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An interview with singer songwriter Roxy Rawson

Meet Miss Roxy Rawson, African aid worker by day and very talented musician by night. Her peculiar but highly infectious sound is influenced by the art house rock and folk of her childhood as well as her training as a classical musician

Written by Kat Phan

Roxy Rawson by Matilde Sazio.

Roxy Rawson isn’t your average singer-songwriter, no. For a start, there’s her quirky lyrics which cover topics as diverse as throwing apricot trees out of windows, philanthropy, pixies, cooks and thieves. Then there’s the entertaining use of her onstage instrument of choice, the violin, to create compelling sounds, which include her using a pen to ‘play’ it or treating it in the same way as one would a guitar. And when the singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist is not in the studio or on stage flexing her musical and vocal muscles, she is working as a political activist, developing programmes on how to improve the infrastructure of African countries with the London-based NGO Justice Africa. Intrigued by this impressive young woman? So you should be.

A classically trained musician who studied at the Paris Conservatoire, Rawson first discovered her voice through joining an African choir (more on this later) and has since been wowing pretty much everyone who has had the privilege of seeing her on the gig circuit. Describing her own sound as “plucky, percussive, emotional-ballsy”, Rawson has built a loyal fan base over the years with her unconventional lyrics and sound, which continues to grow.

Bursting with creative energy and genuine talent with a warm, sincere and gentle demeanour, the angelic-faced Rawson has the qualities of someone who deserves to be very successful indeed. Already counting Rob da Bank and BBC Radio 6 as her fans, 2012 spells big things for the London-born songstress who spoke to Amelia’s magazine about some of her musical influences, being compared to Regina Spektor and her aid work.

Roxy Rawson by Matilde Sazio.

You trained as a classical musician. How do you think this has influenced your musical style?
I think of chords in quite a classical way as in from the actual classical period when Mozart and Haydn were writing. The chords are quite uncluttered and not as nuanced as much as later music – but I’m starting to want more dissonance, colour and violence in the chords… similar to what you hear in modern jazz, Liszt and Brahms.

What did you listen to when you were growing up? 
There was a lot of popular music from the ‘60s and ‘70s in the background on my mum’s record player; also art house rock and folk: King Crimson, Joni Mitchell, The Police, The B52s, The Proclaimers, The Eurythmics, early Rod Stewart, The Kinks, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, loots of David Bowie (my mum was a BIG fan). Also jazz and funk like Prince, Stevie Wonder and reggae like UB40 and Bob Marley and older songs by Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Jacques Brel and few bits of classical, Debussy and Bach.

When did you first realise you could sing? How did you “find” your voice?
I was in the choir at school and completely loved it, but was never brave enough to put myself forward for solos. When I was studying in Paris, I joined an African choir and had to learn some songs to sing for one of my classes. I remember really enjoying working on those songs and that the choir had primed me for it as well. From then on, I’d walk around the Parisian streets humming and singing to myself. I had a friend that loved jazz standards and I remember walking and singing in Paris all day with her…

At which point did you decide you wanted to pursue a singing career?
I knew I wanted to sing during the year I had my finals exams for my degree and started to write songs afterwards. At the time, I didn’t realise it could be a “career” per se as I just wanted to sing and compose for myself (after years of rendering other people’s music, great as it was). But then in 2008, Ambiguous Records contacted me through listening to my music on Myspace, which is when I realised I could, perhaps, make a career out of it.

You have often been referred to as the British Regina Spektor. Why do you think people draw this comparison and does it annoy you?
When I first started experimenting with making music, I listened to her a lot. I found it really refreshing to hear someone sing songs in the same kind of way I wanted to produce music and it gave me the courage to keep experimenting. The comparison doesn’t annoy me at all because I love her. I think we are similar in that we like to make quite stripped down music and are willing to be a little eccentric, but we’re quite different in other ways – her songs tell stories and though they are well constructed and lovely to listen to on a musical level, the emphasis is on the words and the stories she tells. My words have started to have more emphasis and some of them have stories – but the stories aren’t clear in their language. They are quite dreamlike / hazy and about conveying emotion. I like to convey the emotion through texture, dynamics and timbre – the types of sounds that can be put together, rather than an emphasis on the words.

Who are your greatest inspirations?
Hard life lessons (which can be alchemised through music) and opposites in feeling and in the physical world – light / dark, hard / soft, colours and black – I like to see these things in music and when I listen, I often see those things.

Any guilty pleasures?
Beyonce! Pop music with bounce! I love it.

What has been your most memorable gig to date and why?
St Barnabas Church in Soho. Because everything went awry before, my drummer couldn’t make it, my cello player stormed out of rehearsal – I didn’t know who was coming…it was a disaster. But I took myself off back stage and ignored them all, to de-stress myself before going on stage and somehow it all came together, the drummer turned up just in time, I felt enveloped by the warm audience and we played better then we’ve ever done.

You have a lovely, genuine and engaging onstage presence – have you always approached being onstage in your stride?
I have atrocious stage fright most times I play! It happens every time but it depends on how I deal with it. Sometimes I just play and ignore it, sometimes it’s difficult! But I think I’ve been starting to surmount it this year.

What have you found to be the biggest challenges of being an artist on the current music scene today? What things frustrate you?
The relentless self-promotion that you have to be doing these days if you want to get anywhere. You could spend most of your week tending to your music web pages if you do it all yourself… I don’t like computers so I tend to not to do that enough!

Aside from being a musician, you also work for the NGO, Justice Africa. How did you get involved in this?
I started volunteering for them a few years ago and they offered me a job. Since returning from Paris, I felt more aware of global inequality as I met people from all diff countries and walks of life. I studied an evening course in development, I travelled further to Africa and China and knew if I was going to work a day job, I wanted to work in development. But I wanted to work for an innovative NGO that didn’t dictate development needs. I wanted to work for a responsive organisation.

I can imagine working in this field must bring you into contact with some very depressing things. How do you deal with it and how has it influenced the way you live your life?
It can be depressing – yes – really distressing actually. My ex-boss’ family were caught up in the conflict in South Kordofan in Sudan recently. But I think it depresses me more if I’m not doing something that might in some way contribute to difficulties I’m aware of. I believe in what the organisation I work for does and so that is in itself quite uplifting.

What do you like to do to unwind? What puts you in a peaceful state of mind?
Reading, meditating and taking long walks in nature.

What’s next for you? 
My new album is due for release in 2012. There’s lots of work to do for that and I’m planning a pledge campaign to try to fundraise for the remaining funds I need to raise to finish! I’m also gathering ideas and listening to lots to inspire me to write the next round of songs.

Roxy’s next gig is on 1st December 2011, at The Hawley Arms. For more information, click here.


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