Marjana Semkina is the vocalist and the female half of the Russian duo iamthemorning.
An incredibly original band, they created a chamber prog musical genre which is a unicum in the modern music. They consider themselves as not made for commercial success, even if they are under contract with one of the highest quality major of our era: Kscope. Marjana Semkina and Gleb Koliadin’s iamthemorning fuses classical elements like piano, string quartets and delicfate Marjana’s voice in an incredibly enjoyable and unique sound. Sound that could seem melancholich at a first glance, but, actually, it’s a tridimensional description of humanity. Through art, through love, through meaningful silence.
Iamthemorning released Lighthouse, their newest album, in 2016, and Ocean Sounds, a DVD about their way of recording in a far-from-civilization location in Norway, four days ago, on the 19th of October.
We had the luck to meet Marjana Semkina, the beautiful and victorian lady from iamthemorning.
Hello Marjana! How are you?
Well, thank you! It’s nice to meet you guys!
We are fine! It’s wonderful for us to meet you. Let’s start with Ocean Sounds: you, and gleb, are definitely among the most talented prog composers of our time. Why did you feel the need to shoot a movie, Ocean Sounds?
Well, because we are having an international line up and there are lots of problems here in Russia, we do not tour so much. So we wanted to show people how we work, how we record. We wanted to share this experience with the country we cannot go to. Its also a particular moment for our band: we constantly change line-up, we often rearrange our songs. We keep on trying to work with different musicians and different instruments. We toured with the band we recorded in the movie, and we’re working with them for two years; so we wanted to capture this line up. We are kinda a family, we are all friend. So we replicated the setlist we used to play in Europe.
So, it wasn’t only you and Gleb. It was the whole line-up from Lighthouse tour.
We had the same musician, exactly, from the 2015 and 2016 gigs in Europe; not the same musicians who played in the album.
Have you ever come to Italy?
No, we have never been. But I would love too. What a shame…
Here in Italy you have lots of fans, you know?
Wow, that’s interesting to know. I had no idea. I am a so big fan of italian art, I would love to visit all the museum and stuff. It’s wonderful that we are accumulating a fanbase there, so we could allow ourselves to come there! Simply because you need people to come to your gig.
A much more pragmatic question. How was the daily life there, in Norway, in the middle of nowhere?
Oh, it was perfect. Totally. I wish I could live there forever. It’s actually not so far from the city (Alesund), where there is an airport, and actually you can drive to the house we stayed, even if it’s a three day drive. Norway is anyway so expensive. It wasn’t very easy for us to organize, but it was wonderful. We do not regret anything. It was so beautiful to be sorrounded by mountains, and sea, and we kept on forgetting about the outside world. It was very convienent, because we could concentrate on our project, without the need to care about groceries and stuff. I want to keep this forever in my life.
About this isolation, I would like to ask you something about this situation. To live in the need of nowhere didn’t you feel like if you were deprived of inspiration sources (outside world, different landscapes, art, and so on)? Like being too much into yourself?
Well, we only stayed there for a week. Actally I started missing going to museums, to see my favourite artists paintings and sculptures. But we are very much used to isolation living in Russia. We don’t have so much British art, which I enjoy most, like preraffaeilitis. I can spend hours in museums and taking pictures, but even if there are so many museums here it’s not my favourite source of inspiration. To be honest, where we have been living, I actually thought I could have stayed for weeks, because there was everything me and Gleb need for playing (all the instruments you can imagine) and recording. Even if now we have no material, I wish I could record it there.
So, let’s go back to the recent past. Lightouse was a travel inside the world of mental illness, of the disappearing of the self inside the suffering of the minds. Ocean Sounds, in a certain way, can be considered a suggestion for a healing? Like a travel in order to, then, come back home, and see everything under a different light?
Mm, to be honest I think that isiolation can be challenging for someone with mental illness. In certain situations, you might need company. So, I don’t consider Ocean Sounds like a sort of treatment or a cure. It’s a sort of healing process if you need inspiration because you are in the middle of recording an album and you need to isolate.
How did you choose the setlist? Are they the songs you prefer or there is a sort of hidden concept behind that choice?
Well, it was the setlist for the tour. And it was chosen with a lot of things in mind: there a musical reason. If you listen to Lighthouse you can notice how many instruments we used, and how many musician we should have brought with us (me and Gleb) on the stage. So it wasnt an easy task to reinvent this album a new line up, and totally different musicians; without the camera orchestra! Only cello and violin on stage. It’s a way more minimalistic. We changed the arrangements, and we cherry-picked the songs which worked best with this reduced lineup. If you look at our live performances, we changed setlist a lots, depending on who we are performing with, if there’s an harpist or a vibrophone. So, setlist for ocean sounds was decided only according to songs which could sound best with the lineup. It’s been a kind of journey in our three albums, I realize now…
Oh, yeah. The first one, the tilde named one.
[Marjana laughs] Exactly! Usually we call it only “the first one”. It wasn’t either on Kscope. It was a very interesting experiment to reinvent the old songs and present them to the audience who knew us from Lighthouse and Belighted: totally new for them. It was a chronological journery through our three albums.
You touched a very interesting point. You consider it like a sort of greatest hits?
Mmm, no. If we had any greatest hit album, I mean, the single Lighthouse would be definitely there. it’s actually unfair for most of Lighthouse songs to be reduced into that minimalistic fashion – and, either, we didn’t have Mariusz [Duda, singer from Riverside, who sang with Marjana Semkina]. Right now, we don’t want to spoil people about the songs because of the performances we can master. Usually, in an album, if we want to put something in a song, like a children choir, we don’t say “No, we cannot put it into the song, we cannot bring them on tour with us!”; so, usually, first we record the song at their bests, and, then, we try to make them fit live. So we tried to maximize the minimalist potential we had there, in Norway.
And so, did this make you think about the older songs in a different way? Like when you come back to the place you belonged when you were younger and you notice some tiny things you didn’t before?
The aswer mighn’t be as poetic as you are [laughs]. I mean, it seems so romantic! We just keep reinventing the songs according to the musician, because we change the line-up every country we visit! This is kind a process we are used to. When you live in a beautiful city, you just don’t notice anymore the wonderful things that surrounds us. I mean, what you said could be possibile if we stop reinventing our songs for like ten years. I love it to be a constantly moving process, it makes our music not tedious, even if we repeat the same songs. It’s like water: it may seem rather still, but there is movement, under the surface, hidden from the eyes. This is part of the reason we chose that studio in Norway: we were simply surrounded by water. Our main concept.
One last question about Ocean Sounds. About the process of filming? Was there a director?
We worked together with the guys from Crystal Spotlight. Just two guys with cameras, filming us: we prior discussed about how we wanted it to be. And there was a month and month long process about careful editing, mixing, and so on. We co-produced. But they did a great job!
I’m so eager to see it. Are you afraid to become mainstream? Isn’t the dream of every musician to fill a stadium and to make more and more people dream with their music? I’m asking this because in a 2016 interview you mentioned that you are afraid about feeling less connected to your fans because you cannot make to pack all of the vynils by yourself. You know, the withered flowers..
Oh, I am totally not afraid of it. Simply because we will never be mainstream and famous! Our music is too complex. I don’t think that we could ever become popular. I mean, you know Renaissance [a ’60 English prog band, folkish and symphonic. I strongly suggest you.]?
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Yes, of course.
Well, this is an example of complex music wildly known in a small circle. They were in a niche. And we are in the same niche.
Oh, but they are a cult band. You cannot skip Renaissance if you like prog. They renewed the genre. You could become a cult band too, I swear.
About the not feeling connected. I don’t remember which circumstances I said that in, but there was a moment I had to leave Europe and I had to pass over about the packaging of merch. Now I am back to this, and we are doing the pre-order of Oceans Sounds: I am printing t-shirts, writing post-cards, the withered flowers, and I’m doing everything by myself. This makes me feel like I am packaging something for a friend. I don’t need a fanclub, it’s enough for me like this, also because on our Facebook page and our personal pages we always answer and talk to fans: the people who could enjoy the fanclub already follow us on FB. I am very open and straightforward to our listener.
Your compositions are all wonderfully delicate, soft, evocative of northern lights and endless meadows… who is the delicate soul? You or Gleb?
[Laughs] Oh, you guys! I think Gleb is much more a mathematician. He’s a classically trained musician. His approach to music is very scientific. He’s also a delicate soul, eh, there’s no question about that. He’s not the tormented artist you are asking about. Not bohemian, I mean. He’s more stable to me. I don’t want to compare the delicacy of our souls, but, about writing, he doesn’t need to wait for inspiration. He just sits to the piano and writes. My approach is more about my personal feelings and moods.
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About your composition process, which are the elements you do without and the routine you follow?
Mmh. Me and Gleb don’t see each other very often. Most of the time we work remotely. He sends me bunch of sketches with often the audio recorder on Whatsapp. I write my parts on top of them, I suggest something, and we discuss about technical stuff like key changes, mid section, choruses, and so on. Sometimes I have dozens of his sketches to go through, and just a bunch makes to the album! Sometimes, instead, I write something and he arranges it. Like Sleeping Pills.
Oh, my favourite song from Lighthouse. You mentioned tha you write your vocal line. In the past you have been compared with Loreena Mckennit and other celtic singers: but in Lighthouse I’ve felt that your vocal style is very very original. Was it a natural process or it was a much more conscious decision?
I’ve never tried to force anything about my singing style. I’m a self trained musician, never went to music school, and I got some lessons only when I was already into iamthemorning thing.
Oh my Gosh. You are a self taught musician.
Yes, I am. Is it so surprising?
It would have been so much better if I had had some musical education…
Or maybe not. Maybe you could have ended up with hatred for music. All the academisms, and techniques and way of breathing. Maybe it could have killed your artistic and creative nature. Repetitions in singing are pretty boring.
I think that the only limitation in music composition is your technical skill. I mean, when it comes to play an instrument, my skills are awful. I play guitar very badly but I still make to write songs. Have you ever listen to Belighted? There is a song called Gerda. I wrote it on guitar. And the bonus track on Ocean Sounds..
Yes, Blue Sea. It was written on guitar. We didn’t arranged until Norway, and there we wrote the piano part and vocal line suddenly, without even adjusting properly the microphones! There was only one for all the instruments. What a good memory. We had to capture the moment. It was so fresh, tranquil. Since i am a self taught vocalist I’ve always done everything because I’ve felt that it was right to do so. Anyway, I’m happy to hear that in Lighthouse it seems I developed a much more distinct vocal style. We are used to comparisons, we got so many at the beginning. People need to compare what they don’t know how to describe.
I can assure you. It’s hard to accept for a journalist that something totally brand new can come to light. Anyway, the next one is a much obliged question. Which are your main inspirations?
Every art. even architecture can be an inspiration! Especially italian. Right now I find a lot of inspiration in studying victorian art and history, and part of our next album will be based on it; also social events, literature, from that period, but mostly paintings. I could spend hours looking at victorian english paintings. I love Shakespeare, also. Sometimes the inspiration from all of this is overwhelming and I simply don’t have enough time.
You are russian, and you are russian in true sense of the term: your art is existential, just like Dostoevskij. Is is something that comes from you as Marjana Semkina or it’s a more widespread mood in russian art?
There is a definitely a very special type of existentialism here in Russia. It’s in San Peterburg. It’s a melancholic city, in a way that I really cannot describe to foreign people. It’s difficult to grab it. Iamthemorning is actually continuing Dostoevskij literature. Karamavoz Brothers, Crime and Punishment, and so on. We are just updating that tradition.
I think that your way is more tridimensional. You add music to literature, so it could be a sort of meta-music. It’s something special. Anyway, your music is chamber progressive: this is wonderful. Do you have any suggestions to a new musician to reach an originality like iamthermoning’s?
It’s hard to me to suggest how to become appreciated, because I have no idea. But my advise is to work very hard and don’t copy anyone. Do what you enjoy doing. Otherwise, you won’t be yourself, but you will be in someone else’s prison. Look at prog metal scene… They are all the same. I don’t find this way interesting. That’s also why we always renew our songs.
Oh, there’s something I’ve always wanted to ask you. Why the Ocean? Why this love?
Oh, i don’t know. But I’ve always been inspired by the water. It reflects what iamthemorning is. Unfortunately, I didn’t have so much of ocean in my life. The first time I saw the city I was 14 and it was an orverwhelming feeling: a powerful force of nature. That can be friendly or destroy everything.
Is this something that you tried to convey with the Lighthouse artwork? The huge wave and the small lighthouse.
It’s a part of it. The lighthouse, even if it’s being devoured by the sea, keeps on giving light. Hope. Yes, surprisingly, it’s a hopeful concept.
We are close to the end. Name five albums that, according to you, every music lover must listen.
From the top of my head. 10000 days by Tool. Definitely. Sound Awake by Karnivool. 50 words for snow by Kate Bush. The great cold distance by Katatonia. And, a funny one: Animalia from Mammal Hands. And their Shadow Work.
But, Marjana. Why don’t you come to Italy?
We are trying to arrange this, I promise. We do not organize gigs by ourselves.
When the next album will be out?
I hope next year. It’s been too long without a new records. I would love to release something every year! I have so many inspiration.
One last bonus question. Do you prefer withered or alive flowers?
The alive one. Because it will eventually die. Of course.
Bye bye Marjana, it was wonderful to chat with you!
Interview by Lorenzo Natali and Giulia Della Pelle