Last week I reviewed the newly released third album from Mishaped Pearls – Thamesis. This enthralling combination of ethereal vocals, ancient story and modern song writing has been enjoying effusive reviews and no small amount of airplay, so what better time than now to grab the attention of its creators? Ged Flood and Manuela Schuette spoke to Folk Radio UK about the album, its inception and its influences.
When Mishaped Pearls was formed in 2009, Ged and Manuela created an amalgamation of their very different musical worlds of indie/rock/folk and Classical European with ancient poetry from across Europe. Manuela’s arresting mezzo-soprano vocals and the remarkable raw material used for their songs found fruit in their first album The Singer and The Poets and made them a noteable addition to venues around London and at a number of UK festivals. In 2011 a second release, the mini-album Le Puy en Velay, saw them bring on board more rustic influences with a slightly more folkish flavour.
In 2014 they’ve taken things a significant, and ambitious, step further with Thamesis – I wondered whether, in writing and recording the album, they’d set out in a different direction, or if they changed course along the way?
Manuela – Our previous work was a result of an experiment – Ged, coming from a singer songwriter, folk and rock background, inhabited a very different world to me. I was more used to singing in recitals. We thought there were no musical synergies until the theme tune of a crime series [Silent Witness’ ‘Silencium’ by John Harle], with the Latin of an alto-voice wafting above a modern tune, started to grow on us. We started resurrecting ancient Roman poetry for our first songs together and as the music started to change, so did the words that inspired us, exploring Italian, French, German and Spanish poetry. This material resulted in our first album The Singer and The Poets which Ged recorded, mixed and produced at home in his studio in Brockley. During the making of Le Puy en Velay, album number two, a mini album of six songs, our course already started to change – we reworked the Manx song ‘Wind of the Air’ and included a dreamy cover of Neil Young’s Sugar Mountain. With Thamesis, we made a conscious decision to delve further into the traditions of the English-speaking world. We became very excited about folk songs and how they mysteriously speak of traces of human experience long gone by; how they preserve something ineffable, primordial, which would otherwise be lost. And out of this then came our very own lyrics and melodies, which somehow kept connecting with the themes of the folk songs: the river and the sea in Six Dukes, the shape-shifting nature of the doe in Three Ravens, and the allusion to the same in Jimmy’s lover Polly, who looks like a swan, just by throwing her apron around her.
Although innovative in its approach, and bold in its mix of ancient and modern, Thamesis couldn’t be described as experimental. The whole piece is so finely crafted and polished; there are none of the rough edges the listener might associate with a musical approach that was still under development. Was there a lot to change in the process of writing and recording the album?
Ged – The recording process was pretty much the same in the early stages. I would create the songs in the same way, coming up with ideas musically, guitar riffs, chord structures and then melodies and lyrics and record all the vocals and instruments here in my studio. So we would have a bunch of songs ready to then give to Gerry [Gerry Diver]. He would then add his own ideas, rearranging the songs, structuring them, adding instruments and more melodies, fine tuning and polishing them. As our producer he completely immersed himself in our music. He has an incredible ability to visualise and know where a song should go. Actually not just a song but an album. His distinctive, almost experimental solo violin is – we think – of particular note. He seems to have created a style of his own which in itself is an incredible thing. In a collaborative approach with us he would bounce fresh musical ideas off us, discuss and then tweak them if they needed it. These complimented the band’s instrumental and vocal input, and throughout the recording process it was just a joy see our music shine with Gerry’s gold dust sprinkled all over it. It’s not easy giving your musical babies away to someone and giving them carte blanche to do as they like. With Gerry we realised after two or three songs we had nothing to worry about.
Gerry Diver’s contribution has certainly been a major factor in the album’s impact on the listener, and there’s an essence of his work with Sam Lee and Lisa Knapp, How did the collaboration come about?
Ged – We heard of Gerry through listening to Lisa Knapp’s music on MySpace back in the day and seeing him play as part of her band at Cambridge Folk Festival a few years ago. And a couple of years ago I bought Sam Lee’s album Ground Of Its Own which Gerry produced and thought this guy would be good for us so I rang him up…and he was!
For those of us new to the music of Mishaped Pearls, starting out with an album as powerful as Thamesis can make it, perhaps, challenging, to navigate the progression of the band and its music from the earlier releases to what we’re listening to now. How would you summarize that progression?
Manuela– The Singer and The Poet draws mainly from ancient Roman and Italian poetry. Following on from that, Le Puy en Velay, features French and Spanish poetry as well as new takes on English songs. ‘Thamesis’ takes our work loosely defined as ‘British folk song and beyond’ to a different level.
‘British folk song and beyond’ seems a very apt description – there’s a strong element of homage to the oral tradition in Thamesis, taking inspiration from ancient tales. Does the past still have lots to teach us about how we communicate through song and story in the modern age?
Manuela– Yes, most definitely. Many songs and music that reach us and live on beyond the likes of ‘top ten’ (if that concept exists still!) are based on story and – though perhaps disguised inside cutting-edge and exuberant Zeitgeist – reflect something elemental about human experience.
The whole album has a very elemental sensitivity about it, with water to the fore; especially given the title and the delightful riverside scenes in the video for the opening track – Old Father Thames. Are you also paying homage to the Thames itself, its history, its influences?
Ged – I spent a lot of time on or by the Thames through my summer lock-keeper job, also once living in a flat by the Thames in Caversham and just generally hanging out in Berkshire and Oxfordshire pubs by the river. So an homage to the Thames feels very appropriate. In fact we have this idea to expand much more on the connection with water and waterways, performing on boats and by rivers as part of a ‘tour extraordinaire’. Arts Council funding people please do get in touch! :)
You could never approach this album on a single level, though. There’s far, far more to Thamesis than simply a celebration of our relationship with water. The album is peppered with contrasts, like the ancient tale of Six Dukes in an eerie, modern, filmic setting against the warm wash of Old Father Thames or the uplifting First And Last Woman. During recording, were you aware of the power of those contrasts or did that only surface as part of the complete work?
Manuela– We were not really aware of these contrasts, nor their power – we just worked along as we do. Though we were perhaps conscious of the strong direction the fantastic material of the old tales were giving us – as opposed to the songs that are completely original, which just come from the well of our own lives and experiences. At the end of the process we were almost surprised to see how everything gelled so well together.
Thamesis has enjoyed an ecstatic welcome in the press – lauded by the likes of Tom Robinson and Bob Harris; Critics Choice in the Financial Times and glowing reviews from music sites and magazines. That kind of affirmation of the project’s value must help confirm and justify your faith in it.
Ged – Yes it does. I never know when I make an album or write a song if it’s any good really, as most musicians don’t, but if you like what you’ve done then the chances are someone else will like it too. Of course if you think you have something really good and many other people think so too then the next stage is getting it out there. With TSATP and Le Puy en Velay we didn’t really do that. Tom Robinson picked up a couple of songs and began playing them on his BBC 6 Music Introducing Show back in 2009 and then invited us to play at a ‘best of the shows music’ festival. So we had to get a band together! So Tom really inspired us to carry on and do more. With Thamesis obviously we bought Gerry in which helped immensely and gave us some kudos. Then we found Jane Brace PR Company and asked Jane to do a PR campaign for the album which is still ongoing. All the press reviews, Bob Harris, Folk Radio UK and all the other airings we’ve had are really down to her. She, along with Gerry and Tom and of course our wonderful band have been massive in getting us noticed. We’re not signed to a label so we’ve had to do it all ourselves which seems to be the way to go these days.
You’ve enjoyed a great deal of success with your live performances, and on the back of the reaction Thamesis is enjoying it’s clear your live audience is about to grow. The album’s resplendent with intoxicating atmospheres and intricate arrangements. Has it been a challenge adapting those elements of the work for live performance?
Ged – Well as mentioned previously we have a wonderful band. The core of the line-up we have now have been with us for a good while and whilst we try to be true to the album when playing live we do adapt the arrangements and some instrumentation. Initially we thought it would be a challenge but they’ve happily proved us wrong.
Are all the musicians on the album involved in the live performances?
Ged – They all have been at some point over the last few years apart from Gerry so we need to get him along and playing with us sometime. There are 7 of us in the present line up including Andrew Sleightholme on piano, keys, loops and bvs, Calie Hough who plays lots of hand drums and percussive instruments, Massimo Troiani on bass and bvs, Tom Finigan playing banjo, saz, guitar, mandolin and bvs and our newest recruit Laurel Pardue on violin/fiddle. It’s quite an international band, Massy is from Italy, Laurel’s from Virginia in the U.S., Tom is from Croydon, Calie from Cornwall, Andrew was born in County Durham and of course Manuela is German, and my family were all born in Ireland except me. I was born in Reading….so I’m a bit of a plastic Paddy! My two older brothers had a folk/acoustic group so I grew up listening to The Dubliners, Planxty, Tom Paxton, Simon & Garfunkle, Cat Stevens and Neil Young to name a few.
After becoming properly acquainted with Thamesis I was keen to find out more, to seek out the earlier work and the seeds of future ideas. Are there any musical adventures planned outside Mishaped Pearls? I found the mini-operetta Love According to Markov on Soundcloud and thought there must be more!
Ged – Ah! Now, Love According To Markov came about as Manuela is on the ENO mailing list and she received an email inviting people to an Opera workshop over a weekend at the ENO. Not really my thing or so I thought but we both went along anyway. They split us up into groups of around 10 with a teacher and the idea was to come up with a 10/12 minute mini opera. At first I thought I’m out of my depth here but I found it really interesting to work with just ‘classical music’ people for a change and collaborate on new ideas and to help create a mini opera. I don’t read music so much of the banter was way over my head. I would just nod and agree :). But I am good at making up tunes which seemed to impress the ‘real’ musicians and singers. After the course the ENO decided to make it into a competition and so I recorded some music to a libretto written by Elaine Ruth White and based on a story by A.L. Kennedy. It was an international competition with around a thousand or so entries and somehow I got down to the final 10 which I was dead chuffed about. Manuela still loves her opera and does recitals and collaborations on various projects. I’ve also recently worked with a South Korean artist called Bongsu Park on a couple of projects, one of which was a live improv gig with Laurel playing violin, in an art gallery in central London. That was great fun and I’m always up for more collaboration. I did a remix of Lisa Knapp’s The Pleasant Month of May back in 2012. Our band members also play in other groups, orchestras, plays etc… as well as teach music or study. It’s always been difficult to be a full time musician but these days it seems even harder.
It’s good to know the creativity continues to flow, sounds like there’s plenty fuel for the future there. I can see Mishaped Pearls being discovered by an ever-widening audience as they continue to develop their inventive repertoire. With this kind of creative talent at their disposal, and their aptitude for a collaborative approach to their art, we should have lots more to look forward to. Mishaped Pearls have a growing list of gigs and festival appearances around London over the summer, including the Album launch on Friday 13th June.
Interview by: Neil McFadyen
Upcoming Live Dates
13 – St Pancras Old Church, London ALBUM LAUNCH
19 – The Pelton Arms, London
27 – Harwich Arts Festival, St Nicholas Church, Harwich, Essex
17 – FolkEast Folk Festival