Four Strings More: Serafina Steer Of Bas Jan Interviewed

Ahead of Bas Jan’s upcoming performance at Green Man festival, principal songwriter and lyricist Serafina Steer talks about going collaborative, why folk music isn’t pagan and what it’s like to play 43 fewer strings

I meet Serafina Steer on 11 July, a date most English football fans are likely to remember. Londoners from all walks of life have been brought together by the collective zeal that comes with wondering, “What if?”, and the streets had become enchanted by optimism and delight. Perhaps appropriately then, I met Steer in a proper East London boozer, with cheap pints and a lovely landlady; however, the day was still young and the tables were yet to become sticky with the spilt lager that characterises ecstatic joy and eventual defeat.

Serafina Steer is one of those musicians who can be accurately described as ‘unique’ without it sounding like a lazy definition tacked onto an album cover by any sorry old music journalist. Originally wielding the harp as her instrument of choice, Serafina moved to the bass in an attempt to distance herself from the associations that come with playing the 47 string instrument.

Initially she recruited performance artist Jenny Moore as a song writing partner, the duo then became a trio when they were joined by ex-Chromehoof violinist and composer Sarah Anderson, to complete the group. The band are named after named after the Dutch conceptual artist Bas Jan Ader who was last seen setting out to sail across the Atlantic in 1975.

Their debut album Yes I Jan came out on Lost Map in February and they are booked to play Green Man festival mid-August.

You’re usually associated with the harp but I read in an interview that you learnt to play the bass because you wanted to write music with more “power and energy”, is that true?

Serafina Steer: Yeah, it’s true. I just really got to the end of my road with writing songs and playing the harp, and sitting down and feeling like a singer songwriter. That was just a kind of a full stop. Then there was a few years of realising that I wasn’t enjoying it or having any ideas even; but then the band thing started quite organically, and I felt incredibly inspired by it.

You traded the 47 string harp for the four string bass; did the bass change your approach to writing music?

SS: Well I started off just writing and playing by myself, and then it became me and Jenny Moore, Bas Jan’s original drummer. We wanted it to be two vocals, drums and a bass, and I found having a set of parameters quite interesting. But then, as the band grew, it just became something which felt really natural; playing in a band from the bottom up for example, being in the rhythm section rather than on the top.

Did you feel constrained at any point with the instrument, considering the 43 fewer strings?

SS: Well I feel constrained by not being very good at it. It still has all of the notes, not that I can play them all – but it was quite a relief actually, having studied classical music, and having played all of these amazing pieces by people who really write properly with harmony and key changes and chords. I don’t naturally write in that way, and suddenly I was able to play an instrument which is naturally much simpler and it was a relief, to not have to do the instrument justice. And I feel like it’s really informed my harp playing, interestingly.

A lot of the lyrics and scenes on the album seem quite domestic; did you find yourself writing from the perspective of different characters on Yes I Jan?

SS: Yes, I definitely think so. ‘Tide Me Over’ is taken from someone else, there is a Steinbeck character in there somewhere. We have just made an EP on which I experimented with the cut-up technique. For example, there is a lecture by the philosopher and social theorist Mark Fisher which I tried to use as a base for some of my lyrics. Sometimes I’ll take a bit of reported speech or something someone has said then use that as a base – perhaps I’m not so much of a character based writer, I think I’m trying to write by taking a smell of a philosophical idea now, but not in a very systematic or clear way.

What was it like working with Jarvis Cocker in the studio for The Moths Are Real?

SS: Ah, that was great! And that’s become more of an ongoing thing now as well – I’m playing with him on his new project JARV – so that experience in the studio was really the beginning of quite a long running collaborative relationship.

I wanted to ask, quite straightforwardly, what is your relationship to folk music?

SS: Post-Brexit I have quite a difficult relationship to it. I went to see Shirley Collins, who I love, perform at the Barbican, and I was late in, but someone was already walking out; she had all of these jingoistic morris dancers on stage and it was really weird. She is so nice, but I could see what they meant. I find it hard to understand what folk is now. Folk music has always been weird, it’s always been split between traditionalists and people doing folk-y style music. Now you have people like Gazelle Twin doing this really interesting take on it, I haven’t heard that album yet but it sounds kind of perfect and it kind of has that level of menace which is really interesting to play on, especially in these times.

Does your music flirt with paganism?

SS: Perhaps, but I would not say that folk music has anything to do with Paganism, especially not these days. I like the idea that if there are gods there are lots of gods, and that they are not so benign – and then the thought of being read by them or reading them. Maybe that feeds into a sort of non-hierarchical approach to society that I would prefer. And that is also how I like to see the band, I wanted it to be this non-hierarchical entity, perhaps as a reaction to how I went about my solo material. That’s why when Jenny suggested the name for the band – Bas Jan – I kind of liked the idea that it might be this found recording from an island or something. But these are just spurious things that I might think.

But it’s interesting that you talk about a non-hierarchical make-up to the band, because I was going to say that collaboration seems to be a massive part of your artistic process.

SS: It’s really become so important to me. Especially in terms of stage fright and depression, I just think that I had become really stuck and thought that I didn’t have anyone or any ideas and I was always sort of terrified. Thats why I loved writing the music as a band, where the music is really coloured by other people and their collective sense of humour. We basically worked to the mantra, “No, that’s not sad, it’s funny!”

Your ‘improvised opera’ project with Catherine Carter sounded brilliantly bizarre, could you speak a little more about that?

SS: Yeah, it was really bizarre. [LAUGHS] I guess when you’ve come from art school you’re happier approaching things in a more conceptual way – before the content, so to speak – and it felt like that was what we were trying to do; therefore, to generate the content we had to do it completely live. We felt that we were improvising these mini scenarios, and we started off by taking some text from the film Taxi Driver, as we felt like that was kind of a way an operatic voice could be seedy and interesting. But really just trying to create an atmosphere without a narrative was an interesting thing for us to attempt. That is sort of on the back burner while we work out what we are going to do next. But Catherine Carter is amazing.

And then I was really interested reading about your collaboration, Medea, with Natalie Sharp (AKA Lone Taxidermist)

SS: Ah, yes. That was a one off commission to set Clare Pollard’s feminist translation of Ovid’s Heroides (entitled Ovid’s Heroines). People joke about the text that it’s just a group of hysterical women, and the women in the text have always been translated in that way. So then Clare did a feminist translation which was more poetic, more heartfelt and angrier, and someone at Manchester’s Female Theatre asked us to set one. I was going to do it by myself, but I just really didn’t want to sit at the harp and pretend I was Medea, so I thought of Natalie, and how she is such a strong performer and in the end it was great. I keep meaning to film it, and make a really weird YouTube opera.

You released an album of remixes of songs from the Yes I Jan album called Yes We Jan. Was this a continuation of your artistic philosophy of music as a ‘social activity’?

SS: Yeah, I guess so. But I was also thinking of Genesis P-Orridge and the Psychic TV; I was really inspired by Towards Thee Infinite Beat and the Beyond Thee Infinite Beat, which is an album of remixes of songs from the former. I think actually that they are all spoof artists that are on Beyond Thee Infinite Beat, but I didn’t know that at the time, so I thought that it would be nice to do a similar thing on Yes We Jan.

Did you have much of a say in the process?

SS: I gave them the same sort of spiel – it was meant to be a bit more acid house. Lucy Railton was meant to do one, and that one would have been quite far out there. It took ages to get everyone to do theirs, I mean when you’re not paying someone and everyone is super busy its hard to keep asking. When I first started asking people I was a bit more specific, but by the end I was happy for them to just send me what they had done. [LAUGHS] So yeah, in the end I just viewed it as an art project.

Bas Jan take their name from the Dutch conceptual artist, Ban Jan Ader, what it is about Ader’s work that you are drawn to?

SS: Well, I always have to say very clearly that I didn’t think of that name, Jenny thought of it; I hadn’t heard of Bas Jan Ader before she told me. I looked him up and I thought he was amazing, I really loved his work, and I got slight heebie jeebies about the whole disappearing at sea thing. It sometimes feels problematic using his name, but I just thought that I really liked the way it looked and the way it sounded, and that was enough for me. Then we made a video for ‘Walton On The Naze’, and we were filming out at sea, and again it felt problematic – his wife is still alive as well, so I got slightly worried that it might come across as a bad joke or something.

You were awarded the Paul Hamlyn Award for a composer in 2017. What has this prize allowed you to do so far?

SS: Well, I was able to buy a case for each of the various instruments that I had been carrying around in a Bag For Life. I think, for instance, that I wouldn’t have done the remix project if it wasn’t for the prize money. I’m not even sure if I would have carried on with Bas Jan after Emma Smith went on maternity leave, but this year I just thought I would go for it, I would be able to pay people and say yes to doing gigs that before I just wouldn’t have been able to do. I could just say, “Yes.” It was like having an advance, it was amazing – it gave me a sense of approval, I guess.

You seem to be extremely busy, always creating, always performing and always changing. What is next for you and for Bas Jan?

SS: So we have this new EP coming out in November, and I’m doing more performing and improvising which is quite a new thing in a way. Jarvis has an American tour in October, so I’ll be doing that once the summer Bas Jan gigs stop. I recently did a course in music therapy, and I really want to try and get some experience in that, because it’s one thing to admire it as a form, but it’s another thing to know if you have the character or the skills and patience to actually do it. But I am fascinated in music therapy, and have been for quite a few years now, so I’m hoping that that will become something that I will eventually do alongside performing and writing. I really hope so.

Bas Jan play Green Man festival, 16 – 19 August

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