22 Jun 2012

An Interview with The Rowan Amber Mill

Stephen from the Rowan Amber Mill joins us today to talk a little about his music, and what he's been up to since the release of Heartwood. Lots of music to look forward to from him by the sounds of it...

Visit the Rowan Amber Mill's website here. Their CDs are way too cheap. Take advantage of it and buy a few....

THE ACTIVE LISTENER : Hi Stephen - would you care to tell us a little bit about yourself?

STEPHEN : Daydreamer. Landscape lover. Music obsessive. Writer and maker of music. Runner of miniscule bespoke cottage record label.

THE ACTIVE LISTENER : When did you start playing music? What sort of stuff were you playing?

STEPHEN : In my teenage years I bought myself a fizzy WASP synth and used an old Commodore Amiga with a very rudimentary “sequencer” to make acid house tracks. I then bought a cheap electric guitar - an Epiphone SG copy and tiny amp out of a catalogue. I learned to play the guitar by murdering covers of everything from the Beatles to Brit-pop.

THE ACTIVE LISTENER : When did you start to write your own stuff, and what did it sound like?

STEPHEN : I bought myself a cheap 2nd hand Yamaha electro-acoustic with the aim of learning to play the kind of music I was actually listening to (Nick Drake, The Lilac Time, Donovan). I had never been able to write anything on the electric guitar and put this down to the fact I couldn’t write a song, but I found that with an acoustic guitar I could write. The songs I began writing were pretty much in the singer- songwriter / storyteller vein, and at a time when there was very little acoustic music being heard, it couldn’t have been much more out of step. I first started writing songs that I was relatively happy with in 2002. I joined up with a good friend (and a great songwriter) I had known from school and we then started a band (Miller) together with a few other friends. We subsequently released a couple of albums that straddled Dark-folk, Americana and Pastoral-psychedelia. We always found it difficult to explain what we sounded like - luckily not many people were interested anyway. After five years I left the band in order to make music more focussed in the area I was most interested - psych-folk.

THE ACTIVE LISTENER : Midsummers was the Rowan Amber Mill's debut. Is this all of your early material or was there other stuff recorded that didn't make it onto the E.P?

STEPHEN : Midsummers was the first CD we released, but previously in 2008 we had released 6 track download only e.p. “Folk Devils and Moral Panics” that was effectively a collection of extended demo’s songs that I had written mostly whilst Miller was falling apart. I had originally recorded the demos and posted a few of them on Myspace, and with the small amount of interest began to assemble a new band that included Terry Stacey (the drummer from Miller) and Kim Guy. We were asked by Candidate if we’d like to provide an e.p. of material for the launch of Indmill in August 2008– an ethically run answer to iTunes (way ahead of its time as it happens). I knocked the demos into shape and Kim added some vocals and recorder to half of the tracks. Last year we made the “Folk Devils..” e.p. available again to download on Bandcamp. So to answer your question, we were rehearsing and working on lots of new material ready to record a “proper CD”. Recording anything always took a great deal of time and organisation (mainly because it was 150 mile round trip to get us together), so everything we had recorded and finished at that time went on Midsummers. There were a number of tracks (8 or so) that I had partially recorded for Midsummers that didn’t get finished mainly because they didn’t fit the concept, most of these were then either carried over to the Heartwood album or were politely ignored.

THE ACTIVE LISTENER : As good as Midsummers was, Heartwood sounds like a much more confident collection of songs. What's your view on this and what can you tell us about the recording of the album? Any interesting or funny anecdotes?

STEPHEN : Actually I am never confident about any of the songs. Midsummers was a concept (mini) album, and in parts could be regarded as style over content, or perhaps more accurately atmosphere over content. Heartwood was an album of self-contained songs and relied on using instrumentation to convey a warm woodland atmosphere, as opposed to the dark spooky atmosphere that carried the songs on Midsummers. Much of the feel of the Heartwood album was shaped by the fact that very late on in the process, (with most of the instrumental backing complete but only a couple of basic vocal tracks recorded) Kim was suffering from some big problems with her throat which meant she wouldn’t be able to sing on the album. Our recently recruited recorder player (Sharon Eastwood) stepped up to provide the vocals for the majority of the album. We had recorded the whole album with Kim’s unique vocal tunings in mind (mellow low end bass –with some smooth middle), Sharon’s vocals are at the opposite end of the spectrum, a delicate, natural sweet voice an octave higher than Kim’s. So we ended up changing a fair bit of the instrumentation on the album to suit Sharon’s vocal range, and had we had the time available we would have re-recorded it in a more suitable key too. Sharon’s singing voice provided a different (and welcome) dynamic to the album.

THE ACTIVE LISTENER : The Rowan Amber Mill has been through a few personell changes. Can you tell us a little about the various line-ups? Are you currently working solo?

STEPHEN : I have been lucky with The Rowan Amber Mill in that everyone involved has been amiable, generous and very patient. When I started The Rowan Amber Mill I knew that I needed the right type of singer for the songs, and, after a couple of false starts with others, I was contacted by Kim Guy. When I heard her sing I knew immediately that her voice would be perfect for the songs (she also played a mean recorder and guitar). I then contacted Terry Stacey who had been the drummer in Miller and who had been a great sounding-board in developing songs, and he joined the band as bass player and percussionist. We really got into our stride prior to the recording of Midsummers, and it felt like we were moulding the sound into something quite unique. We also gained a further band member for a few months around this time – Donna Whitlock - a wonderful person and a stunning percussionist, who brought a whole new rhythmic dynamic which was a lasting influence on our music. We recorded Midsummer’s as a three piece and looked to add another member to the band for our debut album and for playing live. Sharon Eastwood joined the band as recorder player and backing singer during the early recording of Heartwood. During the recording of Heartwood it became clear that something had to give. The 150mile round trip for the band to get together was proving very difficult to organise and even more difficult to achieve. Kim’s throat problems meant that she couldn’t sing with us for the foreseeable future, which meant the subsequent cancellation of live dates and reworking the album for a different vocalist, and everything seemed to conspire against the band being able to continue. Sharon subsequently completed the vocals on the album. It became clear that due to lack of time and geographical constraints we’d no longer be able to get together sufficiently for the band to continue. I went back to my day job and mixed the album in the spare time I had available. Since then The Rowan Amber Mill has gone back to being my solo project, but with some collaborations planned along the way.

THE ACTIVE LISTENER : I first found out about the Rowan Amber Mill a few years ago when I was googling for music that was inspired by the Wicker Man. At the time you seemed to be one of the only names to pop up, but now there seems to be a massive wicker-folk movement. How much of an influence did the Wicker Man actually exert on you and how do you feel about the other artists that are working on the scene with you? Anyone out there you're particularly into?

STEPHEN : The Wicker Man through its story, visuals, and soundtrack, seems custom made to inspire musicians who like to make music that is a little off the beaten track. The film has had a large influence on my music - especially my earlier work (the first song I wrote in Miller in 2002 was a kind of re-imagining of the procession scene from The Wicker Man). I’m never too sure about subgenres that bands get associated with, but I think there is probably an indirect lineage of bands like Candidate, Circulus, Espers, Tunng and The Owl Service that had that “Wicker” vibe going on at various stages. Some of the bands that have carried that processional torch aloft since are wonderful bands like Sproatly Smith, Wyrdstone and The Hare And The Moon. The recent “Weirdlore” compilation seems to be infused with similar (mandrake) roots and I’d highly recommend this release to anyone who likes their music folky and weird. Films have always exerted an influence on our songs. Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders, Winstanley, Kes, The Grapes Of Wrath and the films of Pasolini, Bergman and Tarkovsky have by virtue of their stories, visuals or soundtracks, inspired various of our songs.

THE ACTIVE LISTENER : What can you tell us about the track you've just finished working on? Are you at liberty to talk about the compilation it will feature on?

STEPHEN : The track is called “On Ridgeway Fields” and all being well, will feature on the new dark folk compilation album that is being put together by the Cold Spring label. The compilation is part of their folk series that commenced with the “John Barleycorn Reborn” release and which was followed by “We Bring You A King With A Head Of Gold” (which featured our track “Blood And Bones”). Having really enjoyed the previous two releases, I can’t wait to hear the new one when it gets released. “On Ridgeway Fields” was inspired by the ancient historical Ridgeway in England, and in particular visits to the areas surrounding the white horse at Uffington and the standing stones at Avebury. The song is a fair bit more sonic than the songs on our last album - and I even dusted off the electric guitar and fuzz pedal. The song features some guest vocals from Melanie O’Dene.

THE ACTIVE LISTENER : You've just finished building a studio.

STEPHEN : The studio (or shed) is now completed. The downtime in recording over the last couple of years has helped concentrate my mind on how best to put together a simple, useable, small recording space on a miniscule budget. Some reclaimed laminate flooring and sound proofing, and some wall tiles have done the trick for the acoustics with a new mic and updated recording software helping to gain better control over the sound.

THE ACTIVE LISTENER : Are you working on material for a new album at the moment? If so what stage is it up to and what can you tell us about it? Have you got a feel for what the finished result may be like yet?

STEPHEN : Since completing Heartwood a couple of years ago domestic commitments have only allowed the occasional week here and there to do any recording. I’m not very good at recording under time pressures so quite few of those tracks have been abandoned as I just wasn’t happy with them. I have concentrated more on writing during this time. At the moment I have a dozen songs that I am happy with at various stages of recording, a couple have been finished, but the rest are still in progress. After this summer I will be able to return to music full time and I am really looking forward to it. I think the recording will proceed quite fast as I have lived with the songs for so long that I have a very good idea how I want to arrange them. The songs as written feel quite dark, and they are likely to be relatively sparse but be a fair bit more sonic than the last album, with a sprinkling of fuzz guitars and vintage synths blended in with the harps and flutes. The songs have, as always, been heavily influenced by the landscape, but also inspired by a number of 1970s children’s TV serials (things like The Changes, Sky, Moon Stallion, The Owl Service, Children Of The Stones) and 1970’s plays / serials such as (Penda’s Fen, Red Shift, Hammer House Of Horror etc). I hope that I’ll be able to release an e.p. sometime this year with an album to follow early in 2013.

Stephen has also supplied us with a guest mix for the next episode of Active Listener Radio - watch this space.....

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