Rumer Interview – How An English Songstress Discovered A Nashville Great

The last ten years have been quite a ride for Rumer. Her debut album Seasons Of My Soul went double platinum in the UK and took her to a MOJO award win and 2 BRIT award nominations. She’s gone on to perform at the White House for President Obama, and has shared the stage with some of the great names in modern popular music. Three further albums followed showcasing her own songwriting talent alongside songs written by such icons as Burt Bacharach & Hal David, Jimmy Webb, Neil Young and Brian Wilson.

For her latest project Rumer looked to Nashville for inspiration. Neil Hallam spoke with her about her upcoming album Nashville Tears, a collection of songs written by Nashville Songwriters Hall Of Fame inductee Hugh Prestwood.

Rumer Alan Messer

Rumer, I’m just going to say straight up, I love Nashville Tears, I love what you’ve done with it, I think it’s a beautiful album. I’ve found it a real breath of fresh air and such an oasis with everything that’s going on in the world. I’ve been so thankful that I’ve had a pre-release copy to listen to.

Thank you, that means the world to me. Not many people have had access to it. It was put back, it should have been out in April. I was really disappointed it was put back, but there wasn’t anything I could do about it.

At what stage did you come to the decision to delay the release of the album? It couldn’t have been an easy decision to make, seeing some people go ahead with their releases and others decide to delay?

Well, it was really a label decision, you know? Record labels put an awful lot of investment into a project, hundreds of thousands of pounds, and they really do need a fair crack at trying to break even. They really wanted the opportunity to be able to promote it properly and, at the time, Amazon were all over the place, they weren’t delivering, shops were closed and still are closed. All the supply chains were all messed up. So they made the decision to delay it so that it would get the promotion that it needed and have a fair shot. Personally, I wanted it out as originally planned but everyone else disagreed with me, so…

At least we still have it to look forward to later in the year.

That’s why it’s nice, Neil, to hear from people who’ve heard it, to actually get that feedback from people that have heard the whole thing.

On Boys Don’t Cry, one of your earlier albums, you recorded the song Flyin’ Shoes, which is a Townes Van Zandt song. That aside, what has been your exposure to, or experience of, country music prior to Nashville Tears?

My first exposure to country music was when I had a Best Of Patsy Cline tape, when I was about 10 years old, and I was really obsessed with that tape. I’d listen to that all the time. So I loved that. But it wasn’t because it was country music. I loved her voice, and everything about that tape… Then there’s Dolly Parton, Glen Campbell, stuff like that… I don’t know, I’m not a country music “expert” at all. I mean, I didn’t know Trisha Yearwood’s recording of The Song Remembers When. I didn’t know that song, before this project. I love Gordon Lightfoot, I don’t know if you can call him country… But country has always been in the mix for me, it’s always been an influence. And of course I love Townes Van Zandt, and Alison Kraus too.

 

Where did the album title Nashville Tears come from, because that title came really early on in the project, didn’t it?

Yeah, it was just a title for a project that had come into my head. I’d always felt that in Nashville, there are lots of songwriters that were struggling, and there are so many songwriters there. It’s hard being a songwriter. And it’s really hard to get songs cut, and it’s really hard to get songs out. So, there’s a kind of a struggle of the songwriter. I kind of felt it was a good title for a project.

In my mind it evolved into project that would be a collection of music, or a collection of songs that were by songwriters who didn’t get the credit they deserved, or songs by well known songwriters that got lost, or didn’t get released, or did get released but didn’t get the acclaim that the songs deserved. So that was the idea. The idea was to shine a light on songs and songwriters that didn’t get the credit they deserved.

Then through that project, I got distracted by Hugh Prestwood. Because he was so good, and I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard of him. And I just wanted to do all Hugh Prestwood songs. So it was going to be a whole variety of songwriters, and then halfway through the project I decided I just wanted to focus on Hugh Prestwood.

Oklahoma Stray was your introduction to Hugh, wasn’t it? How did that happen?

That was the first song that Fred Mollin, the producer, sent to me. And I was just so blown away by it. And then he sent me another song by Hugh Prestwood, and I thought “This guy is a great writer”. And I started to look at more of his stuff, and I realised how head and shoulders he was above everybody else. And that’s when I realised that I just wanted the album to be all his music. That’s when we went to the publisher and we asked for the catalog, and started listening to his catalog.

With this album, you’re effectively a curator as well as a performer. How does that work?

It’s an A&R thing, putting the material together and creating… I know there are a lot of people who know who Hugh Prestwood is, but there are a lot of people like me who didn’t, who don’t know him. So I wanted it to be an introduction to Hugh.

I think there’ll be a fair number of country music fans who won’t be familiar with the name of Hugh Prestwood even if they might have heard some of his songs, so Nashville Tears should certainly be a good introduction. But how do you go through that catalog and whittle it down to the 15 songs that you’ve chosen?

I usually start with scanning the titles that I like the look of. If there’s an interesting song title then I want to know what that song is about, so I’ll pick those out and listen to them. And I’ll work my way through those song titles, alphabetically. But there are often, like, four or five different versions of the same song. Sometimes with different lyrics, sometimes they’re in different stages of development.

It was really cool, listening to the catalog. I’d be walking the dog, or driving around, just getting under the skin of this music. It was really challenging for me, because the music definitely had to be studied. In the same way that I had to study it with Bacharach. It’s not something you can just listen to a couple of times and then sing. You have to study it musically, and you have to study it emotionally. You have to think about what’s going on, what the writer intended, how I’m going to express that, how I’m going to approach that. So, it’s really like a puzzle. But it’s something I know how to do, so it’s fun for me. And I’m glad I did Bacharach, because that was really good practice for me. And Boys Don’t Cry too.

With Boys Don’t Cry, I was interested in singing from a different perspective, singing from a male perspective. And I think that gave me the confidence to do something like The Snow White Rows Of Arlington, which is from the perspective of a teenage boy who wants to go and fight in a war. I felt confident as a narrator to do that song. I’m female, I’m from England, I’m just so different to the character in the song, but I felt I could do that because I’d gone through this interpretive process.

That’s a good point, actually, because some of the songs on the album are maybe more obvious picks, like Ghost In This House and The Song Remembers When, but …Arlington is a more left-field choice.

Yes, it is, and that song was a subject of some discussion. Fred didn’t really want to do it, because he thought it was political. But I disagreed. I thought it was important because it was important to the writer. I also think that the patriotism in it is very American. And I’m in the South right now, I’m in Georgia, I was in Arkansas before, and it felt like if I didn’t include Arlington then it wouldn’t be an accurate reflection of the South. So I felt it was important to include it.

I understand Fred’s point about the politics, but it’s also a very human song, isn’t it?

Exactly, it is. I’m just the narrator, at the end of the day.

There are some songs on the album that haven’t been picked up and recorded before, and I suppose you could say that you’ve now created the definitive versions of those songs. How does that feel, given the obvious love that you have for the songs?

Well, I’m really proud of June It’s Gonna Happen. I love that song. Funnily enough, when I told Fred I wanted to do that song he had to do some paper shuffling to find it, he didn’t remember it very well, and I had to remind him of it. It just wasn’t in the forefront of his mind. So that was quite a deep cut, and it’s actually my favourite. I think it’s my most proud achievement, just digging out that song, that even Hugh himself had forgotten about. He didn’t even have it on his own computer, he asked me to send it to him. But I love it, it’s so different, it’s so unusual.

 

Did Hugh have any input or involvement in the picks for Nashville Tears, or did he really just leave it all up to you?

There was one song that Hugh wanted us to do, That’s That. That song wasn’t on my original list, but Hugh requested that we do that one. I think that was the song that kind of created his career in Nashville. It was like a breakthrough that he had in his career, and it’s one of his biggest hits. And it turned out really cool, actually.

I corresponded with Hugh regularly. I wanted to get everything right, check the lyrics, check the melodies, and he did correct several things. Even down to the wire, there were things that were not quite correct that we had to re-cut. So we corresponded regularly, and he also flew down for the string session, so we got to talk and hang out.

The reason I asked about Hugh’s involvement, there’s a video that Hugh put on YouTube a couple of years ago, just him and his guitar performing The Fate Of Fireflies. In the comments below the video, one guy expressed how much he loved the song and Hugh replied, “It’s one of my very best. Maybe one day someone will cut it.” So he must have been delighted when he saw it was one of your picks?

Yeah, he said that it was miraculous. What he actually said was, “A little of me goes a long way, so when you said you were doing 15 songs…”. He wasn’t really that hopeful with the project. He liked my voice and everything, but he also knows that so many things can go wrong. You know, someone says they’re going to cut your song and it doesn’t happen. And he said it was miraculous, really, that he had 15 songs that he loved, that he thought were done and produced and performed beautifully. He just couldn’t believe it, and he found it deeply moving. So, for him, it was amazing. But that was my purpose. My purpose was to make him happy, really.

Where did the recording sessions take place?

It was around this time last year, around May 2019, we recorded the rhythm section at Starstruck Studios in Nashville, which is Reba McEntire’s studio. The string day was at Sound Stage, and there were various other sessions we did around town. The recording took around three weeks, and there were several months of post production, a lot of which Rob and I did at home.

Were there any songs you recorded during the sessions but which didn’t make the album?

Actually, no. We were only meant to do thirteen songs, originally. Deep Summer In The Deep South and The Snow White Rows Of Arlington were last minute additions. So, we actually did two more than we were meant to do. The one song I thought wasn’t going to make it was Hard Times For Lovers, because it stuck out so much, and it was so different. But the label felt that it was important for radio.

 

Listening to Hugh’s songs, and the way you’ve presented them, it almost feels like Hugh has this different way of viewing the world that he’s able to pull into his songs. For instance, songs like The Fate of Fireflies and Oklahoma Stray are good examples of how he takes something quite abstract and conflates that into some aspect of human relationships. How do you think the time you’ve spent in Hugh’s “world” has impacted your own creativity, and songwriting in particular?

Oh, there are so many dimensions to his writing. If anything, it’s just made me… It’s probably not the best project to do when you’re nervous about your own songwriting, because it can make you think, “Oh, I’m never going to write anything that good, so why bother trying!”. But that’s not the case with me, I am going to go back into the zone and try again, and I think it remains to be seen what comes out, and how I’m influenced by him. I think I’d have to observe myself for a while, but I’m not aware of anything consciously.

Any time you study a great master’s work, I think it influences you. I think it affects you. But I really haven’t done any real songwriting since before Bacharach. So I’ll be interested to know how Bacharach, David, Hugh Prestwood, all of those great musicians and songwriters affect my next work, because it was like an immersion.

I wanted to ask you about the photograph used as the cover for Nashville Tears. It’s quite a domestic scene, basically you’re standing at a kitchen sink gazing wistfully into the distance. Some people might think, “kitchen sink drama”, but that phrase isn’t a summary of the album at all, is it?

I had the pleasure of working with Alan Messer, who’s a very accomplished, legendary photographer. He’s English, he’s lived in Nashville since the late 1970’s, but he’s very English and we got on very well. We were at his house shooting pictures and I said, “I really want to stand by your kitchen sink, Alan”. I felt that it represented where I’d been for the last two or three years, and feeling lost, and wondering if this is what my life had become. Dishes and laundry. And effectively I have been like a housewife in the South. So, I really liked the idea of standing by the kitchen sink.

I felt like that’s where a lot of my sadness has collected. A lot of my weariness and my fears and my worries and everything have been standing at the kitchen sink. So, for me it was meaningful. I’m in full hair and make-up, obviously, which is not how I would normally be at the kitchen sink. But it means a lot to me, that cover photo, because it represents this huge period of time where I felt lost in a kind of domestic groundhog day. So I feel like it reflects quite authentically my own personal experience.

I know in years to come I’ll look back on it and think “That was that period of time in my life where all I was doing was dishes.” In fact, this album really was my escape. It was my first escape from the dishes and the laundry and the housework. It was like my first creative endeavour. So, it means an awful lot to me, that image. And I know in years to come I’ll look back and be glad that that’s the cover. And I love Alan’s work. He’s phenomenal.

I understand from your socials that you’re planning on moving back to the UK soon, travel restrictions permitting?

Yes, we should be moving back to the UK on 1st July, we’ve been planning on moving for over a year now. We’ve sold the house and everything, so we’re actually living in the studio at the moment, which is not ideal. So we’re just trying to find a good gap to get back home. I feel like this whole Southern experience I’ve had has come to an end, for now. Interestingly, with this album I just feel like it’s gone full circle. I feel that I’ve exhaled these experiences here, and I’ve used that on the album. And I’m just ready to go home now.

So it feels like the album is almost a bookend to this period in your life?

It is. It feels like it. I love America. It’s been wonderful. I love the nature, and it’s been really interesting in the Deep South. But I’m really English, I’ve realised. I didn’t adapt. I thought I would, but I just didn’t. You give it so many years and you realise, “I’m not adapting!”. I’m just really English. Can you imagine living in a country without a pub? (laughs).

Well, we’re all having to live without pubs at the moment!

I know, but can you imagine that as a culture? They have bars, but they’re quite noisy, sort of sports bars, they’re showing football, baseball, basketball… It’s not the same. And you can’t get a cup of tea that tastes right. You try and try but you just can’t (laughs).

 

Rumer Nashville TearsNashville Tears – The Songs Of Hugh Prestwood is due for release on August 14th 2020, on the Cooking Vinyl label. To pre-order the album – click here.

Various bundles, including signed albums, are available direct from Rumer’s online store – https://rumer.tmstor.es

You can follow Rumer via her website https://www.rumer.co.uk and also on her social media feeds :-

Facebookhttps://www.facebook.com/rumerofficial

Twitterhttps://twitter.com/Rumersongs   (@rumersongs)

Instagramhttps://www.instagram.com/rumersongs/

 

Photo credits – Alan Messer

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