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Gypsy Soul is a duo consisting of multi-instrumentalist Roman Morykit and singer Cilette Swann. Their musical spirit spans a vast range of styles but they are most often reviewed as playing folk rock and Celtic-influenced music. The pair write all of their own music—rich instrumental arrangements accompany Cilette's sensual and crystalline soprano vocals which are consistently mixed way up, never overshadowed by the well-performed guitars, keys and percussion. With the recent release of their fourth full length album, Superstition Highway, we review their work to date and have incorporated results of an interview with the artists in this internet feature article.
Cilette has a voice that has drawn comparisons to styles of Tori Amos, Paula Cole and Loreena McKennitt without being too close to any of them. Vocal work is especially heartfelt and emotive while the arrangements create haunting and beautiful foundations to let Cilette's parts soar. Cilette was born in Canada yet is of South African and Irish descent. Her partner Roman is from a British, Ukrainian and Italian melting pot. Cilette moved to Scotland from France and met Roman's brother when shopping a demo around to studios in Edinburgh. One thing led to another when Roman's and Cilette's styles were found to be compatible and the rest, as they say, is history.
We were very interested to explore the artists' biographies and focused a discussion on them. Cilette told us, "I went to Europe in 1986 for the summer and ended up staying on and off for almost six years. Through a series of events I wound up in Paris, dating a French/British guy and singing (in French!) in a jazz band that toured most of France. As French was a new language to me, I initially learned all of the songs phonetically. Boy, that was an interesting career move. That time in my life certainly taught me to be tough."
Cilette then ventured to Scotland. She told us, "I also spent a few years in Edinburgh, Scotland when for the first time in my life, I felt like I was home. I have been blessed to have lived in beautiful places like Vancouver BC, Seattle, San Francisco and Paris, but it must have been my Scottish/Irish ancestory that helped to fuel my love at first sight affair with Edinburgh."
She continued the story, "It was there in 1990 that I met Roman. His band in England had just been dropped from A & M Records half way through their record, after signing one of the biggest deals in A & M's (UK) history. Roman's brother and I had a band that was in deperate need of focus and direction. Enter Roman—the mutli-instrumentalist producer/arranger. We hit it off immediately and became fast friends. Our musical tastes and direction were more akin and eventually we split off to form our own band. We were together for just under a year when Roman proposed and we headed off to North America."
Roman and Cilette were married in Vancouver BC after being engaged for a month. She told us, "When you know, you just know. Soon we moved to Los Angeles as there was some interest in our music from a few large companies. We wrote a lot of material in the first few years, did a number of demos, defined our sound and did a bit of gigging to start building our following. This time was not only about learning our craft, but most certainly about learning this business of music. Especially about how talent may buy you longevity, but it is luck and contacts that gets you in the door."
Gypsy Soul's first CD was completed in 1995 and they were being courted by a number of independent labels. Cilette told us, "We signed with a Navarre distributed label who managed to chart our single on the Gavin Radio charts at #36 only to find that they became bankrupt in their first year. They had a lot of energy and desire, but were very green and ultimately failed."
Cilette added, "We still owned our masters so it wasn't as heartbreaking as if could have been. Very quickly after that relationship disolved Roman and I moved to San Francisco to lick our wounds and start writingSanctuary. It was at that point that we started our own label, Off The Beaten Track Recordings."
Gypsy Soul have released four albums on their own label to date. Their debutTest Of Time (GS7710) was released in 1995. An Enhanced CD with video footage and photographs followed in 1998 and is entitled Sanctuary (GS7712). Later that year, the duo released another full length album featuring their own arrangements of traditional Christmas tunes entitled Sacred (GS7714). The band's latest album Superstition Highway (GS7716) has yet to be released internationally although it is available on the web and at the group's shows. Licensing arrangements for Gypsy Soul's albums with Horizon/Sony and KOCH Records have made them available in Japan and in Canada/Europe as domestic products in those territories. Off The Beaten Track Recordings has three other artists and a catalogue of eight masters currently.
Test Of Time. The band's debut album, released in 1995, is comprised of ten tracks; one of them is a pure instrumental reprise of an earlier vocally-oriented track. Their earlier sound is often soft mixing ballads and light folk rock. Heartfelt and sensual vocals soar well above the well-played instrumental arrangements. Tinges of Celtic influence are evident even though one would characterise their sound as more symphonic or orchestral in its texture. Lovely backing vocal harmonies result from thoughtful multi-tracking of Cilette's and other contributing artists' vocal work.
Contrasting the ballads are moving easy rock numbers driven by crisp percussion and modern electronic instrumentation. The lead vocals are highly expressive, effectively mixing sensuality with raunchiness to suit the instrumental passages. "Lies" clearly illustrates the contrasts. Backing harmonies add to the depth and texture of the band's sound. The highly memorable "Silent Tears" is a folk rock tune with a very catchy, hooking chorus. The most definitive Gypsy Soul track from the album is "Take Me Back Where I Belong" largely due to the lyrical content of the song's chorus.
Other highly accessible light rock numbers include the lovely "Loving Me" and "You Know The Feeling." An instrumental of the latter actually closes out the album and demonstrates the virtuosity of the instrumental work that comprises the band's sound. Mixed vocal work from Cilette and contributing backing vocalists is supported by fine instrumental work. "Bluer Skies" is another accessible track with richer instrumentation. The guitar solo within it is highly notable.
Cilette's vocals carry the album's ballads, and in the track "Can't Go Home" lead the way over light acoustic guitar and Celtic-inspired electronic instrumentals with the lightest and most sensitive backing harmonies. The evocative ballad "The Oceans Between Us" continues in a similar vein.
We asked Cilette to tell us about the artists that influenced the writing of Gypsy Soul's music. She told us, "There are many things that influence and inspire me. Artists and Art. Friends and Strangers. I am certain that many artists have crept into my subconscious and subtly influenced my writing or performing style. Off the top of my head, these include Joni Mitchell, Bonnie Raitt, Ricki Lee Jones, Daniel Lanois, Peter Gabriel, Gladys Night, Carole King, Karla Bonoff, The Pretenders, Blossom Deary, Brian Kennedy, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Shawn Colvin, Otis Redding, Al Greene, Van Morrison, Eurythmics and Stevie Wonder." She added, "Elton John/Bernie Taupin, Dire Straits, Rod Stewart, Pink Floyd, Crosby Stills and Nash, Eagles, Heart, U2, Hall and Oats and others also had a big effect on me."
Cilette is currently listening to a broad range of artists. When asked, she told us that her favourites include, "Bonnie Raitt, Eva Cassidy, Brian Kennedy, Emmy Lou Harris, Mark Cohn, Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, Debussy, Chopin and many other favourites making it hard to narrow it down." She continued, "At the moment, in addition to many of those I've already mentioned, I'm listening a lot to Daniel Lanois, Dead Can Dance, Tom Waits, Radio Head, David & David, Muddy Waters, Simon and Garfunkel, Ben Harper, Fleetwood Mac, Tracy Chapman, Otis Redding, Train, some Putamayo Samplers of cool world artists, World Party/WaterBoys, Tears For Fears, Bush, Dave Matthews, Gavin, Trisha Yearwood and both KCRW and 103.1 FM in LA, The 'Mountain' when in Seattle and 'Alice' and K-Fog in San Francisco."
We were very interested to find out about how these outside influences come through in Gypsy Soul's music. Cilette told us, "When actively writing, I make it a point not to actively listen to any music so that my ideas are as fresh as they can be." Her inspiration comes from themes or conversations. She explained, "Sometimes it is just phrase or a word. Roman will play a new song and it gets under my skin. I go with the most natural theme that fits the music, both lyrically and with my vocal melodies. We write in a very organic way and constantly give each other space to let each other shine. It is pretty rare that either of us don't like what the other comes up with. We both have alot of trust and mutual respect for each others style and abilities."
Sanctuary. The vocal passages on Gypsy Soul's second album are more far reaching, perhaps to the increased attention paid to the songwriting. Recorded in Seattle, San Anselmo, Los Angeles, Edinburgh and Vancouver, production remains stunning in all respects yet the artists claim that less attention was paid to it. Acoustic instrumentation is more pronounced and the orchestral or symphonic texture of the debut is much more subdued. The album's ten tracks include eight studio vocal-oriented numbers, an instrumental and a live vocal performance of the tune "Solace." The instrumental, entitled called "Epona's Thunder," is a sweeping piece mixing fine acoustic and electronic instrumentation with a soaring vocalise part and mustn't be missed.
Gypsy Soul'sSanctuary is an "enhanced CD" with additional multimedia-based programming for personal computer users. The material is well-produced but the enhancement programming may render some computers' CD ROM drive incapable of playing the music tracks. The "From The Studio" segment includes a sensually lit acoustic video performance of "Solace" featuring Cilette's evocative lead vocal and Roman's articulate acoustic guitar and backing vocals. We also enjoyed the well-produced "Silent Tears" video; this is a song from the band's debut album and the video is considered a bonus track on this album.
The interview segment has four portions; one is called "how we got together" and another is entitled "the new record." Here Roman and Cilette talk about the more basic production quality of the second Gypsy Soul recording when compared with their debut. The enhanced CD also includes a gallery and a slide show to drive it as well as lyrics that go with the album's tracks. Many of the images are available on the band's website. Additional motion video passages we found on the CD include one on "influences" and a "thank you." These take a little more work to find!
We asked Cilette how she developed her vocal style. She told us, "I have been singing since I could talk. I feel very fortunate because I have always loved so many kinds of music from Gospel to The Blues. I would sing along to all the records my older brother and sisters had which was a lovely benefit of being the baby!" She continued, "My parents are South African would play these Zulu tribal chanting records where the rhythms and harmonies were so beautiful and haunting. My whole family sings, so there was always a lot of music in our home. My style developed itself really over time. We have been told that my singing is reminiscent of Sarah McLachlan, Paula Cole, Tori Amos, Annie Lennox, but my favorite remark was that I sounded like a combination of Joni Mitchell meets Janis Joplin—now that is cool!"
Cilette is primarily self-taught but she has had some formal training. She told us, "I took the odd theory class in college, but I am predominately self-taught. I never wanted to sing the notes on the page and that was a bit problematic for my music teachers. I did some musical theater as well as choir in school and church growing up. Essentially, I learned what I know through listening and singing what feels right to me."
The grooving bass parts onSanctuary are immediately more noticable. The bluesy "Won't Be Wronged" is an example of lovely soaring vocal work over Roman's funky bass. Acoustic passages dominate the instrumental arrangements and this contributes the softness that the album exudes. The sensitive ballads are carried by Cilette's reaching vocals and include the sweet "Talk To Me," "In The Knowing Of You" and "Another Morning." The lovely "Solace" (live) that concludes the album is the same version used in the video on the enhanced portion of the CD.
Even the more accessible and moving numbers like "Here And Now" and "Scream To Be Heard" are supported by an acoustic foundation. The contrast between the tension of the verse and release of chorus on these tracks is controlled by the instrumentals and carried by the vocals. As in the debut album,Sanctuary contains a definitive Gypsy Soul track; with a soaring Cilette Swann lead vocal, this album's is "Crying Colours." Richly produced with thick instrumental arrangements, lots of vocal harmonies and a stunning keyboard part, the song has vague similarities to "Take Me Back Where I Belong."
We were interested to learn about the writing sequences Gypsy Soul uses to create their music. Cilette told us, "Roman writes and arranges the music and I write the lyrics and vocal melodies. Songs come to me on the freeway, in the shower, on elevators—the most inconvenient places really!" She continued, "Roman will play these beautiful chords and themes and it will get under my skin. I'll start singing over what we have and the songs seem to develop. Sometimes the lyric inspires the vocal melody or visa versa. Generally, Roman writes the music first and then I write the lyrics, however there have been some exceptions and some spontaneous bursts from both us where we don't even realize that we have just written a song."
Almost all of Gypsy Soul's music was written by Roman and Cilette. Cilette remarked about collaboration, "We very rarely collaborate with other writers for Gypsy Soul—although we're not opposed to it—but one of the songs we have onSuperstition Highway called "Romeo's Prey," was co-written with my Dad." She told us the story, "He and I were traveling to Las Vegas when I was around 20 and we stopped at a diner and were chatting about a recent heartache. All of a sudden all of these lyrics started to pour out all over our napkins and place settings. It was a fun bonding moment! It was years before I found someone who actually did the lyrics justice with great music."
The technical quality of Gypsy Soul's recorings is outstanding. We asked Cilette about the recording process. "We did our first two CDs in commercial recording studios, but as great equipment became more affordable and Roman even more accomplished as a producer, we chose to do the last two CDs in home studios, bar the live drum tracks. You've got to have a great room for that." She continued, "OnSanctuary we went to a studio at Oceanway in Hollywood—that was lovely! Then we did overdubs and mixed at a place called Muther's in Sausalito, CA. We are pretty damn quick in the studio. There isn't a lot of messing about. We generally do the bulk of our stuff in one or two takes to keep it fresh."
Sacred. Gypsy Soul's third album was also released in 1998. Entirely focused on traditional Christmas music, it contains eight vocally-oriented tracks and one instrumental reprise of an earlier vocal track. Instrumentation is almost exclusively acoustic. Vocals soar and carry the melodies. The album is a must for Cilette Swann vocal fans. Her sensual style and crystalline vocal qualities seem to suit the music perfectly and Roman's light instrumental arrangements provide an effective foundation for the tracks.
Gypsy Soul's albums have lovely and at times complex arrangements; it is remarkable that the band is actually a duo. Cilette told us, "Roman plays almost every instrument on all of our CDs, except for live drums. We are well surrounded with a bunch of wonderful friends and players who we bring in when we want a certain sound or have a big club date or festival. David Libman and Jimmy DiJulio have played drums live and on CDs, Brian Kahanek plays electric guitar with us live and on one song onSuperstition Highway."
We asked Cilette to tell us a little bit more about the recording process and the folks that work with them in the studio. She remarked, "Roman does 90% of the producing, arranging and most of the playing on all of our CDs. We have in the past worked with a co-producer named Matt Yelton. We have worked with engineer and fellow artist Joe White of Muther's Recording onSanctuary. Roman also produced his album." She continued, "Jason Rubenstein of Ruby Fish Studios assisted with engineering on Sacred and Superstition Highway, as well as has played some keyboards on the albums." Cilette also told us, "Jason and Roman also have a project called Eidolon. Their debut CD will be released through our label soon. It has got to be said, we are quite an incestuous bunch. It has been a great blessing to have so many diversely talented friends. We have all helped each other out by bartering our particular talents to help fill in the gaps."
Cilette and Roman are full time musicians which is not only diffuclt but rare among independent artists. Cilette told us, "We have been fortunate enough for the last four years to make our sole living from music ... be it from performing, producing, TV and film uses or label revenue. Our label, Off The Beaten Track Recordings, is also home to three other artists (besides Gypsy Soul) for whom Roman has produced CDs and co-written material. With regards to the label, Roman is the studio dude and handles all that entails and I am the one who oversees the running of the label, booking shows and doing publicity for Gypsy Soul and the other bands. It is 24/7 to be sure, but we love it!"
The tracks onSacred include modern interpretations but traditional basic structures of "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" and "The First Noel." "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" is performed in a jazzy coffee house style; the piano and keyboard parts within are especially notable. Gypsy Soul's modern interpretation of traditional ballads returns with "Silent Night, Holy Night"; the vocal part is awe inspiring. Almost progressive symphonic/orchestral instrumental arrangements are the driving force and support Cilette's sensitive vocal part in "We Three Kings of Orient Are" making it our favourite track from the album. A calling whistle part adds a Celtic flair to the melody.
"What Child is This" is performed to a tune very similar to "Greensleeves." It is sung sensitively over light acoustic guitar and a Celtic whistle that supports the track's non-lyrical chorus. Cilette's soaring vocals carry the Gypsy Soul version of "O Holy Night" accompanied by a light electric guitar arrangement. Celtic whistle and deep keyboards support yet another soaring vocal part in "O Come, O Come Emmanuel." The song is certain to appeal to fans of Clannad, Capercaillie and Iona. The whistle and percussion parts are especially notable. An orchestral completely instrumental reprise of "We Three Kings of Orient Are" concludes the album and demonstrates the virtuosity and dexterity of the artists.
Cilette told us about her career prior to the label, and shared her views about self-employment in the music business. She told us, "I have done a ton of different jobs, which when looking back, all had their place in teaching me about running our own business. I have worked for a major talent agency, a publishing company, office managed a motion picture equipment company, have done set decorating for commercials and sang in a French jazz band all over France for two years. I've also done tele-sales, delivered phone books and newspapers when gigs were sparse and we refused to take on a full time gig. Doing all of these jobs truly makes one appreciate the luxury of working for oneself. For us, there is no Plan B—this is it and whatever we have to do to insure that we keep the integrity of the music and pay our bills, we'll continue to do."
Superstition Highway. The latest album from Gypsy Soul was released in the spring of 2000. Eleven tracks comprise the album, with the title track and one other entitled "Eventide" being strictly instrumental. The development of the duo's sound is clear, combining the acoustic emphasis of their second album with a special emphasis on production quality formerly more evident on the debut and symphonic tracks ofSacred. Cilette's vocals take on additional dimensions through mixing and harmony vocal multitracking techniques.
The album has richer instrumental arrangements with layers being used not only on vocals but on the guitar parts as well. Electric guitars soar like vocals in the opening track of the album "Who?". Like two of the band's earlier albums, there is a track that is most definitive of the Gypsy Soul sound; on this album there are two. One is the highly accessible "Take Me Away." Lush instrumental arrangements perfectly mate to Cilette's soaring lead vocal passages and crisp percussion contributes to the moving quality of the track. The second is "Crying Colours" which is performed and recorded in a similar vein. Tension built in each verse is released in the harmonies within the chorus.
Gypsy Soul's adaptation of "Scarborough Fair" is entitled "True Love." Interestingly, Sarah Brightman's latest albumLa Luna (review coming to Musical Discoveries in August 2000) features her rendition of the classic track originally made famous by Simon and Garfunkel. String samples and acoustic guitar within the arrangements perfectly compliment Cilette's vocal work. A Gypsy Soul cover of the Moody Blues classic "Nights In White Satin" is equally enjoyable.
Folk rock numbers on the album include well-produced instrumental excursions of Celtic and/or Middle Eastern influences. "Time Of Innocence" is a lovely example as is "Only Knew You" which favours the rocking side of the band's sound. A blues vocal style dominates "Romeo's Prey"; the thick bass part and jazz-oriented keys sounds emulated by guitar add to the smokey club atmosphere evoked from the performance.Superstition Highway also includes a softer ballad entitled "Where You Are" which is sung over crisp electric guitar, and is similar in its arrangement to "O Holy Night" from Sacred. The album's title track is a highly atmospheric and short keyboard-based instrumental. An acoustic-guitar based instrumental called "Eventide" concludes the album.
Gypsy Soul has performed extensively live. They have been able to headline at clubs such as The Coach House and Galaxy Theatre because of the most unlikely of venues for an original music group—The Orange County Market Place, the popular weekend swap meet held at the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa. "Unlike playing at a club where there is an expectation of bringing in your audience, there you just turn up and play," said Roman, noting that they have had shoppers purchase all four of Gypsy Soul's full-length releases at once after catching their show.
It's an unusual venue for a band," Cilette admitted. "At the swap meet, kids come up to look at the instruments and we're chatting with the parents. But the fan base gathered there is how we get hundreds to comeout and see us at The Coach House." Cilette continued, "Depending on the gig we either go out as a duo or with upwards of six people in total. A lot of the time it has been more financially viable for us to tour as a duo. Roman and I are both so driven that sometimes it is easier with just the two of us." Cilette continued to explain how they work, "I sing and play a bit of percussion. Roman plays fretless bass, acoustic and electric guitar, backing vocals etc. Sometimes we do just fretless bass and voice. We'll bring other players in for electric guitar when Roman chooses to do more bass, and of course drums and percussion. Our sound can be anything from very intimate singer/songwriter to a huge Tears For Fears-type sound."
Gypsy Soul have played extensively throughout the western United States and UK, France and Switzerland., Cilette remarked, "We have toured internationally and have also opened for Toni Childs, Larry Klein, Beth Neilsen-Chapman, Martin Page, John Taylor and others."
Each of Gypsy Soul's albums is adorned with stunning original artwork, lovely photographs and complete lyrics. The artwork appears to have developed in parallel with the music, with its quality advancing album by album with that accompanyingSuperstition Highway being the most elaborate. We asked Cilette about it and she told us, "We are very blessed in that department. Jerome Curchod is the label's art director and one of our closest friends. He is best known in the graphics world as the art director for the cutting edge magazines Raygun, Huh, Bikini and Sweater." Jerome's handywork and magazine background is certainly evident in Gypsy Soul's album artwork.
Cilette continued, "I take a very hands-on approach to our look in photos, the video and the CDs. I work closely with the stylists and the photographers. Shane O'Donnell and Trinette Reed are two of the wonderful photographers that we have worked with. Kerry Lambert, who directed our "Silent Tears" video is a close friend and a brilliant young film maker. I can't wait to do the next video together!" There is a consistency between the album's artwork and the band's website. Cilette told us, "Jerome designs the look and graphics side of the web site and then Marysia (our manager's assistant also loving referred to as Web Goddess) puts together the technical side of things."
Gypsy Soul's official and mp3.com websites appear to be having a positive effect on the band's popularity. We asked Cilette about the world wide web and she told us, "I view the internet as an adjunct to everything we are already doing. It is a amazing tool that is getting more useful everyday! We have had excellent reaction and many features at respected sites. The sales and downloads are very good, but currently nothing beats a live show reaction and sales." She continued, "I must say though, that I love the surprise factor that the web has brought to our particular industry which relies so heavily on 'exposure'. It is amazing to wake up and crank up the e-mail to find ten letters a day from fans you didn't know you had. The web is also a great leveler for all industries and that's a beautiful thing!"
No discussion with an independent artist and the web would be complete without remarks on the majors. Cilette told us, "With regards to the music industry, no longer do the huge conglomerates have absolute rule on product distribution, marketing and promotion, etc. through oppressive personal service agreements. There is a great freedom in taking charge of one's destiny and the web is the perfect avenue for indie artists to reach a global market." She added, "Five years on and four Gypsy Soul CDs later, we are finally seeing the fruits of our labor with the recent internationl licensing and publishing deals we've entered into." Remarking on our reviews and interview, Cilette concluded, "On that note, thank you for featuring us and giving us an opportunity to reach many more new fans."
Gypsy Soul has done remarkably well for an independent artist so far. Prior to the release of their latest album, they have sold in excess of 25,000 units internationally and the duo are attracting fans from a variety of promotional activities spanning live performances, spots in TV shows and films and the web. You can find further reviews and order albums both from the band's website and numerous online retailers. (Sanctuary is currently available from amazon.com here.) There are also soundbites, digital audio music (DAM) CDs, free downloads and further information on the band available at Gypsy Soul's mp3.com website. Clearly worth a long distance journey, Gypsy Soul's four albums are worth thorough exploration; you'll be hooked, they are each a must listen!
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