A sell-out show is never something to be sniffed at, especially in the free musical buffet that is Bristol. Therefore, a packed- out Thursday night at The Lantern is credit to the love Bristol has for its own singer-soulstress Beth Rowley, as she returned to Colston Hall on her latest mini-tour of the UK.
Supported by fellow Bristolian open-mic veteran, Katey Brook, the old and the new came crashing together in a soulful smorgasbord, with Katey’s haunting opening cover of Vera Hall’s Troubles So Hard.
When Beth took to the stage, wild blond hair flying and a rock tee tucked into a high-waisted leather skirt, it was the first signal of a new era for the singer and her band. Beth’s new sound, heavier and darker than on her first album, clearly takes influence from her love of country and blues music, with Joe Harvey White’s pedal steel guitar adding a haunting wail to ballads Hide From Your Love and Princess.
It also brought a new depth to first album favourites, like Nobody’s Fault but Mine, which descended into a bluesy jam – Beth letting rip with a mellow harmonica solo, nailing a more mature, deep-South blues tone.
During the gig, Beth announced that her next album was in the pipeline, and that a number of the songs were still in development – ‘These songs were different yesterday and they may be different tomorrow’ – which gave a freshness to the set that you don’t often see on the Lantern stage.
The most touching moment of the night came in the encore, when Beth called up Bristol harmonica legend John Fenlon to the stage, recalling their first meeting at her debut gig in Mr Wolf’s: ‘I was playing and then John got up and joined in on harmonica. I was like “who the hell is this guy?” I didn’t know then that we would become great friends.’ Their rendition of Only One Cloud, which ended with a plaintive vocal/ harmonica duet, sending ripples of pleasurable nostalgia through the spellbound audience.
These songs were different yesterday and they may be different tomorrow
Before the gig, Nitelife snatched Beth away from being her own tour manager (‘You have control over everything, but small things end up taking a lot longer than you think’) to a magically empty Colston Hall, where we sat down for a chat about the tour, her life and her new sound.
Born in Peru, but growing up in Knowle, Beth cut her teeth on a blooming Bristol music scene, which saw her rubbing shoulders with the likes of Massive Attack and Portishead – sometimes literally.
‘I remember it was the first year I moved to Montpelier and we had loads of street parties. Grant from Massive Attack was suddenly in our kitchen and I was totally starstruck. I didn’t even speak to him!
‘I love Bristol. It’s a great place to grow up and be a musician. I played a lot of open mic nights in the early 2000s in Mr Wolf’s and The Old Duke. Now it is still a huge scene, and with BIMM opening here, it’s completely exploded.’
I don’t want to put something out for the sake of it just so I can make a quick buck
After a move to London, she burst onto the international music scene when her 2008 debut album Little Dreamer went straight into the charts at number 6. The following year, Beth was nominated for Best Female Vocalist in the Brit Awards, alongside Duffy and Adele.
Signed by Universal, she landed an appearance in 2009 movie by Danish Dogme 95 director Lone Scherfig, An Education, and sang on the soundtrack for Dylan Thomas semi-biopic The Edge of Love, the music of which was penned by Twin Peaks’ composer Angelo Badalamenti, and for the second time in her life, she was starstruck.
‘At the time I was watching the whole box set of Twin Peaks with my then boyfriend and then suddenly I was doing the music for this film! When I met Angelo, it was the highpoint of my life. Like, the top of my musical career.’
Though some may question the decision following these career-defining moments, Beth split from the label in 2010 – for reasons that many young musicians thrown into the music industry machine would recognise.
‘Being with Universal was definitely a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it was great, having all these opportunities and resources at my fingertips, but the pressure was crazy. I was still working out what I wanted to do, who I was and what I wanted to say. Basically that year I just stopped everything. I needed a total life overhaul. I went from this intense steep uphill climb to just nothing.’
Giving herself some space as a person and musician, she says, was the key to her new sound and she has never been happier:
‘I always wanted it to sound like this but it’s been a bit of a journey getting here. I’ve always loved blues and gospel music, but its hard to know what aspects of the music are what you love – is it the lyrics? The style? Is it the form of the song? The bass line? We had to break down exactly what it was about those songs that I loved. I guess that’s why it’s taken so long to come about.’
Everyone’s got it in them to be creative and to be expressive
Things have suddenly started moving quickly again for Beth. Along with playing with and supporting Jools Holland’s band (‘He’s been really supportive and encouraging’), moving back to Bristol and getting engaged to her boyfriend of six years, her eight-year hiatus from recording is coming to an end as Beth gears up to release her second album in the autumn later this year.
‘We’ve recorded just over half of it already. I’m not doing it with a big label this time, so it’s really important for me to find people who are willing to invest but not put any pressure on because they understand that the creative process takes time.’
This is something that Beth is particularly passionate about and speaks with fervour about the importance of stepping off the treadmill and finding your feet.
‘The best thing in the world was just to stop for a little while and take my time. I don’t want to put something out for the sake of it just so I can make a quick buck.
‘It’s such precious thing for me to know that I’m never going to stop singing, so I no longer worry about how long it takes. Making music should be fun – it should definitely be more fun than not fun!’