[Written by Siam Hatzaw]
[Image Credits: Rowan Lees (Images 1 & 2) and Alessio Grain (Image 3)]
A few years back, a musical trend gained popularity on sites like Youtube and Tumblr, which saw remixes of songs edited to sound like they were being played from another room. The song takes on a haze of nostalgia blurred with a certain isolation – it’s the sense of stumbling onto a personal moment, when you close the bathroom door at a party and look in the mirror, or overhear someone listening to music in their bedroom, scattered notes streaming out from under the door. This same feeling was evoked when I first listened to the latest album by Azere, or Rowan Lees, titled From Now On… – a collection of seven songs which switch back and forth between gentle acoustic melodies and spoken word, layering soft beats with captured monologues and unexpected orchestral samples. The end result is a carefully crafted sound developed from a wide range of musical influences, something which Rowan attributes to his parents.
“Growing up I remember listening to as much Toots and the Maytals and Marley as we did Damien Rice or Van Morrison. As I grew older I got obsessed with electronic music, grime, and hip-hop. I think all of those influences have bled into whatever it is I make now. I started out making dubstep and grime and hip-hop beats – as soon as I found a way to record my guitar into the computer, things got a bit weird. Since then it’s been about five years of experimenting with what kind of sounds I can create with that set up, which has been so much fun.”
Azere is an artist currently based in Cardiff where he also works as a part-time barista. “My latte art is coming on nicely,” he adds, before I ask him how the name ‘Azere’ came about. “Oh the name means absolutely nothing. It was a sketch I found in one of my very, very old notebooks which had a drawing of a camping tent and ‘azere’ written inside. I seemed to like it then and I enjoyed the idea of having a name with zero prior associations, so I’ve stuck with it since.”
After working my way through the album a few times, I told him that it makes me think of—and hear me out here—if you blended Bright Eyes with a bit of Ghostpoet, which was meant as a compliment (both being talented albeit extremely different artists). “I am absolutely taking that as a compliment! I’m a huge fan of Ghostpoet, especially his debut album Peanut Butter Blues & Melancholy Jam. I’ve never actually listened so much to Bright Eyes, but that’s what Andrew Shields [featured on the track Rheinschwimmen] told me as well, so I guess I’d better check ‘em out, cheers.” Andrew was also Rowan’s creative writing tutor during his term abroad in Basel, which “really stretched my capability for poetry, for songwriting. The mix of singing and spoken word on this project is a result of me just wanting to try my hand at both of those forms.”
During this time away, Rowan decided to leave his guitar at home, giving him a lot of time to write and think. “So when I got back in January, I was so eager to use my guitar again, the words flowed very freely to the music I began making.” When I asked him how the idea for the album came together, he described a “principle of vulnerability” which guided his process of choosing songs. “There’s something written in my notebook from when I was thinking about the tracklisting which says, ‘what are you most scared to show people? It’s probably that one’. Because I knew (or hoped) that those songs would be the ones most helpful to other people.”
The lyrics reflect this vulnerability, as each song is laced with sentimentality. They give the impression of us as listeners glimpsing something quite personal, a part of his life or memories that we’ve been let into. “I know it’s a bit of a cliché, but writing these songs really was therapeutic for me, and nostalgia definitely has a role to play in that, because when your memory starts placing significance on these events it can be really useful to write them down and try to explore that significance. There were some lyrics I sent to Andrew for my course last year and in the feedback he said ‘It feels like there’s a story you’re not telling here,’ which really hit me. From then on, I decided to try and be more explicit in the stories I told, which I still think I could improve on.”
For this album, almost all of these stories began with the music, “the words seem to come easier when the music is already there”. Northern Souls was a little different, he tells me, as everything aside from the spoken word section was written in one evening at the start of last summer, leaving the second half empty. “It was only when I was putting the songs together for this project in the autumn that I decided it needed something else, and wrote that stream of consciousness verse which you hear in it now.”
In terms of tying it all together, Rowan turns to Fruity Loops to produce his songs, teaching himself mixing and mastering though the ‘In The Mix’ tutorials from Youtube (“shouts to that guy”). The end result sounds clean and stripped back despite the layers of instrumentals and samples looped into each track. I ask how he pieces together these strands to build his framework. “I’ll often start by recording a few different guitar lines, stuff that fits together in one big loop, then I put the guitar down and start to add effects, automation, and generally structure the whole thing. Somewhere in that part of the process is where I’ll start singing or writing the words too. It’s worth saying here that so many songs get abandoned at this stage! From Now On… is probably the 4% of lucky flukes I get when trying to write songs, the rest get deleted or are put aside on the hard drive for later.”
Considering such a small percentage of these “flukes” make it to the final album, I wondered how he maintains his creative drive. What sparked his interest in creating music? “I started playing guitar in school and basically just kept it going from there. I’ve always kept a notebook and enjoyed exploring ideas, interrogating my own thoughts, so music has been a great way to tie it all together in an artistic way. I have always been primarily a fan of music, so even when I’m not making anything myself I am deeply involved with other people’s projects and expression through music, that’s probably more enduring than my drive to make it myself.” One of the ways Rowan puts this passion into practise is through his podcast a(r)twork where “we chat about the practicalities of self expression with a whole bunch of wonderful, creative people. We send them questions and they send us voice notes on a fresh topic each episode.”
Self expression is central to what makes From Now On… such a compelling album, as Rowan curates parts of himself that he invites us to step into. The result is a thoughtful selection of songs which pass seamlessly between poetry and reverie. It leaves you with the feeling of looking through a window into memory, of listening to music float in from another room.