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Rachel Sermanni

... on ‘The Bothy Sessions’ (with Kenny Bates)

By • Aug 19th, 2011 • Category: Feature

Into the wild with friends, a guitar and Herman Hess.
Rachel tells the story of how a spontaneous venture into the wilderness with friends grew into a CD release, and discusses songwriting, sonnets and spiders.
Rachel Sermanni

Sitting in a tiny, barely furbished caravan behind the Solus Tent at Wickerman Festival, I had a brief but insightful chat with singer songwriter and rising star in new Scottish music, Rachel Sermanni. Competing with the continual drone of festival show rides and the buzz from the tent Rachel had moments ago hushed with her performance, we discuss her recently recorded EP ‘The Bothy Sessions’ and the creative process of her songwriting.

Tell us a little bit about the back story to your recent recording ‘The Bothy Sessions’.
“The Bothy Sessions CD is a sort of unofficial summer recording that we’re putting out, and its four really lovely tracks, completely radio unfriendly – they’re too long – but you know, they’re just really nice. We just recorded them, put candles out, put the fire on, I actually stayed in the Bothy the first night on my own, recording the solo bits, and then got my friends to come the next night and we just had a big party. It was really fun, and I think that comes across in the recordings. And then I spent the week just across the water from Fort William, in the middle of nowhere. You can’t see anything but huge mountains, including Ben Nevis – which I didn’t think was a very pretty hill until this week when we spent our lives in its presence and it’s such a beautiful hill – the sky moves around it, it’s just very powerful looking. We recorded two new ones ‘The Fog’ and ‘Breath Easy’ and ‘The Fox’ – ones that have been requiring recording for a while. They’ll take a little bit longer; we had an actual producer on it this time, a guy called Ian Grimble from London. And yeah so it felt really good, I’m very excited, that will be an official release later on in the year.”

How do you feel the setting and the musicians you had on board affected the development of the songs?
“It’s like sculpting. You have to have a good idea and understanding of the direction you want to go in, and you’ve got to be good at directing, I think I’ve got better at that. For this one I wrote a little bit for the fiddles, so that they had a true focus, so that they had something actually written down on paper that they could read, and then they would obviously improve it by 100 times. And yeah, everybody chipped in and everybody pulled their weight, and everyone had their own skill in illustrating how they want things to sound. There’s always a bit of freedom, there’s never an instance where I know exactly what’s going to happen. It’s so exciting when something pops into your head and you’re like ‘Oh I can hear this! Do it!’ and then they do it, they understand. Some of them speak in musical terms which is great and then me and a couple of others speak in sort of conceptual, imaginary terms like ‘spiders’ and things like that, so if you say ‘do the spider’ you know to make it sort of creepy and stuff. So, that’s always fun!”

How do you see your songwriting developing as a result of these experiences?
“I don’t know. The actual songwriting process comes from so many different angles, so many things feed into it. And it feels like more and more, the machine in my head that takes in ideas for songs has loads more little ‘tubes’ for input now. It used to be sort of straight, you’d sit down and you’d write something emotional –you know, it’s always emotional and it’s usually attached to you – but, having lots of ‘tubes’, you take in lots of different ideas. I always have a book with me to write down people’s words copy people’s conversations. I listen, I eavesdrop, and I maybe write other things. Like I’m doing a sonnet project where I just write sonnets for the star signs. That’s really of interesting, the stars and when you’re born and those little aspects and whether they’re just coincidence or not, so it’s just a good project, a writing exercise. Those sonnets are just poems just now, but in the future I’m hoping to make them into little medieval songs. So there’s loads of different directions, but usually the essential songs that I write and would like to perform, they’re usually just matters of the heart. Not just boys – a lot of times boys – but other things, sometimes it’s foxes and other creatures of the world.”

Is there a mind set or mood that you normally write in, or an environment?
“Yeah I reckon you do need space. You need a sense of space, whether it’s just in your head, but I think it’s easier to have a sense of space if you have an actual space where you’re not afraid to let go of stuff and not be aware too much of other people’s perceptions. Like even in the smallest sense, recently I moved out of my aunt and uncle’s house to move in to my friend’s flat. At their house I never wrote, I never practiced at all because I was afraid to wake them up and things, but in this place it’s a huge space, you can sit on the floor, you can roll about, nobody hears me and I can record and sing and play anything I want into the wee hours, so that immediately changes things. And it’s the same at home in the highlands, when you’ve got a space it’s so much easier to write.”

What are you reading just now?
“Herman Hess. He is unbelievable. Siddhartha was the first one I read and I read it at a time when I’d given up alcohol and coffee for lent, just because really, and I felt that I needed sort of less indulgences. And that was really profound because I was taking things a little bit too seriously I reckon, and having no sort of stimulus at all and reading Siddhartha which is about this man’s strange journey, a ferryman, which I recently wrote and recorded a song about which we are really happy with. And then I read Steppenwolf – I would really recommend it. It’s unreal, it’s so good, it’s so profound. Again it’s about a man and his journey through life, but he believes – and everyone can relate to it – that part of him is a civilised thing that always wants to do good and wants to be perceived as good, but then the other side of him is this wolf that is just growling at all the things that he is doing just like ‘what are you doing you silly man, why are you bending to all these strange rules?’ It’s really good, and I wrote a song about that one too, which is part of the Bothy Sessions called ‘Pablo’s City’.”

So what is next, what are your plans for the forthcoming months?
“Lots of festivals. Tomorrow I’m in Manchester doing a Ben & Jerry’s Festival, so I’m hoping to get some ice-cream, and then at London’s Ben & Jerry’s Festival the next day, and then Belladrum Festival. So festival after festival, continue recording this EP in late August, and then I don’t know, we’ll wait and see. Hopefully start to see some… results?… hopefully. Not that I’m really looking for it, but yeah, just sell some more CDs and stuff like that, see if we can survive! So far the plan is very open ended, and it always works when it’s more spontaneous, like the Bothy Sessions. I emailed my friends two days before heading into the highlands, I didn’t know who’d turn up, and it just came together like magic. That’s how it usually works, the best parties, everything, just work better when nobody’s quite sure and you’re on the edge.”

‘The Bothy Sessions’ by Rachel Sermanni is available now via www.rachelsermanni.net.

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