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Escape Velocity

Revelation Junkie: An Interview With Sasha Siem
William Doyle , July 5th, 2016 11:27

For her second album the singer-songwriter uncovered her Sami heritage in Norway. She tells William Doyle about learning from a tradition where music can move matter and serves the community over the individual

The journey that Sasha Siem embarked on during the writing of her latest release is palpable through listening. At the passing of her grandmother, whose family originated from the Sami people, Siem decided to trace her ancestral Norwegian routes, travelling northwards through the country and learning more and more about their culture and practices. The physical geography of the record also led her to Iceland, where she spent a few weeks recording with the renowned producer Valgeir Sigurðsson and taking influence from the landscape and the link between the spiritual and physical worlds she felt there.

Out of these experiences emerged the theme for Bird Burning: focussing on the idea of transformation, Siem used the alchemical symbolism of birds – symbols that also mediate between the physical and spiritual – to tell the story of an evolving relationship, with each bird representing a new phase.

Siem possesses a unique musical identity that is melodious and adept without ever letting overt technical skill be the focus. She presents complex material in accessible ways and seems unburdened by her formal training, and Bird Burning moves ideas from classical art-song tradition into a broader pop landscape, striking a fine balance between avant-garde and popular music. Her first album, Most Of The Boys, was released in the not-too-distant past of January last year after a long period of incubation and to, seemingly, an unfortunate lack of attention. I recall hearing the title track for that album a good eight months before it was released and was immediately struck by the depth of imagination in its composition and the economy of its arrangement.

It's that latter quality that makes Siem's work so appealing: she makes pocket symphonies of great observation and discovery, and they get scaled down even further on Bird Burning. Conceptual works can sometimes feel weighed down or bloated but here, as becomes clear from speaking with her, she followed a very self-conscious editing process for the album, its five songs suggesting themselves as "self-contained nuggets", to lead to its cohesive, powerful story.

The space between Most Of The Boys and Bird Burning was quite short, and for quite a high-concept release, that's not a long time to spend between things. Was Bird Burning something you were working on for a while before?

Sasha Siem: Yes. It was that thing that Most Of The Boys took ages to get off the ground and so all that time I've been brewing this thing and letting it marinate.

I think I heard something from Most Of The Boys about a year before it came out.

SS: That album was frustrating to me in quite a few ways. We all love momentum, but that was like being stuck in a traffic jam. When I got round to touring it though, I entered it and it meant something new. The songs came alive again. But I have to admit there was this period of wanting to be doing new stuff.

Was the touring period quite long and drawn out then?

SS: We had a few intense periods back-to-back but other times it was just shows consecutively and then with days in between. It was like never having a proper holiday from it.

Do you develop things naturally out on the road? I guess with the ensemble you've got, there's more of a chance to evolve.

SS: It really changed from the beginning to the end of the album release. It gave a lot of clues to where and how I wanted to write songs in the future. It got me thinking about what sets up an interesting dynamic with the audience and what's really pushing things. Every single night it'd be something different and I really appreciate that when you've got 20 dates back-to-back, you can really test things out as if in a laboratory. But when you've only got one show a month, it's really hard.

Bird Burning was inspired in part by your late grandmother and wanting to trace back your family roots. What was the connection between your family and the native Norwegian Sami people?

SS: My grandmother's family all came from the north of Norway. The indigenous Sami families were bullied by Christians trying to convert them and dismissed as "the devil" and devil-worshippers, presumably for their music traditions. So it's a little hidden, the connection with the Sami. A lot of people had been converted and they didn't want to talk about it at all. One of the branches of my grandmother's family were Sami people. I took the whole of last summer and made my way further and further north in Norway, camping out at family sites and learnt more about the Sami perspective on music-making. It completely blew my mind.

For starters, their songs – often called 'yoiks' – they don't think of them as being descriptive; rather they're embodiments. So there is this element of magic. They're evoking people and places into existence, so there's this feeling that music can somehow move matter and that music can change our reality. We all know the profound effect that music can have but it's so much more present and integrated in their culture. The community musician would also be most often the witch doctor or the lawyer, or someone serving the community and would then have particular yoiks as remedies for things. I've never thought of my role as a musician directly in that way, but if you look at the role that musicians have, they are kind of community-minded or they build communities around themselves. There's a sense in which their music actively changes people's lives, and that's why people want to come along to a show.

It'd be useful if we were to get in touch with that ideal that isn't quite as self-serving as the way that we have it now. To me that sounds like there's very much an emphasis on serving the community, and that feels a bit lost sometimes perhaps?

SS: It was liberating for me to reconnect with that. Especially with my classical training, it's all about you on stage and how perfect is your intonation, and that feels like it's totally missing the point. It shouldn't be about, "Look at me, I've got this great song for you!" but instead about, "How can I further you?"

Do you think that your formal musical education is prohibitive to being an artist?

SS: I'm really glad that I had it but I had to unlearn a lot of it. It's a training that makes someone highly aware of what one's doing and why one's doing things – it's the analytic brain and thinking things through. It was an intellectual stance that I developed. But I started out by not knowing what I was doing and that had a purity to it. For me, taking this turn in the road was re-entering that, or at least bringing those two worlds together: reuniting heart and brain.

As an artist who works in music it often feels like the goal is always to get back to that place of innocence, not a naivety as such, but where you're not weighed down by the constraints of what you know and you're creating something that's more instinctive. How important is that to you?

SS: Super important. It's my focus, and I think that's why I connected so strongly with the Sami tradition. In another sense, as well as being a servant, you're also being a channel, because if you're yoiking and someone comes to see you because they want to contact their long-lost ancestor – which in a way is how I started my journey – then that's something that's very common. Each person has their own yoik. By yoiking a person, you bring them into the room. So if your long-lost love is in America, then you can sing them there into this space, or if your grandmother has passed then you can bring them back. In order to do that, you have to just open and let something come through you. You're basically invoking these spirits, or it could be a place or an animal. I suppose 'instinct' is just that, that feeling of just opening and letting something come which you never could have planned or predicted or expected. I guess in that way I'm a bit of a revelation junkie. I want to be surprised as much as possible.

It really does come out in this new music. Even before reading into the concept, when I was listening to the songs for the first time, I felt a definite sense of it being less weighed down, a freer emotional content. It feels totally different to the last album.

SS: Most Of The Boys was very calculated; that was the joy of the making of it in a way. They were all my little doll's houses, or like a train set where you're building the perfect world, and then Bird Burning comes along and blows it all up!

I've always admired your sense of economy, even just in terms of the arrangements, but given Bird Burning is such a large personal project, how did you know when you got to the point of deciding that you'd finished what you wanted to do? It's quite a short piece, overall. How do you get to the point of thinking something is done?

SS: The project was much bigger, actually. It was about 20 songs, but these five are what I'm sharing. This is a glimpse. It was such a personal project and I was really writing for me, so I had to go through and decide what was going to be of interest to others. There's sometimes a distinction between writing just because we're artists and that's what we have to do and then there's this totally different stage where it's like, "Okay, I'm an artist now in the community, and what can I share?"

So what did you decide was common between the five pieces that made you think they were the representative ones?

SS: Within the 20 these were the ones that were self-contained nuggets. It's a mini-opera I think, in a way. You have this love story that takes place over the five songs, there's an evolution of a relationship and the transformation that takes place in each person. Then discovering this series of birds, the connotations that they have in alchemy and alchemical writing and that process they're describing, the process of transformation is exactly what's going on in my story. I think [it was] that realising that they stood out as a really good self-contained unit that really spoke for the whole project. It was like a Hansel and Gretel story, although just the bit with the breadcrumbs.

Yeah, and not the horrible bit at the end.

SS: There was really a sense of being led, and having little clues. Where I didn't feel like I was forcing anything.

You're not always afforded the opportunity as an artist to have that experience while you're making things.

SS: Exactly, and that really felt like a blessing.

There's a more upfront electronic element to this one. Why did you think that was an appropriate palette to convey the themes behind this project?

SS: My first thought with the sound was that I wanted to work with wind instruments as a kind of mirror image to the strings on the first album. It was interesting with some remixes that were done for the first album how you could process the strings and for them to become something totally new. It was interesting then to process the wind sounds – I think even a small bit of processing goes quite a long way with that timbre. But then, in a sense, having that as part of the record was also connected with the theme of transformation, with having the live world transformed into something electronic. The birds are often symbols as messengers between the heaven and earth. The live instruments to me are like earth instruments, and the electronics exist somewhere we can't really put our fingers on physically, the 99 per cent we can't see beyond our senses.

You've said you were influenced by the Icelandic landscape with this, and I feel quite often that the mixture of orchestral and electronic is something that seems to crop up quite often when people are influenced by that landscape.

SS: I was there for a period of about three weeks working on a different project and the person I arrived as and the person I left as were completely different. I felt that the place, how you breathe in the air and have your feet on the earth, starts to affect you in this silent way. Some people talk about there being veils between this world and the world of the fairies and the gnomes, and there it feels like the veils are much thinner. It's very normal for people to be in contact with other energies and a spiritual dynamic and perspective on life. I felt the air was different.

Bird Burning will be released in autumn