Beth Rowley’s 2008 debut album Little Dreamers would be considered a success by any new artist.
Its jazz and soul-informed pop received great reviews, it entered the top 10 and went on to sell more than 100,000 copies. It seemed her star was in the ascendant.
But then, bar an EP in 2013, there was only the occasional public activity – some live dates here, a guest appearance there.
Now, however, she’s back, with the self-released album Gota Fría (a Spanish expression for a severe weather condition which typically brings flooding). It also showcases a more raw, blues and Americana sound.
‘It flew by! The EP was supposed to be the first of three, which didn’t happen. The producer dropped out, he got really unwell and a few other things happened, so I said: “It’s ok, I’ll find someone else”, but then I couldn’t find anybody. Finding a producer is like finding a husband I guess, because you have to spend so much time with them and they have to understand what you’re wanting creatively, and it takes, for me at least, quite a while to find that person. And then I did – about a year ago.
‘It always seems to be the case that either the songs are right and I haven’t got the right team, the right manager or right producer. You need a small army to make this happen. It’s like being the CEO of a tiny company.
‘For me it’s all about the people you work with and working out what you want to say, and getting the right band together. It’s about the music and then there’s the people who also make it - because you talk with them day in day out - surrounding yourself with the right people is something important I discovered early on. They need to have the right goals and the right mindset and the right reasons to do it.’
So she hadn’t left music?
‘Not at all. I was always intending there to be another album not too long after the first one. But then the whole experience with [her then-label] Universal, it all kind of changed, the goalposts changed quite a bit towards the end and I realised that actually we were wanting quite different things.’
Beth felt compromised both musically and stylistically by the major label’s expectations for her to be a mainstream contender alongside the likes of Adele and Duffy.
‘They gave me the option to stay but I would have to do this, this and this, and I thought, no, that’s not what I want to do.
‘It was quite a relief at the time to leave because it meant I didn’t have to have this tug of war constantly which we’d got into. I was using a lot of energy and didn’t actually enjoy performing – it was taking all the fun out of it. By the time I left I was so miserable.
‘I hear myself saying that and it sounds like a bit of a cliche, and I know it happens to a lot of people, but I think I got away quite lightly. I think they knew that though and they gave me the mailing list and made it quite easy for me to leave. We wanted different things and I think they realised I wasn’t going to do things to sell at any cost. It’s not rocket science – it’s business at the end of the day.’
Does she feel now that Little Dreamer’s success was part of the problem?
‘It feels like that. It felt like creatively there was a lot of pressure to do what would sell, and obviously if you want a career in music you have to sell something and you have to take that into account – but not to the point where I’m miserable.’
And she’s been far from idle in the interim.
‘I have carried on doing lots of music, I’ve been lucky in that respect. Through word of mouth and through the success of that first album I was able to get lots of other singing work. Not all of it’s been particularly glamorous, but a lot of it’s been pretty awesome, and I’ve sung with some great bands, lots of studio work, which has been really helpful. It’s enough to keep you going and keep you singing.
‘I’ve got a couple of friends who have publishing deals and they provide music for all sorts of different stuff, like library music. Probably I’m on lots and lots of stuff, and people don’t know it’s me.
‘People have messaged me saying, “I’m in a supermarket in Portugal and there’s this generic music playing but it sounds just like you…” I’m like: “Maybe, I don’t know”, I don’t know where it ends up!’
As Beth has continued writing, the time elapsed made it difficult for her to pick Gota Fria’s tracklisting.
‘By the time you get a group of songs finished, you’ve got to get the team and the money together, and then by the time you get to record... I’ve gigged them for a while so it sifts out a lot of songs, if they don’t stand the test of time then you know they’re not ones you wanted to put on the album.’
She also rerecorded Only One Cloud, a stand out from her debut.
‘I still sing that song, and I sing it so differently now, so I thought let’s rerecord it. This whole album is definitely done from a live point of view – performing live is the number one thing. Pretty much everything I do is to enable me to perform live.
‘I don’t particularly enjoy the studio process so much because there’s no people there, just you and the musicians. Having an audience and having that exchange – we recorded this album in three days with a few extra people in there to try and recreate that feeling of a gig, but it’s this tiny little studio in north London with lots of old gear in it.’
Capturing the spirit of her live performance could be said to be something of an obsession for Beth.
‘It’s such a huge challenge to me to try and capture in the studio what I do live. You’ve always got that option to do it again, and I don’t want to do it again, I just want to do it once. You get something that might not be perfect, but it’s something that’s real. It might have things in it that you think, I can do that better, but you know you were in the zone. I find it quite hard to do it again and again and again with the same amount of feeling and energy.’
She recalls a live video she recently saw of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young performing Almost Cut My Hair and how it encapsulates the feeling she’s after.
‘That’s what I live for – those little moments. In a set I can have that two or three times if I’m lucky. It’s that feeling where you’re not aware of who’s watching you or what’s going on, it’s just this sound, this soundscape, you get taken somewhere else and that’s all that matters in that moment – it’s the most liberating moment of freedom, that’s what I’m chasing the whole time.’
Is the sound on Gota Fria the one she originally wanted to have, then?
‘I think I always wanted it to be like this on the first album, and there are elements of that on Little Dreamer, like the first version of Only One Cloud, or When The Rains Came – there’s songs on there where I can hear the blues, maybe not so much the Americana, but definitely the blues/gospel kind of feel.
‘I was working with Ben Castle on that album, and he’s a fantastic musician and composer. He’s a real jazzer, so I can hear his influence on that first album, which I do love. I used to sing lots of jazz songs when I started out, but I never really bonded with it in my own music as much as I did with blues, and over the years Americana has come much more to the forefront and I connect with that way much more than I did with jazz.’
For Beth though, there’s an honesty in playing live that a recording ultimately can’t match.
‘When I see someone perform, I want to see them risk everything and revealing everything. I want their music to be a real expression of them. I want the words and everything to be about that performance, to be giving it all in light of everything that’s happening in the world. I want to be talking about things that are raw to me – I don’t want to hide anything. I want to give an audience something which is life or death to me.
‘I waited 10 years for this, I could have got another job, I could have done so many other things, but I’m doing this because it’s what I believe I should be doing, so if I want people to buy into what I’m doing as well, I have to be real. I have to be completely committed.
‘I want every gig to be like standing on a knife edge – I’ve honed these songs, and really worked hard on them and I’m talking about stuff which is really important to me and then I have to perform it live, it’s not just something I’m doing every night, I want them to know and be convinced that I’m giving them something real in the here and now. That’s all that matters when I’m on stage, and I want them to feel like that as well.
‘I’ve seen a few bands where I’ve felt like that, it’s: “Wow, I’m with you 100 per cent.”
‘But it feels like you have to make yourself vulnerable, which is scary.’
As an independent artist, Beth wants to put more material out soon, but is finding the more mundane aspects of modern life as an artist a distraction.
‘I’ve got at least another half an album’s worth already recorded, songs that just didn’t fit on this one, so there’s six or seven that we thought we’d save.
‘Independently releasing an album now is so different. On a big label they do it all – they talk to you and then they do it. But this, now this is what 99 per cent of people pursuing music have to do, and with social media it’s pretty relentless.
‘It’s a challenge for me, I have to carve some time out of each day to do that stuff and actually save time to want to be creative. Being on Instagram or Facebook or whatever, you can get completely sucked into it, and before I know it I haven’t played guitar for three or four days - and then I realise, oh yes, that’s what I’m actually supposed to be doing.
‘It’s like a drug though, it’s so addictive. I’m sure everyone is the same. Everyone I talk to, other singer-songwriters find it the same.’
Beth Rowley is at The Wedgewood Rooms on Thursday, September 13, doors 7.30pm. Tickets £12. Go to wedgewood-rooms.co.uk.