The Medicine of Music

The richest riffs and storytelling you’ll hear this year. interviews

Photo: Luke Joyce

Photo: Luke Joyce

It’s been a long journey for RM Hubbert. Having picked up a guitar at 16 after being inspired by a Buzzcocks video, and subsequently immersing himself in the Glasgow music scene, each year since has been testament to a road filled with ups and downs, friends and family, stops and starts, and all kinds of music. Along the way, though, he’s produced not only a myriad of quirky creative skills, but three of the most harrowing, beautiful and technical acoustic albums you’ll ever hear.

“I had no formal training on the guitar and grew up listening to punk rock. I don’t actually listen to a lot of acoustic music. I remember my first musical love was Adam Ant, I loved him as a kid in the late 80s. I was in a band called El Hombre Trajeado and we did quite well, but when the group came to an end in 2005 I stopped playing music altogether. I didn’t want to form another band at that time and it never really dawned on me to do anything else.”

Initially, then, a fairly standard beginning. But soon after, Hubbert lost both his father and mother in quick succession. “I just wanted a distraction. I arbitrarily learned how to play flamenco guitar because someone had told me it was really difficult, so I learned obsessively as a means of distraction. It was the first time I’d played acoustic. I was just trying to escape and there was an emotional rawness to flamenco that I enjoyed, and I found writing little pieces of music cathartic even though I never intended to take it further.” It was this chain of events that eventually led to the production of First and Last, Hubbert’s first solo album, almost like the first part of a play in three acts, with each act bearing a striking sense of purpose. “It was at this time that I received a diagnosis of chronic depression which I realized I’d been suffering from since my early teens. I kind of realised that all the time I had been playing in bands, it had been helping my mental health without me even realising. I ended up writing a book, which is how First and Last was initially released. I learned how to bind books and I made one hundred really lovely optic bound copies with glass covers and a CD in each. It was named after the pub my dad used to drink in.” It was this focused escapism that motivated RM Hubbert to persevere, and the act of production in itself was enough to satisfy.

Yet more was to come, and this inspired his second album, Thirteen Lost & Found. Following the breakdown of his marriage, he sought further solace, and decided that it was time to reconnect with old friends. Once again, music acted as medication, and offered the excuse to reach out to people. “There were a lot of people I hadn’t seen since the late nineties – it had been ten years. I got married and I was happy, so I didn’t really go out so much, and then I got really ill and went out even less. I thought it would be easier to reconnect with these people by bringing them in to the studio and making songs together – I thought it would be more fun, and it ended up being so rewarding. It’s a weird thing because by the time we came to record that album the point of doing it was over, and it kind of made recording it a lot less stressful because the point of recording it was to capture that connection in the room.”

While both these records had their missions, neither seem quite as significant as the final in the Ampersand Trilogy, Breaks & Bone. It had been a good year for RM, heightened by the success of both of his previous records, but the album in itself addressed his depression in a way that his previous work had not. “I’ve been using music as my main form of therapy for 5 years – it makes me feel better to talk about it. The only problem is that in some ways, it’s a flaky way to address it because if I have a bad show, then it makes my mood even worse. Grief counsellors suggest that when people die, you should write a letter to them full of things that you never got to say to them. It was something I never managed to do because I found it too difficult, and so I decided to make a 7-inch single with a side for each of my parents as a way of saying goodbye. I went away and made this single, but I didn’t want to release it because I still wasn’t ready. Instead, I decided to give myself a year to make an album about it -about letting go, moving on, and learning to be happy again.”

What’s most remarkable about RM Hubbert, however, is how his music seems to affect everyone who listens; a vivid testament to the power of his work. His gigs are notoriously emotional, with one Glasgow gig last year reportedly bringing much of the audience to tears. “To be honest my gigs are mostly about talking for me, for saying the difficult things out loud. It’s a strange one, the music makes the speaking more palatable for me. I’d happily go and talk for an hour but I think people would get a bit annoyed. It can really fuck with my mood if a show doesn’t go well. My definition of a show not going well is very different to an audience’s idea of a show not going well. If I don’t feel I’ve made a connection with the audience, it can get me really down. It’s a very hard thing to describe, people might love the show but I might feel I’ve not made that link with anyone and it’s not anyone’s fault. When it’s good, it’s amazing but especially on long tours if I get a dip in it it’s quite hard to crawl back out of it, you know? I don’t like to think that I’ve made people cry, but I do like it when people cry at my gigs – not in a twisted kind of way, but just in the sense that they’ve understood me.”

Combining a selection of lyrical and instrumental music, Hubbert’s main goals have always been honesty and simplicity, with his instrumental pieces confirming what needn’t and can’t be put in words. “I think if you can be honest your originality will come through a bit more. I had this rule that I didn’t want to use loopers or overdub anything, I wanted to sound like a three piece band, so I figured out how to play a drum beat and a bassline at the same time. I’m not a fan of massively technical music, it’s something I’m very conscious of. I don’t want to be one of those guys, and in many ways my biggest fear is being what I am, a white guy in his 30s with a beard singing about his feelings – it’s literally my worst fucking nightmare but I’m very conscious of that when I write and perform, so although it’s a white guy with a beard playing a guitar I don’t want it to feel like that, I don’t want it to be that and I think that comes across. I think if you write something you think is cool and you’re proud to say out loud, then it’s good.”

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