Panic Room: Jonathan Edwards | Anne-Marie Helder
Musical Discoveries: How would you say that SKIN builds upon and grows from the former Panic Room releases?
Anne-Marie: For me, SKIN is the album which takes our signature sound and runs with it. Our last album Satellite (2010) was a bold move forwards and I think really established the unique Panic Room sound. As our second album, we had toured a lot more by then and were truly confident with our sound, and so we were able to record 'as live' in the studio and get first takes on many tracks. We want to work in the same way with SKIN, as we know it works so well for us, and captures the real essence of the band.
We did this, returning again to Sonic One Studio in South Wales, UK and working with the master engineer Tim Hamill. We really feel at home with the studio and the set-up there, not to mention Tim himself who puts his heart and soul into every album we do. So it's always a joy to return.
This time we had Yatim Halimi with us, on bass, and this was his first album recording since joining the band in summer 2010, so that was really exciting! He loved every second of it, as I knew he would, and he's just a ray of light to work with. So enthusiastic, so talented, and so full of ideas.
We also decided to bring in live strings for this album, something we've often talked about in the past and has been a dream of mine, and which we made a reality this time around. And for me, this is one huge element in moving the band's sound forward on S K I N! Jon and I wrote the arrangements, some together and some separately, and really stretched ourselves; we wanted to add to the sound and enhance the songs, but never detract from what each of the five band members is doing. And, it's a challenge I absolutely loved, and believe it works beautifully throughout the album. Hopefully others agree!
Jon: I think SKIN is a natural follow-up to Satellite in the sense that it continues the development of the band that began with the previous album. Visionary Position was almost entirely a studio creation and it took over eighteen months to record, none of the songs were rehearsed prior to recording and all of the instruments were recorded separately so none of the musicians played together. It was only when playing the material live that the band actually came to play together for the first time.
From our experience of playing live it became obvious that the best music is created when musicians play together, so when we came to record Satellite we decided to record the album as live. The band played live together in the studio and extra parts and final vocals were recorded subsequently and I think it really captured much more of the energy and interplay between the musicians. So this was a method that we wanted to continue with the recording of SKIN.
So we make sure that we go into the studio knowing the song structures, but itís also really important to leave the time and space for improvisation as well and to allow for those spontaneous things to happen that add the magic to the music. We always try to not pin things down too much in the studio and be flexible and we never really know how an album is going to turn out until itís completed and thatís the way we like it. Itís important that an album is as much a voyage of discovery for us making it as it is for the listener hearing it and thatís very much how it was with SKIN.
One thing that we decided quite early on in the songwriting process for the new album was that weíd like to use real strings on many of the songs. As Anne-Marie and I had already written string arrangements and worked with classically trained musicians for our acoustic project 'The Kindling'--to be released in late 2012/early 2013--we knew this was something that we could do well and felt that a lot of the songs that we had written for the new Panic Room album would really benefit from string arrangements.
It was important to us that the string quartet be treated as a sixth member of the band and that they have interesting lines and melodies to play that were an integral part of the arrangements of the songs. It also disciplined us in our arranging and playing to leave spaces in the songs to allow the strings to shine through and also to allow the other instruments to interact with and weave around what the strings are playing. In fact, a lot of the string arrangements were written in the evenings/nights between studio sessions in response to what had been played on the songs that day, so they grew organically from how the songs were developing as we recorded them. Weíre really pleased with how the sessions turned out. It sounds so much better having real musicians playing the parts than using string samples played from a keyboard. The Larkin Quartet--which features a friend of ours, Leah Evans on cello--did a fantastic job, bringing the arrangements to life and theyíve really added a whole new dimension to the Panic Room sound.
I think SKIN represents a growing confidence and maturity in the songwriting and musicianship of the whole band and a continuing development of Panic Room.
What led to the transition from independently releasing this project to working with the Cherry Red/Esoteric/Antenna label?
Jon: We were approached by an A&R guy from Cherry Red's Esoteric label and they wanted to launch a new offshoot label called Esoteric Antenna. They were looking for exciting new bands to be the first signings. We had a meeting with the folks who run the label and it quickly became apparent that they had a real passion and enthusiasm for the music. It's hard to break into new audiences and get the music to a wider listenership when youíre doing it yourself, without the wider promotional network that a label can offer, so we felt that it was the right offer at the right time in Panic Room's career.
Mark and Vicky at Esoteric have been really supportive and encouraging, and we're looking forward to working with them to take the band to new levels and get the music out to as wide an audience as possible.
Anne-Marie: We were right in the middle of a huge UK tour at the time we were approached! We'd thought about going down the record label route in the past, but always chosen to remain independent and release our music through our own company, Firefly Music. There are pros and cons with either path, especially in today's ever-changing music industry.
But this approach came at a key point in the band's career, with our profile rising well and a lot to play for. We just felt it was the right time to make a leap of faith, make the most of any new opportunities, and try something different.
Both Cherry Red Records and the guys at Esoteric had a fantastic reputation professionally, and we knew lots of people who spoke very highly of them and their work ethics. When we met with them in person we really 'clicked', and along with getting all of the business details in place of course, it just felt right to take the plunge.
We signed at the beginning of 2012, and it's been a great year. We still retain complete creative control, so everything we worked on and recorded for SKIN was exactly as we wanted it to be. The label trusts us and our musical choices, and I guess that's why they wanted us in the first place.
What are the real discriminators of being with the label?
The real difference comes in terms of marketing, promotion and distribution of our music and this is where the label can really come into their own, and use all of the Cherry Red connections and resources to help us reach a far wider audience.
We still work just as hard on a day-to-day basis; in fact, I'd probably say even harder than before! There are new opportunities coming our way, from press and radio interviews to events like label showcases. We performed with another three bands on Esoteric Antenna this April, at Camden Underworld in London. It was to celebrate the launch of this new sub-label, and bring attention from our respective fan bases to each other's music.
We're still very much running our own show, and indeed book our own tour-dates etc. But it's a great feeling to have the added support of an extended label 'family' behind you, helping you with some of the areas that really need as much experience as possible.
It's great to feel independent, and I'm fiercely proud of all that we have achieved on our own. But like with anything in life, I think it's true that when you collaborate with others, you become stronger still. You've just got to know who the right people are and I feel we've found them.
What would you say are the highlights of this album that Panic Room's followers should pay special attention to?
Jon: It's always hard to pick favourites with a brand new album. We pride ourselves in only putting songs on our albums that we totally believe in--no filler--so Iím really proud of all of them, but if I had to select a few tracks that I'm especially fond of, then I guess I'd say "Tightrope Walking" is a track that I really love in the way it builds and develops. One review described it as "beautifully sinister," which I really like as a description. The title track "Skin" is another track that is a highlight for me and it's a very emotional song that comes from an honest place and is a really good marriage of words and music. I also have a soft spot for "Freefalling" with its lazy summery acoustic groove and we spent a lot of time getting the layers of acoustic guitars to build and then melt away at the end of the track and I'm really pleased with how it worked.
But I'm also really happy with the way the album works as a whole and it's got a definite flow and an overall melancholy mood to it and perhaps feels more of a complete work in itself than our previous albums, perhaps in part due to the red line of the strings running through most of the songs.
Anne-Marie: Many fans say that the opening track "Song For Tomorrow" is one of their absolute favourites, and certainly for me I feel that it conveys a lot about the whole album too; it's almost a microcosm of all the songs. It has the atmosphere, the power, the tenderness, and the drama that is present in so many other areas of SKIN, and I think that's why it was a perfect choice as an opener.
This song was also shortlisted for the 'Anthem of the Year Award' in the recent Progressive Music Awards and the very first of their kind, held at the stunning Kew Gardens in London, and as nominees we were invited to attend the star-studded ceremony and had a great night! We were just pipped to the post by a track from the new Squackett album by Steve Hackett and Chris Squire, so we were in good company. And to be fair they're actually our Esoteric Antenna label mates, as well as me having toured supporting Steve a few times before, so we couldn't really grumble! Haha. It was fun, we were happy for them. But to be nominated amongst some truly prestigious company was a great feeling for us.
Other highlights of the album for me would include 'Tightrope Walking' too, as Jon said. It's a very unique song and I'm proud of the brave moves we took in keeping the beginning so sparse, and then building the tension slowly, before a real show-stopper of an end section! The strings really shine here too.
I really love the track "Hiding The World', and this is probably the heaviest song on the album. It just has a huge energy, coming from the impassioned guitar riff of Paul (Davies), and the whole track comes from his original ideas. It really captures something very powerful and vital, and as soon as we began recording it, I was incredibly excited. When we added the strings and started to mix, it just reinforced my initial gut feeling that this was a Bond soundtrack in the making!!! Maybe for the next film, hey? I still get goosebumps listening to it now.
And talking of goosebumps, another such track for me is the album's closing song, "Nocturnal." This is a love song for forbidden lovers, and really is about two souls having to live their lives in the darkness of night, hidden from the regular world, because they cannot be together. Though it's also been pointed out that with its nocturnal theme, it might make for a good vampire film or TV series anthem! I'd always be open to that too! I think quite a lot of our music would suit film, and maybe that's because both Jon and I love our films. This and both having knowledge of classical music too, probably also manifests in the way we have written for the strings on the album.
"Skin" is another lush and full track, and very emotional. This was written about grief, and specifically for the family of an old childhood friend of mine who passed away last year, in his early thirties. Our families are both very close, and this was a very hard track to work on, both lyrically and musically. I shed many tears when working on the words, but in many ways that helped me to realise when I was really speaking from the heart. The chorus of this song is pretty epic, and I think will be a really rousing track live, in a similar being to our previous album's title track "Satellite."
It's really hard to pick out highlights, as each song on an album you've created feels like a child in a brood--you can't have favourites! And I'm really proud of each track, in its own unique ways. To show a real contrast with the other big epic numbers we've talked about here though, one song which is already a favourite with the fans from SKIN, even though it's possibly the most commercial, is "Chances." When we played our album launch shows in June / July in the UK and Italy, so many people requested to hear this song! But that took me by surprise, as we had rehearsed up many of the other songs but I didn't expect "Chances" to be such a favourite! We'll definitely be playing it on our Official SKIN Tour this November though and indeed, we'll be playing every track from the album! Along with a selection of tracks from both past albums. [See Panic Room's tour dates here.]
Anne Marie, tell us more about your vocal work, your songwriting, and your guitar parts.
Anne-Marie: SKINwas a fantastic album to work on, as a songwriter and lyricist but also as a musician and creating the vocal melodies, crafting my guitar lines, and adding some piano, percussion and other bits and pieces too!
We're always keen to keep the music simple where it needs to be and no unnecessary layering of instruments or sounds, just listen to what the song really needs. For example, the sound of a real grand piano will shine through much more luminously without being over-flooded by the artificial light from excess synths around it!
But we do also like to be inventive and thrown our own little touches and self-created sound effects in there; sparingly, but with a purpose. For example, people might not notice until we say it but at the start of the song "Skin," on top of the grand piano Jon is playing, I also plucked the piano strings with a plectrum, by leaning over the open piano-top and reaching into the open strings exposed underneath. Plucking these strings creates more of a brittle, metallic sound, which I wanted to add to the piano to reflect the 'strikes of light' idea which opens the song, and speaks of how the brittle light of the morning wakes you, when you least want to awake.
We began working on the album during 2011, jamming and sharing ideas, and then booked the studio for recording sessions to begin in January 2012. So, I then spent a lot of the Christmas / New Year period working on completing the songs, sending ideas back and forth to Jon, even when I was away in the Lake District for a family holiday! Being a naturally reflective time of year, working on songs over the New Year made it even more intense.
It can be hard to put yourself into the mental space needed to work on some songs, depending on their subject matter. So, there were some I found much quicker to complete, and others I took longer over because of the emotional impact! It's definitely a darker album than we have released before, in overall feel. And the darkest places were definitely a journey into the depths, for me. There's nowhere that the listener is led that I haven't myself been to, in pulling these themes out of my soul. That's what is most beautiful about sharing music with other people once you have created or 'captured' it.
Vocally, quite a few of the songs on SKIN are in a lower key than I may have sung on in the past. Sometimes this is when it's an idea Jon has started, and we stick with that key and I'm lucky in that I can pretty much sing in any key, so I don't tend to be fussy about finding the 'right key' for my voice. Or, it's a song idea which I have started, but feel it needs to be sung quite low in order to get the gravitas of the mood across.
There are still some good sections of wailing to be had though! Hahah, and I've probably added some of my highest notes too and there's one right at the end of "Song For Tomorrow" which is a beaut! But I then have to sing that live! I like to challenge myself and push boundaries, and that goes as much for my singing as my songwriting.
There are slightly fewer backing vocals on this album, but I think that's partly because I had the luxury of adding some beautiful counter-melodies in the string parts this time around! It's very normal for me to hear a strong main melody line in my head when working on a new song idea, but also a few counter-melodies. I try and 'feel' which one is the most strong and essential for the track. I have often added these in by singing a backing vocal to capture that other line. But this time, I could explore that line and and a few others and by letting the strings take them instead! And that is a fantastic experience, especially when you hear it come together 'live' in the studio as they play, bringing to life something which you have only thus far heard when you write it on a keyboard! It's truly spellbinding, and very moving.
I should include more backing vocals if anything though, because Yatim and Paul are so great at harmonies now after all our touring! They really bring tracks like "Promises" to life, when they sing with me at the end in our live shows. It's a real 'wow' moment!
As for guitar parts, I have played both electric and acoustic on this album, and I play on most tracks. This makes sense because I play guitar for most of the time live now too, whereas maybe in the early days I only played on a few songs. You can't get it off me now, haha!
But I still only think of myself as a 'rhythm' player. I see my guitar parts as mostly being there to strengthen and provide a foundation for Paul to be as freely creative as he wants to, on top of that. Although with this album, I did spend time finding some really lovely little arpeggios and chords and little touches that I thought might add some shimmer or atmosphere to the tracks, here and there. So, I'm trying to grow and be braver as a player!
Vocals are still probably my first instrument, followed by the flute, piano, and then guitar.
So will you add flute to Panic Room material again?
I'm a multi-instrumentalist or just a mentalist (!) -- and this is a question I've been asked before -- I'm a classically trained flautist, and did play a little on a song for our debut album Visionary Position (2008). But that was purely because the song "The Dreaming" required that. It was something which Jon had envisioned when he wrote it and it's not really ever felt necessary since.
I never say never! But I don't really think it's an instrument that's necessary in our music, right now. Sometimes you can just throw too much into the mix, and I only ever want to play an instrument because I feel it's right for a song, and is going to bring something to it. Not just because I fancy a play! Much of what being a musician is about is learning when Not to play. We've got a great and strong sound, and there's not been a song on our latest two albums that I feel has needed any flute lines on it. This isn't to say there won't be something in future! But it's not a part of the Panic Room sound, and in some ways I've been keen to maintain that, as I think it keeps us more current.
Jon, tell us more about the arrangements, the vast array of keyboard parts and your guitar part on "Velvet and Stars."
Jon: The writing for this album has been slightly different in that I usually write on piano and Anne-Marie tends to write on guitar, while for this album, quite a few of the songs like "Chameleon" and "Skin" originated as piano ideas from Anne-Marie and I've written more on guitar, "Tightrope Walking," "Freefalling" and "Velvet and Stars."
Although I've played some acoustic guitar on the forthcoming album by The Kindling--the acoustic project that Anne-Marie and I have recorded--this is the first album that I've played electric guitar on, and while I'm nowhere near Paul's league as a player, it was satisfying to write "Velvet and Stars" as a guitar pieceand then see it through to playing it on the album--the tuning is DADGAD for those interested in such things! And, of course, to hear the beautiful melody and words that Anne-Marie weaved through the tune was just magical too!
As for keyboard parts, there was a deliberate decision to use a much more limited palette of sounds for this album and to keep to real instruments wherever possible. So the main keyboards used on the album are grand piano, Rhodes and Wurlitzer electric pianos. I also used some sampled Hammond on a number of songs and one or two other samples: hammer dulcimer and Mellotron on "Song For Tomorrow", and" Moog lead on "Promises." Apart from that the only other keyboard used was a Korg Triton LE for the distorted keyboard sound on "Screens," the lead line in "Chances," and some pads on various other songs.
What have been some of the challenges of the band members' work on other projects and with other bands?
Anne-Marie: Everyone in Panic Room is super-focused on Panic Room and this has been the case for a long time now. When Yatim joined the band in summer 2010 it brought out a whole new level of energy and hunger in us all, and we have been inspired and hugely driven ever since. Signing the deal with the record label this year only consolidated that. So, as we have made clear to everyone, Panic Room is our number one priority, and anything else really does fall into the category of session work or side-projects. And this is something we're all agreed on, and committed to.
Sure some of us are in demand at different times for our various unique skills and Gav is a phenomenal drummer and so is often sought out for sessions, and he still does both live and recording work for Mostly Autumn and Fish's band.
I have also toured with Mostly Autumn for a few years now, and this is essentially only 'live' work and I am not a songwriter within that band, and I learn parts to play to create the overall vision that they want to create. I've played with them since being called in to 'dep' on the keyboards and flute when their previous girl left to have a baby. I just ended up staying on! The band are quite busy too, but I work hard to ensure that these shows don't clash with Panic Room, and vice versa and I know my instrumental skills are needed in Mostly Autumn, and it is enjoyable to add them there too. It's just a totally different role!
It's nice though for me to stand back a little and be one of the band, rather than the lead singer. It's good for me as a musician, to work on the instrumental side of my skills, and keep my chops up! And it's a different kind of pressure, which is good - variety is good for musicians, it keeps us fresh! Plus, playing as much as possible is the best way to inspire new creativity.
Jon has worked with other artists too as a co-writer or adding his wonderful piano skills to a project, and Paul has equally been in demand as a guest guitarist. Yatim regularly gigs with bands and projects in his local area, and again, he is very happy in that setting too. But for all of us, Panic Room is where we get to really shine, creatively
None of our other sessions or projects detract from Panic Room at all and if anything they just remind us of our individual talents, and make us respect each other all the more for it!And at the end of the day, as working musicians--I am self-employed and have been for ten years--we do also need to stay busy, to keep a roof over our heads! But Panic Room is our priority. We know we're onto something special here, and we are 100% focused on achieving our dreams.
Jon: It's a tough world out there especially in the creative arts and respect for people who create art seems to be really low at the moment and lots of people seem to think that music, art, literature should somehow all be free. They'll happily buy a round of beers for £20, but £10 for a CD and you must be kidding! So the simple truth is that it's really hard to make a living as a musician without supplementing it with other work or being involved in other bands and that is no different with Panic Room. I also think it's good to play with other musicians as well and it gives us different musical experiences and perspectives that we can then bring back into Panic Room.
We always try to work around people's other commitments, both musical and otherwise, but every one of us is fully committed to making Panic Room a success and weíll make sure that we all give the band the time and energy that it needs to achieve that.
How do you think the tour supporting this release will compare to your prior outings?
Anne-Marie: We played a select number of 'Album Launch' shows this summer, which included not just UK dates but a couple over in Italy too and these were amazing to play, and we certainly got bitten by the overseas-touring bug! We've all toured in Europe and around the world before, but not with Panic Room and this is a newer band, and it has its own memories to make! But we are definitely planning some escapades abroad over the next twelve months!
In November we will hit the road on our Official SKIN Tour 2012, and this will see us play ten cities across the UK, reaching from north to south, east to west. It's important to us to get out there and really reach the people who are so whole-heartedly supporting us... If you've never seen Panic Room live, you're only really getting half the picture!!! There's so much energy and fire in the live shows, and I'm really proud of the guys for making us one of the most highly-recommended live bands to go and see in the UK right now! We work hard at our craft, and we think in-depth about each show and what we should play where, etc... When we get on stage though, that's when the thinking ends and the passion starts! And we just give it our all. There's no other way to do it. Every show is full of power, atmosphere, energy, and hopefully some truly memorable and magical moments for the crowd.
This tour contains some shows at much higher-profile and larger capacity venues than before. Venues that fans want to see us at, we can't wait to play, and hopefully that we'll sell out! Haha. Times are tough, and live music gets hit by the recession as much as anything else, perhaps more so. But you have to keep on getting out there and touring: it's half of what makes us a band, and a way that we can help to give some real fire and inspiration to our audiences, and help pick them up with the power of music, at a time when perhaps not much else will.
I sound like a social worker here! But, you know what I mean! For me, reaching out to people and making a real connection with them, is a huge part of what this is all about. And if we can make people feel a little better, through musical catharsis or just from head-banging along to a rockin' track, then that puts a genuine smile on my face and a glow in my heart!
Jon: We played a limited number of album launch dates in the UK, interspersed with a couple of dates in Italy, but the main SKIN Tour will be through November and into December and will concentrate on the UK. But we are looking to play more in Europe in 2013 and beyond, and in the US as well, should the right opportunity arise.
What can you tell us about other projects you have ongoing or in the works?
Jon: As well as Panic Room, Anne-Marie and I also have also been recording with our acoustic project, The Kindling. The first album has been completed and we hope to release it in late 2012 or early 2013, with some live gigs to follow the release date. We're both big fans of acoustic singer/songwriters,from Nick Drake and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young to Laura Marling and Agnes Obel, and this project is much more in that vein than Panic Room. It features the two of us both playing piano and acoustic guitar, as well as harp, autoharp, flute, etc. with some minimal electronic beats and occasional electric instruments sprinkled throughout.
It's mainly original songs and instrumentals, but weíve also recorded a couple of unusual cover versions of songs that we really like. I think people will be pleasantly surprised to hear this other side to our songwriting, and get a kick out of the album. We've got a wonderful double bassist, Andy Coughlan, who's previously played with Cerys Matthews and Gary Numan to play on a number of songs and our engineer, Tim Hammill, is playing dobro on a couple too. We also wrote string arrangements for many of the songs and these are played by a marvellous string quartet, which includes Leah Evans, the cellist from The Larkin Quartet, featured on SKIN.