Having previously branched out into composing music for film and television, Blur drummer Dave Rowntree has now released his first solo album. Titled Radio Songs, the electronic-based album revolves around the concept of turning a radio dial and landing each time on a song with its own unique identity. While there are creative soundscapes throughout, melody always dominates, and the album represents Rowntree’s first foray into lead vocals. Rowntree sees this as an ongoing project and hopes to perform the material live extensively when he can find the time outside of Blur. Over a Zoom interview, he discussed the motivations behind the making of Radio Songs.
What led you to release a solo album at this point in time?
Dave Rowntree: Well, songwriting is something I’ve always done. I guess it was about having the confidence to take that final step to launch into a solo album project. And I got that confidence, really, from the film composing work I’ve been doing over the past six or seven years. So, the success of my career with doing that kind of gave me the confidence to think about taking the next step with my solo songs. And then really it was the second lockdown that gave me the opportunity to do it. It probably still would be a half-finished project, were it not for that.
During the first lockdown, I was still working on a TV series for most of that time, but by the second lockdown, the film industry in the UK ground to a halt. And I found myself in my studio twiddling my thumbs with nothing to do, and the producer, Leo Abrahams, was in a similar situation. We’d resolved to work together at some point in the distant future, but we both found ourselves sitting in our studios with nothing to do. And we thought we’d at least make a start. And then, when the lockdown had finished, we’d get back together and finish off the album. But six weeks or so later, the album was finished, and it turned out to be a very, very efficient way of working.
You mentioned how the soundtrack work gave you confidence in your own music. In what way do you think it may have shaped or changed your creative process? What impact did it have on what you’re doing with your solo material?
Dave Rowntree: In a very real way, because my studio here is set up for making soundtracks. That’s what I’ve got. It’s not a rock and roll studio, so there are no drum kits; it’s not set up for that kind of thing. The instruments I have are the instruments you make film soundtracks with. So that was necessarily going to bleed over into the solo album. Also, the approach to making sounds when you’re doing film scores is different from the traditional pop way of doing things, because film soundtracks tend to be very sparse. There might be one violin note that lasts for the whole scene. So it’s all about making that sound interesting and making it change in subtle and interesting ways to kind of keep the viewer’s attention and keep the emotion you’re trying to convey. So I try to bring that ethos to the album as well.
When you were getting into soundtrack music, were you thinking at all about how some of what you were doing might work within more pop structures?
Dave Rowntree: No, not really. When you’re working on a film, it’s absolutely full-on. I’ll be working all the hours of the day for months on end. There’s not really a moment to pause and think about how you are developing as a musician. Once you have an idea, it is banked. So you don’t need to figure out how to apply it to your other work. That kind of all comes quite naturally, I found.
In terms of the overall concept for this album, did you have that idea going into it? Or did that evolve as you started working on the music and bringing things together?
Dave Rowntree: Both really. I knew roughly what the album was, what the concept behind the album was going to be. I had that idea of the spinning, the dial tuning in different stations, and each of the stations being a different song. I had that idea early on in the process, but then the idea kind of evolved as I was writing songs and as I was recording them. So the concept and the music kind of both grew as I explored the various ideas. I feel that it flows very well as an album.
Does it represent all the music that you were doing at the time, or did you pick things you felt went together well?
Dave Rowntree: I probably wrote about twice as many songs as that, if not more, in the writing process, but the selection on the album were the ones that felt the best together, and felt like a body of work. So yeah, a few fell by the wayside.
The overall sound, ambiance, and mood are such a big part of how the songs come across. I’m curious as in your creative process, to what degree were you thinking about melody versus sound?
Dave Rowntree: Well, for me, melody is the most important thing. But the writing process is that I usually start with the words. Because then the words suggest a rhythm, and the rhythm suggests a tune and the tune suggests some chords. That’s how I find it easiest to work. But when I’m listening to music, the melody is the key thing that hooks me in. So that’s what I concentrate on when I’m writing and recording.
Have you always been interested in electronic music?
Dave Rowntree: That was my first love, really. My first love was electronics. I’ve always built electronic gadgets and equipment and I built some of the equipment that I used for this album. I built my very first synthesizer in the 1980s from a kit of parts. So that’s always been an abiding love of mine. I’ve understood synths and been interested in playing with them.
Are there particular ways that you think that the evolution of technology has affected your creative process and the way that you work? Now versus back then when you were first exposed to it?
Dave Rowntree: Yeah, I mean the synths today are almost unrecognizable compared to the synth that I was making in the 1980s. But this kind of stuff, modular synth stuff, is quite a big influence on my recording process. Both with my film music and with this album, there’s something quite freeing in being able to build your own synthesizer. In a way that you don’t get with a pre-made synthesizer, where somebody else has taken the design choices, what kind of oscillators, what kind of filters. There’s something quite exciting about seeing what works well with what. The downside, especially with film music is that you need to be able to repeat something, if the director doesn’t like it [and wants changes]. And with the modular synths, the temptation is to unplug all the leads when you’ve finished working on a part and to try something else. Well, that’s a disaster in film music, because you’ll never get that sound again if you move the knobs. I’ve been working on ways of trying to keep things a bit more constant. I’m playing at the moment with a device called a NiftyKEYZ, which is a kind of modular synth rack built into a keyboard. That seems to be working really well. I can make a synth in that hardware and then just leave it for the duration of the project. So that may solve that problem. I’m quite excited about that.
Having done film music and also having experience with visual art, do you have like visual ideas in your mind as you create music?
Dave Rowntree: No, I tend to think about all of that later. But for me, music’s all about collaboration. That’s what the interesting part about music for me. Making music with other musicians, and the same goes for all the other aspects of things you have to create when you release music. So, it’s really great to work with fantastic artists to make artwork and videographers to make videos. All of that kind of stuff’s really interesting. I try and be as open as possible and be as undogmatic about it as possible, and allow other people the space to be creative too.
Was doing more vocals something you had been wanting to do? Did it present any challenges?
Dave Rowntree: It was definitely something that I wasn’t sure about. Before I started writing the songs, I was thinking maybe I should just make an instrumental album. What if my voice isn’t strong enough to carry it? But I took a risk and I think it paid off. But then again, I played some live shows and there was again, the question. You can fix a multitude of sins in the studio when you’re recording, when you’re making a record, but live, you are very, very exposed. So I took singing lessons before the live shows and am still carrying those on.
I think fundamentally if you’re in front of an audience, you’ve got to be able to rely on your instrument a hundred percent. You can’t have an off day, that’s not allowed. People have paid money for tickets, and they expect a good performance. So that’s worked out really well. I’ve found a fantastic singing teacher who completely gets what I’m trying to do and isn’t trying to teach me to sing like a blues singer or anything else. I enjoy being a singer in the band in the shows I’ve done. It’s great.
Are there any particular songs on the album where you think the vocal delivery differs when performing it live? You mentioned being able to correct things in the studio; does not having that option change the approach in any way? Or perhaps the singing lessons you’ve taken since the recording?
Dave Rowntree: Well, the performances on the record I like, so I’ve been trying to figure out how to achieve that live, or even better than that live if I can. And what I didn’t appreciate was the kind of change in technique required when you are singing in different volumes or when you are trying to sing more expressively. Or the difference of approach I have to take to keep things in tune and to keep the tone in the voice. So I’m playing catch up, all the other singers I know have been perfecting these techniques for decades, you know, and I’m trying to sort of fast-track it and catch it all up. In general, I think I’m singing live a little quieter than I’d like to so that I keep the breath control, I keep control of the pitching and I can sing through to the end of the bar on the long phrases. And I think over time I would definitely like to be able to up the volume and keep control of all of those extra parameters. But my singing teacher said that basically just comes with practice.
How extensively do you think you might be going out and performing this material?
Dave Rowntree: If you’d asked me that question a month ago, I would’ve said very extensively. I’d be touring most of the summer. But of course, another project I’m involved in has now nabbed those weeks. So I’ll have to see when the dust settles how much time I have left. All of the work’s being put into that tour at the moment, but basically, one of the main reasons for doing this album is so that I can tour, because playing live shows is the most fun part of it for me. That’s the payoff for all of the other hard work. I want to tour extensively, I would like to do a world tour. I would also like to do some more albums, so plan to do another album every year for the next couple of years and take a view as to where it’s all going.
Do you see any of the material that didn’t make the album being used in the future?
Dave Rowntree: Unlikely. I think I’m gonna keep writing. I think that’s a pretty good hit rate. . About 50% of it ended up on the record. I think that would put me ahead of the curve with most writers. If it didn’t make up the record, it’s because it’s not good enough. You write a few bad songs for every good song. There’s no way around that, really. So, I don’t think so. No point in going backward, really.
The right thing to do is to keep writing songs. By the time I got to the end of the writing process for this record, I was really just starting to get into my stride. I think “1000 Miles,” which is one of the last tracks I wrote, is head and shoulders above some of the early tracks that I wrote. Hopefully I’ll build on that going forward.
I know you’ve been putting out singles leading up to the album. Was it obvious in what order you wanted to get music out to audiences, or what went behind those choices?
Dave Rowntree: It’s not obvious to me at all, because every piece of music I’ve ever made with any band ever has always sounded like a single to me. I’m the worst judge of it. I think it was fairly obvious that “London Bridge,” which was the first single, was quite immediate, and the most like a pop song out of all of the tracks on the album. But that spoke for and against it being the first one, really. You know, it’s quite different from all the tracks on the album. So if people heard that as the first single, presumably they would imagine that the whole album would sound like that and would make some kind of judgment.
On the other hand, I don’t mind people being wrong-footed by the first single off an album. We’ve done that with Blur several times. We quite enjoy people going, ‘oh, is that what kind of album it’s gonna be?’ and then it isn’t. There were lots of conversations with lots of different people. Fundamentally, you have to trust the record company on these things. I think marketing is what they’re good at. And singles are all about marketing an album. So I had all these conversations with them and with my management team, but I deferred to them on what would be the singles and what the order was going to be.
For more info and to buy the album, visit daverowntree.com.