THE QUALITY OF MERCY – Mercy Isle
A relatively new band to the scene, Mercy Isle first made themselves known via the ‘I’m Gonna Make It’ single which appeared in March 2015. Since then the band, fronted by Kassandra Novell, have issued a four-track EP, and last October – about two years after the band came together – saw the release of ‘Undying Fire’, their first full album.
Mercy Isle came about in a rather unusual way. “It was in 2014 at Metal Female Voices Fest,” explains Kassandra, “just after I’d performed that Friday evening with Metal Female Voices United. I got a lot of encouragement from fellow musicians and fans to start my own band. They said that while they enjoyed the one or two songs I’d perform annually, they would prefer to see me singing more and with my own band. I was very intimidated and scared to put a band together, to be honest, because I’d never been in that kind of a leadership role in music before, and I wasn’t sure I was up to the task. So, I had a good cry to get all my nerves out, and then with the support of my better half and bassist Chad Novell I grabbed the bull by the horns and started recruiting talented friends of mine to form what would become Mercy Isle.”
As for the band name itself, “I had a copy of Neil Gaiman’s ‘American Gods’ on my bedside table. I picked it up and flipped to two random pages, where the words ‘mercy’ and ‘island’ stood out. I put them together and shortened it to Mercy Isle. Then I thought about what Mercy Isle could mean to our fans and for us as a band. It’s a place of refuge and solace for those of us who have felt at some point in our lives that our voices weren’t heard, that we weren’t respected or taken seriously, that we’d been taken for granted and pushed aside. Mercy Isle is where we find our strength and community.”
As mentioned above, the band’s first release was a single, ‘I’m Gonna Make It’. “I’d written that song around 2006 and it was just sitting doing nothing by itself,” recalls Kassandra. “Since it was already written, it was the easiest one to adapt for the band. I gave the original version of it to my guys and they did a gorgeous edit/remake of it in very short time.”
The ‘Storm’ EP followed in October 2015, and featured three new songs (‘No One Will Save You’, ‘Uncaged’ and the title track) as well as new version of ‘I’m Gonna Make It’. “It all came together very smoothly. At that time, our former guitarist Cory Scheider was also launching his own recording studio, so he recorded all the guitars and Chad’s bass. Jeff Shaffer, a friend of our former drummer Adam Maltby recorded his drums. Then Chad and I went to Akamaradara Studio in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to record our vocals with Voa VoXyD. He’s the one who also mixed our raw tracks. Then he handed the final mixes to Ronin Chris Murphy at Veneto West Studios to master the EP.
“At the time Storm was being created, Joop [de Rooij – keyboards], Chad, and myself were really the only music writers, and Cory was the arranger. We worked very quickly, all things considered. Since we all live so far apart we use a file-sharing system to send music ideas back and forth, add our own ideas in our own home studios and edit them as we go. And since we can all work on the music independently in our own free time, without having to meet physically, we can cover a lot of ground in a short time. Plus, as file sharing is nearly instant, as soon as any of us uploads our latest idea our bandmates can access it and give immediate feedback.”
A year later came ‘Undying Fire’, the title of which came from the lyrics of the song ‘If I Could’. “But beyond those lyrics, it also has a deeper meaning for us,” adds the singer. “We saw a band line-up change, with the departure of Cory and Adam right in the middle of pre-production, and with a very tight schedule for releasing the album we certainly had obstacles which made the situation seem impossible and which could have easily deterred a lot of bands. But we have this special kind of ‘undying fire’ in our souls, and with help from fellow musicians and the determination to support each other as bandmates, we pulled through. So, the title is also a reflection of our experience of recording the album.
“It’s a huge leap forward, compared to ‘Storm’,” she continues. “It seems each release is better than the previous. We’re getting more comfortable in our skins, we’re evolving and I think it shows not only in the music but it also allows our producers and our guests to have more fun and freedom which overall lends the production a much more polished feel. Certainly working with Sander and Amanda has been a real treat. They’re extremely laid back and easy to talk to, and also very clear in their ideas and direction, so the process of working with them was incredibly pleasant. I can’t speak highly enough of Sander and Amanda. I also can’t stop gushing over our guests on the album. We managed to hire some real Grade A, top-shelf musicians, and it shows.”
Ah, yes, the album’s credits do feature a number of famous names, with Sander Gommans in the producer’s chair and Amanda Somerville listed as vocal coach/producer and also popping up on ‘Saying Goodbye’, to name but two. “I have to say that having a Dutchie in the band was invaluable,” laughs Kassandra. “The Netherlands is a very small country, all things considered, and it seems all the musicians know each other. Joop knows a lot of people, so for him to simply ask his fellow Dutch musicians and friends to be involved was no big deal for him. He knew Sander, and Sander is married to Amanda—so you can see how this is like a domino effect. Sander is friends with Erik van Ittersum and recommended we hire him to add synth/strings to ‘If I Could’. Joop also knew flautist Jeroen Goossens through other means and hired him. And Joop had also previously worked with guitarist Sebas Honing in previous projects, and had been in a band with our new drummer Ywe van der Pol. Basically, all the Dutch names are thanks to Joop. He is a vital resource and I thank my stars every night that he’s not only a dear friend but such a great bandmate. As for the choir on ‘Come To Me’, that was my doing. I’m surrounded by good friends involved in music and theatre, so it was very easy to invite them to the studio and stuff them full of pizza and soda.”
Despite the fact that ‘Undying Fire’ features the three new cuts from ‘Storm’ in re-recorded format, it still sounds fresh and vibrant. “One of our goals with the album was to provide variety and changing atmospheres. We didn’t want our music to develop the disease of ‘same-songitis’, where the tracks start to blend together and they all begin to sound so similar it becomes boring. Thankfully, I think that was achieved. From many of the reviews we have received, one of the recurring compliments has been that there’s a little something fresh and different in each of the songs, and some people aren’t exactly sure how to classify our music because we’ve incorporated different influences in each song.
“We are more than happy with how it turned out. We are extremely proud and honoured to have had so many fantastic guests on the album, and the production is truly splendid. I think it turned out better than any of us had imagined.”
As for what 2017 brings, “writing, and getting to know our new bandmates Ywe van der Pol, Freek Gielen, and Eelco Slont more,” replies Kassandra. “We plan to spend all 2017 making new music, perfecting it to our best ability, and then putting it all into a new album for release in the fall of 2018. We’re mindful of the ‘sophomore curse’ so we want to make sure our second album is at least as good - if not better - than ‘Undying Fire’.”
© John Tucker
Photos used by permission