Interviews

Roxanne de Bastion: “Music is the best tool for empathy. It’s such a good way to feel things” – Interview



Roxanne de Bastion

Roxanne de Bastion

With a Glastonbury appearance, hundreds of gigs and a self-released debut album behind her, the Berlin-via-West-Midlands songwriter returns with a “cathartic” second work, produced by Bernard Butler

When we catch up with Roxanne de Bastion, her second album, You & Me, We Are The Same, is on the cusp of release. Having set herself up as a DIY musician, self-releasing her 2017 debut Heirlooms & Hearsay, playing over 500 gigs including two US tours, and creating a second set of material, she sent Bernard Butler a demo. As Butler says, “Some cold calls turn into beautiful projects…”

Yet despite her understandable pre-album launch nerves, de Bastion’s overwhelming senses are of relief and gratitude, for this is a deeply personal album which, not least thanks to a certain headline-grabbing virus, has been sat on for some time. “I’m really proud of it,” she says, “but it’s just been so strange because of the circumstances. We finished mastering in February 2020, just as everything was shutting down, and it’s been finished awhile. I just can’t wait for people to hear it.”

You & Me, We Are The Same is a particularly personal album, recorded as it was in the knowledge that de Bastion’s father was in the final stages of a terminal illness. “My dad and I were always very close,” she recalls, “and he was also a musician. His life was a mirror image to mine in a way – he was from the UK but moved to Berlin in the 1970s to make music. I was born and raised in Berlin, and then moved back, ironically. He was not only a great dad, but he was my music mentor – always the first person to hear my songs, my recordings, anything.”

They managed to work together on the album. “My dad fell ill just before the album project. It was a long, difficult process of preparing to leave the most important person of my life. I was so grateful I was actually in Berlin with him when I got my reply from Bernard, because I just sent him a cold email, to say, ‘I’d really like to work with you’. This can be a hard job at the best of times, so when things work out, it just feels so great. I was so happy at his reply saying, ‘Yeah, great, let’s meet’.”

The two quickly discovered common ground. “As it happens, Butler himself had a similar experience when he was just a couple of years younger than I am,” she says. “Sharing what I was going through at the time became a really good foundation for us working together, with it being very personal. We recorded at his house in stolen moments throughout 2019, because all the while I was to-ing and fro-ing between Berlin and here to spend time with my dad. It was very intense. I actually spoke to Bernard about this yesterday, and he had such a good way of putting it. In his words, he said, ‘There is a lot of beauty and melody in this album because of that heightened state of emotion’. I was so glad he said that, because that’s how I feel about it – and that’s why this album is not sad. It has its sad moments, but you are in this heightened state of awareness if you’re going the stages of grief. It means all the love or positivity is amplified, just as much as the pain. I think that really comes across in this album.”

There is an inner strength running not just through the lyrics but through de Bastion’s voice, which has a full, lower range and a penetrating tone. “Bernard and I were very much on the same page that the music starts and ends with the song. I grew up loving John Lennon, learning from how he is as honest and direct as he can be. I love that immediacy of vocal when it feels like it’s just in your ear. That’s important to me.”

Butler also helped in the release of difficult, pent-up feeling. “I was able to let go a bit more vocally, this time,” she says. “I think that must have to do with that heightened state of emotion as well, but also Bernard was really good at knowing when to push. I was a little bit inhibited, and again I think that was because of the grief. It made me shrink a little, but in the studio he would just take my song and say, ‘this last chorus, can you sing it an octave higher?’ My immediate reaction would be to be nervous about that, but he was so nonchalant about it in a way that really helped me. ‘Of course you can, just do it,’ he would say. I remember saying, ‘Does it not sound strange, though?’ He said ‘Better strained than restrained!’”

There are similarities in this approach and the one adopted by William Orbit when getting Madonna to sing Ray Of Light. “I know exactly what you mean,” says Roxanne. “I have that vocal ability on stage, and I feed off like the audience’s energy and feel that power, but I previously struggled to harness that same power in a studio. I’m really glad that I think I managed to do that a bit more.”

One of the album’s stand-out songs is London, I Miss You. A prime example of de Bastion’s direct approach, it emphasises how more songs could benefit in keeping their sentiments to the point. “It’s what I love about music,” she says. “I could almost go on about John Lennon forever. That first solo album is so direct, honest and straight to you that it hurts sometimes. I wrote London, I Miss You in Berlin. I haven’t talked about this in an interview yet, but I wrote that song at one of the worst times. My dad had just had the diagnosis and the first operation, and the seven hours of waiting to hear how the operation went was just excruciating. I didn’t know what to do with myself, so I sat at the piano that my dad has in Berlin. I sat at that instrument and wrote that song there, and recorded a little demo which I played to him a couple of days later. I was hoping that it would be a nice distraction for him. It was very intense, but again I’m so grateful that I have that creative outlet. It’s so wonderful that we have music, whether you’re listening to it or creating it. It’s the best tool for empathy, and it’s such a good way to feel things in a healthy way.”

Roxanne de Bastion

Roxanne de Bastion

Would it be possible to write an equivalent song about Berlin from London? “I have done that, yes – Wasteland, on my previous album Heirlooms & Hearsay, which I wrote in London. That’s the funny thing about having grown up in more than one culture and more than one place. There are many upsides, such as having two passports. The downside is that you’re never fully whole, because there’s always a part of you that’s somewhere else. When I’m in London, there’s always that missing of Berlin, and the life and people there; in Berlin there’s always London. I’m never fully at home anywhere, for that reason – but the nice flip side is that I have many homes.”

Across the pandemical times and amongst much else she performed on the Self Esteem-curated, all-female Pxssy Pandemique livestreamed festival alongside the likes of Låpsely and KT Tunstall, and managed her own live gig of sorts, broadcasting to subscribers via a solo set at the Moth Club in Hackney. It was as live as you could wish for, given the circumstances. “I was so glad with that,” she says. “I’m returning there for an album celebration show, so it will be it will feel really triumphant to be back in the same space… but with people.”

With the ongoing pandemic and restrictions as a result, was there ever a doubt the album would make it out to the public domain? “No, I was never worried that it wouldn’t see the light of day. I just really wanted to do it justice because I’m proud of it. Everyone’s in the same boat, though. Every artist has had to deal with cancelled shows, cancelled releases, and now there’s so much noise to try and get through.” She agrees that the pandemic has however had a positive side. “It’s really brought out the best in some people, and it’s amazing how people can get around certain problems and still get music heard.” 

De Bastion holds a number of important board positions in the music industry, notably at the Featured Artists Coalition (FAC) alongside members of Radiohead and Blur, and on the Performer Board at UK music licensing company PPL. Is the industry finally on the right track towards equality in these traditionally ‘white male’ areas? Her response is a considered one. “Unfortunately this is an issue that is far greater than the music industry, and it penetrates all aspects of society around the world. I think the music industry is being forced in a better direction. I’m generally a very optimistic person and as bleak as it can feel at times, I do think generally things are developing in the right direction. The short answer to that would be ‘Yes’, but it’s an odd feeling like when you grow up unaware of the limitations that will be put upon you.”

She elaborates. “I grew up in a liberal household in probably one of the most liberal, safest spots in the world in Berlin. I was completely unaware that people would be judging me differently because of my agenda, which undoubtedly happened. There is so much of that which is internalised as well, and it took me a long time to even see some of the injustices. It’s boring now, when festival line-ups are still so inadequate, boring that we need to shout out every year, boring that we need to have the same conversations and deal with the same uninformed responses to it.”

There are grounds for optimism, however. “I’m hopeful because there are so many great advocates within the industry who are really making change, whether Nadia Khan, with her Women In CTRL campaign, or Imogen Heap just leading by example, being an incredible artist and champion for artist rights. It is heading in the right direction, and I’m humbled to know some people who are doing incredible work. It would be nice if it would happen quicker.”

“To a certain degree you cannot rehearse being onstage in front of people, the adrenaline and the fear” – Roxanne de Bastion

The lack of reward experienced by the majority of musicians was accentuated by the pandemic, though de Bastion is keen to count her blessings. “I feel very lucky because I’m much closer to my fans now than I was before. Supporters of independent music really rallied, as much as artists did. I felt in safe hands. Yeah, that’s good. I set up a Patreon, which is not something I would have done pre-pandemic. But I really enjoy that platform now, and having that club of people who are willing to support my music with a subscription every month. I’m really humbled by that. Isn’t it interesting how the pandemic served as a little accelerator, shedding some light on issues that should have more attention before?”

One noticeable change was how Bandcamp became the new record shop for those in isolation. “That’s such a good example of how little it takes to make artists feel valued and appreciated,” she says. “Isn’t it interesting that Bandcamp doesn’t pay any royalties, but the fact they are sharing the data with artists and allowing fans to spend money directly with the artist is a completely different environment. We are grateful for that.”

We return to her experience of Patreon. “I decided against the tiers, using it more as a ‘pay what you can’ platform, with everyone getting the same things. I found that people just wanted to support me. I’ve shared demos of songs that I’ve just finished, that might never see the light of day, and it’s nice – especially now I no longer have that person that I would normally share it with first. It’s really nice to have a group of excited people who are happy to receive new songs that might may or may not become songs in my set. Another thing I really enjoyed, that surprised me and shouldn’t have, is the regular Q&As that I do. I find that music fans want to understand more about the industry and how they can help the artists they like. I’ve enjoyed that exchange.” Beyond her fan base, does she feel creative quality been valued enough in the UK more generally? “This is more of a wider point but it’s such a shame that art isn’t valued more in our society, particularly in the educational sector. Creative thinking and problem solving is needed in all aspects of life, and I think this was a really good example of how independent musicians did not hang back. We just jumped into action to find new ways of doing things.”

De Bastion is relishing the return of live music, too, as the calendar is beginning to fill. “I’m touring in October, so hopefully by a couple of shows in I will be fine. I’m opening for Nerina Pallot on some UK dates. I played at the Victorious Festival, which was both amazing and strange, because I do feel so out of practice! I never used to rehearse because I was always gigging; I’d usually play between 60 and 80 shows a year, in small music venues, libraries, coffee shops, what have you. I’d forgotten how to do it, and I know I’m not alone in that. To a certain degree you cannot rehearse being onstage in front of people, the adrenaline and the fear.”

Roxanne de Bastion’s album You & Me, We Are The Same is out now through Nomad Songs. Tour dates and further information can be found at roxannedebastion.com


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Roxanne de Bastion: “Music is the best tool for empathy. It’s such a good way to feel things” – Interview
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