Interview: Rookes

"Over the years, I’ve developed an understanding of the power of permission-giving; of telling your story in all its rawness to show other people that it’s okay for them to share the weight of their stories and experiences."

We first encountered Rookes back in May playing at a Get In Her Ears show and all three of us were completely blown away. In the wake of that we got in touch straight away to book them to open the inaugural Spectrum Gigs show in July that we were planning at the time. We have been keeping a close eye on their progress ever since and on November 8th they released their second EP, Liminal, following up 2017’s The Game & The River, which they ‘launched’ a few days later at a joyous show at The Glory in Dalston. Now the dust has settled a little on all of that activity, we popped them a few questions to find out a bit more about what makes Rookes tick.

(((o))): First off, give us a bit of background. What is Rookes about?

Rookes started off as a solo project to house the new songs I was making after my band broke up and my first queer love story broke down. It was meant to be melancholic and gothic and a bit angry, but obviously it’s evolved as I have grown as an artist and producer.

(((o))): What’s your musical history? How did you end up doing what you are now?

My musical history starts with my parent’s taste in music, as it does with many of us. I sang with my parents onstage as a kid, but as I became a teenager I didn’t really get on well with my music teachers, so everything I learned I was taught by friends and family or learned by myself. I got drawn into leading the music in church services as a teenager too which I then led to my leading a house band while at university. It really snowballed from there.

I’d been into lots of singer-songwriters before then, but the musicians I met at university introduced me to a wide plethora of ‘band music’ – Muse, Foals, Fleetwood Mac, Arcade Fire. I became more adept in how to arrange music for multiple instruments – pulling tracks apart by ear and sourcing transpositions for the band. I had begun to get a grasp of what I was capable of, so by the time I left university I was starting to put my own little folk band together and we worked together for two years. Then that project disbanded and Rookes began.

(((o))): Your fabulous voice is very much centre stage in your music. How did you discover you can sing like that & have you had any formal training?

Singing is really the only thing I’ve had formal training in. I started singing with an opera company my parents were a part of at 10 years old. At home I was watching Puccini’s La Boheme on VHS and following Gilbert and Sullivan scores. I loved those operatic voices – it’s how my mother sings even now in her sixties.

I discovered the power in my voice in a choir rehearsal aged about 13 at school. I starting lifting my soft palette and opening up my voice in the way I had been watching my mother do for years, and it worked. It was loud. My choir-teacher stopped playing mid song and stared at me: “Where did you learn to sing like that?” How could I explain to her that watching these huge-voiced women for years had shown me what to do? I was just imitating what I saw. I can’t even remember what I said at the time, I was so flustered by the sudden attention. And after that teacher left my school when I was 14, I didn’t return to vocal training until I was 18 and I was training in community theatre. That was when I first started to really learn how to get my breathing organised so I could sing several nights in a row without tiring my voice out. But by then I wanted to sound like the pop stars I heard on the radio, and I knew I didn’t, so that was confusing. I didn’t break out of that insecurity until much later.

(((o))): I have read elsewhere that you are synesthetic, and indeed you see sound not just as colour but shapes, which is less common. I get the same thing & would be interested to know more about this & how it manifests in your music?

Oh that’s cool – congrats on also having this neurodiversity, it’s kind of a superpower!

It used to distract the hell out of me growing up which was confusing, as I didn’t know what it was, but my brain has learned how to compartmentalise it now. Production-wise it’s all over my music – as I build the song, I’m always just filling a frame with shapes. If the picture looks balanced, the track usually is too. I know a number of synaethesiates now and it’s always fascinating to compare notes, because the colours and shapes vary from brain to brain, but there can be a lot of affecting factors – like instrument, tone, key etc. – that dictate the shape of the music visually. I’ve discovered that visual memory also plays a part in listening to music – if I hear a song performed live, and then listen to the record again after, the colours and shapes may well be different, often affected by my recall of the coloured gels used in the lightshow. These new sensory associations often mean I will never ‘see’ the song the same way again!

(((o))): You are forging your way as a solo artist. Do you think that gives you any advantages or disadvantages over being in a band?

It’s a mixed bag. Pros: logistics – I don’t have to coordinate schedules for rehearsals and gigs which is practically very handy, I don’t have to split the gig fee with bandmates. I’ve learned to trust my instincts more because I don’t have a group of people to be my sounding board on every decision any more. I don’t have to deal with protecting egos in the same way. It forces me to grow and expand my skill-sets.

Cons: I miss band chemistry – it can get lonely. If I make a mistake onstage, there’s no-one to cover me. Sometimes promoters think they can overlook paying me because it’s just me rather than a gang of us. I have to be more careful for my personal safety on tour.

(((o))): There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes of being an artist, particularly if they’re independent. How do you juggle everything that needs doing? Is there a ‘Team Rookes’ you want to give a shout out to?

There is now! Realistically there is a butt-load that people don’t realise needs doing around every event and every release.

Most of my life is admin rather than making or performing music – which is not why anyone gets into music, believe me, but it has to be done. Independent artists have to hustle and there is a lot of etiquette and mythology around it that no one clues you into before you begin. I wrote a talk about it a while ago and took it around a bunch of music conferences – I plan to serialise it for YouTube soon.

But as for Team Rookes – I now have my core team, consisting of my manager Chris and booking assistant Keziah. Then there’s the extended team – sometime second assistant, Kat, our distribution team at CD Baby, and an extended group of friends, collaborators and fans – including my Patreon supporters. They are all Team Rookes too. It takes a lot to keep the machine moving forward these days.

(((o))): The music industry historically has not been a wholly welcoming environment for non white cis male artists, especially solo ones. How has your experience of ‘the business’ been so far & do you think it is improving?

I think you’re being a little generous there – I would say the industry is structurally hostile towards folks who do not identify as cis, white, straight and male.

Speaking for my own experience, it has been 50% atrocious and 50% delicious, which is enough good to keep me doing music at all. I was lucky to meet a few very good people early in my professional career (shoutout to my original ‘Yoda’s Ben Parker and Jimmy Sims) who encouraged me enormously, but the casual micro-aggressions as well as openly insulting behaviour intersectional artists face on the regular is truly boggling when they start to talk about it.

And they should talk about it, because it needs to change. Change is coming slowly, and intersectional folks in the industry are finding each other through the miracle of the internet. We are banding together to create better labels, networks, events and eco-systems for ourselves to thrive in – which is where the most exciting music is emerging from, in my opinion.

(((o))): I am fascinated by your live set up & the technology you’re are using. Can you talk us through that a little bit?

At the moment we have a Novation Launchpad connected to the compatible app on my iPad, which allows me to trigger samples I have designed and create bigger live arrangements. I also connect my ROLI Lightpad to NOISE on the iPad via Bluetooth to create a tiny, portable synth which is my latest favourite thing. I also have my BOSS RC1 Looper, mics by Shure, and my Fender Telecaster.

(((o))): Do you use the same set up in the studio to write or do you have to adapt things for the live show?

A bit of both. These days if I love the song I’m demoing, I want to take it onstage straight away to see how an audience might respond to it – finding out how to make it stage-worthy is half the fun. Then I adapt the arrangement to make it more playable until I have an arrangement that works onstage, and this then the core of what will inform the final track in the studio.

(((o))): Liminal has been out for a few weeks now & from what I have seen it has been very well received. How’s that been?

Well, the music video for the track ‘Liminal’ has been out for a few weeks, but from today the record has only been out for 10 days. Nonetheless, I am very pleased with the general feedback so far. The vibe among everyone has been pretty joyful, which is what I hoped the record might inspire. It’s a record about discovery. Additionally a couple of my heroes contacted me to express they were proud of me and loving the things I’d made which really was tremendous and very much needed, because this record took such a long time to get off the ground.

(((o))): Most of your songs seem to come from a very personal place of lived experience. Is it hard to write like that & throw those experiences out in to the world?

Not for me. I am able to separate myself now performing the songs from the headspace in which I wrote the songs. I have always been what my mother calls “an external processer” – I process my experiences and draw lessons from them by talking, singing, writing, creating. I don’t internalise very well.

I am also someone who is deeply driven by honesty. Over the years, I’ve developed an understanding of the power of permission-giving; of telling your story in all its rawness to show other people that it’s okay for them to share the weight of their stories and experiences. This is super important in terms of preventing isolation. A lot of the choices we make in life are driven by the desire to be heard and understood.

(((o))): The word Liminal is used to describe the act of passing from one state to another or occupying a position on both sides of a threshold. What does it mean to you & why did you pick it to be the title of the song / EP?

It means to me pretty much what you have described. In the context of the EP I was interested in exploring in-between spaces in romantic relationships when you’re on the cusp of something and the status of things between you are not yet established. Every single one of the songs on the record reflects a different flavour of that idea, just in four different situations. That’s the reason I chose ‘Liminal’ as the title – it ties it all together.

(((o))): You launched your EP with a show at The Glory in Dalston, and it was obvious that the venue was a special place to you. How important is it for an artist like yourself to have spaces like that to play?

It’s not just important, it is essential. I mentioned earlier that intersectional people in the music industry – and the entertainment industry at large – were creating our own eco-systems to make great work, and you can’t do that if you can’t find spaces that will physically accommodate you while you develop the work and share it.

Since the first day I walked in, it was clear to me that The Glory has been brilliant at championing intersectional talent – long may she reign!

(((o))): You seem to do a lot of work advocating for better mental health in the music industry, something very close to our hearts too. Why is that so important to you & how did you get involved?

I came to the industry a little later than most people do, having been seeking support for my mental health for ten years prior. Not long after I started working as a musician, it dawned on me that the music industry is not regulated a great deal, and in terms of internal culture does not generally have an ethos that lends itself well to mental and physical health. There are high levels of unprofessionalism. People – across all kinds of roles – are often treated like they are disposable or replaceable, are overworked, underpaid (if at all), bullied, sometimes abused. All these factors, compounded by the baggage people bring with them into the music industry anyway, are a melting pot for poor mental and physical health, so we need to have conversations around that and decide how best to change the culture inside the music industry to facilitate better health in these areas. I’ve been privileged to work alongside Music Support in various capacities since 2016, which is an organisation well worth a Google, to help get those conversations moving.

(((o))): Finally, now the EP is done & out in the world, what’s next for Rookes?

I am playing tour dates in Berlin (22/11), Birmingham (01/12) and Manchester (02/12) – you can get tickets and details from https://www.musicglue.com/iamrookes/events.

There will also be MORE treats for your eyes and ears over the next two months around this record. I’m already half way through writing the next record (writing never stops really) which I plan to be an LP, so that’s exciting, plus some collaborations and exclusive ongoing projects with my Patreon support group. Anyone can be a part of that group by the way, you just have to hit up https://www.patreon.com/iamrookes.

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