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Monday, 4 April 2016

GarconJon meets Roo Panes: SXSW Austin, Texas

It seems strange to travel 5000 miles to Texas in the United States to photograph an Englishman who lives in the same city as myself. Performing at the South by Southwest music festival, Mr Roo Panes is the man from Dorset with a wealth of musical talent and a voice to melt even the hardest of hearts. Being plucked from obscurity by Burberry for their 'Acoustic' series featuring new British musicians, Roo went on to become the face of the brand reaching an international audience overnight. It was this connection that first brought him to my attention but it wasn't until a good friend with impeccable taste pointed me in the direction of his music that I was hooked.

Meeting on a humid and bright spring afternoon after a series of successful shows in the city, we shot around the classically Southern neighbourhoods of North Austin. At the end of our shoot I asked him for a private gig in his living room where he treated me to a 12 string accoustic performance of Paper Weights, probably my favourite track from his new record of the same name. His music is lyrically driven and emotionally astute just like our conversation that ensued.

See the full story below and discover more of Roo's music at

Where did you grow up and where do you live now? I grew up in Dorset and now I live between there and London. The town I was a child in was Wimborne. There’s nothing special about this town that makes it particularly musical but there’s a small record store that I sometimes play in. For me, it’s more about having space to write as I tend to not write in London. At home I can go to the coast when the suns out, sit on a cliff and think.

Did you feel the pressure of moving to London in the creative world? When I started out I definitely thought that. It’s where all the record companies are and there are the biggest shows. I had friends who’d moved already before I did so had a sense of camaraderie which was great but over the past 12 months I’ve certainly felt less of a requirement to be stuck in one location.

When did you realise your calling was music? I actually never have. I’ve been writing music for a long time but it was always just for me, as a pastime. There was a really natural progression after university towards music. I gave myself a year and started to book shows myself, thinking if it never goes backwards I’ll just keep going. It’s very much step by step and so far that’s taken me down the recording route. Six years later I’m still on this path. I don’t know what the next chapter holds. If you plan it out too much you can starve yourself of the spontaneity of life. If I was too regimented I think my experience would lack creativity and surprise.

What drives your music? There are so many reference points. At the base, it’s my chance to express myself. Many of the things I write are too intense for me to say in real life. Music has always been my way of articulating the world around me. The idea of sharing has also been key, I love to show others my discoveries through music.

Your latest album came out this month, I downloaded it last week and it’s beautiful. Is there an over-riding theme to the record? With the last LP, Little Giant, there was certainly a philosophy. I wanted to challenge people in our boisterous, busy world and force people to reflect. In Paperweights, I referenced the actual writing process more as it was constructed differently than in the past. I didn’t have a regiment to writing I just literally explored any mood so there are some songs that have jazz elements or folk elements which previously I would have thought ‘I’m not in that box. The idea here is about lifting the paperweight on my ideas and feelings. It’s different significant moments, revelations from the past few years.

Why do you think someone would be a fan of Roo Panes? What makes you, you? You’d have to ask them! What I set out to do is wholly be myself. I’m honest. Maybe that’s something that resonated? Otherwise I couldn’t really tell you. For my part, I like the experience of doing music without worrying about other things we’re told to be concerned with, like whether I’m ‘cool’ or not.

On a personal level, do you have an expectation when a record comes out? I’m fortunate enough to be a full time musician so I guess the hope is that it will continue, however I can’t control that. I only focus on outcomes that I can control. The main thing for me with the record is when it connects with people. I can’t tell you how that happens but when a listener tells me that the music has moved them, that’s when I know I’m doing something right. Music is treated as a business but really it is closer to medicine for a lot of people. It’s not so much an expectation but a hope.

Who do you admire in the art world? Is there anyone that inspires you? I’ve recently been reading about Vincent Van Gogh’s life and he had some incredible philosophies. There is a lovely line that reads “There is nothing more artistic than to love others” and I thought that was quite profound. For a man who was so talented, this shows a real lack of ego which is surprising. Thomas Hardy has always been important to me. He lived a few roads from me in Dorset back in the day and it made a huge impression when I was younger. He showed me that there’s so much to write about that’s just in front of you. Everything is infinitely interesting.

I love learning about how songwriters craft their music. I listen to a songwriting Podcast called Sodajerker which gives fantastic insight. Is there a pattern or formula for you? Do you start with lyrics or music? It’s quite difficult to tell. Usually it does start with one or the other, but in the past few months I’ve been forming the music and words simultaneously. I like the idea that any thought and moment has it’s own words and melody; looking at the world like this helps me to view the two as inseparable. If I read a line of poetry I like to think about what music would help create the mood conveyed.

Is there a song you think merges these two worlds really well? ‘Sweet Thing’ by Van Morrison. It’s basically just a cycle that builds up all the way through with a beautiful melee of flutes and bass. The song it quite repetitive lyrically but the music explains the simplicity of the feeling that comes from this wording.

Do you have an album that was significant to you becoming a musician? Surprisingly, although I grew up with music around me, I actually don’t listen to recorded music that much. There was an album by Sigor Ros ‘Brackets’ that I used to listen to that after school and I remember it striking a chord. The melody is so descriptive, and I loved the vision of Iceland that fit naturally with my joy of music. One of the dangers of being too inspired by others is that you replicate them, and I want to take my own path.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years? I just wrote a song called ‘Where I Want to Go’ and there’s a lyric in there that describes my hopes best. “Further than the eye can see, but nearer than the air I breathe, I don’t need to see the end to follow you all the way my friend”. I just want to be in a position where I’m happy with the decisions I’ve made, and I’m coming from the right place. If I set myself targets it’s likely that I’ll be disappointed. My target now may be very far from my natural desire in a decade.

How did the Burberry connection come about? Has that made a big impact on you? I was still in Dorset and I’d taken on a teaching job, booking my own gigs in my time off. I’d recorded an EP called ‘Once’ in my living room with a mate and that seemed to be quite an encouraging release. It got a lot of people listening. I noticed Burberry were doing acoustic sessions and noticed that an artist I liked Jonny Flint had been featured already so I wrote an email to the company. When they responded positively I could hardly believe it. It’s had a huge impact as it gave me a platform at a time when I was just starting. It was a unique was to begin my career. Since then I like to think I’ve carried on at my pace in the right way and it’s probably the most important single event to happen to my career.

Describe yourself in 5 words. Just a normal human being.

What advice would you give your 18 year old self? Be brave. Be kind. I’m sure I just stole that from Disney.

Leave us with some words of wisdom. I have a song called ‘Sing for the Wind’ which was inspired by some words from my Father. When I was just working out how I felt about everything, he told me “Where you finish isn’t where you start. Life is the journey of a lifetime.” That always sticks with me.

Download Roo Pane's new album Paperweights from iTunes here or on vinyl and CD here.