in depth artist impressionsinterview and album review © Russell W Elliot 2008
photos: Mike Evans 2,3,4,6,7,8,9 | Mark Cowmeadow 5,10,11, 12
images © Panic Room 2008 | used with permission
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Last updated: 18 January 2009
Our concept for an indepth interview with Jonathan Edwards and Anne Marie Helder surrounding the release of Panic Room's debut album Visionary Position dates back to the early demos heard about one year after the demise of Karnataka.
The first exposure we had to the early stage of a complete album was during a summer visit with Jonathan and his family in New York City. Some vocals had already been recorded, but the album that has enjoyed almost a year of success was still far in the future.
The original questions were sent to the artists almost a year ago. The first complete responses were compilied in May. Since that time, the band has gathered significant momentum and press coverage has been extensive. We wanted to publish at a time where readers could savor every word.
Clarifications were provided and helped us create this incredibly detailed account of theband's new album, recollecations of music past and present, and a look to the future. Apologies from the editorial staff in bringing this article to the publication. The coding task was immense! Now, enjoy!
Panic Room Interview with Jonathan Edwards and Anne-Marie Helder
Musical Discoveries: Hi Jonathan. When did you start writing the material for Visionary Position?
Jonathan: In a way the writing for Visionary Position started before the break up of Karnataka in the sense that some of the songs that appear on the album had their origin as song ideas for what would have been the fourthh Karnataka studio album. After the band split I knew I wanted to continue writing and playing music and I felt that I still had a lot to offer musically. I continued working on some of the pre-split ideas and also wrote a lot of new material.
Anne-Marie, Paul and Gavin were all enthusiastic to get involved in the project and with the addition of bassist, Alun Vaughan and Peter Charlton on acoustic guitars we had the makings of a group. Some earlier ideas were discarded and new ones added until I thought we had the strongest material for a complete album.
Why did the album take so long from conception to release?
Because of Anne-Marieís other commitments and the geographical distance between us the writing of the music and The writing of the lyrics and vocal melodies were done separately. Generally speaking the way it was done on this album was that the music was written and the basic tracks recorded onto the computer from keyboards. I programmed drum tracks and loops and played bass and guitar parts on keyboards. At this point the basic structure of the songs was there with a rough idea of the different instruments and their lines. Anne-Marie then took the demos away and wrote the lyrics and vocal melodies.
There are a number of other reasons why the album took such a long time to get done, but the main ones were I guess that people's other commitments, both musical and personal got in the way some of the time. It's nobodies fault, it's just the way things worked out. Like the song says, we were moving at "the speed of life"! Also, it took us a long time to realise that we needed someone outside of the band to mix the album. We persevered up to a point with mixing it ourselves and learned a lot in the process but finally realised that we needed someone with specific skills to mix the album: thank you Tim Hammill!
How did the project continue to develop?
We went into the studio to record guide vocals sung to the demos. This is a really special time for me when I hear the vocals sung for the first time and it starts to feel like a real album It was particularly emotional hearing Anne-Marie sing Firefly for the first time, she brought so much heart to the song. Between the two of us we then work through the song structures to take account of the vocal melodies and make any changes to the verses/choruses/middle-8s/etc until we're happy.
Most of the parts for each instrument were written up to a certain level, but I tried to ensure that everybody had the freedom to interpret the songs in their own way and space to add or amend any parts as they want until we're all happy with the songs. So the arrangements are very much a collaborative process. Personally I don't see the point in telling other musicians exactly what to play, because it's the things that they can do with their instruments and the ideas that they bring to the songs that I want.
Alun and Gavin were then given copies of the songs to work out their own drum and bass parts. Generally this involves staying within the structure of the song but improving on the programmed and keyboard versions by about 1000%. Paul began working on the guitar parts, which involves fleshing out written parts originally played on keys as well as adding ideas of his own. We recorded initial takes of the instruments, some of which will be good enough to make it to the final mixes and some of which were replaced later. When more or less all of the tracks are recorded we do some rough mixes to see how it all fits together. This is when you start to hear if there are clashes between certain chords or if some phrases don't really fit with the vocals or if timings are a bit out. Then we gradually replaced the guide vocal and instrument tracks with the finished performances as necessary.
How were the violin parts integrated?
Liz Prendergast of Bluehorses was given copies of the demos quite early on in the process and I talked through with her the ideas behind the songs and the kind of general musical textures I was looking for. Where there were written parts she reproduced them, but for the most part the violin lines are Liz's own arrangements and we were extremely pleased with the results. With the acoustic guitars, Peter generally reproduced the parts as written, while also adding that all-important "human" touch to the parts.
The last things to be recorded for this album were the guitar solos and some last minute keyboard ideas. Some piano parts originally played on synths were replaced with real piano at a very late stage in the middle of the mixing sessions when we discovered that the studio had just bought a grand piano!
What would you say are some of the most unique aspects of the writing process on the album?
I think there was more improvisation on this album than anything I've previously worked on and that's kind of scary but exciting at the same time. It's important to have a plan and an overview of what you want to achieve, but itís also hugely important to allow space for things to just happen and a lot of what I consider to be special moments on the album came about through just pressing record and trying something.
Although Paul generally likes to work on the structure and flow of a guitar solo, quite a few of his solos on this album were improvised. The solo, which weaves in and out of the vocal on the end-section of Firefly, was especially magical. Paul was recording some other parts for the song and we just had this idea that it might be nice to have a guitar line weaving in and out of the vocal from the end chorus through to the end of the song.
Paul listened to Anne-Marie's vocal line through once or twice, then we recorded a run through without having any clear idea of what would come out. The result is what you hear on the album. He just nailed it first take and for my money, it just fits perfectly with the melody that Anne-Marie is singing. It's almost like a duet for voice and guitar.
Similarly, some of the keyboard solos were also improvised rather than worked out in advance. Take for example the "jazz" piano at the end of "Elektra City" and the synth solo on the end of "Endgame". Alun's bass lines were different every take. The hard part was choosing which takes to use as they were all really good! Sometimes it's really hard work, but sometimes something just happens and the right notes and phrases just flow and if you're really lucky the record button was on at the time!
How did the work on the album reach its conclusion?
We generally record much more than actually ends up on the finished album and a lot of the mixing process is about editing, that is, building the complete picture from all the different elements that are recorded. For instance we may record a rhythm guitar track through all of the verses of the song and then decide that we just want it to come in for the last verse, or a backing vocal that has been recorded for every chorus may just be on the last line of every chorus. Similarly if someone has a really good idea for a new part that doesn't fit with an element already recorded we may decide to not use the previously recorded parts. Basically we keep playing around with the tracks until we're happy with the way things sound and we feel that the songs are building nicely and really working, or, we run out of studio time and/or money!.
Some tracks get changed fairly drastically quite late in the proceedings. For instance, "Reborn" had a breakdown section with just drums and bass before the guitar solo kicks in and I just felt that it was really slowing the song down so we cut 16 bars out of all the tracks in the songs and it really helped tighten the song up. Conversely in mixing we felt that the end of the main section of "The Dreaming" faded too fast so we added eight bars to the end of the song by cutting and copying the last eight bars again to allow us a really slow fade out. It's funny, and it may seem obvious, but it's only when you actually get to make an album that you realise that one of the most important elements to the whole process is listening.
How did you, Anne-Marie, Paul and Gavin get to the idea to form Panic Room after the Karnataka break-up?
The initial idea was to make an album with a collective of musicians that I had worked with or come to know over the years. I knew that I definitely wanted to work with Anne-Marie, her role had been growing with Karnataka and I felt that she would really shine fronting a full band. She has a wonderfully versatile voice and also brings such passion to everything she's involved with that I felt she would also be the "glue" that would hold everything together.
Paul is an amazingly inventive soloist and Gavin's drumming just takes anything he plays on to another level, so there was never any question about asking them to be part of Panic Room. I had spoken vaguely with Anne-Marie before Karnataka split about the possibility of doing a side project and she had expressed an interest in being involved. When I approached her, Paul and Gavin after the split about forming a new group they were all really enthusiastic about it. Theyíre all really good friends as well as being excellent musicians so very little persuasion was needed!
It has all happened very organically without having to force anything. Fairly early on in the process it was clear that this felt like a band rather than just a recording project and despite everyone's other musical adventures, we'íre all really committed to making a success of Panic Room.
What can you tell us about bringing aboard Peter and Alun?
Alun Vaughan was originally recommended by Anne-Marie and his bass playing skills are well-known around Swansea. His background is in jazz and he's played live and on numerous albums by many of the UK's rising stars on the jazz circuit. He does assure me however, that he was inspired to learn the bass after seeing Gene Simmons with Kiss! With Alun it was a matter of playing him the demos and asking if he wanted to play some bass on an album unpaid and then hang around for nearly two years waiting to gig and surprisingly he said yes! But seriously he is a consummate musician and provided a great foundation for the music on the album. His bass lines were so much better than the demos that he worked from. He recorded about half a dozen takes for each song, each one different and each one really good. Itís really good to work with someone who really listens and pays that much attention to the details. It is rarer than you think!
Peter Charlton is a friend from way back and we had previously been in bands together. In fact, he had briefly been in a very early band with myself and Rachel and Ian of Karnataka. Sorry folks, no recordings have survived! We also played together in a Led Zeppelin tribute band, when tribute bands were more of an oddity and not nearly as pervasive as they are now. He has his own studio and offered to record the album and play acoustic guitar for us as well. Although we intended for Peter to be part of the band, his other commitments have meant that this isn't possible, but his work recording the album has been invaluable and I'm sure weíll be working with him again.
What about some of the other musicians on the album?
With Anne-Marie, Paul, Gavin, Alun and Peter on board there was only one other instrument that I really felt I needed on the album and that was violin. Iíd met Liz Prendergast previously at a Classic Rock Society Awards Night and she was really approachable and friendly as well as being a very talented musician. So she was really my first choice for playing violin on the album. I asked if she would listen to some demos with a view to playing on the album and visited her to play through the tracks and explain the general ideas behind the songs and the kind of textures I was looking for. There were some specific lines that I wanted her to play and she reproduced these beautifully, but for the most part the violin arrangements are her own and we were really blown away with the results. Sheís really added some Celtic magic to the album.
The other musician who appears on the album is Swansea guitarist, Gary Phillips. Gary is an accomplished guitarist with a number of bands, playing mainly flamenco and blues and came along to the studio to play some Spanish guitar on "Apocalypstick" for us. This was fairly early on in the recording of the album and the initial idea for the song was that it would be much more acoustic and flamenco driven. As the sessions proceeded we decided to go with a much heavier approach and ended up using the Spanish guitar more as a flavour in the music rather than a feature.
Tell us about the recording, mixing and mastering of the album.
The initial demos were recorded at my house using Sonar. The keyboard tracks were then imported into Sony Vegas at Peter's Vimana Studio where we recorded all the other instruments. Although the songs weren't recorded with the band all playing together we really wanted the album to have a "live" feel to it, so it was important that everyone felt able to experiment and that we allowed time for things to just happen. Superficially this was very similar to the way that Karnataka recorded except that we made a conscious decision to go for a less controlled and more improvised approach to the music.
It's important to go in with a plan, but it's also important to be flexible enough to change the plan and allow for some deviation! We did far less editing of the recorded tracks than we had previously done with Karnataka Ė generally speaking, our rule of thumb for the album was "if it sounds good, it is good" rather than worrying about whether every drum beat or bass note was exactly in time.
Hi Anne-Marie. You've been very busy with your solo career and other work. What have you been up to?
Anne-Marie: Yes, that's very true! Some of your readers may already be aware of all the musical work I've been doing over the past couple of years, it's been pretty full-on! But, for those who don't know so much about me, I'll explain what I've been up to!
When Karnataka split in 2004, it hit us all really hard; things were going so great for the band, and we were truly at a pivotal point in our success story. But things do change: that is life. And it broke our hearts to split up. But we had to pick up the pieces and see where we'd all go from there. For Jon, it was pouring his energies into his solo writing projects, which was later to become Panic Room. (smiles)
For me, I'd always been in lots of bands and other musical projects anyway, so it was a case of deciding where my path truly lay now, with the future wide open. I'd played solo shows before, but had fully taken up the gauntlet in early 2004, a few months before the band split. Some opportunities came up to do support sets and I took them. And it had felt so right, so rewarding, that I realized I just had to put everything into it now and see where it could go.
I recorded a solo EP, and got great feedback from it; had radio play on stations from BBC Radio 2 to Total Rock radio, amazing reviews from magazines like Classic Rock magazine and I started selling my EP to fans all over the world! I began gigging pretty furiously and in fact during that next year I played over 200 shows!
Looking back on it, I don't know where I got the energy. But when you're gigging, it's so addictive you somehow don't get tired! You just survive on the buzz. I got some great supports, playing opening sets for Midge Ure, Paul Young, Glenn Tilbrook (Squeeze), Limehouse Lizzy (World No.1 Thin Lizzy tribute) and many others, before landing a great gig supporting Fish (ex-Marillion) that enabled me to play all over the UK and also across Europe, as official Tour Support. I sold more CDs and reached more fans in that period than ever before! It was awesome and I was really getting chance to perfect my craft.
And what happened next? What else did you get involved with?
I went on to record guest vocals for Fish's 2006 acoustic album Communion with Heather Findlay and Angela Gordon, both of Mostly Autumn fame; and then the following year I provided guest vocals for Mostly Autumn's Heart Full of Sky album and my partner Dave Kilminster's debut CD Scarlet which is also amazing! (smiles)
As well as doing a zillion support sets for some great artists, and doing vocal work on lots of albums, I've also performed solo headline shows, including seated theatre gigs, which are more scary than any! And I played at a lot of incredible singer-songwriter nights. From prestigious London venues such as The Bedford and The Regal Room, to the Undiscovered show in LA, California, hosted by platinum-selling songwriter Andrea Stolpe, I've really had an incredible opportunity to see the best songwriters in the business at work.
Personally I've amassed about 200 songs that I still haven't recorded, from being on the road and trying new things out all the time. So, alongside my Panic Room work this year, it's my plan to record the follow-up album to The Contact. And, I'll keep on recording until I've got all those songs laid down! I was too busy for a while there, to actually record. But I'm aiming to complete the new solo album this year, as I've been promising fans for a long time now!
This has been a busy year. Can you tell us a bit more about it?
In January, I was chosen to play in the UK Final of the Emergenza International Festival, a competition which runs all over the world, to find the best songwriters and bands. There were over 200 UK songwriters on the acoustic-competition shortlist, and I was thrilled to be chosen as one of the final nine!
I played at the London Final in February, alongside with the best new songwriters I'd ever heard. And I came second by about one point! I just missed out to a guy called Alexander Wolfe. Although I was gutted to miss out on first place, I was also happy that it was him that had won. We had both been rooting for each other all night! We had a mutual admiration of each other's music, so it was funny to us that we should come in first and second! I was really honoured to be voted so highly by the panel for this competition & felt genuinely respected for my songwriting and music.
At about that time, I was also asked to join the Mostly Autumn crew on their latest album and tour~playing keyboards, guitars, flute and vocals for Glass Shadows~and as I had already worked with them and they are an amazing bunch of people, I was chuffed and delighted to say yes! I've just been up in York--in the north of England!--to lay down some vocals and flute on that album, and will be out on the road with them for all their 2008 dates.
But first things first, we've got a Panic Room tour to rock on and an awesome album to promote--and that, of course, is what else I've been deeply ensconced in for the last couple of years!
We started work on the ideas in 2005/6, and spent a lot of sporadic bursts of energy bringing the album forward; I think it's probably benefited from the extra time and patience poured into it, as we weren't in a rush to just get any old product out there. I mean, sure, things could've moved quicker--and I know our old Karnataka fans were getting restless! But it had to be right. And with all of us being busy people--plus me being away on the road, far too much of the time! It was a pretty long process. But it was a work in chapters, not a short story!
Anyway, the finished product is what you now have in your hand, and, we are very proud of it. So, with all this coming up, and the album launching right now, it's time to focus! My head's actually more focused and full of music now, than it has been in years. It kinda has to be! But it's been a great start to 2008 already, and with all this wonderful music swimming around me, there's only good things to look forward to now!
I have had some hellish ups and downs in the last couple of years, including a while there in 2006 where I got completely burnt-out, from over-doing it. But, I am genuinely at a place in my life and career now where I feel fulfilled, inspired, and happy! And I can't wait for this year.
Tell us all about your writing contributions to Visionary Position.
Jon gave me some CDs of his musical ideas and I spent a lot of time just listening. He had some truly amazing music here. I'd agreed a while ago to sing on his future album project, when it was just an idea. I knew he had loads of unused tracks and song-ideas, and they really deserved to be heard, so I was more than happy to help him develop them into proper songs, sing them and let them reach the light of day! It's criminal to have all that talent and not be heard.
So when things started coming together after Karnataka split~which took a while~ on checked that I was still cool to work on these other ideas with him, and then gave me lots of potential songs to listen to! Eventually that became a shortlist, and he worked hard on getting them structured really well and sounding as full-band as possible, from the resources of his home studio! But that was brilliant, because it meant I could get a real feel for how the songs might sound ultimately, rocked up and with the full band playing.
Each song was so totally different, so it was certainly a challenge.
Some tracks already felt like songs to me, with obvious hooks and melodies just crying out to be added. Sometimes music speaks to me very strongly like that, the melodies and lyrics might be really obvious, from the first few listens. Firefly was one of these. Others felt like instrumentals, they were complex and wonderful, and sounded great that way; so I'd concern myself with how to craft them into 'songs' without losing any of their musical impact. And without sounding like I'd been fishing around for any old melody, just to fill a gap! It has to sound right, natural, and like it belongs there, otherwise it has no place in the song. And some tracks were just plain baffling--such as the 5-section 14-minute opus that was eventually to become "The Dreaming"! Tat one did give me some nightmares. (laughs)
But the first one I really worked on was "Firefly." I had known right away that here was a classic song, waiting to be finished. It was so strong, and so immediate with its impact. I had certain melody lines in my head from the first listen, and I wouldn't be exaggerating to say these are the lines I ended up using. It was just obvious to me, it sang to me in my head. I do a lot of songwriting in the car, and walking around, as well as being woken up in the early hours of the morning with ideas.
And with "Firefly," it was a bit of everything, but I definitely had my most fruitful listens when in the car, driving into the sunset. There's something about the motion of travelling, while contrasted against the solitude and peace of being in your own personal space, that makes it really conducive to writing. I just have to make sure I remember the lines later! Sometimes I'll sing into my phone, or stop and make notes of ideas. It can take a while to get from A to B! (smiles)
Anyway, "Firefly" was always going to be the first, it has such a strong pull. But I did ask Jon first, if he had any lyric ideas for it, anything he felt it was about when he was writing it. He showed me a couple of sheets of lyric ideas, and one of them I instantly thought would be perfect for the underlying theme of "Firefly"; some lyrics he'd written about love, and coming home to the person who makes you feel complete, & feeling safe there, I didn't really use any of his exact lyrics, but I took this feeling and meaning, and formed it into the essence of "Firefly."
I wrote the whole thing with reflection on him and his wife Fiona, the strong feelings he'd written in those lyrics, and my own acknowledgement of how it feels to be away from home, on the road, and going through life's highs and lows, while all the time longing to return home to the one you love. I wrote from very informed perspective after years of touring with Karnataka, and also being in a relationship myself where we are both touring musicians. It is a blessing to find your kindred spirit, but also a huge challenge to be away from them.
"Firefly" was also the first song we recorded, vocally, and I hadn't given Jon any clues as to what the lyrics or melody would be like, just kept it all as a surprise, partly in case he didn't like it. (smiles) But I was so relieved that as soon as I'd recorded it, I opened the door and he was sat there looking so moved and happy. He said he loved it, and it'd made him cry with this first hearing; and I was just so moved, myself, that I had given him the perfect completion to his song. And so it really is a special song, for all those reasons.
Another track I worked on in the very beginning was "Apocalypstic". It has a very different vibe, and is a whole other beast! But it spoke to me really strongly too, so I was excited about getting stuck into that. I wanted it to be a siren call, the song of a mysterious goddess who had the power to enrapture and capture men, totally and utterly, as the sirens in tales of old had. But she was to be a queen, the ultimate temptress. The idea was born from Jon's idea to call the album "Apocalypstick" in the first place; and certainly this song.
I liked the fact that this play on words contained both 'apocalypse' and 'lipstick', and I'd just recently been thinking about the story of Helen of Troy, also having seen the recent blockbuster film version, and the way a woman's enticing ways can lead to man making all kinds of sacrifices, and indeed, in some extreme cases, even the fall of empires. It was a grand theme, and suited the grandness of the music I was hearing; so, it was obvious to me that I had to weave these eastern-sounding melodies and riffs into a hypnotizing tale of mystery, darkness, seduction and surrender. I think there are personal ways to interpret it too, each of us has their own passions and demons. And it's grown beyond all my imaginings, to take on a life of its own! It's an incredibly sensual song; but actually very dark, and illusory, and dangerous.
"The Dreaming" was another track I started work on quite early, I knew it would need a lot of planning so I listened to it as much as possible! There's not one note, bar or chord that I'm not intimately acquainted with, from thousands of listens! But still I never tired of it. It's a beautiful piece. How to do that justice though? It was a toughy.
Jon wanted it to be called "The Dreaming", and have its sections relating to different things; maybe the falling into a dream, its different parts, and the waking. But I had some very strong reactions to certain parts of the music, which were taking me down a slightly different path. I felt that there was a part which sounded like travelling, moving fast from town to town and that in turn reminded me of being on tour. There are a couple of sections where the song just lifts up into these huge feel-good sections, really powerful and positive, and I wanted those to be meaningful too; so it seemed like my 'journey' from the earlier section, should be taking me somewhere.
Quite quickly, I decided that the journey should be about reaching your destination, fulfilling your dreams; and as a musician, one of the best feelings in the world is going out on stage & feeling that huge amazing buzz of playing to the world! So, I spent a lot of time seeing how I could maybe tie all the different sections in together, to represent a journey from an initial dream, of such an experience, to actually travelling there, all the feelings and experiences on the way, and ultimately, going out on that stage & rockin'!
But it all ties in well with Jon's initial concept too, because for me, "The Dreaming" is a dream within a dream. It's a hope & dream of reaching your goal, getting onto that big stage, like all aspiring bands have. And then you go on this incredible journey, and eventually it all pays off and you're bursting out onto the stage to meet your world audience!But then, it all goes quiet, and you realize, that might have all been a dream after all.
The parallels with our adventures on the road with Karnataka are not accidental; a lot of the lines and melodies were conjured up while reflecting on those times. But also looking forward to the future. But I would say, if there's any one song that represents how special a journey Karnataka was to me, and us all, it would be this one. But again, songs are there for interpretation. And if people create their own journeys, their own 'dreaming' out of it, I am very happy and have done my job of inspiring them! (smiles)
"Elektra City" was, I think, going to be one of the songs that Jon wanted Rachel to write and sing; we were going to share the vocal and lyrical duties on the album. But, as time, distance and study commitments were all pulling heavily on her, we were absolutely cool with her decision to give herself completely to her new college life, and not get bogged down in our musical endeavours! It was all a bit raw after the implosion of Karnataka, anyway. But life works out certain ways for a reason, and as it turns out, she is now very happily making music with The Reasoning, so we are all doing good things!
I had thought "Elektra City"--then untitled--had amazing potential, but hadn't worked on it immediately for that reason; but when I realized--with no small amount of fear--that I'd now be responsible for all the songs on the album, so I started to address the other tracks too!
"Elektra" was a fantastic song to work on, as it had so much strength and potential. It was amazing as an instrumental, and I'm glad to say it's still awesome and one of people's favourites now, after I threw vocal lines on top of it! It's a dramatic, technological/computerized-sounding track, thanks to some of Jon's amazingly powerful synth-lines; and yet it also kicks ass like a totally organic rock-song, with its chugging guitar riffs and driving bass & drums.
For me, the combination of these two vibes spelt only one thing: a world taken-over by technology, and the fight against it by the organic entities--meaning humans--who hadn't seen the potential for their redundancy and demise at the hands of the machines, until it was too late. I've since been referred to other works on a similar theme--such as ELP's "KarnEvil 9"--but I wasn't aware of, or interpreting, them at the time. I was more familiar with the written work on the area, such as 1984 and various philosophical ventures into the apocalyptic train of thought. And in fact, I studied a degree in Philosophy myself at university, and my final dissertation was on this very subject: the possible redundancy of man in a world consistently working towards automation! I did also spend a lot of time in the bar though, si my time wasn't completely wasted! (smiles)
It's not a case of finding odd things to write about or trying to sound clever. The simple fact is, I grew up in a world where this is a genuine fear. From Sat-Nav (and its many ways to go wrong) to genetically engineered cloning, our race is in dangerous and controversial times. And I think it is just natural for all creative people to think about their life and times, and to wonder out-loud through their work: "where is this all leading?" It's not a new phenomenon. It's just the times and the specific subjects that change.
I'm proud of "Elektra City"' because it seems to reach people as a really uplifting, rocking song, with strong melody lines.But it's also an incredibly philosophical song, with some of my most intense humanity-musings worked out through it, which was quite draining in a way. It works on different levels and you can take away from it as much or as little thought as you wish! (smiles)
Another heavy track to work on was "EndGame (Speed of Life)." When you ask me how did my songwriting for this album reflect and portray what was going on in my life at the time, well I suppose it is most obvious in 'EndGame' than any others. I had lost my grandmother quite recently, the last in a long line of deaths and tragedies, and was generally in quite a dark place; so it actually took me a long time to get around to even thinking about this song, and how to write for it.
But I knew it would be very powerful when I did, because I had such powerful & personal experiences with death, and all of the feelings it threw up.
I would say I'm a pretty morbid person, I've always been fascinated by death. I even did my A-Level Art exam on a theme of graveyards, and took rubbings from gravestones to include in the work! But, to me it's not morbid, just natural; some of the only certainties we have are birth and death, and to investigate and ponder these facts during your life is only human nature I think? And can ultimately bring you more peace, especially if you have lost lots of people close to you.
In writing for this song, I just put myself in this lost soul's place. Basically, waking up in a strange place, on the other side, surrounded by only light at first, then whispering voices, pulling you to them, and the wonderful peace that goes with that, until you start to wonder whether it was really your time at all. It's really a story, and a fight with the self, over whether to go to the light, where all is peaceful and blissful, or to continue with a life that, however flawed and painful, was also based in a world where there is much beauty, joy and adventure, and perhaps still a lot to learn about yourself too.
This song became "Endgame" and I would say that it's the hardest thing I've ever put myself through to write; I can still feel myself falling to pieces when I even listen to it, and I know how much of my heart, soul, life and pain I put into it. But I am grateful for the chance to do that, and considering it's such a potentially depressing theme, it's actually incredibly uplifting and positive by the end! (smiles)
Phew--This is like a therapy session--You did say you wanted all the details though!
"Reborn' was a joy to write; obviously it's a pretty upbeat sounding track anyway, but I wanted to take that and really give it a heart, a meaning that would resonate with people everywhere. I took the theme of talking to a friend, looking out to sea with them, as their life seems to be avalanching down all around them. And wanting to help them see that really, their life is really just beginning, despite all the pain behind them. In a way, it's a perfect follow-up to "EndGame"! But we felt "Firefly" was important to sandwich in-between them on the album, as it flowed so well that way.
I have had these conversations with friends in my life, and indeed, I've had conversations where I've been that personand, the power of friendship at these times in our life cannot be exaggerated enough. Sometimes it's just a few encouraging words, by someone who takes the time to truly listen to us and see what a mess we're in. Sometimes it's a marathon of many weeks, where we support each other through every possible disaster and hurdle. But, in the end, we help each other through, we do it through genuine love and care, no other motivation.
So "Reborn" is about desperately trying to reassure someone that their life is just beginning, not at an end, regardless of what they've been through, it's all out there in a wonderful future for them to build on, and all they have to do is take one step at a time, into tomorrow. It's a frightening time when life is changing all around you; this is a song about making that change work for you, making it positive, and saving your own life. I have very strong, personal feelings and memories related to this song, and again I invested as much of myself into it as I could, because, well, I guess that's just the way I have to work. (smiles)
It's interesting that people have said it might be construed as a born-again Christian anthem! And no, it doesn't mean that at all. But if people want to adapt it to mean special things in their own life, and faith being one of them, then I'm very happy for them to interpret it any positive way they want! I just want people to feel good from it; it's a journey from pain to peace again! (more smiles)
The folk tune on the album, "I Wonder What's Keeping My True Love Tonight," was Jon's suggestion and he let me have a couple of copies of it on CD, including June Tabor's deep simmering vocal version. I wasn't very familiar with is before that, despite my time in a folk band doing Irish, Scottish, Welsh and English trad songs in the past! But I loved it immediately.
Again, it's a sad and wistful song when you really listen to it, but it somehow haunts you, as so many traditional songs do. Many of them express a pain and a heartache that are unparalleled in modern-day verse, but they do it with such a beauty and grace that you really can't believe you are having your heart broken so elegantly. "I Wonder..." is a tale of the girl waiting for her lover to come back to her. Why should he be taking so long, is he intending to leave her? And ultimately, we find out that her fears are well-founded, as human instincts generally are, in these matters.
But the imagery and simplicity of the song is so haunting, that I was keen to spend a long time within its grasp; listening, and feeling it, to really understand its heart and to make sure that I would feel as authentic as possible when I came to sing it. It's not hard for anyone to recall heartache in their lives; I think we've all loved and lost, and we've all been hurt, whether through the pain of leaving a lover, or being left. In my case, both! So it wasn't hard to put myself in her place. And I also felt empathy for the perpetrator! Although to be fair, he is a bit harsh about it all.
All in all, it's the sadness of the whole situation, and our pity for the girl, that really moves us, and the overall sense of loneliness is so acute, so harsh, that it is impossible not to feel heartbroken with her. I felt every word as I sang it, expressed every past heart-break demon within. And our decision to leave the beginning as an acappella verse, only heightened the trauma for all concerned! But I hope no-one will throw themselves off a bridge with the tragedy of it all. Ultimately, she's probably better off without him anyway, the cad!
OK, so now the final song to talk about on is "Moon On The Water." I leave this 'til last because it was, actually, the last thing for me to write. It was due to be an instrumental track, a lovely little piece that Jon had composed on the piano, and had intended to dedicate to Rachel, as she couldn't be on the album with us! But, as he told me quite he liked the title "Moon on the Water" for it, I said that this conjured up a lot of lovely imagery, and a story of its own. As a result, Jon asked me if I could write some lyrics to it then!Doh! I'd made more work for myself!
But I'm glad I did now; I think it's a really cute little song. It's actually very symbolic, and poetic, but it still feels like a cute little song! I took the title and imagined it as a scene, with the moon shining beautifully on the water. And very soon it became a love song between the moon and the water, with the two entwined in their eternal dance through the night. I've always been into astrology, and feel very connected to the moon particularly, so for me it was very personal, a simple expression of love, clean and pure and deep.
It is a nice contrast to all the other complex emotions on the album! But it's also very symbolic: the lyrics can be seen as a literal love-song between these two forces, a kind of fairy-tale or, as a metaphor, the moon being the glowing and dreamy partner, the water being the deep and constant one, with the latter being illuminated and made to shine, while the former is anchored and finds its muse in the deep water.
Ooh, it's getting a bit deep again/ It's hard to describe lyrics sometimes without it sounding pretentious; but that's why lyrics are all the more beautiful, and talking about them can never really come close! But "Moon On The Water' is another of those tracks that can be interpreted in different ways. It's truly a love song though, and is about the pure joy and elation of finding your soul mate in another being.
I hope this helps to explain the songs, just a little?
Oh yeah, it sure does! Thanks! Tell us the details of your vocal work contrasting the styles of the different pieces.
Well, I had a lot of fun with the vocals on V.P.! I didn't set out to make any particular statement with the styles, or be pretentious. I always just want to give a song what it needs; and that goes for the vocal too.
I knew straight away that something like "Moon on the Water" needed a cute, quirky, breathy sound, and I was almost channelling the sound of certain artists I love, to get there--especially Bjork. Although, my fans always end up telling me I sound like Kate Bush anyway! I really don't try to, honestly! It was fun doing that track; challenging, from a pitching point of view, but as long as you get yourself properly anchored, with your diaphragm supported and your mind really focused on the notes and the whole meaning & vibe of the piece, I don't think you can go far wrong. I do think I might have done the whole of that vocal take standing on tiptoes, though! I couldn't help it!
Another track that obviously springs to mind in terms of vocal styling and technique, is "Apocalypstick." It's a pretty full-on song, and people have had plenty to say to me about it, with its crazy Eastern vocals! But what might seem like a really contrived, planned and out-to-shock vocal sound is really the total opposite. I knew the track as an instrumental, and there was really no other way it was ever going to go, for me, than the path I took. It was desperate to be an even deeper, darker, more dangerous and fiercely passionate piece of music. And when I would listen through and sing to it, in the car or on my I-pod or wherever, there was just this voice inside me crying out to unleash itself all over the track and just to totally be set free.
I would honestly say that "Apocalypstick" is one of the most true-to-me sounds on the album, the vocal line I feel most mystically attached to, and am most passionate about. I do sometimes feel as though I was maybe an Eastern soul in a previous life, because to sing in the ways you hear on this track is really a very natural thing to me, and I really get off on it. It feels the most inspiring, the most other-worldly, and the most full of emotion. I do have a couple of solo songs that I do in my repertoire that capture this same vibe; and I have no doubt that there will be many more, in future! I was not aiming to achieve any one specific tone or sound; just channel from inside me, that which felt the most true.
And as for the whispered / spoken vocal, which you hear at the beginning of the track? It actually runs throughout the track, underneath everything. When I came out of the recording booth from doing that line, Jon and Peter, our engineer, were a bit pale and ghostly. They said it was like the Exorcist! (laughs) I can't really tell you what's going on there. It's weirdly personal, and impossible to put into words. But it's not something I wrote or planned; again, I just opened up my mind and let the right things come forward. I've always had a tendency to talk in tongues; apparently I do it in my sleep! Scary but true.
The vocal for "Elektra City" was a clear melody to me from the start. It came to me so strongly, there was nothing else I wanted to do with it. And because then it was a song that, lyrically, evolved into a more and more robots-v-man theme, I knew that I wanted to give it a very clear, straight, almost emotionless feel at the beginning of the song, and naturally the chorus was more emotive-sounding anyway, so it made sense to have a counter-voice here and introduce some conflict into the equation. So, the chorus is more warm, natural, and emotional sounding.
The robotized sound that you hear from the start, on the verse vocals, was something I was really keen to achieve, as it would just add that extra edge to the vocal sound I had already created. It also made it stronger, more definitive, because otherwise it was actually too clean a vocal! And for the end section of the song, you'll hear a lower voice joining the robotized lead vocal.And the lead gets more and more effected as you reach the end. This was a conscious choice made in mixing, to further develop the idea of the artificial intelligence becoming dominant, and one becoming many. It was a fun song to work on, and will be a fun one to pull off live, too! (smiles)
This kind of vocal is something you can really play with, when you're working over a band track. Maybe it wouldn't feel quite so possible, or relevant, if you tried to do it as a solo artist!
Although, I do enjoy pushing the boundaries of my vocals in my solo set, and am constantly adding things and expanding my sound if I can, just for fun and for the sake of creativity, and because really, the voice you have is the voice you are born with, and whatever I do, people are still going to pretty much be able to tell it's me! But I like to play with that a little. It's a very different experience, singing solo and acoustically. You are far more exposed, and naked for all to hear. It is a very liberating feeling; and can be scary too, of course! But as with anything that's scary in life, you've got to take the gauntlet! Because you'll always be glad you did.
I aim for as many dynamics in my solo vocal work as possible. I sing acappella on some tunes, I love to use soft whispery voices, and then I love to rock it up and really wail like a woman possessed, too! I've probably gone a bit overboard at times when I do all three together, in one song; but it's fun! And it's never about trying to prove something, or be a show-off. I'm far from that. But it's just about letting myself go and hopefully in doing so, eliciting a similar feeling in the people I'm singing to: feelings of passion, joy, freedom, rage, love, hate, hope, hopelessness. All the feelings in the world! I love to connect with people, and bring them to a place where they can just feel and not have anything holding them back. If I do that to just one person in a show, I'm a happy little singer.
When I'm singing with a full band, it's just as important to me to get the full dynamic range going too, so, apart from the fact that Visionary Position was already going to be a hugely dynamic album, I was also very keen to take that further still. And that's why you get "Apocalypstick" after "Moon on the Water," and the big drama of "EndGame" next to the simple emotional pleading of "Firefly."
Another track which holds a special place in my heart, vocally, is "The Dreaming," because I remember so clearly how perfect I wanted to make those opening lines, and how other-worldly and pure and how it was actually more flattering than insulting when our engineer, Peter, told me it sounded like the Gladiator soundtrack! It was emotive and timeless sounding, and that's what I was going for. And, once again, it's a part of the vocal where I really felt connected to a higher place, another world really.
It's a similar thing with "I Wonder"--I was so lost in the song, that the vocal you hear really is me feeling lost in the character. It's the only track on the album that's not my lyric, and so I was at once curious as to how to approach it, and also nervous to do it justice! After all, it's a folk song: it's been sung by thousands and handed down through the generations.
What did I have to offer? Well, I think that you have to just become the song, when it's like that, and get inside it as much as possible; and rather than be scared of its legacy, remember that by singing it you are actually joining a long line of people who have also thought it was beautiful, and sad, and all those things, and you realize that that is a very special thing to share with somebody. So I just went for making it as much me as I could, but me in that particular situation, which I had been in before, as we all have, the doubts, the fear, the denial, the longing. It was a very emotional take, as I'd been having a hard time personally leading up to that; but all you can do is pour yourself into the music, give it everything you have, and also feel its cathartic benefits coming back to you. It's magical, really.
Did you undergo any vocal processes that the readers would find interesting?
As for the actual vocal process, well, it was the toughest of all the songs on the album! And that's because I was starting it a cappella, of course, but then merging with the keyboards when they came in at verse two, which is always gonna be tricky! I didn't do too many takes. Well, it depends on what you think is too many. But we did get a really great one, with all the vocal qualities I wanted from it; and then promptly lost it, because we realized there was spill on it from somewhere! But after a few more goes, I gave birth to the one that was just right! (smiles)
It really does feel like that though. You don't really know what's going to happen with recording vocals until it falls out of your mouth, and the studio is a very different environment to sing in than the live one. Less forgiving, less adrenaline-fuelled, less emotive sometimes, and more about the accuracy and getting the perfect take, wherever possible. And as any recording artist will tell you, what might sound like any easy feat, often ends up taking hours or days, because you get bogged down in the detail, or get over-perfectionist on your own ass!
You do tend to lose perspective in the end. Hence that's why I did so many takes of "I Wonder"! I just wasn't getting exactly what I wanted to hear from the takes so far, or there were stupid little things that spoilt it for me although they are probably inaudible to everyone else! So, I carried on until I got that perfect take. And get it, I think we did. (smiles)
Tell us about your instrumental contributions to the project too.
My main contribution to the album has been lyrical, melodic and of course vocal--but there are touches of other my instrumentals in there too! For example, I play a flute solo section in the middle of "The Dreaming," which is there because it belongs there. It lifts and lilts nicely, carrying the vibe of the song along and towards its next chapter. And the reason there's not flute anywhere else on the album, is because it didn't need it!
As I said before, I'm all for giving a song exactly what it needs: no more, no less. And if you really, truly listen to a song, or any piece of music in development, you will be able to hear what it needs. I think it's more about listening, that forcing your ideas on it--just like the relationships we have with people should be.
In the live arena, you'll see me play a few things though! The guitar certainly, as I'll be covering some of the parts that Paul physically can't play, as unfortunately he's only got two hands. And that'll be both acoustic and electric, which I'm gonna love. There will be a little flute here and there, too, but I want to get away from that expectation that people may have that, because I'm a flautist, I must want to play it in every track and at every opportunity! Just as with every other instrument, if the track warrants it and it sounds cool, then ok, we can put it in.
But I've been in bands where it's been very fitting and appropriate to play the flute before; like with the Idle Rogues, my traditional folk band which was based in Swansea and comprised all my best friends there!. But the reason for it working, and the whistles, mandolin, squeezebox, etc, etc, etc, was that it was a folk band!
Of course I've always played flute in rock set-ups too, and it works brilliantly for Jazz--which is a joy to play, even though I'm rubbish at it!--but it's easy to get typecast as the girl who plays the flute in rock bands, and even more specifically, in nouveau-prog bands. And that is definitely, profoundly, what I do not want to be seen or remembered for. My flute playing is as natural to me as my singing, and I do love to play. After all, I've been playing for over 20 years. It's grown up with me. But, I just think it's important to exercise some restraint on where and when you use certain instruments, for risk of getting yourselves a sound that crosses over into folk/prog-rock clichť. I've seen it done really well by a handful bands and I think that's brilliant. Heck, I'll be doing it throughout this year with Mostly Autumn! And they've always made it work really well.
But like all bands, we don't want to be pigeon-holed into any specific genre just because it's convenient & lazy to do that. And, we totally have the right to use any instrumentation we like, regardless of what certain fans might expect of us or they'd think we would probably use. I think there'll be a lot of experimentation in Panic Room's future, and I'm so up for that--from sounds, to genres, to instruments--we can do anything we want, and we'll have a great time doing it! So I'd expect the unexpected in future; and feel how liberating and fun that is!
I've just got a new flute mic for stage, so I'm going to love using that. Don't get me wrong, like I say there's a place for everything in music, and I totally love jamming on the flute with the band. I'm just careful not to let it flood in and appear on every song! Otherwise you automatically start sounding either more folk, or more prog; and personally, I see Panic Room as Rock, plain and simple; with an experimental and jazzy twist.
I'd still like to get my Turkish shawm out again though, too, so watch out for that! I played itshawm on the last Karnataka tour; it is a fantastic snake-charming pipe of an instrument, and requires you to practically blow your head off with the effort taken to blow down it
Will you make time in your personal and solo career to support tour plans to promote the album? What do you think it will be like performing on stage with Panic Room?
Of course! We always intended to gig with Panic Room if we could, and now that the album sounds so great, it'd be criminal not to! I am busy with my solo career, and other musical projects too, but Panic Room is very, very close to my heart and I cannot wait to get on stage with these guys and make this very special music come alive!
Do you think that any of the acoustic numbers from Visionary Position will make it into your solo performances?
I really don't know! I have hundreds of songs in my solo repertoire already, so I'm not really on the lookout for extra material; far from it! But, all the Panic Room songs are great, so I'd be honoured to deliver solo renditions of any of them! It's not just up to me though; I see Panic Room as a team. If the guys didn't mind, maybe I would do some solo versions of Panic Room songs from time to time. But, I genuinely think they'll be best performed in their home environment really, which is with their whole family in Panic Room!
Jonathan, what's the 'bonus' number at the end of "The Dreaming" all about?
Whenever we used to soundcheck at venues with Karnataka, at the end of getting the sound of the individual drums right, the sound engineer would invariably ask Gavin to play around the kit to get the sound of the whole kit together. Gavin would always come out with these amazing rhythms, but whenever we tried to get him to reproduce those soundcheck rhythms when we were writing or rehearsing he could never remember what heíd played. It was like what came out was intuitive and when he thought too much about it he couldnít do it.
So during one session in the studio we just ran a percussion loop through his headphones, told him we needed to sort out the microphone levels on the drum kit and asked him to just play along to the loop--and then we pressed record! So basically, the bonus track is Gavin just happily messing around on the kit not knowing that he was being recorded. Listening to it later, little parts of it reminded me of ELPs "Tank" so I added some moogy sounds behind the drums to make it a kind of trippy homage to ELP; it doesnít have a title on the album, as its just a throw away bit of fun but if it did, it would be called "Sticks and Stoned."
The title Visionary Position rhymes with "Missionary Position". What is the album title meant to convey?
I think the title works on a number of levels; for the album we wanted a title that would say something about both the music's mystical and sensual qualities and for that reason the pun on "Missionary Position" was intentional. I feel that the album is very earthy and there is certainly a sensual side to some of the lyrics, but the music also has a mystical/spiritual side to it as well and I think that the title Visionary Position reflects this mixing of the sacred and profane.
Also, in my personal experience writing music I think that at it's best it almost feels like discovery rather than creation, like finding something that already exists. The notes just tumble out in the right sequences and phrases and I'm just a channel that the music comes through. So in that sense I feel that songwriters and composers are like seers. We're all in the "Visionary Position" in that we see things from another place and bring them into this world.
Tell us about the concept and evolution of acccompanying artwork.
I've tried to create an album cover that reflects the spirit of the music, so it's a subtle and beautiful image on the surface, but also reflects an internal state as well, and it all ties in with the title of the album.
The artwork was something that I've been working on intermittently for the past year or more. I find it really helps to give the album an identity if there are strong visual ideas to go with the music and for me it's important that the artwork has a strong link with the music. I also personally feel that it makes the project feel more real in the earlier stages if you can visualise what the finished album may look like.
I worked on maybe thirty to forty different cover ideas, before deciding on the final image. The initial photographs were taken by a very talented photographer, Amelia Kilvington, who was recommended to us. You can see more of her work at www.ameliakilvington.co.uk. I then worked with the images in photoshop to produce a composite image that I felt was strong and striking while still reflecting the dual qualities of the music itself with spirituality and sensuality, the internal and the external world, beauty and mystery.
The images for the booklet itself were taken by Anne-Marie and myself with some subsequent photoshop manipulation. Again, I tried many different ideas and variations from some very literal interpretations of the song titles to some completely off the wall stuff. In the end Iíve gone for a more subtle and abstract feel to the whole thing, where the images are more about the colours and textures but at the same time each image feels right with the particular lyric it supports. Although it was a shame to lose some of the more literal images it was important that the booklet had a consistent look to it and Iím really pleased with the way itís turned out.
I was also keen to do something special for the first run of the album, as a kind of thank you to the people who had stuck with us from the Karnataka days and for those discovering the band for the first time and taking a chance on our music. So we've done a limited edition of 1,000 CDs in a fold out digipak with a 20-page full colour booklet where Anne-Marieís marvellous lyrics get a double page image to themselves. This version of the album is available exclusively from the website and at gigs.
The album is officially released via Voiceprint on 21st April 2008 and will be available from shops and on-line retailers in a standard edition jewel case with an 8-page booklet. Weíve tried to take as much care over the artwork for this version of the album, so although itís less expansive we still felt it should be something that looked great and reflected the music contained inside.
What do you think is the future for the compact disc and other physical music media? Will you be releasing the album digitally at some point?
I really don't know what the future holds for physical media; I tend to think it's part of the human condition to want to possess something physical, something you can hold in your hand and it's yours. Which I think is part of the problem with downloads; they don't feel real, there's nothing physical to show for the money you've spent and I think thatís a big part of the reason why illegal downloading is so prevalent. It isnít perceived as wrong by many people because nothing physical is changing hands. If you download a song, the song is still there, you haven't taken a physical thing. So I don't think it's necessarily about people being too mean to pay for the music, and I think a lot of people just donít stop to consider that it equates to loss of income for the people who's songs they download.
Having said that, I did hear of a recent study in the US into illegal downloading, which came to a couple of rather interesting conclusions. Firstly that it tended to result in loss of sales for medium to well-known bands and artists, but resulted in a boost in sales for lesser known musicians and those working in specialist music areas. Secondly the study found that the vast majority of people who illegally downloaded music also bought far more music legally than the average music buyer. So I guess it could be argued that, leaving aside any moral questions, free downloading may benefit small independent artists as it gets their music out to an audience that might not otherwise discover it, many of whom will then go on to buy the physical versions of the music.
As for Visionary Position we will probably look into releasing it as a download as well as a physical album, because that's the way things are going. Personally I still think of albums as collections of songs and I really like the idea that an album takes you on a musical journey. Context is important and not just for concept albums; a lot of thought went into deciding which songs would work together on this album, what order the songs should be in and how they work next to each other. In a sense it's a bit like painting, where each colour affects and is affected by the colour itís next to on the canvas. Each song as well as having a life of its own is coloured by the context of the songs that precede and follow it.
For me it's part of the experience; for example, part of the pleasure of listening to, say, the first Led Zeppelin album, is the way that "Your Time is Gonna Come" morphs into "Black Mountain Side" and the anticipation of knowing that as the track fades out "Communication Breakdown" is going to blast from the speakers. It's more than just notes and words, itís an experience.
I also like to have the physical artwork for the album; to be able to hold something in my hand and read the lyrics and look at the artwork as I listen to the music, itís all part of the package. At the same time though, I have to recognise the fact that for a lot of people it's different. They've grown up not experiencing music that way and they just want to pick and mix a couple of songs from an album and add them to their iPod, so we can't be so precious that we try to insist that people take the whole album.
But I tend to think that the audience for our music are like us and if they really like the music they'll want to experience the complete package--artwork, music, the lot--and they'll appreciate that someone created this music and these images and thought about how it all fitted together to make a complete statement, so even if they do at first download some of the music, the folk who're really into it will probably want to buy the CD. I certainly hope so as, like a lot of independent bands, weíve self financed the album and the money we make from sales is what will finance the next album, so our ability to continue making music is directly related to the amount of sales that our music generates. It's that simple--so if you want to see another Panic Room album--don't download this one illegally!
The Panic Room website has been carefully prepared consistent with the album's imagery style and launched in support of the album. Who designed the website and coded the project?
The website was created by Richard Pocock (www.aquabbit.com) and is written entirely in flash as far as I'm aware. The visual design for the site was done by the two of us, with all the images and backgrounds being chosen to tie in with the album artwork. All the technical design and execution was done by Richard so I'm afraid I canít really comment on the tools and techniques used. The idea is that the site will change for each album.
So many artists spend time feeding a MySpace site.
I think Myspace has become a fact of life now and it does have its uses in terms of getting your music to an audience that might not otherwise have heard it. On a personal level I have occasionally been inspired by hearing a band's music on their MySpace site to check out their website and some people have certainly found our music through our myspace site.
However, Iíve started to increasingly notice that the friends list on a lot of band's myspace sites are comprised mostly of a list of other bands, rather than real people. I'm sure the idea is that you add yourself as a friend to a whole load of other bands in the same musical area as yourself and their fans will then discover your music but I'm not sure that it really works.
The main problem though is the sheer size of it, the amount of choice is just too much. There's just so many bands and songwriters on there that it ceases to become a useful tool for finding new music. It's like going into the biggest music shop in the world, only to find that nothing is catalogued or in any particular order, so you have to trawl through thousands of shelves of albums to find one good song. I think most people would just give up and buy the next CD by a band they already know.
Annmarie, how important do you think a woman's image is in the music industry today? What kind of things do you do personally to work on how you present yourself to the audience?
I don't think it'd be a dazzling revelation to anyone out there, to say that physical image is more of a big issue in today's world than ever before. And nowhere more so than in the world of arts, media and entertainment. I get angry when certain press spokesmen talk about how celebrities always hunger for the limelight, therefore they have to face the consequences of that; including scrutiny of their physical, personal and emotional life.
As a musician, and someone who knows many artists--including fellow musicians and actors--I can confidently assert that we do what we do because we love it, because there's nothing else we feel at home in doing, and that it's kind of our calling. And because we want to reach people, through our music, or acting, or art, or whatever it be. I don't know anyone that just wants to be famous for the sake of being famous. Perhaps I don't know enough Pop Idol wannabees. But everyone I know who's creative is in it for the work, for the creativity, for making a difference and for making their mark--not for being pictured in magazines.
So, why should image come into this at all? Music, art, photography, acting, these are all very cerebral pursuits; and it seems totally anathema to that to become fixated on physical appearance, when what we are interested in is a much higher, more objective, and not self-obsessed goal!
But, it can't be denied, that the world is now so obsessed with physical appearance that it's hard to make it and be appreciated in any given field without giving your personal appearance some careful thought. I think this is true of any line of work, be it office, legal, advertising, teaching, blue-collar, political, charitable, the arts, whatever! The western world especially has become more & more interested in maintaining youth & good looks. Just look at how popular makeover programmes are! But certainly, the more you are in the public eye, the more there is an expectation that, because you put yourself there, you must make an effort to look as good as possible. And because musicians and actors want to reach out to people through their work, this puts us all in that category.
So, what pressure do I feel as a woman in this industry? It varies. Inn my heart of hearts I know it doesn't matter at all; it's what I have inside that counts, and my thoughts and ideas and music will be the creative legacy I leave behind me, long after people can focus on what I may have looked like. I am a girl, living in the 21st Century, and surrounded by images of beautiful people. So I would have to build an iron wall around me to stop me being influenced and affected by what I see!
Even when we know we have more to give, and are sure of our own minds and talents, we still can't help wanting to be seen as attractive. I think that's a basic animal instinct, for survival. But it's how far we take that, and let it over-run our thoughts.It can get all-consuming and I don't want that for myself. I want to be able to focus on my main love, which is music.
When I am inside music, listening or playing it, I have no interest in or concept of how I look. I don't care. So this is how I feel on stage. It wouldn't matter where I was, how I looked. I set myself free, inside the world of music, because that's where I feel most at home.
I have learnt enough about myself to know that, in order to feel less self-conscious before I actually walk on that stage, it's nice to feel you look ok; from your clothes, to feeling fit and well and ready to take on the challenge of a live gig. And we have to do things like photoshoots, etc, etc, in today's music industry; it's just a part of the promotional machine, though not my favourite part!
And so, I do certain things to ensure I feel ok about myself, and how I am portrayed in the physical world. I work out--in the gym, running, etc--do yoga when I can, eat healthily, and use good natural face creams etc. etc. But these are as much about my overall health and longevity in this life, as they are about looking good for anyone to ogle on stage! I'm not a big fan of people who are just stood at the front of a gig to ogle the female singer. If that's all you're there for, you're not a music fan, you're a Peeping Tom! And, sadly, we girl musicians get that more than the guys do, I think.
But I do love clothes and fashion too, they're another way to be creative, so it's fun to play with ideas. I've never been someone to toe the line of current trends, I wear what I like and what feels good and what expresses the real me. However sometimes those personal favourites will overlap with what's currently cool too!
In terms of how I choose to express myself through clothes, image etc, it's very much about how I feel inside. My favourite colours tend to be deep reds, purples, browns, burgundies because I feel that way about the world, and they're the colours I feel inside. Also black makes a frequent appearance, sometimes because it's how I feel, sometimes just because it's practical, when you're on the road a lot and things get messed up!
How important do I think a woman's image is in the music industry today? Well, it shouldn't be but it is; and it shouldn't be any more important than a man's.But again, it is. What I would say though, is that the more secure of your musical ideas and language you are, the less you feel obliged to play the game of physical perfection. If that's the main focus in your life and career, then something's wrong. There's much more to life.
As you've grown as a performing artist, how would you say that your stage presence has developed?
I've done loads & loads of gigs now, so I think I'm much more sure of myself on stage than I used to be a few years ago. When I first played at Open Mic nights, back when I was still at college, my fear was the strongest thing I was aware of every time I played! I could taste it, I could feel it coursing through every vein in my body, and I was pretty sure every other person in the room could see it clearly too! When my nerves kick in, they really kick in with a vengeance!
So I'd spend all week long dreading this one little performance, and then go up to do my three songs, and as soon as it was over, I'd feel this incredible rush of adrenaline and euphoria and joy with myself that I'd been able to do it. And that would last about three hours, until I started to dread the next week's performance that I'd just committed myself to doing! (smiles)
But fast-forward a few years, and it brings you to the much more confident creature you have standing in front of you today! I have spent the last few years travelling about and playing my music to venues and audiences all over the world, and with that work comes a sense of Necessary Confidence; that you couldn't even get yourself to the gigs, let alone play them, without a sense of your own ability and ideas to communicate. However artificially it is built up within you, you draw on all of it that's available just to get you through the night.
But like I said earlier, when I'm actually on stage, there's nowhere else I feel more comfortable. It sounds a strange thing to say, and especially when you consider that those who truly know me, know me to be a pretty shy, insecure and self-doubting little soul. But what happens when I go on stage is that I lose myself in music, and then I just feel At Home.
There are some gigs where, of course, it's a little harder to let go--if you've had technical problems at the gig, if there's a particularly tough audience, if you've got a lot of personal stuff on your mind, etc, etc. However, on most occasions, I let myself get carried away with the music, live inside it, and let it flow through me like a channel, out to the audience. This way, you're not focused on yourself, you're focused on the music; and this focus, weirdly, makes it all the more tangible for the people in the room with you. It's weird to say it, but it seems true: that by reaching inwards, you can reach outwards. I know I do spout a lot of old hippy bollocks, but honestly, that's the way I feel! (smiles)
So I don't have any special formula for being good on stage, or the recipe for an X Factor which gives you guaranteed stage presence. But I do believe in losing yourself in the music, and giving yourself to it completely; and in doing that and expressing your heart, your passions, and your musical Self out to the audience in front of you, I know that you can reach them deeper and harder than any other way.
How would you say that Karnataka influenced your musical career?
Anne: Karnataka was of course a huge influence in my life, not just musical, but personal too. After all, I wouldn't have met my partner of six years if I hadn't been playing with Karnataka that night, and our band supporting his! Dave was playing guitar for Ken Hensley (ex-Uriah Heep) at the time, and Karnataka supported them when they played at the Patti Pavilion in Swansea, in April 2002.
But musically, things have really taken some dramatic twists and turns since the day I first walked on stage with Karnataka. I was always a gigging musician, and always intending to make this my career for life. I maybe didn't have a strong idea about how I was going to achieve that though, I just knew it was my path.
But the Karnataka wave was strong and ever-rising, and at the point I jumped on, it was just about to take some massive upturns in success! Indeed, the reason I came in was to provide backing vocals for the filmed for the Live DVD in London in 2001, so things were already building in momentum then. It was an unexpected thing to me that we went on to find such huge success, and then to witness such heartache when we disbanded. The band meant an awful lot to a lot of people.
And the same goes for me, and all of us from that original band. I say original, because as you may have noticed, Karnataka have been reformed by one of our old band members, but with a totally different line-up! The Karnataka I'm talking about is Karnataka Mark One--the original. I often get asked to clarify this by people, asking, "oh, but isn't the band still going? Did you leave or something then?"" Which is absolute rubbish. We disbanded. Then one member used the name to restart a basically new band.
The band meant a hell of a lot to us all; and I was the last in, so you can imagine how much emotion, energy, creativity and time the rest of the band had invested in it. And it definitely all gave us back a wealth of things that you could never put into words--experiences, feelings, the buzz of the stage, the dreams of the future, the mind-numbing tiredness of the open road at 4 in the morning!
But for me personally, it gave me chance to travel and tour across the UK, Europe, and to the USA, which I had never done in my bands before, I'd always been pretty local; so this was amazing, and also reinforced the strength of my belief that this truly was the life, the career, the path for me.
Of course it was in many ways a springboard for my solo career too, because even though I had done lots of solo gigs before, I was now under the spotlight from my work with Karnataka, and had come to the attention of various promoters, venues, and other artists etc who had not known of me before.
And Mark Shaw, the promoter we had with Karnataka, who'd really taken chances on us and believed in where we were going, was a real friend and ally to me in getting myself out there on the solo gigging ladder. He put me onto all of the support gigs that I've done, which then gave me the confidence to book my own shows, be it returns to certain venues who'd loved my music, or solo headlines, songwriter showcases and festivals.
Having a little help can go a long way, and having someone believe in you is a big help. Then it's all down to you, your music. And, crucially, harvesting that unhuman amount of confidence in yourself to get through it all!
In terms of actual musical influence, I wouldn't say there's any real mirroring of the Karnataka sound in anything I do solo. That's not to say I wasn't proud of the work and music I did with Karnataka, I truly was; but my sound has always been something very different, naturally, and I always try to follow that as closely as I can. I just want to be me and make music that sounds and feels like Me. Panic Room has a healthy dollop of 'me' in it, and as such I feel hugely at home there! (smiles)
Panic Room doesn't really sound like Karnataka either. There will be one or two places where the old fans will hear a distinct similarity, but that's just because of Jon's keyboard style or writing, and the fact that those same skills were harnessed with Karnataka too! But his talents are much more widely on display in Panic Room, and I think people will very quickly realize that this is a Panic Room sound, nothing else.
But a last thought about Karnataka: I was privileged to be a part of the band, and was lucky really that I got into it at a time when things were really starting to take off. But despite what people may think or say, it is a huuuuge amount of work to get a band to that level, all on your own without management or a publicist; it is all-consuming. And I owe a huge debt of gratitude to all of that band--Rachel, Ian, Jon, Paul and Gav--for all that they did to make it such a huge success, and for making me so welcome on board, and sharing their successes and experiences with me. Some things you never get chance to say properly. So I'd like to say, truly, Thank You to all of them, for giving me that chance, and that I will always owe a little bit of where I am now, to all of them. And, they were great times!
Jon: Well, until Panic Room, Karnataka was my musical career. I'd been in bands previously with Ian and Rachel over the years before Karnataka, but this was the first time that we really took it seriously. For those interested there's a nice in-depth interview by Jon Hinchliffe at www.jon.hinchcliffe.name with Rachel, Ian and myself, which we gave around the time Delicate Flame was released where all three of us talk about the origins of Karnataka and the band dynamic which covers some of this ground.
As the band became more successful I think it forced us all to raise our game. There were several turning points which made us really sit up. The Porcupine Tree support on some of the European dates of the Lightbulb Sun tour was a really great opportunity for us and the filming of the Live DVD at the Mean Fiddler helped to make us feel that it was possible to reach a wider audience. I think other people taking our music seriously really helped us to focus and when Anne-Marie joined it really took the band to another level.
The music was really evolving and things like the trip to America to play at the US Classic Rock Festival and playing at Cambridge on the same bill as Robert Plant were just inspiring. I think the live double album Strange Behaviour really captures the power and energy that Karnataka were capable of. By the end of the last Karnataka tour in 2004 we had really gotten to be quite a well-oiled live machine and when the end came it was a huge disappointment all round. But I wouldnít have missed any of it for the world. I think we all learned from each other as we all grew together and I'm really proud of the albums and live performances that we gave as Karnataka.
Speaking personally, I think the time spent working with Steve Evans, who produced Karnatakaís last studio album Delicate Flame of Desire, was immensely useful to me in terms of broadening my knowledge of production and arranging and becoming aware of all the possibilities that a recording studio opens up. It was all useful stuff that certainly helped me when it came to producing Visionary Position.
In terms of the writing, as one of the main songwriters in Karnataka, I can definitely hear echoes of that band in some of the Panic Room sound, especially as Paul, Gavin and Anne-Marie are involved as well, but at the same time it really does feel like a completely different band. There are lots of musical elements that I donít think would have surfaced in Karnataka, or if they had, they would have come out in very different ways. Playing with Karnataka was great, but that was then and this is now. I'm really happy now with this band and I really can't think of anyone I'd rather have standing at the front of the stage than Anne-Marie. Sheís a real force of nature and a wonderful singer. I'm just so lucky to have all these fantastic musicians to perform with.
To summarise, I'd have to say that Karnataka was pivotal in my musical career in that it was a real learning curve in terms of recording, gigging both in the UK and abroad. I definitely wouldnít be where I am now without the other five people who were Karnataka. All the experiences I had with Anne-Marie, Gavin, Ian, Paul and Rachel really convinced me that making music is what I want to do and I'd just like to echo Anne-Marieís sentiments in thanking them all for the experiences we shared together.
Describe how you feel with the Panic Room material now that it is finished, especially in contrast to your earlier work together in Karnataka.
Anne: I am fiercely proud of the Visionary Position, and indeed all the new work we're starting to do. And I think we are all feeling like better musicians, more rounded people, and a more tightly-knit group than ever, compared to how we were with Karnataka. We've been through a lot, together and in our own lives, and that can only make us better people and better musicians. The knock-on effect of this is that we'll also work better creatively, because we've come such a long way. It's so evident already, and this is only the first album.
We're also very keen to encourage each other, and wary of ever limiting anyone's creative input or being too prescriptive in any way. This band is all about being truly creative, and anything goes; not deciding what we want to sound like and then working ourselves into a box!
Sure, all of the music was created by Jon in the first place, but he has been incredibly open to the ways that the songs have developed since, and each one has taken on its own unique little life. It's quite amazing. And even though that's scary to behold, when you don't know what it might end up like, Jon's been a real trooper and enjoyed going with the flow. He's a real artist. And there's really a lot of all of us in the album. So it's our sound, the sound of a band now, not just one person.
The next album will probably be different again, as we can already tell from newer stuff we're working on, there's lots of different things we want to try - and material that may well mean there'll be 4 or 5 writers in the band! (smiles) And that is something I welcome with wide-open arms.
Jon: Well, this question is a bit like asking someone to compare their new girlfriend to their ex, and I guess the answer would be the same. They're both great in their own ways, but I wouldn't swap what I've got now for what I had then.
I was really happy with the writing and performing in Karnataka and I never really felt constricted as a writer in that band, as some reviews of Visionary Position have assumed. I think Ian, Rachel and myself were a really good songwriting team and the writing was very evenly shared between us. By necessity both Ian and myself had to compromise our musical ideas on occasion to produce something that was a part of both of us, but I think we always just wanted to make the best music together that we could and the result was music that neither of us could have written on our own.
Similarly, I think that's what made it such a special band; the unique contributions of every member made Karnataka the band that it was. So in that sense, the ethos in Panic Room is the same, although on this album the majority of the music has been written by myself and Anne-Marie, it's the contributions that every member of the band has brought to the music that makes the bandís sound what it is. It's not a one-man band where any or all of the members can be replaced and it would still be the same band.
Musically I'm really, really happy with Visionary Position. I feel closer to this music than anything I've done previously and being with a new band with little or no existing expectations of us, I was able to indulge my love of folk and other types of music in a way that wouldn't have necessarily fitted on a Karnataka album and everyone's thrown themselves into the music and helped bring it to life. Weíve all worked incredibly hard to make this album the best that we could and I think weíve managed to produce something that is both very immediate, but also rewards repeated listening and has many layers and nuances that show themselves as you become more familiar with the music.
As for the band dynamic, Panic Room just feels so comfortable as a group. We're all really good friends and there's no tension between us on or off stage. We all support each other. Sure there was the tension of performing our first gigs together as a band recently, but it was a shared tension and I think it gave an edge to the live performances that we were really able to feed off and feedback from the audiences at the gigs has been just amazing and we're looking forward to getting out and performing again in the not too distant future.
Looking to the future, we've already included two new songs co-written between myself and Anne-Marie in the live set and both Paul and Alun are writing material as well so it's exciting to be in the middle of such a creative bunch of people. So look out for the triple album follow up to Visionary Position soon!
What do you think the fans are going to say about the new album?
Anne: I can't possibly imagine that there'll be any comparisons between The Contact and Visionary Position If there are similarities, I'd love people to point them out to me! Apart from the fact my voice is on them both, of course. (smiles)
Honestly, it never occurred to me that anyone would think to compare the two. They're such different beasts. And, indeed, what I do solo now is very different again from what I did back then--the EP is over three years old! So, if anyone were to make comparisons, they'd be better off doing it with my current live solo set, better still, buy my new solo album when it comes out!
I get what you're saying though. It's all music, and music that I'm a big part of. But truly, I don't think the two albums would either draw many similarities, nor would people feel the need to compare my solo and my band work. It'd be like comparing Bob Dylan solo to his work with The Band. What I'm trying to say is, they're very different beasts.
I've been overwhelmed by the response to my EP, and even more bizarrely, it's still selling now. People are buying it from the Panic Room website; I never thought that would happen! I thought that everyone who'd want it would have it by now! But it's been wonderful. And I'm really hopeful about whatever else I put out solo in future too, going on this past success. But, I still think it's a very different sound, and a different, maybe slightly more limited market that would be interested in my solo work, much though I love it and it is me-on-a-plate! (smiles)
Panic Room is far more expansive, in its musical ambitions and its scope, and in the styles it covers; and I really think it has something for everyone. This is bizarre, because it's not what Jon or any of us had intended! But it's true. And, therefore, I wouldn't be at all offended if people were to say that they loved the Panic Room sound, and weren't that fussed at the sound of Anne-Marie Helder solo! I totally know that solo acoustic stuff isn't everyone's cup of tea, and that my personal writing style wouldn't be for everyone either and that's ok!
On Panic Room I'm largely singing to music that Jon wrote, even though I wrote the vocal melodies and things. So it's going to sound really different; as I said before too, it's a really nice challenge, to work that way round, as it shakes up my lyric and melody-writing skills even more than I might already do myself.
So, feel free to make comparisons. It does seem bizarre to me, but as long as people remember that we all have many sides to us, like colours in a spectrum, and are free beings with the right to express those different sides.Then they will understand how I might feel fulfilled by expressing myself through these very different media, in different incarnations of myself. Then, they're just as free to like, dislike, or love any of the creative things I put out there!
When do you plan to begin live performances? And has CRS already invited you along? Do you think we can draw you to America again?
We've just finished our first five live dates as Panic Room and it was really great to get out and perform the whole album as well as some new songs. It was daunting at first adapting Visionary Position for the live arena, but itís worked really well. It's a different, more edgy sound live and audiences have really responded well to it. Although four of us have previously played together before, it really does feel like an entirely different band now. The live dynamic is very different and we're all really excited to share the experience together.
We've recently played for the CRS in Rotherham. It was our second ever gig and we really had a fantastic time. Read the reviews linked to from our website. We'll be announcing more gigs for later in the year, but none in the USA yet! But yes, we'd certainly love to bring Panic Room to America. I think we'd be very compatible!
In closing this interview, are there any particular thoughts that you'd like to leave Musical Discoveries' readers with?
Jon: Just to say if you've heard our music and like it, then spread the word. There's no better promotion than the personal recommendation of folks who just love the music. And if you havenít heard the music we have plenty of sound clips on our website and our MySpace page so get on over and have a listen.
Thanks for the interview!
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