We caught up with poet and singer/songwriter Rrose Sélavy ahead of the release of her EP I Am Like The Tree. Born and raised in York, she’s currently going to university in Cambridge, so we quizzed her about the comparative music scenes of the two cities, found out about her fascination with trees, and how it felt to recite her poem for BBC Proms on Radio 3.
By Jane Howkins
You have an interesting stage name, how did you come up with it?
Thanks! I’m reading French and Russian at the University of Cambridge and absolutely love avant-garde French literature. I was writing my dissertation on surrealism and stumbled across a poem by Robert Desnos called Rrose Sélavy etc. It’s based on creative wordplay around the cliché “Rose, c’est la vie” (e.g. “Rôts et sel à vie”). The irony is that the name is quite unique, and yet I always end up typing the word ‘cliché’ to copy and paste the ‘é’ for ‘Sélavy’. I hope that’s not a metaphor for something. There’s probably a keyboard function to make this easier.
You’re at the University of Cambridge, but originally from York (which was recently voted as one of the most musical areas in the country). How do you find the music scene differs between the two?
I studied at York College, previously Barlby High School, and live close to York, but gig mostly in Cambridge. The music scene is probably more vibrant in York. It’s often quite intimate in Cam. I’m looking to line up more gigs in my home city over summer. If anyone has a slot for some poetic-folk then I’d love to know about it!
Who would you say your main musical influences are?
I love anything with a poetic touch, and always turn to Laura Marling, Mumford & Sons, Ben Howard, Daughter and Sivu. However, I’d say my music is equally inspired by literature. I wrote a song called The Thread of Time about Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. It’s a play about two vagrants waiting for ‘Godot’ who never arrives. To pass the time they argue and apologise, attempt suicide and fail, eat carrots and gnaw on chicken bones, so the lyrics are accordingly quite dismal: “The ache of time will break our bones (…) life is but a crack of light and it will close” but nevertheless true. The tune’s more cheerful.
The first track on the EP, Mme De La Pointe Courte, is inspired by a new wave film, La Pointe Courte by Agnès Varda. In one scene, the external landscape seems to reflect the internal landscape of the characters, the way they feel inside. The slats of the rotting ship look like ribs, the chest of a couple whose love has turned stale. It’s like they’re perched inside their own rotting ribcage, where they can’t escape their emptiness. Well, at least that’s what I argued in my essay.
You have recently been played on BBC Introducing. How did that come about?
Yes! Some of my songs have been played on BBC Introducing Radio (Humberside, not yet York) and I’m incredibly excited to be playing a BBC live radio session soon followed by an interview. I’d definitely encourage aspiring musicians to upload their own music to the BBC website. It might be passed on to national radio stations and you may even be invited to play at major festivals such as Glastonbury. The first track of mine they played was recorded in a friend’s dining room, so it doesn’t necessarily have to be professional studio quality.
What’s the best gig you’ve ever played, and why?
I played the feminist festival ‘Women of the World’ and got a free pepperoni pizza and coke. Pizza is one of my favourite foods. In terms of the performance itself, it’s great when someone in the distance holds your gaze, like you’re letting each other stare into each other’s souls. Or when they happen to find something that was said funny, usually an awkward ramble about roots or trees. I’m particularly looking forward to performing for ‘May Week’. At the end of the Cambridge academic year, it’s tradition to celebrate the end of exams with balls and garden parties (and punting), and so the audience should be very jolly, at least slightly less stressed than usual!
Your debut EP I Am Like the Tree will be released soon. What can you tell us about the writing and recording process for it?
The EP will be self-released, recorded by audio music technology students. We had to skip a few lectures to spend some very long days in the studio, but I was so happy to be able to record them. I write stream-of-conscious in my journal (covered in leaves, I like writing on leaves) when something is weighing on my mind, or heart, leave it for a while (sometimes years) and then come back. I’m dabbling at the moment with an extended metaphor of clouds, dredged up from the depths of 1st August 2013, but fresh insights to old feelings can be very fruitful. It’s about clouds tearing themselves apart into smaller shreds. They say they want to float away on their own, but some still sag behind the others, in their shadows. (I used to have a cloud blog). I’d say I write mainly for myself. It’s very cathartic, and makes heartbreak seem worthwhile! My favourite place to write songs is perched in a window, preferably at uni because it happens to overlook a small orchard.
The drafting process is perhaps more intriguing. I live slightly out of town during term time, at Homerton College, and the bike ride through pretty meadows and a herd of cows each day to lectures is where I make syllabic adjustments to the songs, almost always aloud. I’m quite critical. I have heaps of them but only dare share a small selection. My best friend Holly lives next door, which is convenient because she’s the main victim of my slightly manic midnight serenades.
We’ve heard that the majority of songs you write are about trees. What is it you like about trees?
I guess I find them incredibly inspirational characters, and being in their company always fills me with hope. Firstly, they stand there alone, through the harshest of winters, their leaves come and go, yet they wait patiently and gracefully for spring to arrive. Secondly, they don’t complain about it. Thirdly, even if they lean towards something, whether it is sunlight or simply another tree, they do not fall. There’s never too much reliance on anything other than their own flesh and bone, or so it seems. They’re everything humans can never be. But I’m too much of a dreamer to be a scientist, so I just speculate. “There’s a pendulum inside us all, we sway to and fro. First we lean, we stumble and then we fall, but trees don’t lean so trees don’t fall.” There was a sense of self-delusion when I wrote this. I now accept that trees do lean, as do humans, towards others, they just don’t have to fall.
Have you ever stethoscope-d a tree? “Press your ear against my chest, you’ll hear the hum of my heartbeat less you drain all the water from my bones.” Me neither but ‘The Oak and the Seed’ is about just that. I plan to spend some time alone in a forest this summer, simply thinking. Maybe munching on grass and writing in between.
What’s your favourite tree and why?
To the left of the A19 from Selby to York, alone in a field, just before Escrick. It’s practically dead, but keeps on growing. An inspiration to us all? I took this snap either on the York College coach or the 415.
You’re also a poet and have performed for BBC 3 in the past. Which do you prefer: performing poetry or performing as a musician?
I prefer writing poetry, but performing as a musician. A musical performance feels more passionate, like you’re pouring out every drop of yourself. You’re more vulnerable but it’s more cathartic. I find writing poetry forces you to focus on language at a more intimate level, linguistically, which I absolutely love too. So I try to combine them both, a kind of ‘poetic-folk’; written as poems, performed as folkish songs.
Word is that you’re also working with BBC Proms at the moment? Can you tell us more about that?
It was after winning the BBC Proms Young Poet Competition with a poem called The Art of Splinters, inspired by Bach’s St John Passion (that’s where the BBC Radio 3 broadcast and interview comes in), when I was asked to write a poem about another piece of classical music. It’ll be published in their 2015 BBC Proms brochure. I chose Ode to Joy by Beethoven because it’s overwhelmingly passionate and proud to be so. It was after writing this poem for the commission that I translated it, in the creative sense, into a song on my EP I Am Not A Flower, I’m A Girl: “Flowers edge up through the cracks, to bruise a sky beyond their grasp. Have you felt the weight of a forest on your back?”
What can we expect from one of your shows?
I’m often still a little nervous at the start, mainly about making mistakes on the guitar because in all honesty, my string playing skills are probably quite questionable. So if I make eye contact with you, it means you’re special. But at the same time I can’t see you because I should be wearing glasses. However, the songs are full of emotion, so hopefully the performance will be too. I just hope it’ll be honest, without hiding or holding anything back.
Any last words for the fans?
If you’re at all intrigued then I’d love you to like my Facebook page or find me on Twitter. You’ll be able to check out my EP there. If you know anyone else who might be intrigued, then please do point them in the right direction. Thanks!
Rrose Sélavy’s EP I Am Like The Tree will be out in early May.