“I feel like I’m in a witness protection programme,” laughs a reflective and disarmingly candid RUMER, the charming Islamabad-born chanteuse whose warm, mellow contralto voice first seduced listeners five years ago with her genre-defying debut album, ‘Seasons Of My Soul.’ She’s referring to the fact that she and her husband – Rob Shirakbari, who’s also her producer and musical director – have elected to move from Los Angeles to live in a small, obscure, town located somewhere in deepest Northwest Arkansas. The decision to move there, she reveals, was to remove her from the glare of the spotlight, the perpetual grind of the music business and relentless scrutiny of the press. “It’s sort of like the land that time forgot,” she explains. “There are lots of things that are quite old-fashioned, like being able to use a cheque book in a supermarket and the fact that we’re the only people that probably recycle. But there’s also some charm about that as well. It’s just really interesting and the perfect antidote to the electro-magnetic pollution caused by media exposure.“
Certainly, Rumer knows all about media exposure – indeed, the instant fame that she experienced after many years of seemingly fruitless and futile knocking on the door of the music industry put her life out of kilter for a while. “It was so unbelievably hard and tough,” she confesses. “It’s physically tough, and demanding on your spirit – and on your soul and on your body.” It’s not an experience that she’d care to repeat and now she’s happier and feels more in control of her career. She’s also established her own label, Night Owl, and has just compiled what to date is her fourth long player, ‘B Sides & Collectables.’ Initially available to her fans exclusively via her website it’s now being officially issued by Warner/Rhino. Containing seventeen orphaned songs that were recorded as flipsides, for EPs, compilations and movie soundtracks, it finds golden-voiced Rumer putting her inimitable imprimatur on a range of material that include classic tunes by Christopher Cross, Paul Simon, George Harrison, Burt Bacharach, and Steven Bishop. The latter also guests on the album, as does the legendary Dionne Warwick.
SJF’s Charles Waring recently caught up with the award-winning 36-year-old singer, who talked in detail about her new album as well as her life and music…
What’s the story behind ‘B-sides and Rarities’?
It’s a compilation that I made. All these songs had a home somewhere, like ‘Arthur’s Theme,’ which I did for the BBC ‘Sound Of The Eighties’ CD.I love that song. It’s by Christopher Cross and another one of his I did was ‘Sailing.’ I really related to that song when I was writing because it’s about creativity and using your imagination to catch the essence of something so I really wanted to record it. It was just an extra track, something that we did that never got put anywhere. A lot of people will have probably half of what’s on the CD already from various things, whether it’s a deluxe version of ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ or from an EP or whatever, but the thing was that not everybody had everything.
It’s nice to have them all in one place, isn’t it?
Yeah, and people wanted ‘I Believe In You,’ the song from the Johnny English film (a spy spoof featuring Rowan Atkinson as the titular hero), which wasn’t available. So I wanted to make that available and ‘Warmth of the Sun’ and ‘Come Saturday Morning,’ which were extra tracks that were found on EPs. I did a live version of ‘Separate Lives’ with Stephen Bishop (its writer) in L.A. That was really cool. I thought I’d put that on there. I think just people talking to me and telling me how much they really liked all these other songs inspired me. Some people would make their own compilations and print off photographs from their computer and then make their own CDs with extra tracks so I thought I should try and do this properly for them and put together a nice collection for them.
Has this exhausted the archives, or is there anything left in the can?
No, there’s still stuff. I like crate-digging but there’s a quality control element here. You want to be sure that everything is great. There’s no ‘The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress’ (the Jimmy Webb song that Rumer covered on her ‘Slow’ EP) …and there are a few other things which are absent and there’s a couple of reasons why. To my ears they just sound a little ropey. I think: no, I want to record that again.
Are you self-critical of your own work?
Oh yeah, you’ve got to have quality control. I produce all my own vocals and do the aural composite myself. Sometimes I’ll listen and say mmm, maybe that vowel sounds sloppy there. So I’m the forensic one. This album is what people were asking me for and I try and give people what they want and what they like.
So you have a dialogue with your fans through social networking platforms?
Yes, Facebook, and I also talk to them after every show. I traditionally do, where possible and where the venue allows, a signing at the end of each show so I’ll spend two hours after a show talking to everybody. I’m always willing to stay because I’ve got a long queue and it’s really nice to talk to everybody because they all have different things to say about what music they like and their opinions that they’ve been burning to tell me or a song they want me to sing. So it’s nice. I really like meeting people.
Do you get inspiration from fans’ song suggestions?
Yes, all the time. In fact, there’s one song on the compilation that I did a thing for the Mayor’s Trust… One of the songs, (George Harrison’s) ‘Here Comes the Sun,’ was a request by woman who won an auction. I tend to do auction prizes and the auction prize is usually Rumer will sing a song of your choice, because people will say: I wish Rumer would sing this, I wish Rumer would sing that and if only Rumer would sing this song. So I thought maybe that might make a nice prize, so I’ve done it a couple of times and ‘Here Comes The Sun’ was for the Arvon Foundation, which is a wonderful writing retreat for people who want to go and write novels or write songs but they also, if you can’t afford it, give you a grant. I actually received a grant from them years ago because I couldn’t afford it, so they’re really wonderful. ‘Here Comes the Sun’ was really for this lady who won the prize and I’ve also got another one on the forthcoming Bacharach album for the Mayor’s Music Fund who bid a request as well. I’m quite interactive (Laughs).
And I suppose you can escape back to Arkansas when it gets a bit too much.
Years and years and years I’ve worked behind the deli counter or in the pub and I’m so used to talking to people, all sorts of people, and my job is to be sociable so I’m used to talking. I don’t mind talking to them. I’m a people person. It’s just the business that I find hard.
It must be hard finding that balance between the artistic desire and the business needs, I suppose.
Yes. Respect to the record company because breaking an act is a science, but it’s an unsavoury activity to me – I wouldn’t want to be responsible for it but it’s the difference between someone sitting in a pub and singing to two men and his dog and breaking an act worldwide. It’s a science and, respect to them, but it’s unpleasant at times and there’s a limit to how much time as a creative person you can stay around it. You can only stay there long enough just to get the exposure and then you’ve got to get out as much as you can because, ironically, it’s the worst kind of environment for a creative person. But at the same time it’s a necessary evil in a way. It’s a very awkward dance, art and commerce.
It’s a marriage of convenience really.
You mentioned Burt Bacharach, three of whose songs appear on ‘B Sides & Rarities’ – how much has his music shaped your own sound and style?
I think it has because of the hits that he had back in the day with the great singers Dusty Springfield, Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick – all these phenomenal songs and phenomenal singers who had huge hits for years and years and years. Growing up I didn’t know who Burt Bacharach was but I knew I just loved ‘I Say A Little Prayer,’ ‘Walk On By,’ and you just love that stuff but you don’t know who writes the songs but then later on you join the dots. So I think that he’s impacted us all, everyone. All the great female singers that I admire has sung Bacharach.
On the new compilation there’s one of Burt’s less well-known songs, ‘Hasbrook Heights,’ with Dionne Warwick guesting on it.
I love that song. ‘Hasbrook Heights’ is this fantasy place which is wonderful, like a vacation type place for a holiday resort (laughs). I was in need of a holiday when I first heard it and thought ‘Hasbrook Heights’ sounds so amazing and I was crying listening to it. Anyway, I was asked to do a show for charity at the Albert Hall and there were many people doing duets with Dionne Warwick. They asked me and said what song would you like to do? I wrote back and cheekily asked for ‘Hasbrook Heights.’ I thought that they’ll probably write back and say “well actually, we were thinking of something else” but I thought I’d try my luck. So I wrote back saying oh let’s do ‘Hasbrook Heights’ and what I didn’t realise at the time was that my email landed in (her future husband) Rob’s inbox, who I didn’t know at all at that point, who also liked ‘Hasbrook Heights’ and he said, OK, let’s do ‘Hasbrook Heights.’ And then I met him. That was when I first met Rob, at the Albert Hall with Dionne Warwick, ‘cos Rob had been Burt’s music director for over thirty years since he was a young protégé. So that’s how we first met through that song and we did it as a duet at the Albert Hall, me and Dionne. Then, when I wanted to record it, I asked if she could record the vocal with me. I actually wasn’t there on the session but she wasn’t in it as much as we wanted her to be as there was a technical problem on the track, so that was how it happened really.
You mentioned singer/songwriter Stephen Bishop earlier, who duets with you on ‘Separate Lives.’ What was he like to work with because he’s a legend as well, isn’t he?
He is, he really is. People like Stephen Bishop don’t exist anymore. He is so charismatic, so much fun, so old school and he’s a big Hollywood star to me. He’s funny and clever. He wanted to walk me down the aisle, by the way, and he played the blue guitar from his ‘Blue Guitars’ album, the one that’s produced by Andrew Gold. I sang at his wedding, so he sang at mine and I said can you bring the blue guitar? (Laughs). So he brought the blue guitar. (photo left: Stephen Bishop playing his blue guitar at Rumer and Rob’s wedding)
When did you become a fan of Stephen’s?
When I was in the studio with Steve (Brown, her first producer), years and years ago back in 2007. I brought in a song, ‘Looking for the Right One,’ by Art Garfunkel I said I love this song, it’s really interesting and the melody is really unusual. And Steve said “oh, that’s Stephen Bishop” and that’s when Steve introduced me to Stephen’s music. It was interesting because I was attracted to his writing and that was when I started to love his work.
What did it feel like duetting with someone who you had admired for a long time?
He’s such a disarming person and also I felt like I was a family member or something. It’s hard to explain. There’s a very warm connection as humans and it dissipates any kind of nervousness because you have so much in common, like for example when singing ‘It Might Be You’ – Bishop’s Tootsie movie song, which appears on ‘B Sides & Rarities’ – I would get nervous at a particular part of the song but he would tell me I was singing this song at the Oscars – there was this particular part of the song and I was thinking, oh my God, this is so cool. I thought I had an issue but it was good to know that I didn’t have an issue with it. So he’s just fantastic, he’s just amazing. His songwriting is amazing, his catalogue is amazing and there’s so much that’s never been released. I’m going to do a Stephen Bishop song record and then maybe people will want to explore the catalogue and go in the vaults. It’s amazing stuff.