The last time SJF spoke with RUMER, she was at her home in deepest Arkansas. This time, however, she’s back in London, her old stomping ground, to promote her new album, ‘This Girl’s In Love: A Bacharach & David Songbook,’ which is released by Warner’s East West imprint on October 21st.
“I think London is the greatest city in the world,” says the 37-year-old singer/songwriter. “It’s nice to be back here. What strikes you when you come from Los Angeles, where I was for a while, is just the general proximity you have to other human beings every day and how many people you see going about their business. In LA everything is car-centric and from the point of view of the steering wheel of a car so you really don’t see much. But in London there’s really so much more to see. There’s so much more culture, noise, music and life here.“
Having said that, Rumer doesn’t feel the need to return permanently to the UK’s busiest metropolis. “I don’t want to live here anymore but I still think it’s the greatest city in the world,” she declares. But what about the USA where she lives now? Does she feel that she’s immersed herself in the American way of life? “No, I don’t think it’s possible,” says the singer who left the UK to set up camp in deepest Arkansas with her husband and musical director/arranger, Rob Shirakbari. “I don’t think I’ll ever do that. You can’t really immerse yourself because to do so would mean that you would have to subscribe to activities like getting a gun. We’re talking about Southern ways …and I don’t think I could ever be a Southerner.“
Our conversation inevitably moves on to ‘This Girl’s In Love,’ a collection of songs penned by the redoubtable songwriting partnership of Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Its twelve tracks range from immortal classics such as ‘Walk On By,’ ‘A House Is Not A Home,’ and ‘(They Long To Be) Close To You’ to less familiar B&D songs like ‘Balance Of Nature’ and ‘One Less Bell To Answer.’ The album has received the seal of approval from none other than Burt Bacharach himself, who appears on one track and is quoted as saying: “When you are gifted by an artist doing an album of your music you accept that as a compliment but then you get to hear it and it’s so damn good. The lady has a golden voice and the vocals are clean and clear with great sincerity and Hal David’s lyrics shine through. There are some songs I’ve almost forgotten about and Rumer has given them new life. I thank you for this gift Rumer, it’s special.“
In a conversation with SJF’s Charles Waring, Rumer talks in depth about her new album and also looks beyond it to her next project…
Burt Bacharach and Hal David wrote so many great songs together. Was it difficult to select twelve for your album?
Yeah, we took quite a lot of time going through the catalogue and there is a point where you have to say, okay, we need to stop because there’s so much music as it just goes on and on. There comes a point when you’re just like okay, we just need a field study, if you like, just a selection because there’s so much music and it’s unbelievable.
Has Burt Bacharach’s music been part of the soundtrack to your own life?
Yeah, it has and I think it’s the same for everybody, I think, without realizing it. That’s how I first got introduced to all those great female icons – like Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield and Dionne Warwick, through the perfect combination of those iconic, classic voices and those perfect songs that they made their own. Never has there been a greater songwriting duo.
Many of Bacharach & David’s songs were sung by women – how well do you think that Hal David’s lyrics communicated life from a female perspective?
I think he does his best. I think there are some where it’s like all very dramatic and it’s like “oh my God, he doesn’t love me, and I’m going to die!” And I think to myself, this is kind of silly and then there are others which are more sassy, like ‘Walk On By,’ and I wonder because Dionne spent so much time with them and was always with them if she probably improved their understanding of women a great deal just from being the third energy in that Bacharach & David partnership.
That’s right, because at one point she was very much an integral member of that team, wasn’t she?
I think so because they were writing for her and they were taking things that she said and putting them in songs and she was no shrinking violet, she doesn’t let anyone walk all over her. So the sassiness, I think, is there too and the domesticity is kind of charming although I think Hal writes well for women. It’s just that some songs I found really difficult to sing, like ‘Anyone Who Had A Heart.’ It’s obviously a classic but the subject matter I was finding really, really difficult because the character is so pathetic. It sounds like a 12-year-old. I was really struggling to find the character in the song but I did record it in the end and we tried and I did it as a B-side. There’s a lot of “love me or I’m going to die, and even though you’re cheating on me, I still love you.” Those kinds of things.
Is that how you approach singing other people’s songs, by getting yourself into character?
Oh yeah, with this kind of material, which I didn’t realise before I started, was that it’s quite theatrical. You have to put yourself in the scene and be the character. It’s not just something that you can go into casually and say okay, “I’ll sing this in tune and it should come out great.” That’s not how it works. You have to really find the character. You’ve got to really think the way you are and who you are and you’ve got to do some acting, which I’m not qualified for and I haven’t done much acting. But I needed to find the actor in myself to play some of these characters.
You said that ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’ you found difficult. The general consensus among singers is that Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s music is very easy on the ear but also very difficult to sing… Did you find that yourself?
Oh my God, of course. I said to (her husband, producer and musical director) Rob afterwards, “no one is going to believe this is hard. Everything sounds so smooth and easy on the ear, like I wandered into the studio on a breeze.” That’s the deception of Bacharach & David. It’s a sweet deception. I started researching to see if any other people had done a complete Bacharach album and there actually are surprisingly few. You’d think there would be a lot more, wouldn’t you?
Yes, you would, actually because their music seems to be ubiquitous…
Yeah, but very few people have done it and I don’t think I would have done it willingly actually if I’d not been asked to do it. I was asked to do it by East West. At the time I had just parted company with Atlantic and East West offered me a deal and I thought well, okay, I wouldn’t have done normally but in certain circumstances I’m going to say yes. I wouldn’t just do a song book willy-nilly. It’s one of those things that you’ve got to do really, really well because if you do it in a mediocre way, it’s tacky. So Bacharach & David are incredibly hard to do. And I didn’t realise that and halfway through, I was like, “oh my God!” and thought I wouldn’t get through it because it was really hard vocally. I didn’t know if I had the voice because we’re talking about a wide vocal range because when you select songs for an album like this you want to show a range of styles because you’re trying to show a range of their writing and work. But I was over my head and definitely out of my depth at the beginning because vocally I didn’t know if I’d got it. I didn’t know if I was a good enough singer for it. The music seemed quiet and soft and I really had to find some power in my voice on some of the songs, like ‘One Less Bell to Answer,’ which was a real challenge to me to find the drama in it, to bring out the energy and volume and power there because I’m not Marilyn McCoo or Dionne Warwick. I’m not Dusty Springfield or Aretha Franklin. These women are legends and so you’re doing their songs and you’ve got to do them pretty well.
I think you’ve done a great job.
The album’s come out beautifully and I’m really proud of it. I’m really, really proud. I think from the work that we put in, the pre-production where Rob and I sat down while I washed dishes and he was at the piano going through arrangements and ideas of how we were going to arrange this in a way that’s beautiful and different. And some of them we didn’t make different, we were happy to leave them as they were.
Did Rob’s experience of working with Burt help your understanding of the songs?
That was absolutely invaluable. When I was asked to do the Bacharach album, the CEO the company had no idea that I was married to somebody who had that unique apprenticeship of spending 30 years with Burt and with Dionne and so there was no one on the planet who had had that experience with both of them, separately and together at different points since the early ’80s. Rob was 18 when he joined Burt’s band and Dionne’s band, so he’s become a musician by being on stage with those two doing gigs with them separately and together. So he knows that catalogue like the back of his hand. Also, as part of his job, he was able to write arrangements and helped to produce the shows and direct the music and do all the work…and anything that Burt and Dionne asked him to do. So that’s part of who he is, being with Burt. So when he touches the keyboard and plays those songs it’s with deep reverence and respect and love… And a feeling of family that sums it up. Also, he was very hard on me in terms of getting it right in the studio and making sure that it worked and just making sure everything’s correct. He was very exacting.
Burt Bacharach is purportedly a perfectionist – do you think his fastidiousness may have rubbed off on Rob?
Sure. You have to take the master tapes out of Rob’s hand sometimes because it’s hard for him to say something’s finished. Also, what I was going to say was that this is not a big budget album. We made much of one day that we had at Capitol Studios, which is where we spent a lot of the money on string arrangements and horns and everything. But most of it was done in a dark room in our studio or in a little LA studio or here and there in Arkansas or London or various places…even in our spare bedroom. So it’s been really about Rob’s expertise because if he wasn’t such a genius and hadn’t spent all those years with Burt and Dionne we would never have been able to make this sound as beautiful. It wouldn’t be as beautiful because nobody would have put their heart and soul and the hours in we did. It wasn’t a big budget record but it sounds like it cost three times the amount that it did. Rob wrote some great string lines with reverence and respect for the work and he’s done thousands of gigs with Burt and thousands of gigs with Dionne, sat in tour buses and hotel lobbies and round the world. So there’s a lot of love and a lot of history there and that’s also embedded in the music.
Yes, that definitely comes across, and of course, you’ve got Burt playing and singing on the intro to ‘This Girl’s in Love With You’ as well, haven’t you? How did that feel, working with him?
It was a wonderful thing. We had a terrific quote from him actually. I don’t know if you got the quote…
Yes, I saw it just before I started speaking with you…he describes you as ‘golden voiced’ and the project as ‘so damn good’ and thanks you profusely.
That’s an amazing quote from him and I think that he was genuinely pleased with the project. He really loved some of the things that we did and having an evening session at Capitol with Burt was magical. It was a great honour to have him participate and play on it. It was a huge deal.
As well as some of Bacharach & David’s well-known songs there are some less familiar ones as well, like ‘Balance Of Nature.’ What was that particular song’s appeal to you?
I just loved the pastoral aspect of it. At the time I was in Arkansas when we were doing all the pre-production and were listening to all the music and deciding what we were going to record. We live in a very rural area where there are lots of woods and lots of wildlife and loads of deer. It’s just a really pretty place and very quiet. You just see deer and so many creatures going on your morning walk and I was listening to this song on my headphones when I was walking the dog. I was looking around at all this nature and thinking this is so charming, I really love this, it just needs speeding up a bit. So we sped it up and gave it a little more bounce and I just think it’s really charming.
Where do you go artistically after this album? Where do you see yourself going next?
I’m already working on new music. What I have to do, to be honest, Charles, is to get back to the place I was before I signed that record deal in 2010. Just try and find the girl with a guitar again. I’m working on these songs but I’m just going to go back to a more simple, singer-songwriter place and go back to the original way that I wrote music. I think it’s fine to do this Bacharach & David record and I’m very proud of it and I hope that people enjoy it as part of their collection, if they collect my music, but I also think they would like more of my songs and ones that come from my heart.
Like on your debut, ‘Seasons Of My Soul?’
Yeah, the reason why ‘Seasons Of My Soul’ was so well received because it was ten songs that were really meaningful and it was the soundtrack to my life at the time. You distil your life down to those songs but it’s really a lot of things and there are so many different days and different moods. This is the thing about ‘Seasons Of My Soul’ – the reason why I called it that was because I was sitting looking out the window at the park watching the seasons change over five or six years. The seasons would change and the winter would come and then spring and summer would come and I would still be trying to do my music. I was poor and still trying to get somewhere, still trying to do my songs, and that’s why I call it ‘Seasons Of My Soul’ because years and years went by. That’s why some of the songs were so deep because they were written from the point of view of so much time going by. So I think it’s time that I went back to that place…
Will your next album be released through East West or via your own label, Night Owl?
To be honest with you, I don’t have to do another album for Warner. I’m pretty sure that I’ve done my five albums. I think they would like me to do another one with me but I don’t know, you know. The truth is, I don’t have to after this.
So you don’t have a contractual obligation to them anymore?
Yeah, I’m free to be independent after this but also I had a very pleasant experience with East West, they’re very nice people. It was much more enjoyable for me than at Atlantic where it was much bigger and more impersonal and more pop. I also felt I was at the bottom of the pile and as adult contemporary music you’re seen as the weird misfit on the label whereas at East West people are much older and much more pleasant to deal with and because there’s less going on, they’re more attentive. So it’s been a pleasant experience and I’m open to working with them again but at the moment I’m trying to keep my options open.
RUMER PERFORMS AT LONDON’S CADOGAN HALL ON OCTOBER 17TH
‘THIS GIRL’S IN LOVE: A BACHARACH & DAVID SONGBOOK’ IS OUT ON OCTOBER 21ST.