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Ahead of the release of their delightful collaborative EP 'Equal Parts', songwriters Helen McCookerybook and Robert Rotifer discuss the 'completely joyful' experience of recording over two days in August and their desire to use the EP to transcend the divisions between the UK and Europe brought on by Brexit.
‘Equal Parts’ is the first collaboration between two songwriters, Helen McCookerybook and Robert Rotifer. A six track EP, it has been released digitally on 4th December, and a 10” vinyl will follow just in time for Christmas. A taster came in advance with a (socially-distanced) video for ‘No Man’s Land’, while regular BBC 6 Music listeners have been treated to multiple advance plays on the Gideon Coe show.
It’s a delightful record, combining bright power-pop melodies with folk and country influenced arrangements around two overlapping guitars, Helen’s electric guitar and Robert’s acoustic. It has something for any discerning Pennyblackmusic reader – be you a punk, a folkie or a pop-picker.
We spoke over Zoom in early November, their first time speaking to each other since finishing the EP. For much of the interview, I just sat back and let them chat (much of this will be in part two of this interview, in our next edition). In this article, I will introduce you to both of them in turn, before they discuss making ‘Equal Parts’.
Helen McCookerybook grew up listening to John Peel’s radio show before moving from the North East of England to Brighton to study Fine Art Printmaking. She taught herself to play bass as nobody else in her first band was keen on the instrument, before joining her second band, the Chefs, and recording several sessions for the Peel show. When they disbanded, she switched to guitar and led Helen and the Horns for more than a decade.
After a break from performing, she began a run of solo albums in 2006. Using her real name (Reddington). She is a writer and university lecturer. Her book, 'The Lost Women of Rock Music: Female Musicians of the Punk Era' is based on interviews with Viv Albertine, John Peel and Geoff Travis as well as the ‘lost women’ of the title. It was the book, she told 'The Guardian', she’d been waiting for someone to write before deciding to write it herself.
During the pandemic, she has continued to lecture on popular music, reminding her second-years that they do still have to do some work, even if they aren’t there in person. Though many of her students have struggled with anxiety, she’s also seen how adaptable they can be. “Creative people have a massive amount of ingenuity”, she says, “and you just got to put that into practice, really, and find ways of getting through it.”
This is Robert Rotifer’s third interview with Pennyblackmusic, and he also stole the show as the opening act at our 15th anniversary show at the Lexington in London, rocking out with his punk and mod influences to the fore. Since then, his music has become more reflective, with his most recent releases ‘Über Uns’ and ‘About Us’ recorded entirely acoustically, interpreting the same songs, first in his native German and then English.
Like Helen, songwriting is just one string to his bow. Born in Vienna before moving to the UK in the 1990s, he writes for the German language version of 'Rolling Stone' and – from his home in Kent – hosts a weekly show on Austria’s radio FM4. His paintings usually appear on the covers of his records (including the ‘Equal Parts’ EP).
In 2015, he joined bassist Andy Lewis and drummer Ian Button to form The Night Mail. As a trio, they have backed John Howard on his acclaimed 2015 album, then Austrian cultural icon André Heller on his 2019 comeback album ‘Spätes Leuchten’ and, most recently, Louis Phillipe (known to many as football writer Philippe Auclair) on his new album, ‘Thunderclouds’, which was released seven days after the McCookerybook & Rotifer EP on the 11th December.
So, both Helen and Robert fitted this EP around packed diaries and work with a number of other artists. Their songwriting collaboration involved sharing snippets of songs, which the other would add words or parts to, a process Helen describes as one of “finishing each other’s sentences.” The lyrics begin in English, before Robert replies in German, by translating Helen’s words and then finding an appropriate German-language variation on the theme.
Helen says that Robert often offered the extra chord she felt was missing from one of her song ideas and says that she’s always fascinated by the different chord structures other songwriters use, often leaving gigs desperate not to forget a particular chord she’d seen another musician use. Robert, by contrast, felt his role was to confirm when Helen’s songs were done. He explains, “When I write a three-chord song, I’m often worried that it’s not enough and I will try and add an extra chord. But when it came from you, I heard it and I knew it was enough and it was beautiful. It was good because I could play that role of the person who validated that the song was good. And that’s what we both did – we validated each other’s ideas.”
The project began amidst the rancorous 2019 General Election campaign, with the use of two languages a deliberate reaction to Brexit. Robert says, “I think we’ve both felt there’s a need to make a statement of reaching out”. Helen saw it as “reaching a hand across the channel to Europe, and despite all the rhetoric and all the hate, there’s another hand there reaching out and holding it back. It was really important to present the two languages equally.”
Further writing and recording followed after the end of the first lockdown. The songs reflect on the wider politics happening at the same time, including the Home Secretary’s non-apology for Windrush and the Black Lives Matter protest marches. “This EP is not really topical in a Covid sense”, Robert says, “but it is really topical, for me, for us. There is a hidden narrative of all these other things that have been happening while we’ve been talking about Covid 24/7, non-stop. These things need to be talked about.” Helen adds, “We’re creating something here that we feel is really important. Our hearts are really in it.”
Recording took place in Brixton in two goes, with two songs recorded in November 2019, shortly before the aborted Brexit deadline and then four more songs completed during the lockdown-lull in August. Robert admits that, during lockdown, he began feeling guilty they hadn’t got any further with their collaboration. “We began writing in the Autumn, but then I became so paralysed by what was going on. I had a bad conscience because I didn’t follow up on it for a while.”
It was a social media post by Darren Hayman that prompted them to reconvene – he put out a message that OneCat studios was potentially struggling without enough bookings. Robert immediately got in touch with the studio’s owner Jon Clayton. “It’s a remarkably cheap studio, but it’s so good and he’s such a thoughtful and nice guy – I’ve recorded there loads of times now”, he explains. Two more days were booked and – this time socially distanced, with everyone recording in different rooms – the EP was done.
Both agree the final recordings capture the sudden taste of freedom that came with being in the studio. “It was just a fantastic feeling”, Helen says. “You know, we’d been locked down, I hadn’t seen my kids. And then there was this burst – for two days, we’re going to be free. I mean there’s no way of describing it other than it was completely joyful, you know. It felt so energising to experience and I think that’s there on the tracks.”
Making up the band were studio-owner Jon Clayton on bass and Robert’s fellow Night Mail member Ian Button on drums. Helen emphasises the key role both played: “Our songs are really specific in what their aim is, and both Jon and Ian can really think themselves into another songwriter’s mindset. It’s just so different from session playing – they’re playing our personalities.” During the recordings, Helen was able to completely trust that Jon and Ian understood what the two songwriters wanted to achieve. Many of their parts were done in one take.
“I’ll give you the perfect example of that”, Robert says. “I was showing Ian the song ‘Sorry’ and he just said I should record it straightaway. Now, normally, what you never do, what is absolutely ridiculous is to just play the song on your own, and expect the drummer to play along to you going in and out of time. But Ian just looked at me, in his jokey way, and said ‘what is time?’, as he does. And he just sat behind the drums and played along to it – and that’s the take we used. It’s miraculous – I don’t know any other drummer who can do that. But it is as if he knew exactly what I was going to be doing."
Although Clayton typically “doesn’t let on” that he’s a musician as well as an engineer, having seen him play bass with another band, they persuaded him to play bass on this EP. They pick out his bassline on 'No Man’s Land' as an example of the difference he made to the sound. Clayton’s enthusiasm meant he continued to work on the recordings after the sessions were completed and will be playing bass for any live shows as well.
The positive atmosphere during the sessions didn’t just extend to the quality of the musicianship. “It’s really important that I add this”, Helen says, “as a female musician, who has written about the experience of female musicians. The EP is really aptly named, because we worked in a really equal way. I mean, none of these people are sexist, but as a female musician working with three male musicians, I could have felt overpowered by my gender.” This atmosphere meant she was confident to say how she wanted it to sound. In addition, the two-day time limit allowed her to trust that her parts were good enough, rather than feeling insecure and wanting to do multiple re-takes.
Robert thinks this could be the first time he hasn’t wanted to change anything on a finished record. The feeling of “maybe we should have, maybe we shouldn’t” that often comes at the end of recording wasn’t there. The end result: “We said what we wanted to say and there’s nothing to add.”
Though recording ‘Equal Parts’ was overwhelmingly positive, releasing it has proven more challenging. Having started taking pre-orders on a limited run of 10” vinyl pressings, the shipping date was moved back to the week before Christmas, although the songs became available for download on the original release date.
Helen suspects that the pressing plant got an unexpected – but more attractive – order to press one of the big pre-Christmas releases. Robert, however, concedes that he might be “part of the problem” because the other album he’s on, the Louis Philippe and the Night Mail album, is also racing against a December release deadline.
The reason? The looming Brexit deadline. “After December, you literally don’t know much shipping records overseas will cost”, he explains. It still hasn’t been clarified whether exporters need VAT registrations for every country they ship orders to or which tariffs will apply. “I don’t think this can be brushed under the carpet, the reason why so many of the big bands are rush releasing things before the end of the year is that we really don’t know what’s going to happen from the first of January. And they can tell us to prepare as much as they like, but we don’t know what to prepare for.”
Helen, however, adds that the reaction to news of the delay reaffirmed her faith that the people who like their music are “mega-loyal”. She explains, “When we put the statements out there, we actually sold more. It gave us a sign of hope. Musicians are still writing music, they are still trying to get them to the people that want them and despite this chaotic thing that’s happening, we’re going to find a way to do it.”
Anyone who joins their ranks and orders a copy of Equal Parts isn’t going to regret it.
Part two of this interview will be published in the first new edition of Pennyblackmusic in 2021.
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