.:.Behind All Bones There’s a Tongue of Flame.:.
An Interview with Clodagh Simonds of Fovea Hex
Clodagh Simonds’ remarkable musical career began in her early teens, as a member of Sixties folk-rock group Mellow Candle, and has seen her collaborating with artists as varied as Brian Eno, Current 93, and Thin Lizzy. Her current project, Fovea Hex, draws from her roots as a classically trained pianist and vocalist, as well as the avant-garde, to create a haunting, shimmering sound that defies genre. Not quite drone, ambient, or neoclassical, Fovea Hex has released four full-length albums: three on Simonds’ own Janet Records label, and a split with Andrew Liles. Needless to say, it was an honor to speak with the artist about her own creative processes, the limits of genre, and what Fovea Hex has in store for us over the coming months.
Heathen Harvest: You started making music when you were very young—specifically when you were eleven or twelve, if I’m not mistaken. How did the people around you react to your desire to compose and record at such a young age? I can’t help but wonder how “Swaddling Songs,” the debut from your original project Mellow Candle, would have been received in the age of YouTube and social media.
Clodagh Simonds: It doesn’t feel as if it was a decision I took at any point, but it became obvious gradually—to me as well as to everyone else—that I had no interest in going to University, or ‘pursuing a sensible career’. I wasn’t a bad student at school, but I just knew from the age of about ten that all I wanted to do was create music. My father always thought I was going to be a writer. I was writing poems before I started writing songs; I won a few poetry competitions, and I’d written a few rather surreal short stories as well, and he was very encouraging about that, though he didn’t think much of my taste in music. He was a very passionate traditional jazz fan. My mother, hoping to steer me towards respectability, at one point enrolled me in classical singing lessons—that lasted a matter of weeks and left me with a deep dislike of the bel canto style which has endured my whole life. Later, one grandmother, hoping to deflect the budding hippie I was by the age of about seventeen, offered to pay for me to go to an English university to study Modern Composition, but that didn’t work either. I think the family pretty much resigned themselves to the fact that I wasn’t going to be deflected—I was going to follow my own star, for better or worse. I’d say their attitude was one of resigned tolerance, rather than massive encouragement. The nuns at school, quite valiantly, never tried to stop me. I spent every free moment in the music rooms, usually with my friends Alison Bools and Maria White, but frequently persuaded several others to join me. We made a lot of noise, but they never interfered. All of the real support and encouragement in those very early days, though, came from friends and peers. I’m not quite sure how different things might have been if social media had existed by the time Swaddling Songs came out. It would have provided a way of harnessing all that peer support, whereas we were 100% at the mercy of the music industry—booking agents, who told us we weren’t engaging enough as performers, and the marketing department at Decca, who did nothing at all to help us promote it. That lack of enthusiasm from the ones in charge really eroded our confidence. We weren’t selling any records, and we weren’t getting much live work. Things might have been very different if we’d been in charge of our own promotion, but then again, I’m not one to regret the past too much. We might have been ‘more successful’ in terms of sales, income, and so on.
I’m not convinced, however, that early success is necessarily or inevitably a good thing; it can be a double-edged sword. We escaped the curse of complacency, that’s for sure!
HH: It seems as if people are quick to label your music as “folk.” While that’s understandable for your work in Mellow Candle, there seems to be very little about Fovea Hex that could be construed as “folk music.” What do you think is behind the current insistence that everything be assigned a genre? Do you ever think of your work in terms of genre at all?
CS: Perhaps the sheer quantity of music out there nowadays would be impossible to navigate without these countless genres and sub-genres being tagged on—maybe it’s quite practical, really. I don’t personally think of my work in terms of genre as I never seem to quite fit any of them. I’m not even sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. I could be tapping into bigger audiences if I strategized and ‘placed’ what I do more firmly, alongside various more established artists. I do (intermittently) agonize over my lack of zeal for marketing, but something in my nature recoils from pushing and shoving my way in front of people. For someone with such a loud voice, that sounds bizarrely coy, even ironic, but it’s the truth.
HH: There’s a very sparse, elemental quality to your voice that sounds quite unusual in comparison to most of what one hears today—almost like liturgical music. It strikes me as a very “honest” way of singing. Did you consciously develop this style, or has it always come naturally?
CS: I think my way of singing grew more out of what I turned away from rather than from anything I tried intentionally to develop. I wouldn’t say I consciously developed any style, but I did love Gregorian chant as a child, and I never really cared for very obviously ‘pop’ voices, the ubiquitous fake American accent, the mannered vibrato, etc. Lately, I’ve become very interested in chant generally; it’s such a completely different way of singing. You add nothing to interfere with the energy of the chant itself, you only provide the voice for it. I’m not saying I knowingly apply chant technique to my own material, but I was always instinctively drawn to that clean, unadulterated quality of vocal. It just always appealed to me much more than anything very stylized.
HH: How do you deal with dry spells, as far as inspiration goes? Do you keep any sort of creative routine?
CS: I’m so slow when I’m finalizing a piece, recording it, and so on, that in the time it takes to complete one piece, at least five or six others will have started to appear, so I always have this enormous backlog. There are never dry spells as such. It’s the opposite: I can’t process it all quickly enough! In regards creative routine, I’m not very disciplined, in that I don’t have a real routine or timetable the way some do. Actually, I often wish I could be like that, but I do have a real need to be able to sit down at a piano, often, and just play. When there are spells of time when that isn’t possible (e.g. if I’m away from home for more than a few days) and no instruments are available, I’m very aware that something gets a little out of balance. I worry more, my imagination becomes a bit hyperactive, and as soon as I get home, I seem to instinctively compensate by spending extra time at the piano. I always feel that it’s a bit like a thirsty animal—it’s a real and compelling need.
This is kind of neurotic yet true, but I have this thing about having to have pen and paper beside me when I go to sleep. Very often I’ll get ideas for words—images, sentences, or phrases—either just as I’m waking up or just as I’m going to sleep. Sometimes, but more rarely, I’ll get musical ideas that way—little bits of tune. Even when I’m extremely tired, I won’t go to sleep without a pen and paper beside me.
HH: In the past, you’ve mentioned a love for Georgian polyphonic singing. Has that influenced your compositions in any way?
CS: When I heard Georgian singing for the first time, which would have been in the early 80s, it represented something so clear and so beautiful which I had really been looking for, for years. It was almost like a sense of deja vu. There were so many musical ideas already there which I’d been struggling to articulate to myself, let alone realize in any way—already perfect. I think that whole question of influence and influences is quite complex. None of us is influenced randomly; there has to be an inner resonance of some kind, something already in each of us which corresponds. When we encounter something external which activates that kind of resonance, that ‘something’ in us is affirmed or strengthened, its growth is supported. So I wouldn’t say that finding Georgian polyphony caused something to appear in me which wasn’t there before, but it had the effect of nourishing and encouraging something to grow. I didn’t wish to emulate it, but it gave me courage.
HH: The new album is expected to be the first in another trilogy. Does recording in threes feel more natural to you than, say, one long album, or do you think certain concepts lend themselves better to that format?
CS: It has mostly to do with my pace, really. I just work so slowly. After I’d finished Here Is Where We Used to Sing, I had a very big backlog of half-germinated pieces—some thirty or forty which predated that album by two or three years. I resolved to clear it by spending a certain amount of time on each fragment, just exploring each one’s possibilities a little. From there, I began to focus on about ten or eleven pieces which I decided would be the next release, and I started developing those.
It was fairly quickly that I realized that if I was going to aim to complete all of them as one release, it was going to be another two years at the very least before it would be ready. So, because these pieces did feel like one body of work, I decided to do a trilogy of twenty-minute EPs again and release them that way. It isn’t so much that I am drawn to the trilogy as a format, but I am definitely drawn to EPs as a format. I really like that slice of time of about twenty minutes. It suits the density of the material quite well, and I do like the idea of putting out EPs with three or four pieces at regular, shorter intervals, rather than one whole album every five years or so.
HH: Your new track, “The Slow Slow Air,” draws from traditional music much more explicitly than most of your previous work. Is that sort of a one-off, or something we can expect more of in the forthcoming album?
CS: There won’t be anything like ‘The Slow Slow Air’ on the trilogy, but it’s an idea I’ve had for several years, and this was like a prototype. I wanted to see if the idea was workable. I’m happy with how it came out, though it was quite challenging, and quite a learning curve. It’s possible I might do an EP of Slow Airs like that—like a little suite, maybe three or four of them. I’m thinking about it.