Most artists define themselves by their musical output alone, but just as importantly there are others who tap into a vision of something bigger. Possessed by the idea of pushing boundaries to reach her most out-of-the-way fans, Lucy Rose spent a better part of 2016 trekking across Latin America and Asia.
Away from the creature comforts home, the British folk singer played an extensive succession of free, fan-booked gigs. As unconventional as her idea of touring off the beaten track may be, Rose is determined in finding a way to make it work. Not just for herself, but for others too.
Musically she’s no slouch either; Lucy sings from the heart and knows how to break it. Her intimate and expressive vocals have found their way into collaborations with fellow UK acts Bombay Bicycle Club, The Maniac Street Preachers and Ghostpoet.
Tying a sense energy and purpose to potent songwriting, her third record Something’s Changing dropped earlier in June. Yet, even with the album’s release, Lucy shows little sign of slowing down. With her ‘Play My Hometown’ campaign in mid-swing, it looks like she’ll again be embarking on another round of less-than-conventional tours.
Catching up with Rose we had a chance to talk about her unique brand of guerrilla touring, Joni Mitchell, going DIY and making it big in Kuching.
Music Feeds: You spent a good part of 2016 guerrilla touring across the world, most extensively through South America. Did you have an impression of what it would be like before you left?
Lucy Rose: Not really. I guess it was my first time touring South America, but I had played a gig with Bombay Bicycle Club way back when. I can’t remember what year it was, but I was supporting them and singing with them. We’d just done Mexico City and Sao Paulo. I’d actually ended up doing Rio before with Broken Social Scene which was really fun. The audiences were absolutely crazy!
I remember in Mexico City. I was playing and I hadn’t even released anything yet except some YouTube videos, and there were just a huge amount of people singing along with me while I was thinking, “How the hell is this happening!?” I was kind of excited to go back because the tweets and the messages were coming in more and more often.
People were determined to get me to come over to South America, there was a request was on everything I ever posted. I guess I was just excited to tell them that I could finally hear them and that I was listening to all of the messages and was going to come and see them.
MF: What was the greatest highlight of the whole experience? Was there a standout sort of moment for you?
LR: I don’t think there was one particular standout moment for me, but I think the greatest thing I got from it was everyone’s friendship. Honestly, I know it sounds really cheesy but still, I have a friendship group now that I didn’t have before. They’ve also all become friends with each other as well and visited each other’s countries and talked about the experience.
Having this really direct contact is amazing. Releasing a record is always nerve racking for me and on the day of releasing Something’s Changing actually having direct contact with people who could tell me how much they loved it or if they have a particular song they like, I know it’s going to sound completely egotistical, but I needed that. For me, I need that support because otherwise I’ve put it out and would just have no idea. I’d have just sat on my phone wondering how many retweets I’ve got or how many shares it’s gotten.
MF: What was one of the more challenging moments?
LR: So, it was the fans who were booking the gigs. These places would be free entry, which made it really difficult for some to find a space to play. The odd time we’d turn up and it would just be a pile of leaves and a PA in the corner not put together. They’d be like, “Can you work this?” I’d be like, “Right, never done this before!” But I’d work it out.
We would set up there, put together the PA and work out the sound. There were a couple of challenges like that. It gave me more perspective on these other times when you walk into a venue and everything is plugged in and ready for soundcheck. You take that for granted all the time, that you can just walk in and that’s all ready for you.
But I liked it, the challenges were all the really exciting things about the whole experience. They’re the reason I went. I was on this trip to kind of just to see what I was made of a little bit more. You can end up just living life pretty comfortably all the time but on that trip, I really wanted to push myself. I really wanted to see what I was made of and really understand who I was.
MF: So, you’ve come back and recorded your third LP Something’s Changing. For the record, you returned to a more DIY approach to recording and releasing your work. What is it that drew you back to a more do-it-yourself philosophy?
LR: When I came back off the trip I was managing myself and didn’t have a booking agent. I had that conversation with my label that I wasn’t happy and didn’t think I could keep them happy. Suddenly I was just really free and could be myself. So firstly, I just went and tried lots of different things out. It wasn’t like, “I’m going to do this one really DIY” or stuff like that. I had spoken to a lot of producers who had shown interest in working with me and just did a day with each of them to see what happened.
The musicianship was the crucial and an integral part of who would be the right producer. I wanted to record all of it live and track it live. I’d done a lot of research into how some of my favourite records were made, how albums like [Neil Young’s] Harvest were made, and it was all just a band in a room. I wanted to be brave this time and do it like this.
I went to visit Tim Bidwell and recorded live with me, the drummer and the bass player. It just felt immediately right. It was just like, “This is it!” I’m indecisive a lot of the time but when I know it’s right I become really, really decisive. As soon as he was dropping me back at the train station I was like, “I want to make a record with you. Let’s do it!”
It also came down to the costs and finances, I just decided that this time I wasn’t going to put myself in humongous debt to release a record I couldn’t pay off. I was thinking that if I self-release it I’m going cap it, spend maximum amount on it so I know that if I sell this many records I can pay it off. Because I was self-funding and licensing it the risk was on me this time. It made me make sure I was sensible.
MF: You’ve talked before about wanting to make music that has a ‘timeless’ quality. What is it that makes a record timeless?
LR: That’s what I want really, especially with this record. I wasn’t aiming for a million people to listen to this record. Realistically I knew there would be a small pocket of people who would like it, this was my own space. But I hope that these people will return to it every couple of years and when they put it on it’s still a favourite record.
I think nowadays it can be so much about being current and being within a time of being cool or edgy or buzzy. Sometimes it can be that everyone is writing about something, but you ask yourself whether anyone will be listening to it in 10 years’ time. With this idea of ‘timelessness’, I sometimes feel that people may have forgotten. You listen to the radio and think, “That’s not a timeless drum kit and that’s not a bass anymore!” I know that it’s great that everyone is pushing boundaries, trying new things and making weirder noises and stuff, but I wanted to make a record where the instruments sound like themselves, that sounded like I hadn’t messed with them or distorted them to make them all crazy. I wanted the drum kit to sound like a drum kit. I wanted the person to feel like they were sitting in the room with us when we were playing.
MF: Others have used Laurel Canyon sing-songwriters Joni Mitchell and Neil Young as touchstones when talking about your work. They were both these sort of spiritual rebels in the world of popular music. Is there a common thread that of what they were doing that ties through into your own work?
LR: I have an amount of respect for and take a huge amount of inspiration from both Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. I guess they’ve both got this rebellious quality which is like, “We’re going to do it how we want to do it and you may not like it.” You know the stories! I don’t think I would ever be brave enough to do it like Neil Young, who writes a new album then goes on stage and says, “I’m going to play some new songs for you” then plays this brand-new album start to finish — by which time everyone is pissed off and booing — then he plays it again! That idea of just doing it for himself!
The same with Joni Mitchell, I feel like she’s pushed herself to places that are just a more than just a little uncomfortable. That was part of the inspiration for Something’s Changed. Blue was a huge and important record in my life because I felt like she had really given a big part of herself to it and gone deeper within the human soul than I’d ever heard in other music. I thought I needed to be brave on this record and really talk about what’s inside and things that I’m going through. It’s really not easy and it’s kind of embarrassing! It’s like talking about all these really personal things!
But I guess the reason I’m doing it but, again this is going to sound really cheesy — if there’s a girl out there that was like me when I was listening to Joni Mitchell, I’d love my record to help someone in that way. It’s one of those things. I think about that person and do it for them. That’s the whole point about music really, for a person to be able to plug in and forget the world and feel better while they’re listening. I’d like to inspire young musicians because I think about all of the younger generation, especially girls, and I think about current role models and things in this sort of genre. Maybe I can inspire someone who wouldn’t have done it otherwise who is going to be absolutely amazing and make a brilliant record.
MF: What’s coming next for you? Is it still very much a matter of “Tweet me and I’ll tour”?
LR: Well I’ve got his thing that I’m going to push for the next month called ‘Play My Hometown’ which is where wherever you live, anywhere in the world and no matter how small the town is if enough people will go then I will come and play a gig. I’ll probably do the top 10 maybe the top 20 places I’ve been invited, but the winner at the moment is Kuching. Do you know where that is?
MF: No idea, where is it?
LR: Right? I was like, “Where the hell is Kuching?!” It’s a town in Malaysia and they’ve started a campaign, just these kids, and they’ve put posters up all around the place and in internet cafes so that everyone has voted. They’re absolutely wild, so I’ll be going to Kuching along with a load of other tiny towns I’ve never heard of before.
I think that’s going to be another incredible experience to do something like this. I want to keep pushing boundaries and do different sorts of things. I want to play as much free music as possible and find a way for it to be financially viable. That’s important to me, as you probably know I’ve just come back from India. Playing in developing countries, you see bands going over to them but most of the time it’s totally unaffordable to the people who live there.
I want to keep going back and try and find a system that works for the artists and the people. If I can hopefully more artists will do it. I hope this inspires more artists to go, travel and live with their fans. I hope that maybe they will.
Lucy Rose’s latest album Something’s Changing is out now.