© Francesca Nottola 2016
Live at Gullivers, Manchester, 7th April 2016
It sounds incredible, given that Roxanne de Bastion has been touring the UK since 2007, but I became aware of her existence only a few weeks ago, when she participated to an interesting panel discussion about women in the music industry and their representation in the media. She has worked and is working hard to expose sexism in the music industry and to promote a de-gendering of music discourse. We both dislike reading the words ‘female professional’ in a context in which gender is completely irrelevant, and I have started using her hashtag #FemaleIsNotAGenre to put an end to this useless, segregating label.
Roxanne gave a very interesting talk some time ago about her experience as a ‘female’ musician (here it matters). She tells us of men being surprised of the fact that she travels alone; that in guitar shops, when she tries guitars, they ask her if it’s a gift for her boyfriend (please raise your hands women buying guitars to whom this has not happened); that she was turned down from festivals because they ‘already had a girl in the line-up’; that people are obsessed with her age, and much more stupid stuff. Interestingly, at this talk another woman, a tour manager, took the microphone to say that a promoter did not want to give her the band’s money and wanted to deal with any man in the band instead. Luckily, reasonable men do exist, and the (male) singer in the band explained to the promoter that she managed the money. The promoter apparently was reported and sacked. (You can watch the talk here, it’s very interesting). If you want to know more about Roxanne de Bastion’s work, you can also read her blog, where she explains that in Los Angeles people consider being a musician a real job and that she is a BIG Beatles fan, a proper hair-pulling Paul McCartney fan. So, one of the reasons why I am here tonight is that I like her thinking and her committed, no-bullshit approach.
Roxanne de Bastion grew up in Berlin ‘when it was not cool’, she says. But she knows that Berlin has been very cool at least since the 1920s – way before Nick Cave, Peaches, David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed lived or just went there for a visit. It was a different kind of cool though, more radical: Einstürzende-Neubauten cool. Now, as Roxanne de Bastion points out, it has become fashionable and a destination for a lot of ‘expats’. Expats, not migrants, because white people don’t like to be called migrants. They call themselves ‘expats’: they move because they want to, not because they need to. Among those looking for European shelter, also Stephen Malkmus. De Bastion decided to move to London in 2007 to make music and here she is, a BBC Introducing favourite, with an album, The Real Thing, released in 2013, and an EP called Seeing You (2014, Hidden Trail Records) for us to enjoy.
She gets on stage a bit after 9pm, equipped with an acoustic and an electric guitar and accompanied by Stuart Irwin, bass player and painter, and Jez Wing, aka Cousin Jac, composer and keyboard player for Echo and the Bunnymen since 2009. The audience is embarrassingly silent, to the point that de Bastion jokingly whispers a few words not to disturb. Nevertheless, with her lively voice and bright smile, she immediately conquers the room, merrily saying: GOOD EVENING, MANCHESTER! Wake up, she seems to imply, sleepy cows. She opens her set with the beautiful acoustic ‘Butterfly’, which brings to my mind Fabrizio De Andrè’s ‘Le Storie di Ieri’ and Joni Mitchell’s Blue, the full album, not the song. I think of Joni Mitchell a few times tonight, particularly with the EP title track ‘Seeing You’ comes up. It’s one of my favourite songs and one that most highlights the crystal purity of de Bastion’s voice and her ability to effortlessly travel between octaves, whispers and stronger, deep tones. They certainly share something else, Roxanne de Bastion and Joni Mitchell: they both hate the word ‘confessional’, particularly if referred to their lyrics. Roxanne’s lyrics are ironic, observational and narrative, rather.
The artist then introduces the melancholic ‘Wasteland’, about her hometown Berlin and how, following the partial dismantling of Der Mauer, those pieces of history, with words and lives written on them and removed by children like de Bastion herself, have been replaced by the redevelopment plans that only serve a few tax-dodging investors and water down the city’s identity. De Bastion spells out every word, and has an interesting way of sometimes intentionally going out of time with the singing, either stretching or squeezing her lines to underline every syllable. Words do matter. Her voice and guitar dominate the ballroom here at Gullivers tonight, and the audience has melt by now, cheers and applauds.
Next up is the addictive ‘Rerun’, that she sings without playing any instruments, leaving the music to Irwin and Wing, the latter also providing backing vocals. De Bastion’s voice is powerful and, for ‘Seeing You’, is matched perfectly by Irwin’s bass. Roxanne goes solo for ‘The Real Thing’, the title track of her debut album, which makes her guitar-playing stand out (‘not bad for a girl!’, some men would say). The songwriter is happy and relaxed, not the typical indie icon, which I don’t think she wants to be. Keine Angst.
It’s time for a tribute. Roxanne de Bastion says she has always been inspired by Regina Spektor. In an impressive a cappella version of what I think may be Spektor’s ‘Baobabs’ (I’m not a Spektor expert), de Bastion shows she can really hold a show like not so many emerging artists, if we can still define her so. The next song is about Stratford-upon-Avon, her father’s native place, and the sadness of British children, forced to wear uniforms. This bit of the performance triggers a ‘YAY!’ from the front rows that Roxanne defines as ‘the best sound to hear after a song’.
Her intense gigging schedule and travelling by public transport has inspired a very pleasant and slightly early Radiohead-ish song about train tracks (maybe called ‘Train Tracks’? Don’t quote me on that) and, while getting her electric guitar, de Bastion shares her bafflement at the fact that so many people can support very divisive politicians who so shamelessly reiterate the same fascist rhetoric we have been trying to get rid of since the 1930s. I don’t get the title of this song, but I understand that it’s about traumas passed on through generations and dedicated to her grandfather Stephen de Bastion, a pianist from Hungary who survived a concentration camp and found refuge in Britain.
Roxanne de Bastion decides to conclude her set with her catchy pop hit ‘Red and White Blood Cells’, to which we are asked to contribute by singing. Some connoisseurs sing along. I keep getting distracted by the visualisation of The White Stripes in my head, which does not help my singing. By the end of the gig, de Bastion has undoubtedly succeeded in providing us with a very enjoyable evening and I’m sure that soon we’ll hear people talking about her everywhere. Definitely an artist who has got something to say.
A special mention goes to the very talented Oli Ng, who introduced Roxanne de Bastion’s gig with an acoustic set presenting his solo material (he also plays in a band called The Eyres), including ‘Down The Road’ and ‘Into The Dark’, from his brand new EP. Oli Ng seems very young, but for someone who is at his first solo tour, he manages the room like a seasoned songwriter. Even though he probably would not mention them as his inspiration, he makes me think of the young Tom Waits of the 1970s for his heartfelt lyrics and of Ryan Adams for his music. He has a fantastic voice and a classic style that surely will win him many fans.
Oli Ng’s performance is followed by Cousin Jac’s set (Jez Wing), whom I have mentioned above. Cousin Jac has an illustrious career as a composer and performer and has travelled the world with Echo and the Bunnymen. Tonight he presents his solo material, just him and his keyboard and, at the moment, he is baking an album ready to be launched in May, Believe Me To Remain. He shares with Oli Ng an intense, romantic atmosphere. He will certainly seduce many Ludovico Einaudi, Yann Tiersen and Giovanni Allevi fans, as soon as they discover his haunting cinematic compositions and raucous singing.