After albums inspired by loss and reconnections, RM Hubbert explains why Breaks & Bone is about moving on.
If there’s one label RM Hubbert doesn’t want applied to his delicate, sad, soothing, searing, subtle, turbulent music, it’s ‘wanky’. It’s an epithet he extends towards the majority of flamenco guitarists, all virtuoso flair and no feeling. “I learned just enough flamenco techniques to know I didn’t want to play it anymore” he says of the period in which he forged his trademark sound – a sound that’s always astonishingly proficient but never, ever wanky. “I was really interested in the structures – it’s very strict but it sounds totally freeform. And I love the primal urgency of really early flamenco. But I realised quite quickly that, melodically, it was really dull to me.”
He pauses to take part in some playful self-questioning. “I’ve got this fear of being a fucking middle-aged white guy with an acoustic guitar, singing about his feelings” he groans. “My worst nightmare is going to a party and someone going ‘Hubby plays guitar – here’s a guitar Hubby, play us a song!’ Occasionally I’ve been tricked into doing acoustic nights, but they’re so fucking uninspiring. They’re so…” He lets out a deflated sigh. “It’s the graveyard where music goes to die. It’s horrible. Some fucking guy singing about his fucking feelings… I don’t come from that world. I don’t like acoustic music.” He affects a look of horror. “I don’t know how I ended up doing this!” he cries. “It’s no right! Oh God…”
If this is ‘no right’, we don’t want to know what is. After 20-plus years in the Glasgow music scene – playing in bands, mixing albums, running indie labels and so-forth – Hubby’s resurgence as, well, an acoustic guitarist writing about his feelings has borne fruit generously, starting with First & Last’s emotionally charged instrumental introduction and continuing with last year’s guest-filled Thirteen Lost & Found. In June, the latter beat bookies favourites Django Django to the title of Scottish Album of the Year – an accolade that Hubby still seems pleasantly surprised by now (“I was very drunk by the time they announced it” he recalls. “I wasn’t expecting to win so I was just enjoying the free whiskey. It’s totally surreal”). Both nomination and win helped boost the album’s profile, but while some were busy discovering Thirteen Lost & Found for the first time, Hubby was already applying the finishing touches to its successor: third album Breaks & Bone, which arrives later this month. It’s the final part of a loose trilogy of thematically linked albums, recapped for our benefit.
“I started doing the RM Hubbert thing when my father got really ill with cancer” Hubby explains. “I’d heard at some point that flamenco guitar was really difficult, so I decided to learn it as a way of taking my mind off things. He didn’t last much longer, and then my mother died very suddenly. And then I got a diagnosis for chronic depression which it turned out I’d had since I was about 15… So, it was a really bad few years, and I obsessively started learning flamenco guitar as a means of escape. And then after a while I realised there’s actually a huge emotional release in playing music.”
Hubby used his newly acquired skills to document the period immediately after his mother died, committing himself to writing a new piece monthly. Together, these were released as First & Last. “I never really intended to play any of those songs or do anything else with it, but at some point someone talked me into it. So I started playing live again and found it was easier to talk about this stuff in the context of music. Talking about it onstage made me feel a wee bit better.”
For Thirteen Lost & Found, the concept shifted from “bad things happening and my initial attempts to deal with them” to the process of “getting back out into the world” – starting by reviving dormant friendships. “My wife and I had split up at this point [and] I was feeling quite isolated” Hubby continues, “so I had this idea to reconnect with old friends by going into the studio and writing music with them. Most of these people I hadn’t seen for five or ten years. So I got in touch with everyone and explained the rules: we’d go into the studio for six hours and neither of us was allowed to write anything in advance, and what we had at the end of those six hours was what we’d record.” Produced by Alex Kapranos (himself an old friend of Hubby’s going back to their teens) each song was recorded live with everyone in the same room – an approach designed to “capture that moment where we clicked again, that moment where a song naturally starts to make sense.”
Breaks & Bone, meanwhile, is about “letting go, and not depending on this stuff so much for my mental wellbeing”, and stems from a 7” recorded last year but never released. “Whenever you speak to grief councillors they say that, if you feel you’re unfinished with someone, you should write them a letter and say all the things you never got a chance to say, and I’d never managed to do it. But I had this idea that I would make a 7” instead, with one side for my mum and one side for my dad. But then I didn’t want to release the record – a) because it was the most depressing record I’d ever made, and b) I still wasn’t ready. So I thought I’d try to expand upon it and turn it into an album, based on the idea of letting go of certain things – not forgetting, just moving on a wee bit.” Breaks & Bone is by design, then, a way of tying up the last five years. “Basically I don’t really want to talk about that stuff for the rest of my life when I’m doing shows” he says. “I don’t mind talking about it, but it doesn’t give me the relief it used to. I’m better at dealing with depression now, and I’m better at dealing with loss and I thought it would be interesting to write a record about that.”
Break & Bone is notable for being the first RM Hubbert album to feature lyrics and vocals from Hubby himself. “Right from the start I’d meant to do singing but I just couldn’t find the words when I was writing First & Last” he states. “I’m not a good enough lyricist to cover that kind of thing when it’s so close. When I wrote the lyrics for Breaks & Bone, often they don’t mean what they sound like they mean. For example, Bolt was written as a very traditional pop song, a kind of broken relationship song, and hopefully on first listen it sounds like that. But it’s actually meant as a kind of dissection of the relationship I have with depression. It’s about how weirdly comforting it can be sometimes, when you know there’s a depressing period coming. It’s kind of like an abusive relationship, where you know it’s really bad for you, but it’s also something you’re used to. So I try to do things like that in the lyrics. I like the idea of playing with the traditional relationship tropes you get in songs, so the songs for my mother and father are actually equally applicable to – and this sounds really fucked up when I say it out loud – but they’re applicable to any kind of relationship. I like ambiguity in music; I like how your relationship can change with a piece of art over time. Some of the songs on First & Last that were really painful at the time are now just a really nice reminder of the person. I can play them and I don’t think about death anymore.”
As well as his own music, Hubby regularly guests on the projects of others. “It’s nice just being a musician sometimes” he says of working to someone else’s brief. “I generally just improvise on those things – not out of laziness or arrogance, I’ve just always found, even with my old band El Hombre Trajeado when we got to the stage of doing overdubs, that I’m much better at just improvising it. It’s a strange one – I like recording with other people, but I don’t like playing live with other people so much. I hate other people’s input, I think that’s the problem” he laughs. “I don’t play well with others anymore…” A recent soundtrack commission underlined this friction. “It was a pretty unsatisfying experience to be honest. I don’t take direction well. I wrote what I though was a subtle, nuanced suite of music, and they came back and said ‘can you make it funky? Can you make it scary? Can you make it happy?’ and I just thought it ended up being really trite. But again, you’re playing with someone else’s ball, you know?”
Right now, however, Hubby’s marching to his own beat and receiving the most success of his career – more by accident than design. “I did my first show in 1991, and released my first record in 1992, so I’ve been doing this a long time” he observes. “And I just don’t feel the need to have people love me anymore. This is the great irony of the last few years for me: the RM Hubbert stuff is the least commercially minded thing I’ve ever done. You don’t sit down and go: ‘It’s a guy in his mid-thirties playing instrumental flamenco music – it’s gonna be a hit!’ It’s the first thing I’d done musically where I had no concern whatsoever about what anyone else thought, and consequently it’s become the most popular. I remember talking to Alex about this – Franz Ferdinand was the band they formed because all their bands had failed and they just wanted to have fun. It was just a really honest thing, and I think people can tell. I think when people produce art honestly”, he concludes, “it’s much easier to connect with.”
Feature written for the September issue of The Skinny.