I feel lucky to be alive says Ipswich-bound singer Rumer
Singer Rumer talks the pressures of fame, how she feels lucky to be alive and why she’s been compared to Peter Sellers with entertainments writer WAYNE SAVAGE
She’s been compared to Carole King, Karen Carpenter, Peter Sellers. Hang on...
“Yes,” she laughs.
“Someone told me I was like Peter Sellers because they’d seen me in three different outlets in one day. I just popped up all over South London, doing every job you could possibly imagine [to support her music]- waitress, barmaid, deli girl, hotel chambermaid, popcorn seller, teacher, promoter, hairdresser and I worked in the Apple store on Regent Street, where I diagnosed broken iPods.”
It must be weird to think her debut album is probably on a lot of MP3 players now.
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“I know. I was in there the other day buying some headphones and chatting to a member of staff. I said ‘how’s the shift going’? He was ‘yeah, two hours to go or whatever’ and I was ‘I’ve been there’. I said to him ‘people do escape, you know,” she laughs.
The 32-year-old spent her early years in Pakistan where her father was the chief-engineer involved in the construction of the enormous Tarbela Dam near Islamabad; a job that also took them to the Western Australian outback, Tasmania and South Africa.
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The youngest of seven children, they found themselves living in an expat colony with no TV or newspapers. It provided Rumer with her first taste of music.
Her family were “quite churchy, but in a mellow, 70s sort of way”. She, her brothers and sisters would often sing and write songs for entertainment. It was brother Rob who gave her her first guitar which she taught herself to play and on which, years later, she wrote all the songs for Seasons of My Soul.
Life took a dramatic change when the family moved to the New Forest.
Feeling adrift at school, disconnected from the new society she found herself in, Rumer found solace and musical inspiration in old films on TV, watching Judy Garland on repeat.
It wasn’t long after the family’s return to England that her parents split up.
Aged 11 she learnt her biological father was actually the family’s Pakistani cook with whom her mother, a linguist, had struck up a relationship.
“My mum and my biological father couldn’t have been more different,” Rumer says. “My mother was this well-educated and beautiful, fair-haired English woman. This quite old man was working to support his own family in a mountain village; but they had a connection. My dad was very noble about it. He didn’t treat me any differently though, yes, it has been very painful for everyone.”
Leaving school at 16 she drifted more, studying at Art College in Devon; then joining fledgling indie rock band La Honda. They got airplay on Radio 1 and support from NME.
Then her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Rumer moved back to the New Forest to be near her, renting a caravan in a wreckers yard surrounded by old fridges and furniture; supporting herself by putting on bands at local venues, teaching drama at a local college despite a lack of qualifications and briefly working for the Arts Council.
Growing closer and beginning to finally understand her mother, she starting writing her own songs, saying: “I went back to my roots in that caravan.”
When her mother died in 2003 Rumer hit rock bottom.
On the dole and back in London, she travelled to a stately home in the countryside where she lived as part of a commune owned by a “charismatic, philanthropic baronet”.
“I washed dishes, cooked and made the beds. The place was full of fascinating people who for one reason or another had fallen out of society,” she says.
An attempt, perhaps, to recreate the sense of freedom lacking in her life since her childhood in Pakistan, Rumer needed to get out of society.
“Society... doesn’t work if you’re grieving and you stop functioning; it doesn’t support you. If you’re mentally ill or grieving and you’re trying to pay the rent, the bills, trying to get up, it became overwhelming. I had to stop and find a way of surviving and what I did was I found a place where I could go and just earn my keep.”
It was there she wrote many songs including Blackbird, in part about coming to the realisation she was strong enough to return to the “real” world.
“I remember sitting on the stairs and saying to my friend Fiona ‘we’ve got to get out of here’. It just all gets a bit too much after a while. You can only go so far or you’ll become institutionalised.
“Blackbird was the turning point. It’s about a lot of things, but mainly about being addicted to sorrow. It gave me the courage to go back to London and really try to go somewhere with my music.”
Performing anywhere and everywhere she could, Rumer continued to hone her talents in the face of constant rejection, “you have to be tough; you see a lot of amazing musicians quit, because you have to sacrifice.”
Her luck changed when she met award-winning TV and musical composer Steve Brown, who’s written songs for Harry Hill and featured in the Alan Partridge TV show Knowing Me, Knowing You as band leader Glenn Ponder.
Reluctantly watching a gig at the Cobden Club in Kensal Rise where his bass player son was performing with his band he saw a nervous girl and her guitar and feared the worst. Ten seconds later he was mesmerised, quickly becoming her producer.
In early 2010, word-of-mouth began to pay off. She was found by her manager after he posted the question “Who Is The Most Underrated Person You Know?” on Facebook.
Five separate people, none of whom knew each other, replied with the word Rumer and she finally signed to Atlantic Records.
Amazing as the last few months have been, she still can’t believe she’s made it, but she’s open about the down-sides.
“[I feel] lucky to be alive, it nearly killed me I’ll be honest with you,” she says. “The pressure followed by trying to create art. Taking control, the way everything is communicated to the public. To micro manage that entire process...”
Then’s there the constant travelling, long hours and all the other cogs of the music industry machine that sees artists as commodities.
It left her feeling isolated for a while.
“For months I couldn’t even feel the rain on my face. I stood on a train with two strangers either side of me or waited at a bus stop idly with strangers. I need to feel a part of life for my own survival.”
Rumer feels more part of the world now, “I think I’ve given the machine the slip now. I’m just not going to break myself to make everybody happy any more, I can’t cope with it.”
If she could go back in time, talk to her childhood self, what would she say?
“I’d probably say you don’t have to tell everybody everything. You don’t have to share everything.”
Curious given how open she’s been during our chat.
“I never wanted to be one of these people who only gave a certain amount of information but you become like that,” she sighs.
Does she find being in the spotlight tougher?
“I’m not really in the spotlight am I,” she asks.
“There’s a celebrity culture which I’m not a part of. I’m not concerned with what’s musically popular or fashionable. All I wanted was to make something of quality that would stand the test of time, that people could come back to and that was rooted in authenticity. Because that’s the kind of music I listen to.”
Rumer comes to the Regent Theatre, Ipswich, on November 16.