NORTH EAST — For as long as he can remember, Rupert Wates has been interested in varied manifestations of creativity. On Saturday, when he plays before an audience at North Elk Coffee House, several will be on full display.
As a teenager in England, Wates painted, acted and wrote short stories, along with playing music on the side. But after attending college, his father died, and opportunities for a career in music “sort of fell into [his] lap.”
Wates arranged and performed the music for his father’s funeral service, and several people who attended were impressed enough by his talent that they commissioned him to begin writing musicals. He stayed in that sector of the music industry for a couple years, then branched out into writing songs for himself and others. Now, he makes a living on his solo material, touring the United States extensively — he moved here several years ago.
The following has been edited lightly for clarity and concision.
Cecil Whig: Where do you live now? I saw on your website it said you moved between New York and Colorado?
Rupert Wates: Yeah, I’ve got a home in both of those places — one in New York City and one in Colorado, both of them very small, tiny little cubby holes. But they give me a base, one in the east and one in the west. So I move between them when I’m on the road.
CW: That makes sense. And how often are you on the road? How many shows are you playing every year?
RW: I play about 120. It used to be more than that, actually. It’s gotten less, which is a good thing.
CW: How long have you worked at that pace?
RW: Really only about five to six years. Before I came to America I was writing for other people, I wasn’t really playing live at all. Touring intensively has really only been since I came to America. And only in the last five years has it reached the level that it’s currently at.
CW: Do you enjoy it, touring that much?
RW: I enjoy parts of it. Touring is very much a grind that we have to do as musicians today. I think the only way for a musician to make money today is to go on the road. Because no matter how good your recordings are, you really can’t sell very many of them. And most people just simply download what you have anyway, so they don’t pay at all.
You can’t make a living as a musician with recordings anymore. You have to play live. Parts of it are — I don’t want to knock the life, because I do like the life — but you see it’s very tiring, very demanding. Then you play the gig, which sort of makes up for all the rest and justifies almost anything that you went through to get there. I think it’s a price that you have to pay.
CW: How’d you get to where you are now? Can you talk about when you started into music, into making it for yourself?
RW: In my teens I had a lot of interests, a lot of creative interests. I used to paint a lot, I used to act a lot, I wrote stories. And music was just one of those activities. I never really asked myself “What am I going to do with my life?” It’s just that after I left college I was given a lot of opportunities in music. Sort of fell into my lap. And I never really looked back after that, after leaving college.
I’ve never really done anything else. I had a short period writing journalism for a couple years. I was living in Paris, in fact. But music has been in my life really ever since I left college.
Looking back, it makes sense, because it does unite all the interests that I have. There’s a lot of storytelling in music, there’s a lot of acting in music, there’s a lot of craftsmanship obviously in playing guitar. Even the art that I use [for album covers] plays a role.
So all the interests that I had as a kid have come together in music, but not in the way envisioned when I was a kid. It’s only with hindsight that I can see all those roads coming together.
CW: When you were a teenager and music was just one of your interests, were you writing songs at that time? Or just playing on guitar?
RW: Well, I listened to a lot of music. Music had a very powerful impact on me, and I used to think about it a lot and get very excited about it. I picked up a guitar, in fact I picked up a bass guitar, when I was about 16, started to play that, and very quickly realized that I had a certain facility for playing guitar. And I wrote songs fairly soon after that.
But for a long, long time I was writing rubbish. Really like any songwriter, I had a long period where what I wrote was not worth hearing. But I would still pursue it, because I just had the urge to make things at that age.
CW: I saw on your website that you studied at Oxford University — what did you study there?
RW: I studied English literature, which is what you study when you’re not really sure what the hell you want to do with your life. It’s not an applied degree, it’s not like a science degree, and it generally leads to work in the humanities or in the media, especially in England. If you study English at Oxford, you’ll probably end up working for the BBC or an equivalent. And I met a lot of people there who now are producers for the BBC, et cetera.
In my case, I just studied English because I wasn’t sure what I was gonna do. And it really did me no harm — I don’t regret that period. I read widely in English literature, which informed my own writing, for sure.
CW: And you mentioned earlier that after college, some of these music opportunities started to fall in your lap. Can you elaborate on that?
RW: Well, what happened actually was that my father died unfortunately at a very young age, and I organized and performed the music at his memorial. There were several people at that memorial who were impressed by what I did, and they asked me to write some musicals for them. I had done a lot of acting at Oxford, so I knew a little bit about musical theater. So I was writing musicals for about two or three years after leaving Oxford.
I thought that might be my vocation for awhile, but then it sort of broadened into other things. I got into songwriting and doing jingles — all kinds of different stuff.
CW: Including some writing for jazz artists?
RW: Yes, that’s right, I’ve done a lot of jazz. I worked with Liz Fletcher in London, and she’s a very good jazz vocalist, quite well-known in Britain. I wrote a couple albums for her, and I worked with some of the leading jazz players in London. They really are among the very best jazz players in the world, so that gave me a very intense education in jazz, because I had to sort of speak their language and learn it very quickly. That was a good education for me, to work with those guys.
CW: And how’s it compare to hear someone else record your song, as opposed to your recording of it?
RW: It very much depends on the standard of the singer. [laughs] Sometimes it’s painful, and sometimes it’s great. I very rarely feel that someone else’s interpretation is, sort of, the correct one. I usually feel that the way I approached it was, well, the way that I imagined.
But, on the other hand, they might well give it a better performance if, as a singer, they’re more accomplished than I am. So I can enjoy it for that reason. But if they make changes to it, I very seldom like the changes. I do say to the people who cover my songs that you can do what you like with the arrangement, you can do what you like with the production, but you can’t change the melody and the words. The melody and the words have to stay as I wrote them.