Sometimes barriers and boundaries can be inspiration. Not only does their inherent challenge inspire breakthroughs, but obstacles encourage creative thinking, and even dreams, as people look to surmount their restrictions. Pushing forward, both artistically and practically, is a strength that underscores RJ Thompson and his music. Like most of us, the singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist from North East England spent much of the last two years hemmed in by his own four walls, yet his third album, Yearbook, is his most expansive and ambitious record yet.
“I was stuck in a room writing songs on my piano but I was dreaming of something much bigger,” he explains of the horizon-filling sounds of the record that will be released in September 2022. “Ultimately, for the most part, we’ve all been stuck in rooms for two years, but we were dreaming of all these places we hadn’t been to for ages, all the people we hadn’t seen. Dreaming of a much bigger world outside the door is essentially what I’ve been doing with this record.”
While RJ was writing songs at his piano, in his head he was hearing saxophones, string quartets and more, across the twelve tracks that would become Yearbook. “It was me in a room writing, sending Voice Memos back and forth to my co-producer Adam Sinclair going, ‘what do you think of this one?’ but I always had visions of them being much bigger because these songs are talking about really relevant things,” he suggests. “It is not a record about lockdowns, but it references a lot of what’s happened in the last couple of years without being too on the nose. There’s a lot of reference to loss. Loss of people, loss of time, loss of confidence. The title track is essentially about two people who we sadly lost last year, but there is also a feeling of getting back to life too. Getting back out into the wider world.”
That mix of uncertainty and yearning has combined to produce some truly stirring and soaring moments throughout Yearbook. RJ’s songwriting and impassioned vocals provide the bedrock for the songs, though additional elements like strings have not simply been bolted. Instead, they have been integrally weaved into the main recordings that were done largely by Thompson and a small, close-knit, group of friends (“it’s a little cottage industry we’ve got here!”). They see him sweep from the sun-kissed bliss of the hopeful Feel Alive, through the dark yet enticing Cutting Room Floor, to the intimately beautiful Forest Fires which intertwines voice, guitar and string quartet. While possessing a poppy accessibility, the songwriting’s scope ensures there is an impressive depth to the songs.
“Ultimately, all my favourite artists – the Springsteens of the world, have an interesting viewpoint or story with their lyrics. I’m really into creating a deeper world around my songs too. I love the idea that when people listen to a song, they can listen a bit closer, then closer again and keep finding something new. I don’t necessarily like songs when they just lay it all on a plate for you.” RJ explains. “With Yearbook, we took that approach with the production and the instruments too. I spent an awful lot of time obsessing over it so people can sit up and listen deeply for the sonics as well as the lyrics. It makes it a much deeper experience. It’s a set of songs that can that you can grow with, I think. Hopefully, it’s something you can fall in love with.”
Yearbook’s blossoming beyond its initial confines is the latest strive forward for RJ Thompson, which along the way has seen him go from scratch to enjoy a top five album solely through his own efforts. Having got into music by taking up the drums aged six, RJ’s first push beyond his immediate boundaries came after witnessing U2 at the Manchester Arena in 2001 as a teen.
“Standing in a room of people singing songs back to someone who’s created them felt amazing,” he recalls. “The next day, all of a sudden, I had a real desire to write a song. Then I realised that it’s difficult to write a song just on the drums.”
Having taught himself guitar and piano, which led from school bands to the local open mic scene, a chance encounter soon made RJ push further still. “I played an open mic at The Studio venue in Hartlepool, and the engineer was also doing the sound for Midge Ure the following night and said they were looking for a support act,” explains RJ who snapped up the slot with the former Ultravox man. “At that point in time, I was doing music, but I wasn’t doing music for a purpose, if that makes sense? But after that support slot, standing up in front of 500 people and it going well, I started to think, ’Oh, maybe I’m okay at this.’”
Midge Ure more than agreed, recruiting the young songwriter to open for his European tour, which led to further supports for the likes of The Proclaimers, Gabrielle Aplin, Gabriella Cilme and Jools Holland, the latter tour including an appearance at the Royal Albert Hall.
While these slots not only gave Thompson an artistic focus, they also exposed fans to his music – and anyone who does not believe audiences care about the opening act should see his merch table and mailing list. Indeed, this hard won connection allowed RJ to release his full debut album Echo Chamber without a label in 2017. “I never went down the route of sending in demos,” he explains. “To be honest, the idea of being on a record label never really interested me. It still doesn’t because I very much like it being my own thing.” That self-won success led him to take the same route for his follow-up, 2020’s Lifeline, although the scope and success of that album was true testament to pushing beyond one’s perceived limits.
“Lifeline was about childhood. It was about me, growing up with OCD and anxiety issues that I’ve suffered with since I was 15, so the songs were very personal,” explains RJ of the record’s artistic expansion, though the evolution did not stop there.
With thousands of fans he had met on the road, to broaden his reach a programmer friend helped RJ turn the album into a truly unique experience. Listeners with RJ’s iOS & Android app installed can hold their phones over the record’s cover – a childhood picture taken in Blackpool – and the weather and time of day of the artwork will change to match the conditions wherever they are in the world. On the inside of the sleeve the app opens up discussions around the mental health raised by the lyrics, along with the original voice note demos RJ created ahead of recording.
“It was about making the world of the record much bigger,” he explains of this innovation. “Creating the songs comes first and foremost, but I’m also really into creating a deeper world around them as well and the Augmented Reality really extended the life of the record It was certainly a world audiences wanted to explore too, as Lifeline reached Number 5 in the UK album chart on release, holding off new records from several bigger names.
It is an approach that will be repeated with the release of Yearbook too, not just because it increases the appeal of the physical record, but because having created these unique digital spaces for himself, Thompson is keen to fill them with the same creative energy that fuelled the music.
“As I moved into the final stages of recording Yearbook, it started to become clearer what the main themes were… that feeling of loss, and that feeling of a bigger world outside your metaphorical walls. I wanted the artwork to reflect those themes, and reflect how I felt as I made the record” says RJ of the AR elements. This time the cover was created to seamlessly add depth to the lyrical themes. “The front cover shows me, alone in a room, and if you hover your device over the artwork it will come to life. Depending on the time of day, the time of year, and the weather where you are in the world, the front cover you see will be a reflection of that. So if it’s a rainy night where you are, you’ll see videos of me in the room on a rainy night, writing songs, watching TV… there are literally hundreds of different things you could see.”
Other elements – from demos, to videos and beyond – have also been created to add light and shade to the artistic space Yearbook occupies.
“I just wanted to make this really deep world that people could experience with the record,” says RJ of the efforts which are not mere add ons, but offer audiences a different angle to the album if they chose it. “It’s a very deep experience that opens up the world of the record, the isolation and the idea of creating something bigger than yourself, because ultimately, it gives everyone a different experience depending on where they are or when they look. Or they can just enjoy the songs. Because of the way they were written and recorded, there is plenty a listener will discover within them over time.”
And with RJ Thompson, as the scope of Yearbook’s 12 tracks demonstrates, it always comes back to the songs. From that moment of inspiration in a crowd in Manchester, he has been on a journey that has seen him consistently push back boundaries with his music to create an artistic space that is truly his own. “Genuinely for the first time, I’ve written songs on Yearbook where I’ve gone ‘Oh my God, that’s mine!’” he admits. “I know it might sound big-headed, but I’m really proud because these songs really sound like me, but they are also songs I just didn’t think I could write before. I’ve surprised myself and I really do love it.”
Now it’s everyone else’s turn to be surprised by RJ Thompson’s ever-expanding world.