Where is Rumer? There must be eight or nine people in the dressing room of Manchester’s Band On The Wall – but, even with the benefit of YouTube footage, record sleeves and photographs, it takes a few seconds to identify the pop star. And when you do – how to put this, exactly – she doesn’t look like a pop star. The aura of disconnectedness given off by most lead singers and solo artists simply hasn’t found her. There isn’t a hint of tortured genius about her demeanour. If you didn’t know any better, you’d say that the dark-haired 31 year-old with a baggy jumper is the tour manager, or perhaps the PR. Pop stars don’t ask about the t-shirt sales of last night’s show whilst efficiently deleting emails from their iPhones. “Are you the guy who reviewed the record for The Guardian?” she asks. I tell her that was Alexis Petridis and she tells me that she sent him a thank you note after she read it. Which, of course, is another thing pop stars never do. You would think, also, that having seen her debut album Seasons Of My Soul go platinum since its release in November, Rumer would be over asking people what they thought of it. For a second, I’m thrown by the directness of the question. “It sounds like an album of standards,” I reply. “Oh,” she says, in a just-checking sort of way. “I haven’t heard it since it was mastered.” At that moment, her steam bath beeps and she leans her face into it. How to find a point of intersection between the gauzy, sun-dappled languor of her maiden hit Slow and the amiable fussbudget tendencies of the woman who wrote it?
Half an hour later, she ambles onto the small stage and sings her own songs – Take Me As I Am, Slow and Aretha – in a voice that sounds richer, warmer, more coloured by vulnerability than the one you can hear on Seasons Of My Soul. When Hal David asked Sandie Shaw if she would sing Always Something There To Remind Me for his 90th birthday celebrations, Shaw suggested Rumer do it instead. “She does the best Alfie,” the older singer said – a claim borne out at The Band On The Wall. Rumer’s Alfie is all about emotional control. She sings it like a one-woman Greek chorus powerless to save the subject of the song from himself. Then, to top it off: Laura Nyro’s Stoned Soul Picnic. You’d have to be, at best, naive to tackle these songs if you didn’t know how good you were.
But, of course, to know anything about Rumer’s life is to know that naivety would have been flushed out of it way back when she was still called Sarah Joyce. Her family was still living in Eastern Pakistan when, out of the blue, her mother took her to one side, away from her six brothers and sisters, and told her that her father – an engineer for the nearby Tarbela Dam project – was not her biological father. Her “real” father was, in fact, the family cook. It was her second emotional upheaval in a few months. That same year, her parents separated and her sister Cathy left the family home along with her father. Rumer talks about the effect of her sister’s departure and the “mental health issues” which tormented her mother and, much later, helped inspire Aretha. “Cathy’s way of dealing with my mother’s problems was to effectively raise me. I didn’t even know how to tie my shoelaces [when she left]. I understand now that Cathy had to save herself. But, no, I didn’t understand it then.”
It’s hard to gauge exactly what effect such these changes might have on an eleven year-old. But, on Take Me As I Am the achingly reconciled delivery of lines such as “Don’t tell me it’s alright/It’ll never be alright” offers a clue. Three weeks after Manchester, at a pub near her Brixton flat, Rumer paints a vivid before-and-after picture. “When I was five, I used to sing Judy Garland songs,” she recalls, “Neil from The Young Ones was the other one I’d do. My parents used to give me a new middle name every time I did something funny. So my full name is Sarah Josephine Ignatius Trouble Small Crybaby Pain-In-The-Neck Hard-Time Movie-Star Neil Joyce.”
And after she found out who her father was? What happened then? Very little, in fact. Which, for Rumer, added to her psychic burden. “If you told a child that information, would you just pretend it never happened?” Did she ever find out why her mother chose not to mention it again? “I think she was so freaked out and embarrassed. She thought she’d just get it out. Just dumped it on me, really.” And because her mother felt ashamed, it didn’t occur to Rumer to feel anything other than ashamed. Three years elapsed before she confided her secret to her siblings. In that time, she decided that “the world was not a safe place to live in, that adults were not to be trusted. I became a control freak.”
This afternoon, that control-freakery manifests itself in sweet ways. Rumer is hungry, but she doesn’t want to be the only one ordering, so she orders bangers and mash for me as well. Until recently, she lived with her boyfriend Sam – nephew of Steve Winwood – but they recently reverted to separate flats. “I find it hard to receive love,” she admits, “I’m either totally hands-on or I go limp.” Ten years ago, shortly after moving to London, following a spell with her father in Carlisle, she fronted indie quartet La Honda. It must have been hard, I say, for a self-styled control freak to sing for a band in which she had no songwriting input. “Every time I suggested a lyric,” she remembers, “the main songwriter would laugh.” What finally did for La Honda though, was the dissolution of Rumer’s tempestuous relationship with boyfriend and drummer Dave Roberts. Having just returned from a holiday in Italy, Rumer tried to assert her independence by dedicating a song to an Italian man she had met there. Roberts retaliated by throwing Rumer’s shoes out of the window – “and everything else he could lay his hands on. So, I flew at him. The pub then erupted. Chairs flew and the venue chucked us out. That was how it ended.”
In 2002, Rumer learned that her mother – now remarried and living near the New Forest – was in the advanced stages of breast cancer. In the months preceding her death, the singer decamped to a nearby wreckers yard and lived in a caravan. The circumstances of Rumer’s birth, for so long the elephant in the room, finally became a matter of grave urgency for Margaret Joyce. “She said, ‘I want you to go to Pakistan and find him before I die. I need to leave this planet with my house in order.” As last requests go, this was more challenging than most. The family of Rumer’s biological father were located in the mountainous and, in some places, lawless northwest frontier of Pakistan, close to the Afghanistan border. Accompanied by her former boyfriend Roberts, she embarked on the hazardous trek: “I went all the way up to this mountain village, checked into this hotel. So, once I’m there, I order a cup of tea. The waiter comes over and I show him a photograph. He takes it off me and says, ‘That’s my father. He died three months ago.’”
She pauses for a second. “In my head, I have lots of things stored away in boxes. Normally I’m brave – I can go back and look – but I definitely think I’ve put that one in the box and thrown away the key. There I was, visiting what was actually a grieving widow and their children, who were totally fucked, financially, without him.” Rumer didn’t divulge the precise reason she was there. “I didn’t say anything to the family, because it was unnecessary and, also, I wasn’t sure of how, culturally, that would be received. When I arrived with gifts and money, they said that Allah had sent me, and I just left it at that.”
In fact, only a few months separated the deaths of Rumer’s biological parents. After her mother’s funeral, Rumer returned to Brixton with, among other things, a reading list left by her mother. From that list – which featured the author Rumer Godden – she chose her new name. When her grief caught up with her, it happened suddenly in what, even by her standards, must count as one of the most surreal mornings of her life. Working through her shift at a Brixton café, she intervened when “a slightly out-of-it woman dressed to the nines in a wig” approached a nearby mother and told her she should have her child taken away from her because her dress was too short. “At that point,” recalls Rumer, “the woman in the wig turned to me and said, ‘YOU are nothing but a DIRTY waitress.’ Then she hit me clean across the face. The police came. I told my boss to fuck off because he said I shouldn’t get involved. Then I left.”
And that was that? “Well no, actually,” she says. “It gets better. I get on the next bus, and behind me, there’s this Polish girl and an African man having an argument. He’d been on his phone, and she had turned around and told him to be quiet. Then some kids in hoodies from the back of the bus get involved. One of them tries to nick her phone. So basically, there’s a scrap going on. Which is when I actually get up and say the stupidest thing I’ve ever said.” Rumer puts her head in her hands. The movement of her shoulders suggests she might be crying. In fact, it’s mortified guffawing. “I actually stood up and said, ‘CAN EVERYONE SHUT UP? BECAUSE I AM THE ANGRIEST PERSON ON THIS BUS.’ There was just this stunned laughter.”
A few days later, Rumer found herself at another funeral – a friend of the family – and found that she simply “couldn’t get home.” Months before her death, her mother had attended a gathering in Dorset run by a Benedictine monk who had started a Hindu-Christian Ashram in India. For reasons she didn’t entirely understand, Rumer boarded a train to the country pile where her mother had been – a commune owned by a “charismatic, philanthropic baronet” – and simply stayed until she felt well enough to leave.
“In my grief, I blossomed creatively” she told Mojo magazine a few months ago. A fellow resident at the retreat, Monique Ennis, remembers that blossoming. Possibly the most direct song about her mother’s death, Blackbird was written here – as was Aretha. “She’d have her jeans on and her hoody and a body warmer, smoking a roll-up,” recalls Ennis, “She was happy [working] in the kitchen. She would play obscure soul songs, Neil Diamond, 5th Dimension. I remember her singing Blackbird. Then when she sang Aretha to me, I remember saying, ‘Are you sure you wrote that?’”
Despite his co-write on Aretha, Steve Brown echoes Ennis’s words. “I added some chords to it, but that was it. She offered me publishing on the song. I refused twice before finally relenting.” Brown’s role in Rumer’s story is well-documented elsewhere. He describes himself as a “TV whore”. He has spent decades composing music for several comedy shows, including Steve Coogan’s Knowing Me Knowing You, in which he played bandleader Glen Ponder. It was Brown’s serendipitous encounter with the singer (he was there to see his son’s band) at a Kensal Rise open mic night that ultimately resulted in Seasons Of My Soul. Between working as a concierge at the newly-opened Apple Store, Rumer would be allowed to use his studio. Brown became her de facto producer. “Her ex-manager wasn’t keen on us working together,” recalls 56 year-old Brown. “I can see why. On paper, it doesn’t look promising.” Nevertheless, by the time they had finished Seasons Of My Soul – using session musicians paid for by Brown, Rumer had sacked her manager.
Some records attract critical acclaim but fail to sell. Others connect with the public, whilst attracting sniffy notices from critics. When Seasons Of Soul appeared, the nervous subtext of the reviews was impossible to miss. Rumer’s sound was so rooted in another era; so bereft of contemporary “edge” that it felt wrong to love it so much. “Usually, when singers take on MOR they feel a need to mask its accessibility,” fretted The Times, while the Independent On Sunday critic uneasily concluded that “the Rise of Rumer is one of those moments when we need to get over ourselves [and] do the walk of shame with heads held high.” Even an 800 word endorsement from John Prescott in The Guardian did nothing to detract from the fact Rumer had put together an album of songs you felt like you had known your whole life. Steve Brown compares her songwriting to Tim Hardin, inasmuch as “the songs were structured intuitively [with] this sense of having pulled a melody out of thin air.”
So why did Rumer’s deal with Atlantic – for an album that she and Brown had already recorded – only happen after every other major label had passed on it? “[Other labels] didn’t think I’m pretty enough. What kinds of things did they say? Well, y’know… you’re too fat…”
Is she surmising, or did someone literally say that? “”Yeah. Or the other thing was, ‘You’re not stylish.’”
She’s as stylish as she needs to be, of course. As “stylish” as her heroines Judee Sill and Laura Nyro were when they took their first steps into the music industry. And, if Radiohead and Coldplay’s first press shots are anything to go by, a lot more stylish than those groups were when they secured their deals. If nothing else, though, the rejections that stretch out over a 11-year pursuit of a recording contract account for the hard-headed pragmatism that sits so contrary to her music. Having hustled her way to this position, she sees no reason to stop. Her attention to detail is striking. At her insistence, the vinyl sleeve of Seasons of my Soul features different artwork to the CD. “My label think I’m a nightmare, because I’m constantly on their case about things like that.”
But then, she adds, the good thing is that I’m low-maintenance. I A&R’d myself. And every album I make will work out of the box.” Including, she hopes, her next one – a project called Boys Don’t Cry, which gathers together songs by male singer-songwriters, among them Tim Hardin, Richie Havens and The Band. Does she feel like she has arrived finally? Being nominated for Best British Female Singer at the Brits – despite the album coming out on the eve of nominations – that must have been a watershed, surely? “There’s no feeling of arrival,” she ponders. “It’s just nice to be recognised for doing something well.” One thing she is able to do more often these days is send money to her relatives in Pakistan. Do they know what she does? She smiles and shakes her head. “A couple of years ago, I told them I had a job, but it wasn’t so good. Now I’ve told them I have a good job. And they’re happy for me.”