Rumer’s sudden rise to fame is the stuff of music fairy tales. At the age of 30, and after years of struggling to make ends meet while pursuing a singing career, she was signed to a record label.
Her debut album, Seasons of My Soul, was released in 2010 and sold more than a million copies. Overnight the British songstress (born in Pakistan as Sarah Joyce) went from waiting tables to headlining shows. She was nominated for two Brits, compared to Dusty Springfield and Karen Carpenter and performed for Barack Obama at the White House.
But her sudden fame, combined with a complicated childhood, busy touring schedule and mental health issues, took its toll.
Rumer released two more albums Boys Don’t Cry (2012) and Into Colour (2014) but struggled to anchor herself in the cut-throat music world.
She moved to the States for a clean break where she fell in love with arranger and composer, Rob Shirakbari. The pair, who divide their time between the UK and Arkansas in the US and have a child, worked together to create Rumer’s latest album, Bacharach & David Songbook.
The album features some of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s most memorable co-compositions.
iSing: Why did you start singing?
Rumer: I came from a musical family. Everybody played an instrument and it seemed very normal for music to be a part of my life. I could always relate to singers. I loved Chrissie Hynde and watched a lot of musicals. I was a big Judy Garland fan.
iSing: Do you work on your voice?
R: I was one of eight kids so I didn’t have voice lessons growing up; we could never afford it. I had a couple of lessons when I started singing professionally but it’s always the way that when you need them you’re too busy travelling.
Touring does put a lot of physical stress on the body so one of the most important things for me is to look out for things that could affect my voice: acid, alcohol and cigarettes. There was a time in my life when, if I was emotionally upset or stressed, I leaned on my roll-ups. That was my thing. Then one day my vocal folds didn’t connect; I was hearing this whistle and my mid-range and tone was gone. I panicked. I thought I had lost my voice for good. It saw a few ENTs and figured out what was going on; it was to do with being stressed and smoking. So obviously I stopped smoking. I know now I can’t smoke and have a music career.
iSing: You have spoken openly about having a mental health diagnosis. How did that impact your career, your performance and your voice?
R: I think often we manage whatever we’ve got going on and it’s not too much of a problem – until we come under extreme stress. When you combine a mental health issue with chronic stress you run into problems.
I have been diagnosed with Bipolar 2 Disorder, which is a milder form of Bipolar, inherited on my mother’s side.
Things like seasonal changes and weather changes affect me deeply. When it’s applied positively you can do a lot of things that are out of the ordinary. But the depressions are very physical and debilitating. As time goes on I roll with it. I know what’s happening and I let everyone around me know. I don’t find it a huge issue unless it is combined with stress so I manage my life in a way that I don’t have too much stress, or I will become very ill.
The problem for me began when I started singing professionally and signed with a major record label. There were pressures and expectations put on me that I didn’t know how to manage. I was thrown in at the deep end and I didn’t swim. I got physically ill from chronic stress, and had to cancel a few shows.
The music business is full of fair-weather friends and it was hard for me not to speak my mind all the time; Bipolar sufferers often struggle with, among other things, impulse control. You are in a misogynistic environment, where if a woman speaks her mind she is immediately labelled a bitch. I had never felt so disrespected as a female before. Suddenly I felt invisible.
When I was really ill I began to understand why people take drugs. They don’t take drugs because they’re trying to kill themselves, they take drugs because they’re trying to stay alive. The industry can be such a hard place when you have a vulnerability. Yet the interesting thing about being a singer or songwriter is that there’s an element of vulnerability that you have that makes you kind of good, or interesting.
iSing: Many creative people are affected by mental illness but it’s a topic that is often ignored. Why?
R: Our society doesn’t know how to encourage those with so-called mental health issues to channel it into the healing arts. Being born with this kind of sensitivity should be viewed as a positive thing. Personally, it is an energy that I have learned to harness and put in my music
iSing: What kind of sacrifices does a signed artist need to make?
R: To be a successful artist you have to almost be an athlete. You can’t smoke, drink or go to the pub after the show or the rehearsal. That’s why it ends up very lonely. When you get to a town to do a show you can’t go out exploring because you need to look after yourself. There’s all this responsibility: people have paid to come to see you perform so you need to look after yourself.
iSing: You have had performance anxiety. How does it affect you and what strategies do you use to help you through?
R: Performance anxiety is such a strange and seemingly unconquerable thing. I developed it when I played the Shepherd’s Bush Empire for the first time.
I have tried pretty much everything to manage it except beta-blockers. Weeks before a big performance I can feel anxious, afraid I am going to make a mistake, forget the words or collapse. I had some very helpful sessions with Andy Evans. His book Secrets of Performing Confidence is excellent. For me the best thing for anxiety is exercise.
What’s great is that my husband Rob is often on stage with me. So when I have that panic attack and I can’t work out the words, I look at him and he’ll mouth me the next word.
iSing: How are you preparing for your up and coming tour?
R: I’ve hired a personal trainer and I am doing weights. I had a baby eight weeks ago, so it’s been good for me, for my body and for my mind. I haven’t lost a pound but I feel more energised and it helps with my singing. I thought having a baby might change my voice but it hasn’t.
iSing: How did the Burt Bacharach and Hal David album come about?
Rumer: I had just finished with Atlantic and two weeks later Dan Chalmers from East West called and asked if we could do a project together. He wanted to do a Bacharach album and I thought “okay, let’s do that”. It made me a much better singer because it was really, really hard vocally. I learned a hell of a lot from that project. At one point I didn’t think I could do it as I didn’t think my voice was big enough. I had to grow and expand my range, because it was either that or quit the project.
iSing: What helped you to sing that range and find that sound?
R: I did a lot of routining, (working a solo to a high point of development, then presenting it more or less the same way each time) with Rob. I just had to pull it out from the depths of my being to find that energy. I had to learn and understand how important it was to breathe at the right time. I got some advice from people as you can only wing it for just so long as a singer without lessons.
iSing: What do you wish you’d known before you got into the industry?
R: There are so many things; like just how tough touring is on the body, and how you need to be physically prepared. I wish I’d known it’s okay to say “no” to things and okay to put your health first.
Rumer’s 3 tips for up and coming singers
- Have the right people around you Surround yourself with people who are trustworthy and knowledgeable and who you feel like you can have a long term relationship with.
- Look after yourself Nurture your physical, spiritual, emotional well-being. Don’t neglect yourself. If you are in demand and doing a lot of shows, you will become drained very quickly if you’re not aware of how to keep that energy going.
- Success is really down to songs. Whether you write songs or not, being able to pick a song that’s the right song for you, and being able to perform that song well, is crucial. Careers live and die on the song. What people remember is the song, not necessarily the singer. It’s the song that reminds them of a time in their life, or connects them to a particular memory.