The last eighteen months or so have been an extraordinary time for Rumer. Consider that just before her debut album – ‘Seasons Of My Soul’ – was released, the 31-year old was a completely unknown singer and songwriter. Then factor in the decade spent in pursuit of a record deal, plus an emotionally-eventful personal history, which can all be felt across her music. Fast forward to the autumn of 2010, however, and ‘Seasons Of My Soul’ has charted at number 3 and, off the back of significant critical acclaim, gone platinum in six weeks. It took Rumer ten years, but she was an overnight success.
The rise of ‘Seasons Of My Soul’, which has now sold over a million copies, has taken Rumer from the North West Frontier of Pakistan to the Californian home of Burt Bacharach. Along the way, she has been nominated for two BRIT awards, been named the much-coveted Breakthrough Act at the Mojo Awards, reached number 1 in the American iTunes chart and played shows everywhere from the Royal Albert Hall to the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury. Famous fans were soon forthcoming, but it was Elton John who perhaps summarised Rumer’s story most succinctly: “it’s great to have a singer like that in Britain. They don’t come along that often.”
With little time to take stock amidst the euphoria, it’s been an exhausting as well as elating period of activity for Rumer. She wasn’t quite ready to rest up. Rumer spent 2011 quietly completing work on a brand new studio project: the tantalisingly-entitled ‘Boys Don’t Cry’.
‘Boys Don’t Cry’ is a collection of lesser known songs from the 1970’s, all of which were originally sung by men. “I just love songwriters,” says Rumer, when introducing the project. “I feel more like an actor or a painter when tackling their work, as you’re just trying to find the character underneath.” This cast of characters is nothing short of formidable, spanning the likes of Todd Rundgren, Townes Van Zandt, Ronnie Lane (and Ronnie Wood) and Tim Hardin. Even the more well-known artists – Leon Russell, Isaac Hayes, Bob Marley – have had their relatively forgotten tracks revisited, and re-imagined. “The songs don’t always sound that much like the originals by the end,” suggests Rumer, “but they are emotional impressions of them.” By using this nascent intuition, and applying a mixture of detachment and interpretative nous, Rumer may be poised to cast a generation of lost songs into a new light.
The sheer scope of artists covered across ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ reveals Rumer’s trainspotter-love of forgotten greats. Yet the record has become more than just a means of paying respect. Tracks have been specifically chosen to tap into a broader range of themes, beginning with what it means to sing ‘masculine’ songs. “I wanted to try and inhabit these male voices, which at first seemed distant to me,” Rumer explains. This is perhaps most evident in her take on Neil Young’s haunting ‘A Man Needs A Maid’, which may have upset feminists at the time, but today sounds more like the plea for love and care that many interpret it as. “For me,” says Rumer, “it’s about not being able to take care of yourself anymore, and being incapable of giving. I relate to that.” Equally, few could have foreseen Rumer’s take on Isaac Hayes’ ‘Soulsville’; a ghetto anthem originally set against a Harlem backdrop of deprivation, which struck a chord with civil rights activists of the time. “That song reminds me of Brixton, where I have lived for 14 years, and still live,” remarks Rumer.
Outside of their original context, then, the songs of ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ have proved timeless, and timely. The album title itself is Rumer’s way of saying that “men are complicated and sensitive, in fact, more so, because the emotion can be obscured”. Perhaps appropriately, the original songs’ viewpoint remains unchanged throughout these new recordings. “In folk music,” proposes Rumer, “the storyteller tells the story. In the folk tradition, you don’t change gender, racial viewpoint and context to make it more palatable. A narrative is a narrative.” Despite this, Rumer was far from enamoured with many of the originals. “It wasn’t necessarily love at first sight. Some of the songs had over-wrought production, whilst others had the odd synth line that felt a bit of its time, or a muddy vocal. I don’t know why I felt compelled to go there. The beauty and the emotion wasn’t always obvious.”
Sessions for ‘Boys Don’t Cry’, whilst dating back to 2007, intensified amidst the eighteen months following the release of ‘Seasons Of My Soul’. Rumer would spend any days off in the studio, intent on bringing her concept into fully-formed life. And perhaps unsurprisingly, as the process unravelled, Rumer realised that a lot of the songs on the record had deeper, personal echoes for her. Clifford T. Ward’s ‘Home Thoughts From Abroad’ and Paul Williams’ soaring ‘Travelling Boy’ were both about “this idea of the musician away from home, and in ‘Andre Johray’, the nostalgia that comes with early fame.” Other tracks, albeit via another author, touched upon those pressures of the last year or so. Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Flying Shoes’ is an evocative ode to escape, and in ‘Be Nice to Me’, Todd Rundgren laments about being "so sick of being had, by everyone who comes along.” Rumer’s describes tackling these songs as “like going into the heart of darkness. I didn’t realise at the time how the song choices were subconsciously expressing my own feelings about the last 18 months.”
‘Boys Don’t Cry’ is essentially a selection of narratives, held together by Rumer’s stunning voice, and underpinned by the staggering stories Rumer herself has encountered in the last year or so. “I sang with Leon Russell at the BBC Electric Proms in October 2010,” Rumer recalls. “I told him back then that I loved ‘My Cricket’, and he just drawled – “You’re the third person to tell me that. First was Jerry Lee Lewis. Second was Willie Nelson. And now there’s you.”
‘Seasons Of My Soul’ won dizzying comparisons with Karen Carpenter, and whilst ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ branches out Rumer’s sound once more (there are stronger elements of country, for instance), a personal note from Richard Carpenter proved to be the ultimate accolade. Carpenter mentions a mutual friend who had spoken highly of her album. “How right he was,” writes Carpenter. “You not only sing beautifully, but what you’ve created is actually musical, something that has been in short supply in recent years. The fact that the album is a sales success as well is reassuring to me, as I still firmly believe that if the public is exposed to music that is natural and of high quality, they will respond positively. Congratulations.”
‘Boys Don’t Cry’ acts as a reminder of some extraordinary characters: commonplace enough in their own time, but arguably overdue some congratulations of their own. And in Rumer they have found an unlikely champion, with a large and, you suspect, once-dormant following; who will gladly tell her that they haven’t bought a CD in years, or – in other cases - didn’t think they’d end up loving an album quite like ‘Seasons Of My Soul’. As one critic put it, “Rumer considers the middle of the road a serious place to be”. And for Rumer, her newfound attention only increased the need to get this long-anticipated project out into the world: “the idea that Jimmy Webb’s ‘P.F Sloan’ will be on the radio in 2012 is so cool.”
And it is the mysterious P.F Sloan himself that arguably unlocks the true meaning of ‘Boys Don’t Cry’. Sloan was a huge songwriter in his own right throughout the 60’s, penning Barry McGuire’s ‘Eve Of Destruction’ and composing the riff that would go on to become the Mamas & The Papas’ ‘California Dreaming’. Desperate to sing his own material, however, Sloan gave it all up to record as a solo artist, but failed to sell any records. He disappeared into obscurity, only to be remembered by Jimmy Webb’s own song, ‘P.F Sloan’: one songwriter’s bittersweet tribute to another, documenting the costs of being a true artist. “It’s a song about the great writers who have been forgotten, or sidelined by a commercially-driven music industry,” summarises Rumer. “I think PF Sloan sums up the whole album. It’s about paying respect to these pathfinders."