Q&A with UK blues/rock artist Rebecca Downes - delivering powerful, original, independently produced music.

"What is clear is the capacity of the music to lift people’s spirits and deliver a positive impact on morale and wellbeing."

Rebecca Downes: Blues Rock Kingdom

Birmingham-based Rebecca and her band are a ‘must see’ live act that often leaves newcomers simply blown away by the power of the performance. With her co-writer Steve Birkett alongside her, a very tight band behind, and Rebecca’s powerful voice to the fore, the 5-piece outfit performs original rock/blues tracks from the EP Real Life, the highly-acclaimed debut album Back To The Start, the superb second album Believe and the stunning new album More Sinner Than Saint (2019), punctuated by 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. Rebecca was born and grew up in Wolverhampton. She started performing live music when aged 13 and as a teenager wrote and performed her own material.

The current music began when she linked up with Steve Birkett – 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 have stretched their music in the direction of rock and that move is set to continue. May 2019 saw the release of the third studio album containing exciting new material honed with advice from producer Chris Kimsey, famous for working with the Rolling Stones and Peter Frampton amongst many others, with tracks mixed by California-based producer Bill Drescher and Thunder’s bassist Chris Childs. Rebecca will be gigging throughout 2019, undertaking headline shows, festival and support slots. Catch and enjoy a live performance, come and say hello, be part of something exciting, spread the word and, above all – Believe.

Interview by Michael Limnios                Special Thanks: Collin Speller

How has the Blues and Rock counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

In my case, music’s influence started when I was at school.  I think every child needs a way of establishing credibility with their peers.  For some this comes early and easily – maybe it’s their looks, or their physical prowess making them good at sports.  In my case, as a not very ‘girly’ girl, it came through music, singing and – very quickly – writing songs.  My early work was very much more rock than blues, but despite a lot of interest and enthusiasm, it did not progress to the point where it could be a career so I had to take up full-time work in an office.  In the ensuing years, I dabbled with music part-time in various ways, including at one point running a successful swing act that earned good money.  But, the call of original music was always there and when I met producer Mark Viner Stuart and then via him Steve Birkett, the man who was to become my co-songwriter, I was eventually tempted to give up full time work to start a portfolio of writing, performing and teaching, which is where I am today. It’s a career choice that has involved a lot of sacrifice (I earned very good money in that office!) but it aligns exactly with the person I am and the way I need to express myself.

If I am honest, I find it hard to express how it has influenced my views of the world.  I am by nature someone who cares very deeply about people (and animals, especially dogs).  The blues certainly aligns with the way I feel about the behaviour of some of the people I have met and who have had an impact on my life, and the energy of rock aligns with how I feel when I am determined to take on the world!

How do you describe your songbook and sound? Where does your creative drive come from?

All my original songs have been co-written with Steve Birkett.  Our music has inevitably evolved over the time we have been working together, so much so that we feel that our latest album More Sinner Than Saint and our first two releases – the Real Life EP and the Back To The Start album – could almost be by different artists.  Blues is a consistent theme, but the earliest works also had a Country feel to some tracks, whereas the latest material is far more rock in sound and feel, albeit blues-infused.  And Bill Drescher’s mixing on five tracks of More Sinner Than Saint (a style matched by Chris Childs in the other seven) delivers a much bolder sound – wider, deeper and almost ‘film-scape’ in feel.

My creative drive comes from deep within – a mood, a mind-set or a feeling that grows and has to find expression in song.  Both Steve and I write prolifically with ideas appearing at any moment (including in the middle of the night) that we capture and then develop.  Basically, the way we work is to develop our own ideas to point where we can share them and we then work on them together and take the good ones forward to ‘demo’ standard (fortunately Steve is a multi-instrumentalist and has his own small studio).  The best tracks are then selected, recorded and mixed for the album.  We write all the time and we go wherever the music takes us, so we have produced lots of material.  My manager told me the other day he has 22 demo tracks in his iTunes that didn’t make the cut for the latest album.  Some, by common consent, just aren’t good enough, but others are great songs that just don’t fit our current sound or genre.  Maybe one day some of them will be released but in the meantime we have already another eight new songs in demo form that are candidates for the next album, with more at various earlier stages of development.

"We have been very lucky to get UK national radio exposure for our latest single (Hurts) on Planet Rock Radio and it has really helped so it would be really helpful for more of the mainstream media to give greater focus on and exposure to new, original music." (Rebecca Downes / Photo by Mal Whichelow)

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? Are there any memories from gigs/studio, which you’d like to share?

One of the things we recognise about our progress is that we have benefited from the input of lots of people.  Some of these are still around, some were short-term professional/commercial relationships that could be reactivated at any time and some were relationships that didn’t work out for some reason, but left a positive legacy.  All those involved in whichever way have been credited on one or more of the album sleeves.  In selecting ‘the most important’ there is always a danger of failing to give appropriate credit to someone who deserves it.  But, with all that in mind, I shall mention a few:

Mark Viner Stuart, who runs Mad Hat Studios near Wolverhampton was the man who introduced me to Steve Birkett and who helped us record and release our albums. 

Steve Birket is co-songwriter, lead guitarist and backing vocalist and without his song writing and development skills we wouldn’t be where we are today (to say nothing of his key role as a performer in the band).

Chris Kimsey, producer for many great acts including the Rolling Stones, gave us invaluable production, arrangement and song-selection advice at the formative stage of More Sinner Than Saint.  He gave us confidence to develop the music and select the best songs despite them having a different sound and feel to previous material.

Bill Drescher, introduced to us by our USA colleagues Ron Kramer, Ben Bernstein and Brian Panella, and whose recording credits include Rick Springfield, the Bangles, Spinal Tap and the music to Titanic and Stranger Things, took the recording of the title track of the album and mixed it to deliver a sound that transformed it.  He then did the same for another four tracks.  For various reasons we couldn’t use Bill to do the whole album but we were very lucky that Chris Childs (bass player for the UK-based rock band Thunder) was willing and able to replicate Bill’s style for the rest of the tracks.

Then there is the guy who manages our independent music business, Colin Speller.  He comes from a business rather than a music background and he manages all the business and organisational side of our work, including the finance, marketing and promotion, and without him we wouldn’t be here.  And I’m pleased to say we are dragging him into the creative area as well – he devised and produced the lyric video for our second single from the latest album, Hurts that can be seen on our Vevo channel.

I have to give a big shout-out to Lisa Bardsley, our marketing adviser for More Sinner Than Saint who was instrumental in getting us the Planet Rock Radio play, Sharon Chevin, who did the PR work for the latest album and Danny Bowes (lead singer of UK band Thunder and music businessman) who introduced us to them.

Finally, there are the musicians in my band who live the challenge of performing live, original music – the travel, the loading and unloading of gear, the set-ups and take-downs, the sound-checks and, most enjoyably, the actual performances.  The names have changed over time, and will no doubt change in the future, but each and every one that has taken the stage as part of the band, or applied their skill to the studio recordings, has contributed something unique.

In terms of gig memories, there are so many it is difficult to pick out a few.  I guess appearing at the Symphony Hall, Birmingham was a major highlight but then again it’s not always about the scale of the place – we’ve had some wonderful gigs at modest venues and some difficult ones at places ‘of reputation’.  What makes a gig good for an artist is not always the same as a gig-goer – for us it’s things like the ‘get-in’, the size and layout of the stage, the dressing room facilities, the quality of the sound set-up, the event management and the merchandise facilities.  When any or all of these are not up to scratch it makes our task harder and reduces our enjoyment of the gig, yet the gig-goers may often not be aware of any of it!   We definitely have our favourites and places we would think twice about going back – but I’d better keep the latter list to myself!

We also enjoy doing festivals, where all the same issues listed above apply and with that in mind I give a big shout-out to Weyfest (Surrey, UK), the best festival we’ve ever done (twice now) not least because they get everything on that list absolutely right.

In terms of the studio, to be honest I very much prefer our current way of working where I do the vast majority of my recording at Steve’s place.  This allows me to work spontaneously rather than to a programme in a commercial studio where we are ‘on the clock’ with a set number of things to be done in the time we’ve hired.  It allows me to relax and give of my best and that’s really important.

My best studio memories are around hearing the finished work for the first time.  And I have to say that sitting in Bill Drescher’s home studio in LA and hearing his mix of the titles track from More Sinner Than Saint was a moment I will always treasure – it brought me to tears.

"My creative drive comes from deep within – a mood, a mind-set or a feeling that grows and has to find expression in song." (Rebecca Downes on stage / Photo by Mal Whichelow)

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I suppose it is inevitable that the scope for true innovation is less these days than it was back in the 1960’s and 1970’s.  When rock and blues became mainstream there was something new every week with a vast and hungry audience waiting to consume it.  These days, real distinction is much harder to achieve and audiences are more elusive. I see lots of people worrying about the future of music from the perspective of ‘where are the new musicians coming from?’ yet I see no shortage of new musicians coming forward to compete with those out there already. This oversupply of bands leads to behaviours that exacerbate the situation with people trying to attract audiences by not charging a door fee or putting on three or four bands in an evening in an attempt to deliver ‘value’, things that in my view place further pressure on bands that are struggling to develop and that are ultimately unhelpful. 

Technology has had a massive impact, especially streaming, and I think everyone is worried about the impact of the voice-activated device becoming the main vehicle by which people consume music.  If ‘play me some new Blues-Rock, Alexa’ becomes the way people engage with new music, how do you make sure it’s your music that Alexa (or Google hub) actually plays?

On the positive side, it is easier than ever to get music produced and published and to develop a relationship with fans the world over. And in the Blues and Rock sectors, fans are loyal, supportive and great fun, and we are hugely grateful for that!

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

That’s really difficult.  We have been very lucky to get UK national radio exposure for our latest single (Hurts) on Planet Rock Radio and it has really helped so it would be really helpful for more of the mainstream media to give greater focus on and exposure to new, original music.

Make an account of the case of the blues/rock in the UK. Which is the most interesting period in local blues scene?     (Rebecca Downes / Photo by Mal Whichelow)

I’m going to have to out my hand up here and admit that I am not a great student of the UK ‘scene’.  I don’t go to many gigs or festivals where I am not performing because to be very honest my time is focused on writing and performing, working to earn money, working on marketing our music, or trying to relax.  And for me the latter means getting away from music which otherwise would occupy every waking hour!  I know some people find this surprising and I know a lot of artists who attend other people’s gigs all the time – but I’m afraid that’s just not me.  If I did devote any more time to music it would be on my own stuff, especially marketing and promotion – there are never enough hours in the day for the independent act where we have to do everything that in a traditional situation a label would have done.

What I do know is that it is a strong scene, that as I have said is over-supplied with quality acts all vying for an audience, which is (due to demographics) static or perhaps even declining.  Certainly all types of act are well represented – bands, male-led, female-led, etc – and whilst there have been some that have fallen by the wayside, there are always more springing up to take their place.  There are some great promoters, venues and clubs working hard to support live original music and some amazing fans who travel far and wide to support their favourite acts, venues and festivals.

What does to be a female artist in a “Man’s World” as James Brown says? What is the status of women in music?

This could take me into a minefield, so you will have to forgive me if you think I am skirting around it.  Whilst it is tough for anyone trying to make a go of original music, and especially independently, I do think that female artists face challenges that male artists simply do not encounter.  I can only speak from my own experience, but I do feel that men expect a female artist to behave in certain ways, especially towards them personally, and they can get difficult if those expectations are not met.  For example, the very fact that I have an opinion on this would not be welcomed by one individual who wrote to me suggesting that I should not have shared a social media post highlighting the imbalance between male and female acts on festival bills as in his view it was potentially dangerous for me to get involved in ‘politics’.

Another guy (equipment supplier who I met once) wrote to say that he could not deal with me any more because I made him feel uncomfortable at a spiritual level and he felt it important that he should sever contact in order to avoid this inducing inappropriate thoughts and feelings. There was the event booker who always made a point of trailing past me the possibility of him booking me, without ever making an offer or suggesting what I needed to do to secure one (fortunately, perhaps).  There are many other examples that I could relate. Despite this, I do see female artists succeeding, but almost every one has tales to relate and there are some fundamental issues – the festival imbalance being one that can easily be documented.   

I am not really interested, though, in playing the feminist card – I just want to have my music and performance accepted on its merits.  After all, whilst I am the lead and the ‘brand’ the rest of the core team is male (although we do have two amazing female advisers in Lisa Bardsley and Sharon Chevin).

"I suppose it is inevitable that the scope for true innovation is less these days than it was back in the 1960’s and 1970’s.  When rock and blues became mainstream there was something new every week with a vast and hungry audience waiting to consume it." (Photo: Rebecca Downes)

What is the impact of Blues & Rock music and culture to the racial, political, and socio-cultural implications?

Goodness me!  I really do feel ill-qualified to comment on this.  I believe everyone recognises the origins of the Blues and the ‘racial, political and socio-cultural’ elements of them, but – and this may be controversial – current UK audiences often are of limited diversity, especially in terms of age.  Last year I went with a friend to see a concert of 90’s dance music performed by an orchestra led by Pete Tong and what struck me about the audience was the considerable diversity, a real mix of people of various ethnic origins with the ages ranging from teenage to very senior indeed.  It was a marked contrast to the demographic of a Blues/Rock audience where the bulk of age range is usually ‘45+’.  This has to be an issue for the future of the music.

What is clear is the capacity of the music to lift people’s spirits and deliver a positive impact on morale and wellbeing.  I am privileged to have had many people write to me to tell me about the positive effect my music has had on them either generally, or at especially difficult times and I am aware that other artists receive the same feedback.   This is a vitally important benefit of the music to individuals and society at large.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

I’m sure people answer this question by mentioning some famous musician from the past that they would like to spend time with but I would love to go back in time and spend a day with my late grandmother (my Nanna, as we say in the West Midlands).  I’d love her to see what I am now and to hear my music.  It would be terribly hard, though, to endure the thought that it could only be a day, but if there is one person I would want to meet and spend time with, it’s her.  If it was literally via a time machine, then there is a very good chance I would meet my younger self (as I spent a lot of time with her) and it is interesting to think about what I might say to her.  But, that is a very private train of thought…

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(Photo: Rebecca Downes)

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