Frankly Speaking

Rumer: Nashville Tears

Rumer has one of the most beautiful and captivating voices I’ve ever heard, a sublime mix of purity and expression. Her 2010 debut album, Seasons of My Soul, went platinum in the UK and earned a MOJO magazine award for Best Breakthrough Act. Since then she’s released a number of albums of originals and covers.

Her latest (released August 14) is Nashville Tears, featuring songs by Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Famer Hugh Prestwood. Some have been previously covered, most notably “Hard Times for Lovers” (the 1979 Judy Collins smash), “Ghost in This House” (Shenandoah, Alison Krauss) and “The Song Remembers When” (Trisha Yearwood), while others haven’t been recorded until now. You could file this under “country,” but Nashville Tears sounds more timeless than tied to the genre.

This is songwriting at its absolute finest, melding memorable melodies and poetic lyrics as if they were inevitable and inseparable. I have a habit of mentally rating songs from A-plus on down, but consider certain songs to be “off the meter.” Songs like, say, “Like A Rolling Stone,” which transcend mere and ultimately arbitrary rating systems.

There are songs like that here. “Ghost in This House” is a heart-rending story of a lost love: “I’m just a whisper of smoke/I’m all that’s left of two hearts on fire/That once burned out of control/And took my body and soul.”

 

“The Song Remembers When” tells of a person who thought they’d forgotten about an early love, until hearing the lovers’ favorite song again and realizing the memory is encoded in the song forever. If you’re afraid of dying, “Bristlecone Pine” will bring you consolation, and I wish I was a skilled enough writer to convey how profound this song really is. And you might think a song about adopting a stray cat would be trivial, but “Oklahoma Stray” is almost unbearably moving.

 

Though Nashville Tears is full of country heartache, it’s not monolithic in mood. “Deep Summer in the Deep South” a quintessential upbeat rockin’ country song. “Hard Times for Lovers” sounds oddly celebratory considering the subject matter, and of course there’s that irresistible refrain. That said, “Heart Full of Rain” is as stone country as it gets.

The musicianship is insanely good, as you would expect from a gathering of A-list Nashville players. Kerry Marx’ guitar solo on “That’s That” is concise incandescent perfection, and Scotty Sanders’ Dobro intro on “Hard Times for Lovers” makes you wonder why they didn’t do it that way in the first place. The album blends classic country instrumentation like acoustic guitar, Dobro, pedal steel and acoustic piano with a real – a real! – string section (arranged and conducted by Rumer’s husband and long-time musical collaborator Rob Shirakbari), for a seamless blend that wonderfully complements Rumer’s sweet, soulful – no, heavenly, voice. This is an every-note-in-place today’s Nashville production, but not overly manicured.

 

The sound quality (I listened on 24-bit/44.1 kHz on Qobuz) ranges from really good to excellent. Although recorded in different studios, there’s a richness of musical texture and a pleasing consistency of sonic presentation, though some cuts have more bass warmth. And Rumer’s voice is just gorgeous, and placed up front in the mix where it belongs.

I am reveling in Nashville Tears. And yeah, maybe shedding a few when nobody’s looking.

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I interviewed Rumer (via e-mail) about the album and other subjects.

FD: How did you get in touch with Hugh Prestwood, and what made you decide to do an entire album of his songs? The melodies, combined with his emotionally resonant lyrics, almost feel like they were written specifically for your voice and style, but they weren’t. What would you say about that?

Rumer: Perhaps that was the reason I was attracted to the songs in the first place, that there was something in me that resonated with these songs.

FD: The new album has a timeless quality – not surprising considering the pedigree of the songs. Did you intentionally go for that, as opposed to trying to create a more “contemporary” Nashville country sound?

R: I always try to aim for a timeless sound, to create something special that people will want to come back and listen to again and again and that stands the test of time.

FD: Many of the songs are extremely moving – my particular favorite is “Ghost In this House.” “Oklahoma Stray” is simply heartbreaking. Which songs on the album are your favorites or move you the most?

R: “Oklahoma Stray” was the first song I heard by Hugh Prestwood and it is probably the most moving song on the album. All the tracks move me in different ways. I love “June It’s Gonna Happen,” because that song has such a beautiful magical melody and lyrics that seems to sweep you away with it.

FD: “Hard Times for Lovers” must have been an obvious choice. When Judy Collins had a hit with it in 1979 it seemed kind of lightweight to me, though admittedly irresistible. 41 years later it sounds much more profound. What was it like to do that song?

R: “Hard Times for Lovers” is a fun song to sing. Originally my vision was to have Carly Simon sing it with me as a duet which would have been amazing, but in the end I was too scared to ask her.

FD: Nashville Tears has a warm, rich sound – in fact, all of your records do. This seems like a deliberate artistic decision, and the sound of your records, from Seasons of My Soul onward, complement your voice. Do you, Rob Shirakbari and the people you’ve worked with have a deliberate “sound” you strive for?

Photo by Alan Messer.

R: I think the sound we strive for always is only to make it timeless and beautiful. I think the warmth comes from all the elements and all the attention that’s put into the production and the mix. A lot of time is put into making sure the final sound has a great balance and isn’t too harsh on the ear. I think the warmth of the sound is probably down to my personal taste.

FD: The caliber of the musicians on the album is insanely good. What was it like to work with them?

R: Yes, the musicians were absolutely incredible. It was probably the best experience of my life working with these musicians. I have never before experienced working with such talented musicians who not only play brilliantly and effortlessly but who understand songs and play to the lyric.

FD: You seem to like slower-tempo songs. Why?

R: I’m not really consciously attracted to slow songs. I think it might be because I can communicate the emotion with my voice better that way.

FD: To go outside talking about Nashville Tears for a few questions: I was at Damrosch Park (in Manhattan) when you did that 2017 concert with Dionne Warwick. What was it like working with her?

R: It’s great working with and knowing Dionne Warwick. Because my husband is her longtime music director I have also had the opportunity to see her in concert many times. She has such an old school approach to performing and entertaining that really doesn’t exist anymore. The sheer number of performances she has done in her lifetime is staggering. Her work ethic is incredible.

FD: I have to squeeze in a question about the La Honda (band’s) album, I See Stars, which is one of your first efforts, sounds like a great lost sixties record from Laurel Canyon and was released a while after it was recorded. How did that come to see the light of day?

R: The La Honda album was never released back in the days when we recorded it because I left the band at its height to look after my mother who was dying of cancer at the time. So, years later, because we are all still very close friends, I thought it would be fun to release it.

Photo by Alan Messer.

FD: How comfortable are you with the demands of fame? Would you rather have a lower profile and be a “musician’s musician,” or have Beyoncé-level status?

R: I don’t consider myself to be a famous person at all. I’m very proud of the work that I’ve done and I am very grateful for the fans I have and for their loyalty over the years but I’ve never had the desire to be famous. I’ve never felt comfortable doing interviews. I want to be recognized for my work, but I like being a part of my community where I live.

FD: Even before the pandemic you didn’t tour a lot, and of course now you have a new addition to the family to give you more incentive to be home-bound. Once touring starts again, what do you foresee as your plans for live performances?

R: I think everyone who works in music is wondering what the future will hold regarding live shows. I do have live shows planned for the spring of 2021 and I’m also planning a global live stream event. It’s good in a way, to learn how to do more high end global live stream concerts – not just because of the pandemic but also because not everyone can attend a tour date in a particular country at a particular time.

In a way I am glad to be learning about best practices in regards to live streaming concerts now because I will get a chance to play for fans in the Far East and South America, Europe and even places in England that are not on the beaten path. Also, there is an assumption that people can attend concerts and some people may not be able to due to old age, serious illness or infirmity. So I welcome these changes and hope that I will be able to reach more people with high quality live stream concerts.

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I asked Fred Mollin, Nashville Tears’ producer, for details on how the record was made.

FD: Let’s start with an audio geek question, but an important one: what kind of mic did Rumer use?

Fred Mollin: As producer, I made a choice based on comparisons of other old tube microphones and we wound up using the top of the line Blue tube microphone, [and] we then compared their capsule choices until we found our best match for Rumer’s voice.

FD: Did you record Nashville Tears mostly “live” in the studio, or more conventionally, doing basic tracks and then overdubs? Could you describe the recording process?

FM: The album was recorded with the musicians live in the studio over the course of three days. 10 am to 5 pm. This is a very standard way to work in Nashville and we have the finest musicians in the world. They are the most instinctual and brilliant players, and lovable.

Rumer sang guide vocals, live with the band, which really inspired the players on the floor, and as our norm, we saved all vocal passes and many of those vocals were used along with other passes we recorded at a smaller studio later as overdubs.

The recording process for the tracks lasted three days; we then went to a smaller studio at Sound Emporium, and Rumer did vocal passes and some background ideas over the course of the next week or so. After that, we went to my home studio to put the best vocals together carefully in my normal efforts to make sure the best moments were on each final lead vocal.

After vocals were locked, we added a few instrumental overdubs that weren’t done on the tracking days. After that a few outside background vocalists came in and overdubbed their parts.

The string [parts] were written by Rob Shirakbari, [except for] one string arrangement done by my old partner and best friend, Matt McCauley, and they were recorded shortly after at Sound Stage studios in a new expanded room. My long-suffering engineer, Dave Salley, did his absolute best in recording the album and then mixing began at his home studio. It was then on to mastering with Greg Calbi at Sterling Sound.

I personally just produce to facilitate what I feel is the artist’s vision. We had a lot of discussions and I understood exactly the kind of record we were going to make, so I cast very carefully to make sure the musicians who were on the floor were a perfect combination for this artist and the songs. I don’t listen much to contemporary country radio. We wanted to honor the songs of Hugh Prestwood in doing them in a classic fashion.

We recorded everything on Pro Tools at 96 kHz.

FD: The album was recorded at a number of different studios. Why?

FM: Starstruck Studios is a large [one], perfect for tracking, but after the three days of tracking, we needed to make sure we weren’t spending unnecessarily on a large tracking room for Rumer alone. We went to Sound Emporium Studios, as they have a small and cozy vocal room where we did overdubs.

We decided to do any instrumental overdubs and vocal listening and compiling at my home studio for obvious economic and comfort reasons. I always like to do this.

Some other studios were used because we couldn’t get back into Sound Emporium for overdubs, and we used Sound Stage for our string [recording] day. There are so many tremendous studios in Nashville, but I loved my first string session at Sound Stage and, that’s another reason that makes Nashville so important as the live recording capital of the US.

FD: The album was primarily engineered, and mixed by Dave Salley, and mastered by Greg Calbi. Were they a big part in giving the album a unified sound, even though it was recorded in different studios?

FM: I try to always use Greg Calbi to do the final mastering; besides being a dear friend for so many years I think he is the best there is.

With Dave Salley as engineer and mixer, the sounds are going to be beautiful and he knows how to mix for me. Rumer was very involved in each part of the album, even more than many other artists I work with, and Dave worked closely with Rumer to get the mixes right for her, as well as for me. The studios truly aren’t important when you have a great engineer, great musicians and a great vocalist. If the same engineer is recording all of it, and I’m helming the project, it’s going to have a unified sound. I can imagine the only way it wouldn’t would be if there were different producers for different songs.

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Frank’s Top 10 Rumer Playlist (in no particular order):

  1. “Take Me as I Am” (Seasons of My Soul)
  2. “Slow” (Seasons of My Soul)
  3. “Dangerous” (Into Colour)
  4. “Am I Forgiven” (Seasons of My Soul)
  5. “Ghost in this House” (Nashville Tears)
  6. “Reach Out” (Into Colour)
  7. “June It’s Gonna Happen” (Nashville Tears)
  8. “It Could Be the First Day” (Richie Havens cover from the album Boys Don’t Cry)
  9. “Are You There (With Another Girl)” (Burt Bacharach/Hal David cover from the album This Girl’s in Love)
  10. “Where Does It Go?” (from the La Honda album I See Stars)