"It seems weird saying this in this day and age, but I would like people to take it in as a whole record..." - hmv.com talks to Rag 'n' Bone Man
Rory Graham - better known to most as Rag 'n' Bone Man - had been steadily building a reputation for himself for a few years on the UK's underground hip-hop scene, collaborating with artists such as Stig of the Dump and Kae Tempest and releasing a handful of EPs, but his 2016 breakthrough single 'Human' became a huge global hit which rapidly changed his career trajectory and saw him quickly capitalise on that success with his debut album, also titled Human, released the following year and climbing the summit of the charts in the UK.
After much touring and collaborations with the likes of superstar DJ Calvin Harris, Graham began turning his attention to a follow-up and, after some initial writing sessions at home, decided to follow a path beaten many an artist before him and head out to Nashville to record his second album, working with Grammy-winning producer Mike Elizondo and a list of top musicians that includes the likes of legendary session drummer Daru Jones and Wendy Melvoin, the guitarist from no less an outfit than Prince's band The Revolution.
With his new album Life By Misadventure out on May 7th, we caught up with the man himself for a chat about why he decided to record in Nashville, why the new album has ended up being a lot about fatherhood, and his recent collaboration and forthcoming performance at the BRITs with P!nk...
How long have you had the new album ready to go?
“February last year was when we did the final recordings, I think.”
You recorded most of the album in Nashville this time, was it your idea to do that?
“Well, we wrote most of the songs here, but I think by then I still felt like I had a few spaces left on the record and I kind of wanted to write five or six more. And I don’t know, we just didn’t really have much left to say here and I think we were hitting a bit of a wall, so we just decided to go to Nashville to work with a couple of songwriters I’d been really wanting to work with for ages. Natalie Hemby was one of them, also Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin.
“So that was the reason that we went over there, to work with a couple of people, and then, in turn, we met Mike Elizondo. He showed us around his studio and we were just like: ‘We should come back and record the album here.’ His studio is f***ing amazing.”
You had quite a few producers contributing on your debut album, this time Mike Elizondo has overseen most of it. Were you looking for more cohesion across the whole record?
“Yeah, I think that’s one thing that happens a lot with a first album. Obviously the song ‘Human’ just sort of blew up, and then you’re scrambling around trying to put an album together, essentially, because the label wanted to get an album out quickly. In hindsight, there’s maybe some of those songs that wouldn’t have ended up on there, but that is what it is.
“This time I had ages to live with the songs in demo format, most of them just recorded on an iPhone in a room with a guitar. So they kind of lived like that for ages and then the decision was to just get the best possible musicians I could, and then go and record it as a band. That’s how I wanted to do it because I wanted it to be more of a live-sounding record.”
It must’ve been a very different experience to making your first album. What did Mike Elizondo bring to the table?
“Just a wealth of experience, really. Mike is I guess mostly known for Dr. Dre and Eminem, so he’s obviously well known within the hop-hop world like that, but he’s also done so much more than that as well, he’s worked with people like Fiona Apple and Alanis Morissette, there are some really cool projects he’s been involved in.
“He just got everything I was saying about the references I was making for particular guitar sounds or drum sounds, references to records from the seventies. He knows exactly how to achieve those sounds, so I kind of knew straight away that he was the guy.”
You’ve got some incredible musicians on there too…
“Yeah, man. I remember the conversation with Mike and one thing that was really important for this record was to have distinctive drum sounds. I didn’t want programmed drums on the record, I wanted a drummer. I spoke to him about Nate Smith and Daru Jones, and I was like if we can get him Daru would be my first choice of drummer for the record, because he’s got this sort of hip-hop and pop sensibility, but he’s an incredible rock n roll drummer as well. I’m super lucky to have him.”
Do you think the change of scenery had an effect on the music too? The opening couple of tracks have some heavy Nashville vibes, does it start to rub off on you?
“I think it definitely does, just working with the songwriters that I did, and in the setting that I did as well. Being with Mike and Allen, we were literally writing on a ranch in the middle of nowhere, with old Gibson guitars, and it can’t not rub off on you, d’you know what I mean? Especially when at night time you’re out going to bars and stuff and hearing people play, yeah, it fully did rub off on us I think.”
Besides all of that stuff, was there anything else that particularly influenced the new album?
“I’d been listening to a lot of John Martyn, also early Paul Simon stuff a little bit, and early Elton John. Just really f***ing good songwriters. And I’m not trying to rip anyone off, but they’re so amazing at their craft and it’s always about trying to learn from the greats.”
There’s also the collaboration with P!nk – how did that one come about?
“Yeah, there wasn’t even going to any collaborations, that’s why there’s just my version on the album still, because that was done first. But then about four months ago I thought it was probably a good time to ask the question because hopefully, she’s not that busy. I’d spoken to her a couple of times before, we met in Paris and I’d spoken to her about this record she did with Dallas Green from City and Colour, about how I love the record and also loved hearing her voice with that kind of backdrop. It does things for me, it’s a really great record.
“We just sent her the song and I said I’d love to get her on it, and she said yes straight away. And, you know, quite often with those things people say yes, and then a year later you’re still asking. But she literally recorded it straight away, and it’s not like we’re doing it just for the sake of it, I think it adds to the record and she sounds amazing on it.”
You’re doing a BRITS performance together, aren’t you?
“It's kind of annoying that we can’t do it in person, because we’re not allowed to travel, so she’s coming from a satellite link.”
How else did you want the new album to move on from your debut in terms of a musical direction?
“When I came off touring the last record, we went straight back in the studio. I started writing, and I listened to some of the tracks the other day, but at the time it felt like a continuation of the last record, and it just felt a bit boring. I think I was just writing for the sake of it, I didn’t necessarily have anything to say really, so I just needed a bit of a break, to draw a line under the last record and realise what I wanted to do with the next one.”
And so, Nashville…
“Well, I think I just wanted to concentrate on the songs, because they’re the key thing really. The backdrop could have been anything, it could have been produced a number of different ways, but at the heart of it, I’m really proud of this record. I think the songs are really good, I just wanted to do something that hopefully speaks to people. And it seems weird saying this in this day and age, but I would like people to take it in as a whole record.
“Most people probably won’t, because everyone just releases singles these days and an album is difficult territory, but I hope people listen to the whole thing, they might not get it otherwise.”
Do you think listening habits are starting to change again a little bit? There’s been a huge resurgence in vinyl over the last few years…
“Yeah, I think that’s a good thing. You see the numbers and think: ‘Wow, that’s pretty amazing for vinyl sales’, but then hopefully that way people are not just going to skip through the tracks.”
What kind of album is this from a lyrical point of view?
“Because I went away to Nashville, a certain part of the record is definitely about fatherhood, I think just because I was writing while I was away from my family and I found myself thinking about being a dad a lot. There’s a whole portion of the record which feels like it’s based around fatherhood, and how I was sh*t-scared of becoming a father, and how I’m still sh*t-scared about being a father.”
“I’m really protective and I worry a lot about stuff, so there’s quite a lot about that, and almost talking to myself as a child as well, the way I grew up and how different it is now. So that’s kind of a common theme.”
When did you settle on the title? Was it always going to be Life By Misadventure?
“No, I had a few different titles early on, but then song choices changed, and I don’t really know why I chose that title. I guess it was because it felt like a bit of a timeline. I was talking about being a kid, then about fatherhood, and about how everyone’s a bit scared of the future. And I thought it sounded cool.”