Interview: Rachel Sermanni

It’s always great to meet the person behind the music, and even more so when you’re meeting an artist who comes so highly recommended by other musicians. Rachel Sermanni, from being a big name in the Scottish scene, has gone on to play across Europe and now, after the recent release of her debut album Under Mountains, she is in the middle of a packed tour around the UK. We recently had the pleasure of meeting her and talking about the album, the tour and her own musical life…

So your debut album has just been released, how do you feel now that it’s out there?

Well, it feels like it’s just one part of it really, as was the making of it. It’s taken a long time to come together and it took a long time for me to feel satisfied with it, because I got to see it and feel it well before the release date. I feel like that excitement came when I held it in my hands and on seeing the artwork, which really fits in with it. It all became an entire entity that I’m really proud of. It feels like a work of art. So when it came out, it was exciting, but it’s almost like you’re just letting it go. There’s not much else you can do now, all I have to focus on is holding on to my adrenaline and my energy and tour now, which takes me all the way up to December. So I have to stay focused. I don’t want to sound ungrateful, it’s amazing, but it’s never the end, the release is only a small part of the beginning, so I just have that in my sights. I’m very happy it’s out.

You mentioned your tour, how do you find life on the road? How do you get into that mindset after recording for so long?

The touring has just been non-stop, me and Jen had just got back from India, and the day we got back we were in the recording studio for 14 days, and then we were straight out and touring again. Playing gigs is really all I have done for the past year, and it’s just been non-stop. It is different, it’s nice to be stationed somewhere for longer than three days.

How would you describe your sound, to those who aren’t so familiar with it?

I suppose sound-wise, it sounds like a girl with a guitar, singing. And when it comes to the words, it’s hard to put yourself into a genre. If you say you play music, and they ask what type of music, folk is the way that I usually put it, because there’s nothing else you can really say. It’s a form of storytelling, prose, but it feels so unlike that on a personal level. It just feels the way.

Who or what are your biggest influences? I’ve heard people liken your work to poetry, and say that it’s very literature based, would you agree with that?

I really like that thought. I really like poetry, and I like to read. I suppose the words are the leaders in the song, the sound follows the feelings of the word. There’s been lots of inspirations, the album spans such a long few years of writing, it started when I was in school when I wasn’t too aware of what I was listening to, it was just whatever was on the radio, and writing wise I was influenced just by the happenings around me: infatuation, boys. When I got older I just became exposed to more, more things happened, so I have angrier songs from times when I just lost myself, like Bones, which is about not being true to yourself, not being true to your spirit, not being able to hold on or deny temptation, being an animal basically. So it changes, and obviously whatever I’m reading can sometimes influence that, I don’t know how much of it comes through but I love Herman Hesse, and I came to him a little bit later, and he has done a lot of good things to my head, and a lot of bad things, but all good in the long run. I wrote a song called Pablo’s City, which is on a previous EP, and I wrote that about his book Steppenwolf, and I’ve never done that before, but it was just because it was synchronising and paralleling with my feeling at the time. Everything I read, if it resounds, and everything I hear can be inspiring. I often just hear songs, it’s not just one artist, there are sometimes just certain songs that give you a fresh perspective.

You’ve already played festivals and big events, such as Celtic Connections, but has there been any stand-out gig so far?

There’s quite a few, each gig is memorable for its own reason, but it does kind of merge into one. I had a great time once in Cambridge singing The Fog, one of my songs, and it just felt really right. It was in a church, and I’d just spent a lot of the day just zoning into the church, wandering about and watching people come in and just getting the feel for it. You know like when you’re surfing – not that I’ve done much surfing – or maybe when you’re trying to catch a wave when you’re swimming, and you try and push with it and it takes you. Sometimes it doesn’t and sometimes it does. Those moments are the bits that make it memorable. I’d started to get the vibrations right, and so when I sang The Fog, it was like I was truly confessing whatever it was that was in the song. It pulled everything out of me, but it was really good. At Deer Shed that happened with Marshmallow Unicorn, I was just so close to crying because I had just hit a nerve and I knew I meant was I saying. Those sort of things make it memorable. And with the band we played the Union Chapel once, and that was a really memorable occasion because it was the first time I had played with the band in London, and it was the Union Chapel. Couldn’t ask for much better than that

Do you feel more comfortable playing at home in Scotland?

I love Scotland, but it doesn’t really matter actually. I think it depends on the people at the gig, it doesn’t really matter where they’re from. There’s an instore in Inverness, which is my local city, that’s where we would go when we were younger, and it’s going to be a HMV gig. I’m probably most nervous about that because you can kind of just be a singer in this world, you can be something that people can find a reflection in. It’s sort of impersonal in a way, and so you can kind of get into the songs. But when you’re in front of people who have known you since you were younger, or just know you as a normal human being, you’re not so much a reflection you’re just a person. So it’ll be interesting playing for those people because I know they’ll be really positive, but I like to be anonymous, especially with those people. I just want to be their friend. It’ll be weird playing for a bunch of people I know and recognise. But it’ll be lovely, it’ll be nice.

If you could play with anyone who would it be?

I’ve been really lucky, working with Admiral Fallow has been great. I’m sure there’s loads. I got to sing with John Grant once, or a few times actually, and that always stayed with me, because I love that man and I love to sing with him. Like Louis, I feel like our voices match. I’d love to jam with lots of people. I really like Sam Amidon. I saw him once at Green Man Festival and he’s just so weird. I really love the weirdness.

There’s quite a lot of big female names in folk, like Laura Marling and Lucy Rose, what do you think of this movement? Are you trying to stay away from it, or delve into it?

No, not delve into it, certainly not, but at the same time I’m not trying to delve into anything other than trying to stay creative, because that’s quite a challenge. I used to be really against any kind of comparisons. They used to be Amy McDonald and Katy Tunstall and everyone who comes out of Scotland, but then it got a little bit wider, but it only pulls in another pool of women singers. I always find all those women very inspiring, because they’re doing it and hopefully they’re living from it. You have to be aware of it though, and so I’m aware that I am myself so it doesn’t matter really what happens, and you have to accept that other people are themselves as well, and people are going to want to find comparisons. Different people hear different things. Laura Marling and Lucy Rose are both wonderful, and perhaps it’s inevitable, but I try and steer clear of it. When you’re thinking about shows it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to have all of us in the same show, because it just wouldn’t work. As much as it might be fun, you’d be too close and people would be comparing you all. I do think Laura Marling has probably been a huge inspiration to a lot of ladies, so it must be nice to be a very inspiring person.

Every time I see your name, it’s put with the words ‘One to Watch for 2012’, how do you feel about those descriptions? Do you ever feel pressure because of these things?

Yeah, like it was for 2011! People will always be keeping an eye out for you and watching you progress, but I suppose I have been a progression. Compared to a lot of people it’s been a slow progression, but I am very grateful for that. I’ll hopefully be the one to watch for 2013 as well. Pressure comes in so many different forms, and different monsters under the bed. I have pressure on myself to write, and I don’t like that now because it means I can’t write. I have so much that I feel I could be saying, but there’s nothing striking coming to my head. All the songs on the album were things that haunted me, phases that went through my head over and over and I couldn’t escape it until I’d spewed it up onto a piece of paper. Whereas now there’s so much going on, so much hitting you in the face, and there’s nowhere to settle. That’s my pressure. Then there’s the pressure that I’m feeling a little bit from the amount of faith and investment people have put in, and you’re always aware of that, as much as they don’t want you to be aware of it. I just want to repay a couple of people for the goodness they’re giving. Even my band, and people that played on the album, it’s a kind of investment. I don’t want massive success, but I’d like to get to a point where I can say ‘I can reward you back’. So yeah, there are a couple of pressures.

Do you have any new musical recommendations?

There’s a girl from Stornoway, who I would always put up there as my favourite, she’s called Miss Irenie Rose, she’s only left the island a couple of times, and she’s only just starting to get into the Scottish scene, but I really pray that she keeps going because she really deserves a lot of appreciation, she’s not written a lot either, but she’s just a classic. Amy Holford has an amazing bluesy voice, and real good control. Joe Hammill was doing a solo support set, but his band Cattle and Cane, a Middlesborough band,  are great. There’s a girl, Rachel Hillary, who played in Manchester, who was brilliant. Last night there were two people, Georgie Rose, who’s 17 and has the most mature voice are really mature lyrics, she was amazing with really intricate guitars things, and Gallery 47 was a boy who played between me and Georgie Rose, and he was really great, I think he’s an English student and he clearly does a lot of reading and a lot of listening to the classics, like Paul Simon and the Beatles. There was a lot that struck me in the past few days. There’s a return to the classy feel of songwriting. What’s great is that you can say everything’s been done, but there’s always a fresh perspective in everything that they do, and their characters just shine through. It’s been a good weekend of new music.

Rachel Sermanni’s debut album Under Mountains is available now, and you can read our review HERE…

Words by Josh King