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.

Great Scott! I’ve made a website!

IMG_1219I’m delighted to announce that my new-fangled website is now officially up and running! I wish you many happy minutes exploring its pages, some of which may be devoted to projects you never knew I did. Watch this space for upcoming blog posts about music, science, the creative process, old timey stuff and anything in between. My first proper post will be about incredibly specific song lyrics that only made sense in the era they were written, so look out for that little gem!

Bear with me!

WebsiteWelcome to my new-fangled website! As a confirmed technophobe, I’m really quite proud of myself, especially since the design plan started out looking like this. (At which point I nearly gave up and decided to simply photocopy that and glue it to the screen of my computer). Please bear with me while I make it all look pretty and, you know, actually add some content and stuff. Hopefully I’ll soon have the perfect platform for my creative ramblings, so watch this space!