Omnii Feature #11 : Under the lid with…ROOKES

Photo by Laura Rhodes — Curious Rose Photography

We catch up with songwriter and producer ROOKES ahead of her upcoming EP launch, for an eclectic chat about folk instruments, chiptune, Coco Chanel, and plastic storage box lids…


Can you talk us through your choices for the tracks?

Grimes is a real hero to me — she’s a bit of an electro-pop-producer-artist-wizard. I love that she has such full and diverse creativity in everything she produces. This album, Art Angels, was produced solo and entirely from home but the sound is incredibly sharp and well balanced. ‘Kill vs Maim’ is an incredible track — so well constructed and aggressive. Apparently there’s 40 tracks of drums on there.

I met Kimbra a couple of years ago and she was very sweet and cool and poised; this track reflects all those qualities. It’s got a heavy funk vibe, lots of Prince influence, with digital bending and distortion of keys and bass to create a characteristic rhythmic ‘wah wah’. Kimbra is also very aware of her voice as an instrument, which is reflected in the way she imitates Prince’s falsetto and parallels the frequent dynamic drops in the instrumentation with her vocal.

Kate Bush is an icon for a reason, and she was super active in the studio. The Hounds of Love album was made in a barn behind her house that she converted into a 48 track home studio. She also used a similar process to the recording process I follow: developing high quality demos to be the foundation of the track, rather than making endless re-records. The title track is an excellent show of how Bush was an early adopter of sampling as well as mixing folk and electronic genres — using both traditional instruments and synths in the studio.

When I decided to start playing with chiptune for ‘The Game & The River’ (which has a Commodore 64 beat track and various arcade/ chiptune synths) I started roaming around on the web and ran into LukHash. This tune, PIXELOVE, is particularly infectious.

Why was Annie Lennox’s first self-penned solo release into the public sphere, after leaving The Eurythmics. The production may seem a little dated, but there is a warmth to the beautifully mixed backing vocals, a clean quality to the piano and incredible power in Lennox’s vocal — at a time when auto-tune just wasn’t happening. It’s important that producers should expect a certain standard from their vocalists, rather than vocalists expecting that producers will tidy up their vocal tracks with digital tuning and that being the standard. If the vocalist is prepared it makes everyone’s job easier, and ultimately a better track.

What’s your working method or process?

It’s pretty organic as methods go. It always starts at home and I usually have 80% of the lyrical and melodic content sorted before I start demoing. I’m a big believer of trusting my instincts and my synaesthesia to help me shape the track. The synaethesia is mild but it means that my brain manifests shapes and colours to accompany the sounds. In the same way that shapes on canvases need to be balanced, I feel compelled to use the visuals my brain provides to create balance in the track — I can usually see where the equivalent sound to a shape or colour is missing.

Usually the lyrics give me an idea of the mood I want to create and that informs my instrument choices. I’ll lay down anywhere between 12 and 25 tracks on the home demo, quantise and break down into stems if necessary before moving into the studio. In the studio we whack it into ProTools to beef up, sharpen or play with the stems until it reaches the point where it feels right. I’ll leave it a day or so, sit with it, play it through different speakers and headphones, ask a couple of trusted folks to listen, then go back and tweak it. I may lift things out — the audio equivalent of Coco Chanel’s “take one item off” advice. This last ritual might repeat a number of times and then I’ll start to mix it. Once the mix is right, I’ll send it off for mastering.

Your debut single The Heel of My Hand, has some fantastic guitar sounds on it. How did you achieve these?

Well, thank you, for starters. I often get asked about this, but the reality is that it’s not a guitar you’re hearing. The initial demo was created by putting an electro-acoustic tenor ukulele through a digital octave multiplexer effect. Later when I got into the studio I borrowed a Martin travel acoustic (which looks a lot like a slightly bigger strum stick, if you’re familiar with folk instruments) and replicated the same effect through a digital stomp box with slight reverb and grit.

And how did you get into production? What have been your influences?

Out of necessity. When I first started really playing with production software it was to try and figure out which direction I wanted to go in musically. At the time, most of the musicians I knew were fairly unhelpful lads, so I just got stuck in and started seeing what kinds of sounds I could make through GarageBand. I was interested in forming soundscapes as backgrounds to the songs I was writing. At the time I was listening to a lot of the Ting Tings and Paul Simon, but writing acoustic folk music, so that meant that I got obsessed quite early with creating tracks with strong percussive structure. However, the influences from growing up also erupted — with powerful vocal artists like Lisa Gerrard, Annie Lennox & Sigur Rós prompting me to work with ambient and stacked vocals. I have also been a huge fan of the composer Karl Jenkins for a long time and he gave me a taste for orchestral instruments as I began to expand my digital arrangements.

What is your favourite bit of gear and why?

It might seem a little banal but my iRig is essential to me. My iPad allows me to work on ideas on the go all the time, because audio software apps have become so sophisticated, and my iRig lets me lay down organic sounds or vocals within minutes no matter where I am. It gives me such freedom to record anywhere with ease and avoid feeling creatively stale by being anchored to a studio during the early to mid stages of development.

What is your personal ‘top tip’ for producing/ mixing?

It’s too easy to ‘overdo’ a track. Be prepared to step back from track when you sense your creative slip-stream slowing down or stopping. The track is not going to alter in your absence, but going for a walk, a beer or sleeping on it can give you fresh perspective and ideas to attack the next phase of development.

Your EP is out this month, what can we expect to hear?

Variety. As a music consumer, I bore easily so I try to make sure not to make my tracks sound too similar or repetitive. The EP was very empowering to compose because the songs were all written in an effort to exorcise my feelings about a pivotal romantic experience, but it was also very experimental and shaped my live sound a great deal. The track ‘Sidelines’ is a good example of this. I didn’t want to be precious about the outcome, so I adopted an attitude of playful innovation. This allowed me to mix strange vocal and acoustic percussion samples that I recorded myself (the sharp snap sound is my whacking a plastic storage box lid off the studio desk and recording with a condenser mic, adding a little reverb after) with live sax (which I had never recorded before) and replace the core guitar track completely with synths.

Photo by Laura Rhodes — Curious Rose Photography

What are you future projects?

To be honest there are many! I’ve just finished recording the next EP, which I’m excited to share later in the year. Through my Patreon page — www.patreon.com/iamrookes — I am working on a collaborations record, which is half a dozen boot-leg style tracks written and produced directly with other artists of different disciplines. I’m also producing a podcast called AKA Rookes and writing a folk opera through Patreon support: the debut song of which will feature on the next EP. I’m running a workshop for refugee charity Play for Progress on the 20th June — https://poplarunion.com/event/play-for-progress-presents-rookes-workshop-performance/.

Other than that, I’m writing articles for OutNews Global, and touring in May through Birmingham, London, Brighton, Bristol and other cities with fellow artist DIDI to promote the current EP, out on the 20th April.