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Chosen One: Gareth Dickson

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Interview with Gareth Dickson.

For me recording is almost a necessary evil, writing is where the fun is but once a song is written I am always quite anxious about how I will manage to capture it on a recording.”

Gareth Dickson

Words: Mark Carry

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Windswept beauty is immediately forged across ‘Orwell Court’ on the achingly beautiful folk lament ‘Two Halfs’. Scotland’s Gareth Dickson continues to explore deeper into mystical realms and otherworldly dimensions on his latest crowning jewel of timeless folk gems steeped in ethereal sound worlds of ambient and drone flourishes. These seven sumptuously crafted song cycles drift majestically into one’s heart and mind like the unfolding of dawn’s vast skies.

Delicate guitar tones coalesce with Dickson’s hush-like whisper on ‘Two Halfs’, casting a hypnotic spell. The returning guitar motif feels like an age-old melody unearthed from the depths of an ocean, before Vashti Bunyan’s ethereal voice – and carefully placed synths – further heightens the celestial and sublime human experience. The Glasgow-based musician has collaborated closely with folk luminary Vashti Bunyan – touring the world with Bunyan adding his distinctive guitar sound – and it’s her 2005 FatCat album ‘Lookaftering’ album that could form some reference point to Dickson’s latest sonic trajectory. For it’s not only the immense songcraft on display across ‘Orwell Court’s striking narrative but the rich textures, luminous tones and vast space in which these deeply moving songs – or closer to dense sound collages – forever inhabit.

The album’s vital pulse arrives with the duo of ‘Snag With The Language’ and ‘The Hinge of the Year’. Dream-like tapestries are weaved across the former, as gorgeous guitar patterns flicker like midnight stars before Nick Drake-esque vocals creates a brooding, cinematic atmosphere. Later, warm percussion is wonderfully added on the song’s middle section, displaying a kind of meticulous detail that feels all-too-rare in these modern times. Gradual ambient flourishes of acoustic guitar passages begins ‘The Hinge of the Year’ that belongs to the world of Brian Eno, Sweden’s Tape, Finnish duo The Gentleman Losers, Berlin’s Martyn Heyne as it does Bert Jansch, Jackson C. Frank and Nick Drake. Towards the final section, the tempo slows amidst Dickson’s singing of “snowfall” wherein the guitar instrumentation transforms into a viola de gamba (whose rhythmic pulses share the cosmic spirit of French artist Colleen).

The brooding tour-de-force ‘Red Road’ takes you down dusty roads and ghosts of memories as immaculate guitar tones and harmonica lingers in the pools of your mind. The dense, atmospheric instrumental ‘This Solid World’ serves the fitting prelude to the closing Joy Division cover ‘Atmosphere’. At every corner of ‘Orwell Court’ sublime reverie abounds. “Don’t walk away, in silence”.

‘Orwell Court’ is out now on 12K (and available in Europe via Discolexique).

http://garethdickson.co.uk/

https://www.facebook.com/garethdicksonmusic

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Interview with Gareth Dickson.

Congratulations Gareth on your sublime new record, ‘Orwell Court’. The seven sonic creations captured here inhabit an otherworldly dimension, in which the songs – more like sumptuously crafted sound collages – drift majestically into one’s heart and mind. I have always felt this way with your music and ‘Orwell Court’ prevails with that mystical, far-reaching quality that renders the songs utterly timeless. Please take me back to the recording sessions themselves and your memories of writing ‘Orwell Court’? I would love to gain an insight into the place of ‘Orwell Court’, its resonance with you and whether there was a certain moment, mood, lyric, melody that perhaps served the trigger to the inception of this batch of songs?

Gareth Dickson: Thanks Mark, very good of you to take the time to engage with the record, and I’m glad you like it! ‘The Big Lie’ was the starting point for the whole album and very much set the theme for this record. In a sense ‘Orwell Court‘ could be described loosely as a concept album, it has a constant theme which applies in some way to all of the songs – it deals with concepts such as power, the state, myth, war, mass surveillance, manipulation of language etc. These are all topics which interest me at the moment and ‘The Big Lie’ was the first musical outlet for these thoughts. The rest of the album followed from there. ‘Orwell Court’, the place, is a street near where I grew up, George Orwell recovered from TB in the hospital near my house and they named the street after him. The similar themes he deals with in ‘1984’ made the name an obvious choice for me. It’s not, however, an album of ‘protest songs’, this album is as personal as any of my previous ones, it’s a personal reaction to what I see going on around me in the world whereas previous work was a personal reaction to what was going on in my own life.

The album was written and recorded at my home in Glasgow. Initially I spent a lot of long nights drinking coffee, improvising with the guitar (usually in altered tunings and through some effects pedals), and slowly allowing ideas to form. When I’m working like this I can spend weeks and months playing every night and hoping to find something new, but only very rarely will something excite me enough that I want to keep it and build on it. When that happens it’s just a case of trying to expand upon that initial idea, or combining it with other existing ideas which are in the same tuning. I recorded the songs myself in my living room after experimenting a great deal with microphone placements and effects set ups etc.

For me recording is almost a necessary evil, writing is where the fun is but once a song is written I am always quite anxious about how I will manage to capture it on a recording. It’s kind of a question of practicing the songs enough that you can play them well but not so much that they lose feeling. It’s a tricky balance and one which you don’t always feel has gone right. And recording itself is full of trade offs, a vocal mic placement which is good for voice may not be ideal for the guitar or whatever (I always record guitar and voice at the same time). So the whole process of home recording can be a difficult one, but one which has the advantage of having more control over exactly when you record, and therefore what mood you can achieve etc.

‘Two Halfs’ is the perfect opening line; I feel the gradual light of dawn appear across the horizon as the bright, joyous melody unfolds. Vashti Bunyan’s added harmonies heighten the song even further, a gorgeous match and haven of celestial sound. Please talk me through the construction of ‘Two Halfs’ and your memories of hearing the final recorded version? The echo and reverb from the instrumentation – and vast space created as a result – is a joy to behold.

GD: ‘Two Halfs’ is essentially built on two different riffs, the opening one for the verses and the interlude in the middle where the tempo drops. Some of the various pitched drones which you can hear in the background are from the delay pedal, and there is also some synth in there which Vashti added afterwards. I sent her the track and asked if she could add something to it, I was really blown away when I first heard what she had done. Her vocals are beautiful as always and the synth part she added is great. After this there was a long process of mixing, editing and eq-ing so the track emerged slowly from there and there was no one point where I heard it for the first time.

What were the challenges or biggest difficulties posed during the making of ‘Orwell Court’? I am curious whether the words appear for you first, prior to the musical framework or is it a case of painting words on a canvas of sound? For instance, has the creative process itself changed in any significant way from previous works like ‘Quite A Way Away’ and ‘The Dance’?

GD: Initially I would say that this album came together a little more easily than any of my previous albums, because I am now used to the process and have developed certain practical skills along the way in my guitar playing and recording (even though recording still remains a difficulty, it’s maybe less so now than previously). Later on the mixing process took a lot longer than I expected, I struggled with eq and reverb levels etc as it’s such a subjective process. What sounds like a good mix one day can the next day sound muddy and unclear, this part drove me mad for a good few weeks or more. Lyrics always take a certain amount of effort for me, I feel like guitar playing is a very natural thing to do but writing lyrics definitely takes more thought. They are always added after I have written a melody on the guitar, usually the guitar melody will suggest a certain mood and I will start the lyrics from there. In the past I have written entire songs in a night (Two Trains, Like a Clock were written this way), but now I would say they are more crafted and tend to take longer. Other than this my creative process hasn’t changed at all really since I started writing.

Please take me back to your musical upbringing and your earliest musical memories? What were the first defining moments for you that made a big impression in you and soon did you realize just how significant music would play in your life? Also, what particular records and musicians made you want to develop your own unique guitar playing?

GD: My parents were both big music lovers who grew up in the 50s and 60s so mostly around the house I would have heard things like The Beatles and Elvis when I was very young. I loved listening to the charts on the radio and watching Top of the Pops just like everyone else of my generation. In my early teens I played in punk and metal bands and listened to things like Metallica, Slayer, Fugazi, Snuff, Minor Threat. I think the first time I really realised how significant music would be to me though was when I was around 19 or 20 and started listening to acoustic stuff like Nick Drake, Bert Jansch, Incredible String Band.

These people were a revelation for me in terms of the depth of emotion they reached. This is when I really started playing guitar properly, practicing a lot and learning whatever I liked the sound of at that time. Not long after this I discovered electronic and ambient music – Aphex Twin, Kraftwerk, Brian Eno. I think really what drove me to form my style initially was the desire to merge these two worlds – to have the discipline and direct connection with music that playing an instrument brings, but with the abstract and ethereal sound-world of electro. Since then I feel I have tried to incorporate many other types of music in to my own but this was the starting point. Other people who have had a big impact but not always in an obvious way would be Captain Beefheart, Syd Barrett, Robert Johnson, Beethoven, Schubert, Wagner…..

I love how there are meticulously crafted layers of instrumentation dotted across the record, which serves as a lovely complement to your voice & guitar. ‘Snag With The Language’ has some beautifully warm percussion added in the closing section and harmonica flows beneath ‘Red Road’. I can imagine the later stages in making ‘Orwell Court’ was a very enjoyable part of the process, when the songs are fully formed but you have the opportunity to add certain shades and textures to the songs? I personally feel the duo of ‘Snag With The Language’ and ‘The Hinge of the Year’ forms the vital pulse to ‘Orwell Court’s rich narrative (particularly the poetic prose of the latter).

GD: I also imagined that this would be the enjoyable part but it wasn’t always the case unfortunately! This was uncharted territory for me as I have never added extra instrumentation to my music before so there was a lot to learn. The main thing I learned, after a lot of experimenting, was that the overdubbed parts had to be kept extremely simple in order for them to work. I am used to being able to write what I like when I’m writing songs, but adding parts afterwards is quite a different thing. In the end I realised that anything added afterwards had to be simplified to the bare bones in order for it to work, so that took some time. But hearing these things back once I had honed them as much as I could really brought the album to life and that definitely was fun. I agree also that the two tracks you mentioned form the heart of the record in a sense, without choosing those over the rest of the album they are definitely important for the record.

The closing cover of Joy Division’s ‘Atmosphere’ somehow fits so perfectly with the rest of the album, a song that embodies the record in many ways. I wonder did you envision this (utterly transcendent) cover version to be part of ‘Orwell Court’ from the very beginning or did this just happen in the midst of it all? I’d love to hear your memories of this particular song and the importance of Joy Division’s music in your own life?

GD: I am not actually so knowledgeable about Joy Division’s music to be honest but I have always loved this song, and of course ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’. A few years ago Taylor Deupree (who runs 12k Records) asked me to record a cover version of this and the plan was for him to add some extra instrumentation and release it as a collaboration. When he heard it he decided that it worked well as a solo piece however, so we left it at that. During the recording of Orwell Court I thought that it would fit well with the rest of the album so I re-recorded it when I was recording the other songs.

You have played guitar alongside Vashti Bunyan on many tours across the world and have closely collaborated with this special soul. I would love to gain an insight into this collaboration and the experiences and deep learning you must have obtained as a result of this wonderful musical partnership?

GD: It’s been one of the defining experiences of my life, not just as a musician, and I have loved every minute of us playing together. We met in 2006 after FatCat let Vashti hear my music when she was looking for a guitarist to accompany her live. We’ve had some pretty memorable shows, from concert halls to little clubs and everything in between. We both learned a lot on the road together because we were both pretty new to touring and working with sound engineers etc, it took us a while to find our feet initially I think. Recently we’ve been playing often as a duo which is something I’ve really loved, playing with a band was great but a band has its own rhythm which is hard to break out of. With just the two of us it’s possible for Vashti to speed up or slow down or whatever and I can try to follow. Rehearsing together has always been great fun, a lot of cups of tea and catching up, and playing together without amplification, just a couple of guitars and Vashti’s voice, those for me are maybe the most special moments. I feel very lucky to have been involved with this, hard to put in to words what I’ve learned but I know that our playing together has had a deep impact on me.

Finally, in terms of the guitar set-up and the many delicate intricacies embedded deep in these guitar tapestries, can you outline your approaches to making these soundscapes and how you feel you ‘see’ music from a compositional approach point of view? There must be endless experimentations with various tunings and technical set-ups in order to generate such rich and lyrical layers of sound?

GD: On a technical level the guitar sound itself can be achieved fairly simply, I run my guitar through two effects pedals – an analogue delay (Electro Harmonix Memory Man) and a reverb (Electro Harmonix Holy Grail). There is definitely a fair bit of experimenting with altered tunings, sometimes I use existing tunings and sometimes I look for new ones myself. The Memory Man delay pedal has a really great warm and deep sound, especially the older ones, the new ones have changed and are a lot more clinical sounding. The older ones are like a musical instrument, with a lot of character. That’s all I use for the guitar sound, just these two pedals, there are no overdubbed synths or anything like that, the pedals provide any extra sound that you hear on the recording.

When I’m improvising though I’m on the look out for interesting things happening with the effects almost as much as for melodies that I like. In ‘Two Halfs’ for example, which you mentioned earlier, the effects pedals create drones of various pitches that enhance the original melody. In ‘The Solid World’ it’s the same again but with a lot more effects rolled in, the delay and reverb settings are turned up and I pick the guitar quite fast and very quietly so that almost all of the sound you hear is from the delay and reverb and not much from the guitar strings themselves. This gives the piece a kind of electronic feel but there are no synths or anything used there.

Another technique I use often is playing directly on the fret rather than just behind it as would normally be the case. This allows me to mute certain notes which gives a very different and maybe harp-like sound to the guitar, especially when combined with reverb. The main guitar part during the singing in ‘Snag With The Language’ is an example of this, and also the intro to ‘The Hinge of The Year’ which sounds quite different but is the same technique.

‘Orwell Court’ is out now on 12K (and available in Europe via Discolexique).

http://garethdickson.co.uk/

https://www.facebook.com/garethdicksonmusic

Written by admin

March 1, 2017 at 8:26 pm

Step Right Up: Resina

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Interview with Karolina Rec (Resina).

“…it is some kind of story about our ambivalence in experiencing nature: a simultaneous feeling of both beauty and anxiety (at nature’s power and unpredictability).”

—Karolina Rec (Resina).

Words: Mark Carry

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Resina is the alias of Karolina Rec,a cellist and composer based in Warsaw, Poland. Recently released on the prestigious Fat Cat imprint, 130701, Resina’s s eponymous debut album contains enthralling cello-based compositions, whose quiet bliss and eternal solitude awakens with each of the seven singular works. The pivotal sister companion pieces ‘Tatry I’ and ‘Tatry II’– which form the vital heartbeat to part A – evokes the timeless sound of Icelandic cellist & composer Hildur Guðnadóttir such is the soaring beauty that ascends into one’s heart and mind.

Another hallmark of this remarkable record is just how closely the music feels connected to nature:  a purity resides deep within Resina’s cello works – augmented by the gifted musician’s rich, intuitive playing – which feels akin to towering mountain peaks above and vast deep blue seas below. In this way, earlier Colleen records – such as ‘Les Ondes Silencieuses’ from 2007 – could be a reference point to the musical trajectory that is masterfully explored by the Polish composer. In similar ways to Colleen’s third studio album, Resina’s compositions are highly personal as the focus is moved to the natural tones produced by the cello instrument (the viola da gamba in Cecile Schott’s instance), whilst the music is largely unadorned.

Resina’s hypnotic voice is added on the utterly transcendent album closer ‘Not Here’. Rhythmic pulses are wonderfully employed on the looped strings of ‘Nightjar’ (reminiscent of Brooklyn-based composer Julia Kent) and the enveloping darkness of ‘Dark Sky White Water’ unleashes the rawest of human emotion (think ‘Never Were The Way She Was’ by Colin Stetson & Sarah Neufeld). Resina’s highly impressive debut forges a deeply immersive experience.

Resina’s eponymous debut album is out now on 130701.

https://www.facebook.com/resinae/

http://130701.com/

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Interview with Karolina Rec (Resina).

 

Congratulations Karolina on your utterly captivating and enthralling eponymous debut album. One of the striking qualities to these cello-based compositions is the quiet bliss and eternal solitude that awakens throughout the album’s timeless journey. Please take me back to the period of time in which the album was written and recorded? As this is a debut record – and seeing that you have such a rich body of collaborative projects also – I imagine some of these compositions have been blossoming over a considerable length of time? 

Karolina Rec: The process of composing pieces for this album started before I moved from Gdynia and was finished after I settled in Warsaw. It all started around 4 years ago, and probably was somehow influenced by slowly leaving behind a favourite place and specific feeling of suspension between past and future, known and unknown. Gdynia is a coastal city full of truly amazing forests and moraine hills around it, which is rather unique – for the first time in my life I felt strongly connected to the nature. However, that movement and also some key changes in my personal life helped me to decide I wanted to focus on my music now.

The process of being a solo artist took some time. Being involved in all those bands and projects, working with brilliant Polish artists was something I really loved and felt I can do really well, at the same time developing my own skills and sensibility. I knew that one day I would try to do my own music, but was waiting very patiently for the time I would feel truly ready for that. Maybe that was the reason the composing process didn’t take so much time itself. Another key moment came when my friend Michał Biela (from Polish band Kristen) announced (after he heard that I was working on my solo) that I would play a show, sharing a stage with him at a very popular Warsaw venue. I was frightened, nothing was fully ready yet, but I agreed and that was enough sign for me that I can take a risk and finally have huge motivation to develop and speak my own language.

A rich, intuitive quality resides in your playing that immediately makes a profound impact on the listener. I would love for you to explain your compositional approach and to what extent does improvisation play in this?

KR: I’m happy you mentioned that! Yes, my composing process is strongly based on intuitive qualities. I believe in intuition because (as science confirms) it’s not magic, it’s a sum of our experiences, predictions and sensibility. It’s a kind of knowledge sometimes hidden in these parts of our mind / brain which are not so easily accessible (but can be). I like to play with and work on archetypical motifs and feelings, digging for them as deeply as possible.

Mostly, the compositions for this album were based on some simple ideas, sketches which had an inspiring potential to improvise on their basis. And I watched where that improvisation would lead me. Very quickly I was able to decide if something captured my attention and had this potential or not, and this decisive process was 100% intuitively. I’ve always tried to improvise first, not to write scores. Actually, it is impossible for me to play any piece twice in completely the same way…and that was the point. I came to the recording studio with some clear ideas but every recorded version was usually quite different from another (however we tried to record in not more than 2-3 takes).

Another thing is that to fully follow my ideas I often had to cross my own comfort zones and find some non-classical techniques, which in the most natural way comes from improvisation. Challenging myself to find other ways of expression in the instrument was (and still is) one of my favourite parts of playing cello. I must admit that only when I left all thinking about any aspect of classical playing did I feel free and really close to the instrument’s fuller possibilities and wooden, organic nature.

The range of possibilities you generate from your chosen instrument is quite staggering. A rich tapestry flows in a beautiful ebb & flow throughout the record’s narrative. Can you talk me through the layering – and looping process – of the cello instrumentation and indeed the mindset and approach when it comes to live performance? I love this live aesthetic that forms a lovely dimension to these tracks, which really feels as if you’re playing a live set once the record begins to play. What is your actually live set-up, Karolina? I presume it’s from quite a minimal framework (which again must be another source of inspiration for you when it comes to composing?)

KR: My current set-up is very simple, which was determined by the fact that I never wanted to change sound of cello itself, but to make a new, unexpected quality by using its natural sound in layers. Referring to that I need only a hardware looper and a reverb+delay. I don’t use a laptop on stage as I didn’t use it during composing process. That was also another idea for this album – to make it possible to play every piece 100% live. From a technical point of view, I wanted to keep the feeling of the creative process each time I played them, and the looper is a perfect tool for that. I try to stick to the most important parts of the composition but also to improvise every single time I perform it. Every time I try to learn a little bit more about the pieces: check what makes them better, moves them further; try to move the border and squeeze out more. Even to make some kind of ritual from that process. Hopefully that helps me keep the intensity.

The album closer ‘Not Here’ is perhaps my current favourite and forms a fitting close to a stunningly beautiful record. Can you talk me through this composition and your memories of writing ‘Not Here’? I just love how your voice appears here, just as the record is approaching the sunlit horizon. Also, the sound from the cello sounds almost like a gamelan, and love then the layering of strings that are placed on top.

KR: It was one of the first pieces I wrote for this album, just after Tatry I&II. I was still living in Gdynia, but just about to move to Warsaw.

“Not here” could be a good example of combination of two things I was talking about earlier: an archetypical aspect and very personal attitude at the same time. It’s also the least “improvise-able” and most predictable piece from the album, but that was the concept – to keep it simple and clear, to take a breath, to wake up from a strange dream. Taking this path – we can look on it as on a tale or a picture, and mine was like that: sailors at sea in the night searching for the right way but finding only voices (which finally disappear). Looking from my own very personal point of view: it’s a song to the lost sea, a piece written from my nostalgia for the left-behind landscape. To emphasise that dreamy, unrealistic atmosphere I decided to use my voice in a form of choir (and I think I will try to explore it more in the future). The funny thing is that I made some small changes just before the recordings and just after I came back from Indonesia, so possibly I incorporated some part of the gamelan scale or characteristic structure unintentionally.

‘Tatry I’ and ‘Tatry II’ form the heart of part A. Were these sister companion pieces conceived during the same space in time I wonder? Also, I love the slowed-down and gradual flow to ‘Tatry II’, which forms a wonderful counterpoint to the opening ‘Tatry I’. Are there certain motifs or melodic patterns that connect these two, Karolina?

KR: Yes, they came around the same time and in the same order as on album. What really connects them is not even a melodic motif but an atmosphere, which in my opinion causes specific cello techniques. A lot of very high notes occurring simultaneously – flageolets played on a drone base (but in the case of Tatry II much more minimalistic). In both cases the way of building melody is similar: from the notes which seems to be only a part of drone at the beginning but finally all together create some kind of melodic line at the end.

I would love to gain an insight into the album’s main themes and what you feel connects all these seven cello compositions together? Were there any challenges during the making of the record that you felt was a struggle to overcome in any way?

KR: I found it clearly after the album was finished, but yes, we can say there is a connection between all seven pieces. The album as a whole plays with feelings, memories, imagination, experiences, archetypes which the listener carries and which can be “turned on” as the trigger (music) appears. I always say that I try to take people to some places – but where particularly, that depends on them.

The second common aspect to all seven pieces refers to my own personal experience:  it is some kind of story about our ambivalence in experiencing nature: a simultaneous feeling of both beauty and anxiety (at nature’s power and unpredictability).

The third idea – and the first which appeared in my mind: to use the instrument in a very organic way, to try everything which can help create, also using non-typical, non-obvious cello techniques; be open to absolutely all instrument possibilities, not only traditional sounds. And to stay close the wooden nature of the instrument.

Please take me back to your earliest musical memories and the events that led you on your own musical path? Also, I would love to hear of any defining records, musical voices that you feel were hugely significant for you that in turn led you on this solo cello musical path?

KR: My parents aren’t musicians. They had no musical background at all. the first thing I remember were my mother’s lullabies and my own vocal improvisations – I think my father who was recording that on a tape recorder still has these tapes somewhere… Let’s say “professionally” it had started “by accident” when I was 8 and for the first time heard my friend was playing the school piano. I came home and I forced my mother to take me to the piano teacher. I think she was just as happy as afraid because in my whole family nobody was a musician. But later my mum admitted that when she was pregnant she was listening a lot of Chopin. Chopin’s Polonaise F sharp minor is actually the first music piece I remember (performed by extraordinary Polish pianist Witold Małcużyński).

Getting a typical classical education led me to learn about all the classical composers and pieces. However, I felt that classical music didn’t have to be only a clear ideological concept, or a form, but can be also type of a landscape, pattern or something much more irrational, subconscious when I heard “Gaspard de la nuit” perfomed by Martha Argerich, when I was 15. And then all the other genres came…I feel I’m influenced by nearly every genre of music: at the same time by the aleatorism of Lutoslawski and minimal techno, by gamelan scales and avant rock cacophony.

However, one particular album eventually convinced me to record a solo thing – it was the second solo album of Colin Stetson. That was a final, decisive proof for me that still it’s possible to do something extraordinary, original and powerful even if you’re alone with one instrument and you cannot build any interaction with another artist. I think that my aim was always to find extremely personal, internal language which could be somehow readable for many.

Resina’s eponymous debut album is out now on 130701.

https://www.facebook.com/resinae/

http://130701.com/

 

 

 

 

 

Written by admin

October 27, 2016 at 3:46 pm

Posted in STEP RIGHT UP

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The Story Of An Artist: Iker Spozio

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Interview with Iker Spozio.

In our new regular section – entitled “The Story Of An Artist” (named in tribute to the American singer, songwriter and artist Daniel Johnston) – we will be focusing on the artists who have brought their own distinctive artwork and indelible mark to the independent music scene. First to contribute is the wonderful Italian artist and illustrator Iker Spozio, who currently resides in the northern Spanish coastal town of San Sebastián. Spozio’s name has become synonymous with the independent music scene over the last number of years, with the creation of record sleeves for such independent labels as London-based Second Language and the Brighton-based label Fat Cat Records. Spozio’s work graces the sleeves for such bands and composers as Colleen, Adrian Crowley, Mark Fry, Delia Derbyshire and Hauschka. Over the years, Iker Spozio’s reputation for a master craftsman, engraver, illustrator and painter of immense talent and versatility has been widely evident for all to see.

Words: Craig Carry, Artwork: Iker Spozio

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“Self Portrait” based on El Greco’s “El caballero de la mano en el pecho”.

Even if the Italian artist Iker Spozio is not a household name to you, his distinctive artwork has bound to have passed your eye on more than one occasion. In fact, the chances are his artwork adorns some of your most prized and precious records in your collection. Spozio’s artistry has adorned albums by some of the most inspiring musicians in the independent music scene. Musicians such as French composer Colleen, Irish songsmith Adrian Crowley, German pianist and composer Volker Bertelmann (aka Hauschka) and the legendary English folk songwriter Mark Fry – to name but a few –  have all had their music beautifully adorned by Spozio’s immense artistic gifts.

Most notable in his musical work is his ongoing collaboration with the gifted French composer Cécile Schott (aka Colleen). The pair have been partners for many years and their symbiotic relationship has produced a string of truly memorable and everlasting records over the last ten years or so (with Spozio creating both album and e.p. sleeves as well as concert posters), Spozio applies the visuals to Schott’s music, both as deeply immersive and enchanting as each other. Their most recent collaboration has come in the form of Colleen’s current album, “The Weighing Of The Heart”, an album released last May on London-based independent label Second Language. The album is an extraordinary achievement for both Schott and Spozio, where both artists sought new departures in their ever-expanding artistic visions. The resulting work (both in sight and sound) is a true joy to behold.

Iker Spozio’s work has thus far been as impressive in its versatility and scope as well as in its unwavering and passionate attention to detail. Throughout his varied work (across commissions, personal work and longterm projects) there is a huge emphasis placed on craftsmanship where virtues of both patience and skill are always in evidence. Spozio’s versatility as an artist is nothing short of breathtaking, his portfolio showcasing works across many mediums including watercolour, engravings, monoprints, pencils and india ink. Often, the work is a hybrid of many techniques combined together – where a truly remarkable appreciation for each process’ own intrinsic qualities can be discerned – yet such works never serve to lose any sense of vitality as Spozio’s own distinctive graphic approach can always be appreciated and admired. For any work which bears the name of Iker Spozio can safely be described as something truly precious and singularly unique.

Most recently, Spozio’s work has been published as part of Mark Fry’s “Dreaming With Alice” songbook, a limited, special edition publication which collects together for the first time Fry’s lyrics and sheet music from his seminal 1972 album “Dreaming With Alice”, an album which is today recognized as one of the most defining records of psychedelic folk music. Spozio’s work here encompasses a series of twelve specially commissioned engravings which serve to beautifully illustrate Fry’s dreamlike and mysterious sonic masterpiece. Like any of Iker Spozio’s masterful handmade work, the imagery – like those from an everlasting and recurring dream – will journey straight to your eyes (and heart).

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Taken from “Dreaming With Alice” Songbook, engraving.

Firstly, congratulations on the magnificent achievement of the recently published “Dreaming With Alice”, the lovingly assembled songbook containing Mark Fry’s lyrics and sheet music for his seminal ’72 LP of the same name. The project is obviously very close to your heart as you have expressed a deep admiration for Mark Fry (as both musician and painter) in the past, as well as sharing a close friendship over the years. You also featured Mark Fry heavily in your fabulous “Morning” music magazine when you memorably interviewed him back in 2009 for the issue’s second edition.
So, first off, I would love to ask you can you remember the first time coming across “Dreaming With Alice?” What effect did it have upon you when you first heard it?

I first came across “Dreaming With Alice” about fifteen years ago, when I was still living in Italy, my home country.
I was just starting to work as an illustrator, back then, but also had a “proper” job as a graphic designer for a company which did websites. This job allowed me to pay my bills and also, of course, to cover my badly needed monthly fix of music!
I used to get my pay and then drive straight away to the bigger town in my district, Varese, where there used to be a pretty big and nice record shop, called La Casa del Disco. I soon became friends with one of its clerks, a guy in his fifties who had lived first-hand all the psyche, folk and folk-rock era. He used to suggest me all kinds of amazing records, describing them with contagious enthusiasm and in the most colourful ways. He’s the one who sold me Mark’s album, in its unofficial CD version released by Akarma.
I perfectly remember the particular day I got the album and playing it at home: I really got blown away by it, especially by the eponymous song, that seems to constantly appear and disappear like a ghost all over the record.
I still find it hard to believe that I’m friends with Mark, now. It’s definitely a pleasure and a privilege to me.

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“I Lived In Trees”, LP sleeve for Mark Fry & The A Lords (Second Language, 2012).

You created the wonderful artwork accompanying Mark Fry & The A. Lords LP “I Lived In Trees” which was released in 2011 by Second Language. As this was effectively Fry’s return to music for the first time in over thirty years it was clearly a truly special project for all concerned. I love how deeply evocative your artwork (including the concertina inner sleeve) is to the music within. I also love how – on the one hand – we have strong dominant shapes and forms, yet, we’re also presented with so much texture, imagery, colour and detail. It’s one of my all-time favourite sleeves! Could you talk about the artwork for “I Lived In Trees”, the process and techniques involved and the resulting sleeve?

Well, actually “I Lived In Trees” is the second album after Mark’s “come-back”, following 2009’s “Shooting The Moon”.
I’m delighted to know you like the artwork for “I Lived In Trees” so much, since it’s also a favourite of mine. The idea for a tree being the subject of the sleeve came from Mark, while the format suggestion came from Second Language’s mastermind Glenn Johnson.
I thought it would be a nice concept to depict a tree that would be visible in full only when the concertina would be completely unfolded. This allowed me to insert various elements, sometimes incongruous, in each panel, making each section of the booklet kind of self-sufficient but also part of a whole.
Technically speaking, the background was painted in watercolour, then all the elements were inserted in the typical collage way, using various papers and textures I had prepared beforehand.

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Taken from “Dreaming With Alice” Songbook, engraving.

If we return to the “Dreaming With Alice” songbook and the twelve accompanying illustrations that accompany this special publication. Firstly, just to confirm, these are linocuts?

Yes, they are.

Since there is such an amount of detail and varying focal points across the various compositions, I imagine you must very carefully “sketch” these out beforehand? How does the process between the inception of your idea through to the realization of the completed artwork happen for you?

Yes, indeed, I design, or should I say “plan”, everything in detail beforehand, especially when I’m working on an engraving, a technique that seldom (or never) allows one to have second thoughts.
I must confess that I’m quite a perfectionist, when it comes to my artwork. Maybe too much for my own good, since there is always the risk of getting too rigid and clinical in pursue of a perfection of sorts. That’s why, especially in recent times, I have been kind of forcing myself to “let go” and surprise myself through less thoroughly planned projects.

I love how you have used both reds and blues separately across the work. It seems to create a distinct contrast for the series as a whole, and seems to represent that idea of fantasy and reality for me. What was the significance of the use of colour for you here?

At first I thought of using more colours than those. But, in the end, I found that red and blue were really the most suitable for the project, both technically and aesthetically. The colour choice for each illustration was based on my feelings and the perception I had of each song in Mark’s album. It’s hard to explain: I just found some songs to be “blue” and others to be “red”!

Actually, I seldom use more colours than the primary ones, in association with black and white.
Dealing with colour is not something that came really naturally to me. I used to work in black and white only for several years, until I decided to overcome my lack of confidence and try my luck in the technicolour world!

I love how your work can appear quite abstract and fluid here, yet it always seems so rooted in the world of reality and representation. Recurring imagery such as birds, figures, the moon, floral elements and musical imagery are interspersed throughout. The use of space – both positive and negative – is also so striking and makes for almost multiple versions of the same piece. In terms of the series itself, are the individual artworks done specifically for songs in mind from “Dreaming With Alice” or are they more loosely based on the music?

The illustrations are completely based on the actual songs, and they usually feature elements drawn from the lyrics.
Some of the engravings are more descriptive, others less so. I must confess that I have a marked tendency towards abstraction, which I tried to keep restrained in this particular project. I think that abstraction often got to the surface, anyway, mostly due to the fact that at the time I did these particular illustrations I was extremely interested in African art and its tendency to translate reality into geometric shapes and patterns.
The Odyssey project, which I did not long after completing the Dreaming With Alice songbook, shows my more abstract side, and its illustrations, which are still based on the characters and events described in the book, are so minimal that one may find it difficult to immediately associate them with the text.

If the opportunity arose for you to do a similar project for another classic album (of any time or period), which would it be and why?

Hhhm, tough question, here, since I’m such a music “freak” that it would be a hard choice to make: too many wonderful albums around…
A particular favourite of mine, though, is Burning Spear’s first LP, which I consider a masterpiece. I would love to illustrate it.
Actually, right now I’m working on a series of paintings inspired by Jamaican songs. They are going to be completely abstract, since I believe that music such as dub, which relies so much on sound treatment, could hardly be translated into descriptive images.

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“Run Run se fue pa’l Norte”, inspired by Violeta Parra’s song of the same title.

Just to talk a little about your earlier work and the formative influences on you as an artist. What were the initial sources of inspiration for you to create art? Were there specific art movements in art history or specific painters you were drawn to at the beginning? Since your work encompasses a wide range of various techniques – such as painting, engraving, linocuts – I imagine there must be such a variety of people who have influenced you in your own approach as an artist?

My father, my grandfather and my great-grandfather were all painters, so art, painting specifically, was part of my life since I was a child. I always drew, but it took me quite some time to make the decision to fully devote myself to painting and illustration. It actually came gradually, and in parallel with my passion for music, since the very first works I got published were for indie labels I followed.
I like almost all art, so it would be difficult for me to choose some specific artists or movements as my favourite ones. I must say, though, that, being an Italian, I surely was influenced from the very beginning by all the Renaissance greats, Piero Della Francesca and Paolo Uccello in particular. The Bauhaus has always been a source of inspiration to me, as well as some “eccentric” painters such as Piero Di Cosimo, Léon Spilliaert and Odilon Redon. In a more “graphic design” context, I’d like to mention Neil Fujita and his work for Columbia Records in the fifties.

For the record, what are the techniques you most commonly use?

I first worked mostly in black and white, using indian ink and various kinds of pens and brushes. Then I really got into engraving techniques, such as linocut. I prefer to mix techniques up, though, so I often combine the aforementioned ones with watercolour, gouache and acrylic paints. I also do monotype a lot, a technique I particularly enjoy, since it gives one an endless array of possibilities.

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“The Weighing Of The Heart”, LP sleeve for Colleen (Second Language, 2013).

Now, to turn to the music of Colleen and the hugely enriching and stunning work that has resulted from that truly special collaboration. Firstly, I’ll point out that Colleen (aka French musician Cécile Schott) is your partner for many years now and you have been creating the artwork for her albums as Colleen for the last decade or so. The resulting “collaboration” has most recently been this year’s magnificent “The Weighing Of The Heart” album. It’s obviously such a personal and special project for the two of you, not least since it’s the first Colleen record in five years. I know it sounds clichéd, but it just so perfectly embodies visually the music within (for example, Coleen’s new focus on rhythm, colour, and movement). There’s also so much else in the sleeve, including the reference to the Ursa Major constellation, the Egyptian book of the dead and also the location of San Sebastián, where yourself and Cécile now live.
I would love if you could talk about “The Weighing Of The Heart”, the artwork and the new elements found in this new work of your’s and what influenced you in the making of the artwork?

The making of the artwork for “The Weighing Of The Heart” took me an extremely long time, since I really wanted to give it my best. It’s a very important album for both myself and for Cécile, who was getting back to recording music after a fairly long hiatus.
I actually did three different versions of the cover artwork, but never was completely satisfied with what I came up with.
I think that the final one, the one Cécile and I were both happy with, reflects well the changes we’ve both experienced in our respective arts: Cécile’s new poly rhythmic compositions and more “colourful” approach to music coincided with a tendency I had developed to get my works busier and brighter in terms of colour. As far as I’m concerned, I believe it’s a consequence of my passion for traditional African art and also an influence of Juan Gris’s cubism.
It’s funny because I hadn’t heard a single note of Cécile’s new music until I had finished the artwork, so it’s the result of a kind of telepathic communication between the two of us if both music and images work along fine.

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“Les Ondes Silencieuses”, LP sleeve for Colleen (Leaf, 2007).

It would also be such a huge pleasure for me to ask you about the sleeves for both “Les Ondes Silencieuses” and “The Golden Morning Breaks” here as well. Both those records hold such a special place in the hearts of music fans and both of the sleeves distill so beautifully the space and time in which both those special Colleen albums were made, and embody the particular mood and atmosphere of both records too.

I’m pleased that you like those particular sleeves, even if I must tell you that I find it kind of hard to look back to that particular era of my work now… I don’t feel really connected to it anymore. Actually, the cover for “Les Ondes Silencieuses” is probably the very last “official” artwork I did in that pen-and-ink, Beardsley-esque style I had been working with. Oh, well, I still have a soft spot for that sleeve though, since it has such a “home-y” feeling to it… Cécile and our cat are on it, and the landscape is a familiar one: it could well be taken from the place where we live now or from my hometown in Italy.

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“Black Magic and Its Expose”, engraving, taken from “Master & Margarita”.

Last year your project – encompassing fifteen engraved panels, all handmade and hand-printed – based on Bulgakov’s “Master and Margarita” was exhibited in the Bulgakov Museum in Moscow. This must have been such a proud and special occasion for you? And this project stemmed simply from your wish to illustrate each chapter from one of your favourite books?

It was a true honour for me to have my illustrations exhibited in Bulgakov’s Museum. The museum is actually in the house where the writer lived and wrote some of his books, including “Master And Margarita”.
When I got the offer to do that exhibition I was really moved, since I enormously admire Bulgakov, both for his work and for the determination he put into it despite the terrible living conditions and restrictions that were imposed on him by the Communist government.
I just wanted to pay a small tribute to him through my work, but unfortunately got stuck creatively midway through and never managed to complete it.
The original idea was to do 43 linocuts!…

Literature has also played a major role in your work as an artist. Which books and authors have you most admired?

I’m a huge fan of classical Russian literature: Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Pushkin, Gogol, Leskov, Lermontov and, of course, Bulgakov.
I also like early twentieth century russian poetry, Esenin in particular.
Generally speaking, I love the golden era of novel-writing, mid and late nineteenth century.
Other particular favourites of mine are Stendhal, Conrad, Maupassant and Tommaso Landolfi, maybe my most beloved author of all. He’s not well-known outside of Italy (actually he’s kind of considered as an “outsider” also there), but I find he wrote some of the most interesting works in Italian literature, especially when it comes to short stories.

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“Arrival at Pylos”, taken from “The Odyssey”, a series based on illustrating each chapter for Homer’s Odyssey, collage, monotype and sprayed watercolours.

Film has equally been important for you, I know in the past you have talked about such filmmakers as Marcel Carné and Tarkovsky. Which films and filmmakers would you recommend the most?

Tough question again! Hard for me to choose a few ones only!
I would definitely recommend some of the classic French movies of the 30s, 40s and 50s.
Carné is a big favourite of mine: I love “Hôtel du Nord”, “Le jour se lève”, “Quai des brumes” and, especially, “Les enfants du paradis”, definitely my all-time favourite movie (along with Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai”).
All the French cinema of that era is really interesting though, especially for the particular flavour of the language used.
French is a fabulous language, so rich and inventive!
I also love silent cinema, the German one in particular (Murnau, Lang, Dieterle, …)
Of course I have a soft spot for classic Italian authors, especially Mario Monicelli, and for music documentaries. A particular music doc I’m totally in love with is Margaret Brown’s “Be Here To Love Me”, devoted to the life and the music of the late great Townes Van Zandt. It’s most probably the best (and most moving) music film I’ve ever seen.

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“Mark Fry”, monotype, taken from “Morning” #2.

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“Norman Jopling”, engraving, taken from “Morning” #2.

Lastly, to music, and I have to at this point mention your incredible music publication “Morning” (named after the Peep Show’s song of the same name) which you published, illustrated and designed yourself. What’s so special and unique about “Morning” is that you effectively went on a personal quest to seek out those bands and artists from the past who you felt were unfairly forgotten and neglected by the music press at large. The resulting interviews are so poignant as the reader can really get the impression that these conversations were from the hearts of the respective musicians and they valued the opportunity so much. The art direction is a thing of beauty too (imagery comprises either your own artwork or the use of previously unpublished photographs) and is such a far cry from the mostly fairly generic nature of music media at large these days.
Could you recount your fondest memories you have had from your time creating and publishing “Morning”?

The concept behind “Morning” was to publish a magazine in the spirit of vintage periodicals such as “The Yellow Book” and “La Revue Blanche”, aesthetically speaking, and devote it to the music I really love. It focused mostly on artists I personally felt had not had the recognition they deserved, either in their time or even today, when some “underground” musicians of the sixties, seventies and eighties have been re-discovered and become sort of cult-figures.
My idea was to let the musicians talk as much and as freely as possible about their lives, their creative processes and their careers.
I really enjoyed working on “Morning”, especially since all the artists I approached were extremely enthusiastic and committed to the project. It was a truly rewarding experience on a human level.
I only have fond memories about it, so it would be impossible for me to choose a particular one, but perhaps it feels particularly special that Sybille Baier accepted to be interviewed (“because it’s such a nice little project”, as she said – and indeed it was: I only published 150 copies of the first issue). As far as I know, this interview is the only one she has ever given – isn’t that cool?…

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“Sibylle Baier”, monotype, taken from “Morning” #1.

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“Dreaming With Alice”, the illustrated collectible songbook featuring twelve specially commissioned linocuts by Iker Spozio (together with Mark Fry’s sheet music and lyrics) is available now HERE

For all information on Iker Spozio and to keep updated with new works please visit:

http://www.ikerspozio.net

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To read our interview with Colleen please see here, and for our interview with Mark Fry please see here.

Very special thanks to Iker and Cécile for their time, patience and warmth.

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