UK singer-songwriter Rumer discusses her latest album, Boys Don’t Cry.
Acclaimed UK artist Rumer is releasing her latest record, Boys Don’t Cry – an eclectic collection of songs written by famed male singer-songwriters from the 1970s – this week on Atlantic Records.
Rumer released her previous record, Seasons Of My Soul, in the United States earlier this year after having achieved platinum status in the UK following its release in 2010. She has been hailed by The Sunday Times as a singer that “has one of those voices – a sort of confiding, conversational sigh, equal parts Laura Nyro, Karen Carpenter, Dusty Springfield, and Joni Mitchell.”
After taking a listen to Boys Don’t Cry, trust me when I say that this Rumer is one that you’ll want to hear repeated over and over again.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Rumer, and she spoke candidly about the making of the record, from “the track that got away” to the painful split from her longtime collaborator and producer Steve Brown, and the passion she hopes listeners find after hearing her reinterpretations of songs written by the likes of Todd Rundgren, Jimmy Webb, Isaac Hayes, and Daryl Hall & John Oates.
What first drew you to music?
I think I come from a very musical family. Everyone in my family plays an instrument, so it seemed quite normal to play and to sing, and to write. Music was something that felt normal; a natural part of life.
Was being involved with music something you had envisioned for yourself as a career?
I think so, yeah. I saw Judy Garland singing and thought, “She has brown hair and brown eyes, and I have brown hair and brown eyes.” And I felt different. I thought, “Well, maybe that’s what different people do.” They sing and dance and stuff.
What inspired the concept behind Boys Don’t Cry?
I discovered a song called, “Long, Long Day” by Paul Simon that was on a soundtrack to a movie called, One Trick Pony. I just found it. I thought it was beautiful. We put it on the piano, we put strings on it, and it sounded beautiful. And I thought, “I want to make a whole album like this [with] songs that not everybody knows. We can polish them up and get them to people.” There are a few exceptions, like “Sara Smile” and “A Man Needs a Maid,” which are popular, but the other stuff [people] may not have come across.
How was your approach to the songs as you were getting to record them, and were you cautious about maintaining the integrity of the songs’ original structure?
What we did was, we would listen to the song once or twice in the studio, then we’d turn it off. We’d replay it together and retune it. And then we wouldn’t listen to the original again. So, by the time we’d kind of gone halfway through the production, I felt like we’d made emotional impressions of the song. Almost like an impressionist painter, we captured emotional impressions. We didn’t want to change the structure, we just wanted to sort of capture the emotion.
How did you go about selecting the songs that are included on this record?
I wanted it to be lesser known songs. Every song’s from the ’70s and written by a man, so I just explored a lot of the catalogs of male singer-songwriters from the ’70s period. I recorded maybe 50 songs, I listened to a few hundred or more. They just landed the way they did, but there were a lot of songs that nearly made it and didn’t make it.
With the songs being from the 1970s, what is it about the music from that time period that resonates with you?
The ’70s was the era of the singer-songwriters. There are lots of great writers and great music, and lots of great collaborations with different people playing together. It was just a rich time and rich sounds and smooth vibe, and something that I love very much.
Was there a specific song on this record where it meant a lot to you just being able to record it?
“Flyin’ Shoes.” I think it’s such a beautiful song and it’s got an amazing energy and emotion behind it and solitude. I just found it really beautiful. There’s a lot of gospel in there, even though when Townes van Zandt sings it, it’s very, very country. What I like about the way we’ve done it, is that you don’t necessarily have to be a country fan to enjoy it and listen to the words and what he’s saying.
Was there a track that proved to be a challenge during the recording process?
They were all challenging, to be honest with you. But Randy Newman’s “Marie” was too much. I couldn’t do it in the end; I couldn’t conquer it. And in a way, that was kind of the point of the project, because I was trying to understand the male psyche, the male emotion. And when I listened to Randy Newman’s “Marie,” I didn’t like this character. I just didn’t like him.
I said to my producer, “I can’t sing a line where the guy is saying, ‘When you’re in trouble, I turn away.’” I said, “What does he mean by that?” And he said, “Well, you know, like some men, they can’t deal with illness.” And I’m thinking, “This doesn’t make sense.” So, I changed it to “When you’re in trouble, I run away.” And even then I couldn’t sing it. I must have done a hundred takes. Cried my eyes out and I still couldn’t do it. It’s kind of the track that got away. I couldn’t get inside that character.
Being that you felt all of the songs were challenging, was it because you were taking on other writers’ songs and interpreting them opposed to bringing out the emotion in your original work?
The interpretation wasn’t the challenge. The challenge was more of the music. Those songs that I picked were really complex, musically. I just tried to find the right sound, the right instruments, and production, really. The production was really challenging.
I read that while you were working on this album you parted ways with your frequent collaborator, Steve Brown. What kind of effect did that have on you and your creative process as you were trying to finish up this project?
It was devastating. We were very close to completion. I had to finish the record by myself. That’s why at one point it was quite the challenge. So, I hired another producer. The producer [Jennie Muskett] was very, very good.
I was very much trying to protect the integrity of Steve’s work. And because it had been such a private process up to that point, I was trying to keep it alive and keep him alive somehow. The break-up was irreparable. It was devastating, because he was a man that I deeply, deeply, deeply loved.
Do feel that even though multiple producers worked on the album, it came together coherently in the way that you had envisioned it?
Well, it didn’t quite come together the way I envisioned it, but it came together beautifully. It’s extremely tough on everybody. I mean, everyone worked really, really hard long into the night; we didn’t see daylight for weeks on end.
How long was the overall process of putting this record together?
About five years.
Wow, so was this something you had been working on prior to Seasons Of My Soul?
Oh yeah. It was actually the prequel to Seasons Of My Soul. Me and Steve worked on this as kind of a way of getting to know one another, even though we didn’t know at the time what it was at the time. Recording some of the demos and going into this exploration was kind of really part of how we created our sound.
What was the decision behind releasing this collection of songs versus following up Seasons Of My Soul with more of your original work?
There were a couple decisions. One, I wanted to share my passion for other people’s work and the process of pre-production that goes in before you start writing. Also, I’m a great admirer of the great interpretive singers, like Judy Garland and Linda Ronstadt. It was kind of an exercise in interpretation.
Also, I’ve been so busy and drained from the whole promotional process, that there was absolutely no way that I would have enough material finished. Certainly, I wanted to build a bridge, even though that’s what happened and I didn’t really intend it to happen. This record was like a bridge between Seasons Of My Soul and the next record, which I want to be hopeful. I didn’t really want to write songs about how lonely and miserable I was. I’d rather let Townes van Zandt and Paul Williams say it for me. You know what I mean? I didn’t have the words.
This next album is going to be hopeful. My music has to be hopeful. And I want it to be beautiful and full of hope. I was feeling depressed, so it was only natural that I would turn to these characters. You know, these kind of dark and mysterious, sometimes dysfunctional, sometimes alcoholics, sometimes drug addicted characters to lend me their words, lend me their music, lend me their experiences, and I went into their world. Now when I sometimes sing the music or listen to the album I think, “They said it better than I could have ever said it.”
I feel like a lot of music fans have certain songs that they feel express what they’re going through at different points in their lives, and to have an artist approach an album like this is pretty intriguing.
I feel like it was a real piece of art, because it’s taken me through a very painful process, but I’m out the other side now. I narrowly escaped death. I narrowly escaped madness, really, and I’ve come back. I’ve come back with more compassion and more hope than I had before, and I’m going to put it all on my next album.
What do you hope that the listeners take away after hearing this record?
I hope they get passion for digging and archiving like I like to do. I hope they go and explore the originals and they buy the records. And I hope that they can learn a little bit more about me and my journey, and maybe when the next record comes out they can see the process that I went through to get to the other side.
Rumer’s latest album, Boys Don’t Cry, is available now.
For more information on the artist, check out her official website.
Photo courtesy of Atlantic Records.