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Central And Remote: Áine O’ Dwyer

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Interview with Áine O’ Dwyer.

“Nothing in particular inspired me to take up music, it has always been an accessible form of expression as long as I can remember. Although, listening to massively inspiring works allows me to hear, feel, digest, understand and learn in a different way, whether it’s Arvo Pärt’s ‘Tabula Rasa’ or Robbie Basho’s ‘Blue Crystal Fire’.”

—Áine O’ Dwyer

Words: Mark Carry, Illustration: Craig Carry

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Later in the month of May sees the release of Áine O’ Dwyer’s first full-length album on London’s Second Language label. The name of this eagerly awaited body of work is ‘Anything Bright Or Startling?’ and most certainly, it will make for a highly enriching experience. A bonus cd contains eighteen minutes of true beauty, featuring two piano improvisations, a church organ piece, a chant/harmony (‘A Calling’) and a short flute interlude. This masterful artist and musician is capable of conjuring up an otherworldly sound through the meditative symphonic sounds of harp, piano, organ and not least, her beautiful voice. What I love about the music of Áine O’ Dwyer is the divine purity that is embedded in each of the songs. The solo piano and solo organ pieces are works of stunning beauty that places O’ Dwyer in the realm of the current Neoclassical age of composers. The harp-based compositions was my first introduction to the Limerick-born, London-based artist and it is this very instrument she is perhaps best known for.

Áine O’ Dwyer is synonymous with the independent music label, Second Language. The album ‘I Lived In Trees’ by Mark Fry was where I first came across O’ Dwyer. Her harp playing serves a vital part to the achingly beautiful folk songs of Mark Fry and The A. Lords. A pastoral landscape is etched across a gorgeous canvas of sound that aches of a lost England; evoking dreams, childhood, loss and our very existence. The delicate harp notes meanders effortlessly amidst the A. Lords’ soundscapes of spanish guitar, harmonium, accordion, bouzouki, clarinet, banjo and bells. There are numerous other collaborations O’ Dwyer has been involved with, most notably The Cloisters, Richard Moult, Piano Magic and United Bible Studies. As a collaborator, the staggering works of art – many of which have been released by Second Language – showcases the artistry and supreme talent of O’ Dwyer, where a deep understanding is forged between like-minded artists. A musical telepathy is forever inherent in these special recordings, from Michael Tanner’s Cloisters project to the experimental folk of United Bible Studies.

Seeing Áine O’ Dwyer live in concert is something to truly behold. Little did I know what awaited me. In the intimate space of my local recordstore, a beguiling tapestry of harp notes ascended into the atmosphere that simply left me dumbfounded. With no aid of technology – microphones/pedals or otherwise- O’ Dwyer’s voice and harp-based compositions carved out a sacred sound, reminiscent of Joanna Newsom. The music possesses the power to penetrate the human space, where the deeply affecting songs remain rooted to your consciousness. Later, O’ Dwyer joined United Bible Studies but it was her solo songs-not shielded behind noise of electricity-that in my eyes, celebrated art in its truest sense. Raw, fragile, moving and utterly captivating.

‘Music For Church Cleaners’ is an album of church organ music performed by Áine in St Mark’s Church, Islington. As the title suggests, the music was performed in the presence of the church cleaners, who at times can be heard in the recordings. The organ improvisations are truly breathtaking as you feel the organ filling the sacred space of the church. The music can be termed drone, ambient or classical but above all, it is sacred music. Whenever I revisit this special album, I feel a meditative and hypnotic quality exuding from the organ compositions. The pieces of music share the spirit of John Cage where a work of true beauty is created. The album was released on cassette on the Dublin-based independent label, Fort Evil Fruit.

‘Anything Bright Or Startling?’ will soon see the light of day, where Áine O’ Dwyer takes the rightful position of centre stage. It is here where she truly belongs.

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‘Anything Bright Or Startling?’ will be available soon on Second Language Music. ‘Music For Church Cleaners’ is out now on Fort Evil Fruit.

www.secondlanguagemusic.com
https://soundcloud.com/aine-o-dwyer

http://fortevilfruit.blogspot.ie
http://fortevilfruit.bandcamp.com/album/music-for-church-cleaners

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Interview with Áine O’ Dwyer.

Congratulations Áine on your amazing music. Your compositions; whether piano, harp or organ-based, are all exceptional and utterly compelling. It’s a real pleasure to ask you some questions about your music. I saw you recently on your Irish tour with United Bible Studies in Cork and Limerick. It was amazing to witness your live performance; using no microphone, allowing the intimacy of your voice and harp to capture the spark of magical art in the air. It really was something to behold, Áine. I would love if you could share your memories please of this Irish tour you recently have been on and what special moments you hold onto?

Thanks Mark! Yes, no amplification was a firm decision, although it was really special at Galway’s ‘Abandon Reason’ which took place at a disused underground carpark. The sound was filtered by the buildings cavernous belly. Gorges played that night also, a trio collab with David Colohan, Decklan Krully and Bridgid Power Ryce comprised of vocals and harmonium duets.The plugd gig at the Triskel was a really lovely start and it was a treat as always to play with United Bible Studies. That night there was Paul Condon, Gavin Prior, Enda Trautt, David Colohan, Alison O’Donnell, and Michael Tanner came over from England. It was a great reunion.

Limerick’s Conflux festival was a huge success! I didn’t get to see all the events unfortunately, there was so much going on that day but my highlight was when ‘Raising Holy Sparks’ and members of the audience delivered a chorus of horn jungle chaos!!

And then to round it off, I performed at The workman’s club in Dublin with United Bible studies and Mossy Nolan on the bill that night. It was the first time I saw Nolan perform, it was powerful! So, a very satisfying and uplifting trip.

There was a part of me which enjoyed traveling around the country via public transport with my harp. It’s an unusual sight for people I suppose. Some wondered if it was a type of surf board. I would generally meet with all kinds of guessing games whilst I’m out and about with it and not just in Ireland. The instrument is zipped up in a waterproof cover and I use a metal trolley to wheel it too and fro. I met with a train master at Cork’s Colbert train station who had worked there for over 15 years and not once had he seen a harp pass through the gates. I was surprised to hear that really. A woman at Limerick Junction scolded me, saying that I’d want to ’employ a man for that sort of thing!’

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Tell me please about your introduction to the harp instrument and how you have developed your playing over time?  

Well, I was introduced at eleven and started to take lessons locally in Limerick. My teacher insisted that her students play outside of the four walls as much as possible and she was really encouraging at the early stages too. I remember playing in my school band that same spring. There were a couple of years where I felt discouraged and I do remember giving it up and taking on the trad flute instead but that was a short affair. Eventually, when I was a little more rehearsed, I got work at local castles in the area, weddings, funerals, private functions. I began to compose my own furniture music for these events which would usually have sections of improv. Of course this was never enough to feed my curiosity.

I remember I did try to incorporate the harp into performances when I was a student at the Limerick School of Art and Design but I wished to play with other people. Megs Morley was a student there at the time, and asked me to perform at the ENSO Arts Festival in Galway city in 2002. Whilst I was there, she introduced me to United Bibile Studies. They were also performing at the festival and I was invited to play with them that night. It was quite memorable, we all walked on stage banging broomsticks on the floor before we ever took to any instrument. After that, I began to play more frequently with the group, as it opened up a great dialogue with some extremely inspiring and creative music makers.

The following year of 2003 I headed off to New york with the harp. I spent the whole Summer busking on random parts of the city’s streets, parks, sub-ways etc. I was introduced to a variety of noise musicians who I would play/record with and also an improvising Orchestra with whom I performed both in New York and Woodstock.

There’s lots more to do with my development continuing on after 2003, but I would count these early stages to be a vital part.

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What are the possibilities in this musical instrument that you see can only be obtained from the very strings of the harp?

I’ve always experimented with and enjoyed using extended techniques more so than using additional technology. It’s really lovely to bow the lower base steel strings of a harp. A lengthy piece of rubber cable also creates a nice drone. Playing on dampened strings comes in handy. (excuse the pun) Drum brushes work beautifully. I like to lay the harp down flat and play it as a hammer dulcimer too, given the chance. Metal or glass slides work very well along the strings. If I want a guitar or lute sound, I pluck the string closer to the sound board rather than in the center. Playing it backwards is fun! After that, there’s plectrums, harmonics, tremors, string bending……So, plenty of possibilities there before I ever think of plugging it in.

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Is there a piece of music or song that inspired you to take up music? 

Nothing in particular inspired me to take up music, it has always been an accessible form of expression as long as I can remember. Although, listening to massively inspiring works allows me to hear, feel, digest, understand and learn in a different way, whether it’s Arvo Pärt’s ‘Tabula Rasa’ or Robbie Basho’s ‘Blue Crystal Fire’.

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Staying on the harp, I love the wide range of sounds you create so effortlessly in your playing. The music sounds contemporary and new yet steeped in traditional/folk but always feels so touching and real. This is clearly apparent on the beautiful piece ‘A Pelagic Recital’, a co-write between you and Michael Tanner. Please give me an insight into this musical collaboration (found on the new album from The Cloisters) and the process involved. 

Michael asked me to respond to a piece of music which he gave me to listen to, and I did just that. We spoke very little about it as it was more an intuitive exchange.

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Your album ‘Music For Church Cleaners’ is very special indeed. I can hear sparks of spontaneity throughout as you play the pipe organ inside St Mark’s Church in London. I would love to hear you recount this moment in time when you are playing the organ in this space. Describe the church, the sound and feel of the room and the recording of the music. In terms of the compositions, were they improvisations and experiments? 

I would always play on a Saturday morning when the church cleaners would come. There was also a coffee morning in a separate room near the foyer of the church for the local elderly community and a little jumble sale displayed at the back of the nave. I remember the first morning of my visit, I found some rare vinyl there, a favorite of mine was an interpretation of Pérotin by The Dessoff choir, from the 1950’s.

The recordings took place over a space of seven months. I made seven visits and each time I brought with me two zoom recorders. I would sit and play for roughly 2 hours. Yes, they are improvisations and experiments which led to a selection of recordings which made the album.

At the end of the 7 months, I compiled the tracks and as it happens, each track is from a different month. I had explored a similar process the year before, conducting piano improvisations in my family home whilst undergoing construction. (The poor builders!!) But I managed to loose all the recordings. It was a good thing in a way, as it gave me a hunger for further experimentation.

I liked the idea of using the tape format, particularly for this project and Paul Condon of Fort Evil Fruit understood where I was coming from. I would also like to release it on vinyl if ever the opportunity arose and the finances were there.

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Tell me please about the church cleaners too, who play such an integral part. I love how they themselves become the conductors of your music, if you like. For example, when a lady tells you to play different notes, rather than one single note continuously and how you follow their instruction.

Yes, I liked that part too! I think on another recording the same lady came over to ask me if I could bring sheet music the next time. They were growing a little weary of my dronings I’m sure. Maybe I’ll return one day with a score of organ music to play for them and take away the irony of the title. It has been on my mind. There was an elderly man who would do the hovering. I remember he sat on the pew behind me once, waiting for the music to stop so that he could continue with his work and not disturb me. It was only when I stopped playing that he asked me if it would be alright to turn the hoover back on again.

An elderly woman would do the polishing. One Saturday, I had placed my recorder on a nearby piano and when I listened back the next day, I heard her breath very close to the microphone, the spraying of her Mr sheen and finally her hand grabbing the sound device, lifting it up and cleaning the piano’s lid underneath it. There were many elements of chance involved and I wanted that to come through in the recordings but without heavy editing. So there are somethings which I found hard to leave out.

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You told me from our last conversation about the different churches you have visited and been to and the differences you observe. I would love to know what other churches you have found magical and what is it that makes these spaces a place of inspiration?  

I can’t remember which ones I talked about before.. Maybe it was the Greek Orthodox church I walked into one day ? I went through the door and the alarm immediately sounded! There must be something I don’t know about entering a Greek Orthodox church? Or maybe I’m just a bad egg. In any case, I quickly walked out again. Or was it the time I walked into another church and found two priests dressed in their black cassocks singing in unison, each standing on separate lecterns across from one another, I was the only witness there.

A house of religious services is always an intrigue of mine,  whether it be the architecture of it’s walls, it’s beliefs, it’s congregation or inside where the repetitive theatrical action of ritual is housed;  blessing, kissing, genuflecting, kneeling, sitting, standing, shaking hands, singing, praising. Although, more often than intrigue, I find it harrowing to know that religion is so tied up with so many disasters, wars and corruption and I’m  concerned about Ireland’s dark past and present.

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Your first musical instrument was the piano; if I remember correctly. I love your many beautiful piano improvisations you have recorded. (I’m sure I’ve only heard a small portion!) ‘December Piano’ is my favourite that completely transports me. I would love to gain an insight into your creative process involved in the piano-based compositions? 

Ah yes, December piano.. This particular piece was an improvisation I made one morning at my parents house. We’ve always had the same piano and it’s like an old friend at this stage! I always try to make some time for it when I’m home. I’ve a heightened sense of awareness in this particular setting as it’s very still and quiet there. In this instance, I took inspiration from the wind which I could hear howling from outside the window, so, I began by mimicking it’s sound on the piano.

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I love your song ‘A Calling’. Gorgeous harmonies, bird sounds and percussion creates this timeless folk sound. There is a meditative power to this song. Can you shed some light on this song please?

I made a short super 8 film based on a prayer, the same time Music For Church Cleaners was underway. ‘A Calling’ was the sound track I made to go with the film. There were dancers who wore black cloaks and reflective circular masks, a drummer and another person signaling with seamphore.

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You have collaborated with many like-minded artists, such as United Bible Studies, The A. Lords, Piano Magic, Mark Fry to name but a few. As a composer, this healthy collaborative side to your work must be a wonderful thing. Tell me please about this collaborative aspect that you clearly thrive on and the impact it has?

I’m always keen for a chance to learn and explore and experience new horizons, so I will always collaborate with others. Sometimes they happen to be like-minded and sometimes not at all, it can work either way and in the spirit of the new, I always try something out at least once.

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What’s next for you Áine?

I have an album coming out in May 2013 on the Second Language label. After that, I intend to find a home for an organ based release.

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What direction will your next album take, if you know at this stage?

Yes,  the album – ‘Anything bright or startling?’ is different in execution. Most of the tracks are centered around harp apart from one piano track and another pipeorgan track. Some are studio recordings whilst others are more of a low-fi approach. I record my voice for the first time and enter into the world of song.

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‘Anything Bright Or Startling?’ will be available soon on Second Language Music.

www.secondlanguagemusic.com
https://soundcloud.com/aine-o-dwyer

Chosen One: The Cloisters

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Interview with Michael Tanner, The Cloisters.

“I vaguely recall wanting to invent a raft of bands for my label that didn’t actually exist…I love myth-making in music. But I suppose The Cloisters really festered away there at the back of my mind and this – 14 years later – is that album (sort of).”

—Michael Tanner

Words: Mark Carry, Illustration: Craig Carry

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The Cloisters is the latest music project of Dorset-based musician Michael Tanner. The debut album was released late last year on the wonderful independent label, Second Language. Across four tracks and 41 minutes in length, the self-titled release is gorgeously layered ambient music with delicate etchings of divine folk. For those already familiar with Michael Tanner’s diverse body of work, a terrific sense of nostalgia and mystery is embedded in the masterfully crafted songs. The Cloisters’ intricate arrangements and gorgeous instrumentation allows the listener to be immersed in an insular world of forgotten dreams. This album has served as my headphone listening for many a winter’s evening, forever shining light onto the night’s sky. The musicians on this collaborative project display their peerless musicianship. The sounds and textures are intricately woven together forming abstract landscapes of an English countryside and fantasy filled dreams. The album features Áine O’ Dwyer (United Bible Studies) on harp, Daniel Merrill (Dead Rat Orchestra) on viola, Aaron Martin on cello, and Hanna Tuulikki on church harmonium. The tracks were recorded in some of the places Michael Tanner grew up in, including Symonds Yat, in Herefordshire and a few Welsh border towns. In this way, the music evokes childhood memories and vivid nostalgia across the tapestry of sound. The material was heavily influenced by re-reading Susan Cooper’s ‘Dark Is Rising’ series of pagan children’s books, with their tales of billowing mists rolling down Welsh mountains. My favourite piece is ‘A Pelagic Recital’, written by Áine O’ Dwyer and Michael Tanner. Delicate notes of O’ Dwyer’s harp are the first sounds you hear, before a wave of church harmonium and strings provide a spectrum of ambient flourishes. The harp as the lead instrument is simply mesmerizing, as it meanders like a river flowing out to sea. Sublime indeed.

It is a real joy to see a music label like Second Language deliver such artistic gems, especially in this modern age of digital music. The independent label releases collectible new music by a wonderful international roster of hand-chosen artists (including Heather Woods Broderick, Piano Magic, Plinth, Mark Fry And The A. Lords) and not to mention their awe-inspiring compilations. The releases are often very limited editions with such time and dedication taken for every detail of the particular work of art to be realized. Each album is unique and holds a special significance that represents a specific space and time, far removed from the commercial mainstream. It is a fitting testament to Michael Tanner’s artistry that sees a wide range of his works home to this prestigious label. Plinth, The A. Lords are just a couple. The Cloisters represents the latest chapter. As mentioned above, it was through Mark Fry And The A. Lords that I was first introduced to Michael Tanner and one very beautiful album entitled ‘I Lived In Trees’. The vinyl album was released a couple of years ago on Second Language.

‘I Lived In Trees’ was an album that came some 39 years after the release of his cult-classic ‘Dreaming With Alice’ in the early 70’s. The album is a collaboration between Mark Fry and The A. Lords. This wonderfully named musical entity is Michael Tanner and Nicholas Palmer. ‘I Lived In Trees’ was given its wings when the pair would send Mark Fry (while at home in Normandy, France) some instrumental pieces they had recorded in Dorset. In the words of Mark Fry: “I very quickly heard how beautifully constructed it was, and what unusual arrangements they had-they ached of a lost England, beautiful and evocative pastoral landscapes-I soon became hooked.” The album itself is a true work of art and the songs have been a daily soundtrack for me since first purchasing the vinyl in my local record store a couple of years ago. Songs so beautiful and so true and touching. It’s not often that albums like this come around, breathing such meaning and truth. I know I will be revisiting ‘I Lived In Trees’ for the next 39 years and more.

It is amazing to look into the discography of Michael Tanner. The myriad of aliases and side-projects are staggering but it’s the high level of artistic quality attached to this output is what’s most endearing. These sonic ventures include Plinth, as part of the duo The A. Lords, United Bible Studies, Directorsound, and Taskerlands. I have yet to delve into some of these projects but I soon will. Music is an endless exploration and the songbook of Mr Tanner is precisely just that.

‘The Cloisters’ by The Cloisters is out now on Second Language Music.

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Michael Tanner Interview. 

Congratulations Michael on your latest project, The Cloisters-a gorgeous collage of pastoral folk and cinematic soundscapes. It’s great to ask you a few questions about your music. Thanks for your time.

Thanks Mark. It’s had four years of lurking on various hard drives and shifting shapes prior to last November’s release.

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What was the pre-cursor that led to the formation of The Cloisters?

There was no formation as such – the name merely reflects a more collaborative nature in the material, which is usually whittled away in private. When I first started my tape/CDr label in the late 90s, we listed a forthcoming release by The Cloisters, which promised to be modern classical quintet. I hadn’t recorded any material in that vein nor was I capable of doing so with just a primitive sampler, guitar and total lack of ability, so I don’t know what I was thinking. I vaguely recall wanting to invent a raft of bands for my label that didn’t actually exist…I love myth-making in music. But I suppose The Cloisters really festered away there at the back of my mind and this – 14 years later – is that album (sort of).

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Please tell me about the beautiful artwork that graces the album’s sleeve?

Like most of my artwork, the images were sourced at various Dorset car boot sales. They were a series of slides found in a large mouldy box that housed over 30 years of images of a certain family taking various European holidays…mostly round the Alps and Germany.
I was pretty staggered to find them there, and the thought process that can go into letting a generation of your family history become a box of junk, yours for £2 or less if you fancy haggling.

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The pieces of music were recorded and mixed between 2008 and 2012. Please give me an insight into this process and the ensemble of musicians that feature on the release? 

It just took a really long time and kept changing shape. It just happens sometimes. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted the album to be, which was a first for me. The contributions from Aine O’Dwyer (harp), Dan Merrill (Viola) Aaron Martin (Cello) and Hanna Tuulikki (harmonium) really helped shape it into a cohesive whole and define a much-needed structure to proceedings.

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Is there a central theme that ties the pieces of music together?

As I mentioned this is the first record I’ve worked on without any strictly wound concept, something I normally have to enforce on myself to focus, otherwise my mind tends to uncontrollably wander. Two significant moments are the album’s opening – my cat Michu with several contact mics over her, purring away – and the outro, again, Michu coming down stairs to let out a plaintive mew after the final note on the record is played. That scheduling, if you will, happened unplanned. I liked that it bookended the record, gave it a consistent whole. She died unexpectedly as the album was being mastered and since then it’s been a tough listen for me, but as stupid as this sounds, I’ve had these crazy revisionist thoughts about the album. Hearing her content in that opening minute prior to a wall of bowed strings rising up…it sounds like death to me. Not in a goth-y/black hat kind of way, just the beginning of a journey, an afterlife. It makes her final meow at the end of the record take on this weird cyclical, metaphysical importance. I realise this makes me sound completely insane, but I can live with that.

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I love the opening piece ‘Riverchrist’. There seems to be several sections within the composition itself. Can you talk through the construction of ‘Riverchrist’ please?

Normally I find dissecting the music making process either robs some of the magic from the playback or is only of interest to musos, so anyone reading this should feel free to skip this section! (But for the rest of you…)

The opening 8 or so minutes of Riverchrist were the first to be recorded. I remember it being a freezing March evening and I was toying around with bowing my 12 string guitar through a loop pedal. I was re-reading ‘Over Sea and Under Stone’ by Susan Cooper, and found myself switching between reading the chapters of the book on the couch and layering the next sound, with the previously recorded loop ringing out of the amp in the meanwhile. This slowed the whole music-making process down in a really interesting way, meaning that the next sound I overdubbed was very considered and couldn’t be too obtrusive. This bowed section gives way to Hanna, in Lullington church, playing the tiny harmonium. You can hear my wristwatch ticking as I’m holding the recorder, and again as I record the seagulls on the window ledges of the Brighton hotel I stayed in that evening. There’s a larger, disorientating section after this with strings, gongs and water-bowls prior to Dan’s wonderful Viola arrangements. He’d initially recorded these as an overdub for the opening 8 minutes of bowed guitar, but they were so evocative and bold that I wanted them to be heard without my ‘busy’ undertow. So I chopped them up, did some re-arranging and incorporated them into the larger body of the piece. I think his contributions gave a wonderful finality to proceedings.

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You have an endless array of collaborations and projects ongoing from the likes of Plinth and United Bible Studies to The A. Lords, amongst many others.
What’s fascinating is the quality of this musical output. How do you maintain both the high quality and quantity of your music?

That’s a tricky one. For my involvement in those projects, I just have to feel like I’m excited and going into an insular little world. There has to be atmosphere. Each new project should have something novel or unique about it, rather than copying the moves of earlier releases. Normally it then needs to sit with me and my headphones for several months, and if it still sounds worthwhile after that litmus test, it gets released.

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Discuss the A. Lords please – your wonderful collaboration with Nicholas Palmer, and the strong musical connection you both share?

Nick and I both spent our teenage years here in Dorset, frustrated by the lack of any local scene. I think I met him when he was 18/19 in a local indie nightclub. I was wearing a Palace Brothers T-shirt and I think he might have been sporting a mauve Labradford number, which sealed the deal. We exchanged tapes and got to become closer friends on his return from studying in London. I played various things in live incarnations of Directorsound for a few years and he made some wonderful additions to early Plinth music, so The A.Lords just seemed a natural extension of hanging out and music making. I think our early cassette material was really lo-fi, very abstract…at least until we saw the re-release of Wicker Man (2001?) which had a profound effect on both of us defining a folkier path ahead. We were already experimenting with recording outside, having miked up the roof of Nick’s parents bungalow to record overpassing planes. I think we were averaging a song a year until the self-titled album’s eventual release in 2011 – not a great batting average – but I think it’s a very personal record, one that’ll stay with us.

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Can you discuss the concept behind ‘Music For Smalls Lighthouse’ please. This is an exceptional album and one of my favourite Plinth releases.

Thank you. It was just a story that evoked an almost overwhelming sense of atmosphere, and ticked all of my dark fetish boxes…The stench of death astride the abyssal sea – who could not love a story like that? When I was 10 I went on a trip to the Yorvik Viking Centre in the north of England – memorable for being my one school trip that didn’t end in near-death/disaster. The ‘Vikings’ were barely convincing models with balding beards made of thatch-y material and the whole experience would have been a naff write-off were it not for a sequestered tape machine looping insane environment sounds alongside the smells of ‘battle’ and ‘farming’. Aurally, It was completely overpowering in the presence of relatively poor mannequins. That over-compensation of sound really stayed with me and in hindsight, sowed the whole conceptual seeds of playing with a historical story and littering it with heavy thuds, thunder, heavy rainfall etc…I can still recall the waxworks with a shudder.

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I would love to learn more about your musical background. What instruments did you begin to play first? 

I was a really late bloomer. I’m still not particularly adept at any one thing…I just hammer away at instruments and objects until they fit through the holes in my head. The sound source for the first Plinth recording was a sewage line that was running outside a friend’s house. I had a guitar in my house from the age of 15 but didn’t learn to tune it until I was almost 20. I’m ok with my inept playing style. I used to beat myself up about it, but equally there are aspects of astonishing acts of musical virtuosity that make me feel uncomfortable. And jealous. But mostly uncomfortable.

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In what way does the English countryside influence your unique blend of music?

Well I’ve been chained by the ankle to it since birth, so there’s no way it could not effect not just my music, but certain attitudes and traits that are hard to beat out of myself. It’s a bit of a jaded love affair, to be honest. I vacillate between craving the culture and faces of city life and longing for the solitude the country offers. I’m told there’s an English-ness to my output, and I get that. It feels like a dirty word sometimes. I think it all stems from an intense craving for something/someplace that doesn’t really exist.

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What albums are you listening to most these days?

I tend to go through phases whereby I get obsessed with one particular album and live inside it for a while. Most recently that’s been side A of ‘Sir John A Lot’ by John Renbourn, but before that it was a collection of Lassus’ psalms by the Hilliard Ensemble. Virginia Astley EPs. I like a Tame Impala song I heard on the internet. I also have an ongoing, slightly-debilitating and completely unhealthy obsession with the entire recorded output of England’s greatest dark knight, Mike Oldfield.

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What is next for you Michael?

I have no idea. Musically, I feel everything needs to change but I’m not sure how. I’m becoming very suspicious of what is loosely termed ‘ambient/experimental’ music. I have an album of Vangelis synth-inspired pieces due on my friend Paul’s Fort Evil Fruit cassette label early in 2013 which should be quite different to my usual output. I’m recording the new Noa Babayof album at my home studio in Dorset over Christmas. Locally, I’m attempting to form the Bournemouth Improvisers Orchestra to get some of my latent live performing frustrations out for when I’m not playing with United Bible Studies. Other than that, the usual bollocks. Chart domination.

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The self-titled album by The Cloisters is out now on Second Language Music.

http://www.secondlanguagemusic.com

Noises: iamplinth.bandcamp.com
Interactions: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Plinth/52670349352
Words: http://michaeljohntanner.wordpress.com/

Chosen One: Mark Fry

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Interview with Mark Fry.

English singer-songwriter Mark Fry is best known for his psych-folk masterpiece ‘Dreaming With Alice’ released in 1972. In recent years the cult classic has received deserved recognition and universal acclaim, having been championed by the likes of Jim O’ Rourke and Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden. A new audience has been introduced to the awe-inspiring talent of a true artist. Some 39 years later, ‘I Lived In Trees’ was released last year on the Second Language label. This ethereal folk gem was the result of a collaboration between Mark Fry and The A. Lords (Michael Tanner and Nicholas Palmer), recorded in Dorset, Normandy and Oxfordshire. I was privileged to interview Mark Fry about his life and music, offering an insight into the creative mind of a painter and musician.

Words: Mark Carry, Painting: ‘Triple Counterpoint’, Mark Fry

‘I Lived In Trees’ is an album I hold very dear to my heart. Released last year on the Second Language label, the vinyl itself is a work of art. Illustrations of trees, birds, leaves, rivers, blue skies and a glowing moon lovingly grace the album’s sleeve, designed by renowned Italian illustrator Iker Spozio. The music, composed by the A. Lords (Nicholas Palmer and Michael Tanner) creates such beautiful and pastoral landscapes of sound, evoking dreams, childhood, loss and our very existence. The instrumentation of spanish guitar, piano, harmonium, accordion, bouzouki, clarinet, banjo, mellotron and bells creates a divine tapestry of sound, (courtesy of the A. Lords) that meanders like a river flowing into the sea. Gorgeous notes of harp (Aine O’ Dwyer), flute (Jess Sweetman) and strings (Steve Bentley-Klein) adds to the utterly timeless feel that flows throughout ‘I Lived In Trees’. The poetry of Mark Fry’s lyrics are painted on the A. Lords canvas of heavenly crafted sound. Mark Fry/The A. Lords is a collaboration of like minds from different generations. Palmer and Tanner would send Mark Fry some instrumental pieces they had composed and recorded in Dorset. Fry was taken aback by the beautifully constructed music and unusual arrangement, steeped in a feeling of loss. ‘I Lived In Trees’ was soon given its wings. Fry, alone in a little studio, would record the vocals at home in Normandy. This deep communication between artists ensued; a pathway formed between the English and French countryside. Working with the A. Lords, Mark Fry found his “inner musical voice again” and the resulting work ‘I Lived In Trees’ is a testament to the many creative minds that brought fleeting dreams to reality.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of Mark Fry’s debut album ‘Dreaming With Alice’, released with (tragically) little fanfare in ’72. The album is a psych-folk masterpiece that has transcended time and is today seen as one of the most enigmatic albums of all time. Similar to Linda Perhacs’ cosmic folk opus ‘Parallelograms’, the album has become a treasured gem, many years after the teenage Fry recorded his compelling batch of folk songs in Rome, Italy. For the years that followed, Mark Fry has been constantly immersed in art, through the mediums of paint and music. In the words of Mark Fry; “For me, painting and music have always walked hand in hand.” Years later, in 2006, ‘Dreaming With Alice’ was re-issued and introduced to a new generation of audiences, finally receiving its deserved recognition. Justice was done. This served as a catalyst for the songwriter and musician, giving him the encouragement to keep going. Several years later, ‘I Lived In Trees’ was shown the light of day-a haven of sounds, textures and feelings. Fry’s affecting lyrics painted on the A. Lords’ poignant dreamscapes. A collaboration made in heaven. Let your mind wander across “the mountain snow”, “the high streams” and “follow the moonbeams” that guide you home, “down to the lowlands.” Soon, you will be lost in the pools of you mind. A true masterpiece awaits you.

Congratulations Mark on your truly wonderful new album with The A. Lords ‘I Lived In Trees’. Several decades have passed since your classic psych-folk opus ‘Dreaming With Alice’ was released (back in ’72) and it’s a beautiful moment to see recently, a new body of work of yours given wings to see the light of day. It’s a real honour for me to have the opportunity to ask you a few questions about your life and music. Funnily enough, my first introduction to your music was only months ago, as opposed to years. In my local recordstore I saw the beautiful vinyl of ‘I Lived In Trees’ gracing the shelves and I immediately picked it up. Since then, your music has been played consistently, providing my daily soundtrack. The album is a thing of pure beauty, with words and music so utterly transcendent.

Tell me please first of all, about the making of the new album ‘I Lived In Trees’.

The making of I Lived In Trees was very much a collaborative work – Nicholas Palmer and Michael Tanner, aka the A.Lords, approached me in 2010 to see if I would be interested in working with them. They began by sending me some instrumental pieces they had recorded in Dorset. At first I thought the music was all too folky and slow for me – but I very quickly heard how beautifully constructed it was, and what unusual arrangements they had – they ached of a lost England, beautiful and evocative pastoral landscapes – I soon became hooked. I recorded the vocals at home in Normandy, alone in my little studio. And that’s where the process began, sending files to and fro – we worked like that for almost six months before we eventually met.

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You are both a renowned painter and musician. You have said “For me, painting and music have always walked hand in hand.” I can imagine your music must feed into your painting and how through the act of painting songs would come to you. I’d love to get an insight into this dichotomy of worlds and the creative process that lies therein.

Henry Moore once said that it is a mistake for an artist to talk very often about his job because it releases tension needed for the work – I sort of understand what he meant, the fear that some magical energy might escape, and get lost in the analysis. Painting and music have always felt very close for me, the only real difference between the two is the nature of the materials you are working with. For me, one is a chaotic process of wrestling with unruly paint, marble dust, chalk, beeswax and turps – the other like trying to tempt a flying bird out of a clear blue sky to come and land on your shoulder – they are just different ways of trying to tell a story.

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There was a time in your life, maybe around ’77, when you focused your time on painting but importantly, you never stopped writing songs. Are the songs on ‘I Lived In Trees’ these very songs that you were writing all your life?

No, not really, but in a way yes. If you’re lucky, surrounding stimuli will bring to the surface things that have been lying dormant at the bottom of your creative well. My contribution to this album was triggered by the beautiful music The A.Lords sent me. It was my role to see if I could find a way into these instrumental pieces – find the song within the song, to let myself be carried away by the strong visual nature of the music, and hope I could return with a good lyric and a vocal line that would reinforce and give the music an added sense of place.

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The nine songs on ‘I Lived In Trees’ are nine works of art. The words are sheer poetry. Do you write with the music in mind or are they both separate entities?

In this case I was responding solely to the music as a separate entity, but trying to melt into the poetry of the A.Lords musical language – sometimes it came very spontaneously, at other times it felt like walking in wet clay and took forever to find the narrative – the structures and metre of the pieces often felt like a secret garden I could not find the door to – but I was determined to discover what lay beyond.

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Themes of life, memory and existence flow throughout ‘I Lived In Trees’. The music matches your lyrics, note-perfectly with this heavenly tapestry akin to dreams and memories. What are these songs about for you?

The music often suggested to me a sense of loss, and I tried to tap into that feeling – which sometimes lies in the hinterland between waking and sleep – it’s a space that holds a special kind of dimension for me. I often write music very late at night or early in the morning – if you’re lucky you can catch yourself unawares then.

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Listening to ‘I Lived In Trees’ I can hear a painter’s voice. Beautifully rich metaphors are etched on the cosmic-folk canvas of sound. The words evoke such vivid imagery and worlds onto themselves. Nature metaphors are wonderfully embedded in your songcraft. I’d love to gain an insight into your mindset as a songwriter?

I see music in a very visual way – it has colours and shapes and smells. When I’m writing songs I am in a sense painting at the same time (not literally, but almost – there’s a lot of paint on my guitar!) The song will quickly transport me into a very vivid picture – almost like a technicolour film running in my head.

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You have lived in Normandy, France for a lot of your life. What effect has living in this place had on your art?

I once thought that I would like to go on a spiritual retreat – then I said to myself ‘hey, you ARE on retreat’ It’s very quiet here, I live an almost monastic existence during the week. I need solitude to work successfully.

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If we go back for a moment to 2006 when ‘Dreaming With Alice’ was reissued. You have said that this served as a catalyst which encouraged you to keep going. Tell me about your feelings and thoughts on firstly, your musical revival (commercial-wise) and secondly, your difficulty to keep going under (relatively) unknown commercial status? I mean, in terms of music there’s simply no justice at all that an album like ‘Alice’ was so long under the radar and the album has stood the test of time that conveys how utterly timeless the music is.

When Alice first reappeared in my life, I thought that if I just keep my head down the whole thing will blow over and I can quietly get on with painting. But it didn’t blow over, it just kept crunching along like a fairytale snowball. Eventually it seemed crazy to resist having another adventure with Alice, and to see where she would take me. It has taken me quite a long time to find my inner musical voice again – working with The A.Lords helped me greatly in getting back on that path.

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I’d love to hear your memories of the early 70’s and the beginnings of ‘Dreaming With Alice’. In 1970, you set off to Italy to study painting but took your guitar with you and ended up recording ‘Alice’ in Rome. Please take me back!:)

I arrived in Italy in the summer of 1970 and enrolled at the Academia delle Belle Arti in Florence to study painting. Italy was in an anarchic frame of mind in the early seventies, nothing really worked (one of the first words I learnt in Italian was ‘sciopero’ which means strike) – the art school was often closed, and if it wasn’t on strike it was on holiday celebrating an obscure saint’s day – as students we were lucky to get a two-day week.
By early ’71 I began to feel I was wasting my time at the Academia and left. All during this time I had been writing a series of songs – Some Italian friends took me down to Rome and introduced me to RCA studios. I played some songs to some rather stiff looking A&R men in suits in an office, and I was offered a ten year contract. I signed on the dotted line, it felt like signing my life away.

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There are similarities with your album ‘Dreaming With Alice’ and Linda Perhacs’ ‘Parallelograms’, another timeless psych folk gem from the 70’s. It’s a similar story shared too in the way both albums have taken on new significance as a new generation embrace the album.
What do you make of the music industry today and what are the differences between now and then?

The music industry as we knew it then has completely imploded – but some wonderful and innovative labels have sprung up to give artists a new home, like Second Language, who released I Lived In Trees. They are doing all the things that a big label could never do. Their beautiful and creative approach to packaging is quite stunning, and there is a real ethos at Second Language which is inspiring for the artists involved. The big difference between now and then, is that ‘then’ it was almost impossible to get your music recorded and released without the infamous ‘deal’ but now (for better or for worse) almost anyone can record in their kitchen and put it out there.

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Staying for a moment with ‘Alice’. ‘Dreaming With Alice’ flows throughout the record, in the form of verses, scattered across ten tracks. I’m intrigued to know how you came about to record ‘Alice’ in this way?

The chopping up of the verses of the title track and splicing them between the songs was a post editing job – I received a phone call back in England long after I had finished recording the album from the producer in Rome, saying they had this idea in mind, and would I give them clearance to go ahead – I thought it sounded like a great idea, and it worked very well, although the edits are quite rough.

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Forward to 2011, I love the title track and opening song, ‘I Lived In Trees’. The music is dream-like, matching the nostalgic feeling of childhood memories etched in your lyrics. The opening verse so perfectly captures childhood; the innocence and freedom one feels as a child. Was this the first of the songs that shaped the new album?

Yes, it was one of the first songs that came to a happy resolution. I had a scrap of a lyric lying around from a song of mine that wasn’t quite working ‘When I was a boy I lived in trees’ it was a little germ of an idea. I spent a lot of my childhood up the top of trees dreaming on my own. Anyway, I tried singing this line to the instrumentation and it felt like the lines had always belonged – the music became a tree and I was in it, all I had to do then was peer through the branches and the rest came swiftly – it was a very special moment.

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Tell me please about the gorgeous musical interlude closing the song ‘All Day Long’? The spanish guitar lead melody evokes spring and new beginnings for me. The piece builds with layers of bells, percussion, strings and flute that is very touching.

I agree, it’s a beautiful and mesmerising passage – Nick Palmer wrote and played all the instruments on that section (except for a little bit of harp by Aine – and the strings were added later by Steve Bentley-Klein in London). It’s one of my favourite moments on the album too, it takes you on a wonderful meandering journey.

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A lyric “lost in these mirrors of time” is sung on ‘All Day Long’. The song itself has the slow-feel of a stream’s trickling flow, reflected in the lyrics:
“I gaze down the stream, of what might have been.” The song is reminiscent of ‘Time’ by Tom Waits. Tell me please about this song.

When I heard this piece it immediately conjured up for me a slow, lazy river, weaving its way through water meadows. When I wasn’t dreaming in the tops of trees, I was wading up and down rivers when I was a boy – fishing for trout, searching for hidden moorhen nests, playing ducks and drakes – I closed my eyes and remembered those days, a man looking back at his life in the reflections of water – through the fractured prism of time.

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My favourite song at the moment is ‘We All Fall Down’. Your vocal delivery is sublime. Your voice just melts into the sonic canvas. This song feels it was done in one take, such is its directness and immediacy. Was it a straight-forward process to record?

Nick Palmer, Michael Tanner and Aine O’Dwyer (who plays harp) recorded this song in Michael’s kitchen in Dorset, and then they sent it over to me and I put the vocal on. At first I found it one of the most difficult pieces to find my way into – I wrestled with it for months. At about the same time I was listening to a lot of Kurt Cobain, and had his song ‘Something In The Way’ on my mind. At some point I found myself turning that line around, to ‘There’s nothing in the way at all’ suddenly a door opened – it was the key to finding a path into the song, and then I found myself in a surreal, baroque landscape of kings, fireworks and wandering minstrels.

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The album closer ‘Taking Wing’ is awe-inspiring. Simply to read the words alone is so rewarding. What does this song represent for you?

Every spring the swallows arrive on the farm in Normandy to breed in the barns, and every year they bring with them the mystery and magic of their secret migratory journey – they reunite you again with the sky in a wonderful and joyous way after the long winter months – and yet there is a great sorrow in their voyage.

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What inspires you today to make your art; to write songs and to paint?

I think inspiration is really a by-product that comes from the act of working – which is an engagement with life. If I didn’t work and pursue the things I hope I’m good at, I wouldn’t have much to offer – a longing to ‘make’ something is part of that desire to give something – it’s the fundamental root of the creative process, the thing that keeps you going.

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What are your current plans and future projects, Mark?

I’m working towards a show of my paintings next year in London, and playing some gigs in Tokyo next spring. I’m also working on The Dreaming With Alice Songbook with illustrations by Iker Spozio who did the wonderful artwork for I Lived In Trees – the book should be out in the new year. And I’m recording again…

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Are there more collaborations with The A. Lords on the horizon?

Nothing’s planned with The A.Lords for the time being.

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Thanks very much for your time, Mark. Best wishes, Mark.

It was my pleasure!

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The painting Mark Fry very kindly let us use with this interview is titled ‘Triple Counterpoint’, which Mark describes as ‘one that follows a musical theme I’ve been working on for some years.’

‘I Lived In Trees’ is out now on Second Language Music. For information on Mark Fry’s music and paintings, please visit: http://www.markfry.co.uk

 

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November 5, 2012 at 10:52 am