THIS IS PREFACED BY A CONFESSION of sorts that Hal David and Burt Bacharach are in my top five songwriters of all time and can (almost) do no wrong. And that includes their 1963 song Wives And Lovers, ostensibly written for the romantic comedy of that name, but not actually heard in the film.
Nearly 60 years on, it’s fair to say that the song comes with some baggage, its ring-a-ding-schwing in the original hit by ultra-smooth cabaret star, Jack Jones, countered by lyrics that are … well, very much of their time. With the advice that since “wives should always be lovers too”, they should attend to their husbands, making sure they are, for example, gussied up when he leaves for work and comes home from work, because after all “day after day, there are girls at the office/And men will always be men”, it tends to raise an eyebrow in listeners. And after the eyebrows, the hackles.
But wait, there’s more to it. Maybe. Admittedly, not everyone I’ve played it to over the years has been convinced by my argument that the song, written when that kind of thinking was already on shaky ground, has David mocking and undercutting the attitude of its protagonist as part of the fun. But I stick by that.
Luckily, I have a colleague at the barricades with this one in the British vocalist/songwriter, Sarah Joyce, or Rumer as she’s been known since her million-selling debut in 2010, Seasons Of My Soul. A singer with a voice that pitches somewhere between Karen Carpenter and Dusty Springfield, an interpreter of other people’s songs by inclination, she has become not just a creator of beautiful and defiantly smooth pop, but a modern master of Bacharach/David interpretation.
Having recorded an album of a dozen Bacharach/David songs, thrown an extra track on her 2015 collection, B-Sides & Rarities, sung with Bacharach, and married his long-time musical director – now her co-writer and co-producer, Rob Shirakbari – Joyce knows that catalogue intimately. On her latest album, a second volume of B-Sides & Rarities, alongside songs by Van Morrison, the brothers Gibb, Carly Simon, and Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein, there are three more Bacharach/David numbers, including, yes, Wives And Lovers.
“I enjoyed, I love that song,” she says. “I don’t have an issue with it.” Indeed, in its playful and effortlessly smooth arrangement, done with organist Rory Moore, her partner in the dayglo pop side project, Stereo Venus, some of that humour I mentioned maybe becomes clearer.
“If you listen to Stereo Venus it’s basically early ‘60s lounge/quirky elevator music,” Joyce says. “We did it around the time I did Seasons and we did it as a library album [for licensing in film, television and other media as incidental, background or anonymised music] and it was sold to an Italian library company. It’s basically expensive elevator music, but it’s really fun.
“Rory played organ on Wives And Lovers and as far as I’m concerned, his organ solo is hilarious. I like doing songs like that, like [Neil Young’s] A Man Needs A Maid: it’s interesting for women to explore that kind of material.”
Joyce has an album of songs generally associated with male writers or vocalists under her belt, Boys Don’t Cry, a warm and delicate collection which nonetheless challenged listeners to both respond differently and question why they might respond differently hearing these familiar songs sung by woman.
“I really enjoy inhabiting other people’s songs. I just find it personally really interesting, because we are all connected and all our stories are connected, and I realised that’s what I love about songs, that’s what I love about music: the stories,” Joyce explains. “It’s kind of boring if I just sing my own all the time. It’s an art form in itself that I’m really interested in.”
Remember, Dionne Warwick and Dusty Springfield sang other people’s songs, and they made great art. “Dusty for me is the greatest,” Joyce sighs. “No one can beat Dusty, I don’t think.”
If b-sides suggests leftovers or throwaways, the consistent quality across both volumes of these rarities sets proves otherwise, as do their origins. The Carly Simon song, You’re The One, was recorded for a tribute record, My Lover Lies Under, by Simon Aldred, was recorded when her label encouraged her to pitch for inclusion on the soundtrack to a Richard Curtis movie.
It wasn’t picked, so was that a misjudgement to go with her own that her languid, quite gorgeous all version of Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s Mona Lisa’s And Mad Hatters wasn’t worth releasing originally? Not quite.
“I was out of steam, I was tired,” says Joyce in her defence. “The band sounded great, everyone sounded great, the arrangement was great, but I had run out of steam, so I’ve put a new vocal on that.”
But what about her own writing? Ten of the 11 songs on her debut were self-penned, including Aretha, her paean to the soul-nourishing nature of another great voice which had proved something of a lifesaver during the complex and sometimes emotionally fraught childhood she explored in other tracks. There are two originals on this album, including the appropriately named current single, Old-Fashioned Girl, but it has been slim pickings in recent years when it appeared that the drive or the muse had disappeared.
The explanation for it is pretty simple and complicated: she had a child.
“I think you do lose your confidence when you have a baby, because you are so consumed by the change that brings. Also, my process for writing songs was very haphazard: I didn’t have a magic formula; it was often led by living a curious life, doing interesting things, meeting interesting people … being curious,” says Joyce. “When you have a child you just can’t be curious in the same way because it’s dangerous sometimes to walk down those alleyways, psychologically and physically. I have mental health vulnerabilities and having a child I had to use all my energy to concentrate on the task at hand.
“To be honest with you, if I had to go deep diving into my psyche, diving for pearls the way that I had done before with self-examination, doing all the inner work – which often is messy and brings up all sorts of emotions – it was too risky in terms of the balance, the equilibrium I needed to create a secure and safe environment to raise my child in.”
Creating a safe environment for herself is one reason why while she grew up in Pakistan and the UK, it was to the USA that Joyce ran when the first wave of fame hit. Not New York or Los Angeles, but rural Arkansas, which she describes as “like being in a witness protection program - the sort of place they send people like the Mob to disappear”.
“I really enjoyed the peace of Arkansas, at first. I needed to balance out all the energy of that little bit of fame, that attention that isn’t natural to me and was overwhelming,” she says. “I wanted to go back to nature and plug into the environment, and recharge my energy.”
There was a period in Macon, Georgia, working on a memoir of Alan Walden, a music business giant who was Otis Redding’s first manager among other forays, and even a stint in a local hairdressing salon – while she was still recording, in this case an album of the songs of the songwriters’ songwriter, Hugh Prestwood, called Nashville Tears – but the birth of her son and realising that “I never felt that I could adapt to being American; I always felt like a European observer/visitor passing through”, pulled her back home, to England.
“Now he is about to turn five, I’ve been getting slowly back into [writing]. Slowly,” Joyce explains. “I knew people we going to judge me, people were, going to say ‘oh Rumer hasn’t written a song blah blah’ but I thought, it is what it is, I’m not negotiating with my family’s safety and security. So I did my best, honing my other skills in curation, arrangement and production. I’m doing what I can do, at my own pace.
“But I’m ready to do it, I’m ready to write the next record.”
B-Sides & Rarities Volume 2 is out today.
Read more about Rumer’s history in this interview from 2011.