• Talk: Rumer
  • Ralf Würth
Talk: Rumer

To borrow a line from another hot British singer, Rumer has it. Rumer doesn’t have nearly the sales or the trophy case of her fellow single-monikered Londoner, Adele. Nevertheless, as her debut album ”Seasons of My Soul’’ gains traction in the United States after going platinum and scoring some awards in the United Kingdom, she’s feeling the pull of upward momentum. Not that she’s basking in her success at this stage.

”Sometimes it’s hard to let yourself feel happy when you’re only ever used to struggling and living in and out of poverty for years and years,” the singer/songwriter says. ”I get suspicious. I think, for the first year, it was like looking behind my shoulder going, ‘Me? You mean me? This is a mistake. What am I doing here?’ ”So I’m just getting used to it,” she says. ”I find it hard to feel joy … but I’m working on it.”

If the 32-year-old needs a jolt of optimism, she need only look at her accomplishments since ”Seasons of My Soul’’ came out in late 2010. The album reached No. 3 on the U.K. charts and was Top 10 in Belgium, the Netherlands and Norway, and launched the Top 20 single ”Slow.” Things have been moving slower in the U.S., but Rumer got a boost in February when a feature on ”CBS Sunday Morning’’ vaulted ”Seasons of My Soul’’ to No. 1 on the iTunes chart the next day. ”That felt amazing,” says Rumer, who ironically fixed iPods as one of the many day jobs she held while waiting for her big break. ”It was a huge surprise, because we came out (to the U.S.) on a little-budget tour, scrimping and saving and trying not to spend too much money and playing to lovely, lovely crowds – but small ones. ”We were just thinking it’s a mountain to climb, so having it do so well on iTunes like that felt like a leg up, certainly.”

Born Sarah Joyce, Rumer was the youngest of seven children born to a British engineer assigned to the Tarbela Dam project near Islamabad, Pakistan, but at 11 she learned that her real father had been a Pakistani man. Her parents divorced after returning to England, and she grew up in a house which her mother kept filled with music. ”Everyone played an instrument,” Rumer recalls. ”All the men on my mother’s side played instruments. We used to have a room where my brother had a drum kit, amps and guitars. I used to stand on a box and sing into a microphone while everyone played … So (music) is a part of me. It’s like a language I speak, like being bilingual. It’s just always been a part of me.”

Asked about her influences, Rumer could hold forth for hours. Her list includes performing songwriters such as Richie Havens, Leon Russell and Townes Van Zandt, but she doesn’t stop there. ”Oh yeah, I was completely crazy for all that old music, the American Songbook,” Rumer says. ”I was crazy for Judy Garland, all those old movies, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin … I absolutely loved it.” Those influences certainly can be heard in ”Seasons of My Soul,” but Rumer rejects any suggestion that she’s a throwback. ”I don’t like the idea that it’s retro,” she insists. ”I didn’t set out to make a retro album. Some of the elements of that music are in there, but in a way a lot of it was written to take people away from their troubles, let them forget about the economic depression and everything. It was like that back in (the 1930s) too. The cinema was there to give people relief and have a fantasy world where they could imagine a better place, and the music was part of it. So I took a lot of instruction on that. ”You can hear it in songs like ‘High and Slow,’ which is kind of dreamy,” Rumer says. ”I want to transport people somewhere better, somewhere beautiful.”

It took her awhile to get there, however. Rumer studied at the Darlington College of Arts and played in bands as a teenager, taking the name Sarah Prentice and having modest success with a group called La Honda. Her career was sidetracked, however, when she withdrew to care for her mother, who was dying of breast cancer. She suffered a breakdown after her mother’s death, and spent a year living in a British commune. By 2004 she was back in London with a new band, Rumer & the Denials, which recorded early versions of the ”Seasons of My Soul’’ tracks ”Slow’’ and ”Come to Me High.”

Music wasn’t paying her bills, however, and Rumer amassed a formidable list of day jobs. ”I did everything from selling advertising space, customer complaints, selling computers, drama teacher, deli counters, bars, restaurants, outside catering … you name it, I’ve done it,” she says. ”I was a chef’s assistant for awhile. I did like cooking.”

She finally started to gain ground when she caught the ear of two potent mentors: British composer Steve Brown, who helped her get a record deal and produced ”Seasons of My Soul,” and famed songwriter Burt Bacharach, who invited Rumer to California, where she recorded the EP ”Rumer Sings Bacharach at Christmas’’ (2010). If Rumer has any regrets about the reception for ”Seasons of My Soul,” it’s that its success brought her a little too much too soon back home. ”I went straight from the radio to big, big, big theaters there,” she says. ”It’s a small country with a couple of national radio stations, so, if you get a hit on the radio, everyone listens to it and there’s no chance to kind of build your way up.” By contrast, Rumer says, the smaller but building scale of her American venture has been refreshing. ”It’s nice to be able to perform to small and appreciative crowds, because I never had the opportunity to do that in the U.K.,” she says. ”I’m more comfortable hustling than I am dealing with success. I spent more years going, ‘How am I going to get somewhere with this music?,’ so there’s something familiar about it.”

Now that she has arrived, however, Rumer is ready to move forward, with not one but two albums on the docket. First up is a covers collection called ”Boys Don’t Cry’’ that, as its title indicates, features ”obscure covers from the ’70s written by men,” she says, including tunes by Stephen Bishop, Tim Harden, Richie Havens, Isaac Hayes, John Sebastian, Paul Williams and others. ”I knew it was going to take a little bit of time to write the second record,” Rumer says, ”and I didn’t want to take too long to give some more music to people. And also it was a project I was really interested in doing. I love to learn and I love to discover music. There’s nothing I love more than finding old songs and polishing them up and performing them. It’s about passion for other people’s work.” Key to the concept, she adds, was to avoid obvious choices. ”It’s a selection of songs that weren’t necessarily hits at the time but were interesting songs,” she says, ”some political, some abstract. They’re not the usual ‘I love you, you love me, you broke my heart.’ They’re more interesting than that.”

As for singing men’s songs, many written from a male perspective, Rumer insists that it was no particular challenge. ”It’s like folk music, where people just sing and don’t change the gender,” she says. ”Judy Collins would sing ‘Barbara Allen’ and stuff like that. There’s no need to change it, really.” Then there’s her true follow-up to ”Seasons of My Soul,” which Rumer hopes to get out by Summer 2013. She already has ”four or five ideas and sketches’’ for new songs, and says that the album’s title, ”Into Color,” is indicative of the new music’s direction. ”It’s going to be a singer/songwriter album,” she says. ”It’ll still be warm and fuzzy, but, if ‘Seasons of My Soul’ is blue, ‘Into Color’ is going to be yellow – sunnier, more hopeful, happier. ”I tend to struggle with happiness and letting myself feel happy,” Rumer says. ”I can express a thousand shades of worry, but I can’t express joy. It’s really weird. So this is going to be a search for that, and by the end of the album I will hope to have found it.” 

  • Ralf Würth