Roo Panes is a singer-songwriter from Dorset with a penchant for writing songs inspired by life’s tales, resonating with universal truths and wonders. Armed with his 12-string Taylor, we caught up with Panes as he was about to release his debut album Little Giant full of rich harmonies, delightful elegance, and soaring climaxes.
Roo Panes grew up in a rural idyll in Dorset, and the countryside shines out of every part of his gem of an album, Little Giant. That’s not to say that it’s all milkmaids and strapping young farmhands; on the contrary, you feel as though you’ve been whisked into the clouds, and swept dreamily across the landscape. We caught up with Roo on the day his album launched on an unsuspecting world.
Your album has quite a unique tone: there are cadences of Jeff Buckley among others, but taken to a whole new place. Who do you find inspires you when you listen to them?
The tricky thing is, I’ve never been very knowledgeable about music; writing has been much more my thing than liofficiousstening. I feel like I heard a lot of Van Morrison and Bob Dylan when I was growing up, which other people played to me, and I got all these lyrics flying at me which really engaged me, and I remember when I first heard Nick Drake because I was amazed by how he was able to create that peaceful sound. I really love Sigur Rós also; they describe their landscape in their music, and I love nature myself, and want to communicate in the same way.
Parts of some of your melodies are almost hymn-like. Do you listen to a lot of folk and traditional music?
Yeah, in terms of classical background, my grandmother was a classical pianist, and I grew up around a lot of orchestral music, but I also used to go to church as a child, and belted out a lot of hymns. In fact, I think the first time I sang properly was singing ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ as a child, knees knocking, up in the balcony during a nativity play. I tried to pass it off to someone else who I thought was a better singer, but I ended up doing it, and here we are now. My thing is that I just want to be myself, and as I grew up, I just found myself writing songs in my head, and I found I wanted to do it more. Leaving university, I had that choice in front of me, and whatever I wanted to do, I wanted to really do it well, which, if I took a job, would mean little time for music, so I thought I would go for it while I had the chance. I remember when I was at school, my father recognised that I wasn’t very good at playing the trumpet or reading sheet music, and he thought maybe I needed something more informal, so he got me a guitar. That was a bit of a turning point, and because I wasn’t great at learning the traditional way, it forced me to improvise, which means that I learned how to stumble across things, and now that’s a big part of my writing process. My father comes from a farming background, but loves to sing, and my mum was in the theatre, and music was really important to both of them, not as something that had to be a career, but something that enriched your life.
Your bio talks about needing the open country to be able to write; how do you balance that with the need to be in the centre of things for career reasons?
It’s an interesting one, because you can definitely write in London, but I do love being out in the open countryside because it’s really inspiring, and I feel peaceful. With this album, I wanted to write something that had a peace about it, which would have been hard to do if I hadn’t been in a peaceful place. I try to take time to get out of London, be in the countryside, do some travelling; on my solo tour this year, I took time to go the pretty way, visit national parks, and see wonderful things. It’s like going for a jog, or feeding yourself – you don’t see the benefit immediately, but it percolates and later the inspiration is there. I don’t have to be there to write, but if I haven’t been for a while, it all starts to dry up.
So, what’s the writing process like for you when it does happen?
It used to start, more often than not, with a melody; everyone hums now and then, and I would find myself humming a tune. I felt that I could match that mood and melody to lyrical ideas, but now it comes from all different sides; recently I’ve been writing songs that are more conceptual. ‘Little Giant’, on the album, is quite conceptual; I challenged myself to be simple in what I was writing, and that felt like turning a corner in terms of what I was doing. Some have even started with a just a title, nothing musical at all.
Little Giant is full of big, inspiring string arrangements. What do you do to reproduce some of the soaring arrangements on the record when you’re on stage?
Basically, when I play solo, I hope that the space actually allows people’s imagination to build that sound. I don’t mind playing solo, but I love playing with the band, and even then, we don’t have the strings to reproduce the record. On this tour, we have a harmonium player with us; we have our core, but we try to create an expansive sound with that. We have a cellist, viola player, drummer and harmonium player this time around, and we’re filling that out with vocal harmonies, which took the place of the strings to some extent.
Who would you most like to support or collaborate with?
I think to be honest that I’d love to tour with someone like Sigur Rós, just because they’ve got such a colourful setup, and so much that I could learn from. They’re really creative, lots of instruments, very arrangement-based, and I would love that. I like to think that my songs and my arrangements work together, and from playing solo I have found that my songs can live without the arrangement, but the part of the writing I love the most is the arranging.
Tell me about your guitars; I understand you play a lot of 12-string?
A few years ago I went into a guitar shop to buy a guitar, but I didn’t have the technical knowledge to match the sound in my head with the guitars. I played every six-string in the shop, but then I picked up a Taylor 12-string, having never played one before, and that was it, that’s what I’ve played ever since. We used the 12-string a lot on the album, and I’ve been using it live; it was broken for a long time, and I finally got it fixed, and then I’ve recently dropped and broken it again. The first time really wasn’t my fault; I got it cheap because, for one reason or another, it was on discount. There was a part which was loose, and it just got worse, and it shows you how much I know about guitars that I don’t even know what it was that was loose!
The music industry is a changing place in terms of investing in artists. How have you found being a new boy on the block building your reputation?
I think it is quite difficult if I’m honest; when I started off in London, I really didn’t know anything about the music world. I knew that I loved writing, and I knew that I had to do something about that; like, if you can run fast, you’ve just got to run. It was really hard to move forward because I didn’t know where I was trying to move, and my initial target was just to survive. I guess that as the years have progressed, I’ve got a really great team around me, who I can really trust, and who really care about letting us express ourselves musically. I’m really very step-by-step; I’ve loved making this album, and we’re going to be pushing that for the foreseeable future. That’s one thing I learned pretty quickly – the more you try to plan things out, the more things become stressful. Things are ever-changing, so it’s hard to plan.
Finally, tell us a little bit about the lyrical themes on the album…
The album title is ‘Little Giant’ precisely because of the lyrical themes. Looking at the songs, I thought that I write music when I’m feeling vulnerable, and I’m trying to send a message to myself. I felt that vulnerability was an important part of what I wanted to do. I wanted to write an album that would encourage people, which would make people feel like life was understood to some extent; not that I can understand anyone’s life, but that if people could see what my feelings were, they might feel more connected. There’s a lyric in little giant: “start small, grow tall”; I wanted to bring some hope, but in a realistic way, not saying, “everything is going to be ok”, but that though life is hard, there is hope.
Roo Panes’ Little Giant is out now.