I first came across Blue Rose Code around eighteen months ago when a friend pointed me toward a video of the singer-songwriter playing ‘One Day at a Time’. I just recall thinking ‘seriously cool’.
For the next six months the album ‘North Ten’ was playing constantly in my car and when Blue Rose Code’s second album The Ballads of Peckham Rye’ was released, I just flipped. I thought it was one of the best things I’d heard all year. The album was summed up perfectly (as always) by Simon Holland’s review for FRUK and has actually just been nominated for the prestigous SAY (Scottish Album of the Year) award alongside artists such as Paulo Nutini and Idlewild.
So having somewhat idolised Blue Rose Code’s music for some time, I found it a bit surreal to recently find myself sitting chatting with the man himself on a beautiful spring afternoon in Coventry ahead of his opening tour date at Leicester’s ‘The Cookie’ that evening. Ross had kindly agreed to chat and let me take a few pictures.
Despite the fact I was sitting across the table from one of my absolute favourite artists, I reminded myself to stay cool and stick to my professional-music-journalist persona. Resisting the urge to say ‘can we take a selfie together?’, I let Ross chat away about his new live album, his current tour and the third album he’s about to start recording….
FRUK: The last time FRUK caught up with you Ross was in October last year…what’s been happening in the world of Blue Rose Code since then?
“I’ve been everywhere, I feel like I’ve been around the UK six or seven times. I’ve been playing constantly, writing a lot. I’ve been up to Shetland twice. I found my new spiritual home on the Isles of Shetland. I went up there for a bit of a writing retreat and I was preparing the new material for the next record which I’m going to record over the Summer. We’ve got some lovely special guests planned…none of whom I’m at liberty to divulge, but some exciting people….
So yeah just preparing the material for the new record. That’s why we’re going on tour…well, we’re going on tour for two reasons. The first is to promote the release of ‘Live At St Pancras Church 2014′. We had the amazing magazine ‘Sound On Sound’ do a feature of our album launch in London for ‘The Ballads Of Peckham Rye’. We had a great guy called Sam Inglis who came and recorded the whole thing, they did like a 12 page feature from a technical point of view of the recording of the gig.
It was such a special evening. It was a sold out crowd, Danny Thompson came and performed…at one stage there were maybe eleven musicians on stage. I thought it was such a lovely thing, to capture the essence of that night, I wanted to put it out there….so we’ve just released that. On the tour we’ll be playing some songs from the previous two albums but actually we’re really shaping up the new material.
My experiences of recording the last two albums haven’t been great. It’s been more of a…a kind of labour pain, it’s been quite difficult. The first record we did in a very short period of time and then it was lost in mixing for what seemed like an eternity for the record company to eventually release it…then it was remastered as well. Then the second record, we had support from Arts Council England but because I was tied to a release date it meant that I didn’t get the time I wanted to record it. It ended up being recorded quite disparately, it was recorded in seven different studios around the UK.
So this time I’m setting up camp just outside of Biggar in the Scottish borders with a good friend of mine called Angus Lyon who’s a wonderful trad-folk musician…he also has a studio there and everyone’s going to come to me! We’re just going to sit in this residential studio which is on a farm…and in fact Angus, it’s his father’s farm and every year he takes April off to help with the lambing! So after April, after this tour, we’re going to go into the studio and properly start recording.
That’s why this time I wanted to make sure that I’d taken the songs on the road to bed them in…because you learn about songs when you perform them in front of people, that’s when you know….particularly people who aren’t fans, people who are coming with their friends, they have no vested interest in indulging you so you know immediately whether you’re turning people off by indulging yourself too much. You learn about songwriting in front of a live audience.
Also you learn about arrangements as well. I’m taking an amazing ragtag bunch of very talented musicians, different lineups for different gigs and performing in the majority new material for the record which will mean that this time when I get into the studio the songs will be more fully formed rather than writing in the studio. Last time there are still a couple of songs that I don’t play live, because I haven’t learned how to play them live and I don’t really like that…I like to be able to play all of my songs, stripped down to just me and an instrument whether it be the piano or the guitar…
FRUK: I was going to ask what your creative inspiration is at the moment…it sounds like it’s the Shetland Isles! Was it a productive time that you spent there?
It was an amazing time. I met a guy, a promoter up there called Neil Riddell. He came to my gig in Edinburgh and we just hit it off. Bizarrely at times he struggles to get people to come up and play…that being said he’s got Admiral Fallow booked, he’s got the Punch Brothers booked, he’s had an amazing guy called Jason Isbell who I’ve just got into…amazing singer-songwriter. So Neil said do you want to come to Shetland and I’ve been waiting for someone to ask me. I said yes, we went up and I did a gig.
Then this opportunity came up to play with a bit of a hero of mine, a guy called Kris Drever who’s resident on the island. I came back for two weeks and then went back up there two weeks later for just over a fortnight. I spent the whole time holed up in the North of the island writing poetry, watching seals and walking around. It’s an amazing dramatic coastline, I’ve never seen anything like it. So that’s what’s inspiring me…it gave me some headspace, gave me a break from touring and it gave me a time just to let the songs coalesce around what’s going on at the moment.
FRUK: You mentioned Jason Isbell…is there anything on the listening front that’s influencing you at the moment?
I’m listening to a lot of jazz at the moment actually. I’ve been listening to a lot of McCoy Tyner and Wayne Shorter…we’re talking in Spring and there’s something about Miles Davis’ ‘Sketches of Spain’…it’s my go-to album on a blue-sky morning. So I’ve been listening to a lot of jazz. Jason Isbell in particular has been the singer-songwriter that I’ve been listening to non-stop recently…Anais Mitchell’s new record and quite a lot of Joni Mitchell.
FRUK: I’m a bit of a fan as you know, and on ‘Ballads’ when I first heard ‘True Ways of Knowing’ I was completely blown away…where did that idea for the cross-rhythm thing come from?
Believe it or not the genesis of the idea comes from D’Angelo’s album ‘Voodoo’ because it’s just lots of percussive noises, finger-clicks, stamps and all that stuff. I grew up listening to a lot of soul music and I’ve always wanted to use that technique on a record. So bizarrely it’s this sort of confect of Detroit American R&B, Edinburgh poetry and Caledonian Soul! Because the lyrics are the poem ‘True Ways of Knowing’ by Norman MacCaig and not mine.
FRUK: I’ve read the FRUK interviews you’ve done with Simon lots of times…you talked to him about the freedom of not being constrained by record labels. It seems to me that creative freedom is something that’s important to you?
Yeah. pauses… I’m not adverse to being helped out and actually I’ve had a lot of support along the way…Arts Council England helped me with the last record…and I’ve had a lot of amazing support up and down the country from grass roots fans…this wonderful organisation the Saltire Society in Edinburgh have been helping me with the poetry project.
It’s not that I’m against working with a record label…it’s just that I think the output is my business, and the business is their business.
FRUK: On your journey to get to this point as a professional musician, what would you say is the biggest thing you’ve learned?
The biggest thing I’ve learned is to trust my instinct. I talked about how difficult it was recording the first two records. I was paralysed with fear and indecision actually recording the first record because I just didn’t know. Y’know you’re terrified…’this is my big shot’. Second record…we’d had a bit of success…we’d had a synch on Hollyoaks, we’d had some good support at gigs and in the press.
So then to release the second record which received better reviews, that built my confidence up…it’s an incremental thing. And in the end I made the decision for the second record that…at that stage because I’d been given the support by the Arts Council I was going to call all the shots…because then if it fell on its arse it would just be my fault. Although that can be quite terrifying, it’s extremely liberating too.
So in the end, the last record went really well. I’m confident I can do the same again. If I do at least as well next time then I’ll be satisfied…but I want to do better.
FRUK: So what’s next?
Touring and then into the studio in May to record the next record. Then for the next six months I’m going to sit on my arse on the beach in Bournemouth and read…and just be actually. No-one’s really that interested in musicians just moaning about how difficult it is living on the road and writing songs about how hard their lives are. I need to go and live a bit of a life again.
Now that I’ve written the songs for the next record I want to have that in the bank, take some time off…you need to go away to come back, so the received wisdom says…so I’m going to do that. I’m going to have a bit of a life for six months, then perhaps we’ll look at February next year releasing the next record…it just depends. At the moment there’s some label interest there, we’re talking to people and we’ll see how that goes. If the deal’s right then we’ll release it with a record label…if not I’ll do it on my own. But life is pretty good at the moment.”
Interview by: Rob Bridge
You can purchase ‘Live at St Pancras Old Church’ and check out forthcoming gig dates on the Blue Rose Code website.
This is part of an ongoing new series of photo / interview features on Folk Radio UK from Rob Bridge, a photographer, writer and film-maker specialising in folk, acoustic and Americana music. You can contact him on twitter@redwoodphotos