She's called the new Karen Carpenter, but stardom has been a slow, hard struggle for Rumer. She talks to Si Hawkins about her extraordinary journey from Pakistan to the big time and why she loved living in Abu Dhabi
You may assume that heavily hyped talents are discovered early and carefully groomed for fame, but the Pakistan-born, London-based singer Rumer is anything but a production-line starlet. She landed her first record deal with the legendary American label Atlantic, a rare feat indeed, and her album, Seasons of My Soul, has been one of the most anticipated of the year and her famous fans include Burt Bacharach (who asked her for tea) and Elton John, who invited her to perform Your Song with him at a recent show in London.
But ascent to stardom has been lengthy, turbulent and far from glamorous. She spent decades trying to get her big break, working as a cleaner, hotel worker, waitress and even an iPod repairer, among other things, to fund her musical ambitions.
And though she may now be a major-label priority, given the industry's obsession with fresh young talent it's remarkable that she managed to belatedly reach this high-profile position. Her lack of youthful blondeness has already caused some disquiet among the listening public. In fact, as a browse on the internet quickly attests, not everyone is so charmed by this emerging chanteuse.
"There's always someone going, 'She's chubby, she's fat, she's ugly, she's got a big nose' and it's kind of horrible," sighs Rumer. "I know I'm not the prettiest girl at the party, and I walk around London and I see beautiful girls all day long, but why must I be one of them? I can't be bothered with that, I've got better things to do. I really do."
She has also faced much greater challenges, including her parents' divorce and the death of her mother. The result of those struggles is a collection of songs rich in passion, pain and poignancy, conveyed by a voice that's experienced much. The Karen Carpenter comparisons go beyond a mere vocal similarity.
Her journey has taken in a varied array of countries, including the UAE, and began in Pakistan 31 years ago, where she was born Sarah Joyce (Rumer is a stage name, inspired by the 1930s author Margaret Rumer Godden), the youngest of seven children.
Her parents had emigrated from England to Australia in the mid-1960s, and spent 20 years in remote African and Australian villages. ("They literally missed the whole of western culture in the 1960s and 1970s," she says.)
They moved to Pakistan when her father, an engineer, went to work on the Tarbela Dam project near Islamabad, the family living in an expat commune she describes as a "bubble". Her mother was a linguist and took dialect lessons from a local cook, although it would eventually transpire that their relationship was much closer than assumed, and the cook was in fact Rumer's real father.
When the family moved back to England, their happy life began to unravel. "For a few years it was fine," she recalls. "My brothers had big music rooms, the house was always full of life." But while Rumer immersed herself in Hollywood musicals, her father suddenly left home (she won't elaborate on why, but her parentage was presumably a factor) and her mother remarried to a "grumpy" man who didn't like children. "Eventually I ended up going to live with my dad," she explains. "I'd just found out he wasn't my dad. But I went anyway."
Life was becoming complicated, but Rumer, now in her late teens, enjoyed some respite from familial troubles by kicking off her music career in a promising indie band called La Honda. Rather than revel in the trappings of quasi-success, however, she gave it up when her mother was diagnosed with cancer, and Rumer moved to a caravan in a remote part of southern England to look after her.
"I saw a road going left and a road going right and my mum getting iller and iller, and I thought, 'If this band gets successful I'm going to be away,' and I thought: 'I can't risk it.' It was terrible."
Creativity can spring from curious places, however, and while life in the caravan proved desperately dispiriting for the aspiring performer, it also provided a fertile platform for her songwriting. "I knew I was going into the depths of sorrow," she recalls now, "but that's where I got my momentum from."
The songs she wrote in the caravan led to another brush with the big time. One of her first celebrity endorsements came from the American singer-songwriter Carly Simon, who offered a collaborative session at her home in Martha's Vineyard. It went well, but Rumer was still mentally ill-equipped for further dealings with the industry.
She escaped to India, which was where she met a boy from Abu Dhabi and, for a brief time, she followed him home. "I loved Abu Dhabi, loved it" she says, genuinely enthused. "Because I was with Indians, I went to all the little south Indian restaurants, south Indian cafés … I found some very interesting little places."
Back in England, though, daily life was becoming increasingly difficult, and her mental state deteriorated worryingly. Things looked bleak until a return to commune life offered a lengthy escape.
"I think I was having a breakdown or something," she says. "So I rang up this place and said, 'You don't know me, I don't really have much money, but I'm really ill, can I come and stay?' And they were so nice, they took me in, gave me something to eat, looked after me. The whole weekend, I passed out, I was in an absolute state. So I stayed there for a year, worked there in the community, chopping vegetables, making soup, assisting the chef, making beds, cleaning toilets."
While recovering, Rumer continued to write, record and release songs in a low-key, lo-fi fashion, via a "rickety old PC in the corner", and received enough positive feedback to tentatively begin gigging again. A chance encounter at one small show would prove decisive.
Steve Brown is best known for composing television themes, and only attended Rumer's gig to watch his son perform a similar set, but her gifts were immediately evident ("after 10 seconds I was mesmerised" he has said) and the two went on to form a fruitful partnership.
She now likens him to the Beatles' production maestro, George Martin, a man who would "listen out for a hook" without "messing with the music too much". Her old record industry associates poured scorn on this interloper's involvement, but the singer revelled in Brown's nonconformist approach.
"Steve was fantastic," she says, "someone who was very successful in music but not at all part of the music industry, in which I hadn't found any support or help of any note. He had made money and been successful in music and theatre. He's the British Stephen Sondheim."
With Brown's support she hit on a winning formula, without resorting to the 1960s-sounding blues/soul that has become de-rigueur since Amy Winehouse crossed over so spectacularly. The finished record, Seasons of my Soul, is defiantly slow, marrying an air of melancholy to a retro, easy-listening feel, and is finding favour with a similarly varied public, from urban trendies to more mature listeners. Good songwriting will always find an audience, and Bacharach's approval is telling.
Only when complete did she take the album to record companies, and eventually signed to the illustrious label Atlantic, on her own terms. "I developed the sound, the angle, the whole feel of it myself," she says. "They had very little to do."
Five years on from her lowest ebb, with a self-made album selling well, Rumer now seems fully equipped to handle the rigours of fame. And being a proper pop star does bring certain benefits.
"I have a stylist now, which is great. Not that I don't know what I'm wearing, but it helps because I don't like shops. I dress for the weather. 'Is it cold?' I'll put a jumper on. 'Is it really cold?' I'll put two jumpers on - that's the level of interest I have in clothes. But actually, when you're getting cabs and getting picked up by executive cars, its really good fun and you don't have to dress for the weather so much."
She could get used to this.
Seasons of my Soul is out now