Jazz Poet Alabaster DePlume Isn’t Afraid to Ask the Biggest Questions

In this Rising interview, the British musician talks about playing with a new band at every show, the catharsis of surrendering to the moment, and the intrinsic sense of community that powers his stunning new album.

As a conversationalist and songwriter, Alabaster DePlume swaps small talk for big, disarming questions. What do you need out of today? How do you want to make people feel? His songs are full of aphorisms about transcending fear and holding fast to humanity. His live shows are halfway between motivational sermon and spiritual reverie. He’s forever in the moment, a Mancunian mystic with heavily ringed fingers fluttering in midair and a half-smoked, unlit rollie abandoned at the corner of his mouth.

This sort of earnest vulnerability could be horribly mawkish in lesser hands. And yet DePlume, born Gus Fairbairn, appears to have a magic touch. His new album Gold – Go Forward in the Courage of Your Love, released this month on Chicago’s pioneering modern jazz label International Anthem, offers a vision of positivity laced with a tugging frailty, as well as nods to vintage Ethiopian music and Japanese folk. It’s an unbound record that invites you to marvel at the scope and promise of the community that produced it, then telescopes back to the listener with messages of encouragement that are clearly hard-won.

As we talk in his sunny, green studio in the East London music hub Total Refreshment Centre (TRC) earlier this month, DePlume hangs an acoustic guitar around his neck, and occasionally strums it softly. The 41-year-old has just returned from his first-ever U.S. tour. (Securing a visa took some wrangling given a conviction for peaceful protest with the environmental group Extinction Rebellion in 2019.) As is his custom, he changed up his band in every city. “You can connect with a town in a different way if you play with their musicians,” he says, in a strong Manchester accent that time and intention has sanded to a precise whisper. “I love it.”

Each band is corralled by a local player “who’s got their hands on the chords,” DePlume explains, and everyone else is free to respond in real time during the set. “Sometimes it’s better if they’ve not heard some of the tunes, because they come with something that I never could have asked them for. If I deny these players preparation, then that’s their invitation to bring themselves, because they’ve got nowhere else to go.”

The sessions for Gold worked the same way. In summer 2020, DePlume spent 17 days recording songs he had written with a different group of musicians each day. They also improvised and, crucially, never played anything back.

“It’s unique—he lets the band really feel part of the actual music-making process,” says Sarathy Korwar, who has worked with jazz vanguards including Kamasi Washington and Shabaka Hutchings, and played drums and tabla on the album. “That brings out the best of the people in the room. It’s one of the main reasons I love playing with him: I can feel free to make any kind of musical decisions and I trust that I won’t regret it.” Guinean artist Falle Nioke, who sings on Gold, concurs. He remembers DePlume telling him, “Don’t wait for me to tell you, ‘do this’—if you feel yourself in the rhythm, just come.” He adds, “There was no pressure on anyone.”

To make sense of the resulting 17 hours of analog tape, DePlume listened to each one in sequence and drew a map of the sessions on a long roll of brown parcel paper, now suspended on an easel in his studio. He diagrammed each tape using a color-coded key—blue for breath, pink for beauty, and red for fire—“so that I could access them in a non-goal-oriented way,” he says. There are additional notes, too, that we crouch to contemplate: “instant beauty,” “forgive,” “robot cowboys at solemn peace within.” He laughs reading that last one. “What are you on about!”

Some tracks layer five bands atop one another; others are collages or single takes. It took him three months to put it all together. He had rented a Mac to work on and kept renewing the lease; its exasperated owner eventually took pity and sold it to him for cheap. “And it’s not finished,” DePlume says—as people listen to the album they are, in some cosmic way, adding their own contributions.

If DePlume seems uniquely dedicated to making space for other people’s self-expression, he is less keen on opening up himself. “I’m good at not crying,” he admits on a Gold song of the same name. “I’m good at not causing unnecessary concern.”

On his left hand, hidden beneath chunky knit wrist warmers, he has tattoos of six stick men, each representing a past self. “I could describe each one,” he says. “I could tell you what they used to wear, what they used to talk about, and I could tell you how each one felt rejected by something. And instead of standing up for myself, I rejected myself too—because then at least I’m not alone. We don’t need to be that way with these guys any more; I don’t need to treat myself like that. I could describe each one, but I don’t want to right now. I want to just leave them there.”

We meander through his history. He grew up in North Manchester, to teacher parents: his dad voted Tory, his mum was left-wing. He was the second oldest of four in a noisy household, but DePlume generally kept mum. “If you want me to speak,” he remembers thinking, “you’ve all got to be paying close attention.”

He once said that as a teenager he was “happy to scare people” and that he carried knives. The most he will say about this nihilist streak now is that he spent seven years as part of a “strange little group” with three others who wouldn’t communicate with anyone else. “We thought everyone else was shit,” he says. “And I was terrified of being kicked out of that group, because then I will be shit.” Inevitably, he got expelled. He found new friends in South Manchester, started a jam night, and reinvented himself.

At some point in his early 20s, he got his stage name, courtesy of a rude tirade yelled from a passing car that impugned his attire and sounded something like “Alabaster DePlume.” He describes a subsequent swirl of phases: the “drunk poet” touring the UK, the open mic night MC, a Manchester blues man, part of a busking crew, one of a household full of drunk guitarists who picked up a saxophone because “someone who I cared for very much was listening to old rock’n’roll, and I liked that old rock’n’roll sound,” he says, mimicking the instrument’s bawdy honks. “But I never really ended up making that sound.”

He stuck with the sax, sometimes using it to grab attention when performing in pubs, then he got his first paying gigs backing musicians who demanded quiet accompaniment. He took some lessons with classical Indian violinist Olivia Moore, who schooled him in control. “She taught me to train by playing a single note very quietly,” he says. “I wanted to be the only saxophone player that anyone ever says: ‘Can the saxophone be louder?’”

Equally key to DePlume’s musical education was his work with Manchester charity Ordinary Lifestyles, which supports adults with learning disabilities. His team leader, Maureen, recognized that DePlume loved music and encouraged him to use it in his work with the adults he assisted, Cy and Lee. Her style of leadership proved influential, allowing people to find self-fulfillment in the service of a wider project—“which is trickier,” says DePlume, “but it’s more interesting and more human.” He worked with the pair for 10 years, until he moved from Manchester to London for another reinvention.

He knew that TRC was the space for him when he was offered a cup of tea on his first visit. There, he found a broader sense of musical community—while we talk, blunt kick drums and psychedelic synths intermittently pulse through the walls. TRC mainstay Tom Skinner, who drums in the London jazz group Sons of Kemet as well as with Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood in the Smile, also played on Gold. He recalls DePlume as a constant presence at the rickety, warren-like space, manning the bar at shows and cooking in the communal kitchen. “He always says, ‘How’s your spirit?’” Skinner remembers. “Growing up in London as I did, you learn to be quite skeptical of people, especially when they are so outwardly and positively expressing their emotions. Initially, I wasn’t really sure how genuine it was, but then I soon realized this guy is for real. It’s very refreshing to be around someone like that.”

DePlume swore off solo gigs, wanting to escape the singer-songwriter trope and to make his show inclusive. “You can be validly more strange if you’ve got people with you,” he explains. “You’re good enough for them, so your audience can accept your strangeness.”

Donna Thompson often drums with DePlume, a relationship that started when he called her out of the blue and invited her to perform with him, without ever having heard her play. “He always puts me at the front next to him,” she says. “He’s really generous.” That freedom, and his more explicit encouragement, nudged her towards making her first solo music.

In 2015, DePlume started an improv series at TRC called Peach. These monthly nights, populated by a rotating cast of musicians, became one catalyst for the burgeoning London jazz scene. He admits that his gateway to the genre was the soundtrack to the anime series Cowboy Bebop, which led him to Sonny Rollins and Charlie Parker, but he doesn’t feel qualified to say he’s making jazz. He is conscious of not overstating his place in the scene or the genre’s history. “I enjoy having a lot to learn,” he says.

It has been hard work to get this far, he admits, often in the face of derision. But he says he couldn’t do anything else. “I’ve given up lots of other stuff, and I probably treated some people poorly in order to prioritize this.” He pauses to consider why he persevered. “Doing this work is like having a moment of not having to pretend that everything is fine. It’s like there is a scream that we must stifle, and for a minute, I’m not stifling. It’s a relief.”

Success, a concept DePlume considers in scare quotes, came as a surprise. In 2020, he released To Cy & Lee: Instrumentals Vol. 1, a collection of old songs that he and his Ordinary Lifestyles associates used to hum for calm, stripped of the vocals that he later added on records Copernicus, The Jester, and Peach. He only sent it to International Anthem to prime them to receive Gold later on, but they loved it. With To Cy & Lee he wanted to offer a message of peace amid social turbulence. “The right-wing enjoying successes globally,” he summarizes. “That’s what was on my mind: I feel we’re in trouble.” Released in February 2020, that album quickly became a source of comfort for many during the surging pandemic.

Gold also reaches back through DePlume’s musical history. “I’ve been composing the material since I arrived in London,” he says. “I’ve been learning about courage and love my whole life.” Although the compassionate side of the album has drawn the most attention, there’s also more anger on Gold than previous DePlume previous releases. “The World Is Mine” inhabits the worldview of an entitled businessman and laments the Grenfell Tower tragedy, where at least 72 people died; “Do You Know a Human Being When You See One?” and “People What’s the Difference” pointedly consider the value of life amid a global refugee crisis. In the video for “I’m Good at Not Crying,” he drags up as Britannia and watches the sun finally set on the British empire.

DePlume attributes the shift to his late father, who lamented the lack of politics in music near the end of his life—though the anger in Gold is aimed inwards as much as at its clearer targets. “I want to scrutinize that part of myself,” DePlume says. “It’s not like: ‘I’m right, you’re wrong.’ This is within me. Our society is racist, sexist, and cruel—I am our society. I want to bring more clarity on those aspects inside of me so that I can see them, and then I’m less likely to unwittingly do their bidding.”

Gold also holds DePlume to account in other ways with its insistence on avoiding self-destruction. He laments situations where, as in “I’m Good at Not Crying,” his feelings “have made things difficult.” That’s no longer the case, he says. “I find I can take care of myself right now. Because I am welcoming people in these shows, as a host, I need to be fine. We can enjoy a time if we don’t need to worry about me.” He wants to be able to show his audience his darkest parts but admits, “My sharing of something vulnerable is actually an act of my self-control. So it is a kind of defense.”

The sort of openness and sincerity that DePlume radiates at 41 feels rare: They’re traits that life usually knocks out of you. “It’s not something that I’ve held onto in spite of everything,” DePlume explains patiently. “It’s more like something that I’ve surrendered to that I used to work against: I’ve given up on other things, and I’ve been left with this.”

The way he approaches life now, he hopes, means he won’t ever need to add a seventh stick man. Whereas he once sought total reinvention, I suggest, maybe he now aims to bring into his work the potential for him, his players, and listeners to feel new and unburdened by the past. “Right,” he says. “Show me what it means that you are who you are.”

That said, he also knows he has to work on establishing boundaries as more people want to bask in his glow, and plans to tell audiences he might vanish after he steps offstage in order to preserve his mental health and the ability to maintain that deep connection. The shows should be a mutual creation that they can carry with them, he says, “Because they don’t need a piece of me. They have all they need.”