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Rose Elinor Dougall

To the Beat of a Different Drum

Oct 22, 2010 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Last month, Rose Elinor Dougall spoke with Under the Radar about her participation on the new Mark Ronson album, Record Collection (see our current issue). However, she was kind enough to also spend some time giving us the scoop on her own new, fantastic solo debut, Without Why. While Dougall understands the need for reviews to reference her status as a former member of British pop sensations The Pipettes, her new album, with its soulful, ethereal, atmospheric vibe might be as far away from her former group’s bouncy pop stylings as one might imagine. The transcript of our conversation is below, starting with Dougall addressing her work with Ronson and proceeding to a discussion of her stellar debut. In the coming months, Dougall will be showcasing her new tunes on the road opening for Ronson, after which she will perform as a member of Ronson’s band, playing keyboards and singing.

Frank Valish: I understand that when Mark Ronson asked you to work on his record, he’d heard the “Stop/Start/Synchro” single, and he was also familiar with The Pipettes. How familiar were you of his work? Were you a big fan of Version?

Rose Elinor Dougall: Well, it’s obvious that it was pretty impossible to escape that record if you were living in England at that time. And I’d loved what he’d done with Amy [Winehouse], obviously. I was just really aware of and respected the fact that he really had a wide range of references, understood where pop music came from, and wanted to treat it in a respectful sort of way with a bit of integrity. Because you can hear that in the way his recordings sound. He had an appreciation of that classic music, which is something obviously I was a big fan of. But in a way, when he asked me to work with him, it was quite clear that he was beginning to carve out a new sound for himself, and that was the thing that really made me excited about it. It wasn’t really like, “Oh, I want to be part of a record that sounds like his last one,” or any of that stuff. It was just the opportunity to be involved with something fresh and new and experimental and that would challenge me as well.

When I talked with Mark, we talked a lot about the idea thatfor many, especially in EnglandVersion was almost derided for its danceable reinterpretations of really seminal songs. What side of the argument did you fall on initially with that record?

Probably a bit of both to be honest. Initially, I thought it sounded cool, but I heard it so much. It’s really difficult for me to talk about this, but the Morrissey cover was my point [of contention], just being a really massive Smiths fan. I thought the whole thing just got a bit out of hand. It became a kind of paparazzi issue. He was going out with [model] Daisy Lowe, and blah blah blah, and it didn’t really bare any relevancy to the record.

You mentioned that Mark wanted to move in a bit of a different direction with Record Collection. Do you feel that he was enticed by the fact that you were moving in a different direction yourself?

Maybe. I can’t speak for him, obviously. But I would hope that my own record shows that I had a bit of breadth in terms of my attitude toward songwriting, and that was something that I wasn’t afraid to go into paths that were new. I think that he’d heard my voice and the sound of what I was doing and it bore some-that’s where I see kind of synth-y quality in terms of my songs-relation to some of the ideas that he was formulating for himself. The thing was, when I met him, the record was in its very early stages. There weren’t really any proper songs finished or anything, so there wasn’t a huge amount to go on. We talked about some bands that we liked, and the next thing I was in Brooklyn and surrounded by all these vintage synths. And I was a massive fan of that sound. I was making my record on Casiotones and all this stuff, so it felt relevant to my own process…. It was quite a free, experimental kind of process really. That was very exciting. There was nothing rigid about it. For me especially, coming from a band like The Pipettes, which had a very defined construct and aesthetic, motif and everything that was quite rigid, it was important that I wasn’t going to involve myself in something that also was so of a type and overly referential, because I think his record is a combination of a lot of different thing and is quite an odd mixture of reference points. That’s what makes it fresh sounding to me. So it felt like a valid, creative decision for me to be involved, and I had the opportunity to bring my own influences and they were very much embraced within the whole working environment. I think that is what Mark is really good at, sort of letting everybody that he collaborates with feel comfortable to bring their own ideas to the table, and I didn’t have to do anything I was uncomfortable with. Because that would have been a pointless thing. I didn’t just want to be some girl coming along, just singing some songs. I wanted to have a part to play in the way the songs were constructed, because that’s important to me.

I wonder whether it was at all anxiety-provoking for you to collaborate before you really had anything out as a solo artistor established your solo vision as it were.

Yeah, absolutely. That was something that I was very conscious of, having worked quite hard to get myself in the position to even be recording my own record, and taking quite a few risks in that. I was very keen not to be in a position where it looked like I was sort of jumping on the coattails of someone who is more successful than me. That’s not what I’m in it for. It really was just a case of having another creative opportunity and broadening my horizons, and getting to work in context I never would on my own, but I suppose I felt that Mark’s really supportive of my output and the timing of the releases. My record’s already out and I feel comfortable with the way that that’s gone and I don’t feel the need to justify why and what. They’re two separate things. But it’s terribly nerve wracking. It was like a very alien situation to have found myself in. I was recording my little record in Brighton in a tiny studio, at this point I wasn’t even assigned to a label. Then suddenly out of the blue being asked to come and collaborate on a record with some people who are incredibly well-respected and successful and in a foreign country. It’s like, “What the fuck am I? Are you sure you mean me?” [Laughs]. Like, “What am I doing here?” It was just really interesting for me as well to re-enter that pop world a bit, after leaving it behind for the last couple of years. I was kind of interested to see how I functioned within it. And it is very possible that I would’ve turned up and it wouldn’t have worked out. And I sort of felt like, “Well, fuck it. Let’s just go and see what happens.”

How much of your record was done when you came to Brooklyn that summer?

Pretty much all the songs were written. I still had another six months ahead of me, and I think I felt quite sort of entrenched within the whole process. It was nice to liberate myself from that whole thing for a few weeks and just forget about it, and then I came back feeling invigorated and with fresh ears, and then was the final push to get the whole thing finished.

I understand that Without Why was something of a process in terms of the songs morphing from how they were originally conceived, and then changing as you played more with your band, did dates and stuff. How much did your album change from how you originally may have conceptualized it?

Massively. The record really just began in the tiniest way. It was just a bunch of bedroom recordings I made on a Casiotone keyboard on Garage Band. They were just kernels of ideas. The songs were formed but sonically there was a huge amount of work to be done to them. I suppose that was part of the reason why it did take me so long to finish the record. It’s because, it being my first solo album, I really wanted to sort of carve out my own sound and work out exactly what it was I wanted to do. And a lot of the songs went through various different incarnations. We worked on arrangements for weeks and then I’d end up in the studio to play with the band, and then new ideas would come out of it, or we’d sort of feel that it wasn’t working the right way. I remember the last week of recording we scrapped a whole version that we’d been working on for about two months and ended up just doing an acoustic track, with a song called “Third Attempt.” Just doing it in one afternoon. That process was something I really wanted for myself, and to feel that I sort of pulled all of my songs apart and put them back together again and that everything that is on those recordings is there for the right reason. And I was very lucky to find that opportunity in working with [producer] Lee Baker, so through that I feel like I’ve learned an enormous amount and I’m very grateful for that.

Did you go in pretty much knowing what you wanted the record to sound like when you were going to release it?

Well, I had a lot of reference points that were very important to me. Like I loved the sound of Cocteau Twins records. But it was something that forms itself, and I didn’t want to be too premeditated in it. It kind of unraveled organically. The main thing was that the songs I had were very, very personal and I needed to find a way of sort of letting those things come to fruition. But I was also very keen not to make a maudlin, folky record. I wanted there to be sort of light and shade and let there be sonic soundscapes within it. So there was a filmic thing that I had had in mind myself at the time. But it was quite an open book at the beginning. I think me and Lee slowly found our rhythm within it.

When you left The Pipettes, what music did you find that you initially gravitated toward in finding your own style, now that you weren’t beholden to the concept of the theme of The Pipettes?

Bands like Broadcast or Cocteau Twins. I was listening to quite a lot of classical music, like Debussy. And I’ve always had a long love of English folk singers like Sandy Denny or Bridget St. John, John Martyn. So those were all key reference points when I think about writing the songs. And Steve Reich I listened to quite a lot of. Loads of different things really. I guess it’s just this sort of collection of records that sort of represents the music I was listening to over the sort of course of a few years. That was music I was listening to even when I was in The Pipettes. They felt like mine in some way. That was representative of what I was interested in sonically.

You come from a musical familyyour father is a musician and your brother is in your band. How much of creating this album was like a coming home of sorts, compared with what you were doing before?

Very much so. I think it definitely took me a while after leaving [The Pipettes] to sort of learn to re-trust my instincts, my own personal instincts that weren’t geared toward working toward this bigger picture that I had in my other band. It took a while to sort of feel comfortable with, because I didn’t really have anyone to sort of go, “Is this alright?,” whereas I did before. And I kind of knew how to write for The Pipettes. To learn how to write for myselfbecause I had done that a bit before I joined The Pipettes, but I was only 16 or 17 at that pointwas very much a case of trying to get back in touch with myself and working out who I wanted to be as a songwriter, without any shackles of my previous musical endeavors.

Was there ever worry about how your Pipettes audience would perceive or receive your new music?

I guess. The thing is, I knew I wasn’t really going to make a record necessarily for that audience. Obviously, I’m really thrilled that some of the fans of that other band have supported me through this new phase. It wasn’t a rejection of that. It was just a case of it wasn’t really a relevant thing. I was just kind of worried generally about how it would be received. I didn’t really think about who I was writing it for, if that makes sense. I was doing it in a quite relative obscurity. I didn’t even know if anyone would give a flying fuck about the fact that I was making a record or not. That wasn’t the main thing in my mind. I was just wanting to make the best recordings I could, that felt right.

When we spoke with you in December, you mentioned being uncertain how you felt about the album, as not many people had heard it and it was still very much yours alone. Now that people have heard the album, what kind of feedback have you been getting and how have you come to feel about the final product?

I’m very proud of it. I’m not being arrogant about it. I feel like it’s something of an achievement that it exists at all, having really no help financially or any of those kind of things. It wasn’t part of any big wheel. I feel like there’s a lot of love put into it from the people who worked on it with me, and it feels like it feels like a real memento of that time that it took, those two years it took to write it and finally finish mastering it in January of this year. I guess it feels honest, and it reflects that kind of 22-, 23-year-old girl that wrote it. No one’s said anything really horrible about it yet. Without wanting to be defined by people’s reactions, it’s more of a level of satisfaction that I’ve gotten from the fact that some people seem to really like it. Because obviously, that’s kind of what you want, if you’re going to bother making these things in the first place.

When you do something like this, are you able to feel that when it’s done, it’s done and whatever happens will happen, or is there a point where it’s done and close to coming out, and you start to worry?

A bit of both. I feel like definitely now that it’s out, I feel quite liberated from it. And I do feel very much quite fatalistic about it. It will do its thing and I don’t feel this enormous pressure to achieve a certain level of record sales or any of that sort of thing. But obviously, before it came out, before any of the big reviews came out, I was like, “Oh Christ.” It suddenly all became a bit like, “Shit, shit, shit.” But I would want to feel that way about it, because I obviously care about the thing I’ve done. But yeah, I do feel quite sort of free from it now. And I’m already thinking about making the next one.

How do you feel about your solo album and the new Pipettes album coming out within a month of each other? Is that something that is bittersweet in a way for you?

I haven’t really thought about it like that. It does feel separate. There’s no way, regardless of when their record came out, that every review of mine wouldn’t mention that other band. It was just sort of inevitable. My record and theirs are two very separate things, and they don’t really bare a huge amount of relationship to each other. So I don’t really feel competitive in that way. I’m more than happy to let them have their moment. And I still feel like I had my couple of weeks where I was in a couple of papers, and I’ve had my little moment in the sun. And we can move on now. And I wish them all the better. I truly do.

It’s been just about two years since you played your first gig solo. What have you learned about yourself and your art, the artist you were and the artist you want to be, in that time?

An awful lot. I think I feel lot more comfortable with my voice for example. Just having the opportunity to actually really sing or understand how I wanted to sing, and learning about what my voice could actually do again, having been sort of relatively restricted in my previous band. And I don’t feel quite as needy about the whole thing as I did before. And I think that might have something to do with the fact that I finally have got this record out that I feel kind of justifies what this all was about. And so, and I feel as a band we’ve developed our sound, we have a sonic aesthetic of our own that feels kind of comfortable, leading toward something fresh and new for us for this next batch of recordings we’re about to get involved with. I don’t know. I guess I feel a lot more confident about it. When I first started out playing shows, I found it really difficult not having those things to hide behind, like costumes or dance moves, and knowing how to engage an audience, and I felt quite exposed. I don’t feel as naked now about it. I’m sort of a bit more like, “This is where it is and if you don’t like it, then sorry, whatever.” I don’t have that sort of, “Please like me. Hi, I’m Rose” kind of thing. I think I’ll always have a little bit of that in me, but I feel I’ve kind of gotten over that a bit, so I can start enjoying it a bit more now. (


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October 22nd 2010

Nice chat! I can’t wait to see the Rose/Ronson tour.

October 23rd 2010

In depth and insightful, very good.  And as for her comment about her record and one of another band “not bearing a huge amount of relationship to each other”, I think you could say that between the record she recorded with the other band and the one they have now released. 
Without Why is head and shoulders (and torso) above the other. A brilliant record.

October 24th 2010

Without Why is the kind of record that people will still be writing about in 20 years.

December 16th 2010

Great voice but just very, very dull. The Ronson thing is embarrassing too :(