Tipped by many to be the UK’s next big R&B singing sensation, it looks like the time has come for Rosie Lowe. After moving to South London, the 26-year-old from Devon developed her ethereal vocal style while studying at Goldsmith’s University, alongside the likes of James Blake, who she cites as being one of her biggest inspirations. Having signed with Adele producer Paul Epworth’s Wolf Tone label, Rosie has just released her first album. BN1’s Gary Marlowe met up with her shortly before she took the stage for her headline gig at Brighton’s Hope and Ruin. They chatted for nearly an hour and it was a surprisingly revealing conversation.
I know you don’t like being compared to other artists, so I won’t be asking you about that or indeed anything about James Bay…
Rosie: James Bay! That was a mistake actually, it was supposed to be James Blake, but the journalist misheard it as James Bay.
I know, but there is an interesting connection between you and James Bay…
Rosie: There is? What’s that?
Well, if you were to put on a black fedora, you’d look quite similar to him!
Rosie: (Laughs) We’ve probably got similar features, actually! That’s hilarious! I know James went to BIMM here in Brighton, I was also going to study there, but in the end I chose Goldsmiths in London as I felt it suited me more.
A lot of successful musicians are coming out of BIMM…
Rosie: But I didn’t want to be a star. Back then I didn’t even know if I wanted to be an artist!
Had you not chosen Goldsmiths, your career might have gone in another direction…
Rosie: Totally. It made a huge difference. I was there with James Blake and Katy B. James was in the year above me and I saw his final degree show where he performed songs that ended up on his album. His songs will always be a really inspiring reference for me as a writer.
You’ve played Brighton a couple of times before…at The Great Escape in 2014 and later that year at the Green Door Store, What are your memories of Brighton?
Rosie: I’ve got some good friends here and when they were at uni I used to come for a day out and see them. I love Brighton. I love air and I love the sea. It’s not Devon, but I love the vibe. I haven’t had the opportunity to see much. When you’re gigging you don’t have the time. I’m a big fan of Burger Bros though! I’ve just ordered a cheeseburger and I’m so excited. I haven’t had a burger all year. It’s a very big treat for me! I’ve been thinking about it in the van all the way down!
People have no idea just how glamorous the life of a musician is…
Rosie: It’s so unglamorous!
Control is released on Paul Epworth’s label. Paul of course is best known as Adele’s producer. How did your connection with him come about?
Rosie: I’d already started writing the album. I’d put out an EP and was headed towards an album. I decided I wanted to do that with Dave Okumu and I really wasn’t thinking about the business-side of it. Dave happened to be working with Paul on an Adele session and played him some of my music and Paul loved it. At the time I had lots of major label interest, but Paul came in last minute and I went with him because he has got such an understanding of music and the creative process.
How influential was he in making the record?
Rosie: Paul was the executive producer. He was at a few of the sessions, but he’d listen to everything. He totally respected the fact that I wanted to do this record with Dave. He gave us lots of space and lots of trust. I’d send him the songs and he’d give me feedback.
Perhaps more than most artists, your sound is built around your voice. On Who’s That Girl? for example, I’ve read that there were one hundred vocal tracks.
Rosie: Over a 100. It’s fucking ridiculous!
In the old days you’d have worn the tape out! And Sinking Sand is entirely vocals, but manipulated to the point where they sound more like instruments.
Rosie: I write in that way, with vocals being every instrument.
With such a complex recording technique, recreating the sound of the album live must be quite a challenge. How do you do it?
Rosie: That’s a really great question. It’s something I’ve really struggled with because, if I could, I’d have a choir onstage with me. For me, vocals are at the heart of my music. To answer your question, we use track, it’s minimal and 90% of the track is just vocals. My passion is effecting vocals. It’s something a sound guy usually does for singers, but it’s something I want to be in charge of.
So everything we hear is you, but it’s not necessarily all live?
Rosie: I sing live, but all my backing vocals are on samples that I trigger.
How difficult is it to do that at exactly the right time?
Rosie: That’s what makes it live. It’s the act of triggering them that’s important.
You come across as someone who really knows what they want and doesn’t deviate until they get it, but only yesterday, you revealed to The Times “I’m a hugely insecure musician” insecure in what way?
Rosie: Of course I’m insecure. Aren’t all artists? Some of course are good at hiding it. And some don’t even know they’re insecure. If, like me, music is absolutely necessary to work out how you’re feeling, then you’re going to tap into some shit stuff as well. I wouldn’t be able to write something that I didn’t feel. But I’m totally anxious. I suffer from panic attacks and allsorts.
Do you care what people think about you? Would you read a review and get really pissed off if it wasn’t that complimentary?
Rosie: I haven’t had one yet, but I’m sure I’d get upset. I would take it really personally. But to be honest, I’m my own harshest critic. That critical voice picks myself apart. I’ve done gigs where I haven’t got out of bed for a few days after because I was so excruciatingly raw about it. There was one gig where I even came off stage crying!
Beyond the music, your lyrics are intensely personal and emotionally revealing. You don’t hold back, it’s almost dear diary stuff.
Rosie: That’s funny! The first song I ever wrote was called Dear Diary! (laughs)
You’ve describe your music as being your “saving grace, kind of like my escape” You’ve also said “Music is like my therapy.” I’ve read that therapy is also part of your life…
Rosie: Definitely. I got really depressed the year before last. I didn’t know what was going on.
Was that the first time?
Rosie: I don’t know. It’s always hard to know. I couldn’t get out of bed. I felt there was a lot of pressure on me, and it just hit me hard. It felt like it hit me overnight and I was just not well. I clung on to my boyfriend so hard. He had just got over depression himself and was just starting to feel better. It was almost like I’d been keeping him up and I was a mess and didn’t know what was going on. I was terrified of being on my own. I had to stop everything. I even stopped writing. I was trying to, but the negative voice was saying “This is shit” before I’d even start.
Depression is of course quite common among musicians.
Rosie: Not just musicians. I’m 26 and I don’t know any of my friends who haven’t suffered from some sort of mental illness. We’re such complex and fucked-up beings!
So what turned things around?
Rosie: Dave (Okumu) said “Stop!” We were best friends and he could just see the state I was in. He’s the warmest man I’ve ever met in my life. He exudes love. He told me if I carried on like this it would be dangerous and I had to stop.
Do you feel you’re over it? Or are you just controlling it?
Rosie: I’d say that music helps me to understand how I am feeling and therapy helps me understand me. A lot of it is linked to music. This industry is a struggle, but my sessions have helped me find peace with it. I feel like I’ve got to know myself so much better. I’ve been to all sorts of therapy and I now go to life coaching, which is where you deal with anxiety and lots of stuff through meditation, through breathing. I do suffer from anxiety and if I’m around someone negative I do suck it in.
When you get so many positive reviews and people telling you how wonderful you are, does that have the opposite effect and boost you?
Rosie: Yes, of course. It makes me feel good. But I’m not very good at celebrating any success. I’m not good at that, but I’m trying to be better at it. And this last week has been incredible in that way. It doesn’t massage my ego because I know that these things will pass and I’ll have to deal with negative reviews.
Social media has given everyone a vehicle to say what they want and we know that it can often be harmful.
Rosie: Everyone’s a critic. Everyone feels like they’re voice needs to be heard. And that can often be dangerous. And it’s equally dangerous how one responds.
You took your time with the album…
Rosie: I did. I guess one of the reasons it took so long for me to get this record out — it’s my debut and I would never have rushed it — was I had to be proud of it. After all, I have to stand by it forever and I want to make loads more albums.
One review of Control described it as “an album that defines 21st century femininity”
Rosie: Ah, that’s so sweet! That’s really nice.
Woman is probably the one song of yours that’s created the most buzz. You’ve said it’s the root of your daily experience and its lyrics focus on the self-criticism that all women will be familiar with. As a young woman, increasingly in the public eye, do you feel there is more pressure on you in terms of your image? Your hair, your make up, what clothes you wear?
Rosie: Everything that I do, I’m quite particular that the music comes first. Whether that’s making a video where I tell the director what my vision is, or that the covers of my first three EP’s featured just my back. because I didn’t want it to be about my face.
Perhaps the most revealing line from Woman is: “Why should my intellect be judged by perceptions of what I should be?”
Rosie: Ultimately of course it does become about what you look like. When I was growing up, we didn’t have a TV and music was so much more audible and I didn’t know what many of the artists I listened to even looked like. These days it seems like the music is the soundtrack to the video, not the other way around. But I recognise it’s part and parcel of the business.
Earlier this week you were at the Elle Style Awards. And last year you were at the Roksanda show at London Fashion Week…
Rosie: I was. But I limit what I do.
Presumably, you don’t have a stylist…
Rosie: No I don’t! (laughs)
These days, many female artists are accused of exploiting their sexuality. Miley Cyrus flouts her body across Instagram, and Rita Ora is never shy of showing hers. Didn’t you appear naked in your video for How’d You Like It?
Rosie: That wasn’t me!
As a viewer, you wouldn’t have necessarily known…
Rosie: I thought people would know, but it was definitely not me! It could have been, but it wasn’t. She had a mole on her bum, I don’t! (laughs) Yes she was naked, but I see a very distinct difference. I think the female body — and the male body — are beautiful. I love the female body but there’s a huge difference between nakedness and sex. For that video, we used nakedness to emphasise vulnerability. It’s something we all feel.
Even before the album came out, you were receiving an uncommon amount of plaudits.
Rosie: Was I? I don’t know, because I’ve never done this before.
You’ve had a lot of coverage. And it’s all been very positive.
Rosie: That’s nice to know. I haven’t read anything negative yet.
Elle said you’re set to be the songstress of 2016 and another magazine described you as being “one of 2016’s biggest musical anticipations.”
Rosie: Ahhhh! That’s so, so nice.
It does mean of course you’ve got a lot to live up to. Is that a daunting prospect for someone who hasn’t been in the public eye for long?
Rosie: If it’s for the music, that’s fine. I try not to think about it too much, because it can be very scary. I can’t imagine that I’d ever be famous in a particular way, I just can’t imagine it.
In most press photos, you don’t smile. Is that a conscious thing? Is smiling something someone’s told you not to do?
Rosie: No one tells me not to do something. It is a conscious thing. I guess I know how I want to look visually. It’s all about fitting the music. I’m not actively choosing not to smile or trying to make a statement. All my press photos have a particular aesthetic that is in keeping with my album artwork and of course my music, which touches on personal, deep and often sad stuff, therefore I suppose it’s less suited to big smiles. I don’t put that many photos out. That’s because I want to be known for my music, not my image.
Words: Gary Marlowe
Photo: Images Out Of The Ordinary
Follow Rosie at @rosielowemusic
Rosie’s album Control is out now