“Seeing the word ‘kooky’ in relation to my stuff is sickening,” shudders Serafina Steer, all too aware of the pre- and misconceptions that come swarming the minute a harp enters the picture. Her horror is utterly justified: the classically-trained Steer’s third album, The Moths Are Real, is a transfixing collection of songs that trip between the lyrical and the conversational, the physical and the ethereal. Robust folklore rubs up against Greek mythology; oracular meditations on fate and fortune are spiked by wistfully sensuous love songs and some thoroughly modern one-liners. Musically, too, it trembles between high and low, old and new, with synth-pop, prog and psychedelia snapping at the harp’s lovely heels.
In keeping with her musical shape shifting, Steer has worked with diverse roster of artists, including Bat For Lashes, Chrome Hoof, Patrick Wolf and John Foxx. Three years after her debut Cheap Demo Bad Science, her second album, Change Is Good Change Is Good, was picked by Jarvis Cocker as one of his favorite albums of 2010. It obviously wasn’t just end-of-year punditry: He produced The Moths Are Real, joining Steer on the eerie Scott Walker glow of “The Removal Man.” Even in starry company, though, Steer burns brightly all by herself.
On playing the harp:
The harp comes with a lot of baggage, physically and literally. On The Moths Are Real, I tried to use the harp more as other people might expect to hear it. I wasn’t trying to be willfully oblivious to the fact that it is quite swoony — I wanted to use the glissando and the cosmic potential of it, all the effects to make a whole world. I think before I thought it was more subversive to ignore that and just treat it as a guitar.
On working with Jarvis Cocker:
I often work with people in a semi-producer-like way, but I’d always end up slightly overruling them. Feeling a bit more confident about the songs this time, I did feel that I’d be ready to work with someone and let them have that role. I sent Jarvis a couple of emails — we’d met a couple of times — and he said he wasn’t a producer but to send some tracks anyway. Then we did two days in Shoreditch Church (in East London), where he suggested working on two of the demos I sent him, “The Removal Man” and “Skinny Dipping,” to see whether we could collaborate together and whether he liked being a producer. I think what was good — apart from that he’s terribly nice — is that I don’t know him so well, so it was good to have that respect. It wasn’t like I was going to start having…well, I might have had one tantrum!
On sea shanties:
The song “Night Before Mutiny” is a response to a traditional sea shanty about a whore called Serafina — it’s not too bawdy, but it’s not very nice about her. Everything rhymes with Serafina — the sea shanty even calls her a “dirty she-hyena.” I suppose because it’s an unusual name, I felt a kind of a kinship with the character. There’s this funny lack of concern for her in the song. I guess as a feminist, those whore or tart-with-a-heart archetypes, they get to me.
On lyrical labyrinths:
I think the record is a bit of a labyrinth, but I don’t want to sound like a twat, or have anyone examine it as a concept album and therefore find it lacking. In the imagery of the lyrics, there are quite a lot of cracks or lights, leading to, or in between, cosmic changes of forms — drowning, lying, sex, sleeping and waking. So to me, it’s sort of labyrinthine in a multi-dimensional, Borges-inspired sense.
What interests me about prog, and the children of prog, is that the music offers an artist the freedom to explore form and rhythm and esoteric lyrical ideas as part of a complex tradition that seems to have grown organically. And it comes without the leaden dogma or lineage of being an aspiring contemporary classical composer. Though it’s probably as riven with prejudice and dogma as anything. I was talking to a friend about whether I could honestly claim a prog influence, and they spoke about prog’s lack of attitude and preoccupation with a kind of perfect musicianship, as opposed to other influences like Mark E. Smith or Young Marble Giants. I thought, “Oh God, that’s me.”