While sitting at the bed of a river, Roo Panes spoke with Atwood Magazine about the creation of his new EP ’Pacific,’ theology, and life after being named the Brit folk pinup.
The sun had long since set on the picturesque shire of Dorset in southwest England when we caught up with the deep and resonant British folkster Roo Panes. Sat beside the river’s bed, Panes took some time to share his ever-evolving philosophies of life, art, and faith with us. The backdrop of a bubbling water body was perfect for the meandering, reflective conversation we dove into!
Stream: ‘Pacific’ – Roo Panes
A CONVERSATION WITH ROO PANES
Atwood Magazine: So, how are you doing in the pandemonium of this pandemic?
Roo Panes: Dunno… strange isn’t it? I am trying to learn to take it in stride. I think about two weeks ago I started to feel like “when’s this actually going to end?” But I feel like I’ve gotten back out of it so I’m just trying to stick to my daily routine. Our weather has been amazing, so that makes it easier.
I mean if you can sit by a river… That’s not too shabby.
Roo Panes: No, it’s not too bad. It’s beautiful down here.
So, now that you’ve released three albums: Little Giant, Paperweights, Quiet Man, and most recently the Pacific EP, we can safely say that your lyrics show us a positive perspective on life and challenges. On the track “The Sun will Rise Over the Year,” you say: “if you wake up, wondering how did I get here? Well the sun will rise over the year,” and “Colour In Your Heart,” “If it’s gonna rain then we’ll jump in puddles, If you look a little deeper than a puddle can hold the stars.” I wonder, do you have a positive view on what’s happening in our world these days despite the obvious dismality of it all?
Roo Panes: I think, from my journey of life, I’ve learned not to dwell when things get really tough. I think all my songs come from tough times. They’re like pep-talks to myself. The funny thing about this collection is that I wrote most of them about six months ago before any of this kicked off. I wrote “Colour in Your Heart“ for my friend just to cheer them up.
And “The Sun Will Rise Over the Year,” was a song to myself really. I wouldn’t say that I’m a totally positive minded person. I go through hard times like the rest but, I guess for me, I’ve always found writing songs a really cathartic way to deal with those tough times. So I kind of write them to myself to process “how should I feel about this?” Usually, it’s like “let it be and tomorrow it will be different.”
A friend asked me the other day if there is one thing I could tell myself 10 years ago, when I started in the music world, what wôuld I say? I was like “it will be OK.” You come out after all the experiences you’ve been through and you look back and say, I’m still alive.
I was writing a song the other day and I had this line in my head that was like, “wisdom is hindsight ahead of time.” I guess it’s not pure positivity. It’s acknowledging the downsides while recognizing that there’s a lot of hope to hang onto.
I was speaking to another artist recently, and their perspective is similar except, the exact opposite at the same time. They said that “when you’re happy there’s not much to say…” His take on it was that, while he’s a generally happy person, he only writes when he’s down because that’s when he needs to write the most. And I totally get that. However, it’s so refreshing to hear music like yours that, while it doesn’t sound too happy or pop-ish, it has a positive take on things, in a palatable way.
Roo Panes: Oh thank you. I think it’s one of those things where, if you’re feeling sad and you’re writing a song about how sad you are, you just end up making everybody feel sad… What’s the good in that? I feel that writing music like this is one way to turn negative things into a positive. Maybe, by writing a song in that way could help someone realize that they don’t actually have to dwell on the negative.
And it acknowledges the reality that the roller coaster goes down sometimes but it always goes up after. I appreciate this take on things because we all struggle to find the bright side. Especially now. I was just thinking about this idea the other day. While we can both acknowledge that there are a lot of tragic and scary things going on in our world right now, I’ve been noticing that my neighborhood has come alive. People are talking to each other, neighbors are spending time together, kids are making friends with their next-door neighbors again. I was thinking, is it too soon to see the positive side of this terrible situation? Is there such a thing as too soon to see the positive in this negative scenario?
Roo Panes: Hm. I don’t think so. I think very often these two sides exist at the same time. I totally agree with you. I was walking around town the other day and, because people are social distancing, they are sitting at two different tables across the street from each other, having animated conversations. There’s something I really like about our world right now. We’ve all had to learn how to be really present in the moment that we’re in. Thinking things like, how can I make this situation come alive? It’s so foreign but, then you realize that there are so many ways that you can have fun. We can use this time to do things that we would never otherwise have time for. And some of that is the best stuff in life.
It’s really been such an amazing thing for me to think about. It would have had to take a pandemic like this to completely reset the world as we know it. I mean, I was stuck in a routine ... you go to work and kids go to school, blah blah blah, repeat... you barely spend time in your house or with your people. Fast forward to now, we’re home all the time. Doing things together like growing fields of sunflowers and lotus flowers in my bedroom. Infusing my home with my own special life sparkles. Cooking and eating all kinds of foods with my kids. It really has changed my house from the cubbyhole where I simply put myself to sleep and wake up in the morning, into my unique home. And it’s been really enlightening. But enough about me. In the song “Pacific,” which you’ve said is about love, you mention “the feeling of being at one.” Yet, so many times in your lyrics you celebrate the power of harnessing our own unique powers and personality - which I attribute to being a twin… I’m also a twin and have spent much of my life working to establish my own unique sense of self. Where do you find the balance between being an individual and being part of a whole?
Roo Panes: That’s a really good question. I don’t know. I’ve come to a place in my life where I feel like we are all created uniquely and it really excites me. I always look at people and I want them to be who they naturally are. Sometimes I feel like life presents all kinds of things that will throw you off from being naturally yourself. The whole idea of being cool, which I don’t have much time for. I think the best thing is to be yourself. I really want to see everyone and myself as unique individuals. I’m a big fan of people being able to find their own voice. Not in the sense of being self-centered but fighting against the herd mentality. That being said, I’m still not sure exactly where the balance is.
Well, one day, as you’re sitting by that river, contemplating life you’ll figure this all out ... and you’ll let me know. Again, thinking about it from the perspective of being a twin myself, I feel like that kind of mentality comes from being forced into a pair. Growing up, I just wanted to be myself and recognized as such. And I always challenged the idea of the pair. For example, my twin sister’s favorite colors growing up were pink and purple... my favorite colors were black and yellow. I think I needed to challenge the pair. And I needed to feel unique. Did you have that experience growing up with a twin sister?
Roo Panes: The truth is, I didn’t really have that experience with my twin sister. We have different skills and interests and that kind of thing. And we kind of got back together again over the years and grew closer than we were as kids. I never really felt like I had to be different because we were very different. She’s very very socially minded and, while I like to be social, I enjoy my personal space as well. And I don’t know if that’s a result of being a twin or if that’s just how we naturally were.
I’m thinking about what you said regarding being at one. I think love is the meeting of two people who are different. But you get this incredible feeling of being at rest because you’re with a person that you feel very close to in this world … a world that is very chaotic… and you finally find rest with someone. At the same time as finding that rest, you are faced with all these challenges. The idea of feeling at one is about the delight of feeling at rest with another person, not just with yourself. It’s the calming feeling of being recognized by someone else as special.
And finding that person finally is... I’ve never heard it being described as finding rest with someone, but it really does feel that way. It is a peaceful feeling. Even if it can cause challenges as well. Kind of like hearing a beautiful song that helps you feel in good company. For example, “Pacific” takes my breath away both musically and lyrically in a very folksy, classic Roo way. Meanwhile, “Colour in Your Heart” does as well but with a very different sound. Does it suggest a new direction or just another path for you to explore?
Roo Panes: I was getting itchy to try something new. When I sit down to write music, there are thousands of styles that I would like to write in. Different ways to try. I have a tendency to write introspective music that’s really lyrically driven. But I think that there is part of me that just wants to have fun. I think with writing, a lot of it is sharing yourself, sharing your character. And I think It’s just another side of me. And with all of the other tracks, there was quite a lot of experimentation. In a way, I felt just as confident with them as I did with the more introspective tracks because that’s still me. Sitting down and thinking about what I want to do next, I’m probably going to continue enjoying a variety of musical styles. But that doesn’t mean leaving behind my older sound. I’m quite up for pushing into some of the new sounds that I’ve tried on this EP. I want to write something really upbeat, with different kinds of rhythm.
As a Roo Panes fan, listening to “Pacific“ and also “The Sun Will Rise Over the Year” I enjoyed the gentle headbang to your folksy rock out.
Roo Panes: It’s funny. I think all of us are a bit shaken when that happens… is everyone gonna go, “Oh dear.” [Laughs].
I like it.
Roo Panes: I hadn’t really used drums at all in any of my work. I thought that’s a whole new musical area that I’d love to explore. I think when you start something new you feel a little shy about it because that’s not what you do. So I jumped in and thought, I’m just gonna do it. And, hopefully, it will be received well.
I dig it. From my perspective, it still sounds so authentically you even though it’s a different flavor. And as with much of your work, the Pacific EP deals with many philosophical topics between love, heartache, and other personal experiences. As your lyrics usually have a positive slant, are there ever any topics that you find difficult to cast in a positive light? And if you can’t find a positive perspective, would you still write/record the song?
Roo Panes: There’s always a positive way to perceive a situation, eventually. Either you learn something or you find out something. You know, we have the sun and we have the rain… Not all like the rain, but we need it to grow. So, I feel like there’s always both of those in action, the sunshine, and the rain. I wrote one song that’s pretty sad. I’d say “Once” is a pretty sad song. And I don’t mind writing sad songs I guess, I care about the listener. So I want to tell things the real way but I want them to receive it and feel happy to have received it. I don’t want to write something and have them feel “oh gosh…” And I think that’s nothing more than the fact that I care about the listener. I don’t want to make them feel sad or desperate. I think I would share a sad song but… I also try not to.
Watch: “The Sun Will Rise Over The Year” – Roo Panes
I get that. I have a core group of friends that I share music with and I know what they’re going through in their lives. I always hesitate to share a melancholy song with someone who’s going through a hard time because I don’t want to affect them in that way. In doing Roo research, I learned that you got your degree in theology. What role does a connection to a faith play in your career and your writing process?
Roo Panes: I’ve had a journey with my faith over a long period of time. I’ve never once had something totally sorted. I’ve always been learning or working out exactly what I think or believe. That’s always been a very big part of my personality because ever since I was a boy, I’ve definitely felt like there’s something more. That being said, Theology as a degree, if I’m being honest… I was just doing that to become a lawyer. It was totally disconnected from any of that searching. I was just taking those courses to become a lawyer. And it just so happens that I felt like I should write some songs instead. It wasn’t part of any faith journey.
I think for me, why I want to look at the hopeful side of things is because I think there’s always something hopeful to focus on. And that helps me. I would say theology itself wasn’t an important part of the perspective of my spiritual journey.
Yeah after I read that your degree was in theology when I was listening to your lyrics, I started wondering if you were writing your lyrics to God. I wasn’t sure. But I could hear in the dynamics of your music that it wasn’t only solely focused on one being or one thing.
Roo Panes: Theology is interesting… And confusing at the same time.
Yeah, I kind of want to stop talking about it now because my brain hurts. Let’s keep talking about music. So, classically, the lyrics of folk songs revolve around telling stories or sharing personal experiences and beliefs. So what, if any, are the ideas that you want to share with your lyrics? What is important for you to get across to your listeners?
Roo Panes: To feel valuable. I think that’s been something I feel passionate about. Like in “Listen to the One Who Loves You,” that’s really about people knowing how valuable they are. I feel like in my life and my friends’ lives … in everyone’s lives, we have so many voices inside of our heads and so many pressures going all around. And then you can quite easily find yourself in a place where you get a bit confused. And not all the voices love you. So for me, one of the things that I’ve been really keen to write about is about self-worth. That comes up quite a lot.
If that was your goal, you’ve definitely been successful?
Roo Panes: That’s a big one. It has a massive impact in our lives. There’s a line in “Pacific“: “Love’s the pacific/Full of wide, unspecific dreams/And you can get lost there/A thousand miles on a playful breeze.” It’s about how easily you can drift off to wherever. It’s important to stay anchored in love and self-worth is a really good place to start.
And if you start there, even if you drift off you can always find your way back to that place.
Roo Panes: It’s a huge thing. For myself and for other people that I love. It all comes back around.
Does the creation of music recharge your battery? And does the creation of music carry the same charge as when you release the music? Or is it two separate emotions?
Roo Panes: It’s the same emotion in the way that, it starts with wanting to share and it ends with being happy that you’re sharing it. My writing process is kind of brutal in that, if I can’t remember something, it’s gone. If something does stick then I will go ahead and record it. I don’t put songs on shelves. Every song that I write, I want to share. In terms of whether or not I get my energy from it is quite funny because I actually get really knackered after I’ve done a gig or written or recorded a song. You put so much emotion into it whether you’re meaning to or not. A lot of soul searching is really knackering, but if I don’t do it then I get really touchy. If I don’t write music and I don’t have music then I get really frustrated.
It’s like a win-win and a lose-lose all at the same time! I feel like artists share this frustration in common. I know when I’m writing, if you try to talk to me I’m gonna be crabby… All other times of day I am a really pleasant and peaceful person but if I’m writing and I’m in the mode, I’m not always so nice. It’s a weird place to be when you’re in your process.
Roo Panes: “Pacific” was a really funny one because I’m really bad in the morning… I just wanna wake up and pursue my own thoughts. I remember I was visiting home like I am now because of the lockdown and I came downstairs to have my morning coffee and I felt like I had a song coming in my head. And everyone started talking to me, so I went upstairs to have a shower because it was the only quiet place to go. And so I wrote the song in the shower!
So you wrote “Pacific“ in the shower?
Roo Panes: Yep, the whole track!
That brings me to my next question: In Uncut Magazine they referred to you as a Britt folk pinup. So what do you have to say about that?
Roo Panes: I don’t know how much pinup I am.
Oh come on, Mr. Burberry!
Roo Panes: Yeah, that happened didn’t it? Pretty surreal. In a sense I always kind of veer away from that. So I never really put myself on album covers or anything like that. Until Quiet Man, but that’s in the dark so… I think it’s because I want my music to speak for itself really. The Burberry campaign was such a one-off situation. It was really unexpected.
I have to say that it’s not just your face that’s the pinup. Your voice is also stunning.
Roo Panes: Thank you. Well, obviously, my voice has changed a lot over the years. It’s gotten much deeper. Yeah, it’s gone from kid to man.
Watch: “Listen To The One Who Loves You” – Roo Panes
So, speaking of when we were younger, that brings me to my last question. When my friends and I were young philosophers, we read a book together called The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff. It’s a philosophical exploration based on the Tao Te Zhing, the Taoist text by Lao Tzu. As your nickname is Roo… it got me thinking. The Tao of Pooh is essentially about the uncarved block, explained by Hoff as “the ability to enjoy the simple and the quiet, the natural and the plain. Along with that comes the ability to do things spontaneously and have them work, odd as that may appear to others at times.” The next work in this series is called The Te of Piglet which focuses on the Taoist concept of the virtue/power of the small. All that being said, what kinds of philosophies would be written in the Zheng of Roo?
Roo Panes: Golly… this is my crowning moment isn’t it? I was thinking recently about perspective. I was speaking to someone the other day about a blade of grass and how this idea has been the beginning of so many journeys for me. Of understanding my relationship to nature. When I think about a blade of grass, I realize that it’s more complicated than any building that’s ever been built. It’s so natural and it’s everywhere! And it’s so beautiful it makes me think of the concept of, a little giant. And for me, I actually take great comfort in feeling small.
I love thunderstorms because it’s out of my control. Because I’m just a small nothing. And I think it takes a lot of weight off of you. I think that we are all chasing significance the whole time and it’s a lesson in self-worth. Like, I’m valuable as a nothing before I even get anywhere. And so sometimes I bear the thought of a blade of grass and think, even just a blade of grass is amazing.
And that really unlocks a lot of thoughts in me about perspective and significance. And I think one of the comforting things about faith is that feeling that it doesn’t matter how small you are, it’s OK. There is something much bigger looking after you. That to me is a very stabilizing thought that allows me to be totally comfortable. You’re just you and that’s fine.
Beautiful. Thank you for sharing that perspective. I appreciate it because I get lost in that very topic sometimes. The struggle of trying to accomplish lofty goals. Now that we’re forced to be home and standstill, remembering that it’s OK to just focus on the small things and make them great, is comforting?
Roo Panes: I guess that’s the Zheng of Roo!
Now that we got that figured out, what are your plans moving forward?
Roo Panes: I am really itching to travel, which is the worst itch to have right now. If I could do anything right now, I would just take off and go traveling through France. Just go camping and experience other cultures. But that’s not the right thing to be doing right now. If I can’t do that, I’m gonna go into the studio and in order to let other aspects come out in my music, I think I’m only going to half prepare so that a lot of stuff just happens. I think it would be quite a fun way to approach my next project. Not to design everything before I go in and allow for some freedom as well. I have some new ideas for some songs but I’ll see how far I want to take those ideas before I actually get into the studio.
A lot of beauty can grow when you’re not exactly sure which direction you’re going to go in.
Roo Panes: As a writer, I think one of the interesting things is testing that you can do it, even if you don’t have control over every aspect of the process. When you first start writing, you wanna prove that you can write. It’s like a trust exercise for myself like, I am in the studio and I don’t really have a song! I think it will be quite fun.
That sounds like an adventure! I’m sure you’re gonna come up with a lot of good stuff.
Roo Panes: I’m really glad that we found some time to talk in the end.
Me too! Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions.
Roo Panes: Cheers! All the best to everyone in Atwood.
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