“I get this feeling in my core when I need to express something in a song. They come out in an outpouring of my heart. It’s not in my head, it’s in my gut.”
This is the simple, singular motivation that has helped Lou Rhodes nurture a brilliant career, first as a member of trip-hop architects Lamb and now as a lauded solo artist. Well versed in the language of the heart, she is a conduit between the absolute truths of the soul and the fallible complexities of the world around her. With Beloved One, she took a step back from the electronic intricacies of Lamb and embraced a folk music aesthetic that provided an intimate, unvarnished forum for her voice. It was an album she desperately needed to make, and in the summer of 2006, it was nominated for the UK’s prestigious Mercury Music Prize.
Her story continues to unfold on the appropriately titled Bloom, an album that illuminates her creative growth and further examines the fine line between darkness and wonder. She adds to her palate of finely tuned acoustic guitars and rich percussion with flowing double-bass work, exquisite string arrangements and other hand-played instruments that expand the depth of her songwriting. Still, the lynchpin remains Rhodes’ resplendent voice, and her incomparable ability to turn her soul inside out and bare it to the world, regardless of what maybe revealed.
“Sometimes I think, ‘My God, I keep writing all these love songs,” and I really struggle with that,” she confesses. “I think I’m a bit of an emotional junkie, you know? It seems to be what consumes me. The heart never ceases to provide me with subject matter. I don’t know why that is. Someone asked me the other day, ‘Are you in love with being in love?’ And I couldn’t really answer that question.”
Since the release of Beloved One, Lou has relocated from the bohemian setting of Ridge Farm to a countryside abode in Wiltshire, a move that’s allowed her to establish more permanent roots for her and her two children while still enjoying the comforts of a close-knit community. Originally from Manchester, Rhodes has been drawn to the magic and tranquility of the southwest for some time now. But the new surroundings have not only provided her with fresh inspiration; they’ve made the collaboration and recording processes much more focused affairs.
“With Beloved One, all of my friends were passing through and getting involved,” she explains. “This time around, it’s been very much my live band – [producer] Emre [Ramazanoglu], who also plays drums and percussion, and Stephen Junior, who plays guitar.”
With a compact, well traveled group of players at her side and the confidence obtained from Beloved One’s critical acclaim, Lou has distilled a more resolute collection of songs on Bloom. Her guitar melodies—the essence of every arrangement—remain demure and luminous, but are now enveloped by rich instrumentation that amplifies the emotional crux of each composition. The addition of a simple xylophone pattern on the haunting, effortless “Never Loved” transforms a gracious billet-doux into a lover’s fairytale, while the commanding, big room drums in “The Rain” expose shared influences within the group.
“At some point in the studio me, Emre and Stephen found ourselves tapping into a common root…we’d all listened to Zeppelin like there was no tomorrow when we were growing up… There was a certain way that [John] Bonham used to mic up his kit, and we used the same set-up for ‘The Rain.’”
Elsewhere, “They Say” begins as a vulnerable proclamation of love in the face of admonishment, with Rhodes sweetly singing, “If love is a prison, they can throw away the key.” But slowly the song descends into disquietude amid a crescendo of crashing cymbals, wailing vocals, and fiercely strummed guitars. The lyric doesn’t change, but the romantic analogy is gone. Only the prison remains.
“These songs are so close to the bone,” Lou admits. “People think that I’m kind of remote and that I’ve got life sussed, but I’m a million miles away from that. People have used terms like ethereal and spiritual to describe me, but in a way I think Bloom is about the real woman. There’s a lot of torment going on that I’m not able to express.”
The cover art for Bloom, a painting by San Francisco artist Tim Gates depicting a long-haired woman holding a single white flower, speaks as loud as any lyric. While the woman’s steadfast blue eyes and luminous complexion draw you in, the muddy brown and rust-colored backdrop creates a dark, restless ambiance that blends into her body and hair—almost as if she’s silently fighting to remain in the foreground. When I ask if this is a representation of Lou she’s ambiguous:
“it’s me but not me…he paints in a similar way to how I write songs…conveying darkness and light from somewhere deep inside…with a whole load of poetic license”
That same juxtaposition between light and dark permeates the entire album, but is especially evident on the album’s bittersweet title track.
“There’s a time when independence feels a lot like loneliness,” she sings over a finger-plucked, minor chord melody. “I can dance without you, but I’d rather dance with you.”
“If you portray to the world that you’re completely self-contained—which believe me I’ve spent most of my life doing—it leaves you in a very isolated place. But I think I’m done with that now.
“We’re all searching for something, and I haven’t found it yet…”