Today, the world gets to feast its ears on the brilliance that is Rosie Lowe’s YU, in its entirety, for the first time. Three years on from her radiant debut album Control (2016), the London-based singer-songwriter-instrumentalist’s second studio endeavor finds her expanding her artistic vision and looking beyond herself for inspiration. The end result is a cohesive and captivating musical statement that eloquently examines both personal and universal themes of love, desire, faith, compassion, and beyond.
The magnetic Ms. Lowe and I recently connected to discuss the making of YU, the various muses behind her ever-evolving songwriting, and much more.
Justin Chadwick: Congratulations on the release of YU! It’s a wonderful album and it arrives a little more than three years since your debut album Control surfaced. I’m curious how your approach to songwriting and/or recording has evolved in the past few years? How has the experience of making YU been different, as compared to its precursor?
Rosie Lowe: Thank you. My approach to writing YU has been a completely different process. I made the decision before starting the album that I wanted it to be much more collaborative than my debut, Control. I’m lucky enough to have such an amazing network of musicians around me, so I wanted the people that inspire me to be part of the album.
My long term collaborator, Dave Okumu, and I wrote most of this album together too, whereas on my debut I wrote most of it myself. YU has been such a joy to make and it’s deepened my understanding of collaboration.
JC: I believe you’ve returned to school, with your studies focused on psychotherapy. What prompted you to return to academia and how do you think your studies have impacted your music?
RL: I am incredibly passionate about therapy. I started going seven years ago and it shifted so much for me; it has played such a huge part in who I am today. I’ve always spent my spare time reading about psychotherapy and the mind, so it was something I wanted to learn more about.
From my training, my self-development and self-awareness have had a really positive impact on my music; it’s allowed me to explore and understand my feelings in a deeper way. YU is about sharing myself with another, as a lover, partner & friend and the complexities this brought up for me. Through going to relationship therapy with my partner, I started to look at myself and my relationship to love in a completely different light. This inspired YU.
JC: I love many things about your songs, but I particularly enjoy how unpredictable and genre-fluid your repertoire is to date. It’s very hard to pin you down to a specific style, which might be challenging for some listeners, but it’s ultimately rewarding for many others. Is it important to you that your music defies easy classification, and is it a conscious (or subconscious) part of how you conceive and record your songs?
RL: It’s definitely not a conscious thing. I just make what feels good and natural to me, and don’t think about it too much past that. I find it impossible to hear what my music sounds like, as I’m far too close to it to be able to hear it, but I’m always happy to hear people say they can’t put it in a box. I’m not a fan of boxes.
JC: YU is bolstered by some impressive collaborators, including your frequent musical partner, Dave Okumu. Can you discuss why your relationship with him works so well, and in particular, what you think he brought to the recording sessions for YU?
RL: I’ve never worked with anyone like Dave before and he is incredibly unique in his approach to music. He encourages space and facilitates ways of helping me feel musically free. In our collaboration, we never use references when writing music, nor do we ever talk about what we’re creating in terms of music genres. We approach our sessions by creating a feeling and are led by where the music takes us.
JC: What is the inspiration behind the album’s title, YU?
RL: Where my debut, Control, was about self, YU is about other, so it felt like an appropriate title. I also love double meanings, so I liked that it could mean YU and Y-U (why-you).
JC: You’ve always demonstrated a penchant for provocative, imaginative visuals, and the music videos you’ve unveiled for the album’s first two singles (“Birdsong” and “Pharoah”) follow suit. Can you share more about the process of crafting those videos and what role they play in your own (and your listeners’) connection with the album?
RL: Visuals are a really important part of the process for me. I always want to work with directors who I love and am inspired by, so that’s always my first priority. I always have visuals in mind, but I like to give the directors I work with creative freedom to see how they see the music and then we work together on bringing our ideas together.
I love music videos that are open to interpretation and YU contains a lot of lyrical symbolism, so I wanted that to be part of the visuals. The videos for “Birdsong” and “Pharoah” were such fun and mirrored the album’s collaborative process.
JC: In what ways do you think the music industry is becoming more (or less?) supportive and empowering of female artists? What challenges would you say you and other women in music continue to face on a regular basis?
RL: There are so many incredible female musicians and artists rising right now and taking up the space they rightly deserve, and that excites me. The music industry is male dominated, but I do feel that things are shifting and women are getting more recognition for what they bring.
I’d love to work with more female studio engineers, mix engineers and producers and it’s important that the industry makes these spaces inclusive for everybody. I’m very privileged to have had the most incredible team around me through the process of making this album, many of which are male and who are wholly supportive of making space for and supporting female musicians. I feel very lucky for that.
JC: When I spoke with Jordan Rakei about a year-and-a-half ago, I asked him about the London music scene and he remarked, and I quote, “It's just a place of solitude. It's cold. The hustle is real, and so many artists are on a similar path.” What is your relationship like with the city and music community there, both personally and professionally?
RL: I love London, it’s my home and it still gives me butterflies. The hustle is absolutely real, but the community I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by continues to push and inspire me on a daily basis and I feel really lucky to have that. I was able to have the network of amazing musicians I have around me contribute to this album and that excites me more than anything.
JC: OK, if you’re up for it, it’s time for a little game of free association. I’ll name each track on YU in succession and then you simply respond with the first thoughts that come to mind, stream of consciousness style.
OK, first up is “Lifeline.”
RL: A wavy one-take on a hot summer’s day with my good friend William Arcane. It’s as we played it the first time and the imperfections in it are what I love most.
JC: “The Way” (featuring Jay Electronica)
RL: The song that started the album and a love song for my partner. Jay coming onboard for this was a dream come true.
RL: Written on a summer’s day in a studio I built in my Papa’s garden in the countryside. Dreamiest choir in the world. Lyrical winks to Prince and Aaliyah if you listen carefully.
RL: Inspired by Pharoah Saunders, inspired by Ancient Egyptian Symbolism. My mantra.
RL: There’s nothing more attractive to me than someone who drinks water. That’s metaphorical for self-care; being able to sit with oneself, to face one’s own demons and to find compassion for self. In my mind, being dehydrated is the opposite of that.
RL: Set in the Garden Of Eden, I wanted to write the song from the lens of Eve—a perspective I feel we rarely hear. The music felt sensual and woozy and I wanted to match that in the melodies and lyrics.
RL: “I Think I Love You” was written on a hot summer’s day with the birds singing. I felt like I was 15 again and in love for the first time. I wanted the song to feel like an intense sense of longing and lust and everything in between.
JC: “Little Bird”
RL: I wrote it originally for my nephew when he was learning to walk, to encourage him to not be scared of falling and that you have to fall to be able to fly. Half way through writing it, I felt like a hypocrite because I was paralyzed by my own fear of falling. It then became a song to myself, to my little me.
RL: This song was a one-take jam with some of my favorite London musicians (Dave Okumu, Gwilym Gold & Dan See). The vibe was intoxicating and I couldn’t wait to jump on it. It’s about choice, about not wanting a relationship with someone. But I wanted to find a way of saying it with love and respect for that person.
JC: “Body // Blood”
RL: A big theme on the album is me exploring faith and what it means for others and in turn myself. “Body // Blood” is me contending with my options for after-life.
RL: “U Ease My Mind.” That line perfectly depicts how love makes me feel. The song is about everything feeling so good and right, yet something feeling like it's missing and how sometimes, in the midst of love, it’s hard to work out what that is.
RL: ’Shoulder' was my internal dialogue from when I was writing “Little Bird.” Dave and I loved this chorus and wanted to keep it on the record.
RL: I recorded my friend Sam playing my piano on my iPhone. I wrote the song on a little portable mic whilst travelling around India for gigs. It’s about the cycles and roles we take on in relationships and how we all play in to each other’s dysfunctions. If I’m playing the rescuer, someone else is playing the victim and vice versa.
JC: You sound so confident on record and seem so poised on stage, but do you still harbor any anxiety about your music and how it will be received by others?
RL: No, I don’t feel anxious about how my music will be received. I’ve made something truthful to me and that’s the most I can ever do. So past that, if people don’t like it then that’s fine by me, and if people do, then that’s great too.
I used to have a lot of anxiety about performing live and that comes down to me being a perfectionist. If I sang a note or line wrong, then I’d be obsessing about it for the rest of the show and it would take me away from being present.
I’ve worked hard on finding a band that excites me and I’ve worked a lot on freeing myself up vocally. Part of this was not using tracks on live shows, so as a band, we are totally free to play, and it’s been such an incredible transition. I now love playing live shows and whenever something goes wrong, I laugh and move on. Perfectionism is the killer of creative freedom.
JC: How are your tour plans coming together? Do you have any intention to tour the states at some point?
RL: My band are sounding great and I’m loving playing YU with them in a live capacity. It changes every night and that delights me. I believe we have a few US dates coming up, soon to be announced!
JC: OK, last question. In the spirit of Albumism, what are your five favorite albums of all time?
RL: Erykah Badu’s Baduizm, Tirzah’s Devotion, D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, Patrice Rushen’s Straight From The Heart, and Joni Mitchell’s Blue.