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First Listen:

Modern Studies

“Swell To Great”

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introduction by trevor elkin

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With their feet still firmly on the ground, anchored by a sense of history, Modern Studies somehow travel the furthest distance. Evoking another place and time altogether,  debut album ‘Swell To Great’ captures the ancient and boundless mystery coursing through the deep currents and salt spray of the oceans.

With each song, a story unfolds around us, telling of the dark majesty of the sea, its creatures above and below and of the men, women and children lured by desire, accident or necessity to enter its embrace. Sometimes, as on ‘Bottle Green’, the ocean is the enigmatic, yet doleful focus for Emily Scott’s lamenting folk voice. Then there’s the jazz-inspired phrasing on ‘Dive-Bombing’ rises and falls, like the swelling tides.  Throughout, the soft crash of cymbal, the patter of piano, sweeping cello and the mechanical susurration of a Victorian harmonium are never far away. They combine to create a sense of the sea’s many different characters and, in turn man’s relationship to it. With the gently swaying, family tale of love and lost connections, ‘Father Is A Craftsman’, or the hauntingly sweet version of Shirley Collins’ ‘The Bold Fisherman’, water is the hidden protagonist, binding the stories, giving them a metaphysical air.

It’s no co-incidence that ‘Swell To Great’ is steeped in this otherworldly presence. The sleeve notes tell another story, about the “Belfast-born Victorian harmonium entrusted to the care of Daisy Skelly, a music teacher with a sweetheart lost to the Great War, who would herself succumb to typhus in her mid-twenties. Then, 2015, the harmonium migrates to Pumpkinfield, a studio in rural Perthshire where it becomes the thing around which a constellation of people, instruments and ideas begin to orbit. Fragments become lines, become songs…”

This curious backdrop demonstrates how Modern Studies relish a good narrative and, as they elaborate below, the surprises and twists of fate that shape our lives. We talked to Emily, Rob and Pete about their songwriting, the connection between ‘arts-und-crafts-werk’, the harmonium and Victorian parlour games.

How did Modern Studies come about as a project?

Rob St. John: Emily had a set of new skeleton songs and melodies, all written on an old harmonium she’d been gifted, which had found its way to Scotland from Northern Ireland almost a century ago.  It’s a characterful thing, all wheezes and stops, and needing frantic pumping and peddling to even squeeze out the smallest sound.  Emily got in touch with me in early 2015 to moot the prospect of working together again (we’d collaborated and toured together a fair bit a decade or so before, whilst both doing solo things in Edinburgh).  Pete Harvey (who we’ve both worked with in various guises) and Joe Smillie were similarly brought into the fold, and we began work in fleshing out the bones of the songs at Pete’s studio in rural Perthshire later that year.

Emily Scott: It was all because of the harmonium and the restrictions of living and working with it in a small flat. It’s a massive 6 foot tall carved and gorgeous thing, very stately and decorative, also slightly dark and looming, and I wasn’t playing it enough.  So I offered it to Pete for Pumpkinfield, then started writing on it, before it disappeared out of my life, as a kind of farewell. 

The harmonium actually feels like a fifth member of the group, how did it end up with you Emily? Can you imagine Swell To Great being the same without her?

ES: Funny how you say ‘her’; she is definitely a she, and she is our founding member. Most of the songs were birthed at her keys, and generated precisely because of her unique malfunctioning squeakings, scrapings and wheezings. The record would be entirely different without her. I taught music as one of my first teenage jobs in Ireland to some local kids, and to the two sons of one family, who gave me the harmonium when I moved away to music college. I had no sense this would’ve been possible at the time, I wasn’t even writing then, and strangely she’s a bigger part of my life now that she’s living with Pete! He’s going to break her down and build her up as a new, restored, fully functioning concert-pitch beauty.

You use ‘Arts-Und-Crafts-Werk’ to describe your music; how much is art, how much craft and was it hard work?! How did you shape the initial songs together? 

Pete Harvey: It was lovely to watch the songs develop organically over time – from the starting point of Emily’s beautiful sketched ideas (informed by the functioning – or not – elements of the harmonium), each individual reacting to the last contribution, like in a musical version of the old parlour game  ‘consequences’. Each new addition is a delight taking the tracks to unexpected places.

ES: It was a surprisingly easy process, and an exciting one. I love the idea of going to a studio for an intensive week to bust out a record, but for us that’s not really an option for us. We all have other work and there’s geographical distance that makes getting together more of a challenge. We seem to have found this way of working (both together and apart) that moves fluidly, a weird combination of imagination, honing and sharing what you do with some kind of self-conviction, and then letting go and being open to someone else’s creativity…

RSt.J:  Arts-und-crafts-werk… well we have a lot of different keyboards on stage at any one time, most of them in various states of disrepair… and every project needs a daft genre, right?

Definitely. What is it like working together again in this new context – the same, or different?

PH: It’s a magic combination of people – through the varied projects we’ve worked on together in different combinations in the past, there’s a profound trust between the four involved. It’s great to have created this opportunity to collaborate collectively on something new.

ES: Yeah, especially when working out new material, it can leave you feeling very exposed if you’re not in a good place with the people you work with. I feel I can play pretty much anything to these guys and it’ll be heard openly. In the past, I’ve not shared a lot with people, I tend to work alone, so I’ve had to let go a bit, which has been hard, but I’m starting to wonder why I wasn’t doing this years ago. As well as having four brains to knock together it can be so amazing when you realise that three other people are working at the songs in their own time and studios, even when you’ve been away or sleeping or something!

Swell To Great creates a sense of another place or time, like a sudden bitter-sweet recollection. Does the album, or any song in particular hold a particular place or time for you?

RSt.J: I think Emily’s songs have a special quality to them that capture the experiences of being in a landscape – of sense, memory, possibility, wonder – in a way that’s at once universal yet finely particular.  It’s musical ‘place-writing’, I guess, with a real attentiveness to the world. So this well-tuned nature of the skeleton songs was something we developed in the instrumentation – both consciously and not – blurring very-old with not-so-old technologies in the harmoniums and synths; natural sounds with mechanical whirrs; chance improvisations with closely-written arrangements.

ES: Yeah we all love these old machines, I think by their nature they can’t help conjuring up certain sounds in time. My songs seem to always be bittersweet, I like nuance and like to write what I see through my eyes, and hope that conjures up personal memories and feelings for the listener. The combination is hopefully almost filmic that way, we present this moving picture and people are free to interpret how they like.  

Have you cracked the problem of touring with a harmonium yet?

PH: There will always be a problem when touring with a harmonium.

ES: Yes! We got a little Ivor Cutler-esque pedal harmonium that is much more manageable to lug around, it’s already been the length of the country several times and seems to enjoy it, despite being blissfully unaware that it is a lesser harmonium with no carved candle holders and no stops, and some extremely clacky pedals fixed with something like tar-paper. Perfectly broken in its own way.

What plans do you have now the album is released?

RSt.J: We’ve begun writing a second album, which will hopefully be ready to record early next year.  Emily’s working brief for it is ‘Grace Jones meets the Bad Seeds’ (that’s a party I’d like to go to). It’s got a working title of ‘Malbec for your health’. The new material is maybe a little heavier, a little weirder, and a bit more expansive.  Like we’re all settling into a collective dynamic that we worked out on this record. We’ve a bunch of LP release shows this autumn, and then we’re touring with King Creosote across the UK in January 2017.

ES: We made some nice wee tracks for Earth Recordings this year, they’ve still to come out, and that’s been nice to try some new ideas and see how we might develop further from Swell to Great. We’re all keen to keep up the momentum, a nice combination of tours and more long-distance musical consequences…

PH: Yeah, Malbec. Or And gin.

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‘Swell To Great’ is out today, you can buy it here

via Song, By Toad

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