Born in Winchester, England, Rosalind Leyden was 16 when her brother, Sam, took over the open mic night at a small local pub and encouraged her to get into music. In 2008, she made her debut as Rozi Plain with Inside Over Here, a collection of homespun recordings that introduced her hazy alt-folk sound in its barest form. Now based in London, Plain cut her teeth in the Bristol DIY scene, co-founding the Cleaner Records collective and collaborating with Kate Stables of This Is The Kit, with whom she’s spent much of her time on tour. As a solo artist, she’s been broadening her horizons with each album, and 2019’s What a Boost saw her folding in more experimental textures than any of her prior releases.
Plain’s fifth LP, Prize, out today, is built from recording sessions that took place everywhere from the French Basque Country to the Isle of Eigg as well as studios in London, Bristol, and Glasgow. Featuring co-producer Jamie Whitby-Coles (also This Is the Kit) on drums, Amaury Ranger on bass, and Gerard Black on synths, as well an impressive cast of guest musicians including jazz saxophonist Alabaster DePlume, synth manipulator Danalogue, and harpist Serafina Steer, the album is rooted in a communal spirit but shimmers with the same gentle, hypnotic intimacy that has permeated Plain’s music in the past. At the same time, Plain wraps her often perplexing lyrics around winding, subtly complex arrangements without overshadowing the songs’ vibrant warmth and understated candor. She leaves questions hanging in the air, yet makes drifting alongside them feel effortlessly natural.
We caught up with Rozi Plain for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about the making of Prize, her approach to songwriting, reconciling past and future, and more.
A few days ago, I had an overnight layover at the airport, and I listened to your records, in order, from Friends all the way to Prize. I’d already listened to the new album a few times, but the music really came alive in a different way when I was in this barely-awake state. It made me wonder what sort of headspace you’re usually in when you enter the writing process, if it’s more conscious or a sort of dream state.
I feel like there’s different headspaces. There’s definitely moments of writing that do feel like divine intervention or something, and it feels like a sort of mixture of distraction and focus; when you can distract yourself from yourself enough to find focus in a new thing. Sometimes it feels like things are coming to you a bit. But I think that’s also quite rare, and I think I used to think that it had to be those moments; it had to be this, like, “Oh, wow, I’ve just written a song in five minutes.” But I’ve changed my mind about that. That does happen sometimes, but you can also slowly craft a song by working on your stuff, and it can come in a completely different way. It can be really difficult, and then in the end it can still have the same feeling. It’s finding the things that compel you to keep playing them; I want to find a guitar riff that I don’t want to stop playing because it feels so satisfying to play, or a sentence that feels that I really enjoy to sing over and over again. I think I’ve said it before, but wanting to make, like, savory music. I want it to feel deeply, deeply satisfying.
With Prize, did you go more in the direction of trying to slowly craft something and have an added sense of control?
I definitely didn’t try to make it slower than it was because I’m aware of how slow I am anyway. I’m really slow at writing. And also, because it had been the pandemic, we had to wait for quite a long time before we could record the album how we wanted to do it, so I was eager to get on with it. I also had been given a deadline by the label, and then realized it just wasn’t ready. I was trying to make it ready, and then I realized it was not ready, so we delayed it I think by two months or something, the hand-in. And that made such an amazing difference. It like it just I was so stressed about it. I was trying to make it like, “There’s enough stuff there and it’s finished,” and it just wasn’t. And then I sent this email saying, “I can’t hand it in now, it’s going to be a month later.” And the intense relief I felt – suddenly we could make all these really good decisions about it and, like, see the wood for the trees, because I was in a bit of a panic trying to add things on it. And then I was like, “Okay. Okay, this is what it needs.” The extra delay time we gave ourselves, it really changed the album. I feel like it really became mine again somehow.
In what sense do you mean?
I don’t know, it’s like we unlocked the recordings. Also, how we’ve done things before is recording the base of things and then adding a lot of overdubs, and it felt more difficult to do on this album. It just felt like everything had to be so specific. And if it really didn’t enhance it, it did distract from it, it wasn’t worth having it there. So we added a lot of things, and we took off a lot of things as well. We mixed it with Ash Workman in Margate, and then my friend James [Howard] added quite a bit of guitar on a lot of the tracks. I was just thinking, “I think just this one song just needs one…” And then he did it on about seven or eight songs, and it just lifted them all up. It was amazing.
Is there a specific reason all your albums follow a 10-track, 40-minute structure?
I think for this album, it was part of the contract that there had to be 10 songs. But I think there would have been 10 songs anyway. Every album has had ten songs. I don’t know – not that I’ve even realized it before, but I think, “Oh, an album’s got to be ten songs.” [laughs] And I don’t even know why I think that, but it’s like 9 seems too little. But then I love it. I’m not super prolific, I don’t make a massive amount of stuff. I mean, I don’t have thousands of songs to choose from. It’s probably quite a lot of that as well, actually.
You’ve expanded your sound with each album, and though the songs can sometimes get quite intricate and ambiguous, they retain a certain clarity and almost simplicity of heart. ‘Complicated’, for instance, despite its title, is one of the sparsest tracks on the record.
Yes, when we were working on it, we did keep on trying to add things, and then we’re just like, “I think this song just needs to be really simple.” It feels satisfying that it’s like that and called ‘Complicated’. That’s a nice swip-swap. I’m writing about my own experiences, but I’ve never felt compelled to sort of tackle things head-on; I want to make it so people can interpret it in different ways, but to experience meaning in it. I want it to feel like sharing instead of explaining. I want things to feel open.
There are a lot of songs that start with an “it” or a “something,” but it’s never fully revealed what that something is. It’s like you’re entering in the middle of a conversation or the middle of a thought process.
Yeah, yeah. And I do notice that I have a lot of questions in, and I guess it’s stuff that I’m asking myself and other people. It’s great that you can say “you” when you mean “I,” because you’re allowed – because it’s your song, you can do whatever you like. But yes, it’s funny because I did feel really conscious about the word “it” and I did think, Oh my god, I can’t use the word “it” anymore. [laughs] But you have to use the word “it” sometimes.
As listeners, we’re used to hearing “you” without it being tied to a specific person, but I think it becomes fascinating when the “it” is up to interpretation. Of course, the album begins with, “What shall we call it?”
Yeah. But I am also in my life quite a question attacker. It’s quite a comfortable place for me to be if I’m chatting to someone is just asking lots of questions. [laughs] And I don’t always think that’s a good thing. I don’t think I’m horrifically interrogatory or something, but I think I do ask a lot of questions. It’s great when you can spend time with someone and not asking those questions – not just say, “Oh, how was that? And how is that going? And where did you go then?” That’s like the normal stuff, isn’t it? It feels like a challenge to not do that, but I think it’s good exercise to not do that. Because you often find out more from people when you don’t just get the facts off them. It’s nice when you catch up with a friend, and then you realize you don’t know anything that they’ve been doing. [laughs] But you’ve still had a really quality catch-up.
I know what you mean, sometimes it’s hard when you’re having a conversation with someone to not be in that mode where you’re making it about the other person.
Yes, exactly, just making it about the other person. And then also, when you make it about the other person, inevitably they’re gonna make it about you in a second. They’re gonna say, “And what about you?” Like, “What? Oh no, I don’t want that! I just wanted to get you to do the talking!” [laughs]
How do you think you’ve been influenced by the different places that have been a part of your musical journey, from Winchester to Bristol to London?
When I think about the songs I’ve written, they’ve got a place and a time and an era. Because I guess a feeling you’re trying to capture, intentionally or not, gets tied to time and place. Someone was asking me about this the other day, about moving around, how that affects me, but also, it feels like that’s like been my life for the last 15 years or something. I’ve been touring for ages, in my project or This Is the Kit, and that’s the sort of stuff I do. It definitely does soak in, but it feels like a natural part of my life. That feels like my life experience. I love doing that, and then I also like coming home.
But it does affect your relationship to home, right?
Yeah, definitely. But I think the feeling of home can be a very movable thing. Sometimes it feels like a house and where you live, and sometimes it feels like the people you’re with. There’s definitely times when on tour with my band or on tour with This is the Kit feels like my homely environment. I feel like it changes a bit, but it also feels like the ultimate quest, feeling at home. And it’s cool when you can identify sort of what that is for a bit.
I want to single out the line “Standing up in the full blue of newness,” which interestingly appears towards the end of the record. Do you remember coming up with it?
I actually do, because I feel like had a significant realization a few years ago that – I wonder if I can even remember what my significant realization was. [laughs] It was something like, I realized that I didn’t let my future in on my past; I didn’t trust my future with my beloved past or something. And I didn’t trust my beloved past to believe in the future. And I thought, I keep those things really far away from each other. And actually, of course, they’re completely joined. I don’t even know if anything’s changed since, but I think probably I’m guilty of being a fairly nostalgic person. The fact that things that have happened just sort of become fact – even though those facts can change, but the fact is, they happened. It’s like, if I listen to an old album, I think, “I can’t even remember how I did it – how did I come to all those decisions? God, I must have known what I was doing.” It feels like there’s all this conviction about the past, just because it’s the past now. Because those are the things that happened, and you can write them down. And and then the future, of course, is unknown, and you don’t know how it’s going to be and you’re worried you’re going to do it wrong or you won’t do it justice from how meaningful you found the things that have happened. But you find them meaningful because they happened or something.
Also, my mum proofread the lyrics, and the word “blue” used to be the word “bloom.” And she’d heard the album before and she was like, “Oh, I thought it was blue.” And I was like, “Oh, that’s loads better. I’m changing it to bloom.” [laughs] I sort of never felt very comfortable about having the word “bloom,” it never sat very easily with me. And the word “blue” made more sense. It sort of felt like the bright blue new. And it’s cool, I love that it was a misheard thing. Also, I often don’t pronounce the last sound of a word. I’m always not doing that, I just fade out. So it doesn’t sound like I’m singling “bloom” anyway, it sounds like I’m saying “blue.”
Because there are so few objects actually mentioned in the lyrics, naming the record Prize feels significant. What does it mean to you?
Whenever I’ve named an album, it’s been a lyric from the album. I’ve generally not held that much attachment to naming songs. It’s sort of admin; everyone has to know what song they’re playing, so it’s the most obvious word in it or something. And I’ve always named albums by just going through the lyrics, and after a while, something stands out, I just think, “Oh, yeah, I think it’s called that.” I was going to call it Nothing Will Do, and then it felt a bit faffy, a bit complicated. And then some people spooked me by saying it’s not good to have a negative word in there.
But I really like that it’s a five-letter word. I like the number five. And I like that it’s got a “z” in. But also, I think there’s probably quite a lot in the album about – I don’t even know if I mean competition, but sort of wanting to come good or prove something to someone or to yourself. I guess I’m sort of thinking about close tensions and relationships between myself and different people. People want to be not misunderstood and misrepresented, and I think it’s easy for people to get misinterpreted as wanting to be right or win or something, when, actually, they just want to make sure they’ve expressed themselves clearly and have been understood. Also, it’s quite a fun word.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.