Talking Music: Oli Rockberger On Sovereign UK Tour

Pianist, vocalist, songwriter and producer Oli Rockberger’s fourth studio release, Sovereign takes its title from viewpoints of transition, growth and independence.

The music for Sovereign came together from a decision for Oli to return to his native London after sixteen years in the United States where, following successful graduation from Berklee College of Musichis hugely formative New York career developed as sideman to big-name jazz instrumentalists including Randy Brecker, Will Lee (alongside Steve Gadd) and Nathan East, to recording/performing with acclaimed singer-songwriters Carly Simon, Jesse Harris and John Mayer.

Now based in the UK capital, Oli continues to work internationally as an in-demand sideman, and will be making his mark on his first solo UK tour with Sovereign this month including a date at Bristol’s Hen & Chicken on October 15.

Andy Howells recently put questions to Oli.

How would you describe your sound?
In places soulful & bluesy, and reflective & ambient in others. I’ve been told that my sound lies somewhere between Sting, Bon Iver, Bruce Hornsby and Joe Cocker…

What inspires your music?
Typically, it’s something that’s going on in my life at that particular moment that I want to write about. It can be a conversation I’ve had, a word or phrase that sticks in my mind, something I see in my daily life or maybe a film or a painting that inspires me. When the idea comes, I try and follow wherever the song wants to take me. And I’m continually inspired by listening to and discovering new music, and by going to see shows too.

Can you give us some background about your latest release?
Sure. So ‘Sovereign‘ was recorded while I was still living in NY in 2015. On the musical side, I had always wanted to make an album where the underpinning was predominantly live, with the band playing together with my vocals & keys also recorded live in the studio, with the ability to then add colours building from that foundation.  

My long-time co-producer Chris Abell and I forged a plan, recording most of the band/vocals over just two days, and then adding additional elements as we went along. I assembled a close-knit group of NY musical family to join me; people who I’ve been working with for a long time, who I knew would each bring something special to the recording. In terms what the album is about, at the time of recording it I was going through a transition, relocating from NY where I had lived for 10 years, back to my London roots.

So, the songs are really about making that kind of a life change. I also wanted to make something which I felt would capture that part of my New York experience, and I ended up combining brand new songs written during that period with re-workings of some older songs which I thought would fit well. I’m proud of how it came out and I really hope it’s something which gives other people heart wherever life finds them. When I listen to it, I get that NY feeling again…

What do you like most about touring?
I would say the musical synergy which develops between musicians after back to back shows, when you’re eating, traveling and generally spending so much time together. Feeling that musical chemistry and connection develop, and seeing the results of that in the live shows, is a special feeling. And of course, having the chance to travel and experience places that I wouldn’t normally have the chance to see is a wonderful aspect of touring also which I also really enjoy. 

What can people expect from your forthcoming shows?
This question comes just before my first few band rehearsals, so ask me in a few days and I’ll let you know! No but seriously, I would say for people to expect an organic and dynamic ensemble sound, which also makes you want to move.

I’m lucky to have a a fantastic band with me for this run of dates:  Hannah Read (vocals + violin), Michael Janisch (acoustic bass), Giorgio Serci (guitar + pedals), Marijus Aleksa (drums). We’ll be performing live arrangements of the songs from ‘Sovereign’ and a few from my previous record ‘Old Habits’, where we’ll open things out a little bit in places to feature the group, whilst also making sure to stay true to the stories of the songs. I’m so excited to share this music with this group of musicians on my first UK tour!

What are you enjoying listening to at the moment?
A bunch of things, including the latest records by Thundercat, Becca Stevens, Bon Iver, Jacob Collier, Knower and Terrane. 

What’s been your best live gig appearance as a performer?
Tough question to answer!! I’d say a major highlight for me as a sideman was performing at Afropunk in NY as part of Laura Mvula’s band, who I’ve been touring with for the last 16 months (keys/vox) supporting her latest release ‘The Dreaming Room’, which is stunning album. Then with my own music, I’d say the Brecon Jazz Festival in 2003 was a special one for me, as that was my first major festival under my own name. So, I’ll always look back fondly on that one.

Vinyl or digital?
Tough one. The collector in me says vinyl, combined of course with the sound, which is so warm, rich and full. I’m planning to release some of my music on vinyl in the future which would be a kind of dream come true to have my music available in that form.

But, I also really appreciate the convenience of music in the digital world, particularly as a musician often needing quick access for a sonic reference point, a dose of inspiration, or when I need to learn a song quickly etc. I also think it’s important to embrace the current landscape of the time in which you’re working.  So artistically, it’s Vinyl every time, but for practical purposes, digital.

Keep up to date with Oli Rockberger online