Before it gets personal, let’s be fair to Roo Panes. The Englishman is more than amiable company, prefers to work on the positive side of the optimist/pessimist ledger, and, incidentally, is good looking enough to get a fashion brand sticking him in their advertising (more on that later).
He makes open-hearted music which is sometimes mistaken for folk (mostly because he uses acoustic guitar a lot) but which touches the kind of atmosphere-rich ambient pop that covers the likes of Bon Iver, and the kind of emotion-rich rock that covers the gentler end of The National as much as the more frequently mentioned Sufjan Stevens.
A fine musical companion, certainly. Except …. Mr Panes, I was a failed tuba and euphonium player who would have loved to play trumpet, it looked the sexiest instrument in the brass band. You were a child trumpeter, gave it away and now are just rubbing my nose in it by doing even better.
“I didn’t even want that dream,” Panes laughs. “I did, I did. But when I played trumpet though it was really unorthodox. I was really loud because I had a good embouchure, but I wasn’t technically good.”
Given he still plays occasionally (including on his new album, Quiet Man) you wouldn’t rule out a return to the instrument, if only because Panes – whose real name is Andrew – is a man who declares himself open to possibilities, to hope even.
On Quiet Man he sings “When I see you, I see hope”, a line connected with something he said around the release of his first album, 2014’s Little Giant, that “I wanted to bring some hope, but in a realistic way, not saying ‘everything is going to be ok’ but that though life is hard there is hope.”
“That hasn’t changed at all [for me]: I just like writing hopeful songs],” says Panes. “It’s not about not recognising the difficulties; you can’t connect with someone on a vulnerable realistic level if you are not paying attention to that to. What I really like about writing is trying to empathise with real thoughts and concepts and real battles and feed hope into that.”
It does help, if you are going to write about hope or optimism, that you actually like people. There is a strain in “upbeat/positive” music where its contrivance is so obvious that it is in fact insulting in its disdain for its target audience. Like radio and TV hosts who rail against the elite and claim to speak for the “real people”, there is this sense of folk being patronised as simple and easy to mould.
“I wrote a song called The Original on my last album [Paperweights, in 2016] about the feeling that everyone’s got a value, they’re valuable and unique in their own right. I’ve often thought about that in terms of my songwriting and when people say to me ‘how would I stand out with music?’, my answer is be yourself … don’t get caught in those frameworks that make you feel you have to be anything different. And that’s throughout my music.”
The song on the new album that makes that even clearer is the closing track, a song of forgiveness. Peace Be With You is a statement in itself, let alone closing the album with it. Does he have faith in us, his fellow humans? It’s not a widely held belief these days.
“That’s predominantly is about reconciliation and forgiveness and it’s an exploration of what it really means to be reconciled, so there’s that line ‘who wants the truth of bruises?’ because I was feeling that there are so many situations that are plastered over and not really solved until you reach that point of forgiving. Then it was a step further: can you get to the point where you say peace be with you, I don’t hold this against you anymore?.”
This may be the only good thing which survived my Catholic upbringing, the belief that you can only forgive and reconcile if you recognise the value and humanity in someone else and in yourself.
“It is yeah. It is the sense of recognising that you have been in the same place.”
Like being a not-quite-as-successful-as-you-would-like brass player. But anyway, moving on … Icelandic band of the grand gesture, Sigur Ros, come up in interviews with Panes often, a band who not only sing in another language but mostly in a made-up language.
As someone who has written about Sigur Ros a lot I am aware that the whole connection to their landscape/the sound of icebergs crashing thing can be an easy trap to fall into. Panes is someone for whom words matter a lot, so does he feel that language isn’t important there, or is the connection something that makes sense of that unknown language?
“When I was young I remember listening to that Sigur Ros album [ ] and it lit up my imagination and made me think bigger,” Dorset-raised Panes says. “I talk about them a bit because in a way, especially when I started, I used to really enjoy writing in nature. I still do but back then I could feel it shape the songs I was writing and people would say I was quite pastoral and reminded them of England, of the countryside. But that’s how I felt when I listen to Sigur Ros, it took me into that empty space.
“When I started of I use to do all of my writing in the country and all of my gigging in the city and I saw it as a bit of a mission to take what I find beautiful about stillness all the things that come to me in a peaceful corner of life and take it into busy places and loud places and share some of that.”
A final question which is somewhat tangential but in a way related to Englishness, city or country. Does he still wear Burberry? (Some years back, at the start of his career, Panes was signed to a deal with the upmarket clothes company as part of an arts/fashion sponsorship program.)
“I’m not sure I do really,” he says little laugh of embarrassment. “I think I’ve got a couple of things, a trenchcoat, which every now and then comes out. My wardrobe is a little thin on Burberry stuff right now.”
I tell him that I’m still waiting for my clothing sponsorship, to which he replies “if only that tuba career had come through”. Bastard! Rub it in again why don’t you?
Roo Panes’ Quiet Man is out now through CRC Records.