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18.10.12 - on release of Somnia





Q: Building on the background information you shared with us in the Othersong interview - can you tell us how did you start into writing music?  

I’ve always said that Longing for Orpheus “started” in 2003, because that’s when I wrote the first song that ended up on the first album, Skye. I began trying to write much earlier - perhaps a decade prior - but had no idea what I was doing. I’d been taking piano lessons for a number of years at that point, so I could play a bit, but I couldn’t seem to write more than a single musical phrase (maybe five to ten seconds) at a time. I think this was because I’d managed to get that far without really learning anything about the larger structure of music... the function of chord progressions, repetition, themes, etc. Over time I developed a better understanding of those things, partially through direct effort, but probably more through “osmosis” by singing in choirs, playing in a couple of bands, and just listening to a lot of music. By 2003, my musical understanding reached a point where I was able to start putting whole songs together.

  Q:  What led up to the development of the Longing For Orpheus project?  

Music has always been, to me, the most deeply moving and emotional part of life. When I hear a song that gives me a strong, emotional rush, I want to make something like it... to put more of that feeling out into the world. A lot of disparate styles resonate with me, so I end up starting more projects than I can ever realistically devote time to, but the majority of what I create when I “follow the muse” (and everything I wrote for the first few years) fits loosely within the New Age or Ambient genres. When I had written enough material to constitute an album, and received encouraging feedback from a few early listeners, I came up with a pseudonym (realizing I’d eventually want to release different styles of music under different names), and here we are.

Q:  How would you say that your previous releases have laid down the path to Somnia ?  

With Skye, I was still fumbling around (if you’re feeling generous, “experimenting”) with musical structure, and the idea that structure hinders creativity (an idea I now firmly reject). I was relying mostly on what I’d learned formally in my piano training, and that’s reflected in that album, for example, by the three-part form of “Sonata for Night.”
By the time I finished OtherSong, I’d come to realize that I really love the Verse-Chorus song structure that’s dominant in popular music. Superficially, Verse-Chorus seems simplistic and restrictive, since it’s just two alternating parts. But really, all it means is that you’ve got two main musical ideas, with the chorus usually being the more climactic. You can insert plenty of other ideas into that structure, in the form of intros, ramps, bridges, outros, etc.
Take “Ghost” from Somnia, for’s a five minute song, but only about half of that is verses and choruses. There’s a two-part intro, an instrumental break between the first chorus and second verse, and the outro is a violin solo that sort of feels like a third chorus. Even in the verses and choruses, there’s a lot of room for creative exploration.
The opening track from Somnia, “Fire,” ends with with a double chorus, the first of which is a lyrical variant from the rest of the choruses, has a completely different beat, and doubles as a ramp to the final chorus. The final chorus has much bigger drums and cymbals than the earlier ones, making it the climax of the song and giving it closure.

  Q: Somnia seems to have leapt greatly from the springboard of your last album - how would you say your writing/recording methods have evolved?  

I’m glad to hear that you think I’m making progress. I think, basically, the previous albums gave me a lot of practice and songwriting and production. I’m also a lot more selective about which songs I release. When I released Skye, I had probably only written 20 or 25 songs, and included what I felt were the best 15 on the album. By the time I decided to start actively working on the album that became Somnia, I had around 150 songs in various stages of completion. I picked the 20 or so most promising of those and developed them, dropping the ones that weren’t coming together or didn’t seem to fit with the others, until I had a cohesive album. I got to the point where I could be that selective by getting in the habit of starting new songs all the time, and learning to tell which ideas had the most potential.

Q:  What fuelled Somnia - how did the album get started?  

I’ve said before that the single most important event in my musical life was probably hearing Enigma’s “Return to Innocence” for the first time. In a sense, I’ve always been chasing that moment, trying to capture the emotional power of it in my own music. Most of the songs that I’ve experienced in a similar way have included female vocals - Balligomingo’s “Falling”; Conjure One’s “Center of the Sun”; Delerium’s “Silence”; and Sleepthief’s “You Did a Good Thing” are all near the top of my list.

I had a couple of obstacles to overcome to be able to produce that sort of song, and by extension, Somnia. First, though I’m a singer, nearly all of the singing I’ve done has been in the Classical or Broadway traditions, and I’ve had a very hard time setting that training aside to achieve a vocal style that worked with this sort of music. And again, though a few of my favorite songs in the genre feature male vocals (“Return to Innocence,” obviously, plus Delerium’s “Daylight”, sung by Matthew Sweet), I really do think the female voice tends to a better stylistic match. I’ve known many capable singers - most of those featured on Somnia, for that matter - since before I released Skye, but I felt very hesitant to ask them to devote their time and energy to my music until I’d achieved a certain level of competence as a songwriter. After OtherSong was released, and I saw how it was received, I decided I had reached that point.

The other obstacle was lyrics, or my inability to write them. There are some vocals on Skye, but (and despite reading a lot of ‘how to’ material) I felt they were my weak point. While working on OtherSong, I completely focussed on the musical side of songwriting, and just kind of ignored lyrics for a while. The one exception was “Sand,” which I wrote at the same time as OtherSong, but finally released on Somnia. The first lines came to me as I was falling asleep on an otherwise unremarkable night. They felt important, so I got up and started developing them into a song. I realize that probably sounds pretentious, and I felt kind of silly about it at the time, but I’ve since read that it’s not at all uncommon to get flashes of inspiration in a state of hynogogia - look that word up on Wikipedia for an interesting read. Anyway, I finished a rough draft of “Sand” within a few days, but since OtherSong was shaping up to be a purely instrumental album, I left it at that. A couple of years later, I approached Meredith Ruduski about collaborating on a song or two. I gave her a mostly finished instrumental track, and she gave me back some partial lyrics based on the general vibe of the instrumental. I found that, given the themes and evocative phrases she had already started, I was able to work them into a complete set of lyrics without too much difficulty. That’s how “Broken Down” came into being. The experiences of writing those songs led me to a lyric-writing process that I’m pretty happy with; I get evocative ‘seed ideas’ from a variety of sources - hynogogia, free association techniques, stream of consciousness, etc. - and then develop them into complete lyrics in a more conscious, analytic way.

  Q:  Can you tell us something about your current recording methods, studio set-up or gear list?   The vast majority of instruments on Somnia are software synthesizers - I used a lot of Rapture, z3Ta+, Massive, and Absynth patches in particular. I’m still using the Yamaha S80 I’ve had for over a decade as a master controller, but I think the only hardware synth on the album is a single MicroKorg patch on “Sand.”

A common criticism about electronic music is that it’s too “perfect,” with everything precisely on the beat. That’s a natural result of the way sequencers work, but something I put a lot of effort into avoiding. The pervasive vocals and occasional acoustic instruments on Somnia add a lot of organic feel, but I also make a point of going easy on the quantizing. In other words, when I record a part from the keyboard, my timing is imperfect (everyone’s is), and while the recording software can easily “fix” the notes so that each one is perfectly in rhythm, I don’t always use that ability. Synth pads, for example, generally have slow attacks and releases, so they rarely benefit from quantization. Battery, the drum sampler I use, has some great “humanize” tools that add subtle variations to the rhythm parts, which goes a long way toward eliminating the “clockwork” drum machine feel.

Q:  How did you gather the different singers for the Somnia?
  Since 2000, I’ve performed in most of the summer productions by Austin’s Gilbert and Sullivan Society, which are “light operas” - sort of proto-Broadway shows. In doing so, I’ve worked and become friends with many wonderfully talented vocalists, including Meredith Ruduski, Lisa Alexander, Karlyn McCutchan, and Michelle Haché. I met my wife, Rebecca (who sings a number of songs on Somnia) in a university choir, and she’s been in most of those Gilbert and Sullivan shows with me. Rebecca met Heather McCrocklin in a women’s choir at the same school, but I met Heather around the same time through Amanda Hatfield (another Gilbert and Sullivan veteran, and now vocalist for a new electronic act, “Echoes over Voices”), who also met Heather through that same choir... this is getting complicated. I guess the point, if I have one, is that there are a lot of tightly-knit, interconnected music communities around here, and that’s how I’ve found all of my collaborators.   Q:  How exactly did you work with the different vocalists?
  Since I’ve performed with all of these vocalists before, I was already fairly familiar with their voices. When I thought someone would be a good performer for a song, I sent them a draft with my own scratch vocals, and asked if they were interested. Then we just scheduled a recording session and replaced the scratch vocals. Rebecca wrote or rewrote most of the vocal harmonies on her tracks, but that was only possible since we both live a few feet from from the studio, so we could do additional takes as inspiration struck. Now that I’ve gone through the process a number of times, though, I can easily foresee other vocalists being similarly involved.

Q:  Are there any interesting background details you might like to share with your listeners around the creation of the album?

  Over half of the vocals were performed by pregnant women. That may not seem particularly relevant (though I maintain that it’s entertaining), but one of the babies (all of whom are happily out in the world now) is mine, and it was a major goal of mine to finish the album before he arrived. I was afraid that if I didn’t, I would have such limited time that the production would slow to a crawl, and take extra months or years to complete. Well, I failed (Malcolm was born in early June), but my fears were greatly exaggerated... though it’s been hectic, I was able to finish up in about a month.

Earlier on, I vaguely intended to match singers with songs based on personality, but that didn’t really work out. “Ghost” is probably the darkest song on the album, but in person, Karlyn is just about the most consistently cheerful person I’ve ever met. I was actually kind of worried about whether she might be constitutionally incapable of expressing sadness, but I think she managed it beautifully. By the same token, Meredith Ruduski is always funny. She’s absolutely brilliant at playing comedic roles on stage, but even in casual conversation she’s constantly getting laughs... I don’t think she can help it... and I have her singing “Broken Down.” That one is at least partly her fault, though, since she started the lyrics.

The one place where I did actually accomplish something symbolic in matching singer to song is “Then,” sung by Heather McCrocklin. Heather is one of my oldest friends, and was a groomsmaid in my wedding. “Then” is a song about the past and nostalgia, so it seemed perfect to have her sing on it.

  Q:  What does the future hold for Longing For Orpheus?   Thanks to Lisa Alexander, the vocalist on “Shine,” I got into Traditional Irish Music a few years ago. You can hear a bit of tin whistle on Skye and OtherSong, but I’d just been doing my own thing with the instrument, not really trying to learn a particular style of music. During rehearsals for Iolanthe (one of the Gilbert and Sullivan light operas), Lisa told me about a weekend-long event called the O’Flaherty Irish Music Retreat, where I could learn to play it properly. I came away from that weekend pretty well obsessed with Irish Trad. I’ve since taken up a number of other instruments (primarily the Irish Flute and Uilleann Pipes), and am preparing to attend my third retreat in just a couple of weeks. In the long run, I’d like to thoroughly explore integrating Irish Trad into Longing for Orpheus. On Somnia, you can hear a little flute on “Then,” low whistle on “Shine,” and a fair bit of mandolin on “At The Ending,” but there’s a big difference between integrating instruments associated with a tradition, and integrating a tradition. I’m still very much a novice in the Irish Trad world, so this may be a very slow process.

On another front, I’m working on some ‘covers’ of vocal music from the classical world...Art Songs, Arias, etc. Michelle Haché and I recorded the first of these just this past weekend...we’re just beginning to explore this concept. It might not work out, or we might branch it out into a side project, or it might be released as Longing for Orpheus material. It’s too early to tell, but it seems very promising so far.


Thanks to Derek for allowing us that interview.