Interview: Snowbird

Andrew Perry

By Andrew Perry

on 02.04.14 in Interviews

Moon, the debut album from UK duo Snowbird, arrives trailed by an impressive resume: Simon Raymonde, whose haunting piano playing provides the record’s foundation, was the bassist in Cocteau Twins for 13 years, until singer Liz Fraser and guitarist Robin Guthrie separated romantically, causing the band’s painful dissolution. Bruised by the experience, Raymonde soon plunged into the very different business of running his own record label, Bella Union. The label found success with enviable slate of breakthrough acts, including the UK releases of albums from Fleet Foxes, Beach House, John Grant, Midlake and the Dirty Three.

Stephanie Dosen, Raymonde’s partner in Snowbird, worked as a vocalist for Massive Attack and the Chemical Brothers and made her solo debut with 2007′s A Lily for the Spectre, on Bella Union. Raymonde and Dosen became romantically involved in 2006 and began writing music together five years later, when Dosen was absent from their shared flat on a trip to her native Wisconsin. Raymonde compiled piano tracks and emailed them to her, and Dosen laid her feathery vocal arrangements over top.

Though their relationship ended, they saw the project through, inviting artists from Raymonde’s roster, including members of Radiohead and Midlake, to guest on the album.

On the phone from his home in Sussex, Raymonde talks with Andrew Perry about coming out of musical retirement and Moon‘s extraordinary genesis.

How did you first come into contact with Stephanie?

It was around 2005, in the heady days of MySpace, when I used to traverse that site all day and night looking for interesting bands. I discovered her on there. I saw that she was based in Wisconsin and contacted her, and just said, “Hey I really like your stuff, what are you up to?”

We started emailing a lot. She signed to the label and I ended up producing her album — she recorded the vocals in America and I did everything else over here. Then we began a relationship. She moved to the UK and we lived together for five years, from 2006-2011. In the last year of that period, she had some visa problems and had to go back to the US, and that’s when the Snowbird record began.

You stopped making music after the demise of the Cocteaus in 1997. Why? Was it because the break-up of the band was so scarring for you? It was reputedly pretty torrid behind the scenes at the end, when Liz Fraser and Robin Guthrie were splitting up as a couple.

It’s no secret that the last part of the Cocteaus was very, very difficult, because of the others’ relationship and the drugs. It was a mess. It was actually a massive wrench to see the dissolution of that band, even though it was obviously the right thing to do.

I was [also] probably put off making music by my own solo record experience, which I didn’t enjoy at all — that was the first release on Bella Union back in 1997. It was right in the death throes of the Cocteaus, so it’s wrapped up in an awful lot of unhappy memories.

I went into hiding for many years. I didn’t realize it until recently. I submerged myself in releasing other bands, and producing, and the label. I was probably running away from wanting to go through something like [the breakup of the Cocteau Twins] again, and maybe I didn’t think there was going be a better singer, or better band for me, than the one I’d already been in.

Working with Stephanie, my eyes started opening up — and my heart too, probably — because I thought she was so clever with her vocal arrangements. She is quite like Elizabeth Fraser, in the way she improvises, and with the choral melodies. She’d trained as a choral arranger for classical choirs when she was younger. So she has this natural ability for arrangements.

Did Stephanie grow up as a fan of the Cocteaus?

She’s obviously a huge Liz Fraser fan. She was born in ’78, so she was very much a child of the ’90s, listening to all that stuff. But ironically, it was us being apart that created the music we wrote. We never actually wrote one song while we were living together. As soon as she was away for three weeks, we managed to write a whole album — bizarre!

The story goes that you found a baby grand piano on [UK classifieds site] Gumtree, and it unlocked the songwriting urge for you.

I hadn’t had any instruments at home for years. But we’d just rented a flat with a lovely big front room, and there was a nice space in it for a piano, and I just thought, “I’d love to have a piano.” There I am, trawling around on Gumtree, and this baby grand came up, for free. I thought, “Hold on a minute, who gives away a baby grand for free?” It was a really nice old couple — they’d had it in the house for donkeys’ years, and they were moving to a smaller flat.

It was just beautiful, with a really lovely tone to it. Stephanie went away pretty much straight away after that, and I had all this spare time. So that’s how it started.

You were writing on the piano at night, after you got home from work at the Bella Union office.

The album was written in the moonlight, and that became a theme. I wasn’t getting home from my day job till seven or eight o’clock. I’d have some dinner and then, “Oh well, there’s not much to do now, no one in the house, let’s sit down and muck about on the piano,” and that’s how it happened. I’d record a piece each night on GarageBand, and usually around one or two in the morning, I’d email it over to her, all very simple and lo-fi. The first morning I woke up, and there was an email back from her with an MP3 attached. She’d recorded all the vocals for the track on her GarageBand.

You mentioned that she improvises her vocals.

That’s what’s amazing about this record: All the melodies and the vocals — not the lyrics, because they came later — are improvised from the very first time she heard each track. And that’s why I see it very much as her record, even though the band’s her and me, because I think that’s really an amazing thing to be able to do.

Anyone chancing upon the opening track, “I Heard The Owl Call My Name,” might immediately think of Liz Fraser, without even knowing of your involvement. Can you hear the similarities?

They both extemporize a lot, and that’s how some of these unusual melodies come about. Traditional songwriters tend to stick with more obvious melodies and harmonies, but Stephanie’s background as a student of classical and choral music enables her to have a great understanding of unusual harmonies.

They both love layering vocals, too — Liz would do the one vocal and you’d think, “Wow, that’s incredible,” and she’d go, “No, no, no, hang on a minute, I’ve got loads of other vocals to fit in here, because it doesn’t make any sense with just the one.” Some people just have this picture in their head of what it’s meant to sound like at the end. It’s very unusual to have it all mapped out in the way that they both have.

Is Stephanie maybe more into the West Coast singer-songwriter tradition?

She grew up listening to the Cranberries, the Cocteaus and the Sundays, but prior to that, she was a huge Joni Mitchell fan. And we both love Linda Perhacs. That 1970 album Parallelograms, when I heard it, I thought, “God, that sounds like Stephanie,” and I played it to her, and she said, “No, I’ve never even heard of her before.”

So she’s definitely influenced by folk singers, but she also likes electronic music. Obviously, she sang with the Chemicals, and she toured with Massive Attack as their lead singer for most of 2008, so she’s worked in a lot of different genres.

In her lyrics, she paints a nocturnal, moonlit world…

[Laughing] That is her world.

There are lots of owls and bears and eagles. Do you know what she’s on about?

I don’t tend to go there, I let her get on with it, the lyrical part. Because we broke up — very amicably, I should say — I hear the lyrics, and I’m not sure whether they’re about us, or me, or [laughs] some other bloke. I haven’t pushed her on it, because singers like that don’t really want to tell you the whole story, it’s a private thing. So I think some of it is very personal, and some of it is just her woodland world.

She is like a woodland nymph, in real life. She lives in a totally different world to the rest of us. She’s a very successful knitwear designer right now. All day and all night, she’s knitting. That was the only other job she’d had — in a wool shop in Wisconsin. Now she designs knitwear, and sells the patents for her designs. It’s a very lucrative job — a far more lucrative than making music. Singing and being a musician is a very small part of who Stephanie is.

In order to release your own album, did you find you consciously had to shut off the part of your brain that makes you a label boss?

Yes. Being a musician, it’s a wholly different mindset. You wake up and go to bed whenever you want — you eat, go to the pub, take drugs, go on tour, sit in the back of a van — it’s a really fucking amazing lifestyle. My lifestyle is totally different. I get up really early, walk the dog, go to London, work at my office, have meetings, go to gigs in the evening, get home exhausted, and then go to bed. That’s how I live my life. So suddenly be faced with being a musician again — I had to work out how to fit that in.

Writing the original songs, it was a night-time occupation. And when I went away to North Wales to do the proper recordings, I had to turn the phone off. But I did it so quickly, I don’t know if anyone even noticed that I was gone.

There’s an enviable cast list of backing musicians. How did you go about slotting them in?

Oh, that was easy. Ed O’Brien from Radiohead plays on “Porcelain” and “Amelia,” but it’s very in-the-background, textural guitar. He did that in his own studio. Phillip Selway from Radiohead played drums on one song. But it wasn’t like, “Hey, let’s get some special guests in!” No money changed hands, these are all people doing me favors because we’re mates. The same with Eric and McKenzie [from Midlake], and Jonathan [Wilson].

You’re also releasing a remixed version of the album by RX Gibbs, called Luna. Is that in the spirit of the dub albums of ’70s and early ’80s?

Yeah, like Scientist. That’s exactly how it turned out, but it wasn’t the original
thought. RX Gibbs is an electronic dub producer from Michigan. We put out his album Contact on Bella Union late last year, just a vinyl-only release. If you loved Seefeel in the early ’90s, and Aphex Twin, and dub music, that gives you an idea of the kind of sounds he works with.

He did one track, “Porcelain,” first, and I just thought it would be amazing to have him do the whole album. It turned out perfect, because that’s the kind of music Stephanie and I love to listen to — or we did, anyhow — so it just made a lot of sense.

Is there a sense of closure about Moon for you — that at last you’ve confronted your fears about making another record? Or does it open the door for more?

I hope the latter. I’m not going give up my day job, but it has made me realize, “Well, you’ve still got the ability to do these things if you want to do them.”

But even now, I guess I’m still in the background. It’s more Stephanie’s record than it is mine. She deserves to be much more in the limelight than I do, because I don’t really want to be. The only problem is, I don’t think she does either. She’s happy sitting at home knitting.