By James McClements
Some artists are brilliant in their ability to capture a scene, feeling or poignant moment in time. Azere, or Rowan Lees as he’s better known by his many friends in Cardiff does all three whilst still feeling distinctly authentic and British. His tracks are a timeless cocktail of ambient and acoustic laments with urban and hip-hop flavours drawn into the mix. His new EP From Now On… is a seven track anthology/biopic/self-reflective profile of sorts. A furious blend of vibes accompanied by his honest lyrics, and packaged off with his legitimately beautiful production.
For the next addition to our New Artist Corner series, I sat down with Rowan in his studio – a garage at the end of his garden, for a chat about his new tunes, inspirations, identity and nostalgia.
An Interview with Azere
After getting led down the garden to Rowan’s quaint tin workspace for a quick tour, and with brews now firmly in hand to warm ourselves up from the bitterly cold Maindy climate, I asked him whether making music for him is more like therapy or an obsession.
“Yeah kind of both in the same way. When I went abroad to Basel in Switzerland to study there for a few months last year I decided not to make music for a while as I hadn’t brought my guitar with me. So I thought it was a good chance to see if I did need to do this, but it turns out I did. Because I started sampling loads of songs I was listening to, I went home and opened FL Studio on my laptop to make beats all the time. It was nice and it felt like I was back to where I started. But in that same way it was therapy in Switzerland to be able to do that.”
“Oh there also might be asbestos in the walls of this garage”, he announces as he cheekily sips from his mug. But it’s welcome insulation regardless for his freezing studio shed, as Rowan’s only source of heat is a tiny electric heater he’s got under the desk, and of course the pure fire of his dulcet tones.
Rowan tells me his interest in making music started at school during Year 8. “I remember walking to school listening to Nero, the dubstep band. They did this orchestral version of their album that Zane Lowe played on his radio show and I downloaded it onto my Samsung slide phone and that made me start making my own FL Studio dubstep stuff every night when I got home.”
Rowan’s previous neck of the woods was Hexham near Newcastle. Born in Leicester, but moved when he was 6 to grow up right in the far north confines of England. He says he’s fond of where he comes from. The first gig he ever went to alone was to see Ghostpoet at Think Tank in Newcastle. Introduced to him by his mum, he’s an artist who became increasingly influential for Rowan. “I remember hugging him after the show, although I didn’t plan to. His first album Peanut Butter Blues is one of my favourites. He’s one of them people I would listen to in my bedroom thinking about being a successful artist, and having the time to reflect on that. He made his album in his late 20s when working a 9-5 job and still put it out, and is now a successful musician. But I thought I should appreciate the time and resources I’ve got now.”
Rowan reveals he is quite fond of nostalgia, but tries not to enjoy the past more than the present. “You’ve gotta live in the present man!” The last track on his EP, Song of the Partisan (ft. Nathan Warnes on horns) was an ode of sorts to his grandad. Rowan tells me a bit about its inspiration. “It was the anniversary of his death and I was on Facebook when my aunt put a picture up; my mum commented this Roy Harper song. A quintessentially English and melancholic song. They played that at his service, but I didn’t remember and didn’t stick with me at the time. It had a horn part, and the lyrics were really sad.”
“One afternoon with Grandad in the Corbridge music store. He’s handing me a guitar book and asking if I’m sure that this is what I want to do. And that glimmer in his eyes I’ll never lose. If not myself then who would write all these songs for the stars and moon? And what else is there to do while I’m here waiting for you.” – Song of the Partisan
“It was the last track I completed for the EP. Was a bit of a rush to do but i’m happy it’s out. Nathan Warnes was brilliant with the horn sessions.”
Rowan took the title, Song of the Partisan from an unsuspecting novel – If Not Now, When? by Primo Levi, about Partisan Jews in Nazi Germany. I notice that books seem to be a staple for Rowan, be it for creative influence or just as a pastime. He tells me the books on hand in his studio are to defeat the long render times whilst making tunes, and serve a practical purpose. But I can’t help but find out his music has been influenced by his readings quite heavily.
“From Now On (the title track) was made in the summer. I was getting a bit ethereal when reading some Carl Jung. I wrote it and was like what the fuck does this mean? But I just rolled with it. I went to Hay Book Festival when I finished exams and went on my own. I camped in a tent for three days, it was so much fun. I saw the book in the Oxfam store, and flicked to a page and it was talking about Basel, and I was like, I have to get this now.”
“Like everyone I want to try and make myself more interesting as a person, so I read what interests me. And it comes through in the music – that’s something I aim for. I think I prefer to be more considered in my production. There are a lot of artists I follow who seem to post things on a whim, and I love that side of them – a great thing about art, but I like to try and move to the other side of that and try and make a more thought-out project of it all.”
“Thinking back to the first song (Epicurus’ Fool), which was the first one I made for the EP. I was watching a film with my parents at home. And got distracted, thinking about how I call myself a writer, so I thought I may as well write something. So I went upstairs to my room and wrote a poem. Then the next day I wrote the second half, and the day after that recorded guitar for it, and it became the song. So in that way, it was the perception of myself being a writer which made me write. So it was a weird Chicken and the Egg thing with that.” Moving the conversation on to musical influences, Rowan tells me about his love for a band called Florist, which he admires for their “breathtakingly honest lyrics”, and Mike Skinner (The Streets).
I prompted Rowan to sum up his trip to Basel in one word. “Reflection”. I asked if it was the happiest time. “Not all of it no – it’s quite overwhelming moving to another country on your own. It’s the longest time i’ve been alone. My anxiety came back quite a lot. Being thrusted into a new place. There were loads of experiences I think about in a really good way. It was good – a mixed bag. A Study abroad semester, I thought it sounds like fun!”
Rheinschwimmen, from the EP, features a poem from Rowan’s Creative Writing Seminar tutor in Basel – Andrew Shields.
“He’s from Detroit but he lives and teaches in Switzerland, fluent in Swiss German. He wrote that poem and I saw it after I came back to England. He was someone I had a good bond with over there. I was proper nerdy with him – one of those people who stays behind after lectures to talk about James Baldwin and Barry Jenkins films. I had already made an instrumental which I called Rheinschwimmen. In Basel workers actually swim back home down stream, and you can see people doing that every day in the summer. And I saw his poem on Facebook when I was back in the UK. It took me a couple of weeks before I plucked up the courage to message him. He really likes the track, and he also makes music. The Choral samples at the end of the track were a late addition. I was in a English seminar choir out there. It was basically old people in and around Basel, there were only like 3 other students with me. We did a Christmas performance with really religious songs. But I recorded one of our practises on my phone, and got back home and I was like I need to include this.”
“I add a lot of sampled effects and recordings like this to try and build a landscape, and warmth. It gives it a real life setting that I enjoy. And the Time + Place project I did is full of all my own recordings. I think it helps the atmosphere of the songs, I think they wouldn’t sound the same without it.”
Leave the Light on is a personal favourite of mine off the EP. I asked Rowan if he was confident singing on the track. “It did feel like it was the first time I was really trying to let people know about my voice. I felt a bit uncomfortable singing, but I’ve been singing for a while. I used to sing along to a lot of the songs I didn’t put vocals on for. And I look back a lot thinking oh I should’ve laid that down, I should’ve put vocals on it.” I wondered if he felt the track was honest and exposing. “I hope so. But not entirely too, because it’s about 2 different situations. This isn’t something you think about too consciously when making it. Those two different situations in love basically fit together because of the feeling that they brought to me, and the feeling I got from the music. Not entirely honest, it’s not a straight forward story. But it’s an honest retelling of my feelings.”
I wondered if there was a fear of being too honest with his music. “Before I released it, I was like I don’t know what people are gonna think of me after putting this out. And it makes me think of how I think about these songs, and my opinions changed over the last few weeks when I hear what people have to say about them. That’s the best way you can express yourself, and then when you release it you have to deal with people’s different interpretations of it which are all wildly different to your own. You have to use those interpretations to change your way of thinking about how you feel about those experiences.”
Rowan is a hard one to label. Not only is his artistry on point, but he is a more than competent producer with an incredibly skilled ear for production. In terms of identity, I asked him whether he is first and foremost an artist or a producer. “I’d love to be both. Like JPEGMAFIA, it’s all in his hands. I’d like it to all be my own. I want to get it to sound professional myself. I guess artist is the word for that – producer, writer and all the rest.” I wondered why he wants to control all aspects of it. Is it more of a necessity to be DIY about it? “Yep. I’ve heard a lot of artists talk about this. If there’s a mistake on a song they don’t want anyone else to blame for it. I think Wiley said ‘I forgive anyone who’ve made a mistake on one of my songs, I should’ve blamed myself because I didn’t give the right direction’. So it gets rid of lots of potential failings and makes it easier. And maybe it’s an obsession to keep it all under your control. I just wanna make EPs and albums myself until someone realises oh he’s great at this part but he could do with some help with this. I want all the help I can get, but it’s nice to have control of each stage of it. Collaboration is something I went with a bit on this project and it was really fun.”
I finish our chat off by asking whether Rowan thinks his music is an accurate portrayal of himself. “Not yet, I don’t think so no, but it’s as accurate as I can get it to be.” I asked what’s missing. “I don’t know, I think what’s missing so far is more kind of joyous stuff, because that EP I put out was quite considered and heavy and it felt like getting stuff off my chest. So I think what’s missing is the music I’d make when I’m feeling better. But I don’t know, maybe music is just me working off negative emotions, and that’s all you’re gonna get from me! Ha.”
He also does a podcast, A(r)twork – listen here.