Berlin-Born, London-based singer songwriter Roxanne de Bastion’s travels have taken her far and wide in the past 12 months.
They have also given her pause for thought about the experiences of her grandfather, Stephen, a pianist who fled Hungary for Britain after encounters with both the Nazis and Russian Communists.
The parallels between the 1940s and 50s and the difficulties faced by modern refugees has inspired her second album, Heirlooms & Hearsay, which she is launching with a short UK tour that includes shows at The Basement in York and Greystones in Sheffield.
“I never knew my grandfather – he passed away when I was a baby – but I’ve always felt connected to him, I think that’s probably because he played piano,” the singer says. “He was a bit of an enigma, especially because of his story – but so many families have that kind of story in them.
“During the Second World War he worked in forced labour on the Russian front and then him and the men with him in that job got abandoned when that mission didn’t go so well. He ended up walking back [home], he was one of the few that actually made that walk back, but he was then sent to a concentration camp. That was towards the end of the war. He survived that because the camp got liberated and went back to Budapest but after that the Communist takeover of Hungary happened. I can’t imagine what it must have been like, it’s kind of mind blowing. As that situation heightened my family escaped and managed to get to Stratford-upon-Avon. I’m pretty sure that move happened because on my grandmother’s side there was already one relative already living in the Midlands.”
She says her songs on the new album sprang from a “need to write something that reached through the generations and I wanted, from a very personal point of view, to make that comparison between then and now”.
“It amazes me how short our collective memory can be, because this really isn’t long ago. So I wrote the first track off the album, Run, that kick started the theme and was very much directed at him but then I asked my dad if we had any recordings of my granddad’s compositions and it turned out we did and my dad sent me this digitised recording of a piece he recorded in 1954 and it was when I heard that recording, because firstly the composition is beautiful but at the end of it there’s this little message that he recorded, so all of a sudden I heard my granddad’s voice, with his Hungarian accent. I’d not really heard his speaking voice before, and it was this little message to his children and it was so moving it just made me cry because it was unexpected but also it showed how close it really was. Hearing my granddad wish my dad a happy seventh birthday there was something really sweet about it.
“It was that recording and hearing his voice that inspired me to run with that theme for the album.”
Stephen’s voice can be heard throughout the album alongside his piano composition The Old Mill. “I thought I wanted to use his piece in full so it’s almost like a hidden track at the end of the album,” says de Bastion.
Having heard a lot of anti-immigrant rhetoric in Europe and beyond in the last year, de Bastion says she wanted to offer a different perspective. “That’s where the motivation came from,” she says. “I’ve always been interested in music where the lyrics matter, that tell a story, but I think now more than ever it’s time to have songs that aren’t just unhappy love songs.”
A recent tour of the States proved an eye-opener. “I did tour by accident I think the most liberal spots of the US – I started on the West Coast and then across and ended in New York, so I had a lot of Americans apologise to me then I just apologised right back, but it’s such a varied country – a beautiful one but one that’s full of contradictions. What was really odd for me was the patriotism or what I would call nationalism in the States. Even in the most liberal spots you would see houses with flags in the front yard. You don’t do that in Germany, where I grew up. Just driving through New Jersey on these massive long streets where every house has a US flag I did feel a little uneasy, so that was culturally different, but it was definitely a great adventure and I really enjoyed a great tour.”
Roxanne de Bastion plays at The Basement, York on May 4 and Greystones, Sheffield on May 8. Heirlooms & Hearsay is out on May 5. For details visit www.roxannedebastion.com