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BLUES PLAYER

"The experiences that drive the relevant songs are often deeply personal."

Posted: November 8, 2023
Indifference can be defined as marked by a lack of interest, enthusiasm, or concern for something: apathetic. indifferent to suffering and poverty. Marked by no special liking for or dislike of something.

Over the years, many well-known artists have gotten involved in the “interests” of those of their fan-base. It could cover a wide range of topics that have a direct impact on the lives of many. Whether it is a contribution to a valid charitable organization, or by giving directly to those in need. Artists have always found a way to show a genuine concern for the cares of the day. Often, it shows up in the lyrics of a song or melody. There is a consistent message from artists that want to make a difference. They show concern and avoid becoming indifferent to the plight of their neighbors. This is particularly noble in many regards.

As mentioned, apathy can be expressed through the lyrics of a song. When you think about the artists and songs that have been built upon the feelings and concerns of others, no doubt you think about artists such as George Harrison, Mick Jagger, David Bowie, USA for Africa, and Band Aid. These are some of the artists and organizations that have accomplished things on a large scale. Though, many artists contribute in ways that might go unnoticed, until you focus on the lyrics of a song.

One of our guests today is Rebecca Downes. She has an extensive list of songs that are filled with emotion, and reflection of situations that we all have face. The Blues genre is a great fit for what she contributes to her fans. We want to share just a few things that she has accomplished as an artist and songwriter.

ABOUT REBECCA DOWNES

Birmingham (UK)-based Rebecca is a fully independent artist creating original blues/rock music with her co-songwriter Steve Birkett and releasing it on her own label Mad Hat Records, part of her own company that manages all aspects of the production chain from creation through recording and manufacture to marketing, promotion, and sales.  Worldwide physical and digital distribution is undertaken by Cargo Records.

She usually plays live within a 5-piece band, performing tracks mainly from her studio albums Believe (2016), More Sinner Than Saint (2019) and The Space Between Us (2022) along with new material and one or two classic covers.

Rebecca was voted Female Vocalist and Emerging Artist of the Year at the British Blues Awards 2016 and Female Blues Vocalist of the Year in the FORM UK Blues Awards 2018.

She was born and raised in Wolverhampton in the West Midlands of the United Kingdom.  She grew up listening to a variety of different music with early influence from artists that her parents listened to such as Ella Fitzgerald and Etta James.  She first started performing live music when aged 13 and as a teenager wrote and performed her own material.  Some original recordings still exist – a little rough round the edges at times, but the passion and energy come through, along with the power of her voice.  In her teenage years she was very much into rock but over the years she has listened to, performed, and enjoyed a very wide range of music.

Whilst her career path took her to Staffordshire University to study Fine Art and Art History and then into full-time work, she continued to perform.  She was always keen to return to writing and recording but needed encouragement to pick up the notebook and guitar once again.

This she duly got from several sources and from Mark Viner Stuart of Mat Hat Studios in Coven, near Wolverhampton, whose judgement that she had exceptional talent was based on the hundreds of performers with whom he had worked.  In 2011 she linked up with Steve Birkett, a long-time performer and writer of his own material, who had retired from full-time employment and had both the talent and time to create more original music.  It was a partnership that ‘clicked’, to the intense excitement of those around the pair.  Their core genre was the Blues, but right from the start they stretched their music in several different directions.  Their EP Real Life was crafted in 2012 and released in early 2013 and both the recording and live performances of the tracks received an enthusiastic reception.  2012 was also the year that Rebecca left her full-time job for part-time work as a vocal tutor so that she had more time to work with Steve.  With more input from Mark and a galaxy of musicians, mostly from the area around Rebecca’s new Birmingham base, the album Back to the Start was recorded, hitting the shelves in 2013, once again to acclaim from critics and fans alike.

The next 18 months was a period of changing personalities as Rebecca and Steve worked to find the right ‘fit’ with others both within and around the band and to establish relationships with leading lights in the music scene. The hard work paid off, though, and 2015 was a breakthrough year.  Rick Benton joined the band on keys, bringing his own interpretation to the set and adding new dimensions to tracks like Back to the Start.  Lloyd Daker had established himself on drums bringing an infectious, youthful energy along with a permanently sunny disposition.  Dan Clark, a long-time musical colleague, made the bass role his own with his funky and ‘in-the-pocket’ delivery.  With a settled core to the band, and significant support from outside of it, they started to get noticed and grow their following.  The year started at the Skegness Rock and Blues Festival with a performance on the Introducing Stage, voted by the audience as the best of the day, leading to an appointment on the main stage at the 2016 festival.  Interest in the band and its work grew via notable performances at Blues clubs and festivals, culminating in the ten-gig support slot with the excellent King King that exposed the band to new audiences across the UK.

In their live performances, Rebecca and her band elevated the album tracks to a new level.  The set was interspersed with benchmark cover tracks such as Another Piece Of My Heart but it was mainly about the original songs with leading tracks from the album Back to the Start such as Basement Of My Heart, Messed Up and Laughter From Her Room at the heart of it. And audiences calling for an encore would usually see With A Little Help From My Friends, delivered with a raucous confidence that would make the late Joe Cocker beam.

Which brings us to Believe, the second album, again produced by Mark Viner Stuart and launched in February 2016 at the iconic 100 Club in London.  Of the 12 tracks on the album, at least half of them had been honed through live performances on the road in 2015, so current fans would have been familiar with Never Gonna Learn, Night Train, Sweetness, 1000 Years, It’s That Easy and the thoroughly Bluesy Long Long TimeSailing On A Pool Of Tears, Momma’s Got A Gun and Salt Winds each broke new ground, whereas Could Not Say No and Come With Me Baby, having been mainstays of Steve and Rebecca’s acoustic set, got the full band treatment.  With Believe receiving rave reviews and popular acclaim there was one more adjustment to the band when Rebecca took up rhythm guitar for key numbers of the set.  Off stage, Colin Speller, who had been involved in the background for some time, brought his business experience to bear on matters of management and administration.

With a strong settled line-up on and off the stage, the band set out to grow its reputation and increase its audience. The outcome was a growing fan base that showed its support by voting Rebecca as Female Vocalist of the Year and Emerging Artist of the Year in the British Blues Awards 2016.  And the band’s live performances were so popular that the 2017 live album BeLive was a necessary response to fan demand.

Steve and Rebecca write prolifically and produced lots of new songs in the course of 2016.  Rather than work within the confines of a particular genre, they allowed their work to find its natural place in the scheme of things, which meant that they produced a considerable range of material that included elements Country, Soul, and Rock.  The basic process they follow is that an idea is developed to the point of a full ‘demo’ recording, utilising Steve’s home studio and his skills as a multi-instrumentalist.  These demos are then listened to further by Steve, Rebecca, band members, management, and others whose feedback is sought.

In late 2016, they were lucky enough to be introduced to Chris Kimsey, who is famous for working with the Rolling Stones and Peter Frampton amongst many others, and in 2017 they engaged Chris to advise on song choice, song structure and recording techniques.  As part of this collaboration, Chris re-mixed Sailing On A Pool Of Tears, which was released as a single in 2017 and added as a bonus track on a second edition of the album Believe. 

The work with Chris led to them focusing on a group of songs that were rockier in feel, albeit still influenced by the blues, including tracks like Stand On My Feet, that had been around for a while, but which were deemed not to fit the theme of the Believe album.  It also led to the creation of further tracks with a close fit to the main candidates.  Through a process of refinement, 20 songs became 15 and then 12 of those were put forward for recording, which was once again done at Mark Viner Stuart’s studio.  Recording and refinement took time but by mid 2018 the final twelve tracks had been recorded and mixed.

In 2017, Rebecca was introduced to Tri-Arts Partnership LLP in Los Angeles, USA, the principals of which were long-time career record executives and artist managers.  They were keen to input to the new album and promote Rebecca in the USA and beyond and, having heard the initial mixes, asked for a much bigger, bolder sound.  They introduced Rebecca to Bill Drescher, California-based producer for people like Rick Springfield, the Bangles and who had been involved with music for films, including Titanic, and TV shows, including Stranger Things.  Bill did a re-mix of the album title track, More Sinner Than Saint, and after that, four other tracks.

A combination of availability issues and budget prevented Bill’s further involvement, but Chris Childs (bass player with Thunder) took on the brief of mixing the remaining seven tracks to match Bill’s sonic style.  The resulting album, mastered by Ed Woods, has a consistently bold, film-scape sound that is very different to the previous output.

The album received considerable critical acclaim and the second single – Hurts – was play-listed by Planet Rock Radio UK.

The two years following the release of the album saw some evolution in the band with Vincent John Yarrington joining on bass, Nigel Darvill or Aidan Goldstraw on keys and Neil Ablard on drums.

In 2020 Rebecca and Steve released a dark, moody version of Slade’s classic track Mama Weer All Crazee Now that very much reflected the mood of the times, and a new version of Wave Them Goodbye from More Sinner Than Saint in which she duets with Alan Nimmo of King King.

In April 2021 Rebecca released Stripped Back, an album containing ten tracks from Believe and More Sinner Than Saint each reimagined and re-presented in a laid-back style, together with two previously unreleased tracks.  The pandemic and the consequent suspension of live music created the opportunity to do the album, a long-term ambition of Steve’s in particular, and it was created and refined under lockdown conditions with individuals making their contributions at home.  Steve plays the bulk of the instrumentation on the album, with the gigging band contributing their parts to the track Hurts.  The album was arranged and produced by Steve and mixed by his son Steve Birkett Jnr.  Even the album artwork was shot remotely by Adam Kennedy and the album sleeve and accompanying merchandise was created by manager Colin Speller, making Stripped Back a fully in-house creation by the Rebecca Downes team.  The music is performed live by Rebecca and Steve with Neil Ablard on percussion.

In November 2022, Rebecca released The Space Between Us, ten new songs and one cover.   Taking its lead from the broader canvas of More Sinner Than Saint, The Space Between Us sees Rebecca stretching and pushing her own artistic boundaries even further, while staying true to her blues/rock roots.  The album is a collection of raw, passionate, multi-hued tracks with a very live feel ranging from big, bold blues rock to darker, moodier and atmospheric material that allows Rebecca to deliver her at times very personal lyrics with vocal conviction.  The one cover is a melodically blues rockin’ rendition of Free’s A Little Bit of Love, released as a single in October 2022.

The album was programmed, recorded, produced, and engineered by Steve Birkett with assistance from Steve Birkett Jnr.  Mixing and mastering was by Gavin Monaghan of Magic Garden Studio in Wolverhampton, whose extensive track record includes working with Editors, Scott Matthews, Robert Plant and Paolo Nutini.

Once again, Rebecca’s signature vocal style is to the fore and Steve’s multi-instrumental talents are on display throughout the album, along with important contributions from the gigging band – Neil Ablard (drums), Nigel Darvill (Keys) and Vince Yarrington (Bass).  The collective result is an album that should be played as loud as possible to enjoy the liberating live feel of the tracks.  Other singles from the album are Hold On (Apr 22), The Space Between Us (Feb 23) and Not On My Knees (Jun 23).

Rebecca and Steve are writing new material with a view to single releases throughout 2024 and gigging in both stripped-back and full-band form, the latter now with Owen Davidson on bass.

INTERVIEW WITH REBECCA DOWNES AND GUITAR THRILLS MAGAZINE

Guitar Thrills: Hello Rebecca. We appreciate the time that you have taken to speak to us today. With an extensive background from artist like you, this topic should be applicable to your experiences.

Guitar Thrills: How important is it to you, that you can relate to your audience through your lyrics?

Rebecca: I write with Steve Birkett, and it really is a joint effort – we both contribute to each song, albeit that one of us might have had the first idea for the lyrics or the tune.  First and foremost, our lyrics are sincere and either based on our own perspective and experiences (e.g. Hurts and Believe), or they set out to tell a story (e.g. Night Train and Salt Winds), and I believe that is something that the audience recognizes and can relate to.  I appreciate that the males in our audience (the majority, according to the stats from every platform!) may not be able to relate personally to, e.g., the female perspective on a failed relationship, or my personal views on female empowerment, but I believe that they appreciate the depth of the lyrics.

As an independent artist, I work hard to have a direct relationship with my audience through email and social media.  I always meet the audience after a gig, and I correspond directly with many of my ‘super-fans’.  All this means that people know who I am, what I am like and the issues that are important to me.  I believe this means they can see the relationship between me as a person and the lyrics of the songs, and any lack of sincerity would be exposed very quickly!

If your readers would like more insight into our lyrics, Episodes 18 to 20 inclusive of Series 1 of our podcast Downes Your Way involve Steve and me talking about the lyrics of the songs on the albums Believe and More Sinner Than Saint.  The podcast is on all the main platforms, with a list of links available at https://lnk.to/FTcHjm83

Guitar Thrills: You are an artist and songwriter. What goes into the decision-making process as you write lyrics to a song?

Rebecca:  Our songwriting is spontaneous and iterative – we don’t write to order, and I cannot ever see myself going into a studio to ‘write an album’.  We both get ideas in different ways and at different times (the recording function of the modern phone is a Godsend!).  The idea – lyric and/or melody – is then usually set to simple instrumentation (acoustic guitar, sometimes piano) and shared with the other person.  It then goes back and forth as well as receiving attention when we are working together, and we build it into a demo version that shows our vision for the final song.  Within this process lyrics are developed and refined.  Our songwriting process is also set out in the first series of our podcast (Episode 5), which covers the creation of the song Stand On My Feet from More Sinner Than Saint.  This started as a simple piano riff that came to me when I was waiting for a student at college to turn up and grew into what I believe to be one of our most powerful songs.

The song usually stays in that demo form for some time – maybe it’s tweaked, maybe not – until we have a set of songs that will form the candidates for a new album.  Some we will like straight away, and these may go through to recording and release as singles.  Others will stay in the pool until we make the final selection.  Something that looks a strong candidate may fall away, whereas something that maybe didn’t hit the spot straight away will grow in appeal and force its way into the final list.

I’ve got to be honest and say that we’ve always looked at each song as a package.  I don’t think we’ve ever got to the demo stage and rejected the lyric and then tried to write another one to fit the tune or rejected the tune and carried the lyric over to another tune.  I should also say that we have a lot of what we believe to be great songs that haven’t seen the light of day, mostly because the end product hasn’t aligned with the albums we have put together.  For example, two of our songs – Blues For Us and Washing All Over My Heart were only released after we created the album Stripped Back, to which they were very much suited, having never really been in the frame, in terms of style, for the previous albums.

We do have songs that haven’t made it because we don’t think they are good enough, and in these cases it’s usually based on an overall assessment, although I do believe that a great lyric will lift a tune, and a poor lyric will drag down whatever tune it is set to.

Guitar Thrills: Is there a particular experience that you used to create one of your songs? If so, which song, and provide some details on the profound effect that it had.

Rebecca:  The experiences that drive the relevant songs are often deeply personal, rather than – say – a major world event.  The lyric is often not a literal account of the experience, but is developed from a combination of what happened, the feelings it induced, and a twist of creative licence.

One song that does spring to mind in response to the question is Believe, the title track of the second album.  The album was as good as done, to be honest, with the tracks chosen and recorded, then the idea for the song came to me from a mixture of experiences and feelings.  The music business is tough, and whatever you do you get a lot of criticism dressed up as ‘feedback’.  Everyone has a view and many of those views are contrary and far from uplifting and, to be honest, we felt a little bruised by the process of creating the album.  Finally, at the time, I was coming out of a long period of uncertainty in my private life and coming to terms with a need to take greater control of my emotional destiny.  The result was Believe – a real battle cry and something akin to a personal declaration of independence!  And, once we recorded it, given the nature of the song, the lyrics and the way it was conceived there was no question that it would not only go onto the album, it would be the title track.  It remains a high point of our live performances, and the lyrics lift my spirits and stiffen my resolve each and every time I sing them.

Guitar Thrills: Do you recall other artists that are doing some of the same things. They are showing that they have empathy in the interests of their fan base. If so, who stand out to you?

Rebecca:  Of course, they are both legends and at a much higher level than me, but Bonnie Raitt and Melissa Etheridge are particular heroes of mine, not least because I can very much relate to the sincerity of the lyrics of their songs.  Bonnie’s I Can’t Make You Love Me is a favourite of mine that I include in our stripped-back and acoustic sets and it’s so emotional that performing it can be very challenging indeed!  Even though she didn’t write the song, her rendition reaches to me more than any other.

Guitar Thrills: Our main point with touching on indifference, is that there are artists out there that are indifferent to the needs of their fan base. There could be many reasons why they have made this decision. Maybe they are just focused on themselves. It is possible, that they just don’t want to be bothered. However, they are creating a disconnect, and losing out on opportunities to show the depth of their character. Thank you for sharing how you have used empathy in your professional career as an artist and songwriter.

Guitar Thrills: Now, let’s talk about what you are achieving as an artist. We have reviewed just some of your releases within the last decade or so. What are you accomplishing that will build the anticipation of your fan base?

Rebecca:  That’s actually a difficult question to answer at this point in time.  We write all the time, so there is always the prospect of new material.  The question we have at the moment is around the detail of the process of turning the demo versions into the final product.  How and where do we record?  What style do we adopt?  What should go into the mixes?  The challenge we have set ourselves is to produce something that we believe is better than what has gone before, and with More Sinner Than Saint and The Space Between Us that is a high bar.  Our biggest supporters are really into their music, and I believe that knowing the thought that is going into the process at this stage, and the objective we have set ourselves, will grow the level of anticipation of the final product.  Hopefully, they should start to see new tracks emerging as singles in early 2024, with the prospect of a new album to follow.

Guitar Thrills: I know that you have other projects outside of songwriting. Would you like to tell us more about them?

Rebecca:  I am a vocal coach working in colleges with students doing Diplomas and Degrees in music.  I also tutor privately, both online and in person.  The college teaching is hugely rewarding because I am dealing with people at the start of their music careers, and some of them are so hugely talented, it’s amazing!  They all face the challenge of a saturated scene and helping them understand how to navigate their way through the uncertainty, while remaining sane and grounded, is very stimulating, and experiencing their talent is invigorating.

Guitar Thrills: I know you have a label Mad Hat Records. What made you decide to go that route?

Rebecca: We started releasing independently and it grew from there really.  We’ve never had an offer from anyone else that appears to be better than what we can achieve by remaining independent, so here we are!  We do have an excellent partner – Cargo Records – for digital and physical (Amazon and record shops) distribution, but otherwise we do everything ourselves, which can be very challenging and time consuming.  There is so much that has to be done to have the right presence on all the relevant platforms in this digital age, and it is a never-ending task to stay on top of that.  But, it’s our business (Steve and me, and Colin Speller, who manages it and undertakes a lot of the routine work), we have complete control, and for us to relinquish that the rewards would have to be significant.

Guitar Thrills: What type of successes have you experienced thus far with Mad Hat Records?

Rebecca:  Our biggest success is to have created a repertoire of music of which we are very proud within the limited resources we have at our disposal.  We aim to be as good in terms of our online and marketing assets as any established label at a fraction of the money they would spend.  We don’t chase very short-term chart positions by manipulating our releases, and we avoid the temptation to inflate our metrics by the use of ‘quick fix’ promotional schemes on Spotify and YouTube.  So, our stats are genuine, the music is ‘us’, the business is ours and the legacy we are creating is significant – and we are very happy with that!

Guitar Thrills: Excellent.

Guitar Thrills: As a blues artist, what type of guitar brand is your preference and why?

Rebecca:  I have a custom-built guitar made for me by the wonderful Jamie Davey, who hails from Wolverhampton, where I was born and raised.  Jamie has been custom-building guitars, modelled upon the great Fender classics, since the early 1990s. During that time he has worked on guitars for the likes of Slade, Albert Lee, Smokie, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, Raymond Froggatt, The Charlatans, Tyla of Dogs D’amour, Scott Matthews, The Futureheads and, more recently, Robert Fripp.

Of particular note is that late in 2009 Jamie completed an order for over 15 bespoke custom-built Telecaster and Stratocaster guitars and basses for Rock Legends Status Quo! To date, he has produced over 30 guitars for them.

You can imagine my delight, then, when someone I am very close to offered to buy me my very own custom-built guitar modelled on the Fender telecaster.  I have very small hands, so the build was based on a thin neck to make it easier for me to play.  The guitar is set up to suit the Rhythm role I play in the band, but with three pick-ups it can be switched to different modes, one of which is acoustic, which is very useful when we have to deliver different musical styles on the same trip and don’t have room in the van for two lots of guitars!  Jamie can be found at https://jdaveyguitars.com/.

When we do go out to deliver a stripped back or acoustic performance, I am lucky enough to be able to use a Gibson Everly Brothers, which is rumoured to have been once used by Tammy Wynette.  This is on semi-permanent loan from a friend, John Caswell, who has had a long career as a professional guitar player.  It is a delight to play!

I should also mention the excellent Rotasound (https://www.rotosound.com/) strings, and the amazing Blackstar amplifier (https://blackstaramps.com/) that I use, for which – in both cases – I am an endorsed artist.

Guitar Thrills: What other types of equipment do you normally use for various projects?

Rebecca:  As a vocalist performing live my two most important pieces of equipment are my Shure SM58 microphone and my Sennheiser in-ear monitors.  The latter are especially important as they allow me to hear the band properly so I can sing at a level that preserves and protects my voice – a vital thing for a singer!  Other than that – the trusty iPhone is the medium by which my lyric and tune ideas are captured whenever they arise (at all hours of the day and night) and before they disappear again!  I should also mention my Apple Mac and the excellent Garage Band app, which allows me to do some simple manipulation of my song ideas before sending them to Steve.

I can’t begin to list all the other equipment we use.  For example, we create a lot of our own video material, so we have a Panasonic Lumix GH5 Digital SLR camera and a DJI drone.  Neil Ablard (drummer) has four GoPro cameras, which we use for live gig footage (along with the SLR and an iPhone 14 Pro).

One of the big issues for an independent act is maintaining the necessary kit to deliver all the collateral we need, along with the ever-expanding ‘tech stack’ of software and apps to support our online presence.  And we are fortunate that Steve has a well-equipped home studio.

Guitar Thrills: It has been enjoyable speaking to you. I know as you continue to enjoy successes, we will want to know more about them. Will you keep us updated?

Rebecca: Of course!  Thank you for taking an interest in our music and for such interesting questions!

Guitar Thrills: Awesome. Thanks again.

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