Roxanne De Bastion – On her forthcoming album, loss, Brexit and working with Bernard Butler
Berlin-born London-based singer-songwriter Roxanne de Bastion’s latest single the beautiful “I Remember Everything” was inspired by a documentary about Kim Peek, the man whom Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rain Man was based on. It’s from her forthcoming album You and Me We Are The Same produced by Bernard Butler and written during a time when her father was gravely ill. However, she insists it’s not a sad album, “It has moments of euphoria, of fun, of falling in love, as well as falling apart,” because as Roxanne explains “all those things still happen, even in our darkest chapters.”
We had a chat with her about the single and album, as well as her work on the Board of directors for the FAC (Featured Artist Coalition), the potentially devastating effects of Brexit for musicians, and reaching out to Bernard Butler – which Butler describes thus “some cold calls turn into beautiful projects.”
VP: You’ve just released a new song – “I Remember Everything” from your forthcoming album which is inspired by Kim Peek, the man upon whom Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man is based. What was it about Peek that energised you to write this song?
Roxanne: I’m not a very disciplined songwriter and generally don’t write songs that are this specific. I kind of randomly watched a YouTube documentary on Kim Peek and I was so moved. We still live in a society where we constantly underestimate people who are Neurodiverse and whose brains work differently and he was such an incredible example of that. The Doctors advised his parent to essentially give up on their child suggesting he wouldn’t have a long or fulfilled life. But he turned out to live well into his fifties and became quite the rock star! I found it so fascinating that although he lacked “theory of mind,” that -“ I think I know what you’re feeling or thinking from your body language” he could still come out with the most poetic insightful one-liners. I think what really touched me was that they were mostly about his Dad who was his carer. I had such a special relationship with my Dad and that really struck a chord. So he would say beautiful things out of the blue such as “my Dad and I share a shadow .” I was really moved and it just goes to show that parental love and encouragement can make all the difference in anybody’s life and also serves as a reminder to never underestimate somebody just because they are different to you in some way.
Your forthcoming album You & Me, We Are The Same was written over the period you were losing your Dad but despite this, you’ve said it’s not a sad album
Roxanne: Parental loss is a very hard thing to go through, it can be quite disorientating. Firstly my Dad was my best friend and he was also a musician, playing Beatles songs with him was my favourite thing and what musical knowledge I have came from him. I also think when you spend a lot of time with somebody with an illness there’s a lot of cognitive dissonance. You’re in a heightened state of emotion so on one hand, you’re grieving for the loss to come and yet you’re also thankful for the time you have left. So I felt really lucky that even when my Dad wasn’t well he was so strong and we spent that time filling it with beautiful moments. So everything about this album was a gift, from emailing Bernard Butler out of the blue who was so sensitive to the situation to the fact that I got the chance to record these songs and share some of them with my Dad. I was surprised how joyous it sounds, obviously, there are a few songs that do deal specifically with the sadness and the grief but I feel that gives it a genuine mix of emotions. Because my Dad was still with me at the time it gave me the impetuses to make this album the best I can and it was a gift that he did have the chance to hear it when it was almost finished.
There some really interesting lyrics for example on your previous single “Molecules” you sing “You can internalise opinion and call it fact” which reminds me of Twitter and the manipulation of the truth
Roxanne: That was the exact thinking behind it at the time and in particular certain politicians. I mean isn’t it refreshing not to have to listen to Trump anymore? I still have so much frustration at the shamelessness of politicians. How do they have the gall to tell blatant lies with a straight face? It’s the Emperors’ New Clothes and it’s so frustrating when you point out they are naked and yet people still believe these lies and still vote for them. It just occurred to me that both “Molecules” and “I Remember Everything” were kind of inspired by documentaries. For “Molecules,” I remember watching something where somebody said you could see molecules react to sound. I just ran with that imagery and wrote all the lyrics to “Molecules” in a few minutes.
I was fascinated by that concept and the idea that if there was such a thing as divinity maybe it’s that small on a molecular level.
You’ve worked with Bernard Butler for this album, what made you reach out to Bernard?
Roxanne: I love the combination of strings and electric guitars, and I’m a big fan of Bernard’s string arrangements which are just so beautiful “Yes” is probably the ultimate example of that. A friend of mine said at a music networking event, as a kind of throwaway remark “oh you should work with Bernard Butler” and that kind of stuck in my head. As a musician you email so many people and you hope something sticks and so I emailed Bernard and he got back to me and asked me to send some demos “the rougher the better”.
So I sent a demo of “Molecules” and one or two others and he got back straight away and said these are great. So we met, we got on and we started recording together, it was that easy, and I loved working with him. I like working with producers who are also songwriters and Bernard has such a great sensibility of how to support a song and present it in its best clothes. For example, I presented “I Remember Everything” pretty much finished as it is now, but Bernard nudged me with simple suggestions to polish it such as singing the chorus an octave higher at the end. I had quite an inhibition because I didn’t think I could reach that high, and said to him “doesn’t that sound a bit strained?” His reply, which I should print out and the frame was “better strained than restrained” which was true, I really needed to let go and he had such an encouraging way of getting me to push myself.
Its been quite a time for artists, trying to survive during a pandemic, with no gigs and the Brexit nightmare. As an advocate for artists, what do you make of the government response, in terms of support or the lack of?
Roxanne: It’s been incredibly frustrating. I’m on the board of the Featured Artist Collation which is the UK trade body for artists. I mean first, we’ve got Brexit, the government love to bandy about phrases such as “world-beating” and music is actually one of the areas in which the UK is genuinely is world-beating, not just in terms of the money it brings in but that cultural exchange and that kind of soft power that music brings is immense and shouldn’t be underestimated. The fact the government aren’t paying it any attention is heartbreaking. The music industry was promised that the government would come up with solutions for free travel and the right to work post-Brexit and we’ve just been hung out to dry. Never mind solutions we haven’t even had any guidance yet. It’s just not sustainable to think that each musician can negotiate with every country and deal with all the separate regulations and additional administration.
It’s great that huge artists like Elton John have been vocal about the Let The Music Move campaign, but as he says it’s fine for somebody like him, for megastars and established artists but for any independent artist starting out, how can they build a career if they can’t play anywhere other than this tiny island? People say “oh yeah, but bands tour America.” They don’t really, even bands on major labels from the UK make a loss.
It’s great that some of us, including myself, did get some self-employed support during the pandemic but we really had to lobby for that. But so many in and around the music industry and the arts fell through the cracks and were left out. The Arts Council is under such a burden – before the pandemic the project grants scheme for example had a success rate of about 60% and now it’s about 10%, there is just so much demand. And this is often just to make ends meet, it’s not even about growing your career as a musician.
The irony of Brexit is that people voted to leave the EU to escape this fictional red tape and we now face even more actual red tape. For example, “carnets”, which is a list of all the equipment you’re taking into the EU and then back into the UK. So now we’re in a position whereby if I do tour Europe and lose so much as a guitar pick or a drumstick I can be fined. It’s just not sustainable and the fact Lord Frost says it’s a matter of immigration is insane, surely it’s a matter of trade, nobody’s ever said: “all those pesky French clarinet players coming over here stealing our jobs.” I am optimistic that we will get a solution. We have to. It’s that important.
Do artists need record labels anymore, do you think there can be a sustainable model that might arise from the pandemic in which artists can control their creativity and be financially rewarded?
Roxanne: I tend to be an optimistic person. What fuels my optimism is the artist-led campaigns. Imogen Heap, for example, is an amazing artist and she also has the “Creative Passport “ initiative. I’ll try and put this in simple terms. Essentially the artist sits at the heart of the music distribution and owns the data. There is one definitive artist hub, namely the “Creative Passport” in which the artist controls all the data, ie the metadata that allows the artist to get paid. If all artist’s controlled that it would be a much better ecosystem.
Historically the music industry has been run on smoke and mirrors with artists not exactly being encouraged to know how things work. When I explain how a record deal works to somebody outside of music, they can’t believe it, they can’t believe it’s even legal. Even an example of a best practice indie deal still isn’t that great. Now that’s not to say there aren’t great indie labels and deals out there, so there is still a place for teams and that traditional structure, it’s just that historically deals haven’t been very fair or transparent and it is a system that benefits some and not all.
There are so many more resources now for artists, which is what the Featured Artists Collation can help with. The fact that independent artists have made careers outside of that traditional structure has made the industry take notice. The Grime scene is such a great example, they had no traditional structure, nobody supported them, there was no financial investment so they made their own model and were so successful that the industry turned around and said: “we’d like a slice of this too please.” The internet has democratised things somewhat allowing artists to make their own decisions and pick and chose what works for them, it’s not an easy career and it’s not glamorous, but it never has been, that’s always been a bit of an illusion and its always been a very select few for whom that traditional system has worked for. The most exciting thing about this redistribution of power is that we are starting to hear more art from women, from black people from people from all the corners of the world. We are slowly starting to hear their stories and see them share their culture and that’s a very beautiful thing.
Live dates opening for Nerina Pallot:
3/10 – Nottingham, Bodega
4/10 – Brighton, CHALK
9/10 – London, Lafayette
Live dates opening for Nerina Pallot:
15/10 – Cambridge, The Portland
18/10 – Camberly, The Camberly Theatre
23/10 – Newbury, Arlington Arts
25/10 – Milton Keynes, The Stables