British performer Rhodes’ star is quickly on the rise. Championed by some of the biggest names in radio in his homeland, selected to support some of the biggest names in the business (see : Rufus Wainwright, Laura Marling) and signing a label deal with the all-knowing Ministry Of Sound, it’s difficult to believe that just a few years ago, he didn’t much care for the sound of his own voice.
In Australia recently to support Hozier on his four Aussie shows, Rhodes took time out for a chat to auspOp about jetlag, collaborating with Birdy, comparisons to the legendary Jeff Buckley and conquering his fears.
Is this your first time in Australia?
Yeah, it’s the furthest I’ve ever been from home.
Does that frighten you a bit?
No, not really.
Are you good with travelling though?
Yeah… This is the first time I’ve really ever experienced jetlag for real. But it’s been cool. It’s been really good. We started in Perth, but it was just out of this world. It’s hard to gauge, but the first show was quite surreal because it was in an outdoor amphitheatre.
Yeah that’s right. So because of that, I feel like the crowd were quite considerate and quiet and were very aware of the surroundings. So you’re playing this show where there are crickets going in the bushes and things flying around your head. There was a snake in the dressing room.
Yeah! This is like everything I expected and more – all the stereotypes.
Kangaroo bouncing across…
Yeah, a little kangaroo bounced across the stage when I was playing. No it didn’t. But it was so nice. And I’ve done a couple of show supporting Hozier in Europe and his crowd are very attentive and respectful.
Well you’ve both got those voices that command attention, so they’d be hanging on every word and not wanting to miss anything. You’ve probably got the same type of audience in that respect, no?
I think so, yes. And that’s why I feel so grateful to be able to come and do shows with him, because having that similar crowd, I feel that anyone who’s not aware of my music… it’s a lot easier. In Europe and the UK I do my own shows, but as well as that, I’m still supporting and I feel like I’m still introducing myself to people for the first time. And it just makes that a lot easier when the crowd are of that ilk.
Well obviously, they’d go in with no expectations if they’ve never heard of you before. Then you’d open your mouth and the rest would be history, no doubt. Music seems to have played a major role in your life prior to this rollercoaster ride of a singing career. What was it that you wanted to be initially?
When I was a kid, I wanted to be a guitarist. I wanted to grow up and be a guitarist that people admired and wanted to listen to. My dad plays guitar and I remember watching him as a kid. I never had any lessons, but I watched him and was very inspired by this instrument that he had.
I’d wake up in the mornings – especially on the weekends – on Sundays… it was either a record playing or him playing real loud in the kitchen and it’d reverberate through the house. And I used to take his records and play along. Sit in my room whenever I could just playing along to Eric Clapton records, Led Zeppelin and The Who… all his old collection.
So yes. Ever since I can remember, I was just jamming with friends, playing guitar and then eventually, just before I started doing this, somehow I ended up playing bass guitar in a band for a while. Which wasn’t something I ever really wanted to do – I never really thought I would do that – but it ended up being a lot of fun and it taught me a lot about that section of a band – the rhythm section.
I developed a relationship with the drummer. We had this whole rhythm thing going on. And it taught me a lot about holding down that backbone of a song. So it was cool. And it gave me a little overview of arrangements… what needs to be there and what doesn’t.
So you always assumed that you were going to have a career in the music industry?
I never really imagined anything else.
No fallback then?
There was no fallback. And that was the frightening thing. When I moved into London… It was partly an excuse to move into London and also a bit of a fear of ‘what the hell am I going to do if this doesn’t work out’, I started studying music business. And I didn’t like it at all. I didn’t like that side of it. Music for me is something creative and artful and free. And when you start to get into that other side of it, it completely detracts from I loved about music.
So I then realized that I didn’t want to do that. So there was never a Plan B; a scary thing, but also what spurred me on to starting to sing and try and write my own music. It was something I’d never done before and I kind of got to that point where I thought if I don’t try then I’ll never know.
So given that you have studied that side of the business, you’re obviously a lot more knowledgeable about what goes on behind the scenes. Has your study made you more appreciative of that side of things?
I actually only lasted one semester at the course (he laughs). I left pretty much straight away. But yes, I am. I’ve got an understanding of the fact that they have obligations and I think I’m a lot more open to listening to others rather than just being on my own path and saying ‘don’t tell me what to do’.
I think it’s important to stay true to yourself, but also if someone has something to say, it’s important not to be too closed and to listen.
That voice. Well it was a bit of an accident. I used to try and sing occasionally – especially when I was in bands as a backing singer – but I used to have a mic in front of me and I’d never do it. I’d just pretend. I never thought it came out how I wanted it to. And I think it’s always that thing – like when you see a photo of yourself and you think ‘I didn’t realize I looked like that – I need to go to the gym’ or whatever. It’s like that. It’s that whole ‘looking in the mirror’ thing. And when I used to hear it back or hear it coming through a PA, I didn’t like it. I don’t think many people really like the sound of their own voice.
Me and my friend used to make radio stations when we were kids and listening back, I used to cringe so much. I just didn’t like it. So I’d just avoid it at all costs. The time I realized that perhaps I could do it, I was with my dad and it was a family party in his back garden with his friends. So sort of middle-aged mums and dads, me and my sister and a few of our friends just taking advantage of the free booze. My step mum said to me, ‘it would mean the absolute world to your dad if you would get up and sing a song with him’. My immediate reaction was ‘no’. But then I thought, ‘I’m just going to do this’.
I sang ‘Crossroads’. It’s a Robert Johnson song, but it’s the Cream version of it. They had a little PA set up in the garden, my dad plays guitar and all of his friends were jamming and playing and I just got up and sang. And they asked us to play it again immediately after we’d finished. So we did it again. My dad got quite emotional. And he ended up buying me a microphone.
It was a time when my dad was a little bit worried about what I was going to do with my life. Because even though he was into music and all that sort of stuff, he came from quite a poor family and worked his way up in businessy-type things. And he wanted me to do that. To be independent and to earn my own money. And I think I never really did. I didn’t want to go into business and I found it hard struggling with money for my whole life.
And I think that was the turning point. He started to realize that maybe music was the right thing for me to be doing. So he encouraged me to start doing that. And then it was just a case of me becoming comfortable with my own voice. So I literally locked myself away for a year in my flat in London. I worked at American Apparel during the day and then in the evenings, I’d come home, lock my door and write. Always with headphones on, listening back, becoming comfortable with hearing my voice back and how it sounded. So as soon as I was comfortable with it, I started to share the music.
There’s such a fragility and an emotiveness to your voice. To the way that you deliver a song. You’ve had comparisons to Jeff Buckley…
Well, you know. That’s one of those things which is very flattering…
Do you dismiss those kinds of compliments?
It’s a really nice thing for people to say. I don’t know whether I dismiss them, but I don’t necessarily take them on board. But it’s very kind. And it’s little things like that that make me feel a bit more confident in myself. That was the thing that held me back at first… that fear and the anxious feeling of exposing those emotions. It’s kind of hard.
So that fear… is that for smaller audiences or larger audiences? Do you find it easier to perform in front of your label in a boardroom setting or in a live venue in front of thousands?
Small audiences are definitely harder. The second show I ever did was a show with Rufus Wainwright. And it was like 2000 people. And I just remember feeling really anonymous coming onto the stage. It was so shadowy, with these silhouettes. That was my first experience playing on a big stage playing in front of a lot of people and it felt more like I was in a dream or something, because it was one spotlight on me in the middle and then this almost cascading silhouettes of peoples’ heads, so it was surreal. So that felt in a weird way a lot easier.
The fear isn’t really of performing. The fear is more of the physical act of singing. The performing part of it is something I’ve never found particularly hard. Performing is an art within itself. So that’s something that I’ve definitely developed and had to work on the whole time. My first ever show, I didn’t say a word. I just looked down the whole time. That wasn’t because I was scared of being on stage. That was because I was scared of singing. They’re so different.
Let’s talk about this album of yours, ‘Wishes’… How long have you been working on it for? Obviously there were a couple of EPs leading up to its release?
Because I’d not written songs of my own until I started doing this, it’s been only a couple of years. Those first demos I wrote and started working on… the album, I suppose, has been being written since then. I think the sentiment within the music has been there, so it really feels like a chapter.
It feels like I opened the book in March of 2013 and started writing about the ‘then and now’ and haven’t really thought too much about ‘the before’. I think what I was writing about was very consistent with the way I was feeling about the whole situation, but in doing that, you draw on memories and experiences. I always draw back to childhood, but I think that’s just something that I’ll always do.
But in terms of the writing, it’s been from day one, picking up that mic, plugging it in and coming up with the first couple of lines. The first two songs I wrote are on the album. And then there was a journey in between. So I realized that I’d written these songs and that was the way I liked to write. Then I went and explored sounds and structure and form and, I suppose, genre in a way too. I worked with lots of different producers. I never worked with any writers. Because I felt I wanted to keep the writing very much ‘me’. I’ve questioned that.
You’re allowed to be selfish, you know.
It’s weird. When you’re writing, if I got someone in… signing to a record label, they encourage you to go and write. You come into a room like this (virtually a white box) and take your guitar out, then someone introduces themselves and says ‘I wrote this and I wrote that’. It isn’t really the environment I want to be in. I don’t know this person either. There are drawbacks with that. Then there are also… I feel like I don’t think people wouldn’t feel so attached to the songs if they hadn’t just completely come from me.
But it would also be a case of you not being as comfortable performing them, given the words you’re delivering aren’t as genuine as they would be if they came solely from you.
Yeah, exactly. So there’s a certain amount more graft that goes with that. I was talking to Hozier about it as well.
Let us just pick that name up off the floor for you.
Was that a name drop?
Not really, no.
He was saying that he’d had a huge, huge hit with his song but he feels as though he’s of a certain type of music where it’s about getting out there and playing to people, building it and building it, rather than being somebody who just… there are artist who just have this instant thing. They’re thrust into the limelight and it’s sort of make or break within that first few weeks or months of being out there.
That’s never really been what I’m about. And I feel incredibly privileged and lucky to even be here on the other side of the world playing songs and to be honest, that was something I never thought would be possible with the kind of thing that I do. So I’m very prepared to graft, I suppose.
We wanted to ask about the Birdy duet ‘Let It All Go’ and how that collaboration came about?
I was quite afraid of entering into that duet kind of scenario, but we met and we were talking and we decided to get together and exchange a few ideas, but with no real intention. In my mind, the song was originally for her. Because she’s recording a new record at the moment. I had the piano part written already and I couldn’t really think of any lyrics. I had the melody. I thought it fitted with her.
And then we started working on it, I was singing a part of it, she was singing a part. The first version of the song, she sang the whole thing. And then we were talking and texting each other. When we were singing it in the room, we had this phone recording of when I sung the first verse and she sung the second. I thought that kind of worked. So we thought we should try and do a version. Then we re-recorded it with me singing the verse and it was just… still in my mind it was never going to be on my record…
Well yes, it was done through her label, yes?
It was, yes. She released it as a single of her own in Europe and then it was a little bit out of my hands. And then when I started to think about it more and more, I thought it really worked. And in the context of my album too, because it’s such a personal album… You get to that tenth track and it’s like a little bit of fresh air kind of thing…
I can’t believe her voice. She’s so small, but when she started singing that… she didn’t even warm up! When I start singing, if I don’t warm up… My voice feels like it’s going to fail. But she just started singing and I was just absolutely blown away by how beautiful it sounded.
So… Ministry Of Sound. From an outsider’s perspective, it seems like a very odd place for an artist of your genre to call home.
It was a shock to me too when my manager told me. I’d been meeting with all the labels that you could probably imagine. Then when he mentioned then, I thought, ‘really?, well I’ll go and meet them’. They’re still an independent record label and I think that was still very, very apparent even from the very first meeting. They had a different outlook, a different attitude.
Something I didn’t know before I’d met the A&R guys there is that London Grammar are signed to them too – with the same team. That kind of intrigued me because I loved the way they’d done it and the way they’d come from obscurity into what they’d become, seemingly from nothing. But then when you realize the work that went into behind the scenes – London Grammar had actually been working on their record for two years before anyone even knew who they were – I found that fascinating.
I really liked them and got on with them, so I thought maybe it was worth going with them. Because as well as really liking them and enjoying their company and thinking they were great guys, for me, I was going to be with an independent record label who were… I feel like with the majors sometimes – Sony are different – in the UK, it can seem a little bit at times like throwing everything aqt the wall and seeing what sticks. And people are easily forgotten about and left aside.
And I know with what I do, it’s about the long game and doing tonnes and tonnes of gigs, playing to the right crowds and doing the right thing. And that doesn’t always necessarily come in the first couple of weeks of releasing your album. So it’s about the longevity for me and I think they totally got that.
Hopefully those things will come after. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want chart success and things like that. Money doesn’t come into my head too often. I think perhaps it will when it comes to properly growing up. I don’t feel like I’ve had to properly grow up yet. It’s fun to be like that. I meet a lot of people within the creative industries who still – not that they don’t grow up – but they don’t ever seem to get that mentality of the daily grind.
Presumably you’ve also started work on the next album too?
Always writing, yes. I’m trying to keep on writing and figure out what the next… I like thinking about it in chapters. I don’t really want to go back and visit things that I’ve already done. There are lots of songs I wrote in the period for the first album that didn’t get used. I don’t really want to go back and revisit those.
I want to start new, so I’m trying to figure out what I’m going to write about and what kind of things I want to home in on and write something cohesive that follows on from the first album.
But still that will be incredibly personal…?
It’s going to be personal. And I don’t think will change too much sonically. I’d like to explore different sounds, but nothing too drastic.
I appreciate that. I think a lot of times, there’s a real pressure to change things up sonically for a second album.
When I was doing this record, I felt being signed to a label and having all these other peoples’ voices coming in and trying to have their say… Like I said earlier, it’s important to listen to people if they’ve got something to say and take it on board. But ultimately, if it’s deviating away from what your intention is, then it’s important to stick up for yourself, which I did. But there were also times when I was thinking, ‘actually, I wouldn’t have thought about using that kick drum sound, let’s do it’.
I think there were a few occasions where the songs got dragged in this direction and that direction and it got to a point where I started thinking that it had gone so far from where I had originally intended the song to be. I can hear that sometimes now when I’m listening to the album and it’s kind of… I think the second album I’ll probably try and be a bit more restrained in terms of trying to keep people happy. Because at the end of the day, people like to throw in their two pence worth.
Well we guess also at the end of the day, it’s your name there on the cover, so you’ve got to be happy with it.
There’s nothing I would change about the album how it is. I think it was a journey and it’s been captured. And there are memories within each of those little bits and I can hear these little parts. I worked with this guy called 1985 who’s a producer from America. He does Drake. I did that and I was sitting in the studio with this dude just thinking, ‘how the hell has this happened?’, but then feeling really good about it.
So one visit to Australia down… will we see you back down here for some more live shows soon?
I really, really hope so. It’s been amazing being here.
Rhodes’ singles ‘Close Your Eyes’ and ‘Let It All Go’ (with Birdy) are available digitally now.
His debut album ‘Wishes’ is available physically and digitally.