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By: Dave Cooper
The idea of combining chamber music with progressive rock might not be an obvious one, but for Russians Gleb Kolyadin and Marjana Semkina, otherwise known as Iamthemorning, it was a logical step. The Russian duo have gone from strength to strength recently, benefiting from a deal with much-loved British label Kscope and the support of a dedicated fanbase. This year saw the duo making waves with their third album, a conceptual album dealing with mental illness, entitled Lighthouse (reviewed here). Dave Cooper caught up with vocalist Marjana to find out what lies under the turbulent waters of their latest work and the duo’s determined approach to making music.
(((o))): First of all: congratulations on the release of Lighthouse. How pleased are you at its reception? It seems to be getting very positive reviews.
Marjana: This album did create a certain buzz around the band, a very positive one. Opened some doors – like playing on Be Prog My Friend – and got us Prog Awards nomination in the “Album of the Year” category, so I can’t complain really! Let’s hope that this all will keep interest to us on a level that would be high enough for us to start getting outside Russia more often.
(((o))): Your other albums contain lyrical theme and variations, but Lighthouse is in the truest sense a concept album, a story with a definite beginning, middle and end. At what point did you realise that you were making a conceptual record?
Marjana: I think I can say that this just happened naturally in the very beginning of our work on the material. All songs were pretty much composed within one month or so, it was a pretty rapid process this time. I was pretty much obsessed with the subject and felt like dedicating more than one or two songs to it, plus people seem to disregard the matter of mental health far too often, refuse to talk about it, and this is damaging for those who need help. This is why I wanted to turn to it. It’s such a broad and deep subject, so building an album concept around it only seemed logical. I would happily make a couple of more albums dedicated to the theme.
(((o))): The album is a narrative about someone who is struggling with mental illness. Whilst it’s certainly beautiful, it’s a dark and not necessarily a very hopeful record. Did you worry at any point that the dark theme might discourage some listeners?
Marjana: Not really. We could have considered it if we were more listener (or business) oriented, but we don’t compromise our music or ideas for the sake of it being more accessible. What I did consider was that I wouldn’t want anyone who is facing those struggles to feel even worse after listening to the album, we didn’t want people to think that there’s no hope left, therefore there’s an end to the story that can be interpreted the way listener wants, but it’s always hope, it’s always an open ending for us. Even the title of the album itself suggests that there is hope, even the artwork – Lighthouse that still gives light though being swallowed by the sea.
(((o))): What was the original inspiration for the album? What was the spark that triggered it all off, lyrically speaking? You’ve mentioned Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath were a source of inspiration, too – in what respect?
Marjana: It all started with me visiting the Beachy Head – a chalk headland is East Sussex, high cliffs above the sea. I had no idea what the background of the place is (Internet told me later on that it’s one of the most famous suicide spots in Europe), but it did strike me immediately what a sad and gorgeous place that is, its grim history was in the air. At the same period of time I read The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath and it triggered the whole process. Although I have to admit, I reworked half of the lyrics afterwards taking it to its current form, making the concept more solid, because I got into a nasty accident that ended up in me being trapped at home for a month straight (I was seriously injured and couldn’t talk or sing or even go outside). This particular month defined the concept, lyrically, and this is partly the reason why it is so bleak.
(((o))): You’ve got the full Porcupine Tree rhythm section playing with you this time. Some people may be a little surprised as generally Iamthemorning are a lot more restrained than latter-day Porcupine Tree were! I’m assuming that Colin’s connection with Gavin led to his involvement?
Marjana: Not really, actually. I know a guy who works with Astarta/Edwin project and he was the connection – I wouldn’t want to approach Colin out of the blue so I asked him to introduce us, and that’s how it started.
(((o))): Tell us how Mariusz (Duda, from Polish band Riverside) got involved in the title track.
Marjana: We’ve been friends with Mariusz since Iamthemorning opened for Riverside in 2013 (this is when we met our manager, too). It would have been a very tough thing for me to do – to give away my song to someone else to sing – if it wasn’t for Mariusz being open for collaboration. I was (and still am) very happy about it, because he is indeed an outstanding musician and one of my favorite male vocalists, and having him singing with me is a great honor and a great pleasure. Plus, I think our voices sound good together.
(((o))): Your music feels unique; I can’t think of any other bands who sound much like you.
Marjana: Well thank you! It all shaped very naturally because of the way Gleb and I work on the material and how drastically different our backgrounds are. He’s been brought up to be a classical musician surrounded by all glory of St. Petersburg, and I am a hippie child, my parents got me into Pink Floyd before I could even understand what they are doing to my life.
(((o))): Kate Bush and Tori Amos are logical touchstones for Iamthemorning: your vocals have been compared favourably to both artists, and your fondness for thematic records and Gleb’s piano playing no doubt reinforce the similarity in some people’s minds. Have their records been a source of influence on your music? Are there other artists who you feel have influenced Iamthemorning‘s work?
Marjana: Everything we listen to, everything that surrounds us influences us. Classical composers, oriental music, Mike Oldfield, Brian Eno for Gleb, progressive bands for me.
I was very late to Kate Bush party – she’s not that known in Russia, so I only discovered her after we released our first album in 2011 and people online started comparing us. But now I am a big fan of her work and yes, I’ve been listening to Aerial pretty much all the time on repeat while recording and mixing Lighthouse. Her passionate approach to singing is what I admire.
(((o))): You’ve been embraced by the progressive rock audience, and yet in many ways you don’t necessarily sound like the majority of progressive rock bands. Why do you think the prog audience have taken to the band the way they have?
Marjana: I am truly happy that they did. I love prog people, I do believe that you can make certain conclusions about someone when you know they are listening to prog (or maybe I just want to believe it). I think, birds of a feather flock together, in that sense that they hear the influences and they feel like there’s a great love to prog in the music we do, although as you said we do not sound like the majority of prog bands. But we have the same values and love for sophisticated structures, very well thought through arrangements and necessity for some emotional contribution once you listen to what we do. It’s not background music. You have to use your head and your heart when you listen to us and if you do, the music blooms.
(((o))): The Lighthouse artwork is absolutely beautiful. Constantine Nagishkin has done it again! How important do you feel artwork is for an album these days, where for some people it may never be seen as more than a small rectangle on their media player of choice?
Marjana: I feel like the artwork is a part of the whole picture, it has to be a perfect companion to the music, and we are very happy with what Constantine has done for us so far – every artwork works very well with music. And it is sad that the majority of people won’t see it, but it’s more important that we are happy with it, because we do see it, and we do have a sense of completion.
(((o))): I have to bring up touring, if only because – like so many others – I would dearly love to see this material performed! Thus far, you’ve not been able to tour extensively, although you’ve played support slots as a two-piece, most notably for Gazpacho’s last round of European dates. I’m guessing you’d love to play more shows?
Marjana: Yes, touring Europe properly is our dream. I feel that live performances would do our music and us justice better than studio recording. Everything is energy, and nothing can replace the energy of a live performance. But if the first thing you’re thinking about when I say that in connection with gigs are loud guitars and true rock stars performing their epic prog songs, then it’s not our case. Our case is gentleness, subtlety and fragility, honesty, passion, openness. The beauty in emotion. I think this world needs it even more now with everything that is happening around us.
(((o))): I imagine the nature of your music means that touring with a ‘full’ production could prove quite expensive! So just how difficult is it to make the maths work out for a band like Iamthemorning? You’ve used pre-orders before to finance the production of second album Belighted and your recent live album, Live from the House of Arts. Have you considered running a campaign to raise funds for a tour?
Marjana: Yes, touring is very complicated from all points of view. We need to make special visas to play EU and UK legally, and that means weeks of paperwork and money, too. But touring is complicated for everyone even if they don’t need visas – think Australian or even USA bands coming to Europe. So we’re not complaining. But as for the “full sound”… To be honest, we don’t have a great desire to go “full sound” in the way that you mean it. We are happy with being different, we are happy to remain chamber for our live performances, I think this is what makes us stand out. If we are able to extend the band, we’ll keep going to chamber instruments, we don’t have an aspiration to become a rock band.
Now, as for fundraising, I don’t think this will work well for the tour. But we never spend any of money we earn from the band on anything other than the band, so we’ve been saving for months now to fund the next tour. I just hope people will come to see us will like us enough to also buy merch, that’s how we all roll.
(((o))): The Kickstarters have evidently been very important to the band. Could you have made Iamthemorning happen without them? Do you feel that these kind of campaigns are increasingly important to bands without the kind of major label backing some bands enjoy?
Marjana: I think this is a perfect scheme for bands that have their audience and communicate with it successfully. If you use it wisely, it will help you make the most fantastic things happen – I don’t think Iamthemorning would be where we are now without it. Our first campaign happened when Tori Amos sound engineer Marcel van Limbeek approached us with a suggestion to make an album together and helped us to launch the campaign (you need to be UK/USA resident to start a campaign on Kickstarter). That’s how Belighted came to life and we got signed to Kscope with this release. Without this campaign and our audience being so incredibly supportive and understanding (I love these people) we wouldn’t be able to do it. Being from Russia makes it very tough financially if you want to do anything outside the country that requires money (ruble dropped drastically and, well, it doesn’t make things easier).
(((o))): Do you ever get fed up with the idea that touring and making records can be so expensive? Many bands have said that they rarely make money from touring or even from selling their latest record. The result is, of course, that everyone has to rely on more conventional employment to enable them to keep making music. Do you feel enough is done by governments etc to keep musicians financially secure enough to make music?
Marjana: Oh it is a burning subject. It’s a tough life but come on, we all think that it’s the most difficult for us – when it is difficult for everyone. You can’t wallow in self pity and waste time crying over how hard it is, this will not change anything. I feel that the more productive you are – the easier it gets, but the problem is that your requirements for your own record increase accordingly and you always go for more and more with each record – from string quartet to chamber orchestra to symphony etc etc. However, three years ago we wouldn’t have been able to go on tour in EU, but this autumn we might, because we worked very hard, we made records that brought us exposure and step my step the situation is improving. Five years age we weren’t able to rent a great concert hall in St Peter to play a release concert, not we can without a risk of losing all our money – all because we work hard and people know it and they’ll come and see us when we ask them, and this will pay off the venue rent or whatever.
As for the governments….Russia is another planet, I wouldn’t even expect any back up here. We used to have such an amazing cultural heritage, but now our government does everything to destroy it. They close schools, they take away buildings from cultural institutions, and there’s no end to it.
Getting outside the country is no easier, and with the UK it’s even more complicated – visas are pricey and you need to do a lot of paperwork, slightly less for the EU (we need separate visas for EU and UK). But it’s something you have to accept and dance around it. Or figure out how to put yourself into a better position.
(((o))): Speaking as a non-musician, I can’t imagine standing on stage and channelling the emotions the songs on Lighthouse evoke. Have you ever paused when writing a song and wondering how on earth you’d be able to stand in front of an audience and perform them?
Marjana: Our music will not tolerate the pretence – actually, not just ours, music in general. Listeners know when you’re not entirely honest. I always know it will be hard, it’s like turning your soul inside out every time, but isn’t the art about it? It’s about talking about things that worry you, and I am a very honest person, I wouldn’t be able to pretend to be someone else for the life of me if I wouldn’t feel it. Yes, the album has a protagonist, it’s not my own life story (luckily), but I know how she felt all too well. If I don’t understand something I am willing to write about – I go and find out everything that is possible about it to feel it. One of the songs on the album is about electroconvulsive therapy that the heroine comes through, ‘Chalk an Coal’. I read everything I could find, science articles, pieces of novels that has it, watched documentary videos. Making this album drained me, but it was necessary to be completely satisfied with the result, feel some sort of a closure. Performing gets easier with time, but the biggest challenge is still ahead – we’re performing Lighthouse in full on our release gigs in Russia in September.
(((o))): Do you have any particular favourites from Lighthouse? Or does it feel very much a single piece in your mind? Are there any songs that you’ve especially looking forward to performing live?
Marjana: I like ‘Belighted’, because it’s been with us longer than other songs. I composed it out of piece of Gleb’s sketch even before Belighted (the album) was completed. I had this name for this song but then we decided to use it for the album…later, I thought I’d keep the name of the song, too. Just to confuse everyone.
I also love ‘Sleeping Pills’. It came to us really naturally and I like the somnambulistic feel about it and children quire. Also, ‘Lighthouse’, of course, but I spoke about it earlier.
(((o))): You’ve spoken before about your fondness for bands such as Katatonia and Opeth, and the work of Steven Wilson in his various incarnations. There seems a common thread of melancholy; do you feel you’re drawn to darker themes? Steven Wilson has said that he finds happy music depressing, but melancholy or dark music uplifting – is that true for you as well?
Marjana: I don’t find happy music depressing, I just don’t find it interesting and don’t listen to it. Sad music attracts me because it always has a very special background. The life story of the one who composed it, pain, hard feelings, it’s not shallow, it’s a part of someone else, and many of us tend to like people that stand behind music that we like – or maybe if not like then be intrigued, I don’t know. It’s always good to feel there’s someone who feels the same.
I am always interested in looking deeper, there’s so much more than meets the eye in sad music. Complexity of people, but maybe I’m just a hopeless idealist.
(((o))): I suppose this is the modern-day equivalent of what blues music was intended to do: in demonstrating to those who are feeling disillusioned that they’re not alone. I’m guessing that you feel much the same about Lighthouse. In the sleeve notes, you say, “To anyone struggling with mental illness, you are not alone.” A burden shared is a burden halved?
Marjana: Yes, it’s just an attempt to give them a helping hand….in a way. I know music helps, and I want to make more of it to help more people.
(((o))): Speaking of what music you enjoy, what have you enjoyed listening to lately?
Marjana: I am very much in love with Anekdoten since I heard them on Night of the Prog in Germany. Incredible band and people.
(((o))): So what’s next for Iamthemorning?
Marjana: That’s a mystery. We are working on getting out of the country – we’ll totally play in the Netherlands on IO festival in November and might have more dates around it, but it’s not quite clear yet. We’re doing what we can!