I was a big fan of Rod Thomas long before I heard him sing.
There was an image of him in the nude that somehow fell into my lap a few years ago – which for some reason I can’t seem to find anymore. That image was soon followed by an introduction to him by Del Marquis of the Scissor Sisters through his band project Slow Knights. We had coffee in San Francisco one day and talked about life, traveling and food. Rod’s voice on his latest track ‘I Believe’ is full of life and love, the most important things we talked about that day.
I understand you used to busk on the London Underground before your last two albums. Did you have any inkling then that you wanted your sound to be what it is now? Tell a little bit about your artistic journey in that regard. You know, I always wanted to make electronic music that would make people dance. I dipped a toe into that world with a song back in 2007, but I just didn’t know enough about production. At that time I couldn’t afford to invest in equipment to make the sounds I wanted, so while I was busking I was working on my voice. It toughened me up to being ignored, and spotted, and was a really great way to test ideas and feel part of a city. Over the two years and a little down the line, I made myself save up everything I was earning to buy a decent synth and worked really hard to learn how to produce better. So it was a long road, but a really satisfying one. I met some incredible people busking who still come to shows, which I never expected.
The new album has a bold, effervescent sleekness to it, right down to its very title. It’s extremely well-crafted. What are some of the things that inspired “Life is Easy”? Thank you! It was mostly inspired by a move to New York at a time where I felt pretty low. I’d spent a while feeling a bit dejected, listening to people talk about how impossible things were or how they couldn’t do this because of this, and I thought – No way. No way was I going to accept that. I’d played shows in New York and met some amazing people, so I decided to spend a few months there and it changed everything. I really focused on what made me happy, and the good things I had, rather than what I didn’t have. The album is about finding a kind of peace with yourself and your situation and not yearning all the time, which often leads to missing the magic of the moment. There was real heartbreak of course (I Wish We Were Leaving), but the songs are about how you learn to deal with these things and see the I wanted to make a warm album about that shift from self-doubt to self-worth see the blue sky through the rain. I don’t in any way think that nobody has problems, but I was interested in how to overcome obstacles. The people I met really helped me do just that, so I wanted to make a warm album about that shift from self-doubt to self-worth.
How long did the album take to record? It was around 10 months. I had 2 tracks ready from before the stint in New York and the rest I wrote and recorded between March and December 2013, with ‘More Than Most’ written and recorded a week before leaving NYC in January 2014 to master the record in February. I thought I was done and that song came very last minute. I loved the time working on this record while exploring a city. I think the excitement and warmth (figuratively and literally speaking, as I would often go for runs in 90+ degree heat!) of my time there gave the album the kind of glow I wanted.
The city of New York seems to figure prominently in this new outing, especially if one takes cues from the album art. What about the city keeps you inspired and how did it help inform this suite of songs? I wasn’t part of the same neighborhood, the same social circles, or the same industry as I’d been in for so long in London. I felt refreshed and excited. And exciting. You know when you feel like old news, sometimes you let yourself get stale and you just fall out of love with what you’re doing. Del Marquis is my best friend here. Moving over from London, working with him constantly, recording together, meeting people through him, and feeling like I have something to give — whether it be vocals, production, dog walking, or business advice – helped me feel so good about myself again in a way I hadn’t for a long time. The city really brought me back to life. People work hard and they play hard, which is me to the core. So I pushed myself to learn the city and to get better at what I do. In doing so, I feel like I found a real family here. In London, I felt that most of the time people worked really autonomously, so it could get lonely at times and would send my brain into panic. Ironically, the city that never sleeps gave me a little calm!
It’s such a surreal and pleasant surprise to hear the legendary Elton John being featured on “I Wish We Were Leaving.” How did you two come to hook up to work on this record and what effect has his endorsement of your art had on you personally? We met a long time ago through his management company. He is honestly one of the kindest and funniest people in the world. Even though I stopped working with them, he kept tabs on what I was doing and when he saw reviews for my debut, he called and said he’d ordered it. Then the next week he said he liked it, so we met for lunch. We ended up laughing a lot and talking about the music we like to listen to and really just clicked so well. I was playing him demos of ‘Life Is Easy’ and he said he really liked ‘I Wish We Were Leaving’, so I asked him to record a vocal and he said yes. I mean, CAN YOU IMAGINE? I’m from a coal mining valley in Wales where even the radio felt like another world. His endorsement changed my WORLD. Not only did it really help me to believe in myself, but in touring with him, I found myself wanting to prove that I can do it and that I can keep getting better. So I pushed harder and harder and began feeling like a better performer than ever. He’s really helped me up my game. On tour, it’s a bit like being on RuPaul’s Drag Race every night – You gotta bring it, and bring it better each time! I can never thank him enough.
Bright Light Bright Light’s reception has been so overwhelmingly positive on the other side of the pond, it’s thrilling to see you break through on a whole new level here in the states with your latest bout of touring. What have been some standout moments touring behind “Life is Easy”? Opening for Elton has obviously been 3000 shades of incredible. It’s so hard to put into words, not least of all because his entire team – all the production people, his band, his tech crew, riggers — have taken me and my musicians under their wing. It is the most special thing I can imagine. Also though, every time I see a person sing along, I feel a little star explode in me. I never thought I’d see someone oversees know a song. It feels so incredible. I’ve loved the smaller intimate shows where we get to make people dance. I still remember my first show at Mercury Lounge in March 2013, which was sold out and full of people dancing and singing. It was so unexpected and SO wonderful. I felt like I had invented Post-Its.
How has it been translating these songs, bringing them to life so to speak, in front of a live audience? They are already so full of vibrant energy on record, I imagine you’re aiming for the stratosphere on stage! To infinity and beyond! <laughs> You know, recording is great, but more often than not I’m in a room on my own. On stage you get to interact with and feed off other people’s energy, tease out different parts of songs and re-work them a little. The live drums add a lot of energy and just make me want to dance. I’m no Jennifer Beals, but I do like to dance. I’ve been trying to listen online to what songs people want to hear, so hopefully they’ll have a blast.
So I’ve heard the fantastic cover of Pet Shop Boys’ “West End Girls” you did with Ana Matronic of Scissor Sisters, whom I love like an actual sister. It’s such a refreshing spin on a song which is so ubiquitously familiar and it really made me think about how much Pet Shop Boys undertones I detect in your music. Who are some other artists whom you count as influences? I do love Pet Shop Boys. ‘Behaviour’ is my joint favorite album along with ‘The Sensual World’ by Kate Bush. Kate’s music is really prominent in my mind. She’s a huge inspiration. Most of my musical heroes have strong identities, such as Kate, Björk, Elton, Erasure, Depeche Mode, PSB, and Grace Jones. They’re able to shapeshift but you never lose the sense that it is absolutely them inside. I have a huge love of late 80s/early 90s dance music, and Basement Boys, Morales, Vasquez, Todd Terry and Clivilles & Cole have all had a a huge influence on my rhythms and sound. And obviously Shirley Bassey, one of my country Wales’ finest, for drama and sheer fabulousness.
What’s next for you and the family you have cultivated through the vehicle of Bright Light Bright Light? Well, this vehicle is gearing up for a long old ride! There will be lots of touring this year for sure, April through August, with a few surprises along the way. I’m working on album 3 at the moment, and it’s feeling really fun again. It won’t be out this year, but there will be something along before it. Ahead of all that though, the band I’m in with Del, Bridget & Xavier — Slow Knights — has a new album out April 20th through my label Self Raising Records. Del has done a stellar job putting this record together and I am beyond proud to be part of his journey, as much as I’m proud that all of these people are part of mine.