Rebecca Downes, Blues singer songwriter, chats with Kevin Cooper about recording Slade’s Mamma Weer All Crazee Now, the recovery of the music industry post Covid-19, her friendship with King King’s Alan Nimmo and the release of her latest album, Stripped Back.

Rebecca Downes, a Blues singer songwriter was born in Wolverhampton. She started performing live music when aged thirteen and as a teenager began writing and performing her own material.

In 2011 she linked up with Steve Birkett and whilst their core genre was the Blues, they have always stretched their music in several different directions. With a very tight band the five piece went on to release her Real Life EP in 2012 which was followed up with her debut album, Back To The Start in 2013.

In 2016 Downes released her second album, Believe and then went on to create her music rights company, Rebecca Downes Music Limited as well as her own independent record label, Mad Hat Records, which saw the release of her third album, More Sinner Than Saint in 2019.

Leaving full time employment to work as a vocal coach enabled her to have more time to work with Birkett, which paid off when she was voted Female Vocalist of the Year and Emerging Artist of the Year in the British Blues Awards in 2016. She has also supported King King, Dr Feelgood and Paul Carrack on their UK tours.

She released a live album, BeLive in 2017 which captured the essence of the band’s gig performances, and during the Covid-19 pandemic Downes and Birkett have written, produced and released their latest offering, Stripped Back.

Whilst busy promoting her latest album she took some time out to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what she had to say.

Good morning Rebecca, how are you today?

I’m very well thank you Kevin. How are you doing?

At this moment in time I am in desperate need of a haircut, but other than that, all is good thanks. I currently look like the Dulux dog (laughter).

(Laughter) well that’s not a bad look; in fact he can look very cute.

Before we move let me thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.

Not a problem, thank you for asking.

I know that you have sorted out your latest album during lockdown but, in general, how have you coped?

I must be honest with you and say that it has been really tough in places. Musically, me and Steve (Birkett) have continued with our writing throughout, so that has really taken a lot of the weight off. I have to say that if I hadn’t been able to continue writing and recording, then life would have been terrible. For me, it has been so debilitating not to be able to see the band; the whole period has just been horrible.

Well I suppose that we should talk about your latest album, Stripped Back.

Yes please.

Well I have to tell you that I have been playing it now for a couple of weeks and I absolutely love it.

Thank you very much; it’s lovely to hear that so thank you very much.

I must ask you, are you happy with it?

Yes, I am, I really am. We have always wanted to make an album of that sort, but we have never managed to get the required time plus there was always the question of would it fit into our previous body of work, and all those type of things. So, taking all of that on board, we decided to leave it for a few years, and then maybe we would do it in a couple of years’ time, or something like that. And then of course the world stopped, and it was then the case that you could pretty much do as you like really. During the lockdown, we have found ourselves doing live streams, where we have been trying to work out different ways to play and perform different songs. I then thought, ‘well, we can record this in separate places, so why don’t we do it’ (laughter). And that is how it all started.

And what a fantastic way to put the lockdown to good use.

Well, what can I say, I didn’t bake any banana bread, learn a new language or anything like that, I made the album instead (laughter). To be totally honest with you, making the album has kept me and Steve going really. Having said that, it’s not the only thing that I have been doing, but it has most definitely kept us going. It has been great to be in a position to put Blues For Us and Washing All Over My Heart out there for the fans to finally hear those songs. They were written about four years ago now. We really wanted to put them onto the last studio album, but they simply didn’t fit so we thought that if we ever recorded an acoustic album of some description, then we would put those two tracks on.

So, it was great to be able to get them both onto the latest album. They are both songs that I really like, and it was great for me to be able to finally say, “yes, they can both go onto the latest album”. I am really happy that they are both now out in the wild so to speak (laughter).

Playing devil’s advocate now, if it hadn’t been for the Covid-19 outbreak and the subsequent lockdown, would this album ever have been recorded?

I have to say that it wouldn’t have been recorded at this moment in time, most definitely not. It may have been recorded in let’s say a couple of years time, but it would definitely have been an album featuring the band. Steve and I have also written something that hopefully will be released before the end of this year, which we hope we can get the band all in the one place, to record what we hope will be a live EP with all new songs on. Hopefully, that will bring us all back together again and we will be able to record something a little rawer, something different than the highly produced albums and CD’s. But, in answer to your question, no, I don’t think that the album would have been produced yet.

You mention the problems that you faced when trying to get the band together during lockdown. How different was it when compared to making a normal studio album?

Making this album was completely different. We had the band recorded on one track which basically came about when we had the break during lockdown, and we managed to get a lot of people to do their parts for that track then. I told them that we were just going to get them all on the one track simply because it was going to put too much pressure on people to do all of the tracks and then we had to consider the members of the band who don’t have home studios. Being totally honest with you, Steve has done the majority of the work on this album, absolutely. He has played all of the instrumentation on every track apart from Hurts. He has played the guitars, piano, drums, harp, and I did the vocals (laughter).

We would open a video chat; Steve and I get together at least twice a week, so we tried to keep that going. During the video chat, Steve would listen to me recording the vocals. I would then send it over to him, where he would tidy a few things up then I would record it again. So, that is how we got the work done for the album; very differently to recording a normal studio album.

That just goes to show that modern technology within the music business can work.

Yes, it can, it really can. I can’t imagine what would have happened if Covid-19 would have struck back in the 90s. I personally feel that it would have been so much worse. I know that a hell of a lot of people are anti-technology, including a lot of musicians. But I think that we have all found different ways and methods to allow us to work through this period, and for me, technology has been an absolute godsend.

I was just thinking about a representative of the record label flying master tapes all around the world (laughter).

(Laughter) I know, that is totally amazing when you think about it now. A lot of the last album More Sinner Than Saint was recorded that way. I remember that I was based over there in Los Angeles for a short time, and I did that because that seemed to be the place to be. Everything was sent to Los Angeles and from there was bounced all over the world. It’s truly amazing.

How long did it take you to put the album together?

Oh my gosh (laughter). I would probably say that to put the album together took us around four months. After that it was just a month to mix and master the album.

Once the album is finished, are you a meddler, or can you walk away and leave it alone?

No, I’m not a meddler per say. Steve demos everything to a really high standard, and so I had probably been listening to those vocal tapes for a long period of time. We will then sit with them for a while; I will have them on repeat in the car as I am driving, so by the time the album finally goes off to be mastered, it is all finished and ready. I won’t leave anything unturned especially vocally. If I feel that something annoys me, or I think needs re-recording then I will go into the studio and do it. Even if it is one tiny thing; I will not let standards slide.

Looking back, are there any tracks that missed the cut that you now wish were on the album?

There are certainly tracks that didn’t go onto the album but, saying that, we have put the tracks on it which we felt worked the best, especially with this kind of format. So, I think for this album, no, what is on there is what we wanted to go on there. There are loads of tracks which didn’t make it onto the last album More Sinner Than Saint, as there always is but with this album I think no, we were always fighting for those better tracks, so I have to say that with this album I am happy.

Is a stripped back album something that you would do again?

Yes, it is most definitely. Having said that, I don’t think that it will be for a long while yet (laughter). We do play acoustic gigs when we are allowed back on the road, which we will continue to do when things get back to normal. It would be nice to have something which represents what we are doing on those gigs as well. But I have to be honest and say that I feel that it will be a very long time before something like this comes along again.

I have to tell you that, at the moment, I have got four go to tracks. They are Night Train, Take Me Higher and then surprisingly the two previously unreleased tracks, Washing All Over My Heart and Blues For Us, which I personally think is absolutely fantastic.

Thank you so much. I really do appreciate you saying that.

I have to ask you, it is such a stunning track why has it never seen the light of day until now?

(Laughter) to be totally honest with you, we have got a lot of tracks like that. I know that some artists work along the lines of, ‘oh we have got to write some new material, so we will write some material’. However, Steve and I, even before we got together ten years ago, are the sort of songwriters who are literally writing all of the time. So, we have got quite a few songs like that; some will always make their way to the top and these two continually did. Steve and I would look back and say, “it’s such a shame that those two can’t get out” (laughter). Those two are definitely the ones that I am just so glad that they are on there. There is no real reason as to why they were never released before, other than the fact that we felt that we needed the right album to put them on.

I have to say that every time I listen to Blues For Us, I picture you performing the song in a smoky Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club.

Wow, I think that’s it exactly. Back in the day I have played Ronnie Scott’s, in fact I played Ronnie Scott’s in Birmingham when I was eighteen years old and it really was definitely like that. It was a full room of little tables and was smoky with candles. That is the vibe that we were trying to conjure up with Blues For You.

Putting you on the spot, do you have a favourite track on the album?

(Laughter) that is almost the same as choosing your favourite child but right at this particular minute, I would have to say Washing All Over My Heart.

In 2012 you released your Real Life EP. So from 2012 to today, are you happy with where you currently are now or have you exceeded all expectations?

I think that from a songwriter’s point of view, when we released More Sinner Than Saint I was happy with where we were. That is how I really measure myself because I think that everything else is totally out of your control. If you think that you are going to be the next Adel, not that I want to be, I just want to be me, you just need to concentrate upon things that are under your control. So, song writing wise, I am really happy, I am really happy where Steve and I are at this moment. Having said that, would I like to be more successful in other countries, for example we recently missed out on a deal over in the States which would have seen us join a major label, then yes of course I would.

However, like you do with football, you simply deal with what is in front of you otherwise it would drive you insane. For me, having had an entire career of ups and downs, you have to just concentrate on the creative side of things, do your best, give it out to people and, as with everything else; it is in the lap of the gods.

Everyone who I speak to all tell me the same thing; that the biggest problem with the music industry here in the UK is the desire to pigeon-hole everyone. Would you agree with that?

Yes, I would, absolutely. For example, I like Imelda May. I know some of the guys in her band, and I listened to her last album and there was a really heavy track on it. Then there were some real ballads, then there was something else, and I thought, the listener will get to a certain stage of the album but just how much will they let Imelda get away with. It’s like me, being a Blues singer, people thought that my last album More Sinner Than Saint simply wasn’t bluesy enough. I thought, ‘but it is, it’s just that it is different because you simply can’t keep playing the same twelve bar blues’ (laughter). Steve and I have our influences, some of which are familiar, for example, we both like Pink Floyd. Therefore there are a lot of Pink Floyd influences in whatever we do.

But in answer to your question, yes, people try far too hard to pigeon-hole everything that you do. The problem is that there is nothing that you can do about it other than to keep on trying to push those boundaries just a little bit (laughter). Radio One has always been an absolute no no for anything that is anything other than very young. Whenever you listen to Radio Two now, and whenever we have spoken to the radio pluggers for Radio Two, in order to get yourself onto their playlists I feel that you have got to be well known already.

On the subject of being well known, I was recently speaking to Joe Bonamassa and I asked him, “is the Blues here in the UK in a good place” to which Joe replied, “truth be told, I think that Joanne Shaw Taylor is a superstar in waiting, and while ever you have the likes of Chantel McGregor, Rebecca Downes and Joanne Shaw Taylor playing the Blues over there then yes, the Blues in the UK is most definitely in a very good place”.

Wow, he knows who I am. That’s really weird (laughter). The next time that you speak to Joe would you pass on a really big thank you from me and tell him that really does mean a lot. You have literally just made my day Kevin, so thank you from the bottom of my heart. I noticed just the other day that Joe had added me to a playlist, and I thought, ‘I wonder if Joe has done that by mistake’ (laughter). That is bloody brilliant, and you have literally just made my day, thank you. That has really made my day.

Taking you back to 2016 and the British Blues Awards, you were voted Female Vocalist of the Year. Just how did that make you feel?

To be totally honest with you, it knocked me off my feet. I never thought that in a million years I would win that award. I still think that a lot of the Blues aficionados have half taken to me whilst the other half haven’t because, as you know, I am not a super strict Blues artist in the true sense of the word. However, that was a public vote and that is why it meant so much to me. I thought, ‘oh bloody hell, they really do like me’ (laughter). If I ever do get big headed then please, somebody slap me (laughter). I never thought that I would win the award and I certainly never thought that I would beat the people who I was up against, people like Connie Lush and Kaz Hawkins. So, when I did win the award it meant a lot more to me than a lot of people realised; it actually did mean the world to me.

On the subject of meeting people, during lockdown you decided to do a re-mix of Wave Them Goodbye from your last studio album More Sinner Than Saint. Just how did you get the big man, Alan Nimmo of King King to agree to duet with you?

I love Alan, and I often tell people that he is my brother from another mother (laughter). I once told him that I was an only child and that I would have loved to have had a brother, and he said, “I’ll be your brother” (laughter). I first met Alan when I supported King King on a tour back in 2018. I knew at that time that Alan was suffering vocally, but at first his voice was holding up on the tour. However, later on during the tour there was one gig in Tavistock when Alan had to leave the stage after four songs because his voice had given out. At that point I had literally got my coat on ready to go when Alan came up to me and said, “get yourself up on that stage and just sing”’.

(Laughter) so I got myself up onto the stage in front of a crowd of King King supporters and you know what, we did it, and the audience really did have a great night. I think it was down to comradely and the fact that they were in the moment. I honestly feel that it was something that will most probably never happen again. The other thing is that I am a vocal coach and after Alan had sorted out the issues with his vocal chords he came to me and we worked through a few things together and hopefully he will never have to face those issues again. We have a great brother and sister type of relationship; we both love dogs and when he came down to see me, he would fly down, and I would pick him up from Birmingham airport.

Once when I collected Alan, I had my tiny little dog in the back of the car. His is a rescue dog whose name is Ralph and he is a Jack Russell and Westie cross. Alan looked behind him and said, “just who is this wee man” (laughter). It was so funny. There was this huge big man, picking up this tiny little dog, and I looked at Alan and thought, ‘I do love you’ (laughter).

I think that the best way to describe Alan is that he really is a gentle giant (laughter).

He really is one of life’s truly lovely and beautiful human beings. With Alan you get exactly what you see. If he is upset with you, he will tell you. If he loves you, he will tell you, and he has really been so supportive of me. When I asked him if he would sing on Wave Them Goodbye, I honestly thought that he would say no. So, I asked him in a roundabout way, saying, “you will, most probably say no to this but…” to which he replied, “no, I will do it” and then I thought, ‘oh my goodness’ (laughter). He really is one of the genuine guys who will support you. We often have chats, and when I hear some music that is getting me a bit down, I will call Alan up and he will always talk things through with me. I absolutely love him to bits.

When it is safe to do so, will we be seeing you back out on the road on tour?

Yes, you will, you most definitely will be seeing us back out on tour. If you take a look on the website there are a few gigs on it which we have already managed to secure. We have also pencilled in a few festivals, but I am not really that overly sure that they will go ahead. You never know so we will just have to wait and see. At this moment in time we are looking at gigs sometime in September.

Will we be seeing you back at The Robin 2 in Bilston?

I hope so, I really do. I love The Robin and it has always been one of those places where, when you were younger you would always think, ‘I would really love to play The Robin’. I know that it has new owners now so it really would be good to go back there. I am taking everything at this moment in time with a piece of salt; we will just have to wait and see what happens. We have all got to be careful and put people’s lives first. People’s health must always come first and everything else comes second.

Do you think that the music business here in the UK will ever recover?

Yes, it will, without a doubt. It will most definitely bounce back. Having said that, as I said to you earlier, it really does have to be people’s lives and safety first. Of course, everything will return to normal; people don’t stop writing. We may have to work in different ways but, if we have to continue working separately for another year then we will just have to get on with it. That is just the way that it is. The people out there have been so isolated during the pandemic and I really do want the world to be a safe place for them. That is always at the forefront of my mind. Even though music is my life, we really must all come together and make sure that the people are okay.

You have moved from Wolverhampton to Birmingham. What bought about the move?

I don’t know really, but the thing about Wolverhampton and Birmingham is that there is a very big divide between the two. I have friends who live in Wolverhampton who will very rarely come over to Birmingham in order to see me performing. If I have a gig in Birmingham, there will be people at the gig from Bristol, but there will not be anyone from Wolverhampton. It really is very strange (laughter).

What was the first record that you bought?

Oh my god. The very first record that I ever bought personally was A Bit Of What You Fancy by The Quireboys. That was back in 1990. However, the very first record that my mum bought for me was Prince Charming by Adam and the Ants.

Who did you first see performing live?

My very first proper band was U2 at The NEC Arena in Birmingham on the 1st June 1992 on their ZOO TV Tour. When I was a kid I had always wanted to see Michael Jackson live but due to a lack of money in the house, and the fact that my mum and dad didn’t go to concerts, unfortunately I never did get to see him. I managed to get to see U2 with a friend and I have to say that it really was a life changing experience. So, what a first concert to go to; it really was so extravagant. It really was unbelievable; the whole thing literally floored me.

What was the last song or piece of music that made you cry?

At this moment in time I would most probably have to say, oh my gosh, it was Waiting For The Night from Depeche Mode’s Violator album because it reminds me of the time when my nan died.

Before we wrap this up, I have to say that, as a lifelong fan of Slade, I love what you have done to Mama Weer All Crazee Now. I feel that it is so real, so unique and that you have made the song your own.

Wow, really, well thank you so much for saying that. I have to say that it was a bit Marmite for the Slade fans but that is what I expected the reaction to be from the outset. I have always thought that it was the perfect track to be recorded as a dark ballad so, why not (laughter).

Have you had any feedback from the boys in relation to the track?

It’s funny that you should ask that because no, I haven’t heard from the band. As you know, Jim Lea and Noddy Holder were the writers of the song, but I haven’t heard anything from either of them. Jim goes to the same studio that I do, and I have met him so many times, but it is something that I would never mention to him. He will most probably finally get to hear my version when the studio we both use re-opens after the pandemic. I have messaged Noddy via social media but have not heard back yet. Who knows, maybe one day but I won’t hold my breath (laughter). After we had obtained the licensing enabling us to record the song, I approached Noddy’s manager but all that I heard was a snotty reply saying, “I do hope that you have got a licence” (laughter).

Rebecca, on that note let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me today, it’s been delightful.

Thanks Kevin, it’s been absolutely lovely talking to you. I felt as though we could chat for hours. You’re a legend, thank you so much.