In a spectacularly short time, Rumer has come to command respect from the music-loving public and from the world of music itself. A naturally gifted talent, Rumer watched her first single, Slow, bag copious radio air-play and debut album, Seasons Of My Soul go platinum just months after signing to Atlantic Records. So on Saturday (2 April), when Rumer plays the Liverpool Philharmonic for the final date of her UK tour, it’s no surprise to learn that fans have hijacked every last ticket.
Rumer and I go back a few years. I was lapping up her soulful, heartfelt music earlier than Elton John and Leon Russell (whom she sang with last year), before Burt Bacharach flew her out to California and ahead of all the music nominations and festival appearances. Oh, and before John Prescott blogged about her in The Guardian.
In fact, I’m breaking a crucial feature writing rule by mentioning myself at all. But it’s hard not to when you like sharing coincidences.
It was 2009 and it was a strange, triangular coincidence involving social media and two friends – both managers – and one was Rumer’s manager at the time. It was one of those ‘moments’ that we all experience on lesser or greater levels where a chance question and answer can spark a series of unforeseen events. In this case, it introduced Rumer and her (then) manager to her current manager, Kwame Kwaten (at ATC) who went on to negotiate one of the biggest UK signings of 2010.
Before Kwame threw out his question on Facebook, (“Who is the most talented unsigned act in the UK?”), I’d been listening to – and championing – Rumer because t’other friend had appointed me as ‘old grey whistle test’. He’d send me Rumer’s material the old-fashioned (and somehow, right) way: in the post, on CD. Her talent shone out, the production was unbelievable for an unsigned artist and I knew – as you do when you just know-know something – she’d get signed one day. Why? Because hours after I’d switched them off, I was still whistling Blackbird and Aretha and warbling Come To Me High and I never once tired of Thankful.
Occasionally, I’d tout her to friends who loved music too, which always prompted rallies of great compliments and another friend of mine who’s head of A&R at a label still rues the day he said ‘she’s not right for me’. But back to Facebook. Neil Conti and I were at least two people who answered “Rumer” and shared a few (probably early fan type) words and links. And I think it’s enough to say at this point … and the rest is history.
So this is why Rumer answers the phone as excitedly as I feel saying, “Hey, I’ve heard so much about you,” which is a nice thing to hear – all things considered. And then we marvel at the strangeness of it all, over-use the words ‘coincidence’ and ‘timing’ and lose all track of time but there’s just enough left to ask …
During the times you were unsigned, how confident were you that you had what it took to be where you are now?
I was pretty confident. I had no choice. But I’m more confident now than I was. It’s interesting that when there’s a ‘potential’ in the offing you can afford to be really confident because you don’t know what it’s all about really. It’s only when you’re actually doing it that you realise how hard it is. I think I always felt strongly enough to pursue singing because I was funding it by doing loads of different jobs. At one point, I was working in the Apple store in Regent Street, I worked in a hotel as a chambermaid, at a deli, I was a hairdresser once and the list goes on. So that probably tells you how confident I was.
How did you feel when you were finally signed?
It was weird. I actually felt really eerily calm. Before the deal and everything was done I just stayed in bed for about three days – I just thought that was the best place for me to be. I kept a low profile and let the manager do it all. I didn’t want to really acknowledge anything until the ink arrived! I think it had all taken such a long time to come and there’d been so many near misses that I was a bit ‘I’ll believe when I see it’.
[When Rumer was much younger, she learnt that her biological father had not been the man she’d been brought up to call dad. In fact, it had been a Pakistani cook who had worked with the family when she and her six brothers and sisters, mother and father lived in Islamabad.]
I’m interested in your experience of finding out that your biological father was who he was, how this has affected your sense of identity and does this find its way into any of your songs?
I didn’t ever get to actually meet my father because when I’d gone back over to Pakistan to meet him he’d died a month earlier. It was really terrible, unbelievably sad. Obviously, I would have loved to have met him. I believe that my longing, that missing, the gap that is my father is what the music is there to fill. And perhaps the music is trying to fill the gap with an identity – I am trying to find an identity. Maybe that’s why I changed my name to Rumer [her original name is Sarah]; it’s a search for some identity. And it’s a mysterious name and it’s got an eastern vibe and a mystical quality about it, I think. On My Way Home is a song that has a lot to do with my biological father.
From a young age, Rumer was brought up in Pakistan where her mother and (step-)father created a creative environment, which had no TV or media but did have lots of music and room for self-expression. As she says in her website’s biog notes: “Our universe wasn’t defined by anything other than ourselves.”
How significant was the creative upbringing you had in growing that talent – would you have been as creative without?
My parents had been living in remote parts of the world since 1963. I’m the youngest of six brothers and sisters so they especially had had incredible experiences of the world by the time I came along. I mean really ‘out-there’ kind of experiences. They lived in the outback in Australia and experienced military coups in other countries, seen animal sacrifices in Africa so we’re an unusual family and as a result, we created an unusual atmosphere, which made you feel inventive. I’ve never accepted society as it is. If I don’t like it I’ll change it. I think my upbringing has taught me that you can change environment, that there are very different ways of living. I lived in a hippy commune for a bit, [where she wrote Blackbird] which was great and sometimes, I miss that but on the other hand, I don’t want to be institutionalised and every community has that capacity.
Which instruments do you play?
Guitar and bongo.
How do you approach songwriting?
Environment is very important to me – bit like painting, bit like getting a concept you have to find an emotional atmosphere then put the words and the pictures and thoughts together and refine it. It’s gathering the information to bring it to life and then improvise with that in both mind in heart and then you can start the process of refinement – watching something emerge, allowing something to come through.
You’ve now worked with, and met some, outstanding international talents like Burt Bacharach, Elton John and Leon Russell, Jamie Callum and Carly Simon. Out of everyone you’ve met thus far who’s been the most inspiring and how did it feel to meet heroes?
Yes, I’ve been incredibly lucky to have met some interesting people. It was a shock to learn that Burt Bacharach wanted to meet me – I’d only just got signed! He’s quite abrupt in a business-like way. He’s an old man now and it’s like he hasn’t got time to mess around; it’s all about the music and still so much to do. There’s a sense of urgency about his life, a sense of an 82-year-old man with a young man’s soul who is so driven and so full of music you can watch him get irritated by this old man’s body slowing down like it’s really inconvenient. I worked with Burt on a project when he gave me some songs to learn. It’s called Rumer sings Bacharach at Christmas, and you can see bits of it on the youtube site. I’m always happy to meet another human being but I’m not impressed unless there’s reason to be; I don’t feel like that they’re necessarily any more interesting than someone who’s cleaning the streets.
I Love You Porgy or That’s All, [which was first sung by Nat King Cole in 1953 and is part of the Great American Songbook].
Rumer, 2 April
Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool