Behind the Music: Interview with RJ Thompson

‘I knew when I wrote the opening track that ‘Lifeline’ would be a very personal album.’

With ‘Lifeline’ entering the album charts at number five last month – beating Kings of Leon, we chatted with RJ Thompson about that very moment, the inspiration behind the tracks within it, and why the AR element of the physical release truly enhances the listener’s experience.

Firstly, congratulations on storming the charts with your awesome album Lifeline. How did it feel when you heard the news?
Surreal! I had a feeling a few weeks before the album came out that the momentum was building, but to actually see it there was really special.

When you released the digital version in 2020, did you ever imagine it being so successful?
I knew that the album was resonating with people, but no, I never imagined we could reach so far with it. There are a lot of universal themes dotted through it, so I’m just really grateful that people have found something in the songs to cling on to.

What do you think was the biggest factor in the album gaining such momentum more recently?
I think it’s probably the subject matter of the songs. There’s a lot of relatable storylines in there… stories about mental health, stories about growing up and feeling alienated. But ultimately it is an album of hope. I think, now more than ever, people need hope.

Thinking about the process of constructing the album, did you have an overall concept in mind when creating the individual tracks?
Yeah I did… I knew when I wrote the opening track ‘Kids’ that this album would be very personal – exploring my childhood, mental health, and the relationships that have shaped me. That honesty, and that feeling of nostalgia, became the springboard to write the rest of the album.

So how did this chosen concept affect the flow of the album?
I tried to tracklist the album as if it were a movie. It opens with the slightly weird collage of chatter, and then jumps into the big opening credits song to set the scene. There are high points, low points, and trepidation throughout, and then the closing title track ‘Lifeline’ is the big end credits song to leave you with a sense of hope.

Who else was involved in the musical/non-musical side of the album creation?
My co-producer Adam Sinclair was a constant throughout the recording process. I’d throw song ideas his way, he’d send some notes, we’d bounce back and forward, and then all of a sudden within a few weeks the bulk of the tracks were in place. I played a lot of the instruments on the record, but you’ll also hear some great session players from the North East of England in there. Outside of the music, Ian West has been my creative sounding board with all of the visual content for the record.

‘The biggest blessing of having my own record label is having control over my own career, the music that I want to make, and how it’s made.’

I love how you blend cross-genre influences so seamlessly. What are your go-to styles and what led to you utilising them in the way you did?
My go-to style of songwriting has always been that classic ‘singer-songwriter at a piano’ thing… the Springsteen thing. But I’ve always loved different, more synth-heavy retro production values. So every track was written on the piano, but very quickly morphed into something with a lot more grandeur.

Similarly, with the album drawing on many different topics, how do you know when you’ve chosen the most effective setting for the lyrics?
There isn’t really an easy way to explain that. It just, sort of, happens. My songwriting process is always melody first, and then I’ll mumble some meaningless lyrics over the top. You’ll usually find that a few words or a couple of lines will stick, and then eventually they become the springboard to finish the song.

In terms of musical development, are there any tracks on ‘Lifeline’ that headed in a different direction than planned?
Yeah… ‘Act Of God’. In truth, I had originally written that track as quite a heavy, loud, in-your-face rock song, but it just wasn’t working. So one day in the studio, Adam put a microphone in front of me and I just started making a Michael Jackson-esque vocal drum part. All of a sudden everything made sense. Within two hours the bulk of the track, as you hear it now, was recorded.

If someone was watching one of your recording sessions, what would they notice first?

Haha, good question. I guess people would probably notice that my attention span is short. If I’m not feeling an idea or a performance, I lose interest and need to reset.

Turning to the physical release, was there always a plan to release a vinyl version?
Yeah… I collect records. I’m a big believer in owning a physical thing. I grew up in an era where you’d save your pocket money and get the bus down to the local record store to buy whatever you fancied that week. I always remember the bond that built between me and my favourite records. The experience of owning it. Lifeline was always going to be a vinyl release, for sure.

So how did the inclusion of AR come about and how do you feel this enhances the listener’s experience?
The AR stuff was just an idea I dreamt up in lockdown. What if we could modernise the experience of owning your favourite albums. Owning the record could open up a world that only the vinyl and CD owners get access to – bonus tracks, videos – an extension of the making of the record and I feel like we’ve completely nailed it. It essentially extends the life of the album far past the initial few days of owning it. It’s now something you can revisit to see what new content you can find.

And finally, what are the biggest blessings/curses of having your own record label?
The biggest blessing is 100% that I have control over my own career, the music that I want to make, and how it’s made. I wouldn’t say there are any curses as such, but obviously major labels have more contacts and much bigger budgets to work with. Having creative control is far more important to me though.

Thanks RJ Thompson for chatting with Listen to Discover

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