When describing Scottish singer Rachel Sermanni’s music, it’s easy to get caught into the cliques of using words like “haunting” and “poetic” and “beautiful.” Yes, Rachel Sermanni’s sound are all of these things, but there is something more to her music than what the average “girl with guitar” offers. She brings something deeper to the table. Her music has that soft, highly personal quality that penetrates something deeper inside of the listener and stick to the soul. Her songs are melancholy and mysterious, and is the background music for the quiet moments in life. Its music for lonely overcast Sunday afternoons or long nighttime car rides through the dark countryside where Rachel’s sweet voice and rich lyrics becomes your only companion. Rachel Sermanni sings songs of dreams and self-reflection.
Emerging out of the Glasgow folk scene, Rachel released her debut album, Under Mountains, in September 2012 and quickly created a solid following via constant touring through Europe, where she appeared at over a hundred and fifty shows and opened for artists such as Mumford and Sons and Elvis Costello. Within that time Rachel also managed to travel to Canada on multiple occasions where Canadian audiences have embraced her music. In September 2013, as her cult status in Canada has grown, Under Mountains was finally available in North America. Having recently returned to Canada for a third time, Rachel is finally ready to bring her music to American audiences in and upcoming tour with Canadian singer Rose Cousins.
Just weeks before Under Mountains’ North American release I had the unique opportunity to visit with Rachel Sermanni via Skype. But, with me in my office outside of Toronto, and she in her bedroom across the ocean in Scotland, Rachel requested that we not use the camera. She desired to keep her personal place personal, and she became, once again, a soft disembodied voice floating around the room. But even as a disembodied voice, Rachel managed to be as intense and charming as you’d imagine her to be as her sweet voice flowed through the room like a comforting ghostly companion.
Sam Tweedle: What are your origins in music? Who inspired you and what were you listening too?
Rachel Sermanni: I have open ears all the time, and I really enjoy music, but in terms of knowing the back catalogue of anybody….well it’s embarrassing. I was always in the creative realms, whether it be in music or something else, and given that leeway in school and at home. We had lots of instruments at home. My parents are musical and we listened to a lot of things in the car, so I knew the classics. We listened to a lot of Simon and Garfunkel, and I loved Eva Cassidy. I really loved her. There were so many, and when [I moved] to Glasgow my friend Declan got me listening to Tom Waits and Bjork so I became more aware of the river that I wanted to fall into in terms of making music. There was also a lot of traditional music, and in early school there were always things that you could be part of to perform. I probably got my first taste of that when I was fourteen or fifteen when I went in for a “battle of the bands” thing with one of my very very young songs. I was even looking through my diary today and music has always just been there. It was an undercurrent but I never had any pressure on there. Even when I left school and told my Mom I was going to go and play music in Glasgow I didn’t have a name or a goal in sight. I just didn’t know what I wanted to do and I didn’t feel like I wanted to go to university. In hindsight I could have gone to university with the grades I was getting, so I don’t know what I was thinking. I read something recently about Buddhists and they say that the path is just a narrow single track up the hill, so you have to take that path. There are no other options. For some reason I saw no other options, and there was no end in sight. I just started walking it, and that just seems the way.
Sam: And thankfully you took that path so we got your music.
Rachel: And the paths sort of merges into each other as well, because my other interests always end up feeding into it. I wouldn’t call it a musical path because I often don’t think of myself as a musician. I wouldn’t even call myself a writer, although I love the writing aspect of it. It’s just a really creative one. I’m always wanting to create something whether I’m painting things, or drawing, or playing music. I take such joy in writing [my] blog and I’ve wrote some sonnets which I’ve loved to release in the future. There are just so many things that I love doing that are just feeding the same vein. It just feels like the right thing to do, and it’s already being fed by the songs.
Sam: I find that when you create something it just opens the doors of the entire world to you.
Rachel: I know, and I’m sure the feeling must be the same for you. With writers in general, it’s such a good feeling.
Sam: Through my writing all my dreams are slowly being achieved. I hate when people ask me if I get paid for writing because they don’t realize that the true payback is both cerebral and emotional.
Rachel: Well I think that it’s a defense mechanism because people just don’t know that the world can work that way. Maybe you and I are quite fortunate that we can do this. There are people who are still fighting to do that.
Sam: How difficult to you find it to promote yourself as a singer/songwriter in today’s music scene where it seems that the singer/songwriter no longer gets the focus that it deserves?
Rachel: Well, I properly started pursuing music when I left school, and for a long time I was on my own, doing all the gigs and sending e-mails and everything and I wasn’t marking myself at all. It was when a manager got involved, Robert, and a team has been established over the past few years. So in terms of marketing I don’t take too much time [on it] and I try to avoid getting involved. You’re always going to be marketed in a way that you’ll never fully like. You don’t want to think as yourself as a product, but that’s how the world works sometimes. Even if someone is renowned for their mystery, it’s still a marketing technique. There are many women with guitar singers. We’re much the same, but we all have a different perspective.
Sam: Certainly. You bring your own unique voice to the table.
Rachel: I hope so. I’ve just been so lucky because I think I’ve grown a lot since I recorded [Under Mountains], even in terms of my voice and stuff like that. But what’s interesting is that you are just providing a new perspective, and so far its proven positive because I have been able to do some spectacular things, like go to Canada and India with that perspective. You kind of have to trust the motion a little bit, and hope that people continue to want to listen to whatever you have to give.
Sam: How successful has Under Mountains been for you in Europe?
Rachel: Well, I was busy last year. After September I did a European tour. That was really fun, although it was an eye opener in many things. I think I over worked last year in terms of the festivals, the tours and the support tours. It was all around Europe and the UK and it got a little bit too much for me and I [was wondering] “Oh my goodness. I don’t know if I’m ready for the year to come.” This year came and it was so exciting in terms of finding a new place to come, which was Canada, because there is a real sense of positivity in terms of response, which I’m so grateful for. This year I’ve done fewer festivals. I’ve done more festivals in Canada than at home. That’s been interesting, and its provided me with more space, and I needed that in order to get writing a little bit more and find a sense of happiness that I had when I started out anyways. I feel really alive. There has been a sense of more space although there has been more traveling in some respects because I’ve been over the Atlantic a few times and I plan in returning [this fall].
Sam: Under Mountains is a highly poetic and personal album. It has a lot more depth than a lot of music currently heard on the radio. Take me through some of the songs on the album. Where did the first song on the disk, Breath Easy, come from?
Rachel: I guess that one is the major one on the album. Breathe Easy came from a dream that I had. I was quite young when I wrote it. The dream was that I was at the river with my friends, which is a common place to be in the summer, and we were all jumping in and I dived in and the boy that I liked at that time came into the water after me and I felt his arms around my waste and then he gently pushed me into the sand. As I’ve grown it changes, but it never loses its relevance. You can kind of alter it, and it’s even evolved since we recorded the album. I think that [Breathe Easy] is a good representation of my songs on how I write them. It’s usually from the help of a dream, and the images are inspired by that and there is usually a sense of longing in them.
Sam: Take me through To a Fox. That is possibly my favorite track on the album. It’s such a haunting song and your vocals are so eerie.
Rachel: The inspiration for that was when I was on the train down to London in my last year of school and literally saw a fox for the first time on the railroad track when we were coming into London and I got so excited. From there on I felt a sort of connection. I got a bit obsessed with the fox, and I still am. They are such a beautiful creature. They represent a secret, or slyness. My Dad gave me a really good phrase which I remember which “Soft as a doe, sharp as a fox.” I think it’s beautiful because you can be gentle, but when you need to be you can be quick on your feet as well. I like that, and I like the fox for their mischievousness. Yeah. Did you know that a group of foxes is called a “skulk?”
Sam: Actually, now that you mention it, I did know that although I couldn’t have told you that off the top of my head.
Rachel: Yeah. I always wanted to be in a group called “The Skulks.” (Laughs)
Sam: It sounds like a girl’s gang from Compton or Detroit or someplace. (Laughs) There is a real buzz about you in Canada. Have you broken into the US market at all?Rachel: Not really. I played SXSW about three years ago. I played New York for the Scottish Week earlier this year. I’m supporting Rose Cousins and we’ll be starting in the West Coast of Canada and then moving into the USA. So that’ll be my first real tour of the US.
Sam: Are you working on any new material, and are you preparing a new album?
Rachel: Yes. In fact I was up in the Highlands yesterday to find a boathouse next to a loch, or a lake as you would call them, which is very remote and we did some very rough recordings with some of my close friends. Two years ago I did something called The Bothy Sessions, which is where you go into the woods and find a bothy, which is an old house, and I recorded there. So it’s the same idea, but this time in a boat-shed. So I have a small EP on the way of the roughest beginnings of the evolution of some new songs, which I’m very excited about. Then hopefully, in the next few months, in the space between the tours, I’m intrigued to see if there is a chance to record. I just have so many options and I don’t know quite what direction to go in. I think I need to find more people and explore [my options with them] over the next few years. That might be a case of coming over the Atlantic. There is talk of more EPs, but in terms of an album I’m really keeping the pressure off of myself.
Sam: But you still have this really nice album that, a year later, people are still talking about and discovering for the first time.
Rachel: Exactly. I haven’t thought that it’s been given its breath of life, especially over where you are. It’s like I got time.
One of the best albums to have crossed my desk this year, Under Mountains is a strong debut from an incredibly talented singer/songwriter. I am at the edge of my seat to see what comes next of Rachel Sermanni as she journey’s through music, and the world. From the Scotland Highlands to our ears, Rachel Sermanni’s music is a true gift.
For more information on Rachel Sermanni visit her web-site at http://www.rachelsermanni.net/.