Released in July 2019 to immediate widespread acclaim, former Purson singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist ROSALIE CUNNINGHAM’s eponymous début album – her first with the Esoteric Antenna label, part of the Cherry Red group – was the result of an extended period of reflection. Containing some of her most compelling and daring songwriting to date, the album justifiably earned a Top 10 placing in the UK’s official independent chart.
As pre-orders of the Mercury Music Prize-nominated album were exhausted in just 48 hours, critics were united in their reactions to the solo artist’s reinvention. While major publications including Classic Rock, Mojo and Kerrang gave stellar ratings in their uniformly positive reviews, Cunningham also featured in a number of ‘Best of the Year’ polls. In Europe, popular German music magazine Eclipse voted her album the year’s ninth best release, however, back home in the UK, Prog listed it as 2019’s third best album, behind Opeth and Big Big Train.
Further accolades from Prog came when the magazine named Cunningham the “eighth greatest female musician of all time”.
Fronting a brand new five-piece outfit, Cunningham came storming out of the starting gate that summer with a live session on BBC 6 Music and an extraordinarily well-received tour of the UK, offering what reviewer Mike Ainscoe described as a “wholly immersive experience”.
All the signs pointed towards a golden 2020 for the Southend-born artist, who was in preparation for appearances at a raft of leading European festivals and a tour of North America when the COVID-19 pandemic put everything on indefinite hold. “The year had started so well with a very successful tour that was sold out at almost every venue,” said Cunningham. “The first vinyl pressing of the album flew off the shelves ridiculously quickly and we were just about to have a repress when COVID hit like a wrecking ball. I’m just one of hundreds of thousands of musicians whose careers were halted in such an unprecedented way by the cancellation or postponement of tours and festivals.
“Despite the crushing disappointment, we tried out best to remain positive, especially as many of the festival slots we were due to play were re-booked for 2021, such as Northern Kin and the Manchester Psych Festival.”
Sadly, the ever-popular Fairport’s Cropredy Convention was forced to postpone for a second year, meaning that Cunningham’s idyllic afternoon slot between the legendary Matthews Southern Comfort and Richard Thompson will have to wait until 2022. In place of last year’s festival, however, the event’s pioneering founders Fairport Convention invited Cunningham, 31, to take part as a featured singer on a ‘lockdown’ recording of their classic song ‘Meet On The Ledge’. Starring all five current members of Fairport, as well as Thompson, Dave Mattacks, Ralph McTell and Clannad original Moya Brennan, the track was released last August to raise funds for Help Musicians UK.
THE BACK STORY
Rosalie Cunningham’s intriguing career story began at the age of just 12 when she first picked up a guitar with serious intent. “Even before then,” she says, “I was picking out melodies on the piano and writing little songs, but developing a real interest in the guitar was the catalyst to forming my first band at school, Suzie’s Lip, when I reached 13.”
The eldest child of a musician/journalist father and yoga teacher mother, Rosalie grew up with her three siblings in an environment where music was constantly in the air. Fascinated by The Beatles, Slade, Syd-era Pink Floyd, Bowie, Small Faces, Genesis and Black Sabbath, her creativity first reached the wider public in 2007 when she founded her first professional band, the all-female, Gothic-psychedelic outfit Ipso Facto, releasing three singles and a mini album, supporting Magazine and The Last Shadow Puppets on tour, and becoming the new darlings of the UK and European festival circuit.
After Ipso Facto’s split, Cunningham immersed herself in the session world, guesting with numerous bands and artists, and appearing on TV programmes including ‘Later… With Jools Holland’, ‘BBC Electric Proms’ and NBC’s ‘Jay Leno Show’ in the USA, however, the burning urge to cultivate her own music was never far away.
In 2011, wearing her psychedelic influences even more proudly, her next move was to launch the internationally acclaimed band Purson. Initially signed to Rise Above, Purson released their first album, The Circle & The Blue Door (2013), which included the singles ‘Rocking Horse’ and ‘Leaning On A Bear’, as well as live favourites ‘Tragic Catastrophe’ and ‘Spiderwood Farm’. Dealing with “the struggle between light and dark”, the album was followed by an EP, In The Meantime…, and then, in April 2016, by the Spinefarm/Universal release, Desire’s Magic Theatre. Cunningham’s more adventurous, widescreen vision of “vaudeville carny psych”, this beautifully executed album bore tracks including the heavily playlisted ‘Electric Landlady’ and ‘The Sky Parade’.
Purson frequently toured the UK, Europe and North America – with the likes of KISS, Ghost and Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats – and featured regularly on BBC 6 Music. The band also had the honour of winning several major accolades. Hailed as Best New Band and being awarded Best Début Album in Terrorizer magazine’s 2013 readers poll, Purson was shortlisted at Classic Rock’s 2014 Rock Roll Of Honour event in Los Angeles. In 2015, the band won the Vanguard award at the Progressive Music Awards in London.
Out of hibernation
After writing what became Purson’s posthumous single, ‘Chocolate Money’, Cunningham recorded and issued a 50th anniversary cover of The Beatles’ ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ as a YouTube exclusive, with her father, Mark, and then entered a self-imposed “musical hibernation” before re-emerging with her eponymous album like the visionary solo artist she always was.
“I continued to write songs after Purson split up, purely for cathartic reasons,” she noted. “Being subconsciously released from the shackles of writing music for a band to perform live let me express myself more honestly. There were no boundaries. The pressure had gone. I could take plenty of time over arrangements and that benefitted the musical landscape compared with previous work. Everything was in its right place without feeling contrived.”
Songs like ‘Fuck Love’ and the epic closer ‘A Yarn From A Wheel’ presented a theatrical element, and while the focus was still firmly informed by ’60s and ’70s rock giants like Cream, Deep Purple and Jethro Tull, there was a psychedelic haze, awash with fuzzy guitars and Wurlitzer organs, that rippled through opening track ‘Ride On My Bike’ and ‘Riddles And Games’. Meanwhile, the graceful,
“My first solo album was a significant step in my maturing as a musician and songwriter” bucolic ambience of ‘Butterflies’ is a Blackbird-esque nod to the artist’s ultimate creative hero, Sir Paul McCartney.
Recorded in three different studios, the album’s organic feel was a testament to Cunningham’s ability to work with almost exclusively
analogue equipment, lending a nostalgic warmth to songs like ‘House Of The Glass Red’ and ‘Nobody Hears’, but with a clarity and maturity that marked its contemporary take on the classic.
“After a long period spent demoing in my home studio, the approach I started with was very modern, at a high-end digital studio,” Cunningham explained. “I soon realised it wasn’t for me and went right back to basics. I took it home, stripped it right down, experimenting with tape machine tricks, running mics down corridors and using broadcast mics to get the guitar sound. After that I went to Gizzard, a very comfortable east London analogue studio in which I’ve worked before. The final mix, which was all done live at the desk, was a performance in its own right.” Cunningham added: “My five-year journey with Purson taught me a lot about the music business but, mostly, a lot about being true to myself. After Desire’s Magic Theatre, I became more confident of my music and how I wanted to be perceived. My first solo album was a huge career milestone; a significant step in my maturing as a musician and songwriter. I have since become much closer, creatively, to my partner Rosco Levee, and this has definitely informed my next phase with the follow-up.”
Two piece puzzle
Like so many of her contemporaries, moving forward for Cunningham will be all about adapting to the post-pandemic landscape. She said: “I started writing material for my second solo album well before the first one came out, but we had to push back the sessions by several months until the studios opened up again. We booked Soup Studios in London’s Docklands to lay down the drum tracks when we could and, since then, Rosco and I have been back and forth, often locked away in our studio at home to progress these new tracks. Creatively, we did a lot of bouncing off each other during the writing period, and that was a very interesting and rewarding way of working for me, because that has usually been quite a lonely process.” The creative couple also embraced video during lockdown when they made their own charming promo clip for the single ‘Number 149’. Backed with ‘Fossil Song’ for its March 12th 2021 release, the 45 was the first product from these sessions to reach the public.
In closing, Cunningham brought her story up to date: “It’s been a long journey but as I speak [in late August 2021], we are very close to the finish line with this second album.
It will be titled Two Piece Puzzle and its release is planned for February 2022.” What can fans expect from this forthcoming long player? “Being so close to its creation, it’s really difficult for me to explain, other than say that I’m constantly refining my approaches to songs and the way they are voiced on record. Those who know my work may spot some familiar themes but I think the production sounds more focused, intimate and confident this time.“
Ahead of the album, Cunningham is looking forward to returning to the road with a September and October ’21 UK tour featuring Levee on guitars and bassist Alpha Michelle, along with new band members Bo Walsh on drums, and Fi & Dave Dulake from Tuppenny Bunters on keyboards. Post-release, the line-up is scheduled to tour Europe in February-March 2022, followed by a more extensive British tour and a raft of exciting festival appearances such as Cropredy and Sweden Rock.