An Interview with Meadowsilver

Meadowsilver is an act that all faithful RCU readers should be familiar with by now. For the uninitiated however, the band is a supergroup of psych and experimental UK folk artists that combines electronics with traditional acoustic instrumentation to create an enigmatic and dreamlike world that is as steeped in the practices of old Britain as it is in the atmospheres of folk horror films. 

The trio has been steadily releasing a stream of sparkling singles through their Bandcamp page, and they have most recently compiled them together in the beautifully packaged Singles CD (which you can get right here).

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I spoke with each member of the band, Stephen Stannard (from The Rowan Amber Mill and Rowan : Morrison), Grey Malkin (from Widow’s Weeds) and Gayle Brogan (of Pefkin) separately via email about the group’s origins and inspirations.  

RCU: What drew you all together and what sparked the idea for Meadowsilver?

Stephen: I’ve followed Grey’s various music projects for a long time (since good old Myspace days), and we’d discussed working on something for a few years, but it was a matter of finding a time where some of our existing projects were finished to set aside a bit of time to work on some music together. We had had some vague ideas about what we might sound like – kind of analogue synths and fuzz guitar allied to acoustic instruments. Being geographically split  (I live in South West England and Grey lives up in Scotland) meant we wrote and recorded separately, and that “separateness” played a real part in the organic development of the sound. The sound we found felt a bit different to what either of us had done before, and it felt new.  Then the missing part was to find a singer, and we had the enormous good fortune of being able to get Gayle to agree to sing some vocals for us.  Which she did so perfectly, immediately picking upon on what we were trying to do and yet adding to them and taking the songs onto yet another place.  I really do feel privileged to have worked with them both on this music.

Grey: Stephen and I had spoken about working together a few times, I hugely love and respect his work with The Rowan Amber Mill, Rowan : Morrison and Making Tea for Robots and have been a fan since ye olde Myspace days. We had a few reference points; Espers, acid folk and lots and lots of psych guitar. It grew from a seed of an idea into the mighty oak you know see before you with the passing of music files back and forwards across the world wide cobweb and when Gayle joined and brought the magic that she has, the circle was complete. It’s very much a band.

Gayle: I’m a latecomer to the project. Most of the songs were written by the time I was asked to be a part of this so my contribution has been fairly minimal. I know Grey fairly well as we have both contributed to United Bible Studies releases and worked on songs for an album I am doing with Alison O’Donnell with him. So happy I was asked to be part of this as I get to fulfill my pop psych dreams!

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RCU: Meadowsilver as well as many of your individual past projects were largely inspired by folk horror and the practices and traditions of old Britain. What is it specifically about these topics that attract you to them and how were you introduced to them?

Stephen: Folk horror is a very subjective term, everyone has their own ideas about what folk horror is. I think personally my involvement (as The Rowan Amber Mill) is very much in the periphery of many people’s view of folk horror.  I am less interested in any gory horror aspect of the subject, my own interest is piqued by the representations of the harshness and beauty of the land, and the people who have worked it, and the myths traditions that has gone along with that. I also feel at odds to many in the Folk horror field, because I have been obsessed with representing the sounds of the “fields” with a more pastoral acoustic aesthetic, as opposed to the harsher and more abstract “found sounds” that seem to prevail.  The other thing that interests me is the refractions produced by art being influenced by art, so for instance you get prose stories that would have been passed in the oral tradition for hundreds of years, forming/informing the ancient Mabinogion texts, which is then taken an adapted into a modern story by Alan Plater into The Owl Service novel, which begets a television series, which then begets musicians writing songs inspired by them, and so on. Probably my age is the biggest factor in my approach, being a child of the seventies, British TV was awash with the remnants of the sixties folk boom, be it on cheap kids daily TV programmes that would utilize folk art for “making,” or the telling of folk stories or folk songs an acoustic guitar, or the abundance of kids drama series that would explore lots of ghostly and pagan-influenced themes in, almost exclusively, in bleak and remote rural settings.

Grey: I’ve been fascinated by folklore for as long as I can remember, as well as the supernatural; these were the types of books I had from when I was very young indeed. I grew up in the Highlands of Scotland, which has its own ambience and remnants of the old ways, not least that we still burn tourists in giant wicker men to get our crops to flourish. There are references within Meadowsilver’s music to folk tradition such as Eyemouth’s The Herring Queen, the ‘Obby ‘Oss of Padstow and the Burryman of South Queensferry. It’s just a personal obsession really.

Gayle: No surprise that the Wicker Man was my gateway drug! I think I first saw it in the late 90s, which would be around the time of my initial obsession with Julian Cope’s Modern Antiquarian tome.

RCU: Folk horror seems to be having a revival in film, music, art, etc. Why do you think that is?

Stephen: I think folk horror has been growing steadily in the last 15 years. It is most probably a result of a generation of children of the sixties and seventies reliving their youths and writing about it either in the print media or on the Internet. Folk horror probably gets a disproportionate level of interest as it chimes with folk tales and nursery rhymes we experience as a child, so perhaps it is wired into our collective DNA.

Grey: I’m not certain. I think some of the revival is because the quality of the films and material that exists is so high; it’s a natural revisiting of some great cinema or songs that periodically find a new audience (as happened with myself). I agree that there is also an attempt to make contemporary folk horror movies or music based on or inspired by this earlier period, and it is not for me to say whether this has been successful or not (and I am probably culpable in doing precisely this), other than I personally prefer the source material as it had no real notion of ‘folk horror’ or genre at the time.

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RCU: As I was mentioning earlier, your music seems deeply rooted in English history. Do any of you have a background in history?

Stephen: I have no academic background in English history outside the joys of a comprehensive education system. What I do have though, is a deep fascination with the socio-cultural and psychological aspects of history.  I find it endlessly fascinating how, particularly in English history, we end up making the same mistakes and being led in certain directions against our common interests over and over again. It feels like the last 350 odd years of English history since the English Civil War, has been on an endlessly repeating feedback loop, and we now find ourselves trying to find a way out of the deafening mess. The promise of social and cultural advancement of the 1950s, and the dreams and hopes of the 1960s of peace, love, equality and the common good has, unfortunately, never felt so far away.

Grey: Not as such, and I’m probably just as interested in folklore across the world as much as in the UK. I do like a castle or a standing stone though and we are pretty much tripping over them in Scotland, they are everywhere.

RCU: Much like the folk horror genre, your sound feels tightly associated with the landscape (and seascape) of the UK. Do you ever compose or record while outdoors? Are there any specific locations that you had in mind/inspired you while writing the Meadowsilver songs?

Stephen: In the past, I have often written with specific places and landscapes in mind, be it the ancient Ridgeway path, or an ancient hill fort that is a couple of miles from my home, but I don’t tend to write or record in these places as I find it gets in the way of the enjoyment of the place. A large part of the pleasure of writing is recreating and representing these places in the mind, on the page and in sound. I live in a small coastal town, so the sea exerts a large pull on me, but it’s influence on me in terms of songwriting is largely its usefulness in metaphor. For the songs I have written for Meadowsilver, I had in mind something more imagined as opposed to any “real” notion of place, this was a meadow of wild flowers with slightly withered crops and rushes surrounded by thick lush flood plain and a dry pine forest—all viewed through the eyes of some mild form of blissful euphoria. The Meadow is a useful metaphor.

Grey: This feels very important indeed. I have been known to make field recordings that turn up in some of the music I record and those locations are carefully chosen. I spend as much time as possible away from the city in the hills, the woodlands and on the coast, photographing and recording as well as wandering and exploring. The Isle of Skye and the Northumberland coast have been particular inspirations of late and this undoubtedly has found its way into the songs. Actively seeking to be affected by landscape is an integral part of myself and therefore this seeps into the music quite organically, I think. Certainly, Meadowsilver feel very in tune with this approach; it feels like there is a strong rustic or coastal mood to what we do.

Gayle: My own songwriting and composition (as Pefkin) is rooted in the landscape but in a more personal way. I frequently write lyrics outdoors once my ideas, thoughts and feelings about a certain piece have reached a critical mass. I like to explore the resonance between landscape and emotion and construct a ritual surrounding that. I incorporate field recording into my work as well. I have written lyrics for one Meadowsilver song (yet to be released) and it explores the changing of the season, summer to autumn, [and] the death of the green man.     

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RCU: A large part of the Meadowsilver sound is that marriage of electro music with rural folk. What inspired you to meld these two styles?

Stephen: It is something that I have been exploring for a few years. For my side, over the last few years I have recorded a whole album of analogue synth tunes (Making Tea for Robots) and an (unreleased but due out next year) album of guitars, orchestral instruments and analogue synths, so the melding of acoustic and electro has come together as a refining of that journey, which has evolved again further with the Meadowsilver project due to the differing musical approaches that we combine.  The one thing myself and Grey spoke about as a touchstone before we started writing was the how we could employ acoustic instruments allied to fuzz guitars / fuzzy synths, so that really help us start decide what kind of instruments we would employ.

Grey: For myself, a growing appreciation that this can be done successfully (inspired by work like Stephen’s with The Rowan Amber Mill) and personally not putting limits, rules, or strict genres, on what I create. I like a bit of OMD just as much as a touch of Pentangle so it doesn’t feel exclusive. I think it feels honest to include both, as both styles reflect how I experience the world.

RCU: Do you feel that this combination of genres represents modern and ancient England coexisting in the same space?

Stephen: It probably does to an extent. As I said previously, England seems to be in constant change – but in the same old ways, there seems to be a yearning for some past golden age, be it a relatively recent past or one of yore, that never actually existed. In my lyric writing, I do tend to employ the suggestion of a setting in a distant (medieval) past as a diaphanous device to explore issues of modern times. So, in the instance of the songs I have written for Meadowsilver, I have looked to conjure images of medieval grace and beauty as a metaphor for the good earth itself.

Grey: I can only speak for Scotland! Perhaps it does reflect an amalgamation or growing cultural reservoir, although I am mindful that a lot of the electronic elements hark back to the BBC Radiophonic Workshop or 70’s analogue synths and are therefore 50 years old or more. When I think of living in the country in the 70s I hear the sounds of Paddy Kingsland more immediately than Fairport Convention, I think at some point these genres have become equally representative of living and growing up in the UK.

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RCU: Have any particular artists influenced the Meadowsilver sound or aesthetic at all?

Stephen: For my part, an influence on the sound is things like the Radiophonics of Paddy Kingsland, the extended Espers family, a smattering of 60s psych-pop and psych-folk , and just a dash of Ian Brown.

Grey: For myself Pentangle, Espers, Mellow Candle, Portishead, Steeleye Span, Broadcast and Luboš Fišer. And Ultravox, especially my wearing of flying goggles and a kilt.

RCU: So far, you’ve released a number of breathtaking singles, which are now available together on a single CD and supported by an accompanying short film set to (and about) “The Coronation of The Herring Queen.” Would you recommend a similar release strategy for a new artist trying to get their name out there on Bandcamp and the social media world?

Stephen: I would not particularly recommend following our strategy because, in terms of reaching a wider audience, it has been largely unsuccessful.  We have tried to come up with short films and “content” for social media in the (vain) hope of getting the music heard more widely, but that “Social media-ing” and creating content takes up a lot of time that could be more usefully employed in making music (which is the real point at the end of the day).  If I was to give advice to a brand new artist who is making music that is off the beaten track, I would say get some of your music on Bandcamp—it is the best platform to get your music heard in the short term. Play your music live—it helps build your audience. And, if you can, find someone who is versed in social media (and who believes in your music) to help you build up a social media following.  That is a lot of “ifs”, but as there doesn’t seem to be a roadmap for getting your music heard, it is just a case of trying your best and not letting yourself getting too downhearted when the music goes unheard or your promo films go unwatched.

Grey: I’m not really sure what the best strategy is other than one that a person feels comfortable doing. I love the DIY approach we have taken and this sits well with me, though whether it promotes the most success or exposure in today’s environment I couldn’t say. I loathe social media, which immediately excludes me from playing the game or understanding it very well. 

Gayle: I have been following a path of almost willful obscurity for 20 years so I wouldn’t ask my advice!

RCU: Is Meadowsilver intending to perform live soon, if they haven’t already? How would the band’s live sound differ from the studio recordings?

Stephen: We haven’t really spoken about playing live. Geographically it would be a challenge as there is a few hundred miles distance between us. I’d love to play this music live if there was significant interest and it was financially viable. Live is probably the medium which would suit the music best.

Grey: Due to overwhelming stage fright and general musical uselessness I don’t perform live so if the band went ahead I’d have to be a kind of Bez like figure or mascot dancing on the stage. Maybe with a goat mask on.

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RCU: What’s next for the band that you can speak about publicly here? Any new releases, films, etc?  

Stephen: Once the EP is out we will be looking to sort out a release of the album, in between there may be a low key single release with an accompanying short film. The album itself has longer versions of the already released singles alongside more new songs.  We haven’t discussed anything else about the future other than the vague possibility of remixes of the album, which is rather exciting as there is a lot going on in the background of our recordings and there really is a huge amount of scope for remixing the songs with very different approaches. I would love to work with Grey and Gayle again on something new, I think our various input into Meadowsilver has been dictated by our current availability, and if circumstances allowed, I think it would be great if we had the time for us all to contribute equally, as I think the strength of the music is the combination the three of us bring to the whole.

Grey: Our first long player is almost ready to be released to the world and very proud of it I am too. I hope that Meadowsilver will be a long term, ongoing project and love being in a band with both Gayle and Stephen; here’s to more Meadowsilver to come.

Huge thanks to Stephen, Grey and Gayle for their time and the good conversation. You can find more about the band at the Miller Sounds website, the band’s Facebook account and their Bandcamp page

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-KH

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