Conversation: Modern Studies
Modern Studies, a collective including Lancastrian singer-songwriter Rob St John, chamber folk artist Emily Scott, cellist and arranger Pete Harvey and drummer Joe Smillie, was a project that began when Scott began working with an inherited Victorian harmonium.
For our Water issue, we went to interview Rob and Emily the afternoon before their first ever show in Brighton.
Counterpoint: You were in Finland when I emailed you about this interview. Why were you in Finland?
Rob St John: At the moment I’m working on an island on the Finnish archipelago that has been a military base for a century - it’s right out in the Baltic - and is now decommissioned and is going to be opened as a national park. I was there as part of my experimental cultural geography work, to kind of understand and narrate a landscape through creative art, through field recording, narrative writing, photography and film. I was doing things like putting hydrophones under the sea ice, recording water freezing and so on, and later this year there will be an installation and a publication. It’s a common thread to all the work I do, whether music or academia or anything else, there’s always this relationship between landscape and creativity, as has played out on this Modern Studies record.
CP: How does the new record explore landscape and creativity?
Emily Scott: It all started with the harmonium – it’s a big carved Victorian harmonium – I’ve had it for a long time and it’s really rather large and I thought I needed to get rid of it. So I took it over to Pete in his studio, and it fell to bits – so we needed to make a record on it to kind of honour it. It’s really quite broken; it wheezes and sighs and it just made me think of old seaside towns and most of the songs I wrote using it had a connection to that, a connection to the sea. Somebody had poked little cigarette cards down between the keys… Pete opened it up after we eventually finished the record and found loads of old dust balls and bits and pieces.
RSJ: But it’s a beautiful old thing though. It’s got a very human, or non-human, I suppose, quality to the way it breathes and wheezes.
ES: It’s definitely like a person, it has a character.
CP: Like another band member?
ES: Totally. It has inspired every song just because of its sound and feel… We used it on every track, and it starts and ends the album as well.
CP: What was it like recording an album, given that you’re all based in different parts of the country?
ES: It was a really easy process. The easiest thing I’ve ever done. Everybody just seemed to be on the same page. I’m a bit of a control freak, and I’m used to doing everything by myself as a solo artist, and it was nice to have other people to work with instead of being in my little cupboard all the time.
RSJ: It was really great to get to play again with Emily. It’s funny making a record like that, your thinking about it builds up over time. The sonic resonances of the harmonium, which themselves have some resonances with coastline, sea, things like that, they really affected the instruments I picked when I was overdubbing stuff. I chose these really nice seventies-kind of analogue synths and really made them work in away that was sympathetic with the harmonium. And in doing so we’ve ended up with a new, landscape-inspired sound.
ES: I didn’t know what to expect, but it did kind of just develop and acquire a life of its own, a personality. You couldn’t have set out to make that sound, it just happened.
CP: Have either of you explored that relationship with landscape in your previous work?
ES: Not really, I’m definitely a visual writer, so there’s always a sense of place in what I write. But it’s not a conscious effort to incorporate that into things, it’s just the way my brain works.
RSJ: I grew up on Pendle Hill in Lancashire, where the famous witch trials were, and there’s lots of paranormal stuff associated with the area. I’m a cynic and pretty ambivalent towards the spooky, paranormal end of popular psychogeography, but at the same time I’m interested in the way a landscape can be regarded as paranormal and its particular effects, whether that’s making you feel good, scared, apprehensive, whatever. And I’m interested in how sound is bound up in all of that.