Rebsie Fairholm is one of Macjams best loved female artists. Her soothing voice reaches past the ages to a bygone era; yet her rebellious nature and sense of humor grounds her in the present, or at least somewhere this side of the 60s. She is at once a calming influence and a restless spirit, a siren that calls people back to the webpages of Macjams to see if something new has been posted.
Rebsie’s given name is Rebecca, but her family called her Becca. “I absolutely hated it but it never occurred to me to say anything,” she tells me. “Finally at the age of eight I said ‘please stop calling me Becca!’ and they said, ‘Well, what should we call you instead then?’ So I made up the name Rebsie.
And that’s the sort of self-creation that is at the heart of all her work.
The same sort of energy is behind Sonic Spongecake, the record label she’s started in response to the demise of The Lost Records. Like a Phoenix rising from the ashes, Rebsie rescued her music from the jaws of Internet oblivion. Like many of us, she’s remaking herself as not only a performer in the digital age, but a self-produced music entrepreneur.
When she posted her “Disillusioned” thread in June, dozens of MJers rushed to her virtual side, offering encouragement and coping advise, a testimony to how much we all value her presence. It was a very heartwarming moment in the history of the MacJams community. Being a musician isn’t easy; it is nice to have an honest discussion about how to persevere. However, she regrets sharing this momentary slide into self-pity, letting her drama queen side show.
“I was simply having a bad day and ended up venting some frustration on the forum,” Rebsie told me. “It was very heartening to have such an outpouring of sympathy and kindness, but it all got way out of proportion to the situation and I’m very embarrassed to have caused so much concern.”
You mentioned in the thread that you made a decision two years ago to devote yourself to music. Now that two years is past…
“There was nothing significant about the two years. I take everything from day to day and don’t plan too much.”
Your thread discussed your frustrations performing live. How have you dealt with that?
“I’ve temporarily abandoned any attempt to play live because it’s just a lot of stress I can do without. I’m focusing on recording (which I love) and trusting that something will come along to resolve the live issues when the time is right.”
How did/does Macjams fit into your sense of yourself as a musicians? Your self-confidence? Your musical goals?
“MacJams was fundamental to getting me on a serious musical path. For decades I played music in private when nobody was listening (I still have issues about playing in front of people, and I’m working on it). I had no idea anybody would want to listen to me. When I posted my first song on MacJams I expected it to be laughed at. It wasn’t, and my confidence built up steadily from that point. I’ve now taken my music beyond MacJams but I still post all my songs there as soon as I finish them, and intend to keep doing so. Simply because there’s nothing to beat the buzz you get from sharing a new song with people all over the world within hours (or minutes) of finishing it.”
You seem to use failure (and rebellion) as a motivation? Can you comment on that?
“Yeah! I am naturally rebellious, and I get it from my dad, who has achieved so much in his life on the basis of his wits and bloody-mindedness. I’m woefully unsuited to a conventional job because I instinctively rebel against employers, and as a kid I rebelled against school even though I was bright enough to have done well academically if I’d chosen to. I always want to be swimming against
“When I chucked in my graphic design job with a major British publisher after 8 years, I went round the office sticking tiny name labels on everything, just to piss them off. Dougal the Desk, Howard the Hole-Punch, Cherry the Chair-Leg, that kind of thing. Even in the toilets… Boris the Bog-Brush, Fergus the Flush. Then I went off and set myself up as a freelance designer, and did very well at it. Over seven years later one of their staff told me she found a stapler called Stephen and she knew it must have been mine. I was delighted.
“Misfortune is a great motivator. The demise of the record label only a few months after my album’s release seemed pretty disastrous at the time. I only had 15 copies left and had to make a quick decision. I
wanted to get the CD professionally pressed and printed this time, but I was reluctant to take my chances with another label, so I set up one of my own. I didn’t have time to agonize over choosing the name or logo, I just had to get on with it. So the Sonic Spongecake logo was slapped together in half an evening and a week later it was printed onto 500 shiny new discs. That’s how easy it is to set up a record label when you get the right kick up the arse.”
How old were you when you got into playing music?
“I don’t ever remember a time when I didn’t play music. I can recall having to ask to be lifted onto the piano stool when I was too small to get onto it by myself. Piano was my main instrument until I was 11,
when I pretty much abandoned it in favour of the guitar. I used to sing a lot when I was very young, but then I got self-conscious about it and wouldn’t do it if anyone was listening.”
What early influential experience helped to lead you to want to make music?
“My parents had a house full of instruments so I grew up with the idea of music being a normal and very obvious means of self-expression. My dad had his own jazz band in the early 1950s and is a very accomplished musician. He plays piano and trumpet and still performs with a local band. My mum has a good ear for music too and loves singing.”
What bands were you listening to?
“When I was growing up I mostly listened to British rock music like Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, David Bowie, Kate Bush and The Stranglers. I suddenly found I wanted to express myself with a guitar rather than the piano. My dad kindly bought me an electric guitar (a very decent one, which I still have) after he caught me trying to play power chords on his dulcimer.”
But you gravitated back to the acoustic sound, by the looks of your current playlist.
“How I got into traditional English folk song is another matter. I had no influences, and never heard much traditional music while I was growing up. It was a deep ancestral instinct which came from within.
It really kicked off when I developed a teenage passion for medieval music (as you do).”
How did you develop a teenage passion for medieval music?
“I found a couple of old LPs of medieval music in my parents’ record collection and fell in love with them. I don’t know why they appealed to me, other than that I’ve always been fascinated by the past and had an instinctive connection with the folk soul of my native country. I would love to play more early instruments. I’m putting a crumhorn on my Christmas present list this year, I love the wild, mad sound
Any other teenage passions still percolating?
“Other teenage passions? Hmm, there was Michael Praed (when he had long hair), but I got over that.”
What is you musical training / experience?
“I had a very bad piano teacher at one time who imposed a harsh academic discipline on me and expected me to play everything with clinical precision. She would score disapproving red lines all over my music books and regarded my natural ear and memory for music as a fault which had to be corrected. Thirty years later I’m still rebelling against her. I’ve done my best to fail at all my subsequent musical studies, as a matter of principle. I never had any training as a singer. I failed my Music O-level exam (twice). I gave up piano grades after Grade 3, and even then I managed to score absolutely zilch in the sight-reading part of the exam (my good ear for pitch got me 100% in the aural part though, so I passed). For years I kept my certificate in a frame above the toilet.
“When I was 14 or so I went through the inevitable phase of wanting to make an awful racket, because by then I was rebelling against everyone else and not just my piano teacher, so I took up bass guitar and joined a school rock band. We were terrible and everything had the same three chords. We only did one gig, which almost didn’t happen because the guitarist decided to have an existential crisis 10 minutes
before we were due to go on, and the audience of reluctant school kids absolutely hated us. Happy days!
“Another legacy of my piano teacher is that I have a rampant cynicism for any kind of stuffiness in music. The British folk scene has some very uptight ideas about authenticity. If you perform in a folk club and you dare to change a word of a traditional song you can expect to be politely tutted at. There are plenty of people who insist that recording has murdered the oral tradition and that you mustn’t use guitars because they’re tuned in fourths rather than fifths. I’m afraid I raise a big two-finger salute to all of that. Traditional song is like a big ball of plasticine – you can mould it into whatever you want without changing its basic substance. People have always adapted folk music to suit their own times and tastes. If our ancestors had had Apple Macs and Fender Strats they would undoubtedly have used them.”
What are some career highlights?
“One of the highlights so far is getting played on Stuart Maconie’s Freak Zone on BBC 6 Music, in March this year. (See this link.) It’s quite an achievement to be played on such a prestigious show,
especially since I sent in my track on a crappy home-made CD-R. Stuart said I was ‘absolutely delightful.’ Bless.”
You also released an album recently…
“I released my first solo album Mind The Gap in August 2007, which was the fulfillment of all my teenage dreams (fortunately I can play more than three chords now – about six I think). Unfortunately the album was unreleased a few months later by the demise of the record label (The Lost Records). So I’m in the process of setting up my own specialist psych-folk label, Sonic Spongecake, and the album is being re-released. A second album is also in progress.”
Tell me more about that…
“For the last year or so I’ve been a duo with Dick Langford (DWL) who I met on MacJams. Rather than launch ourselves under a joint identity though, we’ve been contributing to each other’s solo projects, and he’s now a very big part of the Rebsie sound. We come from quite different musical backgrounds – me an ethereal folk singer and him a rock god – and we sometimes find ourselves pulling in different directions, but that’s OK, it’s where the magic comes from.”
So your Dick Langford’s collaborations will be the central aspect of your next album?
“Absolutely. Although it’s ostensibly a Rebsie solo album, Dick is integral to the whole project and is even contributing his own songs to it. I think it works because we complement each other and balance each other’s extremes. Where I tend towards subtle and minimal instrumentation and making a virtue of the empty spaces in the music, Dick is usually the one who wants to layer it up with big flamboyant guitars, orchestras and gongs. Those two forces in combination yield amazing music. It’s a joy and a privilege to work with him, he has a musical imagination like no other.
“We’ve given the album a working title of Molotov Cocktail Sausage, though I’ve no idea what it will end up as. There’s no release date for it yet, but it’s more than half finished. It will be released on Sonic Spongecake.”
What do you do for a “living”?
“Music is now one of my only sources of income, although admittedly it doesn’t pay much. I worked in publishing for many years, as a graphic designer and an editor, and I still do a bit of web design. These are very useful skills for an independent musician to have!
“In 2003 I made the choice to jump off the economic treadmill. I closed my successful graphic design business and diverted my energies into music and vegetable gardening. I’ve never felt comfortable with the idea of having to spend my life slogging away to enrich someone else. Unfortunately our consumer society doesn’t allow us much choice in the matter, and everything is geared towards wage-slavery. But I’ve managed to find a balance where I do very little paid work and have a lot of freedom to do the unpaid work that I really care about. I don’t have any money to spend on cars, holidays, clothes and other materialistic trappings, but I really don’t care.”
How old are you? Where do you live?
“I’m 39, and have always lived in the south of England (as have most of my traceable ancestors). The British landscape has always been a huge influence on my creativity. I love wild and lonely places and I feel a very deep connection with the soul of the land.
“By contrast, big cities freak me out and give me panic attacks.
“I’m married to Ian (Epileptic Gibbon) who is a psychology lecturer at the University of Bath. He’s also a big supporter of independent musicians and runs his own podcast and writes reviews for Progressive Ears.
“I’ve never wanted kids… I’m about as maternal as a housebrick.”
Who found MacJams first, you or Ian?
“Me. When I first got GarageBand I struggled with a lot of the technicalities, and had to google for advice. MacJams forums came up again and again with all the right answers. So I thought I may as well join up.
Is there something the MacJams community might not know about you?
“Much of my energy goes into my unpaid job: plant breeding. I’m involved in collecting, rescuing and redistributing endangered vegetable varieties. This is a serious issue in Europe where retarded seed legislation in the 60s has caused a catastrophic loss of biodiversity. As big business takes over the food chain there’s an urgent need for public domain plant breeding, creating new varieties without biotechnology or patents. I recently bred a new pea with blood red pods, using rare heritage varieties as the gene pool. As far as I know it’s completely unique, a world first. And I won’t be patenting it, so when it’s ready it’ll be freely shared. You can read more about my efforts here.”
What are your musical aspirations/goals?
“The primary aim of music always has to be to enjoy it. I take music very seriously but I value the freedom to do my own thing in my own time, so a mainstream music career doesn’t appeal.
“The next step is the second album. Dick’s doing a lot of the writing, arranging and production as well as the guitar goddery, so it will have his distinctive personality stamped all over it. In many ways though it will be a natural continuation of the English psych-folk style of Mind The Gap.”
What is your recording process?
“Voice is most definitely my big thing. I can get by OK on guitar (especially electric, I love electrics) and bass and keyboards. I’ve also been known to bash a tune out of a celtic harp, penny whistle and mandolin.”
“I’m a Luddite when it comes to music technology. I use GarageBand 3 and have no wish to move on to anything better. I like familiarity. Gear just gets in the way of my creativity.
“I have some nice instruments – a 100-year-old piano I bought in a charity shop (they let me have fifty quid off because I played it so nicely), a Fender Strat and a 1920s banjo-mandolin. But for me music is not about gear. It’s more about what I’ve got in my imagination.”
How do you mix/master?
“I twiddle the sliders up and down in GarageBand until I find something I like the sound of. I haven’t a clue what I’m doing but I have a good ear for what works.”
Musically, what is your strongest point?
“I’m just extremely lucky to have a voice people like the sound of. There’s a deep dark emotional strength in it which a lot of people connect with.”
Weakest (and how you get around it)?
“Lack of confidence is the hardest thing. I get very discouraged very easily, and have creative blocks that can last for weeks or months at a time. It’s important for me to work with a steady collaborator who’s very patient and understanding and can help me keep things in perspective.”
How do you come up with a song?
“There’s no simple answer to how the songs come together, it’s a very organic process. Bits of music and lyric get stuck in here and there like a jigsaw puzzle. I always create songs in GarageBand, never on instruments in the ‘real’ world, so the mixing and songwriting evolve together and are pretty much inseparable.
“Creating music is a very intuitive process for me, and the less I intellectualise it the better. Everything I do starts off improvised. I don’t think about technique, I take the music into my soul and just let it all out. It’s akin to a spiritual experience and some of my best vocals have been produced in a near-trance state.”
Tips for others?
“Be true to yourself and follow your spirit.”
How has your MacJams experience been?
“MacJams is the whole reason I became a serious musician. I never thought my stuff was any good until I started posting on MacJams in 2004, and was amazed at the encouragement I got. The community has changed a bit over the years but the camaraderie and supportiveness is as strong as ever.
“It’s also the ideal place to hook up with collaborators. I’ve had the chance to work with some amazing talents. Meeting Dick Langford is something else again, the best thing that’s happened to me in quite a while. Thanks MacJams!”
What MacJams song you are most proud of?
“I don’t really have favourites because different songs have different personalities, but the one that still excites me the most is Lyke Wake Dirge. I didn’t write it, it’s an ancient English song in an archaic dialect with a beautiful Dorian mode melody. I sing it in three-part harmony but the lush instrumentation is all Dick’s work, and it demonstrates what would have happened if electric psychedelia had been around in medieval times.”
Any additional comments, anecdotes, interesting stuff?
“Maybe I should explain what psych-folk is, because it’s a very niche genre. It combines the influences of early and traditional acoustic music with late 60s psychedelic rock. It tends to be atmospheric, trippy and imaginative but rooted in something quite earthy and ancient. For me the artist that epitomises this sound is the wonderful British band Circulus, who combine lutes and crumhorns with guitars and synths, and prance about in the woods in medieval costume.”
Do prance about the woods often?
“Yes, of course! It’s even easier now I’ve got trees at the bottom of my garden.”
• Revolving Doris – “Imber” EP, The Lost Records 2006
• Rebsie Fairholm: Mind The Gap, The Lost Records 2007
– re-issued on Sonic Spongecake 2008
• The Owl Service: “Wake The Vaulted Echo” EP, Hobby Horse Records 2006
• The Owl Service: “The Bitter Night” EP (7″ vinyl ), Hobby Horse Records 2008