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Interview: Bright Light Bright Light

As he preps for the release of his new EP, it sort of feels like a second chapter for Rod Thomas, aka Bright Light Bright Light. His marvellous debut album, Make Me Believe In Hope, was highly anticipated by many, but was a long time coming. Years prior, Rod had started to make splashes on the internet, gaining the support from pop music behemoth, Popjustice. Over the years singles trickled out until the album caused a ferocious wave and was met by equal amounts of adoration.

After moving to New York, Rod took the chance to work with others, becoming firm friends with sparkle masters, Scissor Sisters. Working with Del Marquis on side project, The Slow Knights, Rod began to build up connections in The Big Apple. Slithers of new music appeared in the form of acoustic renditions of existing tracks. However, the relaunch took shape last year with the EP In Your Care, a well formed and emotionally honest collection of songs that signalled a new start. There was something altogether more self-assured about the project, and musically there were subtleties that created a warmer, well rounded sound.

For his new EP, I Wish We Were Leaving, Rod called in one of his friends who just happen to be musical legend Elton John. With the release of his second album also imminent, we sat down with Rod to chat about his success, New York, Elton fucking John and male popstars…

Planet Notion: What have you been up to?
Bright Light Bright Light: I’ve been finishing off the new album. I’ve been touring a lot in America, which has been a lot of fun. Collaborating a little bit with people and working out logistics.

PN:The first record was very well received. How did that make you feel?
It was a really strange experience, actually. It took so long to put it together, and because it was an independent release, you kind of have no gauge over what reach it’s going to have, or who’s really going to review it. A lot of places have such little column space, or web space, that not everyone can review it. So, I was really happy with the people that it connected with. Some of them were my favourite journalists and websites, so it felt really exciting to be doing something, even small scale, which actually made a difference to a few people. Especially touring America you get to see that people in really odd places found the record.

PN: You spend a lot of time in New York. What do you find appealing about it as a city?
I really love the energy of it. I think that the people there work really hard and they play really hard, which is what I tend to do. I think the general attitude there is a bit more upbeat, you know? People smile and customer service is based on making an impression. It’s very important over there. Doing really mundane tasks like going to the post office are a lot more pleasant. Then, when I do the things that I really enjoy, they feel a lot better. I think I like the shift in energy, the pace suits me a bit better. I’m very fortunate that I’ve met some really incredible people over there.

PN: Musically how different is it as a city compared to London?
I think it’s pretty different. The pop music that’s being made over there is very different. The DJ scene is very different as well. A lot of places that I DJ are bars rather than clubs. It’s not so much about dancing it’s about getting an atmosphere and taking people on some sort of journey.

Even though I’ve lived in London for a very long time, and technically it should be easier to have a musician network here, but it is so transient that  people tour a lot and aren’t really here that much. But I’ve found that in New York, a lot of people will be properly based. So I’ve managed to make more of a network of musicians to swap and exchange with and make more of a community.

PN: Is New York where you’re recording most of your new album?
I did a lot of demoing for things before I moved over there, and just over the course of the last year I’ve sort of duplicated my home studio there and used people’s equipment. My friend Del from the Scissor Sisters plays guitar on a couple of the tracks, and this other band I’m in with him, Slow Knights, all the members of that came and sang backing vocals for me on the record. So it feels a little bit more human. I think just having other people’s vocals and input really helps create a bigger world around a song.

PN: I wanted to ask a song from the EP you released last year called ‘In Your Care’. What is it about?
I’m an only child, so I have a lot of guilt about being that far away from my family, especially as I get older. So it’s a song that’s an apology, but also a reassurance that just because I’m not there it doesn’t mean that I don’t think about you, or don’t ever want to spend time with you. It just means that at some point in your life you’re following a career path, or you’re doing something that unfortunately means being really far away from the people you care about.

PN: Is your work quite autobiographical?
The last album wasn’t, no. It was mostly commentary, or reporting on things. This album is much more biographical. It’s basically about the year that I spent in New York, the transition from here to there, there to here and going from a place where I felt quite low to a sort of coming back to life again. This album is about things that have really happened to me or to people that I know. One song is about my family, one song is about a relationship, one song is about my best friend; it’s about a real world.

PN: While sonically your first album was pop the tone was quite melancholic. How does the second differ in sound and tone?
I think it’s bigger and more optimistic. Even though the last album wasn’t down beat, as such, this album’s lyrics are a lot more optimistic and there are a lot warmer sounds in it. It’s a bit more summery, I suppose. Thank God it comes out in summer [laughs].

But, I think it’s a little bit different. I don’t think if you liked the first album you would be completely shocked by it, but I still think it’s different enough that maybe it might surprise a couple of people. It’s not more of the same.

PN: What are you like in the studio?
It changes song by song, really. Some of them I’ve done completely myself right from the writing to the mixing, and others have been collaborative. When I’m on my own it tends to be a haphazard mix of coffee breaks and really intense working periods to 3am. With others I tend to be a lot quicker. It kind of depends on how complex a song is, or how much I’m doing. If I’m doing the production and the composition then it takes a little longer because I’m not a fast producer.

PN: You collaborated with Elton John on ‘I Wish We Were Leaving’. Tell me about that?
I did everything apart from his vocals before flying out to him. I took him the instrumental, my vocal, the b-vocals and then the guide vocal for his part, which sounds so weird because he’s an amazing singer. We were just in his kitchen singing through the song. He changed a few inflections, putting his little twist on the melody, and went into the studio and did his vocals. It was really amazing. It’s so weird because I know him quite well; it’s very bizarre when you actually remember who he is. He’s just amazing and shaped so many of the days that I’ve spent in my life because people play his songs all the time. To have his voice on my song is really bizarre but amazing.

PN: Did he sort of go into the studio and do it one take?
It wasn’t quite one take because he was trying out a few different things, but not because there were any mistakes. He’s one of these professionals that come from an era where people were famous because they were perfect. His vocal takes are incredible, his deliveries really consistent and his musicianship is kind of second to none. It’s really amazing to watch somebody in the studio just do it and it’s done. You just go wow.

PN: You’ve just put out the video. How much input do you have with that whole process?
For a lot of them it’s more collaborative, I suppose, because the budgets are so small. For this one, it was someone else’s pitch. I really liked their tone and their location and went along with what they did, just modifying a few things. It’s weird with music videos to try and put imagery to something, and for this song in particular because it’s so personal, it was quite tricky thinking about what I wanted it to look like, but I think it worked.

PN: Do you ever feel like throwing a huge dance number in music video?
[Laughs] I’d love to I just can’t afford it. I’d kill to do that!

PN: You’re not signed to a major label. How do you find the time to do anything?
I have a team in as much as I have press and radio people, but I’m still managing everything, booking shows, recording and producing. It’s quite full on, but I think people forget that until anyone else is signed they’re doing the same thing as well, really. I’ve always made music, so I’ve always done this anyway. It’s not because I’m pigheaded and because I don’t trust anyone else, it’s just sometimes in a few months you’re somewhere and you just want things to get done so you just get on with it. It becomes second nature. I’m not good at being idle so I kind of enjoy it.

PB: You’re obviously doing quite well without one; do you feel you need it?
I think a person saying that they don’t need labels is still a bit of a blanket statement. I think there are a lot of really skilled people working at labels that have a lot of advice and experience as well as perspective. The reason I like collaborating is because two minds are slightly better than one, even if it’s just bouncing ideas off each other. So I think having a really strong team around you who have worked with artists that may be like you is a really useful thing.

It obviously depends on what label it is and what deal they’d offer and what capacity they’d want to work with me, but I’m very interested in that whole family aspect. It’s taken a while to get the right press people and the right radio people because family is really important to me. Maybe it’s because I’m really far away from my own family a lot of the time, but it really does need to be people that understand you and your values, aims and direction.

PN: People often call you the male equivalent of Robyn, but there aren’t a lot of men creating that kind of pop music. Why do you think that is?
It’s tricky to market yourself as a male artist doing something pop because traditionally it’s been very super-pop or singer-songwriter. Even for Robyn doing what she does in the midst of these girls is quite unusual. She bridges a gap between someone that at times is an introverted singer-songwriter and dancing her fucking arse off. Not many people do that. I think there probably are men doing it, but it’s difficult not to be labeled as too camp or too boring. It’s a hard balance to match. I don’t know what sort of level I’m balancing that, but I know what you mean. I don’t think labels knew what to do with that. I think people are still testing the water and it’ll take a while for people to understand how good it can be.

Bright Light Bright Light releases I Wish You Were Leaving via Self Raising Records on April 7th. Pre-order the EP now. 

- Alim Kheraj

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