HEART ON MY SLEEVE Luna Rossa
In conversation with John Tucker, Jon Edwards and Anne-Marie Helder open up about the splendour and exhilaration of their new band LUNA ROSSA
Before we discuss the album, let’s talk about Luna Rossa, or, more specifically, the partnership of Jon Edwards and Anne-Marie Helder. What’s it like working together?
Jon: I really enjoy working with Anne-Marie – we’ve known each other for around 14 years now and been writing songs together for the last 6 or so years. We have a very similar musical sensibility which makes us very compatible as co-writers, but we can still surprise each other with the ideas we come up and the way we interact on each other’s ideas. I tend to work steadily over long periods of time, whereas Anne-Marie works more in highly concentrated bursts. But we’re both very focussed when it comes to the hard work required to write, arrange and produce music and we’re both really passionate about the music itself. We definitely don’t have a ‘that’ll do’ attitude: it’s got to be the best that we can make it. I’m just really lucky and privileged to have such a talented and true friend to make this music with.
AM: Jon? He’s a total nightmare. [laughs] Only joking! Jon is one of the most talented and prolific musicians I know, with possibly the least awareness of his own abilities! He’s an incredible songwriter and pianist, but also has so many more talents that people might not be aware of.
It’s true that we work differently as songwriters… I’ve always found it easier to write alone, probably because I’ve been writing songs and poems since I was about six or seven. So it’s just what I grew up being used to, and what feels natural to me. When I was a kid I used to write constantly, always churning out stories and songs! But as an adult, especially in my most busy times as a musician, I tend to have ideas popping into my head all the time (especially at the most inconvenient moments, like when driving, or in the middle of the night!), but it’s only at certain times when I can sit and compile all these ideas and try to record them in a helpful way; whereas Jon tends to write and record ideas all of the time, and be really prolific! He’s also a natural collaborator, and really good at it which has actually helped me to open up more from my songwriting ‘shell’ over the years, and learn how rewarding it can be to write as a partnership, a team. Some of the best things I have ever written have been with Jon, and these beautiful shared moments of musical creation will be with me forever, and with the world, come to that, so it’s impossible to put into words how important our songwriting relationship is to me, and to us both. But as friends, we don’t sit around massaging each other’s egos or being deep and meaningful all day long; most of the time we’re more likely to be ripping the hell out of each other, because it’s what keeps us amused on a days to day basis! In fact, the fact that we both have a shared sense of humour, as well as a shared intense love of music (and the arts in general) is what makes us pretty successful as a team. You need to be able to have a laugh and not take yourself too seriously, but, at the same time, we take the process of making our music, and creating the best albums we can to share with you, very seriously indeed.
I guess, like the album title ‘Sleeping Pills & Lullabies’, we have both light and dark, sunshine and moonlight, in our natures!
Given the buzz around Panic Room – the day job! – what made you want to create an acoustic body of work like ‘Sleeping Pills & Lullabies?
Jon: Both Anne-Marie and I have very eclectic tastes and that certainly comes through in the way we write for Panic Room. Among the many things we listen to, we’re both really into acoustic music right through from the Seventies – people like CSN&Y, Nick Drake & Pentangle, to the people making great acoustic music today like Laura Marling, Agnes Obel, Jose Gonzalez and Sun Kil Moon. So we do find that we sometimes write songs that are more in the singer-songwriter area than songs for a rock band.
AM: My roots lie in the singer-songwriter territory, with my formative years as a performer either being as a solo acoustic artist, or part of a small acoustic band. Indeed many of my longstanding fans got to know me first as a solo artist, supporting folks such as Midge Ure, Ultravox, Fish, Glenn Tilbrook and (most recently) Steve Hackett! It was only later on that I started working with full rock bands, indulging my heavier tastes… And ultimately arriving at the amazing band I now have in Panic Room! We do write some more acoustic tracks for the Panics albums, because as a band we feel it’s important to keep a healthy balance of dynamics, and play around with styles… You can’t have a full-on ‘wall of sound’ for every track, just because you’ve got a 5-piece band with bass and drums! And all of the guys are really versatile, multi-faceted musicians who are open to any ideas.
Jon: So, while some of these have made their way onto Panic Room albums, like ‘Muse’ on ‘Satellite’ or ‘Velvet & Stars’ on the last album, ‘Skin’, we thought it would be nice to just follow that path for a whole album without having to think about arranging things for a band. So we decided to just book some studio time and write acoustically and see what came out.
AM: Jon and I are both pretty prolific songwriters so there are always loads of ideas flying around in both of our heads / studios, and some will inevitably come up which might sound more like solo ideas than band tracks; and we started to have a few ideas which sounded like they could make a really nice, chilled acoustic-duo album… From that seed of an idea, we decided to pour some creative water on it and bring it to fruition! It’s important to stress that these were definitely new ideas of their own though, with their own feel. They’re not ‘Panic Room subs-bench’ songs! It’s important for people to know that the Luna Rossa project has its own identity, and always did from the start. And this also means that Panic Room remains as strong a tower of music as it ever was.
Jon: The songs were written specifically for the album –once we knew that we wanted to do an album of acoustic songs as a duo, the actual songs came pretty quickly. And a studio deadline helps focus things too!
We did also record a few cover versions in the studio, one of which appears on the album – a track called ‘The Book Of Love’ written by a guy called Stephin Merrit. We’d heard the original and also Peter Gabriel’s lovely orchestral version, but we really liked the song and thought that we could bring our own twist to it and I think it turned out really well. People may think it’s a bit of a random cover version, but we wanted to cover songs that meant something to us, rather than something that would be instantly known.
Although the album has only just been released, I believe the idea stretches back a while. Is that correct?
Jon: Yes, the songs were actually recorded over two years ago when we had a break after recording the second Panic Room album, ‘Satellite’. After completing the Luna Rossa album, things were busy with Panic Room and it was a matter of waiting for the right time to release this project. At the moment, we have a ‘breather’ from other work and it just feels like now’s a good time to launch Luna Rossa into our musical world.
AM: It’s hard to find many windows of time in our schedule as obviously things are really busy with Panic Room! But if you have lots of creative ideas, you have to make time… As much as you can! So we booked the sessions to record with our little acoustic duo project – which later became ‘Luna Rossa’ – and we had a fantastic time in there recording it all! There were lots of reasons why it took another two years for the album to come out, but most of it has to do with how busy and successful Panic Room have been ever since. It’s not just the recording; there's all the work and promotion that’s needed for another project, to really get it off the starting blocks in the way it deserves. You can of course let an album float out into the world, with no real ‘push’ or promo involved, but it’s really worth spending the extra time, effort and a little money on getting some solid promotion behind it, because otherwise it can fall through the cracks. So there’s a lot involved, more than people may realise, and since we’re doing it as an independent release on our own label Firefly Music it really needed both Jon and I to have some free time to properly devote to this album’s launch. We knew we had a strong enough album that we really didn’t want anyone to miss its release! So even though 2013 is another busy year for Panic Room, Jon and I have been putting the wheels in motion for launching Luna Rossa in any available moments we have. And finally, it was ready to be propelled into the world this spring/summer.
And despite it being a relatively long time since we completed the studio sessions, I actually think that the timing of this album’s release couldn’t be more perfect – we have more fans than ever who are devoted listeners of our music with Panic Room, which means a greater interest for the acoustic album too. And a summer release actually suits the album really well; many of our pre-order customers – the ‘early bird’ fans who ordered their copies first, ahead of the official release date – have told us that this is going to be the soundtrack of their summer! And there’s no better feeling for a songwriter than that.
There's a beautiful fragility to the songs - was this something you aimed for, or did it come naturally?
Jon: I think we’re both interested in making music that produces an emotional response in the listener, but it’s not something that we try to do in a calculated way. If the music we’re writing has an emotional effect on us, as writers, then I guess that’s a sign that we’re on the right path, but it’s something that has to come naturally. I think the listener can tell if it’s contrived. I think the beauty and fragility in the songs come in large part from the voice – for us, that’s the focus that everything revolves around and I think Anne-Marie has the ability to inhabit the songs and sing each one in a way that’s unique to that particular song, so the other instruments are there to enhance and highlight that.
AM: And we didn’t have a pre-destined sound in mind for the album; we just let the songs ‘become’ what they wanted to become. That’s the way we always work really, and certainly the way I have always worked as a songwriter. It’s important to ‘listen’ to the song idea when it comes to you, and then all the way through its development. There’s a unique spirit to each song, a flow that you can tap into, if you allow yourself to really listen and tune into it. Sure you have to make choices along the way, but the most important thing is to let the song lead you, the writer, into the sound it most suits being. It’s a really unique, nebulous thing to explain… Perhaps the only thing I can compare it to is the way that children are born and then grow into their characters. A loving parent will allow their child the freedom to breathe – excuse the Panic Room pun! – and to grow, develop and become the beautiful being that they were born to be – with some gentle steering along the way, of course! It’s hard to explain, but I do feel like many of the song ideas which come to me already have a lot of their ‘DNA’ contained within them already. My role as a songwriter is then in fact to listen and nurture, rather than to force a direction.
In addition, with all of the songs on this album, there was a basic ‘palette’ of instruments and sounds that we had chosen to work with, and so the delicacy will partly come from the instruments used – or the space where they’re not used! But also there’s an extra intimacy and fragility which comes from close-mic’ing a vocal – and for me there was an incredible depth, closeness, and intense energy that came from these vocal sessions, and working with such a sparse underlay of sounds at times. It was one of the most intimate feelings I’ve ever had when recording, which creates a magic for anyone listening too, because if you yourself get goosebumps when you’re singing something, then you can be sure that other people will feel that energy when they listen too! It is a really beautiful experience, and most of the beauty lies in knowing that you are singing not just to yourself, but to the people, and the world, that you will be sharing this with. It’s a collective beauty, and I really feel that when I’m recording in the studio. It brings even more inspiration and truth to your performance, making it less of a performance and more of a shared moment that you’re hoping to capture at its most delicate and precious.
I didn’t have the lyrics when I was first listening to the album, and it sounded at first as if there might be a loose concept or lyrical theme linking the songs...
Jon: There’s not a concept as such, although there are themes that run through some of the songs: most of them are about relationships, either going wrong, or going right. As we were working on them it did strike us that the album was somewhat ‘bi-polar’ in its approach to love and life and that did inspire the album title ‘Sleeping Pills & Lullabies’ – the idea of two different ways of getting to sleep: one coming from a ‘happy’ place, but one quite dark and possibly dangerous. So a metaphor for life… And it seemed a bit more catchy than calling the album ‘Songs of Hope & Despair’! We both wrote lyrics for the album, some separately and a couple of songs we wrote the words between us. In some ways, it’s a bit like acting, the words aren’t necessarily about real events that have happened to either of us, but the feelings do come from our own experiences.
AM: Again, it’s about letting the songs take you on a journey, even as the songwriter working on them. There were a few lyrics floating around that seemed to fit really well with certain songs, so we would try those, and then develop them, but other lyrics came as inspirations derived from the music itself.
It’s more about getting the perfect ‘fit’ of a lyric to a song’s music, than trying to create an overall theme or storyline that will seam all of the album together. It’s a different thing of course if you set out with a title or theme in place before you even write the songs – that way, everything you write will have to fit in with that concept, and that has its own joys (and pitfalls!). But for this album – and indeed for every Panic Room album so far – there’s not been a consciously decided ‘concept’ going in.
But it’s true to say that during the writing and recording process, certain elements do begin to suggest themselves as a ‘flow’ or a repeating idea. And, yes, there were many songs on ‘Sleeping Pills…’ that were dealing with the ups and downs of relationships, so when we came to look at the album order, it was quite important to me that these fitted together well. At the end, even though ‘Gasp’ sounds like a dark or ominous song, it’s actually all about new love and hope. This was a track that came to me almost fully formed in all its different sonic ways, and with melodies and music all swimming around my head. It’s about the hyper-sensitivity, exhilaration and fear you feel when you fall in love all of a sudden, after perhaps a long time of feeling lonely: the ‘gasp’ of the title is both of excitement, and of shock. I was really pleased that it fitted really well as the album closer, because I like to think that people will listen and feel both the intensity and hope of this song as it brings the album to its end.
With a project like this though, how do you know when the songs are 'cooked'? Was there ever a fear that you'd go on adding more instrumentation until you end up with a Panic Room song?
AM: I guess that could’ve happened! [laughs] But luckily we’d already decided it would definitely be just the two of us, as a core… and we definitely can’t play bass and drums! Well, speaking for myself, that is! So even though we wanted to let each song ‘become’ its own entity and fulfil its potential, we always kept the framework of our streamlined core of musical instruments in mind. Having said that, we also yearned pretty early on for some live strings, hence the quartet, and, we ‘accidentally’ ended up with some amazing double bass and lead guitar lines on there!
But they were all very different sounds to the vibe we create with Panic Room.
It was definitely a different way to work. And to take your point it was maybe harder to know when the song was ‘finished’, because it’s a very different palate of sounds to a regular band album. But, it’s a challenge we relished, and I think – I hope! – we were careful and sensitive enough to make the right decisions about each song’s sound.
Jon: It’s an intuitive thing really, and like a lot of things, the more you do it, the better you get at judging things. I think with all of the music we make, we don’t go into it with a clear idea of how it’s going to turn out; we discover that as we’re doing it. But that’s part of the pleasure of the process – it’s a voyage of discovery for us when we’re making our albums.
That said, we did have some overall things that we knew that we did and we didn’t want to do; but then, you kind of set yourself rules and then break them anyway! It does help though to give yourself some kind of framework to start with, at least to kick things off.
We knew that we wanted to try to play as many of the instruments on the album as we could ourselves, but also, very early on, we decided that we’d try writing string arrangements. We had a cellist friend, Leah Evans, who had recently graduated from Trinity College, London and she got a quartet together for us as well as playing some solo cello on a couple of songs too. That worked out really well, especially as this was our first attempt at writing for strings. And as the string arrangements on ‘Sleeping Pills…’ pre-date those on the last Panic Room album ‘Skin’ it was the success, musically speaking, of the Luna Rossa arrangements that gave us the confidence to then try writing for strings in a rock band setting. And as for the double bass, Tim, our engineer, suggested a great player, Andy Coughlan, who’d previously played with Cerys Matthews and in the Eighties with Gary Numan. He came to play on one track that we were having trouble with the arrangement on, and once we’d heard him, we got to stick around and help out with a few more songs.
We also wanted to keep the album as acoustic as possible, partly for the challenge, but also because we felt that if we started adding electric instruments, then as you said it might as well be another Panic Room album. But we did compromise on that slightly, by getting Tim to play some electric guitar on one track and adding a little bit of Rhodes and organ to another track ourselves too.
Overall though, we wanted lots of space to allow the songs to breathe and for the mix of instruments on each track to be the right setting to allow the voice to shine through. We wanted to make something that was delicate but with its own strength too, that didn’t necessarily come from electricity and volume; something that would sound fresh and contemporary but also have that sense of the familiar about it; something beautiful.
At the end of the day, we just wanted to achieve what we always want to achieve with every album we make – to make a collection of great songs that connect with listeners and move them.
AM: I can’t really say it any better than that! Jon’s right: we just wanted to make some amazing new music, which would reach out to people and move them, in all kinds of ways. And for it to be something which stood strong in its own sound, carving its own niche, despite being a really stripped-down sound.
And do you think you achieved it?
AM: Definitely! I think that we achieved everything that we hoped we could, and also a lot more besides! We couldn’t even have imagined at the start how these little songs would turn out, nor, for example, how the string quartet would sound once we’d written the parts for each song. But the union of each and every element coming together just blew us away! And I think that each song we created either fulfilled its potential, in our minds and hearts, or completely superseded it. And honestly, that isn’t something we take for granted at all. We are incredibly lucky to have the most amazing sound engineer to work with in Tim Hamill, who helps us to make our musical dreams come true, and we’ve been blessed to release not just this but several albums with Tim, as he’s our Panic Room engineer too. It feels like a really special connection we have with him – there’s some kind of gold-dust going on there, and we hope that it’ll continue for a long time because we have a lot more music we want to make, and releasing ’Sleeping Pills…’ to such amazing reviews (both public and press) just inspires us to keep on creating more and more!
Jon: It was a big step for us doing new things in situations we hadn’t been in before, but it’s worked really well and we’re looking forward to making more Luna Rossa music. The real judges of whether we achieved our aim of connecting with and moving people with our music are the listeners themselves… So, we’ll see!
©John Tucker June 2013