With The Emerald Dawn‘s new album, To Touch the Sky, due for release towards the end of this month (pre-orders start on 5th March from their Bandcamp page), TPA’s Tony Colvill speaks to the band about the album, recording during lockdown and the prospect of playing live again…
How are you all? Still sane, as much as the human condition ever is?
Tree Stewart: Very well thanks.
Tom Jackson: Yes. Thankfully being able to work on our new album has helped keep me in shape musically, as well as helping to stave off the sense of frustration from not being able to perform.
Ally Carter: Yes. Living in a farmhouse in the wilds of West Penwith, with moorland just behind it, has meant that we’ve been able to go on plenty of long walks, so haven’t felt as cooped up as someone living in, say, a bedsit in a city. Cabin fever hasn’t struck me yet.
Have you found the lockdown, and in fact the whole Covid-19 situation, an aid or barrier to creativity?
David Greenaway: I have found it to be an aid to creativity as the time usually spent on learning covers for the practical side of the music business (cover band work) has been used on more original ideas and projects, as in this case.
Tree: I have found the Covid-19 situation an aid to creativity. Having time and space to focus, without the usual day-to-day things getting in the way, has been a blessing in disguise.
Tom: For me, the lockdown was a motivator for us to get down to work. With many shows planned having to be rescheduled or even cancelled, this allowed us to resume our plans of getting the new album off the ground. With all the extra time that would normally be taken up with our other projects, we made sure that the album got more attention and refinement than it possibly could if we still had our numerous other bands and businesses.
The human condition is one of a gregarious nature, and perhaps those with a creative side even more so, where does To Touch the Sky fit in?
Tom: The album has the sense of exploration at its core, and what I think makes prog rock appealing to many listeners is the sense of exploration through music; certainly, this is the case for me. This pandemic is a time when we need music not just to help us escape the mundanity of lockdown, but also bring us closer to not feel so isolated. This is quite a journey we have all been on over the last year or so and we hope the album can help make listeners feel that we are all on this path back to normality together.
Ally: I don’t like imposing a single interpretation on our music, but a couple of the tracks on the album easily lend themselves to an expression of our social nature. The Awakening can be interpreted as the natural world, or a family, or a whole city waking up and coming to life. The Ascent can be viewed as a team effort with the aim of achieving some goal, with a depiction of the various trials and hardships that have to be overcome en route to that goal.
Tree: I think the human condition is a very wild and varied one. We are always on a journey that takes us up and down, we never fully reach a destination. To Touch the Sky is a fleeting moment where we touch something briefly, at the heights, before the journey continues down. I think this fits well with the human condition.
Is To Touch the Sky an optimistic or pessimistic title? To reach, achieve, aspire? Or to reach for the impossible? As a title it seems to me as one of embracing change and success, what do you feel?
Tom: I cannot speak for the rest of the band, but for me To Touch the Sky is the path to achieving a goal through the obstacles encountered on the way, whether it is a personal trial or even struggling through this pandemic.
Ally: To me, it is the most optimistic of our four albums to date, and the title reflects that.
Tree: Either optimistic or pessimistic depending on the listener and the mood you are in when you play the album. For me, the title To Touch the Sky is an invitation.
David: As to whether the title is optimistic or pessimistic, I think that should be left up to the listener, especially as the music contains a variety of moods and is therefore open to interpretation.
The album has only three tracks, was it a conscious decision to go for long form pieces, or just the way in which they developed?
David: I would say that the band does not put a restriction on the length of the tracks as it is not commercially minded and lets the music breathe.
Tom: We tend to favour long-form pieces when writing. We have many ideas and we often cannot decide which ones to omit so we try and include them all!
Tree: We love long tracks but don’t usually set out to compose them that way. We are not scared to let a mood or emotion fully develop in order to take the listener with us completely. This often takes time, hence long tracks.
Ally: Our music paints pictures and tells stories. Both stories and pictures (take a landscape, for example) have many details or they run the risk of being uninteresting pictures or stories. Short tracks rarely allow the presentation of such detail, so our tracks tend to be on the longer side.
Conceptually, how is the artwork of your albums linked?
Tree: The artworks are all linked. Each album has two oil paintings that go with the album theme or concept. The front covers, whether it is a pathway that invites you to walk down it, a choice of paths to take, or a secret view of something beyond, are always hinting at the journey that the listener is invited to take with us. The inside artworks link physically, and if put together create one giant, epic, long painting. I would love to exhibit this one day.
Whilst touring is expensive, how much have you missed the interaction with a live audience?
David: Yes, I do miss playing the music live as it is only through performing a song that you can see how well it is received by the public. There is no logic to this, material felt by the band to be the best is not always how the audience hear it, there is no substitute for playing live in front of an audience.
Tom: A lot. We had only played a few shows outside of Cornwall before the first lockdown and it was the first time a prog audience managed to see us perform. To see and hear all the support was wonderful and we cannot wait to get back to more shows and meeting new fans.
Ally: In 2019 we decided that we would ‘venture beyond Kernow’ (Cornwall) and spent a year arranging a tour covering the South West and South East of England, plus the Midlands. As we failed to predict a pandemic, that proved to be a bit of a disaster! All but two of those gigs were cancelled due to lockdown. But the two we managed to perform certainly got into my blood, and I can’t wait to get on the road again with the band.
Tree: I have missed touring very much! There is something very special about playing for and interacting with an audience. I also miss the adventure, hilarity, and excitement of being away with the guys. We have a great time together.
From the initial conception, did the music change much from first play? Did the time allow you to bring in guest players? Is there anyone you would have liked to have had contribute?
Ally: We always start recording thinking that we have the album fully composed. But inevitably, ideas occur to us between starting the recording process and sending the music files off to the CD manufacturer. When we like those ideas, they get incorporated into the music. The recording process was a bit different this time. We were going to play most of the album live on our aborted tour. This meant that we were gig-ready regarding the album before we began recording it. Hence, the music was more familiar to us than was the case with the recording of our previous albums.
Tree: The final tracks are longer than our initial conceptions! We have a lot of instruments and styles at our disposal between the four of us, and we work so well together we have never thought about guest players. I don’t think we would unless it was a full orchestra!!
David: I do not feel that the initial concept of the album was changed but that the musical ideas were refined and perfected to the best of the bands’ ability and interpretation. I did not consider any guest musicians as I feel that the band works completely as a unit (and is able to cover all aspects that the music requires).
Tom: Some tracks have. As I Stood Transfixed was a song in the works back from our first album and the song is now almost twice the length as it was then. We did not bring in any guest players and had no intention of doing so.
You work in house, performance, production, artwork, a quite isolated methodology, how much does the “outside” world inform and intrude on what you are doing?
David: As far as intruding etc., surely that is a personal thing.
Tom: Thankfully, due to our in house approach, we were still able to work on our album with workplace Covid-19 preventions in place.
Tree: I love the in-house, isolated methodology because it gives us full control. The outside world informs our ideas and concepts. We like to rant about the state of the world.
Ally: We spend quite a bit of our time outside the studio talking about current affairs, so the outside world is always present in some form. Doing everything ‘in house’ (artwork, composing, playing, engineering, mixing) gives us complete control of the album. The music and artwork are exactly as we want them to be. So, we don’t have a label encouraging us to compromise our ideals or a producer trying to alter the vision. The downside is that we remain a relatively unknown underground band with no label behind us. Ah, the price of remaining true to your art!
It finally looks like the cycle of lockdown and liberty may be over, where can we expect to see you perform To Touch the Sky? Will you be performing the album in its entirety?
Tree: I doubt we will be playing the whole of To Touch the Sky due to the logistics of stage size and restricted set lengths. You will hear one or two tracks at Prog for Peart in Abingdon on 3rd July.
David: It would be good to perform the album in its entirety but that is not always practical as there are usually time limits on the gigs that are available. A well-balanced set is the normal priority.
Tom: We probably would not perform the album in its entirety as we would like to include songs from our previous albums and we only have a select time to play.
Ally: The album will have been out a while before we next perform in public, and so we should have some idea of whether or not people like the music. I suppose the more it is liked the more tracks will find their way into our live set. At present, we get a lot of requests to perform as much of our previous album Nocturne as we can fit into a set.