“I don’t like labels because labelling fights your urge to just make music the way you want to,” asserts fast-rising London singer-songwriter and guitarist Rosie Frater-Taylor, whose music, whatever her wishes, has most often been labelled jazz-folk.
“I wouldn’t say my music is jazz or folk but it draws from jazz and it draws from folk – and from pop and from soul.
“But you’ve got to market the music somehow, and I suppose [jazz-folk]’s a reasonable way to describe what I do because it acknowledges the George Benson side of things that I do as well as the Joni Mitchell side.” (A livestream from Ronnie Scott’s from March this year gives a good idea of RFT’s stylistic range.)
Frater-Taylor has recently released her second album, Bloom. “I’ve put so much work into making it and mixing it and releasing it which makes it all the more satisfying that it’s now out there,” she says. “I’ve been very pleased how people have received it and it’s been really good to – oh, God, I sound like such an industry person! – establish a brand for what I do.”
Frater-Taylor produced 10 of the album’s 12 tracks herself. “I find that the most relaxing and authentic way to work and I’ve developed a process now where I can get my ideas down quickly and I think that contributes to the unique sound of the album as well as [its] aural consistency. And also, I’m a bit of a control freak!”
All but two of the songs on the album are original Frater-Taylor compositions. On many of them it feels like she’s drawing from her own experiences. “Often when I’m writing I’m not intentionally writing about one instance or one feeling. I’m just writing,” she explains. “But months down the line I’ll look back on what I’ve written and find some wisdom in it which I hadn’t realised was there or I’ll find I was writing about something that I didn’t realise I was writing about.”
One imagines that Think About You, for one, on which Frater-Taylor sings “I think about you day and night” might have been based on personal experience. “That started out as a bog-standard love song,” she says. “Then months down the line I read some of the lyrics and it’s actually pointing out issues in what I was experiencing at the time, like the obsessive nature a relationship can take on.”
Not Broken, on the other hand, is a character sketch with Frater-Taylor singing of her subject “She is not broken, she is free.” “That’s an interesting one,” she says. “I watched this documentary about this lady with cerebral palsy and I found it really inspiring. (‘She lives in a world that just don’t seem to let her be …’) But then I found myself applying that to my own life, as a woman. So my writing can be about many things at the same time.”
One of the album’s two covers is of the Stevie Nicks-composed and sung Fleetwood Mac hit Dreams. “It’s a super-hypnotic song and so simple. It has two chords and I love the way they build the track in spite of the simple or, arguably, simplistic harmony. And I love her lyrics and her voice and her interpretation. It’s such a beautiful melody and I was interested in reharmonising it and seeing how I could make it my own.”
‘Having a limited set up makes you more creative and it gives you more freedom to focus on musical things and to make the gear you have work around the music you’re writing’
Frater-Taylor recorded her guitar and vocals for the album at home. “Having a limited set up makes you more creative,” she argues. “And it gives you more freedom to focus on musical things and to make the gear you have work around the music you’re writing.”
She enthuses about the contribution to the album of musicians like bass players Seth Tackaberry and Hugo Piper, who necessarily added their parts remotely. “They just sent me back their takes and I was like ‘This is perfect!’ Because they both play live with me on different occasions they have a sense of what I like.”
Frater-Taylor sings with affecting intimacy. “When I’m playing live I make it difficult for myself because I’m playing difficult parts on the guitar and singing difficult parts at the same time. That takes a lot of practice.
“Recording, I’ll practise singing what I want to sing and I’ll go through a whole process of different ways of phrasing it and different ways of using vowels or whatever. But sometimes, like with Dreams, that was just me getting down a vocal. I wasn’t thinking too hard about it and it was just one take. And then you go back to re-record it and you can’t quite capture the rawness you had when you weren’t even thinking about it!”
There are complex layers of backing vocals, all sung by Frater-Taylor, on Bloom. “I don’t have a super-clear vision of what it’s going to sound like [when finished] but as soon as I get one vocal down and start improvising over it, trying to find something, it’s quite a quick process.”
Some of Frater-Taylor’s guitar parts on the album are marvellously subtle. “I tend to start with a main guitar part. That would be the one I play when I perform the song live. Normally I’ll do quite a lot of takes trying for what works best. Then I’ll consider intensely the layers I put on top of those parts. Yeah, it’s more considered than improvised.”
At times Frater-Taylor scat-sings and plays guitar in harmony. “Those are improvised. I do a few takes and take the best one.”
George Benson’s influence is evident on such occasions. “Absolutely,” she agrees. “He’s one of my favourite jazz guitarists in terms of his clean style and there’s a lot of blues in his playing and a lot of melody and character.”
Led Zeppelin legend Jimmy Page has spoken admiringly of Frater-Taylor, noting that she has “such a connection with the guitar”.
“He did say that!” she smiles. “I was playing a musical interlude as part of a poetry night at the Troubadour when I was 15 or 16 and he was in the audience with his young poet wife. And he came up to me at the end and was kind enough to be complimentary. I was only vaguely aware of who he was. My dad was like ‘Ahhhh,’ whereas I was just like ‘Oh, this is a nice guy.’”
At the time of writing, Frater-Taylor is still a student, at the Royal Academy of Music. “I have my final recital tomorrow and if that goes to plan I’ll be graduating in a month. I started when I was 18 and it’s been a four-year course and it’s been really good because so much of what I do is guitar led. I love guitar music and the academy gave me that ability to play what you want, no matter how simple or how complicated, along with a wider palette of colours and genres to draw from.”
Frater-Taylor’s mother, singer Josie Frater and father Steve Taylor, a drummer, are professional musicians. The two play as a duo, Frater and Taylor, and in various other contexts and Taylor now drums in his daughter’s band. “There’s a strong foundation of jazz and folk and world music in my music which is all stuff that was playing around the house when I was growing up – like Tania Maria, George Duke, Al Jarreau and Lewis Taylor,” acknowledges Frater-Taylor.
“And they’re very supportive – my dad drives me and my gear everywhere! I can’t imagine what it would be like if they weren’t there.”
But did Frater-Taylor never rebel against her parents’ musical tastes, like most teenagers? “I’ve had my moments,” she laughs. “I had a JLS [boyband] moment and a McFly moment and I had a little rock band when I was younger. But my parents never tried to mould me.”
Frater-Taylor’s debut album On My Mind was released in 2018. “I was listening to Joni Mitchell and a lot of world music and that comes across on that record. But over the last few years I’ve been listening to a lot of soul and pop music along with jazz and folk and I think that comes across in some of the writing on Bloom. And I feel the playing and singing and the production and my ideas have matured. A bit!”