Rock Impressions

by Giancarlo Bolther

Can you introduce your band and give us a bit of history about the group?
I met Evelyn a good few years ago now when she fourteen. My wife’s a teacher and Evelyn was one of her drama students. She was already a fine flautist and was keen to learn how to write songs, so that was really where we started, simply sitting around writing. Then not long after that we were asked to write the music for a couple of local projects, a short horror film called ‘The Vawn’ and a stage production of Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’. With the music written we were looking around for somewhere to record it and one of the actresses in the film, Kate Garman, said her husband Andrew had his own small studio – and that was how we met Andy. We had such a good time recording those projects that when they were done, we just kept on working together and the three of us became the nucleus of Mermaid Kiss. Then there are I suppose you could say the associate members of the band; Nigel Hooton who plays lead guitar and who was heavily involved in the ‘Etarlis’ project. He and Andy go way back and have played together in bands in the past. Kate Belcher is, like Evelyn, from our home town of Kington, and she joined us when Evelyn went to University, and has worked with us on and off since. Wendy Marks plays all manner of woodwind instruments – oh, and double bass. I first shared a stage with her more than twenty years ago when we were in a band together in London called ‘Close To Zero’ and we’ve kept in touch ever since, so when we were looking for someone to play some woodwind on ‘Etarlis’ she was the obvious choice.
On The Mermaid Kiss Album, Andy, Evelyn and I did everything entirely on our own, we wrote and played all the instruments, Evelyn did all the vocals and harmonies, we mixed and mastered it, did the artwork, it was a terrific learning experience. And one of the things we learned was that sometimes getting in some help would be a good thing, so on the two more recent releases we’ve introduced some guest musicians – on Salt On Skin, a friend from Cheltenham, Kate Emerson did some of the lead vocals as Evelyn was sitting her finals at that time and Kate Belcher doing her ‘A’ level exams. Paul Davies from the original Karnataka also guested on the song ‘The Blushing Bride’. On Etarlis, we’re joined by the keyboard player Jonathan Edwards on one of the pieces – Jon was also in Karnataka, and, like Paul, is now in Panic Room. And Iona’s Troy Donockley adds a terrific uillean pipe solo to one of the tracks. Andy still does all the mixing and mastering though.

Can you tell us about the songs from Etarlis?
Etarlis started out as a series of stories that Evelyn and I would make up and tell each other to pass the time on long car journeys, either to gigs, or to the songwriting classes we used to run. Originally it was very episodic and we’d leave each part of the story with a cliffhanging ending that the other had to get out of. At some point, we began writing it down and developing it, turning it more into the long arc of a novel.
Even early on it was a source of songs for us – ‘Soundchaser’ and ‘Whisper’ from The Mermaid Kiss Album are Etarlan songs, as is ‘Hollow’ from ‘Salt On Skin.
I think it was inevitable that we were going to do a whole ‘Etarlis’ album at some point , I just didn’t really think it was going to be quite this early!
The album isn’t an attempt to tell the whole story, more that the songs are illustrations of moments, or scenes, or of specific characters within the story. This album only actually covers the first third of the whole Etarlis story, so it’s probably that somewhere down the line they’ll be more.
Evelyn’s also, with another friend of the band, Richard Pocock, been developing a Etarlis website; which has a lot more details about both the story and the album.

What does the title mean?
Etarlis is the name of the place in which the album (and story) is set: Within the story, the literal meaning of Etarlis is ‘The Starless Place”. The only problem with this is that Etarlis has stars, lots of them, which has led some to reinterpret the name as meaning ‘The Dark Place’ or ‘The Place Of Darkness.’ Which has different overtones altogether.

Where do you find inspiration for writing your lyrics and your music?
From all over the place really. Obviously the Etarlan songs are very much inspired by the story, but there are other influences in there too.
We’re also been inspired by paintings and literature for example, the song ‘Mermaid Kiss’ (from which we took our name) was written after seeing a painting called ‘The Fisherman And The Syren’ by Frederick, Lord Leighton, in the art gallery in Bristol. ‘Breathing Under Water’ owes a debt to the various Pre-Raphaelite paintings of Ophelia as well as to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and there’s a song we’ve performed live, though it’s not yet been recorded called ‘La Belle Dames Sans Merci’ which again was influenced by Pre-Raphaelite paintings of that name, and the poem by Keats. An early song called ‘Heart Sings’ was inspired by a Van Gogh exhibition I saw, and by one painting in particular - ‘Siesta’ – I’d swear you could feel the heat coming off that canvas! Oh, and a song called ‘Breathing’ was inspired by Barbara Kingsolver’s novel ‘The Poisonwood Bible.’ I’m sure there have been others.
Other songs were written as a result of news items or contemporary events. ‘Blind’ was a response to the headlong dash to invade Iraq, and ‘Just Like You’ was written after reading about a cult in America who claimed to have cloned the first baby. The story was false, but we wondered what it might be like to be the first non-unique human, and the song is written from that perspective.
Sometimes the songs can be as a result of an amalgam of things – a film we’ve seen, some chance overheard remark – Crayola Skies on Etarlis for example started with just those two words as a title – they were in an email sent to me by a fan – and the whole song depicting the post battle devastation grew from that.
There’s really no telling what might spark an idea.

How do you go about the process of composing songs?
For the first album it was pretty straightforward. Either Evelyn or I would have an idea, then she and I would sit down together and work through it, develop it, finish the lyrics etc. Then we’d record what we called a songwriting demo, which we then took up to the Goat Shed, which is Andy’s studio where we record, and he’d develop the demo further and we’d talk about it and change things around until we were happy with it, and then we’d record it.
Once Evelyn went off to University, we obviously couldn’t write like that any more, and I think it was this that actually set us back for a while, until Andy and I developed a way of writing together, which was one of two ways. Either I’d write a song on the guitar and then record that simply at home, take it up to the Goat Shed, and we’d develop it from there, or Andy would create a backing track to which I’d add the vocal melody and lyrics. Well, that’s simplifying it greatly, but that’s the basics.

How much tradition and how much modernity there are into your sound?
I’m sure there are many influences from both the traditional end of music as well as the contemporary. And classical too –and probably jazz. It’s inevitable that one absorb something of the music one listens too. It how that comes out in the music we create that’s hard to pin down. I don’t think we’ve ever consciously said, “okay, lets do a traditional style piece here” – the song itself tends to dictate the feel and style in which we do it.

What kind of response are you experiencing from the audience to your music?
To be honest it’s far exceeded anything we ever dreamed of, though occasionally people seem a bit confused by it as it doesn’t fit neatly into any genre – and sadly the music industry seems obsessed with cramming music into these little labeled boxes. We tend to cross a lot of genres. For example, we’ve had positive reviews from both folk magazines and from Polish Metal sites, though clearly the music is not remotely either! We tend to let the song itself dictate the style of each piece rather than thinking ‘oh, we’re a prog band (or whatever) and so we have to put in a long instrumental section with half a dozen time changes in every song’. If a song feels simple, then we keep it simple – like ‘Siren Song’ on Etarlis. On other tracks like ‘Nowhere To Hide’ say, there’s a whole story to tell on a broad canvas, so Andy’s done a magnificent symphonic arrangement for it.
But I think it’s more the industry that’s had trouble working out what we are than the people who just love music for music’s sake – I think they’ve picked up on what we’re trying to do far more quickly. I think they appreciate the fact that we’re not chasing any styles or trends.

You create an album of beauty, did you look for an aesthetic result or for a spiritual one?
Well, there is a song of Evelyn’s called ‘Spirit’ on The Mermaid Kiss Album but that’s about the joy of writing and playing music.
I don’t think we specifically set out to achieve either with Etarlis, although I guess an aesthetic result is always pleasing. A lot of what are considered our more beautiful tracks often also have a dark side – they’re not always quite what they might at first seem. ‘Shadow Girl’ is an example. Beauty can sometimes hide a darkness. The last verse turns the whole song on its head.
I guess maybe spirituality tends to be more in the way something is received than in the way it is given and if people find our music spiritual, then that’s immensely gratifying.

In your opinion your music is a way to escape from the reality, a window open on a secret garden, or is a medium to better live the beauty that is all around us?
For me it’s a definite escape. When I’m writing I try to create a different place for the listener to go, either emotionally, or by creating a world that’s something new, or at the very least a distortion of the one they’re actually in. Some people have said our music paints pictures in their heads, which is a good way of putting it. I like your notion of a secret garden.
I would love to think that music could make the world a better place to live in. But unless people start voting musicians into government (and what musician worth his or her salt would actually want to be a politician) then we’ll have to look elsewhere for cures for society’s ills – though of course many songwriters have always, and will always, write about injustices. Even if music can’t change the world, it can make sure its iniquities aren’t forgotten.

A lot of people who like seventies prog artists says that today prog music must be called "regressive" music, because there is nothing really new… what’s your opinion about and what do you think about the actual progressive scene?
For me, the only really ‘regressive’ thing about the current progressive scene is the number of tribute bands around. Some venues seem to have these bands on week after week. No doubt the promoters would say that it’s the tribute bands that fill the halls, but it must result in less opportunity for newer bands to find an audience and to develop and grow and thus eventually fill the halls themselves. All of what might be considered the classic progressive bands Yes, Floyd, Genesis probably didn’t reach their finest hour until maybe their fourth or fifth album. These things take time, even for the very best.
I feel there’s plenty of fine new music around in what we’ll loosely call the ‘prog’ area. It’s also worth saying that sometimes people who like seventies prog artists don’t like some of today’s bands because they don’t sound like the classic bands of that era.

In the recent years there are some new very interesting bands from Great Britain that play some good prog again after a long silence (Magenta, Andy Tillison with Tangent, Philgrim...), there is something new in the air?
Magenta are probably a good example of a band who have had the chance to develop. When I first saw them about four years ago they we’re, to be honest, very derivative, I mean to the point that you could tell not just which band certain of their ideas had come from but which even which track by those bands - and talking to Rob Reed at the time, he was pretty up front about it. But they’ve now developed to become one of the best bands around – and live I’m not sure they can be touched at the moment.
There are a good sprinkling of bands who are playing interesting music right now that could be considered progressive, or proggish anyway – and perhaps not all of them are recognized by the prog fraternity. It that curse of labelling things again. There are people trying all kinds of crossovers, some very clever and subtle which maybe the prog audience as a whole has yet to embrace. To me, many of these, say in what is termed the ‘Celtic’ music area for example, often sound a lot more progressive, than many, many of the bands who reside under the prog-metal tag. Trouble is one uses the term‘Celtic’ and people have a preconception of what they’re going to hear and a ‘prog’ fan may not bother to give it a try. As I say, genre labels are a curse.

We met through MySpace, it’s seem to me that this is a little revolution for the artists, can you tell me what do you feel about this mean of communication?
MySpace, and the internet generally, is something of a double edged sword. On the positive side, it’s a superb way of getting the band and the music in front of a potentially massive audience, but equally, of course, there are many, many more bands now all trying to get noticed. But at least the opportunity is there! Another positive of the internet is that it speeds up word of mouth recommendations, which we still find to be the best method of getting our music to new fans.
On the other hand, the amount of time promotion on the internet takes is frightening. I know many bands now have someone else, someone from outside the band, to handle their MySpace account and I can understand that perfectly, though up till now we’ve continued to answer all the messages we receive ourselves and will continue to do so for as long as we can. But when you’re getting up to 30 or 40 messages a day, well, you can see how time consuming it can be to respond to them all. It’s fine as long as it doesn’t start to eat into the time we dedicate to the music – that has to come first.

I’ve really liked the artworks used for your albums, can you tell me more about them?
The artwork on the first album is a still of Evelyn taken from a video that we did for the song ‘Mermaid Kiss’. We hadn’t really thought about the artwork for the album at all until a few days before we were ready to send it off – we’d been so focused on getting the music right. So in a bit of a panic, Evelyn and I spread our CD collections out on the floor and tried to work out which cover images had the most impact. It was totally unscientific, just gut reaction, and we concluded that those with a lot of white stood out as did those with a single strong image. So that was what we went for.
It was after The Mermaid Kiss Album was released that we met the photographer Chris Walkden, (incidently at the same gig where we first saw Magenta) and he has done the photography for the band and our artwork ever since. The photo on the ‘Salt On Skin’ cover is of Kate Emerson. And the cover image on ‘Etarlis’ is a photo of a friend of ours, Megan Forbes, whom Chris and I actually met in the mountains of North Wales on a trip we made into Snowdonia looking for good photographic locations to shoot the Etarlis artwork. Meg also sang the demo of ‘The Lighthouse’ and if it hadn’t been for her getting ill, she would have been on the album. I’m hoping she’ll appear on something in the future.
Chris is a terrific photographer and these days a good friend. Mostly he does live shots and has photographed just about all of the best British prog bands over the last few years. Recently he’s been doing more studio and location based work as well –he’s great to work with, he takes time to get to know the bands first and what makes them tick, and this makes the actual photo sessions fun to do.

Are you planning to play live? What are you preparing for the audience?
We actually had our first rehearsal for the new live set last week-end, though we probably won’t be playing live until next spring. To attempt to do justice to some of the music on Etarlis we concluded we needed a second keyboard player, and we’re delighted that Jonathan Edwards will be playing with us – except obviously on those occasions when our dates coincide with those of his own band. We’re also bringing in a bassist, Laura Knight, for the live performances, and she’ll also be doing harmony vocals. We’re still searching for a drummer for the gigs, that’s a priority right now.

Future projects?
A second ‘Etarlis’ album is planned, but it’s probably not going to be our next release. We’ve been working on something that goes by the name of ‘American Images’ –a couple of songs intended for that have already been recorded in some form – a song called ‘This Trail Of Tears’ with Evelyn singing, and ‘Ocean Lullaby’ which features Kate Belcher on vocals. The rest of the songs are written and some have songwriting demos recorded, but basically there’s a long way to go.
Finding the time to record and rehearse is always difficult – almost all the band have full time jobs and we’re spread right out across the UK, so arranging rehearsals is a bit of a logistical nightmare, but things seem to get done, and technology definitely helps these days!

Feel free to end this interview with a salute...
There are so many people without whom we couldn’t have hoped to do this - our families especially have made all kinds of sacrifices so we can create the music. The fans of of course are extraordinary - I’m always amazed at how generous people are with their time in this busy world to help the bands whose music they love - that’s certainly been our experience and so many of the people who first came to us as fans we now count as good friends. Recently for example, a guy called Pete Galer offered to set up and run a forum for us which he’s called ‘mermaidkisses’ –( I finally met him for the first time a fortnight ago at the Summer’s End festival here in the UK.
Then there’s people like yourself; and Russ Elliot at Musical Discoveries; Dave Randall at GetReadyToRock!, who’ve gone out of their way on their sites to help us.
Ultimately though, it’s the fans, the people who buy the music and come to the gigs, who make it all possible and who make it all worthwhile. Music is nothing without an audience.
Reviews (only in italian): The Mermaid Kiss Album + Salt On Skin; Etarlis

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