Meet: Billy Rowan, The Man Behind The Undercover Hippy

Leora Bermeister Farelight Productions

Drum n Bass MC turned singer-songwriter Billy Rowan aka The Undercover Hippy is on a mission to
make people think, laugh and dance simultaneously. We caught up with Rowan to find out where it all started and his new track ‘These Days‘. 

Give us a potted history of yourself

I started out as an acoustic solo act in 2003 (having previously been a part time drum and bass mc in Singapore). I went travelling around the world, bought myself a guitarlele in a sports shop in Indonesia (yep, in Indonesia guitar is considered a sport) and started writing songs. Soon people began asking who wrote the songs I was playing, and I had a bit of a eureka moment that maybe it wasn’t insane to consider a career in music. I spent 2 years living in Barcelona and recording my first album (it’s called “Demo” because it was supposed to just be a demo for sending to festivals and getting booked, but then I needed something to sell at the festivals, so printed a few more copies, and in the end, I had newer songs that needed to be recorded so I just left it as an album called “Demo”!). I started touring festivals in 2007 and picked up a few musicians along the way. For a while the band was a 7 piece, with violin, congas, backing singers, drums, bass, keys … but nowadays it’s a much smaller, tighter setup with a much bigger sound. Drums, bass, keys, guitar, but played well! Most of the band are based in Bristol, but our keys player Dre is a London boy. Since those early days of finding my feet on the festival circuit, we’ve managed to build a pretty large and loyal following and now get to play some fantastic shows across the UK and Europe.

Who inspired you to start making music

My mum. She played a bit of guitar and showed me a couple of chords. I played those two chords over and over. I still tend to write fairly simple songs in terms of chord progressions, focussing most of my energy on lyric writing. My mum is a bit of a legend. She’s 70 now but still comes to loads of my gigs.

And the one or maybe two records that inspired you artistically

I found the record Natty Dread by Bob Marley & The Wailers in my parents’ collection, and I think that had a big influence on me. The bass, the groove, and the politics … I’m still trying to capture some of that sound in my own music. Concrete Jungle … that is such a tune!

If you’re trying to explain who you sound like to someone that’s never heard you, what do you say

Think Natty meets Eminem on a protest march at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Tell us about your new single

The new single is called These Days. The track is about how I don’t get out very much these days and is part nostalgic journey into the bygone days of my raving youth, part commentary on getting older, and part call to arms to get off the sofa and have it large. I wrote the song before Covid, but after we were all put into lockdown the song took on a new meaning, as everyone both young and old were confined to their sofas. We recorded the song back in February 2020 at Henwood Studios, and planned to release it later that year, but Covid put everything on hold, so it’s only just seeing the light of day. I produced the track myself and recorded the vocals in a makeshift duvet tent in my bedroom, which is how I have recorded the vocals on all my albums. I prefer not having the pressure of booking a studio for my vocals, as I get a lot of colds! The track is out now and there will be a very fun music video we filmed in Manchester with Yellowboot Media.

Where can we get hold of it

It’s available here

Tell us how you write

I tend to write the songs and then take them to the band to arrange them. But sometimes the musical idea will come out of a jam. In fact, the basic concept for These Days came about when we were jamming after a two-day arranging session at Colehayes Park in Devon. I was just scatting along to some chords I threw together, and the line “you all know what I mean when I say” came out, but was followed by some nonsense scatting, which is quite amusing considering the line! The rest of the line formed later, and I wrote the song around that hook.

Tell us about your live show and how much have you been missing it recently

The live show is high energy, with lots of crowd interaction. I’ve never really captured the energy of our live show in any of my recorded music … I guess there’s something about performing to a crowd that just brings out a very different side of me that isn’t there in the studio. Lockdown was really depressing (after the first 3 months, which were like a well needed holiday), and made me realise how much I need the face-to-face feedback of playing to people.

What can we expect from you in the near future

The album is planned for release in early October to coincide with the autumn tour. We also plan to release another couple of singles over the summer. You can pre-order the album on our website:

Tell us your favourite records that are rocking your headphones/tour bus/stereo

My favourite band to listen to at home now is This Is The Kit. Such beautiful, dreamy, uplifting folk-pop. In the van we listen to a lot of reggae; a mixture of contemporary acts like The Skints, Mungo’s Hifi, Kiko Bun etc, and old classics like Black Uhuru, Peter Tosh, Burning Spear, and the reggae legends.

Find out more via the bands Website or Facebook

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