Interview: Oli Rockberger

Our brilliant songwriting tutor discusses process, working with Laura Mvula and his new EP...
oli-rockberger-portrait

From his early days studying at the Berklee College of Music in the US to performing at Glastonbury with Laura Mvula, our songwriting tutor Oli Rockberger has enjoyed a long and exciting musical career. 

His career has seen him perform with many of contemporary pop's greats alongside Laura, including the ace Jordan Rakei as well as the brilliant drummer Richard Spaven. As his side musical hustle picks up pace, Oli has also busied himself teaching our students and working on solo material with his latest offering, the great 'Terra Firma' EP. 

Find out more about his new music, performance at Glastonbury with Laura Mvula and songwriting advice in our new interview... 

How did you start your musical journey? 
It started at the age of three or four at the piano. It's still mysterious to me how/why I was drawn to it but I would naturally make up little tunes, which gradually evolved in to playing along with albums. My parents had an amazing record collection, and so from quite young I was hearing Oscar Peterson, Jimmy Smith and The Crusaders. If I had to pick one, Stevie Wonder's 'Songs in the Key Of Life' had a profound impact on me. 

Was there a tipping point when music went from being a hobby to a full-time persuasion?
It came when I was doing my A-Levels and was having to work really hard at things other than music. I knew then that it was all I wanted to study seriously. I applied to a bunch of courses in the UK as well as to Berklee College of Music in the US after doing a Summer course there. I then auditioned at 17 for a scholarship and was delighted to learn that I'd won a Full Scholarship to go. At that point, the commitment was there and the beginnings of a path in music was emerging...

What led you to ICMP? And how have you found your experiences with us?
I worked at ICMP some time ago in a clinic workshop as a sideman. Then some years later, when I was moving back to London, I began exploring music eduction possibilities in UK songwriting. I checked back in with ICMP and was struck by the openness and dynamism. I reached out and have now been involved for the last few years.

Teaching at ICMP has been a really positive and growing experience for me as an educator at both undergrad and masters level across a songwriting, performance and 1-1supervision."

There is a thriving and vibrant creative community at ICMP among students and faculty.

What have you learned about your own songwriting from working at ICMP?
I could talk about the talent that I see on a regular basis, the spirit of openness and exploration, not to mention the fresh ideas that students bring. But overall, I've been most inspired by the courage of my students - hopefully some of my past, present and future students will be reading this.

Classes that ask them to present and share new material every week with their peers and with myself, when they are not sure yet about their work themselves ... well ... let's just say it's pretty demanding. I also think that it's really positive for their growth. But making that commitment to "show up” and be vulnerable in that way takes courage. Watching them do it weekly, often presenting songs for critique which are personal and challenging, is really inspiring. It gives me heart that if they can do that - and at their tender ages - then so can I, in my own way in my career ... even when it’s hard.

oli-rockberger-songwriter.jpgImage Courtesy of Jazz TM Festival De Jazz Timisoara

How did you land the gig with Laura Mvula? And how was playing Glastonbury with her?
Troy Miller - Laura's long-term musical director/drummer and producer of 'The Dreaming Room' - has been a good friend for sometime. When I was over from NY a few years ago, we caught up and I shared that I was considering a move back to London. He said “... Oli ... I may have a gig for you”. Two weeks later I was in a rehearsal room with Laura and the band! It happened so fast. I was already a big fan so I was delighted. It was quite a juggle for me at that time as I was in the process of my move from NY when I took the gig.

As I say to students, you can’t always choose when the right opportunities come, and sometimes you just have to have faith and say yes!" 

This was one of those moments. Joining her project has changed so much for me and on many levels; creatively in my own music, in my career, and also in the wonderful friendships that have blossomed. 

And Glastonbury! It was such a trip when I look back now. Huge gig ... in front of so many people live and on TV. It was only really afterwards when I watched it back that I processed the scale of it and fixed myself a drink! But But there's a great spirit of togetherness in Laura's project. We had such a good vibe on stage, and when you're with the right people around you, you just support each other and know that you're in it together.  It was just an amazing and powerful experience. 

How do you approach the creative process? 
The main thing I've learned through my own work and teaching - which I try to pass along to my students - is the idea that different processes yield different results.

So I've found different go to ways of doing things that work to achieve a particular colour in my writing. So on my latest EP 'Terra Firma', one process would be me at the piano with pen and paper, with a specific narrative in mind. That yields one kind of result. Another would be my chopping up my piano in Ableton, adding a bass line and building it that way - totally different.

Each song needed that particular process to achieve the result I wanted. I also explore things like writing first, then producing afterwards vs producing and writing at the same time. Starting with lyrics vs starting with a beat, or with a few chords vs a few words. With time and experience I've learned to be more adaptable and experimental in the writing process, which is something I encourage in my students. This is also great to keep in mind particularly for those who are experiencing difficulty with blocks and such. Ultimately, when I sit down to write, I'm looking to unearth what's in my heart and mind and to bring out what it is that I'm “hearing” musically. I’ll then experiment with different ways to get there until I find a path. 

Could you talk a little about the new EP - where did the inspiration and influence come from?
So in the run up to making it, I'd spent a year or so in a supporting role alongside some truly singular artists like Jordan Rakei, Becca Stevens, Rich Spaven and as part of Laura’s band. Working with each of them led me to re-evaluate my musical vision and direction. I was inspired by them to go deeper in to the place where songwriting and creative production meet.

When I lived in NY, I had an electronic/experimental project called Mister Barrington which had gained some recognition (we put out three records together) as well as the two more acoustic jazz- pop oriented singer-songwriter records I had put out under my own name ('Sovereign' and 'Old Habits'). At the time of making 'Terra Firma', I really wanted to see if I could bring these two sides together. 

I think – and hopefully this may be helpful for students to see - that I had wanted to produce something like this for a while, but experienced a fair amount of resistance/hesitation around entering this new territory,  particularly as a producer flying solo.

Fear of creative failure, what others might think, what would be involved and such. These are powerful forces ... and students should know that their teachers also face these kinds of internal obstacles. But hopefully this puts us in a better position as educators to relate to and help our students in their work." 

Ultimately I reached a point where my desire outweighed my resistance - I just felt I had to go for it! I’ve learned that ultimately this is what it really comes down to in seeing something through. So I thought that if I locked myself away in my home studio for long enough then I might come up with something interesting. So that's what I tried, and after many hours of joy, frustration, trial, error and reflection, Terra Firma' was born! Being on the other side of it, I feel the process has enabled me to break through a barrier to now release music in a more ongoing and organic way. 

What's your top advice for aspiring songwriters?
I can share a little here of what I say to my students. Approaching writing with an openness, particularly in the college period of life, is important.

Try different musical avenues and collaborations. Also, I wouldn't be too quick to define oneself yet as “this kind” of artist/writer or as “that kind. Sure - it's great to have a focus, but I also think it's a time in one's life where one can really experiment. Finishing songs is also key. Learning to power through with work even if you're not crazy about it in the moment is a critical discipline to get together. This is partly because I think you kind of need to have written a critical mass of songs in order to start to get a handle on what quality control means for you. It’s hard to do that with just a few songs under the belt. With time, and the benefit of more songs, greater focus and control over a personal artistic style can evolve from that foundation.

Earlier songs can always be revisited later with more experience. Embrace the idea that redrafting is usually a necessary part of the process, rather than a failure because you didn't “nail it first time”! Remember that artists of all kinds, whether painters, poets or potters, re-craft and hone until the thing is behaving like they want. Ask some self-reflective questions when evaluating a song. “With the tools and ability I have right now, is this statement as strong as it could be? Does it express the story/emotion/color I'm setting out to communicate? Does it fall short? If so, where and how?” And then make adjustments.

On the flip side, also learning when to say “okay ... I have pushed this as far as I can - for now”. The words “for now” are really important, because they enable us to move forward and not remain stuck in just one work.

Perhaps the most sustaining thing that has helped to keep me on the path over the years is to find a trusted friend whose musicianship and taste you respect. Someone where there's a bilateral wish for each other's success. Play each other stuff and be honest."  

There was a culture of this among my closest friends at Berklee, and this was pivotal for our musical growth. In fact, I still turn to these people today going on 20 years now! Last thing: develop your network by developing relationships. Have coffee. Do writing sessions which in turn strengthen the ability to collaborate, which in turn deepens your process through exposure to the ways that others write. Go to gigs. Go to jam sessions. Meet and play with people. Find a community and build from there. 

Have you any tips on overcoming writer's block?
In this situation I'll often start by asking students to think about what's going on internally and externally around a particular block. Is this song particularly hard to write and if so why? Or, is it part of a collection/project that's difficult in some way because of some external or internal pressure? What are the expectations from themselves or perceived expectations from others ?

Bringing these fears in to the light can really help to move things along. Often times when blocked, we're putting undue weight on a song that it was never built to hold. For example, asking/expecting one of our songs to represent everything that we are musically. A lot of us do this even though we know intellectually that it's not possible, even for our musical heroes in their work!

When blocked, try asking yourself if you’re doing this with your song. Remember that we are all complex and rich in our life journeys and interests. Can one song we write really ever represent everything that we are in totality? And would such a song even be listenable? I remind students that it is all of our songs combined together that  in time will build the full picture of who we are in the hearts and minds of our listeners, rather than through any single song we write. This perspective can be so liberating.

So rather than trying to make a song do everything, see if you can start by making it do one thing. Know that to convey a particular story, thought, mood or musical colour is enough." 

You can build from there. I also remind students to change the process to change the result. Often times it's simply about injecting some fun and freshness in to the proceedings when it's becomes a little heavy. For example, if stuck when writing in the room where you write, what about going to the park with a notebook? Or if it's not happening with the guitar, why not try and make a beat and see what happens then? Or co-write as a way to get a fresh perspective. Last thought: it can be helpful to approach your writing as a co-writing session, except in this case, it just happens to be with yourself. And then ask “Am I being present, open, kind to myself in process in the way that I would be with someone else?

What's the best piece of wisdom you've heard about 'making it' in the music industry?
Figuring out what “making it” would mean to you, and then remain open to the idea that this is a shifting landscape which evolves as we do over time. In the early part of a career we all do a lot of different work in order to pay bills and build our networks. I just ask my students to keep in mind an idea that ultimately they are working towards finding their place in a musical community that they can call home. Strive to work with people who inspire you and who you inspire. If you take something on, give it 100 percent and take pride in your work, reputation and in the energy you give out. Remember that your music and reputation speaks for you when you're not in the room - that’s a pretty good model to live by! Gravitate towards the areas where it doesn't feel like work to focus on something for hours. Aspire to move with purpose and with heart; that's probably the best compliment I could give anyone or receive. The rest we make up as we go... 

What future projects do you have lined up outside of teaching here?
Solo wise, I have another self-produced EP 'Look Up' planned for October, currently being mixed by the great Patrick Phillips who mixed 'Terra Firma' . I'm also in the early stages of a new EP for release in Spring 2020.

As far as writing and production projects, there are a number of exciting things in the works. I’ve been working for a few years now with a phenomenal electronic artist called Terrane. His self-titled debut album is coming out on A4WARD later this year, which I co-produced and also contributed a number of co-writes. We’ve started work on a follow up, and he’s also lending his production gifts to a remix of ‘Terra Firma's' single 'Forgiveness' for September. A highlight this year was my collaboration with one of my favorite artists working today, Jordan Rakei. We co-wrote 'Speak' on his recent album 'Origin' (Ninja Tune) and I'll be guesting with him at The Roundhouse in October. I’ve also been writing with China Moses for her new album. She’s a great artist, quite unique, combining the jazz legacy she carries from her mother Dee Dee Bridgewater, with the influence of singers and songwriters like Sharon Jones, Tina Turner, Me’shell Ndegeocello and Randy Crawford. I’ve contributed a number of co-writes to her forthcoming record which she cut in NY with Producer Troy Miller at the helm, and featuring some great NY musicians. #

I also have a few co-writes on the forthcoming Shawn Escoffery album (also produced by Troy) coming out on Decca, which is a real honor. Shawn is bona fide UK soul/R&B royalty and undoubtedly one of the great vocalists working today. Otherwise there are plans in the works for future collabs with Rich Spaven, Femi Temowo and La Sharvu as well as ongoing shows as part of Laura Mvula’s band. That plus teaching and so it should be a busy and exciting few months!

'Terra Firma' is out now. Visit olirockberger.com to find out more.

Watch Oli perform with Laura Mvula on BBC Radio 1's Live Lounge below:

Main photo credit: Suki Cohn

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by Jim Ottewill
August 14, 2019
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