Rumer first burst onto the scene back in 2010 with her platinum-certified debut album, Seasons of My Soul. Following the huge success of her debut, she found herself catapulted into the public eye with what must have been slightly alarming velocity, albeit after a steady 10 years spent in the music industry before landing a major record deal.
One minute Rumer was relatively unknown, the next she was appearing on stage alongside the likes of Elton John, Burt Bacharach, Daryl Hall, Richard Carpenter, Jools Holland, and Carly Simon, not to mention performing at the White House in 2012. “It’s great to have a singer like that in Britain,” said Elton John at the time. “They don’t come along that often.”
Other notable US performances included The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. She was nominated for two BRIT Awards, and won the Mojo Breakthrough Act award. In 2011 she won the UK Asian Music Award for Best Alternative Act, reflecting her joint British and Pakistani heritage.
All the stuff of dreams for a young singer, you might think, but the subject matter of Rumer’s second album, Boys Don’t Cry, which was released in 2012, revealed that the sudden rise to fame had not been without its challenges. The all-covers album featured tracks that were all written in the 1970s by male artists. Speaking at the time, Rumer said, “This project is about passion, and paying respect to other people’s work. I went on a journey and this music tells that story.”
Rumer returned to an album of original songs for her third album, In Colour, released in 2014, and in 2016 she released another passion project consisting entirely of covers with This Girl’s In Love: A Bacharach and David Songbook.
Four years on from This Girl’s In Love, new music from that distinctive voice has been sorely missed. In the intervening years, Rumer has been busy raising her son in the Deep South in the US where she lives with her husband, renowned musician, composer, arranger, Rob Shirakbari (Dionne Warwick, Burt Bacharach). As she herself states in this interview, she was hiding away from the rigors of the music business, while also enjoying spending time with her family. But the creative spirit will always find a way, and for Rumer, the spark of that creative spirit led to her next project, Nashville Tears.
Nashville Tears features 15 songs written by Texan songwriter Hugh Prestwood. It was recorded at Starstruck Studios in Nashville, and features some of Music City’s finest musicians. Prestwood’s songs have been recorded by some of the greatest singers you’ll ever, ever hear in any genre of music, let along country music, including Trisha Yearwood (The Song Remember When) and Alison Krauss (Ghost in this House). Fortunately, Nashville Tears shows that Rumer is more than up to the task of stamping her own inimitable interpretation on Prestwood’s songs, that uniquely magical voice lending itself perfectly to the sultry mystery, melancholy, and wistfulness of the material.
Talking to me on the phone from her then home in Macon, Georgia (she’s since moved back to the UK), Rumer explained just how she came to record an album entirely devoted to Hugh Prestwood songs.
“Well it started as a different idea, actually. What happened was, I’d just had a baby, and I was just overwhelmed with domesticity. And I just thought, ‘I don’t know how I’m ever going to get back to creating music.’ I’d try and get in the studio, but I could never get in for very long. I was living in Arkansas, and I just thought, ‘My God, I feel like I’ve drifted so far out to sea now, don’t know how I’m ever going to get back.’ Because I couldn’t snatch enough time to be creative, and I thought, ‘It’s going to take years for me to write an album at this rate.’
“So I kind of was struggling with that idea, because I’d just done the Bacharach album, and this producer friend of mine, Fred (Mollin), who I’ve known for years, who is a very congenial guy, he works out of Nashville, he works with Jimmy Webb, he just kept calling me and calling me all the time, like really persistent, saying he really wanted to work with me on a project. I just kept saying, ‘Fred, I don’t have anything. I can’t write anything. I’m just not in that state of mind.’
“And then eventually I said, ‘You know, I do have an idea for a project, in the back of my mind.’ The project would be called Nashville Tears, and it would be songs out of Nashville that didn’t get the credit they deserved. Because having been in this industry now for a long time, I know how many ducks need to be a row for a song to reach people, to get out. And at any one of those points it can go wrong and the song just gets buried.
“It could be the artist wasn’t right, or the label wasn’t right, or the radio plugger didn’t get it right, or something. There’s so many things that can happen that a song just doesn’t reach people’s ears. So I thought, there’s got to be loads of songs people haven’t heard, that are fantastic, definitely. In a place like Nashville, there’s going to be hundreds and thousands of amazing songs. In my head I was thinking, there’s probably going to be a whole album of I Can’t Make You Love Mes. So I said to Fred that was my concept, and he was like, ‘Oh my God, I love that idea.’
“So we set about researching and listening for songs, and in that process I heard Oklahoma Stray by Hugh Prestwood. And I was just so floored by it that I started looking into Hugh Prestwood, and I couldn’t believe it. I know most people have heard The Song Remembers When by Tricia Yearwood. I hadn’t even heard that!
“So I didn’t know anything. I heard Here You Are, and various other songs I started listening to, and I said to Fred, ‘This guy is so good. I have to do a whole album of his songs. He’s so much head and shoulders above all the other songs we’ve been hearing. He’s in a class of his own. I want to do a record of his work.’ And Fred was like, ‘Oh, are you sure?’ ‘Yes, I want to do it.’ So that’s what happened. And then we went to the publisher, and we got the treasure chest, the whole catalogue, and that’s when it started.
The way Rumer describes it, Nashville Tears came along at just the write time in her life.
“Do you know what? I was so confused about my path in music at that point. I was a housewife living in the South. Had snookered myself, creatively. Had run away from the music business, and found myself in the Southern states of America, and totally snookered myself, to the point where I just couldn’t get a minute to do anything, so this was like an incredible opening up of a door for me, and suddenly I was so excited again about music, you know?
“And I was driving around, and I was doing the dishes, I was listening to all this material that was blowing me away. And it just got me really excited about music again. I was thrilled about it. I was just so entranced, enchanted by it. And then a different part of my creativity came into play, which was, ‘Okay, now I’m presenting Hugh Prestwood to people, and to myself, not just to other people. I’m trying to create a beautiful collection of his work that shows the diversity of the songwriting, and universal themes, and styles, and emotions. I want to take the listener on a journey. So I’m using my creativity for that purpose too.
“Picking out these songs, and learning them, and getting under their skin, and really having to study them, because with Hugh Prestwood, you just can’t really sing them, you have to study them. So I’m studying these songs. I’m studying really hard. And I’m glad I did Bacharach, because if I hadn’t done Bacharach, I wouldn’t have been able to do this complex thing.
“Anyway, so that was the whole process, and it was just absolutely wonderful to do it. It was really a fantastic project. We just had a ball. We had a blast. We worked in a great studio, with phenomenal musicians. We laughed so much, we worked so hard. We were just firing on all cylinders. I was using every little bit of my creativity, and every little bit of my skills, and everyone was just on their A-game. And you can hear how brilliant the musicians are on this record, can’t you? I mean they’re just enormously talented, it’s crazy. They’re just brilliant. And also, they’re great fun, and they’re so relaxed because they know they’re good. They understand songs, they understand lyrics.
“They all love Hugh Prestwood, because, of course, in Nashville, he’s highly respected and highly regarded. So they all knew Hugh Prestwood, and they were thrilled at the idea. ‘Wow, there’s a Hugh Prestwood songbook? This is brilliant!’ They were thrilled because they got to use every tool in their toolbox, for a change. The thing about the material is, as a musician, it sharpens you. It keeps you on your toes.”
While country music fans all over the world are certainly familiar with some of Hugh Prestwood’s songs, not everyone outside of Nashville would necessarily have been familiar with his name, or even be aware of what an amazing body of work he has. Another reason why Rumer was so excited by the project, she says.
“I think it’s really important to put his name where Jimmy Webb is, and other of the great songwriters. And I know that people in Nashville know. We played the Bluebird Café, and Faith Hill was there. So people know who he is. They know he was a great writer. But I don’t think people in England really knew that much about him. This is going to be a wonderful thing for England to hear, because they’re going to really appreciate it. And Ireland too, and Europe, and Japan. I think all these people are going to really appreciate his work.”
While most of the Hugh Prestwood songs recorded by Rumer for Nashville Tears have previously been released by other artists, several of the songs have never seen the light of day until now, so we have Rumer to thank for unearthing some real gems. This fact is all the more intriguing when you realise that a couple of these unreleased songs, Deep Summer in the Deep South and June,It’s Gonna Happen, are arguably among the very best tracks on Nashville Tears. Rumer recounts how those two songs came to be on the album.
“Deep Summer in the Deep South was interesting, because on the catalogue collections that I had there were several different versions of that song. Because I’m listening to catalogues, there’s sometimes like four or five different demos, or versions, of each song, and on that one, they were different, and they had different lyrics.
“I actually said to Pres, ‘Hugh, would you mind if I mixed these lyrics up?’ So we actually did a bit of a mix. I tried to help put that together, because it wasn’t really working, the ones that I had. So I put a couple of different versions together, and said, ‘Can I put this lyric from this demo here, and this lyric from this demo here?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, sure!’”
She reveals that Deep Summer in the Deep South almost didn’t make it onto the finished album.
“It actually happened really, really late, because on the first day of recording I was chatting to Mike Johnson, the pedal steel player, and he was saying Hugh Prestwood’s wife was originally from Andalusia (the Alabama town mentioned in Deep Summer), and he said, ‘I’ve got family in Andalusia, that’s crazy!’ And I said, ‘You know, that’s funny, I wanted to do this song, Deep Summer, but we didn’t include it. We’re going have to do that song.’
“We’re on day one, we’ve got three days, and I said to Fred, ‘I really want to include Deep Summer.’ He said, ‘We haven’t got time.’ Larry Paxton was the guy doing the charts, and he was going straight from the sessions to the Grand Ole Opry to play after. He didn’t have time to do the charts. So, I called Rob, who was in Hawaii on tour with Dionne Warwick, and I said, ‘Rob, I need you to do some charts for me for Deep Summer.’ He took a photo on his phone. I took it back and gave it to the boys in the studio, and I said to Fred, ‘If we’ve got a spare 20 minutes, I want to do this song.’ And right at the end I just gave everybody the charts and said, ‘Right, we’re doing this.’ And we managed to sneak it in.
“June It’s Gonna Happen was an unusual one as well. You’ve picked, actually, two of the unusual ones. June, even Hugh was like, ‘I don’t even have that one on my computer.’ He didn’t even have it. He asked me to send it to him. When I said, ‘These are the songs I want to do of yours,’ he was scratching his head over June. He was like, ‘Remind me of that one. I don’t have that one.’ I had to send it to him, to remind him that he’d written it! That’s how deep a cut that one is. And it’s such a great melody, isn’t it? So different.”
Nashville Tears is out now on all the usual platforms, and you can also get it on baby blue double vinyl LP, which looks really lovely, and truly fitting for such a beautiful body of work. It’s also available on cassette. At the time of writing, the album is sitting pretty at the top of the UK Country albums chart, and looks set to be Rumer’s first all-genre UK Top 10 album in eight years. The album has received rave reviews all over the world, and deservedly so. Hopefully the warm reception for Nashville Tears, and the joy Rumer experienced during the process of making it, will encourage her to delve even deeper into the world of country music in future, maybe even some original material!
Rumer’s postponed UK tour has been rescheduled to March 2021, here’s hoping the dates are able to go ahead, as I can’t wait to hear her spellbinding renditions of the songs of Hugh Prestwood in the live setting.
By Maura Sutton