The south London songwriter talks to Dazed about her new single ‘Pharoah’, how therapy changed her perspective, and the realities of music as a career
The title of Rosie Lowe’s new single, “Pharoah”, hints at its genesis. Before becoming the soulful, uplifting anthem that it is today, it was a short sample from legendary jazz musician PharoahSanders’ “Memories of Edith Johnson”. With the “Pharoah” title in mind, Lowe immersed herself in Ancient Egyptian symbolism, writing lyrics with a cadence that echoes sections of the Book of the Dead. “When I was writing it, I thought some Ancient Egypt nerd is really gonna dig this song, because I’ve actually gone in quite deep,” the singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and former Dazed 100 artist laughs, meeting in a churchyard near where she lives in Deptford, south London.
The song’s video was shot in Kiev, Ukraine, with director Matilda Finn, at the height of summer, and its bright, sun-kissed look is a major departure from the more moody, monochromatic imagery that surrounded Lowe’s debut album, Control. The same could be said about Lowe’s new album, YU. It has a much warmer sound palette than Control, reflecting the collaborative, outward-looking approach she took to making it, enlisting guest vocalists Jamie Woon, Jamie Lidell, Kwabs, and Jordan Rakei, US rapper Jay Electronica, producer and songwriter Dave Okumu of The Invisible, musicians from London’s emerging jazz scene, and more for the recording. Thematically, the album is about relationships, too: between Lowe and her partner, as well her own relationship with religion and the self. “Control was very insular, and YU is very outward-looking,” she says. “I liked the double meaning of the title: ‘You’, or ‘Why you?’”
“Pharoah” is the second song to be released from YU. The first, “Birdsong”, has become a low-key hit: it was premiered as Annie Mac’s Hottest Record on BBC Radio 1 and A-listed on 6 Music, it’s earned hundreds of thousands of streams, and it led to a sold-out European tour as well as major forthcoming live shows, including Gilles Peterson’s inaugural We Out Here festival in August and a headline date at London’s Village Underground on October 23. It’s an impressive list, for sure, but as Lowe explains, this didn’t just happen by itself – she put in the work.
It’s rarely discussed openly, but only a handful of musicians are fortunate enough to earn a living from their art alone, with the vast majority making up money through day jobs and part-time gigs. Lowe is no exception. She’s been teaching music lessons around south London (in fact, I first met her last year while looking for a piano tutor myself, where we first discussed the realities of being a working artist today), and she’s also training to be a psychotherapist. “Do you know how many texts I get saying, ‘Wow, you’re doing so well’?” she says. “And I can’t get back to them, because I’m working!” She says she wants to demystify the music industry for new musicians, and to be upfront about how to make music financially viable, as it’s advice she could have used at the start of her career herself.
Dazed spoke to Lowe about filming the “Pharoah” video, how therapy changed her perspective, and how to make music work.
Tell us about “Pharoah”.
Rosie Lowe: Dave Okumu, my producer, had been playing at Brilliant Corners (for Played Twice), where they re-approach an album, and they played this song (Pharoah Sanders’ “Memories of Edith Johnson”). I went down to the studio one day, and Dave said, “I think you’re gonna like this.” He played me this A-B harmony with this sample. I lost my shit. So off I went, armed with this bounce called “Pharoah”. I really liked that as a title, so I went to the British Library and I didn’t leave for two weeks. I dove headfirst into Ancient Egyptian symbolism.
A lot of the lyrics to the song are based on spells from the Book of the Dead. It’s the cadence. One of them started like, “My eyes are this. My hair is this. My face is this.” But I guess it’s about empowerment, too, how you’re only as big as you allow yourself to be. While I was writing it, I wasn’t in the most brilliant place in terms of my confidence. I was doing a lot of meditation at the time, and was working on being more positive, so that was a mantra to myself.
What about its video?
Rosie Lowe: I wanted to work with Matilda Finn, she’s one of my favourite directors. She was the only person I approached, actually. We shot this in summer last year in Ukraine. I turned up and there was 50 people on-set. They told me that they’d built a barn for it. Like, “What!?” It’s funny, shooting in another country, because you just get things through that you wouldn’t normally get. Matilda was like, “We need a jetty.” So they built a jetty, from scratch, for the video. It was crazy.
“I’d never seen long-term relationships work before. I believed they came at the expense of your happiness. That’s shifted since going through therapy, and coming out the other side stronger” – Rosie Lowe
It’s a lot more colourful than your previous visuals.
Rosie Lowe: I feel like the album is more warm. When I started it, one of the things I said to Dave was, “I want it to be more live. I want it to be more warm.” And I wanted the visuals to represent that too. I was in a much darker place when I wrote Control. This time around, I’m in a much different place, and I wanted the music to reflect where I was.
What spurred the change?
Rosie Lowe: Therapy. Me and my partner started going to relationship therapy about five years ago. It shifted a huge amount for me, particularly in relation to love. I’d never seen long-term relationships work before. I believed they came at the expense of your happiness. That’s shifted since going through therapy, and coming out the other side stronger – as a couple, and as a partner. I’m also training to be a therapist, and that’s been a big part of self-development.
Why did you want to train to be a therapist?
Rosie Lowe: I’m super passionate about it. When I’m not doing music, the only thing I read about is emotions and the mind. It’s seriously changed my life. I was really ill in my early 20s. I was in and out of hospital, and had a lot of operations. I really believe that that was a manifestation of emotional suppression. The doctors didn’t understand what was going on, until I saw one who said I should get some therapy on the side. I did, and lots of stuff changed for me. I’m not saying that would work for everyone, or that’s why some people get certain things, but I think for me, that’s how it manifested.
You’ve had to balance a lot more work on the side in order to make it work as a musician. Can you talk about maintaining that?
Rosie Lowe: I’ve learned this industry the hard way. I’ve had the worst management ever in the past. I’ve had money stolen off me. I’ve had corrupt accountants. I’ve had a label that is not right for me. I’ve struggled with A&Ring. I’ve had it all. I wouldn’t change it, because I have learned, but what it meant is that much more money has been spent in the past that shouldn’t have been sent, and that had an effect this time around. The advance for this album was a lot less, and the album recording went on so much longer than expected because of logistical stuff – and then the money ran out. That’s the first time that’s happened.
I was really struggling, because not only is it that you make an album, there’s scheduling with the label, waiting five months for it to be released, and then it’s the album campaign. It’s a long time, and advances aren’t much these days. I contacted a woman I know who works in funding, and said, “There’s lots of funding available when you’re in campaign, but what about when you’re not in campaign?” She said, “I’d advise you to get a part-time job. No one is talking about it, everyone is doing it.” I just felt like I’d failed, that I couldn’t sustain this unsustainable thing. So I started teaching piano lessons again. I started doing some nannying again, which I’m not doing anymore. As soon as I started, it was the biggest weight off my chest. It made me feel empowered that I was taking control of my own financial situation.
I’ve started talking to other musician friends, who I never knew were doing other jobs, and everyone is working. Instagram and social media just adds to this comparative thing: “They’re making it work, and I’m not.” It’s something I’ve vowed to start talking about, because had I known that so many of my contemporaries also had a side job, I’d have done it so much sooner.
I have got to say, I have the most insane team around me now. If you find someone good, you’ve got to hold on to them!
Tell us about YU. When did it start coming together?
Rosie Lowe: It started with “The Way”. I decided that, as well as wanting it to be warm and live, I wanted it to be a lot more collaborative. I made a decision on the first album that I wanted to write it on my own, because it was a debut, but I’m a pretty collaborative musician. Me and Dave decided to do some writing together, which we’d never done before – which is mad, because we’ve been working together for eight years – and by the end of the day, we had “The Way”. It’s an upbeat, positive love song. I was trying to resist it: “I can’t write a love song, that’s cheesy. I’ve got to have something negative.” He was like, “Stop. You’re being resistant.”
How has your songwriting process evolved since Control?
Rosie Lowe: I think before – and this might have been based in fear – but I believed that, if, say, I wrote a song at my dad’s house between one and five in the morning, and the feeling that I was trying to put across was absolutely poignant, then that is how the song should exist. It should be contained within that moment. I’d be pretty resistant to going back and changing lyrics. “That’s how I wrote it, that’s how I wanted it to exist, that’s how I wanted it to come across at that time.” That’s how I felt with album one.
With album two, I’d be doing something and think, “That’s not good enough.” I can understand that there are moments where I’ll never be able to get the vocal or the piano the same, but there are other moments where I think, “Actually, I’m going to hold myself accountable. I can do better than this.” I was going back and changing lyrics four or five months down the line – things shifted for me a lot and I’d think, “I don’t want to sing that, because that’s not how I feel anymore.” I’ve had to learn how to keep perspective in a different way, but I think I’ll become a better songwriter from that.
“It’s the only thing that connects everybody in the world: the need for love, and the want for love, and the giving of love” – Rosie Lowe
YU is about relationships – to people, to the self, but also your relationship to religion. Can you talk about that?
Rosie Lowe: My partner comes from a religious background, and I come from quite an atheist background. When those collided, both of our worlds were opened up in a big way. I’ve been exploring faith through him, and how we can support each other in our different beliefs, and maybe where we can meet. There’s a lot of religious symbolism in the album. I wouldn’t call myself religious now, but my mind has been opened up a lot more to what his religion means to him, and how that’s made him the person that I love. I might not believe something, but that doesn’t mean it’s not real.
Why are we drawn to love songs?
Rosie Lowe: I’ve always been pretty resistant to love songs: “There’s so many out there, we don’t need more.” But really, it’s all any of us want. It’s the only thing that connects everybody in the world: the need for love, and the want for love, and the giving of love. Why love songs on this album? Basically, because it’s what I’ve been experiencing.
Rosie Lowe’s new album YU is out May 10