was fearing in my life because we’re so close. With Heavy Lifting, it was a combination of several things. It has a line about torn ligaments because I tore them just before I was supposed to go on a tour in America. I was struggling. I’m such a positive person, and I never lost that throughout, but I really had a moment of feeling, like, ‘OK, well, this is a lot to deal with, isn’t it?’”
Your latest single from the album is Ordinary Love. Tell me a bit about the song and the great video for it you’ve released?
“The song is definitely one of the more upbeat positive ones in fact it’s by far the most of happiest sounding thing I’ve created, I think. When you’re going through something like this: preparing to lose someone, you’re in a heightened state of emotion. The love and the positivity and those sparkly moments are so much more intense. So I felt very grateful for that, so I think that came out in the song. I found that comforting, yes, we’re falling in and out of love you know.”
Another fascinating track on the album is I Remember Everything. What inspired that?
“I really don’t often write songs that are so specifically triggered by a programme. But I watched a documentary about Kim Peek (described as a ‘megasavant’, who had an exceptional memory) who was the inspiration for the Raymond Babbitt character in the movie Rain Man and I was just so fascinated. He had a brain anomaly, where the two parts of his brain weren’t connected, which resulted in this extraordinary ability to remember everything. He could read one page of a book with his right eye and the other page with his left eye.
“What fascinated me was two things… Firstly, his dad was his carer and they had a really special relationship, so obviously that resonated with me. It was just such a lovely story of what parental love can do, because when Kim Peek was born, doctors were awful and told his parents to just abandon him [in an institution], which they didn’t do and then he became this extraordinary human being. And what also really fascinated me is we are so quick to judge people and to underestimate people. I feel this all the time as a woman in music. But watching Peek have problems trying to tie his own shoelaces, but he could come out with the most extraordinary poetic one-liners like he said ‘my dad and I share a shadow’ and that just hit me and I was so moved by that.”
How would you say this album differs from your last Heirlooms and Hearsay in 2017?
“They’re both equally personal, they’re sonically different. My vocal performance is better on this album because I’ve grown and was the recording was so relaxed.”
Do you have a particular way you write songs?
“I’m not a disciplined songwriter. I really do enjoy the magic of it. I tend to have an instrument as a conduit for the song, so that’s usually a guitar or a piano. I find some chords and when it feels right sonically, I’ll conjure the melody. I find the best songs are the ones that come almost fully formed. Usually, the music comes first, but in the best-case scenario they come together.”
What advice would you give to songwriters?
“My advice for young songwriters would be to trust yourself and take inspiration from other artists. Do not think that you need to bend what you do, even if what you do is not what everyone else is doing. Stick to your instincts and write the songs that you want to write.
Interview: Nic Rigby (of the band Nic Norton and Alice Morell, whose new album is called Smoke And Mirrors. Find out more at nicnortonmusic.com)