Interview with Rachel Sermanni

Rachel Sermanni is a breath of fresh air. Although only 20 years old, Rachel is displaying great maturity and formidable control over her music making and what she is striving to achieve with her artwork – something that can be increasingly difficult these days, what with the seeming monopoly exercised by franchises such as “X-Craptor” and the like plus the constant demand for easily digested, auto-tuned, mindless disposable drivel spewed out by tasteless radio DJs.

Rachel has just released her debut EP ‘Black Currents’ which features the single ‘The Fog’, a wonderful showcase of her vocal abilities and lyrical storytelling.

After seeing her play an emotionally passionate gig in Cardiff, Cat On The Wall wanted to get to know the Scottish singer a bit more and we caught up with her via an (almost) impromptu phone chat whilst Rachel was taking a well-earned break at home in the Highlands.

Cat On The Wall: Hello Rachel. Have you recovered from your mad rush across London to get a train home?

Rachel Sermanni: At the moment I’m in a shopping centre in Inverness, I’m excited, it’s nice to be home.

COTW: It’s good to have a break because you’ve been touring non-stop. How did the tour go by the way?

RS: It’s been lovely, I did a few dates in Scotland with three fiddle players and a piano player. It’s a bit of pressure coming to England and Wales and Ireland actually because you don’t know whether people are going to turn up. At every gig there was a good number of faces so that was really positive. It was almost like a confidence building…

COTW: What was the response from the fans?

RS: What was nice was that every gig was really intimate, with people sitting on the floor, there was so little people, such small spaces, that I was able to play solo, that was the case for the whole tour, really attentive crowds, everyone seemed quite content to be there, sometimes it was so quiet it was unnerving.

COTW: Tell us about your origins/growing up?

RS: I was brought up in the Highlands in Scotland, I began writing songs when I was about 15 or 14, it was a natural progression from playing the guitar, I performed from a young age with traditional music. Music was a huge part of my upbringing, I suppose, despite it not been so prominent in the house. We listened to a lot of music and went to church, sang in church but my parents aren’t very musical.

COTW: How did you discover you had a voice?

RS: I’ve always sung, I suppose it’s such a strange concept to discover that you can sing. I think everybody can sing, I think my voice has developed since I began; it’s growing into what it is now. I could sing reasonably in tune from the beginning, that could explain why I actually like singing songs, it’s quite natural. (laughs)

COTW: You have a unique timbre. Was there any artist that had an impact on your vocal abilities?

RS: So many, so many. When I was younger I listened to the words, I listened to a lot of people. When I left school I became aware of the fact that there were so many singing voices. One thing that struck me is that they all had their quirks, the successful ones, you know, some of them have not even been in tune, it’s not about the tunefulness. Firstly of all things, whether you can sing or not, if you feel it, if a song is sung like you mean it then that’s like the first battle won because you will sing passionately anyway. You’ll take the right breath and sing the right phrases and stuff.

When I started listening to stuff, for example Joni Mitchell, she’s got this really cool, she got a real height in her voice but she also has that deep voice, that I’ve been able to develop a deeper one, it’s really fun to go into these deep realms. Playing with your voice is really fun, I’ve got a lot of inspirations, I’m trying to rack my brain, it changes all the time, Björk, PJ Harvey, they’ve all got very intriguing voices.

COTW: So you feed from styles rather than particular voices…

RS: Yeah, it’s definitely got to do with the feel, the more you can feel the stuff the better it will be sung. It’s good fun playing about as well, you’ve got to keep a playfulness in your vocals, in your voice and try to stretch it, that’s something I really enjoy. The whole aspect of just breathing, using the full extent of your lungs and stuff. If you have a good gig it can be like a workout. I really like to warm up quite a lot, like my whole body and I stretch out the lungs beforehand. You pack as much air in and you push as much of it out, you control it and it’s like a really cool power to have.

COTW: Did you take any vocal lessons?

RS: Oh yes! Well I wrote a song called ‘Ever Since The Chocolate’ and it’s one of my oldest songs but at the time I wrote it when I was voiceless. I’d lost my voice completely, it’s not like I did so many more gigs than I do now, it was that I’d really really stretched, pushed my throat to the extent that it just stopped working and I lost my voice. I was told that I’d have to stop singing for a while and that was probably at the age of 16. Just as I left school I got about 2 singing lessons with the singing teacher and immediately I realised there was nothing wrong with my voice as such it was just the way I was using it. Small techniques like when strain when you go for a really high note, if you lift up your neck you’re actually tightening and elongating your vocal cords so that they don’t have enough power in them to sustain. So there are small things to remember if you wanted to do a high note try and keep your chin down and that actually maintains the power and it maintains the voice which is so cool! She taught me about the full capacity of the lungs, I wasn’t even using half of my voice potential. I thought the lessons were invaluable in the sense that as long as it doesn’t pull you away from your own natural voice. She wasn’t the kind of teacher that was going to turn me into a classical singer, that would have been a detrimental step to take. As it turned out it was one of the most effective things I’ve ever done.

COTW: Last time we met you mentioned that your EP was self-released…

RS: Yes and I’m very proud of that. I really like the idea of doing things on your own. As far as we’ve gone so far that’s always been the case, I mean if we want anyone else to get on board they’d have to be really keen otherwise I think we’ll just do it on our own which I’m content with. At the moment there are so many people making an investment in me, the management, stuff like that so there’s a lot of money going in but we’re not making any money yet. It’s funny because sometimes you can create the illusion that you are going to come back here and think I’m doing really well and I want to survive on my own now and stuff but that’s definitely not the case. So it’s self-funded but it’s also an investment at the moment.

COTW: That must be quite pressurising…

RS: I think so; I try not to think about it too much. I’m going to try and avoid all that because creatively it just stunts you. So hopefully it just all pays off.

COTW: We’re sure it will pay off!

RS: (laughs) I do hope so! Thank you for your faith!

COTW: You’ve recorded an EP, do you have a forthcoming album?

RS: Yes, with the same people I recorded the EP with, the same producer. The album, it needs a lot of work but we’ve done all the live parts to it we just need it to be produced and stuff like that. I had a really good time. We recorded it in the same place, Watercolour, which is a quiet studio up in the Highlands of Scotland in the middle of nowhere. Our label is called MON Recordings which is ‘Middle Of Nowhere recordings’ so I quite like the idea of having these very remote places. So hopefully the album will be out sometime later on in the year then we’ll wait and see how it goes.

COTW: When I saw you live there were quite a few livelier songs than on the EP so I’m looking forward to hearing them again!

RS: Yes! (laughs) They’ll be on the album!

COTW: I notice that you like to doodle when you’re on tour. Will these make their way into the album artwork?

RS: Oh I don’t know, I’ll wait and see, I hope not as I’ve got a lovely bunch of friends who are also very artistic so I might be a vessel for them, showcase their creativity as well.

COTW: Finally, do you have any artistic direction, are you striving towards anything in particular with your music or do you just go with the flow?

RS: I think I’m a bit of a purist in the sense that I find it very hard to do something if it’s only for the sake of doing it, if it’s just for the sake of making it. I want it to be as full of integrity like with my songs, I meant it when I wrote them and I mean them when I sing them. I don’t think it should be any different than the record.

I’m very lucky. Life is an adventure. I just needed a wee break to try and absorb it all.

COTW: Thanks for your time and good luck with everything.

RS: Thanks!

| Rachel Sermanni was talking to Celine Lux |

Rachel Sermanni is playing The Lexington, London on April 19th. Go see her.

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