Singer, pianist and composer OLI ROCKBERGER has come home to London. He has a new album, Sovereign now released, and his debut tour coming up. He talked about his time in the States, about the new album, and about something he learnt from Steve Gadd, to LJN Editor-at-Large Peter Bacon:
LJN: This new album – your fourth – is very much informed by your move back to the UK after a long time in the U.S.
Oli Rockberger: Yes, it was 16 years in total. First I was in Boston for six years. I won a full scholarship to go to Berklee College of Music when I was 19. So I did four years at Berklee, then took two years out in Boston to work, and then I moved to New York where I lived for 10 years.
And I moved back to the UK last July, but that process started in March because I joined Laura Mvula’s band, so there was an overlap of a few months when I was in both places…
LJN: And what has the adjustment been like, moving back?
OR: Oh, I’m so pleased to be home, it’s been a really positive move for me. I loved New York and I got so much out of it, particularly musically with the richness of the scene there and the people I had the chance to work with. It was an amazing place to “grow up” in that space between leaving university and becoming a professional musician. But I thought it would be wonderful now to take what I had learned there and bring it back home, to be closer to friends and family.
And for me, being in London and then having friends and collaborators coming from the States, working with them over here, was something I had hoped could happen, and it’s started to do just that. So Becca Stevens, for example, whom I’ve worked with, coming over from the States and we’ve done some things together…
LJN: It’s all original compositions on the album. Does composing come easily to you? Do you have a method?
OR: I don’t know that there is one set method. Often I find music is a way of processing whatever I am going through at that particular time. And as this particular album was made during this transition period from living in New York to moving home, there are a lot of things to write about. About making a change, making a transition… there was a lot of good subject material there, if you like. And that is typically what happens. If there is something going on in my life, or the lives of friends of mine that I’m close to, and what they are going through, that feeds into it.
LJN: You do have a way, in your lyrics, of making the personal universal… Is that something you work at or does it come naturally?
OR: I think one of the challenges I’ve found in writing is to find that place between writing something that is personal and where there is enough openness and space in the writing, so that people will be able to bring their own experiences to it. So it’s specific enough to be evocative and paint a picture, but not so specific that it limits people from ascribing their own experiences to it. It’s a lifelong process, really, to get that balance right. Some songs I write are a little more specific in their narrative base, and others are less specific in the picture they paint but are more about emotion. So my writing tends to oscillate between the two…
LJN: Some composers lean towards certain favourite chords – there is the Steely Dan chord, for example (named Mu Major apparently!). Do you have a favourite chord?
OR: I’m not sure I have a favourite chord, but I’m definitely a “chord guy” – I came up listening to Steely Dan, and Anita Baker and Pat Metheny, loving chords and loving harmony, and one of my challenges – and I think many people who have been to music conservatories can relate to this – is to strip away what you know and use fewer chords, write less! To try to be more instinctive about your writing and be less intellectual… so I hope there is a richness in the music but I’m trying to move away from the “jazz student” way of thinking.
LJN: And how would you describe the music on Sovereign?
OR: It falls into two categories. There is this more ambient, reflective side, like My Old Life, Is Anybody Out There?, The Garden and Let Go. And then there is this bluesy, more New Orleans, Randy Newman, Dr John, Ray Charles thing – in Justify, Ridiculous, Burned… These two very distinct colours. And there is always that challenge with a record – to make it feel cohesive, particularly when you’ve got varied stylistic things going on. My co-producer, Chris Abell, and I were particularly concerned to get this right, and I think you get it by having a consistency of players – they include Jordan Perlson, Jordan Scanella, Zach Danzinger, Owen Biddle, and having it recorded in a way that is consistent.
LJN: You clearly enjoy playing live in front of an audience, and I wondered how you recreate that energy in the studio?
OR: Yes, they are very different things in some ways – the studio environment and the live one, and I really love both because they offer different challenges. One of the things I wanted to do with Sovereign, which I don’t think I have done in the past, was to try and have a live feeling in terms of the kind of underpinning of the performances. So my previous record, Old Habits, followed the more classic studio process. With Sovereign, eight of the tracks were done live so far as the bass, drums, keys and vocals were concerned, and then we obviously added overdubs and produced them.
So I’m really proud of this record in its own way because it reflects a real live feel.
LJN: And now you are taking it on the road…
OR: Yes, and I’m not just gearing up for my first UK tour, it’s my first ever tour! With my own music. Obviously I’ve done a lot of festivals under my own name, and venues, and good clubs and spot dates… I’ve toured quite extensively as a sideman, but a tour with my own stuff is a totally new experience. And I’m enjoying the challenge of re-imagining the music for this particular ensemble, adjusting the arrangements so they suit these particular players. So it’s an extension of the album but the live date is also something special.
LJN: Are they the same players as on the album?
OR: No, they’re not. The album was recorded in New York with my musical family from there, a small group of musicians who became my close-knit circle of collaborators while I was there. But for the tour, it’s more UK-based and makes a lot of sense for where I’m at now. So the bass player is Michael Janisch, whose label, Whirlwind, is putting out the record. Hannah Read (vocals/fiddle) is coming over from the States and she is on the record too. The young drummer is Marijus Alexa who has a wonderful groove, and a guitar player called Giorgio Serci, who is very tasteful, evocative in his use of pedals, and a great improviser. When you are choosing musicians it’s not only the level of musicianship, for touring it’s people you feel you have a bond with, people who “have your back”.
And I’m really excited about going on the road with all of them.
LJN: You have played with some great names in music. What’s the most valuable lesson you have learned from them?
OR: I think one really good example that I had was working with Steve Gadd. The thing that was so apparent with Gadd – I mean when I met him it was probably the most star-struck I’ve been, because he’s such a legend to me for the albums he’s played on, the Paul Simon albums, the James Taylor albums, with Brecker – but he was so warm and giving, and had a very gentle spirit, so welcoming. So on a personal level it’s a real lesson when you meet someone who is so gifted and successful as that and they are so supportive, it puts a lot of thing into perspective. You realise there is no excuse not to be that way yourself. (pp)
Sovereign is released on Whirlwind Recordings.
Oli Rockberger and band will be playing the following dates:
11 Oct: The Brook, Southampton.
12 Oct: Soundcellar, Poole.
13 Oct: Eastside Jazz Club, Birmingham.
15 Oct: JATA, Bristol.
18 Oct: TheJazz Bar, Edinburgh.
19/20 Oct: Pizza Express, Holborn) – Album launch.
22 Oct: Alexander’s Live, Chester.
23 Oct: Ropetackle Arts, Shoreham.
14 Nov: EFG London Jazz Festival, Pizza Express Jazz Club, London.
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LINKS: Oli Rockberger’s website