Interview with Rosalie Cunningham
Purson is a relatively new band with an early ‘70s retro outlook but yet they are all still in their early 20s. In a Southend-on-Sea pub we caught up with Rosalie Cunningham, the band’s leader and, to date, the creative force behind Purson and their music.
We talked about how difficult it was to get the band up and running, the revolving door of band members, what makes a twenty-something want to play and listen to ‘70s-style music, the album The Circle And The Blue Door, Rosie’s background and influences, and much more.
Read on to find out more about a very charismatic, determined young lady who is a talented musician and songwriter, as well as being very knowledgeable about music in general.
Phil Chelmsford: Are you getting used to this interview lark now?
Rosalie Cunningham: No, not really [laughs]. I find it so hard talking to people I don’t know who are asking me questions about me and what I do. Especially when they seemingly have carried out very little research. It’s just like answering a questionnaire at times, with most answers available on press releases or on our Facebook page. They do a simple Google search and they almost conduct an interview without talking to me.
PC: Wow, the pressure’s on! Hopefully I won’t take you down that road. Now having said all that, my first question is a cliché question. The band name, Purson, is the name of the King of Hell… correct?
RC: One of the Kings of Hell.
PC: Was the name your idea? Was there a thought process behind it?
RC: Well it was a combination of Sam Shove [keyboards] and mine. I always wanted to name the band after a god because I really liked Amon Düül, for example, who were named after the Egyptian Sun God. We then couldn’t find any god-type names that we liked, so the next logical step was to go for a devil or demon.
PC: I must admit I didn’t even know Purson was a King of Hell before I’d heard of you guys.
RC: Well I like the double meaning. The band line-up has changed so many times but I can take the name Purson with me wherever I go as being the Person (Purson)
PC: How much of a hindrance or frustration has the rotating door of band members been?
RC: It’s been a huge hindrance. I think we would have been a lot further along the line now if this stable line-up had been in place earlier on. Every time I thought I had found someone so right there was always something that ended up being so wrong. The problem is, it’s so hard to find people of my own age [23 at time of the interview] that are into what we do and get what we do. I have tried being in bands with people older than me and it’s not the vibe that I want. I want everyone in the band to be young, dedicated and excited by what we do, and make Purson their life. Unfortunately that’s harder to find in a 30 year old, for example. Well, in my experience. I really want everyone in the band to be in their early 20s but finding them is quite hard. Our last bass player left the band on the day of the album release which wasn’t the best timing to say the least. Of course, we were freaking out about what to do. So the next day we posted on Facebook that we need a bass player and Justin Smith got back to us almost straight away. The audition happened a few days later and we thought, ‘Wow, where have you been?’ He turned out to be a great find.
Justin turned up at the audition in a car, which blew our minds as three of us don’t have one. We were like, ‘’kin hell you have a car!’ [laughing] and he was wearing a kaftan and flares, had massive hair and played a Rickenbacker bass. I thought, ‘He’s the one!’ and he hadn’t even played a note yet.
PC: And what about [drummer] Jack Hobbs? You’ve known Jack for some time.
RC: Yeah, Jack and I have known each other? for many years because our dads [Mark Cunningham & Dean Hobbs] previously played in several [folk-rock] bands together, but I think our relationship is a lot smoother than theirs was. We learned from their mistakes! At first we just wanted a drummer and Jack came along, playing everything spot on. But then when we had a break, I heard Jack playing guitar and then keyboards, and I thought this guy is a genius and very multi-talented musician. Why wouldn’t we have him in the band? I mean, drums isn’t even really his main instrument.
PC: The album, The Circle And The Blue Door… overall, how happy are you with it?
RC: Oh, really happy. There was such a sense of satisfaction of all the ideas I have had for ages coming together into my first album. I have so many of these ideas for five years or so, and to finally get them recorded and out there is so cool. This album is exactly how I wanted it to be.
PC: What about how the album has been received by the press and fans?
RC: I have been pleasantly surprised by how well it has been received. It would be nice to be able to have the exposure to a wider audience but having said that the audience it has gone to has embraced it and given us great feedback and accolades.
PC: So what’s the average age group of the fan base?
RC: It’s definitely a higher age bracket rather than lower. It’s generally middle aged men that grew up listening to the same music I like. Having said that there’s an increasing number of younger fans coming on board now, too. Fans of all ages are welcome! [Laughs]
PC: It’s a shame a younger audience doesn’t seem to get the same exposure to your music.
RC: Well, I don’t think we are going to be a NME buzz band or anything like that.
PC: I don’t see why not. Everything in life — and music is no exception — goes around in circles. Fashions, music tastes, etc, are always getting recycled, with a slight twist, but recycled nonetheless. Why couldn’t Purson be the start of one of these renewed cycles?
RC: Unfortunately, the Internet is a mixed blessing. Things move so fast now that most young people have lost touch with the concept of ‘The Album’. It’s all about downloading a track here and there from different artists. Attention spans are too short to even get into the album. I get really annoyed with people who download one song from an album, say they don’t like it and then base their opinion of the album on that one song.
PC: Oh, don’t get me started on that. MP3s for example are convenient, but that’s it. Poor sound quality compared to a CD. I think of all the time artists take recording, mixing, mastering their music only for it to come out as a compressed file where so much of what they tried to achieve gets lost in the compression.
RC: I bet most people don’t even notice the difference.
PC: Maybe they would, given the opportunity to hear the difference….. anyway we digress… Back to the album… how long have you been writing this material?
RC: ‘Tragic Catastrophe’, ‘The Contract’ and ‘Well Spoiled Machine’ were written before this band really got together or off the ground.
PC: When you say already written, do you mean music and lyrics or just the ideas in place?
RC: ‘Tragic Catastrophe’ [under a different title] and ‘The Contract’ were already written and pretty much were as they appear on the album. ‘Well Spoiled Machine’ has been changed since its original concept. It’s remarkable how everything happened so quickly when I met Ed [Turner, former collaborator and lover] things happened really quickly. I already had the demos recorded and when I heard his ideas they were exactly the same as mine. It was very surreal. We then threw away everything in our lives and moved in together very quickly. We wrote a whole bunch of songs during the first couple of weeks we were together, and spent the rest of the time arguing.
PC: How many songs would you say Ed contributed to?
RC: It was almost a 50/50 split… I probably wrote a little more than he did. Most of the songs were mine that he helped to produce but some of the songs were his that I wrote lyrics for. Ed didn’t write lyrics or sing. His biggest skill is producing.
PC: I am very impressed with your lyrics… there’s not a cliché in sight. [Laughs]
RC: All my lyrics are stories. I don’t take any influence lyrically; I just write what I feel and what I think. I don’t borrow lines from other songs as some people do.
PC: OK, tell us the stories behind a couple of the songs…
RC: [Ponders…] ‘Tempest And The Tide’ is about the break-up of Ed and myself. All I could think of was, ‘What do I do about this situation? I have the perfect music companion with whom I am completely in love, but who is absolutely killing me as a person and I can’t stand to be with another second.’ It was a ‘caught between the devil and deep blue sea’ scenario. Do I keep this relationship going for the sake of the band or do I cut the love thing and move it on without him? Of course, I chose the latter.
PC: Considering the nature of the relationship, you have still been gracious enough to credit him on the album.
RC: Of course and I always would. I would be so pissed off if someone didn’t credit me for something I did. Regardless of what happened between us, the relationship side and the music side were two different things in my eyes. This band probably wouldn’t have done what it’s done today without his original input. So ‘Tempest And The Tide’ was all about that really. I haven’t really spoken about ‘Well Spoiled Machine’ in an interview before. This song is about Ed as well. I wrote the song before I met Ed but then changed the lyrics once we got together to describe how perfect our partnership was, but when he left the band it become a ‘Well Spoiled Machine’.
PC: The first time I listened to the album, I wasn’t sure about it. The second time, I thought it was OK, but by the third or fourth listen I was hooked. I think that’s a sign of a good album.
RC: Yeah, It’s the same for me. It sometimes takes a few listens to understand and appreciate what’s going on with the music and lyrics. My favourite albums tend to be those that have so many different levels that you have to listen to them countless times to get what’s going on.
PC: When I knew that The Circle And The Blue Door had got under my skin was when I find myself sitting at work singing the songs in my head.
RC: Oh wow! That’s great! Well that’s what I want to happen. We might be a prog band and a bit weird but I want the songs to be memorable.
PC: Your music is such a mix of so many styles and genres. It’s hard to put a definitive stamp on what you do.
RC: I know the sound is very retro rock but it is progressive in the sense that we are doing something that not many other bands are doing, especially young bands. Actually, everyone in the band shares the same opinion of not being ‘genre nazis’. We like what we like, regardless of what it’s termed as or called. Good music is good music.
PC: Which bands or music float your boat?
RC: I do listen to a lot of psych, glam, pop, prog, folk and classic rock. I’m a huge Slade fan and I love T-Rex, but my biggest love is The Beatles. At school, while girls in my year were listening to boy bands, I was completely immersed in The Beatles [Laughs].
PC: That’s never a bad thing! The Beatles have inspired way more than a generation. I understand you’re also a big fan of Tony Iommi.
RC: Yeah I love Tony Iommi; he is one of my favourite guitarists. I even have a Gibson SG like he uses.
PC: I played the album to a good friend of mine and the first thing he said was, ‘Her voice sounds so much like Sonja Kristina [of Curved Air].’
RC: My dad introduced to me to Curved Air. He was always playing them when I was growing up but I didn’t really know what the music was. In fact I didn’t really know what prog was; I just liked what I heard. I used to think of it as adventure music. It wasn’t until I was 16 or 17 that I fully realised what prog was and it encompassed so much of what I loved to hear.
RC: No, not in the least. Nearly everyone I have ever been compared to musically or lyrically, or the way I sound are pretty much all my favourite bands, so I love that. I would never get offended by those comparisons. I think it’s great. The only comparison I don’t agree with is Siouxsie Sioux. I don’t get that at all.
PC: I don’t hear that comparison myself.
RC: I think some people are lazy when it comes to female vocalists in rock as there’s not a great pool from which to draw comparisons.
PC: I’m not generally a lover of rock bands with female vocalists. There seems to be something missing but I believe you are an exception to that conjecture.
RC: Thank you. I totally agree with you though… it doesn’t always work that well. It’s too lacklustre but when it does work it works really well.
PC: I think the reason it works for you is that you write the songs and the music, direct and lead the band, and therefore you are the heart and soul of the band.
RC: There are lots of trophy female singers but having written the material for Purson, I put a lot of heart, soul and feeling into my performances. Playing live is my favourite thing to do.
PC: Let’s concentrate a bit more on you and how you became the person you are today.
RC: Funny you should say this. For the last few days I have been staying with my mum in Southend and she is selling the old family house. She found some things of mine in the attic which I’ve been going through. I basically found my entire musical background. I always kept diaries of lyrics, songs, drawings and clothes over the years. It’s quite amazing looking back how my handwriting and perspective changed, and how I generally evolved.
PC: How much of an influence has your dad been on you?
RC: He never really pushed me into music or showed me too much. He has really influenced me by just being himself. I have always respected him as a musician and I think his own involvement in music is what had inspired me the most.
PC: The fact that your dad was also such a big Beatles fan must have rubbed off on you considering your love of them too.
RC: I suppose I grew up with The Beatles’ music on an almost daily basis. It just seemed to be in the air. Actually I’m probably a bigger fan than he is nowadays!
PC: When did you first start playing?
RC: I have always sung. My dad has footage of me singing at five years old and saying I want to be a singer when I grow up. I used to show off to everyone that would listen. I was also into drama as a kid from a young age. I didn’t actually pick up an instrument until I was about seven or eight. I started piano lessons and couldn’t be told what to do so I hated it. But then again I started writing songs on the piano when I was eight or nine. They turned out rubbish but I was getting my head into that mould. I switched to guitar but didn’t really take it seriously until I was about 12.
PC: Would you say guitar is your main instrument?
RC: Right now, yes, but I still play the keyboards. I find guitar much more fun though. I’m pretty much self-taught with guitar. I used to watch my dad play but he never really taught me.
PC: What other instruments do you play?
RC: In addition to keyboards and guitar, I also play drums and bass. I would love to learn saxophone.
PC: The sax is a very underrated and under-used instrument in the music we love.
RC: I agree. It’s just such a sexy instrument. Yeah, the bands that have used it really add to their sound — Van Der Graaf Generator, Roxy Music, Supertramp, Camel, etc.
PC: Which current music, band or artist around today gives you a ‘wow’ factor?
RC: I have never been so excited about new music as I have this year. I’ve always looked back to the past for my music. I’m really into Uncle Acid who I love; Astra who blew my mind when we toured with them; and another band called Temples.
PC: I bet you would like the Canadian band, Big Elf.
RC: Oh yeah, I love them. They are great.
PC: So which musicians do you like?
RC: My favourite guitarists are Tony Iommi and Jimmy Page. Keyboard-wise, Jon Lord and Ray Manzarek. Paul McCartney is my favourite bassist. Drums-wise, I would say Bill Bruford.
PC: They’re all musicians who were active way before you were born, but that fits your general music ethos.
RC: Yeah it does. Even when I was at school I only ever socialised with people who listened to the same music as me. I always struggled to find friends who liked the same music. I went to an all girls’ school and only found about four other girls into the same music as me, and we used to hang around together all the time. Even after leaving school I only ever sought out people who liked the same music. It was important to me. Most of what other girls of my age were listening to went way over my head. I didn’t have interest in the Pop Idol, X Factor, boy band world and, to be honest, it didn’t even make sense to me.
I went to a club the other day with my sister. I was visiting Southend so I thought it would be nice to go out with her. She took me to a club with her friends and I was horrified by what I saw, heard and experienced. I couldn’t believe that’s what people of roughly my age did for a night out. I thought that I’d been living in a bubble… I suppose I must have been [Laughs].
PC: All credit to you for not being a sheep and following what you are expected to do or be as defined by your age group.
RC: But also there are so many scenes that anyone could get dragged into. They are all very cliquey and small minded; they can’t see outside their own bubble.
PC: Unfortunately, prog is no exception! Anyway moving on, what’s next for Purson?
RC: Things are a bit slow at the moment. We have some live opportunities coming up [Purson will tour with Spiritual Beggars in October/November] and material for the second album is shaping up really well. The great thing now is that the band is now so versatile. We have a couple of multi-instrumentalists and that makes jamming new songs fun. Other members of the band are coming up with great song ideas and riffs. So from that perspective it’s looking great. Unfortunately, gigging is difficult from a financial point of view. But we will endure.
PC: Before we wrap up, let’s talk about your birthday. In every interview I do, I like to look at the interviewee’s birthday and find other birthdays or events of note that fall on the same day. Your birthday is 25th April 1990 and you share it with:
Oliver Cromwell (1599), Ella Fitzgerald, jazz singer (1917) (RC: Oh wow!), Albert King, blues guitarist (1923) (RC: Brilliant!), Fish, ex-Marillion singer (1958), Bjorn Ulvaeus, ABBA (1945),
RC: What a great birthday! Taureans make the best band leaders, apparently!
PC: Other events that coincide with 25th April include the break-up of Wings  and the No.1 single on the day you were born was ‘Vogue’ by Madonna.
RC: That’s sad about the Wings break-up. As for Madonna I suppose I can live with that, at least a female artist.
PC: Well that just leaves me to say a big thank you for taking the time to talk to me, and good luck with the album and the band.
RC: Thank you, it’s been a pleasure.
Thanks to photographer – © Jay Hawkins / www.jjphotography.co.uk