The English indie songwriter’s voice just as easily gusts through calling out on sexism and the pressure to conform, as it breezes through her songs on stage, writes Shruti Sunderraman
27-year-old, singer-songwriter, Lucy Rose became a prominent voice when she first started singing in the British outfit Bombay Bicycle Club. Frontman Jack Steadman’s influence was formative in her EP Lines, but by her first full-length album, Like I Used To, Rose had pretty much established her own niche. Too nice, some of her detractors might call her, but the laid back fatigue to her voice, the sandpaper graininess and a subtle restrain to her vocals is exactly what differentiates her from the others. What also makes her stand out is the fact that Rose is unabashed about her fight for equal pay and equal opportunities in the music industry.
Over the years, female artists of different cadres have been fighting sometimes subtle, but mostly blatant forms of sexism in their careers. You’d think, that after decades of trailblazers speaking up against unequal pay in the industry, cheques would have learnt to be gender neutral. However, as is commonly demonstrated in the industry, female artists are still at the bearing brunt of being paid less than their male counterparts.
There’s also the unavoidable fact that calling out on this sexism leads to temporary internet fame, but hardly results in concrete action. Deep pockets in the industry dismiss bold and necessary stands like the next meme. It wouldn’t be imprudent to conclude that this discourages other female artists from speaking up. It will, however, take more than a few dismissals to silence Rose who says, “A few decades ago, women weren’t even allowed to vote, let alone work or demand pay. You’d think that after years of struggles, there would at least be equal representation and pay for women in every field. It’s ridiculous that a woman gets paid less to do the exact same job as a man,” she says.
Does this extend to wanting equal representation of female musicians at festivals? It is no secret that most headliners at recent festivals have been male-centric bands. Reality, however, is not as black and white. She elaborates this saying, “Ideally, it would be nice to see a 50-50 representation of male and female artists but it’s a bit of a precarious position. Festivals that have male headliners fall in trouble for not having enough female musicians in their line-up, so they end up calling in more female musicians to make up for it. This becomes an opportunity.”
Opportunities gained out of organisers’ desperation to be politically correct is an unfortunate reality of female representation at festivals. But talented artists like Rose are using the platform to establish musical fibre firmly over gender appropriation. For example, when she performed at Glastonbury in 2014, she was afraid the audience would just stand at the back and get drunk. But she brought her all to the performance and soon, the audience’s engagement peaked. Despite being an artist who’s more at home at intimate venues, Glastonbury gave her an opportunity to give the most memorable performance of her solo career.
Rose also points out that record labels sometimes typecast female songwriters as writers of bland, similar music. This misunderstanding prevents them from signing more female musicians. It cannot be denied that there’s a plethora of upcoming singer-songwriters, both male and female, passing off banality as “indie” or “alternate”. However, dismissing them on the basis of gender is ridiculous. Rose approached a record label who didn’t want to record her because they “already recorded a girl.” she says, “It’s insane that some labels think all female songwriters write the same kind of songs. Of course, there are some great record labels who’ve put quite a few women on the map. But struggling songwriters are having to face a lot of sexism and ignorance before they find people who treat their music with the respect it deserves.”
Rose, like most musicians worth their salt, has seen her share of struggles. When she decided to choose music over academics, Rose made rounds of open mics in London for four years and played her songs. This turned out to be rewarding, as she met some of her band members there, and also some other musicians with whom she recorded both her first album and EP in 2012. It was at these sessions that she met Bombay Bicycle Club (BBC), the British indie folk rock band that would turn things around for Rose. “I used to work at a clothes store in London,” she reminisces. “Bombay Bicycle Club took me out of there, so I could tour around with them and make a living out of singing music. To be able to do that was a huge privilege. Part of me wishes that I was a proper part of the band—I didn’t just want to be this sessions musician. I wanted more from the experience.”
Her BBC days make an appearance every once a while when you hear knotty electronics and synth-influenced basslines, a deviation from Rose’s trademark acoustic experiments. Leaving BBC to work on her solo projects in their entirety was a life decision for Rose and a difficult one to make. She says, “Not being able to be a true part of BBC made me think I need to pursue more than this. I wanted to be more involved with my music. It was one of the toughest calls I’ve made, but it had to be done.”
It’s been a decade of writing music and if there’s anything Rose misses about her early beginnings, it is the youthfulness of not caring as much. Of-course, the sensitivity that one can bring to song writing over the years is an addition, but youthful irreverence is always nostalgic. One of her strongest points as a songwriter is the urbane maturity that leaks into her lyrics, making her an endearing addition to playlists to listen to on quiet rooftops.
What takes her by surprise even now is how far her music has travelled. For instance, on her visit to India, she was visibly overwhelmed at her concerts, especially when she received a personalised poster from a fan. When an entire audience sang along to her song, Shiver, her voice cracked with emotion. “I wrote this song in my bedroom in London all those years ago and I’d have never thought that I would be listening to it from a room full of people, all the way in India. This means so much to me,” she said on stage.
After she released the live compilation album Live at Urchin Studios last year, she plans to come out with a new one this year. Contrary to Work It Out, which had a polished, new-age indie sound to it (a combination close listeners would not easily associate with her), Rose will be going back to her roots with her third album. She does concede that she was a bit uncomfortable with the idea of conforming her song-writing to what’s current. “I think I’m going to stop listening to stupid people telling me I should make “current” music. What is current anyway? Something that sounds good in this year? What about ten years later? I want to make music that stays untouched by time. I know there’s this pressure sometimes to go synthy and electronic, especially given my BBC background, but really, if you look at musicians who’ve stayed with me—it’s always been people like Elliot Smith, Jeff Buckley and The Shins, who’ve been simple and sincere. I need to go back to being organic and real with the new album.”
In the giant pool of trying-too-hard, something organic and real might exactly be the float we’ve been praying for.