Meet the Outlaws #2: Rachel Hughes

Rachel piano

Rachel is the keyboard player in Jessica Law and The Outlaws, as well as an (astro?) physicist and an accomplished jazz singer-songwriter in her own right. We met through the ridiculous comedy theatre group Oxford University Light Entertainment Society, a “gateway” society that then lead to her being conscripted into the Steampunk space pirate storytelling folk band The Mechanisms. Since I was also a band member at the time, it didn’t take long for me to rope her into my solo musical pursuits. Her voice has been described as being “like an angel who smokes 40 a day”, and we are still seriously entertaining the idea of performing a sultry jazz version of the popular harvest festival song “Cauliflowers Fluffy” together (in costume).

The idea that you have to have either a scientific brain or a creative brain, not both, is obviously codswallop. But what’s the link between creativity and science for you? Is there one? Or are they opposites?

I think there is a link, because the human brain naturally picks out patterns from its surroundings and applies them to make new things – which is what we do in science and maths, and also music too, if only on a subconscious level. When you make music, you’re always riffing off the conventions and structures of the music around you, but then trying to push them further and do something new. What I like about music, though, is that there can never be a wrong answer like there can in science or maths – it’s just a playground where you can mess around and be free to do what you like, which takes a lot of the pressure off, and makes it more fun!

Is it true that Brian May was one of your tutors?

Not quite – it is true that he is a guest astrophysicist at Imperial College, which is where I was doing my PhD. So we may have been in the same building at the same time, but I’ve never met him, sadly.

A few years ago, Rachel and I went on a walk to Wittenham Clumps in Oxfordshire, and while we walked, we told each other stories. My story became the song and novel, “Jack the Re-animator”, and Rachel’s story has just been released as the concept album “Lolina: Origins”. Tell us about it!

It’s set in a dystopian future where humans, having destroyed the environment of the earth and colonised the solar system, genetically engineer people for certain roles in society, creating what is essentially a slave class.  The main character, Lolina, is a genetically engineered sex worker living on Mars, who is then kidnapped by a member of a moralistic, eco-warrior cult and taken to the barren wasteland of the ruined Earth… drama ensues! In terms of music, it crosses a lot of genres – as with much of my solo music, it has a jazzy/bluesy/soul feel in many places, but I also experimented with classical music when singing the part of Mariella the cult member, for whom I used the higher, purer register of my voice. I also, with the help of my friend Ben (Drumbot Brian of The Mechanisms), got some awesome funky electronic sounds in there. The last song of the album is a proper electronic pop anthem!

Where did you get the idea? And what messages were you aiming to put across?

I guess some of the ideas are similar to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where people are genetically engineered for certain roles in society. But I wanted to take it in a different direction to explore gender roles, sexuality, the Madonna/Whore dichotomy, and how much we are determined by our biology compared to our experiences. These kind of thoughts were floating around in my head a lot anyway, being a bisexual woman in a society that is often still quite judgemental of women’s sexuality, so this is just how it all came out.

We’ve both been in The Mechanisms, but I’ve never written a narrative album on my own. What were the challenges of telling a story through songs?

In a way, having a narrative was a help, rather than a hindrance – I find that if you want to write a song but have no ideas, you get nowhere. But if you have a certain theme and storyline you want to get across, it informs the genre and the feel of the song, giving you a jumping-off point. What is hard is trying to make sure the lyrics include all aspects of the story. I don’t think I could do what Jonny (Jonny D’Ville) of The Mechanisms does, and write long narrative sections, because keeping track of what the audience do and don’t know is confusing when you have full knowledge of the story. That’s why I opted to include short, in-universe clips, such as radio adverts and sermons, to help advance the story without spelling it out exactly. I was really inspired by the way Janelle Monae (check her out – she’s amazing!) tells stories in her music, where the story isn’t essential to the enjoyment of the songs, but if you want to, you can pore through the lyrics and the radio sections and work out what’s going on.

This is your first album release, but you’ve been doing music for far longer than I have, haven’t you?

Yes! I first got into writing songs at the tender age of 11, when I became involved with the Young Women’s Music Project in Oxford. They’re an amazing organisation who support young women and girls with making music and playing gigs, and I don’t think I would still be making music now without the support they gave me over the years. If you’re based in Oxford, you should definitely check them out!

How did you get into jazz?

Being the ultimate hipster as a teenager (a hipster before it was cool) I had to like an obscure music genre! More seriously, I was raised with Steely Dan and rock with Jazz fusion elements, so it was inevitable that I would track back to the source of the delicious river Jazz. I was also quite an unhappy adolescent, so mournful, bittersweet Jazz ballads by people like singer and trumpet player Chet Baker, and pianist Bill Evans, really appealed to me.

What were people’s reactions when you started singing like Louis Armstrong?

I remember my mum being quite surprised when I started singing so low at age 11, but I think she grew to accept it! People always say my speaking voice doesn’t match my singing voice, which is especially true when I’m excited or around people I don’t know well, and start talking really high-pitched!

To most people, jazz and folk seem like polar opposites. But I’m not convinced. Can you see any parallels?

Yes, definitely – both jazz and folk are often based around playing the standard, traditional tunes and putting your own spin on them. Folk lyrics generally have more of a storytelling element, whereas jazz is more about improvisation and how much can you play around with the base material you’re given. I don’t really do proper jazz in my own music, although it has a jazzy feel – I mostly borrow the kind of chords you get in jazz and mix it with loads of other stuff – although at the moment I am having jazz piano lessons to try and improve my improvisation skills.

You can catch Rachel, and the rest of the Outlaws, at our gig in Bristol on the 17th of June, which will also include afternoon tea! Find out more here.

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Meet the Outlaws #1: Nick Siepmann

13717434_10208646816040982_5203143013034239604_oNot only is Nick the guitarist of Jessica Law and The Outlaws, he’s also a talented multi-instrumentalist producer, responsible for arranging and recording my past three EPs. I met Nick when advertising for victims (collaborators! I mean collaborators) in “The Adventures of Sticky Harry and Associates”, a madcap radio play I wrote at university. Since then, we’ve developed an almost psychic level of creative communication, to the extent that he’s actually able to understand and execute phrases such as “electronic doomscape” and “BOM bom BOM bom.” Nick lives in London with his fiancee and numerous pets of varying adorability.

Firstly – why did you agree to get embroiled in all this?

After university, I found myself doing a sound engineering course at SSR London, and was in need of recording clients. Fortunately, I had just discovered that you had expanded your array of talents to include songwriting, and so, having heard those first songs, I offered my services. Many mandolin and vocal tracks later (not to mention a string trio recorded in a bedroom, a set of pan pipes improvised from beer bottles, and a joint of ham boiling in a pot), The Littlest Libertine was done, and we were off!

And you’re not just a collaborator – tell me about Phlebas, your “philosophical death metal” solo project!

Aha! In fact, this is also a child of my time at SSR London – I wrote and recorded my first ever death metal song for my first big project there, and I have been writing and demoing metal songs ever since. Last year, I decided – mostly to prove to myself that I could – to properly record a full album of the best of my songs so far. The resulting album, Alkahest, is now fully recorded, will be released at some point this year, with some wonderful album art from Lordanumblue (Nottingham-based artist Ben Lord).

Where does the name come from?

The name comes from the mention of ‘Phlebas the Phoenician’ in the fourth section of TS Eliot’s The Wasteland, called ‘Death by Water’. That section always stuck with me – a beautiful bit of simplicity in the midst of a sprawling Modernist poem, looking at time, death, and nature – and I felt it was in-keeping with the attitude and themes embodied in the songs, so I went and nicked it. Unfortunately, it’s almost universally assumed to be a reference to Iain M Banks’s Consider Phlebas, which I have yet to read… Sorry, fellow nerds.

So, what have you found to be the challenges of being in a band compared to solo projects?

One thing I’ve found both tricky and rewarding after each release is the challenge of how to translate the vibe of our often complex arrangements on the record into something that can be played live. Also challenging: helping move Rachel’s keyboard up and down tube station stairs…

Are there some things only a band can offer?

However much I love sitting at my laptop and indulging myself with Wakeman-like multi-instrumental excess, there’s nothing quite like the feeling during a gig when you all lock together and the song just carries you along. It’s sort of like being a component in some sentient Rube Goldberg machine.

Where do your musical roots lie?

I’ve sort of put down roots as I go – I’m the son of two classical piano teachers, and have sung in Anglican choirs on and off since I was 7, but since then I’ve taken it upon myself to educate myself in bluegrass, extreme metal and trad English folk, which have more or less become my musical home. For now.

When we meet, we often spend every second rambling on about all things musical. So there are probably a lot of things we don’t know about each other. Tell me something about yourself that I didn’t know…

I share a birthday with Niccolò Machiavelli, James Brown, Pete Seeger, email spam, and geocaching.

Do you have any pie-in-the-sky projects you’d love to do if you had infinite time / money?

I’ve had a hankering to put together some kind of impractically theatrical metal band inspired by the Wicked and the Divine series of comics – the lighting alone I’m sure would reduce me to penury, but it’d be a hell of a show right up until the bailiffs arrived…

You can catch Nick and the rest of us at our next live gig in Bristol, Teatre: Jessica Law and the Outlaws, an intimate afternoon of sinister folk ditties with tea and cake included!