There’s an inherent contradiction in music today. Music is sold as a commodity on the premise that there’s authenticity in it, but 99% of the time, there isn’t. Rose Elinor Dougall is the antidote to these creatively dark times and the façade of sincerity. She’s real; from her unmistakable voice to the slight wear at the elbows on her leather jacket, she shoots straight and writes melodies that just can’t be put together by committee.
Having been musically weaned in girl-band The Pipettes, Rose set a different course after their debut album hit and her debut, Without Why, was released in 2010. In an environment that was rewarding female writers who bashed the epic button (Adele, Florence And The Machine) Rose released something that pivoted away and hushed softly, recalling the sweetness of Buffy Sainte Marie, the nu-wave of Stereolab, and the drizzly day romance of Belle And Sebastian. It gained considerable critical acclaim and, in an unusual turn of events, Rose also found herself playing with the debonair King of Bombast, Mark Ronson.
Jump forward to today and Rose has her next album, Stellular, lined up and ready for release on 27 January; it has received the ever welcome stamp of approval that is Rough Trade’s album of the month. If Without Why was an aching love letter composed in a bedroom, Stellular is a pop opus composed on Abba’s grand piano. It rockets in several different directions, bursting and shimmering, aided with production by Boxed In, and yet at no point does this ever sound manufactured, packaged, or processed . There’s a band here and there isn’t a second in the record where that isn’t apparent. So while Stellular has been seven years in the making, Rose has refused to stand still.
DiS: Since your debut album, you've spent a fair amount of time playing and writing with Mark Ronson. How did that come about and what was it like?
Rose Elinor Dougall: It happened quite accidentally really and wasn’t something I went looking for – the opportunity came to me. I think Mark was a fan of The Pipettes, and was looking for people to contribute to his forthcoming album, (Record Collection). At the time I had just started releasing some solo material and I think he liked my voice. He sent me a Myspace message, which seems like the equivalent of a telegram now. He asked me to come to write with him in New York and I ended up contributing a song and some other vocals to the record, and then became a part of his touring band, The Business Intl.
I had an incredible time with him and the rest of the musicians I got to work with through that project. I got to collaborate with people like Spank Rock, who I was always a huge fan of and would probably never have met through my own stuff. Mark has become a really dear friend, and has always been so supportive of my solo stuff. He recently asked me to be one of the singers in a run of ‘Carbon Life’, which was a piece he composed and Wayne McGregor choreographed for the Royal Opera House, so we’re still collaborating now, and I hope we will again in future.
Did being a performer with Mark, but not the centre of attention, grant you any space and freedom to re-engage in music in a different way that you hadn't been able to do so previously as a front person, and if so, what did you learn?
I had kind of shunned the ‘pop’ world after leaving The Pipettes, and was concentrating on more insular, personal work, but in retrospect I think it was a great way of pulling myself out of my own head and re-energising my attitude to performing and that way of writing. There were actually moments in the show where I did have to be the ‘front person’, but with bigger stages and audiences than I’d experienced before, which was initially terrifying as it was a bit of a sink or swim situation. It required accessing a different facet of myself which was really refreshing, actually. Witnessing the way people like MNDR, Andrew Wyatt, Boy George, or even Ghostface Killah engaged with a crowd and performance was so educational and inspiring, and taught me that you have to find your own individual vocabulary and physical language to allow that experience to make sense and be personal to you. In the music I’ve made subsequently I’ve wanted to try and find a way to reconcile that person and the one writing songs in her bedroom.
Gossip question: I heard that 'Uptown Funk' has 50 writers, is this true?
Haha no, it’s not that many. There are quite a few though, that song was so meticulously constructed… I reckon it paid off pretty well though.
You've also been playing with former Let's Wrestle honcho Wesley Gonzales, The Horrors' Tom Furse in the Innerspace Orchestra, and with some enduring pals of you who go under the name of the Pure Conjecture, so you're certainly keeping busy. How did these collaborations come about, how do you balance them, and do you feel almost like you're spread betting to create as many opportunities as possible? How do you prioritise what you do when you're clearly an in-demand musician and writer?
Pretty much all of the collaborations I’m involved in just happen through friendships. I’ve been in London for over a decade now and there’s an inevitable network of relationships with musicians that gets established. A lot of the music I’ve made has run on a currency of love and favours, so it feels only natural to lend a hand to other projects if I can be of use. Also I find these experiences really informative, and they always serve to enrich my own work. One of the main reasons I want to make music is because of the exchanges you get to make with other musicians, the relationships that form. I want to learn and develop as a writer and player, and expand my perspective. It’s definitely not about hedging my bets, and I wouldn’t get involved in anything that I didn’t think would be interesting or that I wouldn’t have something to offer to.
I remember listening to an interview with you on Soho Radio over a year ago, when you were hoping Stellular would be out Jan 2016. Obviously it's hit a year later, which is fantastic, but what caused the delay and how did Vermillion Records come to get behind the record? Can you tell us something about the label?
Well, it’s kind of a long and boring story, but fundamentally things take longer when there’s not much money behind them. I had a couple of false starts with some labels which ate up some time, but finally we found the right way of doing it. Vermilion Records is my own label, which goes through Republic of Music, who have been great to work with. I put a lot into this record, so I wanted to find the best avenue to put it out there.
And how does it feel for this to finally be coming out – does it feel to you like a 'new' album still? Did you amend or add material to this release as opposed to the set of songs you had originally prepared?
It feels like a real catharsis to finally get to release this music. As I’ve had a bit of distance from it I can understand the songs in a new light, and it’s interesting that some of the meanings have developed and have different resonance in relation to what’s gone on in my life since. We recently mastered it, which really brought the whole thing to life. It still feels fresh and relevant to me.
There are lots of beautiful tracks on this record and I think you're truly unique because you play commercial pop but with a very natural, band-driven dynamic, which isn't an art form that most musicians looking to step-up have the patience to learn these days. How do you feel this album has developed from your debut, which it clearly has? What are your thoughts on Stellular album as a 'progression' of yourself?
Thank you for saying that – that was one of my ambitions for the record. I wanted to make a less insular record than my first one, one that had more spontaneity and confidence, was bolder, and more outward looking. I wanted to have a more refined palette of sounds, more space, less superfluous-ness, more incisiveness in terms of both the lyrics and the music. As I mentioned earlier I wanted to find a bridge between the more pop experiences I’d had since my last album, and my less commercial influences. I feel more in charge of my abilities now than I did when I made my first record, when I was only 21, and I needed a fresh approach and sound to reflect that.
And yet with this added confidence and the more open-eyed approach, the lyrics punch harder and, almost inevitably, will reveal more about the writer than intended. It seems to be the case here too as you seem to go deeper into yourself, which can sometimes feel difficult – to put yourself out there more.
Lyrically I feel this record is more concerned with external factors, rather than just the personal. I wouldn’t say it’s political, but it is definitely concerned with the emotional and practical instability I was experiencing in my own life and in the lives of others around me. Enduring the increasing harshness of London, living nocturnally, witnessing the ruthless erosion of much of the cultural heritage of the city I knew, various future’s failing to live up to expectations… it all added up to this feeling of unease and uncertainty which I think is a big theme throughout the album. As depressing and bleak as this sounds, I also wanted there to be a bit of lightness and hopefulness to the whole affair, and I hope that comes through in the music too.
And to look at hope and despair a bit more, care to comment on Trump and Brexit? Will you be releasing a protest song anytime soon?
Well obviously it’s a total fucking disaster, on both counts. It’s a highly depressing repetition of history that I think we have been blind to and I feel we are only at the beginning of a very scary and aggressive time. Since everything that’s happened this year I definitely feel different about how I might approach writing songs. Moaning about one’s love life feels pretty irrelevant right now. It’s a really hard thing to get right, but I think there has to be more engagement.
And to get back on track, how did you get Boxed In involved and what did he add, to your ears? The sheen in production certainly helps give that confidence you previously mentioned.
I actually met him through his publisher, during the time I was looking for a partner in crime to record with. We got together one day to have a mess around with some ideas in the studio and immediately hit it off creatively. We ended up writing a load of songs together really quickly. I didn’t have to explain anything to him, he’s a really spontaneous and enthusiastic person to work with, and I trusted his instincts totally.
Your former bandmate Gwenno has done really well and delivered a beautiful debut solo - do you stay in touch with Gwenno or Becky much? Could there be a Gwenno and Rose double-trouble tour? What are your thoughts on Pavo Pavo, given (former Pipette/Cassette drummer) Joe (Lean)'s involvement as a manager?
I’m so proud of Gwenno for everything she’s achieved with that record, I absolutely love it. I got to see her a few times this summer at various festivals we both happened to be at. I’m so amazed at how she managed to juggle having a baby with her album taking off, with such elegance. I’d love to make music with her again one day if she ever has time. Happily, I got to see Becky too a couple of times this summer which is always a pleasure, and I like what I’ve heard of Pavo Pavo. I saw Joe only the other week and it sounds like it’s all going great guns, I think he’s doing a brilliant job.
You and your brother (Tom Dougall) could be considered indie aristocracy. How are Tom and Toy doing? Do you get much time to hang out with your little brother?
Blimey, I wouldn’t go that far! Toy are doing great, they’re currently on tour in Europe with their third record, which I think is some of the best stuff they’ve done. We actually did some recording together earlier in the year which I hope to release at some point next year. We see each other pretty regularly, and have lots of friends in common.
So what do you have lined up for 2017?
Well after the album release on the 27th, playing some bloody gigs. I hope to be touring around April, and then some festivals in the summer. I have nearly half another album written so hopefully I can get in the studio, as I’d love to put out more music next year.
Stellular is out on 27 January via Vermillion Records. For more information about Dougall, click here.