IT COULD BE THE LEVELLING FIRST LINE, SPANNING AN ENTIRE LIFETIME IN A SECOND. IT COULD BE THE ENDURING ACHE IN ITS EXQUISITE VOICE AND DEMURE HIGHLAND MELODY. IT COULD BE THE SKELETAL ACOUSTIC GUITAR, SYMPATHETIC PIANO AND TENDER STRING ARRANGEMENT. IT’S LIKELY TO BE ALL OF THESE THINGS. BUT IT IS ALSO SOMETHING MORE; SOMETHING INDEFINABLE.
EVERYTHING CHANGES, the stunning title track of Rachel Sermanni’s new EP (out 27th January), is one of those remarkable songs which seems as if it must always have existed; hidden away in a secret place, timeless melancholy occasionally reaching out to be heard.
The Carrbridge songwriter has form for coaxing magic out to the open. Her first release, 2011’s atmospheric THE BOTHY SESSIONS, was recorded in one night in a tin-roofed forest shelter remembered from Scottish childhood. An assortment of musical friends had been invited along to help conjur something special amidst the woodland spirit. 2012’s acclaimed debut album UNDER MOUNTAINS was a tour-de-force, from the gentle seaspray lilt of opening track BREATHE EASY, through the one-minute old-time whimsy of LITTLE PRAYER and the fragility of single EGGSHELLS, to the mysterious closer TO A FOX.
In October last year THE BOATSHED SESSIONS echoed the rustic honesty of that first EP, capturing something of a moment in time in an old boathouse on a loch shore. Almost impossibly romantic, Rachel’s bohemian approach is not that of the conventional ingenue singers she has sometimes suffered comparison to. In this new interview, she reflects on her experiences since UNDER MOUNTAINS and reveals some of her highlights of last year, but begins by talking about EVERYTHING CHANGES …
EVERYTHING CHANGES, YOUR NEW EP, IS RELEASED IN TWO WEEKS. FROM THE OPENING LINE (“ONE DAY I’LL BE AN OLD MAN, YOU’LL BE AN OLD GIRL”) TO THE LAST, THE SUBJECT MATTER OF THE TITLE TRACK FEELS RATHER PROFOUND… BEARING IN MIND YOU WERE ASKED TO WRITE IT FOR A FILM, DOES THE SONG HAVE PERSONAL SIGNIFICANCE FOR YOU?
I think so. It must. I used to be defensive towards the idea. I felt like the song didn’t belong to me. But, perhaps, when you subtract yourself from the equation, you’re left with something egoless and far more vulnerable. Rumi probably says it better, somewhere.
WHAT WAS THE FILM, AND WHAT WAS THE WRITING BRIEF YOU WERE GIVEN FOR THE SONG? WAS IT A DIFFICULT TASK TO WORK IN THAT WAY?
The film will not become what it was going to become. Hence the reason I can have the song. They told me the story of a boy and a girl who end up liking each other despite their lifestyle differences. I can relate to that in some ways, especially the idea of caring for a person over a long distance. I guess I drew on that. It wasn’t too hard.
THE EP WAS RECORDED IN NEW YORK WITH ALEX NEWPORT, WHO HAS PREVIOUSLY PRODUCED DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE, CITY AND COLOUR, MARS VOLTA AND BLOC PARTY… WHAT DID YOU THINK THAT ALEX MIGHT BRING TO YOUR SONGS?
I didn’t know what to expect. I knew that Alex was keen to work with me and that he’d do a good job of helping the songs sound good. I was aware of the rock-focused background. I was excited to try something like BLACKHOLE, which has a bit of an edge to it. I got to put sunglasses on and play electric guitar. But, really, Alex has a great understanding of simplicity. None of the songs feel overcrowded. They have lots of space.
THE BOATSHED SESSIONS EP WAS RELEASED IN OCTOBER OF LAST YEAR. IT REMINDED ME A LITTLE BIT OF JOLIE HOLLAND’S ALBUMS – PARTICULARLY ESCONDIDA – IN THAT THERE WAS BOTH SPACE AND A STRONG QUALITY OF ‘PRESENCE’ IN THE RECORDINGS. DO OTHER ARTISTS INFLUENCE YOU LIKE THAT – PERHAPS IN TERMS OF A FEELING YOU HOPE TO CAPTURE?
I’m always searching for someone who has managed to capture something unfathomable in their recordings, performances, art. A feeling inside that you can only know is doing your soul good. But you couldn’t put a word to it. I’m glad if ever people feel this with the songs I sing. I must listen to Jolie Holland. Particularly ESCONDIDA. Hear, perhaps, what you hear.
I’VE SEEN SOME PHOTOGRAPHS OF THE RECORDING SESSION – WHICH TOOK PLACE, LITERALLY, IN A SHED ON A LOCH SHORE. IT LOOKS LIKE YOU HAD A LOT OF FUN…
It was great fun. As you would expect. A single night. A group of friends and musicians. Some songs. Trust. A real piano and a big wooden shed atop the water. Those people you saw in the pictures know me well. I’m honoured to have such wondrous musical friends willing to share themselves with me all in the name of adventure, spontaneity. They were basically paid in whiskey, fresh air and venison burgers. Next morning we took a dip. It was fresh.
YOUR DEBUT ALBUM, UNDER MOUNTAINS, WAS RELEASED IN THE AUTUMN OF 2012. HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THE WAY IT WAS RECEIVED, AND THE DOORS IT OPENED FOR YOU?
I’m extremely thankful for all that UNDER MOUNTAINS has allowed me to do. Many doors have been opened. And it is also worth being grateful for the doors that didn’t open. A closed door always diverts you to the most interesting of places.
HOW DO YOU VIEW IT NOW, ARTISTICALLY? DO YOU USE IT AS A ‘REFERENCE POINT’ FOR SUBSEQUENT WORK?
I’m still very happy with it. We put lots of energy into that. Lots of feeling. And I can still feel it when I listen to it. But I am surprised at how different my voice has become. If it is used as a reference point, people will notice a similar disposition for symbolism but also a perhaps more literal look into the world I’m in. I’m a bit more to the point in some of my newer songs. They will also notice that my voice has deepened. And they will notice that less instruments and human power have been used in the new recordings.
HOW DO YOU THINK THAT YOU’VE DEVELOPED AS A WRITER SINCE UNDER MOUNTAINS? IS THERE A PARTICULAR PROCESS, OR DO YOU TRY DIFFERENT WAYS?
Writing is hard to pin down. It writhes around under the pen. It morphs under the tongue. It becomes shadows if you look too long. And it manifests into something tangible when you least expect. The best I can do is just continue to write in any form, so that I’m ready when the moment of manifest strikes.
YOU SKETCH A LOT. IS THAT A WAY FOR YOU TO KEEP YOUR CREATIVITY FLOWING? DO YOU ‘VISUALISE’ YOUR SOUND?
I am quite a visual thinker. Whenever I rehearse with any form of band, we speak in imaginary concepts. Trying to convey feeling over technique. I don’t think it’s about ‘keeping creativity’. More likely it is keeping sane. It brings balance. And a sense of happy, childish function. To do anything creative soothes.
YOU BEGAN 2013 OFF THE BACK OF UNDER MOUNTAINS… DID YOU HAVE A PLAN, CREATIVELY SPEAKING, FOR THE REST OF THE YEAR? DO YOU DO THAT – DECIDE WHAT DIRECTION YOU WANT TO GO IN AND STEER THE MUSIC THAT WAY, OR ARE YOU MORE LIKELY TO LET THE MUSIC STEER YOU?
I think, plan or not, something else other than myself does the steering. It’s odd. But that’s life. In fact, the ‘plan’ for the year was to give UNDER MOUNTAINS the best final push I could give it before choosing another path. In the beginning of 2013 I had over-toured myself and I was tired. And, in true struggling artist style, had decided I could not continue… but, as I said, something else had other ideas. 2013 was quite a healer, in lots of ways.
WHAT HAPPENED ..?
Canada marked the change in my mood early on in the year. I’ve travelled over there many times since the first visit in February. A highlight was going to Dawson City, up in the Yukon, for their amazing festival. I had many incredible experiences up there and was struck by the people, who are both friendly and hardy. Sharing stages with many wonders: Rose Cousins, Mo Kenney, Colin McCleod, Owen Steele, Alasdair Roberts, Mamselle, Bonnie Prince Billy… Yeah. Lots of goodness.
IN FACT, YOU’VE PLAYED MORE THAN SIX HUNDRED GIGS IN THE LAST FEW YEARS – WHICH IS AN INCREDIBLE AMOUNT BY ANY STANDARDS… HOW DO YOU THINK YOU’VE DEVELOPED AS A PERFORMER OVER THAT TIME?
As a performer I’ve become more calm. My voice has deepened. Which is nice for me. The records have changed due to those things, and the natural change that occurs in someone’s personal life over that space of time.
THOSE GIGS HAVE TAKEN YOU ALL OVER THE PLACE, SO LOTS OF GREAT ‘ON THE ROAD’ MEMORIES MADE ..?
Musicians are hard workers. But lucky workers. I feel my mind has opened, as has my heart, with exposure to other parts of the world. Lots to learn. Lots to be inspired by. Lots of ways to live. This whole year has been amazing. Every place we’ve been. Beautiful venues and people. Feel like I’m finding a ‘family’. A collection of people who want to listen well and provide the right listening spaces.
DO YOU GET MUCH OF A CHANCE TO SIGHTSEE?
Most days are spent travelling and gigging so there is only a small window to sightsee within. But you can get up early. Or stop somewhere nice. There are always things to soak up.
WHAT WERE THE MOST MEMORABLE?
I have seen some great things: The biggest sky of stars. Dinnet (North Canada); A giant Beaver. Beaver Lodge (North Canada); The midnight sun. Dawson City (Yukon); Rooftop view of Vienna; I’ve held a baby fox (Dublin, of all places); Climbed a hill at the edge of an island in Porto Santa Stefano (Italy); Peggy’s Cove (Nova Scotia)…
WHEN YOU DO GET SOME TIME OFF FROM THE TRAVELLING, THE RECORDING AND ALL THE OTHER THINGS THAT GO WITH BEING A MUSICIAN, IS IT EASY FOR YOU TO WIND DOWN?
If I know I have more than a week off then I can rest. This time round I’ve had three weeks. So I set about renesting into my room. Cleared the white debris from my desk. Removed the desk. I now have a little corner for a wee purple cushion; a birthday present. I sit on it.
WHAT DO YOU DO TO RELAX?
I live with my family in the Highlands. There is lots of wilderness and the chance of less people (especially in winter). I hide. Past few weeks I’ve seen no-one but the siblings and parents. Been cooking healthy things, drawing with ink, doing yoga and going for runs. Walking the dog each morning. As porridge heats and thickens in wait for my return. Watching films. Last night was nice, my brother just got back from Uni. We put some Mozart on, played chess and my sister wrote a narrative observing us, turning our humble environment into something stately. My brother and sister make me laugh. Last night they pushed me to the point of having to spit my coffee back into the mug. Which is a fun thing to do and adds to hilarity.
WAS THERE MUCH IN THE WAY OF MUSIC, BOOKS, FILM AND TV THAT YOU ENJOYED DURING 2013?
This book I’m reading right now is great: MY NAME IS RED by Orhan Pamuk. Other great reads that I can think of: PEACE LIKE A RIVER by Leif Enger. Neil Gaiman’s THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE. Someone just introduced me to Chris Pureka and her album, HOW I LEARNED TO SEE IN THE DARK. And it is always being played. I was filled with a similar sense of awe when I first heard Sharon Van Etten’s album, TRAMP. And the Low Anthem’s SMART FLESH. I can only think of two films right now. I don’t know why they’ve surfaced, but Lars Von Trier’s MELANCHOLIA and Martin Scorsese’s SHUTTER ISLAND are good.
YOU HAVE A COUPLE OF HIGH PROFILE SHOWS COMING UP – KELVINGROVE ART GALLERY IN GLASGOW, JANUARY 31ST, AS PART OF CELTIC CONNECTIONS, AND THE UNION CHAPEL IN LONDON ON FEBRUARY 6TH. MORE DATES ARE SCHEDULED FOR THE COMING WEEKS, AND THERE’S THE EP VERY SOON, OF COURSE… BUT DO YOU HAVE OTHER PLANS FOR 2014? PERHAPS A NEW ALBUM?
Lots more touring. Hopefully more recordings. There’s a lot to fit in…