Last summer, Alex at FatCat passed me a copy of Samana`s debut LP, Ascension, and with a kind of wink, said something like, “let me know what you think.” Knowing that I`d love it. Just like anything with a pulse I was immediately struck by the voice of Rebecca Rose Harris. Her burning torch songs that tap into the shared root of jazz, folk, and the blues. The almost impossible octave flights that brought to mind a primal talent like Jeff Buckley. But there was also the rich, deep intimacy of the production, and the amazing tightness of the playing. The range and variety of Franklin Mockett`s guitar chops. From intricate jangle to space-rock freak-out. How each song seemed like a ceremony. A spell. A cathartic invocation and release of sum magick.
When I contacted the duo, looking for an interview, they were just about to set out on a European tour, but took my list of questions and promised to answer them on the road. Their replies read like a book. A journal of the journey of the band. Not so much specifics – dates, times and places – but more the forces, the poetry, that brought the couple together and drives their uncompromising art.
Where are you from?
Where are you based? From your videos it looks pretty isolated?
For the past four years we`ve moved between farmhouses in rural Wales, taking with us our analogue recording studio, ‘The Road Records’. It`s in the depths of the wilderness of these remote parts of Wales that we conduct and create the majority of our work.
Does the isolation help the creative process?
Yes immensely. In the words of the wise poet Rainer Maria Rilke ‘solitude is the greatest gift you can give yourself’. Surrounding ourselves with forests, lakes and undulating hills has provided us with such a sense of peace and profound alignment. It allows a re-rooting in ones deepest self-knowledge and in turn allows the inner voice to be heard. It is a blessing to be able to be stood at the base of ancient monuments of spiritual significance located within walking distance from our house, or to roam through the endless landscapes of contrasting beauty at any hour. We find that the nature here is incredibly restorative and grounding; It brings us back to the importance of being and feeds our inspiration.
Would you ever consider moving back to a city?
Our home and base always resides within the rural world. It is a privilege to be able to travel between cities and immerse ourselves in the pace of their sparkling bustle when performing, but we find the pace becomes overbearing when living inside of that environment; the constant noise makes the audible voice of the world within, very hard to distinguish. We love to move between places and to constantly explore different environments, but to always return to nature is a beautiful feeling for us both. In the words of Wendell Berry “true solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation.”
How did you meet? How did you start making music together?
We met six years ago in one of the oldest pubs in our hometown. We disappeared back into the cycles of the city and then over the course of that year, life pulled us together on three separate occasions with the magnetism of fate. One day, after a motorcycle ride through the rolling downs at dawn, Franklin asked me ‘if you could do anything right this moment what would that be?’ In answer I told him how I would get a van and simply go. Three months later we bought Govinda, an old Mercedes van, and set off with the little money we had left. For the next year, we journeyed through the mountains, open roads, ancient forests and open lands of Europe, all the while heading east. We started to write together in the isolation of the mountains and within the solitude of the vast open expanses at hand. As we passed through the cities, villages and towns, we`d then perform our new material on the streets, often improvising for hours at a time. It opened us up to the most intimate and profound connections, taught us the greatest lesson of self preservation and the ultimate, raw power of music without inhibitions.
During this adventure, whilst staying in a closed forest besides a mountainous secret lake in Austria, we forged a daily ritual; to follow an alpine river through the blossoms of wild meadow flowers and tall, dark pines. We would follow this river for hours past abandoned houses and shifting landscapes until it led us to a small log cabin built into the side of a perfect emerald hill. There, in traditional Austrian dress, a woman and her disabled son would serve homemade apple cake and dry cider. We`d sit in the bright sunshine, play chess and discuss the direction of our artistry. It was by this very lake that we decided to move forwards, as one, and it was there, whilst studying the darkening silhouettes of the tall trees in the reflection of the darkening blue lake that we unanimously chose the name Samana.
Can you tell me more about the name Samana?
Samana is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘breath of life’ within context to the Samanan Monk – it is ‘detaching yourself from human obligatio to live a life more in tune with the ways of nature’. To take the secrets of the natural world and deliver them into the urban society.
Your music is quite stripped back. It struck me as something primal, magical, kind of summoning different spirits as Rebecca’s voice changes. Almost as if entering a trance, becoming possessed….Was / is that the intention? To plug into some kind of ancient natural force?
Yes definitely. We titled the album Ascension in our attempt to capture the transition between one plain of consciousness to another, both physically, philosophically and metaphysically. Much of the recording processes were improvisations laid to tape. For example, the song, Beneath The Ice was a complete improvisation recorded on the spot in one sitting. To capture the subconscious, is in its self an act of summoning, as you are interconnecting with a very wise and ancient part of yourself – a part we know little about. Whenever I lay my vocals down, I always find a part of me taken into a trance like state. If it wasn’t, the emotion would not be present and it would be contrived. For me, the act of singing is poetry – a transferral of other states of being, expressed with sincere honesty and raw emotion.
I really connect with the methods of female seers living in the remote regions of the small greek islands – who undergo the ancient practices of using their voices to channel emotions and pain into the present by physically extracting it from the body through sound.
Rebecca your voice is pretty unique. Have you done any formal training? Have any other vocalists influenced your own technique, or “style”? Are there any vocalists that you particularly admire?
Thank you. I have never had any training. I just use my voice as my immediate medium of expression, to transpose the emotion of the words and of feeling. My very relationship with music began after my father died – it became the cross connection between the volumes of poetry I was writing and the overwhelming well of emotion I was storing. It became an intricate act of catharsis and of internal discovery. Writing music became one of the greatest senses of healing and an imperative process of truly discerning the transformations I was experiencing. I learnt in that time what it was to excavate an emotion and to immerse oneself within it, with every sense of ones being. “A poet makes himself a visionary through a long, boundless, and systematised disorganisation of all the senses. All forms of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he exhausts within himself all poisons, and preserves their quintessences” – Arthur Rimbaud. This beginning, forged my ability to explore the character of my voice to its depths. I have many singers that I greatly admire. Again, my admiration lies not so much with the ‘technique’ or ‘style’ of their voices, but rather for the weight of the emotion that they convey and the way they use their voice as a unique instrument of expression, to convey the power of their words. I greatly admire Patti Smith, Nick Cave, Nina Simone, PJ Harvey, Bill Callahan, Kurt Cobain to name a few.
Franklin, in my review of Ascension I listed a whole load of possible influences on your guitar playing. Do you have any “guitar heroes”, any particular favourite solos?
As a multi-instrumentalist, it may seem a little odd, or contrived even to profess that most of my days are spent without the accompaniment of music. I hold landscapes and architecture to be the greatest of inspiration to me, with my playing being an impulse of feeling that is either governed by what is laid before it, or else a reflection of a thought, theme or mood which I wish to convey at that particular time. I’ve no doubt that my deep love for the weight of music from artists such as David Crosby, Fairport Convention and Nick Drake have woven their way into the fabric of my fingers in some way or another, but I’d put most of my practice down to feeling rather than playing.
Your performances are very tight – I was wondering if the songwriting process comes out of improvisation, or if your songs are written and fully formed before you record?
Every song has its own story of craftsmanship. Like I mentioned earlier, many are formed from the impulse of improvisation. Many are also written over long periods of time. The Art Of Revolution was written over the course of a month whereas Beneath The Ice was recorded on the spot. We allow the song to govern itself in pace, in momentum and direction whether we are being guided by it or guiding it.
Can you tell me more about the maps and obelisk linked to the Ascension recordings? What`s the significance of the obelisk? Has any one found the obelisk yet?
There are only 100 maps, which were drafted by a cartographer, that are included in the ‘exclusive vinyl edition’. These maps lead the listener to the Ascension obelisk with secret instructions that give rise to a further discovery.
The obelisk stands with an ancient Sanskrit symbol, gilded on its face. It represents the endless cycle of existence, the union of wisdom and method, and the symbiotic nature of ancestry and omnipresence. The obelisk is wreathed in mystery, a shape that bears great weight and significance throughout ancient history. The Ancient Egyptians used the obelisk as a symbol for the unknown, highlighting notions of eternity, consciousness and transcendence. Thousands of years later, such monumental cairns remain, as do their associations with the divine; a symbol we took great inspiration from in conducting and writing this album.
Around the time of the conception of Ascension, I had a very poignant dream, centred around a triangle of white obelisks. There was a displacement of time—the very weight of the present was unruled and unconstrained by the fabric of civilisation, governed instead entirely by a natural order. In this place, the human ideology of the universe was void. I stood aloft great heights, in the centre of these three white obelisks. Each embered with a pure light, resonating an invisible, silent energy. It stirred me profoundly. This triangle of obelisks were a portal to something incomprehensible. I listen intently to my dreams and translate them in acute detail every day. There resides a great power in dreams. The language of the subconscious is one I believe in, for it can lead you further than the waking parameters of senses into certain realms of understanding and communication—something tribes and ancient civilisations understand very well. This dream naturally grew into an idea, which in time led to the creation of the Ascension Obelisk.
We visited it recently on the winter equinox and found that people had left some offerings there, so it has been discovered.
On De Profundis when you sing, “I`ve been here before”, are you referring to reincarnation, the repeating of a familiar mistake?
There is defiantly a sense of reincarnation. I am recognising the returning of grief in a different form, but the words are open to the interpretation and emotional connection of the listener. Poetical license remains in the hands of the beholder.
Can you tell me more about your other projects in other media, such as poetry, photography and film?
Yes, I`ve always worked within a range of mediums, analogue photography which opens itself to the universe of the darkroom, film, poetry, painting – they are all pathways to access something entirely idiosyncratic; each with their specific ritual of ‘action’ and ‘interpretation’ – every medium allows one to embody and address a different essence of the self, a different facet of the anatomisation of the matter and extremities of being.
For me, the opportunity to amalgamate them all is one that is always of great significance. I create layers of depth, philosophy upon philosophy, concept upon concept. If one chooses to immerse themselves within our work, they will always discover more. The different formats of art are different channels – it is like a river that splits into estuaries and each carves itself through a different landscape, subjected to a different environment, but alas, they originate from and return to the same source.
Within Samana, we create a world. Alongside myself, Franklin works with vintage analogue studio equipment. I call him the alchemist of sound. Every element of the work we release has passed through our hands, been formed by our hands, right down to the silences in-between the songs – there is consideration and ritualistic attention paid to the significance of every detail.
How do finance all this stuff?
As we do everything ourselves by way of creation, the small finance we have needed has predominantly come from FatCat, as well as income from collaborations with other artists who record with us at The Road Records.
Do you listen to music by other artists? If so do you have any favourites, or current favourites?
Yes, although not as much as you would think. It turns out building a house from the ground up in between the release of your first record doesn’t leave you a whole lot of time to spare. But with the first morning coffee and when the fire is on and the stars are out, we like to listen to a mix of obscure music that we have found paired with some old time classics. We are listening to a very varied mix at the moment, from Dorothy Ashbys’ afro harp compositions, to some really beautiful delicate avant guard jazz such as the Danish group, Girls in Airports. The beautiful infinite soundscapes of artists such as Seabuckthorn and Robbie Basho, right through to the powerful ballads of Bob Dylan to the impulsive power of 60’s gritty, physiological rock. Every day is different, a landscape of sound. It all depends on the mood of the mind, the body and the soul. One of our all time favourite albums that we listen to frequently is without a doubt If Only I Could Remember My Name by David Crosby – a tapestry of beauty.
You’re about to embark on a tour, are you also recording new material?
I’m sending these responses upon our return from our month long tour across Europe. It was beautiful, intense, difficult and touching all at the same time. We had a few logistical obstacles along the way, from an intense storm at sea upon our departure, to the failure of our cars’ engine in the remoteness of the Bohemian Switzerland Mountains of Czech, which led to us having to abandon all of our musical equipment and to continue on, stripped back, with nothing but an electric guitar, a few glasses of whisky and a beautiful 1960’s Vox amp. We performed for the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, barefooted with a mountain of intent, and it felt like being back on the bridges of Slovenia. The power lies in the the root of a songs creation – and in the intention of the delivery.
In regards to new material – this is something we are incredibly excited about. We are going to France in March to disappear into the remoteness of the forests, to dedicate our time to nothing but the development of our music. Bring on the spring!
All photographs are care of Rebecca Rose Harris. You can find out more about her award-winning work here. You can learn more about the facilities at Franklin Mockett`s The Road Records analogue studio here.