Interview with Bright Light Bright Light.
Elton John has described him as a “One-Man Machine”, he’s recently finished a tour with Erasure, and his colourful dance parties have made him a regular feature of the New York scene – and yet, he started life as a quiet boy from the valleys whose earliest gigs were busking in the London Underground. This week we caught up with the lovely Rod Thomas – that’s Bright Light Bright Light to you – to find out how he got to where he is now.
Credit: Raphaël Neal
You are rare, in that you have decided to go it alone – fully independent, no label – how has that been? And how do you do it all – especially when it comes to organising something as complex as a tour?!
“Ha ha – yes I’m insane! You know, truthfully, it’s just because I like to get things done. I love making music, and I love being able to perform, so when I was putting out the first material, the right label didn’t come along at the right time, so I just did it myself and kept going. It’s not an “I don’t want a label” decision, it’s keeping momentum while the logistics of finding the right label at the right point in time don’t quite connect. It’s been a very steep learning curve, a huge challenge, but very rewarding. It’s so hard to juggle everything, but it also makes me feel very alive!”
Was music always the “end goal”? In that I mean, when you were growing up, did you always want to be a musician, or was it simply a question of wanting to live and create and music just happened to be what came first?
“The latter. I grew up in a small coal mining valley where doing a creative role as a main job was not an option. I’m absolutely amazed it turned into a career, as I honestly expected it to be something I’d do alongside a day job.”
We (like much of the UK) first saw you on Graham Norton – How was that? You’ve performed in front of huge crowds before, but surely national TV was next-level nerve-wracking?
“It truly was next level. For many reasons. I was the first unsigned artist ever to appear on the show - which is insane! I also got to do it WITH ELTON JOHN and even though we’re long-standing friends, that was such a crazy thing I never thought would happen – what a huge privilege! It was daunting but also very exciting. I love Graham, I love watching the show, so I couldn’t believe I actually got to be ON it. You know, the scariest thing was expecting the backlash which EVERYONE on national TV gets. And it came. Trolls can say disgusting things about you. But so much good came from it, it was fabulous and I’d do it again right now (How about it Graham…? Ha ha!)”
Do you feel like you’ve “made it” yet? And what does “making it” mean for you?
“I don’t know if anyone ever feels like they’ve “made it” when they spend time creating. It’s kind of a never-ending process. Which is the best thing about it. I can’t imagine thinking I’d made it… what then? It’s always so exciting to see what comes next! Although in some ways I’ve ticked off a lot of things: I work with so many of my heroes (Elton, Alan Cumming, Scissor Sisters), I live in my favourite city in the world (New York) and I get to make music for a living - so you COULD say I have. But there’s still a lot more to do!
Do you have a favourite element of the creative process? Do you prefer touring to recording etc.?
“I love being on stage, but I hate the process of travelling and being exhausted and not having time to create. And then I love creating in the studio, but I hate being on my own so many hours a day. So really, this job works well, as there's period of each so it balances out. One can’t exist without the other.”
What’s the process like when you sit down to write a song? Do you have rituals, is it structured in any way, or do ideas just come to you in the shower?
“It is totally different for each song. Sometimes I sit with a drum pattern and sing over it. Sometimes a line of melody and lyric comes into my head on a bus, and I run home and work on it. Sometimes, when I’m running, I have a loop playing and think of ideas over it. Then sometimes they just come. Like, ‘I Wish We Were Leaving’ I improvised and wrote it start to finish out of nowhere. That’s incredibly rare, for me especially, but it does happen. I have no method as it were!”
Wales is famed for being birthplace to some of the greatest singers and songwriters of all time – do you think any Wales has filtered into your music? And how much New York is in there now too?
“I think a lot of Wales has. My accent for one – ha ha! The drama of Shirley Bassey is definitely there in lots of the songs. The choral elements, you could say, were inspired subconsciously by the Male Voice Choir tradition. My love of music came from listening to the radio to discover the world outside the valleys so, in a way, the calm of Wales pushing me to music comes back out again in the songs.”
You have toured and collaborated with some amazing people – from Ellie Goulding and Elton John to the Scissor Sisters and Erasure. Was there anything you learnt from working with them which you didn’t expect to learn?
“That the more successful the artist, the more warm and welcoming they are. All of those people were GORGEOUS. Such lovely, welcoming people. With superstars like Elton or Erasure, you don’t expect to have time for you. But they do. It’s incredible to realise that Elton is just as big a fan of discovering new music now as he was in 1970, or that Vince Clarke is interested in your music production.
I’ve done shows with some prickly younger musicians who are on the hunt for success, their guard is up, and it’s not pleasant. But for those who’ve got to the top, often they’re interested in the stories of the new generation. It’s quite magical actually. Also work ethic. Ellie’s work ethic is so fabulous, and all those mentioned above work so hard, but play hard too – which is how I work. It’s nice to see the level of care and dedication they put into their work.”
You are known for your gorgeous, fun videos – and we were particularly taken with the two for New York Pretty and Into the Night. Did you ever get subconscious filming these on the streets of NYC? How did you get up onto those roofs? And do you really sing while filming, or do you lip-synch?
“I do get self-conscious in public, as in some places people stare and make you feel super uncomfortable. In these cases, I didn’t really care. Honey, in NYC NOBODY is looking at you strangely - you have people giving you “Showtime” on the subway, asking for money, talking deafeningly loudly on the phone, screaming about brunch/a TV show/their sister’s cat… very little surprises a New Yorker, so it was weirdly much easier to do that unnoticed in this busy city! Mostly I sing, but on the streets I lip-synch.”
What advice would you give to someone looking to make it in the music industry on their own terms?
“WORK. REALLY. HARD.”
You've collaborated with a large number of well-known artists so far in your career, is there anyone else still on your wish list?
“There are so many. Björk, Bette Midler, Royksopp, RuPaul, Mariah Carey, KD Lang… so many.”
You've announced a UK tour for later this year, to coincide with the release of your "Tough Love" EP - can we expect the new EP to be in the same vein as "Choreography", or is this a little different?
“It’s a little different. I don’t want to keep recycling the same sound – that’s not interesting for me or my fans, or anyone else – so there’s a little sidestep, while still remembering what was the most rewarding about ‘Choreography’. I think that record is the best representation of ME, so I want to keep that idea alive.
And, finally, it's a cold, rainy day in New York, and you have nothing to do besides watch your favourite 80s films – what's on the list?
“Mannequin, Aliens, and Dressed To Kill.”
Bright Light Bright Light’s “Tough Love” tour kicks off in September in Leeds, and you can get your tickets here.