A kaleidoscope of Music. Interview with Romy

A kaleidoscope of Music. Interview with Romy

RomyWe are so very happy to have the globe-trotting Singer and Instrumentalist Romy as a Guest in our Cremacaffè Interviews Series. Romy has a passion for vintage organs and synths; she was one of our very first supporters, and that’s how we got to know each other and started following her travels through her feed, in awe about the kaleidoscope of crowds, gigs, koalas, most wonderful theaters of the world, and lots and lots of music-related stuff.

Synth-lovers will find this interview inspiring. You can never underestimate how much study and work goes into music making, and it’s always good to scratch the surface of our internet-connected lives to get a little glimpse of it. In the end, our Guest also gifted us with some interesting listening tips and a chill playlist, from the Dirty Projectors to Air to Sufjan Stevens. Thank you Romy, and looking forward to your new musical projects!

Romy in studio | Photo by Antimo Puca
Romy in studio | Photo by Antimo Puca

How did your passion for music start? Did you always know you would make a career out of it?

I started learning to play the piano from quite a young age - I think I was four years old when I had my first lesson. At some point in my early teens I started to break away from my classical training and explore what I could do with the instrument outside of the classical ‘constraints’. I had always enjoyed coming up with little pieces of music myself, and loved trying to figure out how to play songs or themes from movies and video games that I liked, but for the first time I began taking the writing side of things a bit more seriously.

Throughout my teens, I played and sang in a number of bands (some of which had pretty embarrassing names!), and started to get more involved in the small but active local music scene, in Bray and Greystones (coastal towns on the east coast of Ireland near Dublin). That was definitely a real coming-of-age time for me musically, both in terms of exploring who I was trying to become as a performer and composer, and discovering a bunch of new music and sounds and approaches. Eventually I got a Macbook and that’s when I started learning how to use Garageband. To be actually able to record my ideas AND layer them on top of each other seemed so unbelievably new and exciting at the time! I used to bring the laptop into the hot press (that’s Irish for airing cupboard!!) and record vocal ideas in there using a precariously balanced mic. I didn’t know what I was doing but it felt great!

Romy's vintage organs | Photo by Romy

Fast forward on a few years and suddenly I was studying Musicology in University College Dublin and doing pretty well at it, getting back to classical piano training but also getting really into vintage keyboards and organs and Ableton, playing in a few different bands and wondering (i.e. freaking out about) what was the hell was meant to happen next. 

To get back to your question - I think I knew that music would always be a dominant force in my life, and I hoped it would be something I could make a career out of, but I wasn’t totally sure what shape or form that would take. A little while later, I had a real epiphany moment while on a recording session in France and I knew

I only wanted to be playing and recording and writing music all day, every day, all the time.

I decided to pack in my academic career and dive hook line and sinker into making something of myself as a full-time musician. It was so scary, and really stressful for a long time, but ultimately one of the most important decisions I’ve ever made - even if it took me years to have the balls to do it!!

Your studio setup? During the tour and at home?

I’m still tweaking my home setup to find the exact configuration that suits my usual workflow, but I’m actually pretty happy with where it’s at right now. Typically I work in Ableton and/or Pro Tools - often starting in Ableton and migrating the session to Pro Tools a little later.

On my desk I have a couple smaller controllers (the AKAI MPK Mini and LPK25) at the ready as well as my larger AKAI MPK88 which I use mostly for playing piano sounds (unfortunately I don’t have a real piano at home just yet). I have my Ableton Push hooked up as well. Then I have my trusty little friend, Teenage Engineering’s OP-1, front and center - I think that gets the most use out of everything; without fail, it sounds fantastic and I love how quick and fun it is for coming up with ideas.

I have a bunch of old organs and synths, but the ones that get the most use are probably my Phillips Philicorda, Yamaha YC-45D, Gem Rodeo 37, Suzuki Omnichord, Crumar Orchestrator and Yamaha DX7. Buying vintage organs and synths is definitely a weakness of mine - a while ago I had to just stop looking on eBay or local adverts for stuff because the temptation was getting out of hand! I recently got a few Korg Volcas and I’ve been having a lot of fun with those - again, like the OP-1, they’re great for getting a cool idea down fast, and they sound great too.
Then I’ve got some old drum machines, guitars, a bass, a cello and a violin, an autoharp, and a few smaller bits and pieces around the place. Most of the above is ready to record at all times; mics and instruments go through my little Yamaha O1v desk and from there into my RME Fireface UCX connected to my Macbook Pro. It’s always subject to change, but that’s usually how it’s configured.

My touring setup varies so much, depending on the artist I’m working with and what the overall sound requires. When touring with Glen, for example, I was lucky to be able to have a piano on stage every night, and that functioned as the core instrument around which I also had my Philicorda, OP-1, and a Fender Rhodes. A little further on in the tour, we did some gigs where I changed my setup to replace the Philicorda with my Yamaha Reface YC and added a laptop/controller combo for more possibilities using samples.

Then on the other hand, when I was gigging with Gemma Hayes, I started out using Ableton heavily with a two small controllers, an Alesis Micron, a glockenspiel, a ukulele and a snare drum/floor tom/tambourine combo! That was kind of nuts but loads of fun, it sort of became like a dance I had to learn playing all that stuff! Later on, that setup often got reduced down to my laptop, two controllers and the OP-1. It meant that all of my gear could fit in one relatively small suitcase which was a real novelty!

During the last two years you've been roaming the world with the Glen Hansard "Didn't He Ramble" tour. If you were to write a handbook for the perfect "Globetrotter Musician", what would be your top advice based on experience? How to become one? How to survive it? Things to do, things not to do?

I wish such a handbook had existed before I started that tour back in September 2015! I really loved and am so grateful for that whole experience. Glen is a pure joy to be around, both on and off the stage; his energy is addictive, his musical gift and his performance are truly inspiring to behold, and he’s just a great human. The whole band and the amazing crew feel like another family to me now.

Romy on stage | Gemma Hayes in Union Chapel, London. Photo by Eric Duvet
Romy on stage | Gemma Hayes in Union Chapel, London. Photo by Eric Duvet

The tour was such an unbelievable learning curve in so many ways.

As wonderful as it is to get to do a tour like that, one which takes you all over the world, it can definitely also be very hard on your body and your mind. On the first European run of gigs we did, I had an amazing time but I didn’t look after myself very well. It was a new tour, a new album, there were some newbies in the band (like me), so there was a lot of energy and excitement floating around. We were all serious about playing our best and making the set better and better, but also serious about having fun when the gig was over! By the end of the first few weeks I was completely wrecked. The next time we went back out, I think we all had some sense of taking it a bit easier, pacing ourselves more. We were gigging for a longer stint and didn’t want to burn out!

I think there’s definitely a middle ground - you can have a great time without totally ignoring your body’s needs! It takes more effort to look after yourself on tour because you’re in a state of perpetual motion and change. Every city and venue is different, when you’re not sleeping in a moving tour bus (which I actually loved) you’re in different hotel beds every few days, and you’re eating different foods at different times. Every day is like a new routine within the schedule of the tour, and it’s enough to make you feel a bit out-of-whack after a while. Obviously it’s going to be different for everyone, and I could go on forever with suggestions, but here are a few select things I realised:

· Get out and explore wherever you are before your soundcheck starts. I love getting in to a venue early, setting up all my gear and then having an hour or two to head off on my own for a bit of quiet time and a look around a city. That’s if all is going to plan that day! Stealing bits of alone time where possible is really important for a healthy tour mind.

· Sometimes go out for ‘the one’ drink after a gig, with however many of the band and crew are up for it, even if you’re really tired and the bus (and therefore, your bed) is right outside the venue. Often that’s when

you’ll end up in some weird little bar, or meet some interesting people, or something will happen that’s worth remembering.

It also means you can sort of step outside of the tour bubble for second, which can feel good and bring some sense of ‘normality’!

· Drink loads of water - all the time! It’s always around you. Drink it! It helps with everything. I am terrible at drinking water. This is a self-help note to myself. ;)

· Assemble a little personalised travel kit bag full of essential well-being ingredients that you can keep with you at all times; for example, in mine I had things like: echinacea tablets, vitamin C & zinc tablets, milk thistle tablets (which help clean your liver!!), Nurofen, plasters, lavender pillow mist and/or oil, ear plugs, eye mask, baby wipes, deodorant, toothbrush, toothpaste, and various other relevant bits and pieces. This kind of combo helps your immune system, helps you sleep, helps you keep fresh and clean, and definitely helps with a hangover..!

· Eat too much junk food! It really is so hard to control what you eat while on tour, but you will start feeling the effects of eating badly on your energy levels pretty quickly. However I did find that keeping hydrated as much as possible and having naps lessened the effects of nightly binges on pizza and chips and falafel. ;)

· Stay out all night at the end of the tour before a long flight the next morning, as tempting as it is! Especially if you’re kind of a nervous flier like me. There are few things worse than being stuck in an aluminium tube for 10+ hours hurtling through the sky at 900km/h and feeling like absolute crap with no escape!!

· Worry if you don’t suddenly have a new band full of best friends. What I mean is that you don’t have to get along amazingly with everyone all the time. A relatively small group of people sharing so much time and enclosed spaces together are inevitably going to rub each other up the wrong way now and again.

Recognise when it’s something trivial and move on from it quickly. You’re all there for the same reason.

· Forget to soak it all in - it’s amazing how fast the months can shoot by. Even if and when things get a bit difficult, you’re playing your heart out every night and impacting people’s lives for the better. No matter what, that really means something when all is said and done.

Which are the biggest influences in your music?

I’ve actually been thinking about this question a lot recently as I set out to work on my own record. It’s a hard question to answer succinctly! I think finding really great and interesting sounds is a big influence for me. All musicians know that feeling of coming across a sound that really makes them tick; a sound that just feels really ‘satisfying’ to play. It’s like the music almost writes itself after you have that experience, because it’s flicked some switch in your brain to get things flowing. I love when that happens! Assembling a palette of sounds that do this can only bring good things for your music - then it starts to become ‘your sound’.

I also find that harmony has quite a prominent influence on me; there are some chords and chord progressions that every time I hear them just make me go ‘yes!’.

I find it so inspiring to listen to music that manages to achieve interesting harmonic choices while not getting overly complicated or too self-aware.

It’s still accessible but not so typical. I try to adopt that approach when it comes to writing my own music. I love 20th century composers like Ligeti, Arvo Part, Stockhausen, Górecki etc. I’m REALLY interested in graphic score work, it’s something I would really love to get into creating myself.
There’s a brilliant book called Notations 21 which is an amazing collection of scores by various artists which is a really good resource as well if you’re interested. I know there’s a great website for it online too. I’m actually experimenting with some notation ideas right now to accompany some of my instrumental music… I’m kind of obsessed…!!

You have been one of our very first Clients and supporters, a "pioneer". What do you enjoy most in our designs? Suggestions for the future?

I got a Cremacaffè HERO stand for my Korg Volca. When it arrived, I was so struck by how well it had been crafted and how beautifully it was presented in the soft fabric bag. It was evident that there was such care and attention to detail given in the making and presentation of the product, and I loved that immediately.

The whole thing felt really classy without being pretentious! There was definitely a clear ‘made with love’ vibe surrounding the products.

I think the fact that it’s a small company makes everything feel a bit more personal. I also think there is a really great philosophy and motive behind the company - going beyond the making of the products and thinking about the people who will use them. I find it so inspiring to see two people make a business out of a great idea, drawing from a variety of elements they love, and watching it go from strength to strength. It’s brilliant!

Advice for the future? I think to just keep doing what you’re doing and more of it!
The designs are wonderful already, one can imagine how they could be expanded even further across different areas. The possibilities for growth are abundant. I already have a few ideas to throw your way about custom projects! Here’s to your continued success :)

Cremacaffè Stands in Romy's Studio
Cremacaffè Stands in Romy's studio | Photo by Romy

A good playlist you would recommend right now.

The choices are so vast, but these are the first ten songs that came into my head if I personally had to pick what to listen to right this second:

1. Dirty Projectors - Keep Your Name
2. Beach House - Walk In The Park
3. St. Vincent - Surgeon
4. The Shins - Red Rabbits
5. Melody’s Echo Chamber - Crystallize
6. Tune-Yards - Powa
7. Air - Biological / Surfing On A Rocket
8. The Cardigans - Erase and Rewind
9. All Saints - Black Coffee
10. Sufjan Stevens - Impossible Soul

Musical projects of your own you are working on?

I’ve had the bones of an album in the making for the past few years, working on numerous shards of ideas (some more formed than others), but with touring and other projects I’ve been involved in taking up most of my days it’s been really hard to find any proper block of uninterrupted time to focus on assembling those pieces together into actual fully-formed songs.

I’m a singer as well as an instrumentalist, so I want my voice to be an important piece of the puzzle.

I’ve finally arrived at a point where I have a bit more space to work on my own record, and now the timing feels very right. I’m really fortunate to have genius producer David Odlum on board to fulfil a number of roles in the making of the album, so that’s really helped get things moving along in my head.

I’ve also written a lot of instrumental music over the past twelve months, heavily inspired by all the travel I’ve done during that time, so right now I’m trying to think of interesting ways to release some of that material over the coming months. It’ll be out in the world by some undecided means sometime soon. In the meantime, I regularly post little excerpts from ideas I’m working on via my Instagram page so there’ll always be some bits of music happening over there!

Romy's keyboards room | Photo by Romy
Romy's keyboards room | Photo by Romy

Interview originally posted on 09.Feb. 2017
Related links:

· Romy on Instagram
· romy.fm/sounds
· Gemma Hayes
· Glen Hansard - Didn't He Ramble
· Ligeti - Artikulation

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