Express & Star

Wolverhampton's Rebecca Downes goes back to her roots with hometown gig

She was born in Wolverhampton. And her parents, God bless ‘em, still live in her native Finchfield. But Rebecca Downes has long since flown the nest.

Rebecca Downes

She’s about to release her third album, More Sinner Than Saint, on May 24 and will be headlining KK Downing’s Steelmill, in Wolverhampton, on May 11.

The album features the work of Chris Kimsey, who stood in as consultant, having previously produced The Rolling Stones, Peter Frampton, Marillion and YES, among others.

It was mixed by Thunder’s Chris Childs and Bill Drescher (The Bangles, Rick Springfield) and features guest guitarists Alan Nimmo from King King and Magnum’s Tony Clarkin.

Downes is thrilled. The record marks a change of direction and has a more rocky feel than her previous work. “Some of the songs have been in gestation – one in particular, for five years – it just wasn’t ready to go on any of the other albums. But I guess it’s correct to say it’s been three years in the making and it is everything that I’ve ever wanted to do. This for me is my baby. I write both alone and also with fellow songwriters, my guitarist in particular.

“It was great to work with people like Chris Childs and Bill Drescher. Bill’s done movie soundtracks to Titanic and Armageddon and I was introduced to him by our American management when I was in LA. He just understood straight away exactly how the songs should be mixed. He mixed half of it.

“The other half was mixed by Chris, from Thunder, who’s a great guy. I think it’s worked out for the best. They’ve both understood the tracks that they got. Working with those guys has been amazing. Both have no egos, even though they are really high up in their profession. Both immediately knew what to do with the tracks.”

Rebecca’s Black Country roots profoundly influenced her music. She grew up in Wolverhampton and now lives in Birmingham. She was in bands at school, from the age of 13, and grew up listening to heavy stuff like Pantera.

“There was a really wide range in the house. My parents were into swing and jazz. I liked a lot of 90s bands like Soundgarden. But the influences of the Black Country and Birmingham were always there. Actually, we supported our mates from Birmingham, Magnum, last year, which was great. I’ve known them for a while. And who doesn’t love Black Sabbath and Slade, obviously? They were such an amazing, amazing band. Sometimes they are overlooked because of the Sabbath thing.”

“But it’s not just rock. I played in a band with Dan Whitehouse, from Wolverhampton, who’s now big on the folk scene. There’s so much going on.”

Rebecca is a true homebird. Even when she left for the first time, she didn’t go far – heading to Staffordshire University to study Fine Art and Art History. For a while, she put down her guitar – convinced she wasn’t going to make it. But with encouragement from Mark Viner Stuart of Mat Hat Studios, she started again. In 2011 she linked up with Steve Birkett, a long-time performer and writer of his own material, who had been liberated from full-time employment and had both the talent and time to create more original music. It was a partnership that ‘clicked’, to the intense excitement of those around the pair. Their core genre was the blues, but right from the start they stretched their music in several different directions. Their EP Real Life appeared in 2012 and both the recording and live performances of the tracks received an enthusiastic reception. 2012 was also the year that Rebecca left her full-time job for part-time work as a vocal tutor so that she had more time to work with Steve.

With more input from Mark and a galaxy of musicians, mostly from the area around Rebecca’s new Birmingham base, the album Back to the Start was crafted, hitting the shelves in late 2013, once again to acclaim from critics and fans alike.

The next 18 months was a period of changing personalities as Rebecca and Steve worked to find the right ‘fit’ with others both within and around the band and to establish relationships with leading lights in the music scene. The hard work paid off, though, and 2015 was a breakthrough year. Rick Benton joined the band on keys, bringing his own interpretation to the set and lifting tracks like Back to the Start to a new level. Lloyd Daker had established himself on drums bringing an infectious, youthful energy along with a permanently sunny disposition. Dan Clark, a long-time musical colleague, made the bass role his own with his funky and ‘in-the-pocket’ delivery. With a settled core to the band, and significant support from outside of it, they started to get noticed and grow their following.

Rebecca’s was thrilled to win a British Blues Award following the release of her debut record.

“When the first album came out, I won the British Blues Award for Best Female Vocalist and I couldn’t believe it. But I think it was more of a shock when I won it for a second time. I had this idea that people wouldn’t vote for me again – because those awards come from the public vote. So to win it for a second time was just ‘Wow’. It showed me that people really are into it.”

She’s looking forward to a hometown gig on May 11 at Wolverhampton’s Steelmill, which is the brainchild of former Judas Priest axeman KK Downing, who hailed from West Bromwich and settled near Bridgnorth after spending years on the road.

“I can’t wait. Actually, KK’s one of the few people round here who I haven’t met, so I’m hoping to meet him at the gig.”

I went to the venue the other day and had a sing with the Quoir Boys, who are mates. It’ll be a really good night.”