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In praise of songwriters: Rumer and the art of interpretation

Updated: Jan 6, 2021

Ian Malin

Nearly 20 years ago the music journalist Max Bell was invited to a gig of a London-based folk-indie band La Honda in the cafeteria of a skyscraper in the City. Bell was impressed by the band but blown away by its lead singer who he says left the room transfixed. The singer that evening told Bell that she was working as a waitress in Herne Hill and had borrowed her stage name, Sarah Prentice, from a random reservation made by a customer.

Bell and Sarah Joyce, as she really was, struck up a friendship, both sharing a love of singer-songwriters of the Sixties and Seventies. Bell introduced his new friend to artists such as Tim Hardin and Harry Nilsson. One long summer night, Bell says, they listened to Hoyt Axton’s Greenback Dollar on his turntable at full blast, so loudly that the neighbours below thumped on their floor with a broom handle. The pair remained friends for the next decade during which Sarah changed her name to Rumer in honour of her late mother’s affection for the novels of Rumer Godden, the English author best known for the adaption of her work Black Narcissus into a Hollywood film.

Rumer’s debut album, Seasons Of My Soul, was an unexpected smash in 2011, released in November of the previous year. Her caramel-smooth vocals instantly drew comparisons by critics with Karen Carpenter. It peaked in the British charts at No3 and by 2013 had gone platinum, having sold over a million copies. Its best-known tracks, Slow and Aretha, were perfect for Smooth FM and Radio 2. Rumer received a personal note from the late Karen’s brother Richard and an invitation to the California home of another American admirer, Burt Bacharach. Her career as a singer-songwriter was taking off.

It was her musical education in the company of Max Bell that then decided her next step. Rumer’s second album, Boys Don’t Cry, is a selection of songs by male artists of the 70s and 80s. Some are household names, Jimmy Webb, Richie Havens, Todd Rundgren and Isaac Hayes. Some would go unrecognised if they were passed in the street today, such as the Englishman Terry Reid, best known as a support act and session musician. Then there was the teacher Clifford T Ward, who died in 2001 after a brief flirtation with fame in the early 70s with the album Home Thoughts and a lovely single Gaye, a baroque pop classic, became an unlikely hit and sold over a million worldwide. Maybe it’s just me but I can’t listen to Gaye without breaking into tears.

Other little gems that Rumer mines on Boys Don’t Cry are by songwriters such as Stephen Bishop, Townes Van Zandt and Paul Williams. As if to emphasise the Karen Carpenter link, Williams, whose many credits include Barbara Streisand’s Evergreen, also wrote We’ve Only Just Begun and Rainy Days And Mondays by The Carpenters. Williams is the master of the smooth and sentimental popular song. Take a listen to Frank Sinatra’s version of Williams’ Dream Away, the stand-out track on 1973’s Ol’ Blue Eyes is Back, and be grateful Ol’ Blue Eyes was lured out of retirement.

The whole USP of Boys Don’t Cry is good taste and like the master Sinatra, Rumer is a wonderful interpreter of songs. Same Old Tears On A New Background is a personal favourite from Boys Don’t Cry. Also recorded by Art Garfunkel it is an underrated poignant torch song that only the flint-hearted could resist.

Rumer invests Bishop’s song with an emotional charge that is missing in Art’s version:

It’s the same old tears on a new background,

Seeing you as a fading photograph

It hurts too much to laugh these days

I’m all right, yes, I’m all right, all right

It’s the same old song with a new melody

But this old candle’s lingering flame is almost gone

To see you again is all that keeps me hanging on

Boys Don’t Cry was released in May 2012. The majority of the album was recorded at around the same time as Seasons Of My Soul but a falling out with producer Steve Brown delayed its release. Two of its tracks, Sara Smile by Hall and Oates and Jimmy Webb’s PF Sloan, were released as singles. In 2014, a year before his death, Rumer performed a duet with PF Sloan, a cult songwriter who penned Barry McGuire’s Sixties classic Eve Of Destruction and hits for The Searchers, The Turtles and Herman’s Hermits.

The striking thing about the album is that Rumer had experiences to back up the songs, the childhood abroad, her parents’ divorce, the early death of her mother. The album could be called easy listening except that it is not really easy to listen to. Instead it is full of feeling with the conceit that the songs that are sung by a hurting woman were all written by hurting men and, in the case of PF Sloan and Clifford T Ward’s Home Thoughts From Abroad, especially a lament for talents that were not given their due.

Rumer, who lives in Georgia with her husband the producer Rob Shirakbari, has been back in the studio and making music during this miserable lockdown. In August she released Nashville Tears. It is her fifth studio album and the third of covers, this time the songs of the Hugh Prestwood, a Nashville Songwriters’ Hall of Fame inductee.

She has not turned her back on creating her own compositions. In 2017 she talked about the debilitating effects of postpartum blues following the birth of her son. ‘Emotionally and physically, I was out to sea. Motherhood changes everything,’ she told American Songwriter. ‘Add that to the fact that creativity is delicate and mysterious at the very best of times, and yeah, it was really hard. I wanted to get back to my songwriting, but once I had my baby, my process of songwriting was so out of whack, I couldn’t follow the same path, and I just didn’t have the headspace to see what else is out there.

‘I wanted to find these gems and celebrate these songwriters that deserved more love, because I understand the misery of the songwriter. It’s so hard to be a songwriter. Songwriters are valuable but undervalued.’ Prestwood’s Oklahoma Stray was the song that spoke to her but there were many others on Nashville Tears, from Deep Summer In The Deep South to Ghost In This House and Star-crossed Hanger Of The Moon.

Rumer calls it a ‘tapestry of America and how I felt and saw it’. The Texan Prestwood, who was discovered by Judy Collins and has written songs for James Taylor, Randy Travis, Alison Krauss and Trisha Yearwood among others, is another of those talents who deserve more recognition, at least on this side of the Atlantic. Time, once more, to listen to the Rumer.


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