Welcome to The Psychedelic Urban Circus: An interview with Ruby Confue and Stuart Rowe. (Interview by Dave Franklin)

11140339_920636837987503_8859784934580415496_nWith the imminent arrival of the video for Baby 126, I joined Ruby Confue and producer Stu Rowe at the Lighterthief Bunker to discuss the first single from the record label. Long term musical collaborator Ian “Cinzano” Taylor made the tea.

Dancing About Architecture: So let’s just start at the beginning, I believe that there is a connection between Stu and Ruby that goes further back than your current musical collaboration?

Stu Rowe: And Cinzano as well, there is an odd connection. When I started working as Lighterthief it was me and Cinzano and a guy called Ali, who I’d met through playing guitar, I’d known him for years and the three of us did some tracks together, The Trumpet Player and Cold Calling, Ruby is his granddaughter.

DAA: So bringing that up to date how did you musically meet and end up in the studio together?

Ruby Confue: I did a soul/house track with a guy that I went to University with where I was studying acting, a track called Don’t You Forget, he wrote the lyrics, I sang on it and Stu heard it.

SR: I was round at Ruby’s grandparents (this makes me sound really old) at Christmas and they played it and I thought it was really good, it had melodic twists that I liked, I kept saying play that again, so I messaged Ruby the next day. I didn’t plan any of this I was just trying to find new singers to work with; when I hear someone interesting I always ask them because you just don’t know how things are going to turn out.

DAA: So you just broached the question?

SR: I just said do you fancy coming down, that was February 14th

RC: Yes, Valentines Day

11205959_920616171322903_4269455535434478719_nSR: Before that Cinzano and me had put a backing track together and then the rest of the song was written in a couple of hours.

DAA: Specifically for this session?

RC: The guys had asked me for some references and the one that the guys picked up on was a band called Hiatus Kaiyote, from Australia, and particularly the track Nakamarra.

SR: Our track was really nothing like it but it provided a starting point and we used some of the same elements, jazzy chords, Rhodes and a bit of hip-hop and it just came together really easily. So we had the chorus but we needed a verse and Ruby had the idea of putting the Shakespeare section in.

DAA: Which is a very novel idea, where did it come from?

RC: The Shakespeare sonnet I’ve been performing as a rap/spoken word piece for two or three years now, really just as a party piece and it was inspired by a seminar held by Akala. He’s awesome, I got to meet him and he introduced me to a way of approaching Shakespeare at a time when I was struggling with the classical texts that were part of my acting course. Akala is Ms. Dynamite’s little brother and he’s an activist, journalist, historian as well as poet and rapper, he’s a really interesting guy. So in this seminar he performed a Shakespeare sonnet as a rap….”Shall I Compare The To A Summers Day”…and I realised that it could be performed as hip-hop to a four-four beat, so I started trying to do the same and found that Sonnet 126 works really well.

DAA: I suppose it is finding a way to take ideas from the past, dust them down and re-present them for modern sensibilities?

RC: Always, this is totally new for me as well; I’m really a newcomer and am just exploring what my sound might be.

DAA: And talking about influences, what artists made you think about how to make music or even that you could make your own music?

RC: The Fugees had a big influence on me, Lauren Hill, Erykah Badu, Amy Winehouse, hip-hop artists like KRS1, Nas.

DAA: A mix of underground pop, hip-hop and rap?

RC: Yes, lots of proper hip-hop influences…but not Drake or Lil’ Wayne (general laughter around the studio) more old school…like NWA and Notorious BIG.

DAA: So talking specifically about the single, Baby 126 is a wonderful mix of pop, soul, hip-hop, spoken word and much more, is it the end result of careful forward planning or more of an organic process that seems to take on a life of it’s own?

SR: I don’t think I have ever planned a song, or every time I have planned ahead it’s gone horribly wrong, they all just seem to have written themselves and some have turned out as terrible, grotesque, ill-formed characters, but they become what they become. This song was just what came out that day.

RC: Improvised.

SR: They work so much better that way.

DAA: So it is to a degree about jamming in the studio?

1795521_941936762524177_1341147414509150873_nSR: Just recording the improvisations and then trying to improve them, but the best ideas come from that. We have always done it like that, whenever someone brings a song in and it is already written and they have it finished in their head, I’ve never been able to get anywhere near it, because they have a fixed idea and if I don’t know what that is, there is a disconnection, it’s much better when no-one knows and we are just trying stuff out.

With Baby 126 we started with a hip-hop loop, then we put some chords on, chopped it about a bit, messed about with some horn samples and that worked so we got a brass section in and then Ruby came in and did the vocal and that was it really.

DAA: And is it the same process with the lyrics?

RC: You have to feed off of the music, improvise and go with your first instinct, first instincts are nearly always right and I think that is a good approach as it makes you work quickly.

SR: I might slave over music once it is recorded but that initial process is what counts, the “Baby I Feel You” line in the finished song is from Ruby’s first take, we just thought that it sounded great and when you hear that at the start of the song, that was the first time Ruby had sung it.

DAA: So very much like the old adage that some bands had in the past when songs were recorded live, if you need more than three takes to sort a song out, throw it away as it isn’t going to work?

SR: Yes, we do everything in three’s we do three takes and chose the best one.

DAA: And I think the point they were making was, if you don’t have the core idea down after three tries, then it probably isn’t a great idea, perhaps.

SR: That’s probably true, actually.

RC: That’s where Ian comes in, great ideas.

SR: He ships over these little musical nuggets; little gems of about 20 seconds, which left to his own devices, would remain the most brilliant 20 seconds you have ever heard. But he gives them to me, I hack them about a bit and then Ruby comes in and we just develop the ideas between us.

DAA: And given that you have only been working together for a few months and have achieved so much, you must find working together an easy process.

SR: Absolutely, we are not ever stuck; we have millions of ideas to work on all the time.

DAA: So maybe the task is to try to edit your ideas so that you are not throwing too much into every song?

SR: And not to edit too soon, I like chucking all the ideas down and then listen back to what stands out but unless you play what you feel and sing what you feel you never get to that point where you have these great ideas to develop further. Songwriters do the same, they start off with one chord and develop from there, it’s exactly the same process, they are still improvising their first idea and honing away again and again, it’s the same for me except that I hone away on a computer.

DAA: Although Baby 123 has a very obvious commercial feel and could easily find it’s way into the mainstream; some of the other songs that you are working on have a less obvious commercial pitch. So, do you think that you have to compromise to make a great pop record or is it possible to make a record with mainstream appeal that doesn’t necessarily follow the rules?

SR: I think that The Beatles proved that rather well. That’s the skill, I think, anyone can make an abstract, weird piece of music, but to get a record into the charts that is really commercial and really interesting at the same time, that is hard, not many people have done that. I don’t think we were necessarily going for something commercial, that’s just how it came out.

RC: Singing from the heart man!

SR: Yes, that’s just how it came out, it wasn’t a conscious thing and after years of playing stuff to people and have them look at me quizzically in silence and them thinking I’m slightly insane when they hear my music….

DAA: I know I have read some of the reviews….actually, I wrote some of the reviews.

SR: Ha, yes, you have…all of a sudden we start playing this to people and they are saying “that’s really good” and we are thinking somehow, for some bizarre reason we have done something that lots of people like, rather than just a few. It’s still not a lot of people in the scheme of things but it is definitely the most commercial thing that has crawled out of the doors of the Lighterthief Bunker. It might be the only commercial thing that crawls out of the doors.

DAA: So the aim is not to go for a big commercial campaign then?

SR: Oh, yeah, I think we want to sell as many as we can, but not at the expense of what we want to create musically, but I just don’t see these things as mutually exclusive, you should be able to just do the music you love and try to sell it, that’s it really isn’t it?

DAA: It’s a good theory but does it actually work like that?

SR: I think someone like Noel Gallagher makes exactly the records he wants to make in the same way that some kid in Swindon makes the records he wants to and Noel Gallagher’s songs appeal to tens of millions of people.

DAA: Prince might be another example of that idea?

SR: Yes, I think Prince has straddled that field really well, he’s brilliant, I just think people do what they do.

DAA: I was reading an interview with Tom Waits and he was saying the music industry is like a party and he would rather climb in the bathroom window uninvited and just stand at the back until someone notices and just starts talking to him rather than make a grand entrance through the front door. Maybe the answer is to just find your own way in.

RC: Yes, maybe we just take an unconventional route in.

DAA: Maybe it is a case of taking the familiar building blocks and putting them together in a different way then?

SR: We are kind of flipping through different genres, trying different styles and that’s what’s really interesting about it.

RC: And when the video is out some of the aesthetic, visual references we use, they aren’t conventional either.

DAA: And I’m glad you mentioned visual references as image seems to be very important to the way you present yourself and your music, how would you describe your look.

RC: psychedelic urban circus?

DAA: What a great sound bite, that’s probably the title of some future autobiography as well.

SR: And it could be the name of the band, the genre, the pool of people involved, it’s her strange bubble, the Psychedelic Urban Circus.

DAA: And just coming back to the Shakespearean dialog in the songs, is that a way of bringing the two parts of your life, acting and music, together into one place and does one inform the other?

RC: I’d say so, acting is a good influence on the live performance side of the music, studying acting is going to help when we get to the stage of putting the live show on, having that training and that experience.

DAA: And does it impact on the process of making the music itself.

RC: Not really.

SR: I’d say not from a theatrical kind of way but maybe from a visual way, when I work on a track I try to imagine where it is and what’s happening around it. I made a record with Andy Partridge and Peter Blegvad and each song was set in a specific place and we try to do the same thing.

DAA: So maybe you think of your songs in film terms?

11058695_951907961527057_5158319003568202364_nSR: Certainly a visual sort of way, a certain sound will set Ruby off and she is already thinking of the person singing the song and some of them are third party I guess, about other people.

DAA: More like characters performing the songs rather than necessarily always Ruby herself?

SR: Yes, they are not all autobiographical, we are just taking different ideas and seeing what works but putting our own personalities in there too. And the visual thing is really important eventually each track will have it’s own video, I think it is the way forward, I think video is the way people share music these days, the two things are not separate any more.

DAA: There is a word that I came across in your online description, Floetry, explain Floetry.

RC: Ah, yeah, Floetry is I guess, poetry with a hip-hop influence…poetry with a hip-hop flow.

DAA: You have Baby 126 out as a single and a video out on 6th July, so what next?

SR: The video is out at the start of July and then there will be a live video of us playing the song in the studio just to prove that it isn’t all done with computer trickery, and then we will follow up with another single and an EP in November and a gig to launch it. The next 6 months or so are pretty well planned out.

DAA: Ruby, Stu, thanks for your time.

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About Dave Franklin

Musician, scribbler, historian, gnostic, seeker of enlightenment, asker of the wrong questions, delver into the lost archives, fugitive from the law of averages, blogger, quantum spanner, left footed traveller, music journalist, zenarchist, freelance writer, reviewer and gemini. People have woken up to worse.
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