London-based singer Beth Rowley tells THE BOMBER JACKET how stepping out of the limelight helped inspire a whole new set of songs.
In 2009, Beth Rowley was poised to do big things. Her debut album, Little Dreamer, had been a U.K. top 10 hit just a few months previously, the elegant jazz-inflected song writing and bluesy vocals fitting perfectly with a vogue for white soul singers like Adele and Amy Winehouse. Her songs had appeared on soundtracks for films and TV shows. She’d been been nominated for a prestigious Brit Award–the British equivalent of the Grammys–as Best Female Performer. She’d toured extensively, in the U.S. and Europe.
And then? Well, nothing. Rowley disappeared from view, ducking under the music industry radar, with no singles, albums or major shows. It’s not a totally unfamiliar story. Bands often get unceremoniously dropped after their debut–replicating a successful debut record can be tricky–but you could have bet money on an assured songwriter and performer like Rowley not falling victim to that music industry trap.
But now, suddenly, she’s back. A new four-song EP, Wretched Body, was released almost without fanfare earlier this month. There are also two more EPs in the pipeline–in all, an album’s worth of material–set for release later in 2013.
Wretched Body is a great piece of work. Rowley has jettisoned the smooth polish of her debut to produce a gritty, sandpapery set of songs. Rowley and producer Will Fliske create a mesh of shimmering guitars, subtle drones and queasy strings that frame Rowley’s throaty vocals as they swoop and soar, all the while anchored by a beefy rhythm section.
The title track is a slice of lurching desert blues that describes a woman trapped by uncontrollable desire. “His eyes, they overtook me, now it’s too late to try to run,” Rowley murmurs, her voice wracked with yearning and self loathing. The second song, “Can’t Stop Tomorrow,” lightens the mood somewhat. It’s a swaggering tune with a raw 1950s-style Big Beat rhyme that struts into the room wearing high-heeled cowboy boots, pulls itself a pint, takes over the jukebox and settles in for a night of drinking and debauchery.
Introspection returns with “Steal Away.” “Anybody want my heart? It was broken from the start,” Rowley glowers as a slithering slide guitar line gives way to crunchy, circular chorus riff that sees her howling for “a pain to call my own.” For the final song, “Princess,” the rhythm section drops out, leaving guitar, cello and vocals to create an eerie, otherworldly atmosphere that channels Ricky Nelson after he’s just blown into this lonesome town.
When I meet Rowley on the eve of the EP’s release, I’m keen to hear about her disappearing act after Little Dreamer and how she got to Wretched Body. Fortunately she’s a charming and courteous interviewee, interested in explaining the whole story.
As it turns out, the break was completely her idea. The success of Little Dreamer, in the U.K. at least, was overwhelming. “It can quickly become something you hadn’t planned for or anticipated,” she explains: “And as soon as I felt like that, I thought, just stop, I wanted to change everything. So I pretty much changed everything; label, manager, accountant, lawyer…”
That’s quite a brave thing to do, I say. She laughs. “Well, I was just really unhappy,” she explains. “You know when you think, wow, I get to do this for my job, it’s pretty cool. The whole thing had been fun but it got to a point where I thought, ‘I’m not happy.’ ”
She had a five-album deal, and her label had gathered a group of writers for her to work with on the next record. How did the label react when she told them she wasn’t interested? “It was quite easy really. I just said no. It was like a big weight off my shoulders.”
“I was really happy, taking time out,” she adds. “I recommend it to anyone who does anything creative just to stop for a while–it makes everything clear.”
She makes it sound so straightforward and painless although, having spent time with Rowley, I’m not surprised. She has an understated determination which I imagine stood her in good stead in the turbulent world of the music industry. “I’m a bit a perfectionist too,” she admits, although she’s keen to tell me that she’s still really happy with the Little Dreamer songs.
We move on to happier subjects. After leaving the label, she moved back to Bristol–a small but cosmopolitan town in the west of the U.K. with a reputation for being a bohemian hub separate from London–where she grew up, and spent “three or four months” living with her parents, rediscovering her love of old blues and jazz music.
“My dad’s always been into really interesting music, stuff like Leadbelly, Hank Williams. It’s so raw. There are no frills. Old Woody Guthrie stuff, it’s just there. You haven’t got to get through anything, there’s no glitz. You can hear the instruments like they’re right next to you.”
Listening to this rawer, more immediate sound helped shape Rowley’s new music. She rented her own place, which gave her more room to write and experiment.
“A friend of mine bought a big house and gutted the whole thing. I was one of the first people to move in. I just set up all my equipment in one of the rooms, and every day I could go in and work. Even if I was on my way to the kitchen to make a cup of tea I could just pop in, pick up the guitar…”
Slowly, the new songs began to take shape. “I didn’t want it to sound too ‘written,’ ” she says. “I just wanted it to sound honest.” Momentum grew, but this time at a Rowley’s own pace. She started working with a group of musicians, in Bristol and in London, and, over the next couple of years hooked up with producer Will Fliske and started laying down tracks, recording in Fliske’s house in the capita–“the best way to capture things naturally,” she explained. Wretched Body and the EPs following it, were the result.
A few days later I catch Rowley live, at one of a handful of gigs she’s playing to celebrate the launch of Wretched Body. A heat wave has struck the city and the venue, the basement of a pub, is sweltering. A man hands out popsicles.
Rowley, though, is in fine form. Crammed into a corner of a room packed with fans and friends she performs a short set, ranging from the latest EP’s tracks and some older tunes, including “Forest Fire,” written with Ron Sexsmith, and “Howl at the Moon,” which she describes as “an old song which fell through the cracks.”
It’s a stripped down set, with guitar, bass and cello on some songs. With no drums, the mood is languid. The band, while accomplished, sound like they’re feeling their way on some of the newer songs. Rowley, though, is superb, her vocal range astonishing. She looks utterly at home on stage, her voice note perfect. She takes chances, too, playing with phrasing and melody lines and taking the descending coda of “Can’t Stop Tomorrow” up a whole octave, channelling Roy Orbison at his most operatic.
I’m struck by how much pain there is in the songs. I wonder if it’s a tribute to the blues music she loves or a result of the turbulent last few years. “All of the songs are autobiographical,” she tells me. “Looking back I can see those experiences [after Little Dreamer] did have a big effect on me. But I’m trying to use them as a positive thing.”
“But I do find it quite hard to write happy songs! Like, there’s one I’ve written about my brother. We’re really good mates and we have a really good relationship so it’s a happy thing, but its quite an intense song as well.”
At the show, she debuts a new song from the next EP. Called Summer Night Harvest, it has a summery, Laurel Canyon vibe, from the Neil Young-style harmonica intro through to the way the vocals hop and skip into a higher register, a la Joni Mitchell. Rowley has hinted to me that there will be a lightening of the mood on the later records, so maybe we can expect more of this.
Rowley has more U.K. dates planned for October, and, with the next two EPs due for release after that, she has plans to venture further. She’s planning shows in the U.S., in Nashville and L.A., with a mini-tour to follow.
One thing’s for certain: they won’t be arena shows. “I really want to focus on small venues,” she says. “I want to secure a foundation and building a really strong following by playing live.” Watch out world, Beth Rowley is coming. And this time she’s serious.