Interview with Adrian Roye
Adrian Roye is the songwriter, vocalist and guitarist from Adrian Roye and the Exiles. Their debut album 'Reclaimed' blends its distinctive Afro-Caribbean inspired, British folk influenced, Americana tinged music, known more succinctly as ‘Afro-Folk’ - "... this is an album of considerable achievement musically and lyrically."
FW: The band has a distinctive sound – deliberate decision or did it just happen?
AR: “We didn’t have a plan as such in terms of our sound – to be honest it is something that’s come along organically. One problem we found when we first started playing together was how to define ourselves musically. That’s part of the reason for the name - The Exiles – we’re exiles, doing our thing in our way. That pretty much sums it up. Also we came from a range of quite different backgrounds and made different journeys to get to this one place.”
“Aside from a host of influences over the years, folk music is at the core of my writing. Simon is also a folk fan but being a classically trained cellist he has a different background and brought different influences to our sound. Dan has a jazz background and Beth played in a rock band, so again there’s a mix of styles and experiences. By the time we started to play together and make our music there were so many ingredients in there we found it hard to define our sound but what came out was the sound we wanted.”
FW: So were you consciously aiming for a fusion?
AR: “It’s certainly an interesting mix. The definition we’ve stuck with for what it’s worth without being too restrictive is ‘Afro-folk’ – a description that came from a friend who heard our sound – and that’s as good as any. We feel at home with the ‘Afro-folk’ description. It takes in our roots elements, folk sound and subject matter plus the intermingling of elements of calypso, reggae and jazzy styles with the acoustic sound at the heart of it.”
FW: Definitions aside, the sound is supremely seductive especially with the cello
AR: “The cello gives us an immersive sound. It offers both depth and subtlety. It resonates with me and although I’ve never been a huge classical music fan, I feel the instrument creates an interesting blend that adds to our sound. That’s one reason, among many, that I was pleased to have the album produced and engineered by Michael Chorney – I wanted him to deliver a kind of ‘cosmic quality’ that would allow the cello to make its mark. Michael has the ability to allow the music to feel its way. He gives space to the music and helps it say a lot without saying too much.”
FW: How did the Exiles come together?
AR: “I went to school with Beth, she’s originally from Greece, and when she came to my secondary school she quickly joined the ‘music geeks’. We were the ‘outcast kids’ that spent all our time in the music room. That sounds a bit dramatic but we were a bit different to everyone else, and found a kinship in music, so we began playing together. I was playing piano at the time and Beth accompanied me on guitar.”
“I met Dan when I was doing a temporary job. We got talking about music and he told me that he played drums. We found we had similar musical tastes and ended up playing together. I have to say, I was bit reluctant to be in a band again following a previous traumatic experience of being in a band but decided to give it another try. Before this, I’d already fallen in love with the cello so when we started working with Simon it was a natural and comfortable progression and the rest just kind of happened.”
FW: Can you talk more about your ‘host of musical influences’
AR: “Inspiration and influences don’t have to be major issues. They are more a wide collection of little influences that mix together in your head and it just happens. In my case it’s certainly not one or two, there’s a whole list and a lot I can’t specifically remember but they’re in there all the same. To be honest my influences began from an early age. I suppose you could call it a whole mess of things.”
“One style that attracted me was ‘dark and light music’ – upbeat songs with dark lyrics. My eldest sister had a large record collection where I heard songs like that. The music she listened to had a lot of influence on me. Then there was the music my dad listened to, quite an eclectic mix too and that added another source of influence. To throw a few names into the mix, I grew up listening to everything from Dolly Parton, James Brown and Harry Belafonte to The Eagles, Bob Marley, Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones and Joni Mitchell – a pretty rich blend of music.”
FW: So where do the influences come from for your songs?
AR: “I would describe my songs as quite observational stories about people I know, situations I’ve experienced or ideas that come to me. At school, as I said, I was one of the ‘music geeks’. I was always the kind of kid that didn’t play football I was more into listening to music and thinking through how I could write my own songs.”
“When I write I often hear all the parts before they come together. I feel a ‘texture’ that I want to create with my music and hear it complete in my head even before we’ve started putting it together. Sometimes it’s a cooperative process with the band, other times I’ve got a song in my head and bring it pretty much finished to the band.”
“My songs can come from strong points of view. ‘Fear of Phantoms’ is about Nicholas Sarkozy’s so-called ‘war on women’ over wearing full-face veils, or niqab. The influence for the song is the confusion and the rights of women. Essentially, men on one side are telling women to take off the veil and men on the other side are telling them it’s culturally important to keep it on. The song asks the question: ‘Why not let the women speak and have a voice?’ So the main character is a woman saying: ‘Listen to me’.”
FW: When you write what arrives first – melody or lyric?
AR: “For me in most cases it’s melody first – the melody comes into my head and that becomes the canvass for developing the song. It dictates the tone. Then the story builds. Usually, the elements of melodies and lyrics arrive at a really awkward time – rarely when I’m sat down ready to write. I try to record ideas on a mobile phone but I still prefer writing them down, so it’s often a search for pen and paper. I also have a recorder and sing ideas to myself or tap out a beat.”
FW: Did you have a pre-conceived layout for the album or did the songs simply fall as they fell?
AR: “The songs on ‘Reclaimed’ were all written over a period of time so there’s no intention to give it a concept album feel but we put together the songs in a way that ensured they worked with each other. We wanted their stories to fit together, not as one long narrative but as a sequence with some logical flow.”
“The last track. ‘I Claim You’, was written just before we went to the states to record the album, and for me it somehow sums up all the songs on the album. It’s about ownership, finding something, finding yourself. It’s a relationship song as well about a person being like a territory or an island and if you don’t treat this person well it’s all going to fall apart. It makes clear statement that perfectly closes the album”
FW: Is the album an accurate reflection of your live sound?
AR: “I certainly hope so. That was the intention. For me ‘Reclaimed’ is an ‘organic’ product, a living thing. We wanted to ensure that what you hear on CD is what you get live. We didn’t want ‘over the top’ or overpowering production that would make us sound different. We wanted ‘Reclaimed’ to be a statement of who we are – hence the ‘reclaimed’ message. We were ‘exiles’ and we found or reclaimed our sound. We wanted it to be what and who we are. And I feel that’s what we got - a raw organic sound that ‘lives’ on the CD the same way that it ‘lives’ in a live set.”
FW: Do you have a preference for live or studio?
AR: “I suppose each have their own sets of stresses. I get more nervous before I play live that’s for sure. When I sing, I like to get into the song. I need my head in a good place before I perform. Part way through a gig the nerves fall away and it becomes a beautiful experience. It’s all about feeling and living in the moment. That’s why I like to play in venues that care about the artist because you give more of yourself and people are really listening. You feel that you’ve done your job. There are some places that just exude a spirituality that helps you perform to your best.”
FW: Artists often say some venues just ‘work’ while others don't – do you think that’s true?
AR: “Absolutely. We held our album launch at The Borderline and it’s a great venue. Good for the band and good for the audience. Sometimes it can feel like a battle – you want to do your best but some venues don’t help. Of course, musicians talk about different venues, how they treat artists and how they work for the audience. Some venues have no sense of programming, such as putting a folk band on after a metal band. Some treat you with little respect. You get the feeling that you should be grateful to be there. There may be lots of venues for live music but in reality there are only a few exceptional ones with something special to offer the artists and the audience.”
“The other problem is at some venues audiences treat the music as something going on in the background while they chat with their friends. Part of that is down to disrespect, sometimes it’s also down to the atmosphere the venue creates.”
FW: Does that mean inattentive audiences are not your favourite?
AR: “It’s not so much 'liking’ or not ‘liking’ an audience, I want to play where were people want to listen. You don’t expect total silence throughout the set but it’s so frustrating when people don’t listen. I think that somewhere down the line some people have lost their respect for music. There are so many venues out there and some people don’t see music as important.”
“As I said earlier, music becomes a background noise that’s not significant. And that surprises me. After all people pay good money to go to a gig – why do they then sit there and talk? When someone has gone to the trouble to put a beautiful piece of work together and perform it to the best they can the least the audience can do is listen. You don’t go to the cinema and talk all the way through a film so why at a gig?”
FW: As well as its distinctive music the band is also blessed with your distinctive voice
AR: “Thanks very much, I’ve worked on my singing to get the sound I want. In my primary school we used to have weekly ‘sing-alongs’ and that was the first time I tried to really sing. I was quite a shy guy but really enjoyed singing and it helped me with my confidence. The more I got into singing the more I thought this seems to be something that’s working for me I’m going to work on it. I listened to singers and tried to figure out how they ‘worked’ their voices. I listened to Marvin Gaye and wondered - ‘How does he do that thing with his voice?’ - it was fascinating.”
“Then friends would hear me sing and tell me I had a really good voice. I was really wary of that. The trouble is you see these reality programmes where someone’s family and friends have told them they can sing, and they really can’t. It’s the confidence thing again.”
FW: There are not that many truly ‘individual’ acoustic male voices are there?
AR: “Yes that’s true. I can think of a handful of male vocalists that I really admire who have distinct or inimitable voices. There are far more distinctive female vocalists. When I think of male artists I love it’s the phrasing, the delivery and the passion that stand out.”
FW: As well as being distinctive, do you think the vocals must deliver the 'drama' of a song?
AR: “Yes, I do. To communicate the story you have to live in the song. The audience has to hear the exhilaration or turmoil - whatever emotional state you’re trying to convey. That includes a style, tone and accent that fits your songs and adds something almost indefinable, but obvious when it's missing, to the narrative.”
FW: Many people hate the notorious mid-Atlantic accent used by some singers
AR: “If you’re singing as a character that’s fine but otherwise sing as you sound. Growing up when I was trying to find my music and my identity I think I sang with an ‘American accent’ but that was just a reference-point to develop my art. It’s interesting as a black vocalist you’re often expected to sing R&B. You think to yourself: ‘Is that the only place I can go with my voice?’ Then as I got older I listened to artists like Tracy Chapman and Joan Armatrading and I thought I can sing as I want to sing.”
“I grew up in Edmonton, listening to a whole mixed bag of music in a multicultural society. That creates a lot of freedom although people want to categorise and define. The Internet has exposed people to a whole lot of influences, styles and musical cultures so maybe that will steadily change.”
“When we first started to try and get gigs we ran into image and perception problems. We were told ‘you’re a bit too ethnic for us’ or ‘your music is too acoustic’ or ‘you’re not quite rocky enough for us’. We had all sorts of problems because people didn’t really listen. That meant we played some horrendous gigs because the venue had put us on without understanding the music. I once had someone come up and say ‘you don’t sound black when you sing’ – that’s fine, tell me what ‘black’ sounds like and we’ll take it from there.”
“I’m not blaming people it’s just that so often they are presented with pre-conceived definitions and in the end it’s hard to break them down.”
FW: So is it fair to say that the Exiles are now comfortably 'Reclaimed'?
AR: Yes, we are. but you have to keep on soaking up those little influences.
FW: Adrian thank you, it has been a pleasure.
© FolkWords - 2013