Interview by Paul Monkhouse for MPM
Everyone has favourite albums, each new year bringing fresh material that vies both for a slot in ‘Album of the Year’ polls and, beyond that, something that will enter the halls of the personal pantheon of all-time greats.
One of the highlights of 2019 was Rebecca Downes ‘More Sinner Than Saint’ and, in this release by the Birmingham blues wailer and her musical partner in crime Steve Birkett, was something that not only wowed the critics but dug itself so deeply into the consciousness of all those who heard it as to never let go.
From gutsy AOR tinged rock through to soulful ballads that would not only break but shatter your heart this had it all, Downes voice a thing of wonder and the songwriting supreme in its class and confidence.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TAfq2pWzWLA&w=560&h=315]
Having toured with the likes of the Quireboys and Magnum, many miles and many hours have been spent over the years to distill the perfect musical brew and it’s as powerful as the most fiery Moonshine found in a copper still, deep in the Everglades.
Whilst the studio-based and award-winning material is a wonder, it’s in the live arena that Downes finds her natural home, her voice, easy going charisma and down to earth Midlands humour all proving irresistible. With that avenue currently either closed or hugely restricted, we find out just how things have changed in her world.
First off, and most importantly: How are you doing?
I am fine, thank you. It has been an interesting and quite challenging time, but I feel good.
How have you been keeping yourself busy?
In addition to my music I am a vocal teacher/coach, teaching schoolchildren, University students and private clients. Straight after Lockdown I switched to online teaching and I have been kept quite busy with a mix of students and private clients. I have been helping a ‘vulnerable’ friend by doing his shopping once or twice a week and I have also done the same for my parents, who were also advised to shelter.
Other than that, I have been walking, cycling, reading, songwriting and watching TV. All this, of course, is in addition to the never-ending demand of promoting the music on social media, doing podcasts and other creative promotional stuff and generally keeping our online presence up to date.
I share these tasks with my Manager, Colin, but they are still quite time-consuming, especially responding to the many messages I receive. Oh, and I’ve had some radio interviews and done some stuff like this. So, all in all Lockdown seems to have passed quite quickly really!
Have you been doing any online live shows or seen any good ones?
When Lockdown started – and gigs stopped – I was in a difficult place because I live in a flat in central Birmingham, I don’t have a home studio and I did not have access to Steve, who was sheltering on medical advice.
I had not done a solo gig for many years and I wasn’t sure if I had the personal or technical capacity to do one. As the shadow of Lockdown loomed, we scuttled around and gathered up such kit as we thought would be needed – amps, PA speakers, etc. – and I started practicing some solo stuff.
I then did a test gig to my Facebook supporters’ group, and on the basis of that I did a slot in a Lockdown festival and then four streamed gigs of my own. The reception was absolutely great, but to be honest, it wasn’t an ideal situation and I did miss Steve.
Now that things have eased a bit, Steve and I are planning to do a duo gig very soon and we are talking to a specialist streaming venue about doing a full band streamed gig next month.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PjsqEoRrorA&w=560&h=315]
Have you had to change your way of writing material?
Fortunately, no. Steve and I always write in the same way – one of us comes up with an idea and shares it with the other, then we develop it iteratively to demo standard. Steve is a multi-instrumentalist so he can lay down all the instrumental parts as well as his own vocals. I usually record vocals at his place, but I have done some at home during
this time. Neil (drums) has his own studio, as does Nigel and Vince can record bass at home, so we are geared up to start ‘proper’ recording of new tracks in much the same way as before, albeit at a distance rather than people travelling into a studio.
Do you keep in touch with your fellow bandmates / other musicians much?
We have a band WhatsApp group where we share news and nonsense, and I have lots of people I communicate with via text, WhatsApp, etc., so I’ve kept in reasonable touch. Since things eased, I’ve had a socially distanced meet-up with Nigel and I’ve been going to Steve’s to work with him.
What plans have you had to change this year?
We’ve had to cancel gigs and to be honest the development of the next album has been set back by a couple of months or so. I really can’t see gigs going ahead this year (one guy we spoke to this week said he can’t get insurance for gigs he is promoting till 2021). I’ve had lots of social things cancelled and I don’t see myself getting away for an overseas holiday this summer (although I’m currently exploring options that don’t involve getting on a plane!)
What do you think of the social distancing gigs (like the one that happened in Kansas recently – 229 people in a 1,100-seat venue) or the thought of drive-in gigs as has just been announced by Live Nation?
Sadly, whatever way you look at it, it is difficult to see how these things would work for a band at our level. One promoter told me that his 120-cap venue would hold 6 people at 2m distancing and 35 at 1m. 35 people at – say – £15 a ticket would give a headline revenue of £525, which would mean nothing for the band.
We cannot operate like that. But, more importantly, I am not happy with the idea of gigging where there is a risk of disease spread. My Manager – Colin – is a scientist by background and training and he keeps saying that if you want to spread a virus then pack a load of people into a tight space and have them shouting, singing and jostling together.
I would be mortified if someone contracted Covid-19 at a gig of ours, to say nothing of how I would feel if they were seriously ill or – God forbid – even died. So, I am resigned to us not gigging until well into next year when – hopefully – there will be a vaccine and/or the disease will have abated to the point where people feel safe again.
The drive-in gigs are an interesting idea but they will clearly lack the ‘up close and personal’ dimension of a packed show. I really don’t know how I would feel about performing to rows of car windscreens. Come to think of it, I did it once – summer of 2018 we did an outdoor music festival in a gale and pouring rain.
They had people going down with sunstroke in the week leading up to our slot, but then the heavens opened, and we were on after an overnight downpour with the wind still howling and the rain tipping down.
Half the crowd sat in a marquee 50 yards from the stage, most of the rest sat in their cars and a few hardy souls danced in the rain. All very British stiff upper lip/’the show must go on’ but not that much fun on stage.
We are very excited about the thought of doing a proper, full-band, streamed gig in a top-class facility. Watch this space![youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_2rxr7ADwAs&w=560&h=315]
How do you think the music industry will have changed after this period of lockdown?
Sadly, this has come at a time when the business was already suffering lots of challenges in our sector with almost certainly too many acts trying to attract an ageing and declining audience and music revenues impacted by streaming and the general availability of music free at the point of use.
Given that, and the fact that I personally feel that the Covid crisis has a long way to run, I think it is difficult to predict exactly where and how the industry will change post Covid.
Unless there is a clear cut-off (the disease disappears or there is a vaccine) I think the situation will have a long tail as it will take a lot of reassurance to get everyone back into venues. So, I don’t know really – but difficult times ahead, I fear.
What plans have you got for when the isolation finishes and gigs start back up again?
We are working on a new album and we have the candidate tracks in various stages of development at the moment. We are just about to seek feedback from people close to us then we will start moving through the recording process and look at completing and releasing the album, with a couple of single releases along the way.
I’m not setting a timescale yet because we will want to have a clear view of when the tracks will be ready before we can factor in the promo time and set a date, but I guess we are looking at late 2020/early 2021.
Given what I have said about gigs I am not holding my breath for even early 2021 but we are talking to people about gigs next year and as soon as we can see a clear road ahead we hope to firm up a clear program of gigs, if not a full tour.
How can people support you during this time?
I am uneasy about appealing for support because I know that a lot of our followers are going through difficult times themselves and are worried about employment, money, etc. But, where people can afford to do so – and wish to, obviously – it is through the usual means of buying merchandise, buying tickets for the online gigs (we are looking to do some ticketed ones) and the usual ‘soft’ stuff of subscribing to our email list and YouTube channel and sharing our stuff on social media.
Our supporters are really great, and we are hugely grateful for all the feedback and encouragement they give us. https://www.rebeccadownes.com/
Interview by Paul Monkhouse for MPM