CEV: Tell me about growing up in the English countryside and how that influenced the music that you would eventually write and play yourself.
CM: I grew up in a dilapidated, spooky, but beautiful 500yr old cottage in Warwickshire, right in the middle of England. There was one pub, one shop and then just fields and lanes. We didn’t have tv either, so the choice was be imaginative or be hideously bored! There was constant music in our house, my parents were professional musicians - my Mum a pianist and my Dad a trumpet player for the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, so there were often actors and other musicians in the house. All my older siblings played instruments too - it was a very creative and chaotic bohemian atmosphere!
It’s a long story, but it got more solitary, just me and my Mum there. I got very good at being alone but not lonely, and I felt very connected to that area, the fields, the hills, the woods – I loved the mystery and history of ancient places, felt emotionally linked to it and would sing outside or play the piano for hours improvising with the doors open and the birds singing…..
After my parents divorced I had a kind of longing for this idyll that never really existed. I think there’s definitely a nostalgic melancholy about the English countryside and also this complete almost heartbreaking joy when you see it at its most beautiful, maybe because our summers are often so short, there’s always a sense of approaching loss under it all, so you have to just connect with it in the moment very intensely – that’s how it affects me anyway! I’ve always loved it and responded to it in a creative way. I think all of this reveals itself in my music now- often I’m aiming for a feeling of reverie and there’s usually a sense of melancholy or yearning there too. There’s also a rhythm to walking that seems to make my brain go to creative and musical places it won’t otherwise go to and I always go back to that when I need inspiration.
CEV: Did you ever have any formal training on the piano? Do you think that formal studies on the instrument of choice is essential for a musician to achieve their goals or not?
CM: I started to have formal lessons on piano aged four but my Mum taught me before that. She would practice piano four or five hours a day and I just soaked it all up – I think listening is so important, just as important as training. I also used to spend a lot of time improvising and that’s how I found my own style.
It’s a really interesting question about training and one I thought a lot about when I was playing for Cousteau and getting experience of the music industry and meeting all kinds of different and brilliant musicians. There are so many wonderful self-taught and formally trained musicians out there and they often work well together too, but maybe have to spend a bit of time understanding each other’s methods. So my answer would be no, but that dedication to your craft is what you need, whatever form that takes. (I’ve never met a musician who could get by without practice for long though - as I often tell myself!)
CEV: What kind of inspiration do you draw from the landscape, history, myths fairytales and folklore? Tell me about some of the songs you’ve composed with these themes as the inspiration.
CM: A lot! Some of my songwriting is an emotional response to the world around me, to nature and history and other art and some of it is my own life filtered through these things – it’s all a big old melting-pot of creativity and sometimes I’m not sure how it’s all come together. But these are a few I can be definite about:
‘Soft Rain’ and ‘Primavera’ I wrote during late Spring/early Summer when I was just swooning at the beauty of the earth and also needing to write songs of renewal and hope. With ‘Soft Rain’ I wanted to write a love song to the summer rain, as well as it actually being a love song. I wanted to try to conjure that feeling of freedom and sensuality when you just let the rain soak you through. It’s influenced by the light at that time of year when everything’s so green and the skies are softly shifting around blues and greys – I wanted to try and evoke that with the music. They’re both songs of letting go, embracing and re-connecting with the beauty of it all really: ‘Lift my face to fearlessness and rain’
‘Wolvish’ is a kind of dark ‘Little Red-Riding-Hood’. In my song the girl and the wolf start off as being one, but have to separate when she grows up and the wolf part of herself is left behind, bereft and solitary. I love the metaphor of that one – the woods, the bereavement that happens when you sacrifice a wild part of yourself or have to change and leave something behind.
‘Ice Release’ came to me on a walk - through a wood in early spring that had a mossy, golden peaty stream flowing through it – everything was kind of hyperreal and showing the first signs of coming back to life. I imagined a frozen woman in the woods, or a nymph, coming back to life as an icy stream melts. There is a bit of Echo and Narcissus in there, but it’s mostly a conjuring of the sensuality of spring, of loss and desire.
‘River of Stone’ I wrote after learning about Bernini, the incredible sculptor who was also a sadist and had his girlfriend’s face savagely cut when she was unfaithful to him. The shocking contrast of that with his amazingly smooth and beautiful flawless sculptures really struck me. It made me think also of women going under the knife to try and look flawless, so I really wanted to bring all of those themes together in that one.
‘The Last Venetian’ started as an image of a decaying, drowning Venice and Casanova. The image merged with imagining a last doomed love affair, and the lover opening the windows of her apartment, letting the water in, accepting the inevitable – of being in love with the ruin of things….
I’d better stop there!
CEV: Were you pretty much destined to end up as a singer/songwriter or were there other things that tempted you as far as careers are concerned along the way?
CM: When I was about ten I passionately wanted to be an opera singer, after seeing this beautiful singer in a gorgeous sparkly dress and being amazed at her loud top notes. I was always putting on little plays and singing and loved performing. I’m actually a pretty quietly spoken kind of person and people were always amazed when I got up on stage. I can remember getting my first tape recorder too and making my friends perform plays that I’d written.
It wasn’t until I started to get singing lessons and booked myself some studio time to record three songs that the penny dropped for good. I remember phoning my sister and just being euphoric, shouting ‘This is what I was born to do!’ It still feels like that too!
CEV: Let’s talk about your latest release called Divining. First off I’d like to ask you about the title and what meaning it has to the music that is contained on this album?
CM: It refers to the old art of divining for water with rods (something I haven’t tried yet!) - a metaphor for the journey of ‘finding’ the songs for the album – striking the stream of inspiration somehow, also the search for a meaningful life and reaching some kind of acceptance of how things are. And the album is inspired by water, so it seemed like a good drawing together of everything. The title track explains it a bit more I think – ‘I’ve spent my life divining, now I’ll walk with the stream….’
CEV: You worked on Divining for three years before you were ready to release it because of not having the funding to head into a studio. Tell me about your decision to buy recording software instead and your experiences recording the music yourself. (The frustrations and the joys)
CM: Although I’ve had some great experiences in professional studios I was never able to have enough time or control over the end result to create the ideas I was hearing in my head. The decision to buy software that I could teach myself to use over a long period of time, over paying for a few weeks in a studio, was a no-brainer for me. As well as the album, I wanted to compose for dance and film and having the software is vital for that really. But of course the pay-off was that I didn’t know what I was doing and had to teach myself everything – that meant HUGE frustrations along the way – days of literally tearing my hair out and banging the computer keyboard – why didn’t it sound good? Why was there no sound at all?! etc etc. I used to describe it as being like having to learn how a piano is built before being able to sit down and play it.
But the Joys are boundless. The major one has to be the time factor. I would never have had time in the studio to work on the things that I have done on this album. I spent a day finding the right glass harmonic for the title track for instance – that just wouldn’t have been possible with my budget, also I probably would have been embarrassed to go to a studio with a load of glasses and a jug of water. In my own space I feel I can experiment with bits of dried grass, paper, lentils, whatever, and also I’ve played around with my voice a lot more – mainly in that I’ve felt able to sing quieter – I know that sounds odd – but in the studio I always felt a bit of pressure to sing the way the engineer said was a ‘good take’ – now I’m able to let myself be more honest and vulnerable and delicate, or operatic, or just hum. I love that. The creative environment is crucial I think.
CEV: Are you a perfectionist when it comes to crafting the music that you release to the public?
CM: Yes. Though I have put up songs in progress on myspace – they’re usually as good as I think I can get them at that point, but not professionally mastered. I love to get the songs out there, so it is tempting to put them up when I know they’re not quite there yet, but I try to resist. I spend a lot of time getting the soundworld how I want it – sometimes that means spending hours getting the right timbre in my voice for a backing vocal, or making paper sound like an icy swish, but not too swishy, or tinkering with a single percussion tap…. argh, yes!
CEV: When you are working on a project like Divining how is it that you know when the music is “ready” and that it can’t be tweaked any further?
CM: I had a real bee in my bonnet about Divining being ‘ready’ because I’m not a trained sound engineer. I wasn’t sure that I’d done it ‘right’. It’s only now after professionals have complimented me on the production that I can accept that it’s good.
After a few months of listening on different sets of speakers with endless lists of tweaks I retreated into a fog of anxiety and despair. My partner told me enough was enough. There was this awful point when I couldn’t actually hear it as music anymore and now I know that’s the time to let it go and accept it for what it is. I’d love to know if other people get this too.
CEV: On your website you mention that Divining is “an album inspired by water”. What do you mean by that?
CM: Well, it came to me on yet another walk – this time in Yorkshire where there are these huge rock formations that have been gently carved out by the water over millions of years. It struck me as a wonderful symbol for never giving up. That over time, an element that just seemed at that moment so gentle, can have such a huge effect. I’d just made the decision to go ahead with making the album as an Independent artist – I had no no finance and it seemed that I’d been knocking on the door of the Industry with no-one hearing me for a long time. It was very tempting to give up at that point. So I was very very inspired by that stream symbol and I decided at that moment that water would inspire the whole album. The idea just really energized me. I could see how I could write a huge number of songs inspired by all it’s different states and also by using the stories and myths around it – I love symbols and metaphors as you’ve probably gathered by now! And I loved the idea of writing a cycle of songs that were connected that way even though I knew that downloads don’t lend themselves to that, I still hang onto the hope that some people will listen to it all the way through.
CEV: Is Divining similar to your first album Snowdrop? If so in what ways?
CM: Snowdrop was more of a collection of songs. Divining was conceived as a whole, for the songs to go together as a cycle and to make sense together. There’s a rhythm to the album when it’s played all the way through, with a spacious, focused and dreamy ‘clearing’ in the middle of it, with the three songs ‘Moat’, ‘Lollen’ and ‘Ice Release’ grouped together.
I can see a line through in my songwriting from the ‘The Fisherman’s House’ on Snowdrop, leading to songs like ‘Sea Bell’ and ‘The Last Venetian’ on Divining. I was starting to experiment with adding more tracks, more drum-tracks and electronic elements – and with making more of a complete soundworld out of each song. I was definitely starting to leave the piano and vocal ballads behind, though I do still write them, they don’t satisfy me as much now.
CEV: As you were composing the songs that would end up on Divining were you consciously tying them all together with a common theme?
CM: Absolutely – water was the theme, but I wanted it to be quite diverse, so I consciously didn’t write a whole batch of songs about rain, streams and the sea – I wanted to be more quirky than that and more metaphorical. It was great to have a theme to focus in on – it was very helpful as it meant I had boundaries to work within – I almost treated it as a commission from someone else which was good for discipline. It was great to write songs that were very personal like ‘Moat’ and ‘Written on Water’ alongside ones that were more filmic and narrative.
CEV: What kinds of songs will listeners find on Divining as far as style and lyrics?
CM: The songs are all soundworlds of their own with poetic lyrics that I’ve scored like miniature films. I’ve been compared to the Cocteau Twins, Enya, Tori Amos, Nina Simone, Vashti Bunyan, Steve Reich and Kate Bush. I’m definitely influenced by Kate Bush and Reich, also the pet shop boys, Gabriel Yared, lots of jazz including Miles Davis and Keith Jarrett, and classical composers including Ravel and Vaughan Williams.
I tend to call the album a meeting of Dreampop, Folk and Artsong – there are songs with big arrangements of beats, interweaving piano lines, marimbas, French horns and strings and there are songs that are more reflective, spacious, understated, intricate and delicate where I use found-sounds with digital embroidery and lots of vocal layers. Expect to hear lush harmony, lots of lyrical melody and a melancholy undertow….
CEV: Were you satisfied with the results that you were able to obtain with Divining using recording software instead of heading into the studio? Will you be recording future projects using the software or would you still like to head back into the studio if you have the money? Why or why not?
CM: Yes, I’m very proud and pleased with what I was able to achieve with it and I’m constantly amazed by the software and the absolutely huge potential it has as a tool. I’m glad that I got Divining professionally mastered and I’ll definitely do that again – even if I had the budget for industry standard mastering software
I still have a lot to learn and am finding new ways of making it work for me. I’m finding better ways of doing outboard recording too and I’m going to be recording other musicians playing different acoustic instruments, so I don’t think I’ll need to go back into a studio. I’m just still so excited to be able to do it this way! I’ve got two new projects on the go and I also produced a 40min soundtrack for a dance/theatre piece using it that sounded fantastic in the theatre playing through the huge speakers, so I’m a convert definitely and keen to move forwards with it.
CEV: How has Divining been accepted by your fans and by the critics?
CM: My fans have been incredibly lovely and emotional about the songs. I feel intensely grateful for them and for their responsiveness and support over the years – it really is invaluable. Divining seems to be making a deep connection with people which is so wonderful and the only reason for doing this.
The most fantastic description I’ve had so far from critics was from thenewgay.com who called me ‘a more pastoral Kate Bush’ which bowled me over! Collected Sounds was a lovely review too and Amy Lotsberg mentioned that ideally it should be listened to with a cat or dog curled up beside you, which was great as I wrote the album with my little cat driving me nuts walking on the keyboard, getting squashed and pulling out wires behind the hard drive and staring at me from behind the speaker etc! DJ’s have been very positive and supportive too and getting a play and support for ‘Written On Water’ by Tom Robinson on BBC6 was just brilliant.
CEV: As we close out this interview is there anything you wish to add about Divining in particular or your music in general?
CM: Just that I’ll be releasing a digital EP in the summer which I’m really excited about and that I’m writing about how I wrote the songs, posting up photos and artwork and more news at www.songtails.blogspot.com and I often put up new tracks before I release them at http://www.myspace.com/chloemarch
And thank you so much Michael for giving me the space here to talk about this and for asking such brilliant questions
CEV: And thank you Chloe for really opening up about your music and especially about your latest release Divining. I appreciate your time and effort in answering these questions. I wish you much success in all of your future musical endeavors.