A hit debut album left her stressed, but now a brighter, confident Rumer is happy to face the music again
Success combined with losing her mum, a miscarriage and a betrayal all took their toll on the singer, who plays Belfast in February. But she tells Edwin Gilson she's feeling better now.
My interview with Sarah Joyce, aka pop singer Rumer, is reaching its conclusion when she suddenly voices concern over the manner in which her words will be represented in the final article. It's nothing personal, she insists, just something about print journalism which can make her personality seem "a bit dark".
"I hope that this will be positive, because I get upset when … when I say things in person and they seem quite interesting, then it goes into print and I come across as depressed. I want to focus on the recovery more than anything else. Overall, I'm doing fine."
Honestly, she needn't have worried about appearing that way; she is a sprightly and thoughtful interview subject. However, anyone familiar with the 35-year-old's back story may understand where she is coming from. The wild success of her 2010 debut album Seasons of My Soul - which sold over a million copies worldwide, firmly established her as a Radio 2 favourite, and led to an invitation to perform in front of Barack Obama at The White House - also caused "anxiety upon anxiety" to pile up on top of Joyce. Thinking back to those manic times she describes her pysche as that of "the bride or the birthday girl - but every single day of my life". She sighs. "As everybody knows, the pressure of being the birthday girl is actually quite hard work; it all gets a bit overwhelming near the end, then you have a little cry and have to clear everything up."
When she sought professional help for her increasingly unhinged mindset, she was given a more specific analysis: bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. In an interview earlier in the year, Joyce admitted she initially thought of these diagnoses as "b******s". But speaking before her appearance at Belfast's Limelight on February 19, she is open about the stresses of stardom, and the impact her experience had on her new album Into Colour. The chorus of disco-tinged Dangerous - "Is your love too dangerous?" - encapsulates both the trepidation of new romantic relationships as well as Joyce's own insecurities about returning to the music world after the trauma surrounding her debut record.
"Dangerous is about not wanting to do music because I was frightened of becoming ill again," she says."It'd taken me such a long time to get better that I really had doubts about writing and performing again. It seemed insane - why would I go back to the thing that made me ill in the first place? People said 'It won't be the same this time, it'll be different people, different situations' - but I was still scared, as you might be about starting a new relationship, not wanting to get hurt again."
A main source of Joyce's mounting tension was her extremely packed diary, with Rumer booked for shows and public appearances up to two years in advance - the pitfalls of the overnight pop sensation. She was stuck between a rock and a hard place; not feeling up to carrying out her duties but desperate not to let any of her fans down, people that had paid good money to go and hear Rumer's soulful, mournful voice in concert.
"Every day I was a slave to the schedule, which was damaging to me because I like spontaneity in my life," she recalls. "The problem with having a schedule two years in advance is that it kills that magic of spontaneity, the very thing that makes life interesting."
As Joyce would later discover, removing herself from her London base would aid this desire for freedom. However, when she was caught up in the furore, the only feasible solution was medication. "I had to get drugs to pull myself through it all. You can't, as a human being, do all that stuff without some kind of help. There was nothing to take the edge off it for me. I don't drink, for instance. I found it hard to adapt to this new life all of a sudden. I wasn't a kid straight into the music business who didn't know anything else - I knew what real life was, and this wasn't real life."
Despite this abnormal existence, Joyce considered herself "just one of the hundreds of thousands of people across the world who have an unbelievable workload and can't cope". Eventually, she realised she needed to "get away from that stressful situation and regroup, reconfigure what my life was".
Her retreat came in the form of a trailer in LA's Laurel Canyon, where she tentatively began writing new material after battling with the solitude that, paradoxically, she so dearly needed.
"Certainly, the first week in LA was very, very lonely," remembers Joyce. "I didn't have a car so couldn't really get anywhere, which was a bit of a worry. I did something very brave though, going to America alone, and I relished the freeing aspects of that."
The press release for Into Colour suggests that Joyce saw parallels between her Laurel Canyon abode and her childhood in an expatriate commune near Islamabad in Pakistan, where she was born. Were there really similarities in such contrasting environments?
"The sense of freedom was similar," Joyce replies quickly. "Both places offered a kind of safe-haven, an alternate universe. The commune and the Canyon were both very supportive but alternative communities - and that's what I'm always looking for."
On the morning of our interview, the news breaks that the Pakistani Taliban have killed over 130 schoolchildren in the city of Peshawar, 90 miles away from Joyce's place of birth. Having only just woken up, the singer is unaware of the developments before I relate them to her, and she reacts with tangible shock. "Oh my God, are you kidding me? That's awful. Terrible news."
Joyce moved to England from Pakistan when she was 11, and had a breakdown when her mother died in 2003. She also suffered a miscarriage last year. What seems to have hit her hardest in recent years though is the "betrayal" of one particular person in her life, who goes unnamed.
"It instigated a complete lack of faith in humanity for me," says Joyce soberly, of the incident which is touched upon in her new song You Just Don't Know People. "There are people you know for a long, long time who you can suddenly stop trusting because of something they do. It really changes your faith towards the whole of humanity, when it's somebody you didn't expect to betray you. It took about two and a half years for me to really get over that. Writing that song helped a lot."
What stops Joyce's past traumas completely clouding her character, as she fears, is her gratitude over what she does have in life. The final track on Into Colour, I Am Blessed, was an important one for Joyce in her quest to remain positive. "I try to find silver linings," she asserts. "I've got most important things in life - I've got love, heart, friends, hope. I've lost faith before and it's a horrible thing. You've got to find the good in the world. It's easy to see all the violence in the world and live in hate."
The love Joyce refers to is largely reserved for Rob Shirakbari, who became Rumer's songwriting collaborator, producer and fiance during her spell in LA. Though Joyce was at first "a bit embarrassed about writing with Rob, because I wanted to write about him, how I feel about him," Shirakbari played an important role in the recording of Into Colour, reviews of which were mostly positive.
However there were a few naysayers, with their "horrible two star reviews", that displeased Joyce.
"The album seems to have been quite polarising," she says. "Most reviews have been positive, four or five stars, but then there have been those few bad ones. I think those reviews missed the point - I think you've got to actually listen to it properly. I didn't feel like some journalists did that. You've got to go beneath the surface - it's all in there."
Shirakbari is now a constant, welcome presence at Rumer's live shows. Joyce's stage fright has been partly diminished by having him alongside her.
"I don't get so anxious now that Rob is up there with me," she says. "Still, stage fright is just a normal, chemical thing. When you're about to go out in front of thousands of people, you're body goes into fight or flight mode to prepare you for a dangerous situation.
"On an animal level, performing live is dangerous. Your body doesn't know that you're performing; it just knows that you're exposing yourself to thousands of people. The body thinks you might be in danger of being eaten or something, so it has an animal response to the threat."
While these multiple anxieties would weigh down a lesser soul, though, the singer truly believes her struggles have made her into a better artist and a better person.
"When you go through an experience where you might get hurt, you come out of it with a bigger heart," smiles Joyce.
"I'm more compassionate for everything that's happened."
- Rumer plays at The Limelight in Belfast on February 19. For details, visit www.limelightbelfast.com
Under the spotlight...
Other stars who have suffered the trauma of stage fright include ...
Adele - the Grammy-Award winning singer is prone to bouts of anxiety on stage, despite her huge success. She has confessed to being "scared of audiences". She was once so nervous before a show in Amsterdam that she climbed out of the fire escape to flee the venue.
Carly Simon - the American singer, most famous for her hit You're So Vain, once passed out and collapsed during a gig in 1981 due to tension over performing in front of a crowd. "I'm an anxiety-prone person, and I'm prone to attacks," she once said.
Brian Wilson - the Beach Boys singer is known to suffer panic attacks on stage. He receives shoulder and neck rubs before shows, and prays in an attempt to soothe his nerves