Original German text in PDF
Fovea Hex is the project of Clodagh Simonds, who in the 60s played
with the folk band Mellow Candle, and who later sang for Mike
Oldfield. She is supported on the "Neither Speak Nor Remain Silent"
trilogy by Andrew MacKenzie, Colin Potter, Brian Eno and Robert Fripp,
to name just a few. The songs, centred around Clodagh Simonds' voice,
are an individual and very original mixture of folk and ambient
although this fails to describe them adequately. The nine songs evoke feelings like longing, security and loss and the listeners find themselves on an emotional roller-coaster. This is some of the most inspired music that has been released in the last months.
Would you say that even though there were long gaps between your work with Mellow Candle and Fovea Hex there is some kind of continuity; that in one way or another what you do has to do with folk music?
I’ve never thought of myself as a folk singer, though I do like some folk music. I think it’s the way I sing which makes people think it’s folk. I’ve always liked singing plainly, and I’ve never liked very polished, or stylised vocals. Perhaps because of that, what I do doesn’t sound particularly contemporary. Mellow Candle was a very long time ago – 35 years – and at various points during that time I’ve written theatre music, liturgical music, songs for children, piano pieces, and cello pieces, as well as continuing to write songs. I suppose there’s an element of continuity, seeing as how, okay, I wrote some of the Mellow Candle songs, and I also wrote these other things – but I think you’d be hard pressed to describe it all as folk.
When did you first conceive the idea of Fovea Hex and was it always clear that the first releases would be a trilogy?
Originally, Fovea Hex was just a name I liked. I thought of it maybe a year before the project started. I wasn’t sure how I would use it perhaps it would be the name of a piece, or the name of an album – I just kept it, not knowing what it might attach itself to. When this particular project began, and I felt that the name should belong to it, I never thought to myself
Specifically „oh I think I’ll do this kind of song, and use these kinds of sounds behind, and I’ll see if I can work with this person, and that person....“ I wasn’t very certain where it would go when we first began – the only things that were clear to me were where I DIDN’T want it to go. It evolved a momentum of its own. To answer the second part of your question – yes, once it began, it was always going to be a trilogy.
Was it important to have a kind of similarity, a kind of symmetry concerning the “Neither Speak Nor Remain Silent”-trilogy (with regard to the artwork and the number of songs on each CD)?
I think the nature of a trilogy is that the three parts do correspond – so, yes.
On the trilogy you were joined by artists like Colin Potter, Brian Eno, Roger Doyle, Andrew McKenzie (amongst others). Why was it important for you to have these people around?
Well, as I say, it’s not like I thought it all out beforehand, and decided what was important and what wasn’t, and decided who I’d work with. I didn’t have a game plan, and there wasn’t a „concept“ – that’s not the way I work. It started out because I read an interview with Andrew in which he said he was very ill and desperately in need of any kind of paid work to help him with his medical costs. I was in the middle of recording something else,
in fact. and originally I suggested he just contribute to that, and I would pay him a session fee. I’d never heard of him, and I’d never heard his work – it just sounded as if he was a in a bad predicament, and he was literally begging for help, and I was trying to find a way to help him a bit. But when he sent me some examples of his work, I was very impressed! So it evolved from that – he liked my songs a lot too, and we decided to do three eps. Colin and Roger both became involved when Andrew suggested I should continue with someone else, right after we’d finished the first ep. We’d had serious problems with incompatibility between his computers and mine, and it proved impossible to work in the way that we had originally decided. Plus he was really very ill, often disappearing off the radar for days on end. When he suggested I find someone else, I was at a bit of a loss – but David Tibet (who I’d got to know in the course of worrying about Andrew’s disappearances!) and Jochen Schwarz both suggested Colin Potter, and as soon as I started working with him, I felt that he was the right person with whom to complete the project. Roger Doyle and I had crossed paths many years ago in the Dublin music scene, though we had lost touch, but he was very happy to help out, and in fact Die Stadt is releasing one of his recent works very soon, so it was a mutually beneficial encounter! The way the project evolved, it ended up including a really mixed bunch of people, most of whom are friends of relatively long standing. I’m hugely grateful to all of them – each one makes a unique contribution, and there’s an element of unpredictability when you invite other people to contribute which I think adds something really special. The trilogy as a whole is far richer and more varied than anything I could have come up with just working alone.
This question is linked to the last one. Is Fovea Hex always you with others and are recordings solely done by yourself a kind of different entity (like the song “The Glacial Lake” on the “Not Alone”-compilation that’s been released under your own name)?
For that track, which is a song I wrote about 14 years ago, I did decide to just go under my own name, but I may not always do that – I may in future also release solo recordings under the name of Fovea Hex – I’m not certain yet. Right now, the backbone of Fovea Hex is me, Laura Sheeran, Cora Venus Lunny, Michael Begg, and Colin Potter – but it’s quite a flexible backbone! And I like the idea of continuing to work with various guests......
What is the role of the CDs with the tracks by Andrew McKenzie that accompany some of the editions? Would you say that on the “proper” CDs your focus is on song whereas the mixes by Andrew McKenzie concentrate more on the aspect of sound?
Apart from providing him with the basic material sonically, as the basis for his manipulations, I had nothing at all to do with the bonus cds – Andrew had carte blanche. He normally works at his own speed, in his own time, his own style, according to his own wishes, and the bonus cds were partly to provide him with the freedom to do whatever he wanted with the material, rather than have to collaborate, as on the actual ep – they were for him to work in his usual way, and to make his own commentary.
Whereas very often musicians consider lyrics just as something secondary one has the impression that for you words are of equal importance. Do you consider your lyrics to be some kind of poetry?
In most cases, the music has emerged before the words, so it’s not the same as, for example, setting a poem to music, where you must make the music fit the words. With me, usually it’s the other way round – the shape of the phrase is already there in the music, so the words have to fit that shape. But it does vary – sometimes a line of words comes along and I know it’s the right line, and I might change the music a bit to accommodate it. But in most cases, the music is first. In one way, you have more freedom if you’re writing a poem which is to be read or spoken – you don’t have to think quite so much about your breathing, you don’t have to consider which vowels are going to work or not according to where they’re pitched – you can just choose whatever you like the sound of. If you’re writing words that are to be sung, you’re a lot less free. I did start writing poetry at about 7 or 8 before I started writing music and it runs in the family, though I only discovered that about 10 years ago. I discovered that my paternal Grandmother was directly descended from the O’Dalaighs, who were poets for several generations, a long time ago. My Father had a few poems published, and my 16 yr old niece Molly has been writing poems for a couple of years now, quite spontaneously. So it’s in the blood. I think I’ve always taken a lot of care over lyrics, because words have such power, and it’s such a shame to be lazy or careless with them. If people are kind enough to listen, then you owe it to them to take care of what’s going in to their ears.
When you talk about influences you mention W. B. Yeats and Samuel Beckett. To what extent was it important for you that these two artists were Irishmen?
None at all. There are plenty of other Irish writers and poets who don’t particularly touch me. At the same time, I love Rumi, and I’m not Turkish.......I love Georgian music and I’m not Georgian. Who knows why some things resonate and others don’t?
You mentioned that you like the idea to have a kind of mutability when playing live.
At the Donaufestival you had to make do without some of your technical devices (and were nevertheless very successful). What can you tell us about your performance in France for the Cartier Foundation?
The main thing is that it was out of doors – they have a space behind the Foundation which is like a little amphitheatre. There were two major unforeseens – for one, we had miscalculated the light, so we weren’t able to use the lovely back projection with Christina Vantzou (of the Dead Texan) had prepared for us – and there was a lot of wind, which added all sorts of unexpected sounds blowing in and out of the sounding holes on the cello, puffing into the microphones – but during the last song, a new piece which has a repeating line that goes „even the wind in the trees sings for everyone“, it was fantastic – it was as if the wind was doing the backing vocals for us! It really did seem to get much louder during that song – we all noticed it, this surge! A few people in the audience noticed it too. And while we were singing „While You’re Away“ which features birds in the middle, you could hear real birds singing when it went quiet, and we liked that too! The gig went very well indeed – I think 75% of the audience bought one or all of the cds afterwards – there was only one person selling them, and he was swamped. We were watching from the penthouse of the building (which they use as a dressing room, when they’re having performances). It was a strange sight and a strange feeling to see how many people were waiting to buy a cd. We didn’t get to meet David Lynch himself, as he had to attend a meditation conference in the US the following day, and he’d already left. I think what he’s doing in trying to get meditation on to the school curriculum in the USA is very admirable, so that was my consolation!
Would you say that a similarity between your work and that of David Lynch is that both of you seem to offer the viewer/listener some kind of space to let the imagination dwell, that you do not give simple/simply answers?
I was very interested to read, in his book „Catching the Big Fish“ that in fact we work in a very similar way. He begins from some kind of fragmented image, or images, which present themselves to him not from a concept or blueprint which he has engendered and completed ahead of time, in his own mind. At the beginning, he has no idea what the end will be like, he’s working in the dark, and the work takes on a life of its own. I was fascinated to read that, because I always felt he worked in a very precise way, very much more calculated than that. But no – it’s somewhat haphazard, uncertain, as if you are serving the images, following them, rather than trying to pin them to a board in the shape you want. Like me, he feels that, a lot of the time, you can trust your subconscious to provide something far more vibrant and rich than you can ever reach with your so-called „conscious“ aim to represent something specific. If you draw only on what you already know, what you have already learned and understood, (or what you think you have!) it seems to me that a certain kind of dryness pervades the work – you’re taking things from the same old cupboards, where you keep all your ideas and concepts. Essentially, your ingredients are stale. To work in another way than that, perhaps you have to sacrifice some clarity, some tidy endings, some neat conclusions – and the whiff of danger is always present, because you really have no idea what might happen next but the flavour is so much stronger! It’s an exercise in trust, really.
You mentioned in an interview that nowadays payment doesn’t seem to play such an important role any longer (because of (illegal) downloading etc.). Is the way the trilogy has been packaged a kind of reaction towards the often faceless mp3-files?
Yes. For younger people I guess it’s much easier to absorb, but for me, I find it quite hard to understand how someone can be content with the sound quality of mp3, and it saddens me very much to know that there is now a whole generation of people who have no idea that there’s any alternative, or how there might be a different quality to their listening. The absence of artwork is a loss to them, also, I think – I myself feel distinctly deprived if I don’t have a cover, or a case, or a booklet. But perhaps I’m a bit of a luddite! The thing that’s really hard for me to understand is how people can be so glib about illegal downloading. The irony is these people will think of themselves as „music lovers“. Perhaps they think that it takes five minutes to write a song, another hour or so to record, so it’s easy enough to just keep knocking out the music in your „free time“ while you support yourself working a 45 hour week in the supermarket so that you can afford to upgrade your laptop every now and again. The fact that „music lovers“ are so able to just help themselves without paying anything, and without any sense of guilt, demonstrates to me exactly the same massive failure of imagination which pervades so much of our culture generally. An inability – or perhaps worse, a refusal to see the bigger picture. Quite literally, they have „no idea“. But the question of payment is also far bigger than this. This illegal downloading question is just one tiny example of a very big problem which you can see in many other ways. Payment and sacrifice are seen as chores to be avoided at all costs, instead of necessary gestures to maintain balance. Gratification and indulgence cannot be sustained indefinitely without these corresponding gestures, as we are beginning to see, and I believe we will continue to see, more and more.
How did you get into touch with Jochen Schwarz and what was it that made you choose Die Stadt?
I got in touch with Jochen through Andrew Mckenzie, who recommended him very highly.
He’s wonderful, and I hope very much that we will be continuing to work together!
Brian Eno said about your music that it’s "some of the most extraordinary songs I've heard in years". How did you feel when getting this praise from the "godfather of ambient"?
Coming from him, that really did count as high praise! He’s been an incredible source of help and encouragement for years – I often think he’s more confident in me than I am, myself!
One has the impression that there aren’t so many women that create music within the realm beyond mainstream music (be it more experimental music, soundscapes etc.). One gets a similar impression when going to concerts or talking to people who run a mailorder (women seem to be a minority as listeners as well). Have you got any explanation for that phenomenon?
I don’t really know enough about the contemporary scene to comment with much insight. All I can think of is that generally speaking (and of course there are exceptions!) women aren’t so easily seduced or fascinated by gadgets and technology as men are – it’s like a language which just doesn’t really appeal to us quite as much. So there aren’t all that many working in electronica. But I never find it remarkable or strange in any way that men and women aren’t the same, and don’t share all the same tastes and inclinations. Why would they?
You’ve talked about a couple of new songs “incubating”. Will they go in a similar direction as the “Neither Speak Nor Remain Silent”-trilogy?
I don’t know yet. When the process starts, and ideas begin moving, it seems to take on a life of its own.......generally I feel it’s more of a balancing act than an exercise in control. I feel it’s so important to remain sensitive to changes as they occur, sensitive to the collisions between your ideas, and what happens when they meet „reality“ and to keep adjusting the picture, rather than adhere rigidly to a preconceived plan, trying to resist these inevitable collisions. Movement is movement you have to maintain a strong sense of balance, so that you can tell the difference between relatively slight deviation and complete derailment – and your sense of purpose and intention, overall, must be strong enough to survive a certain amount of deviation. To keep protecting yourself from the unexpected is not just futile – it’s a massive waste of energy, and in many ways, a kind of death, a refusal of life. It’s a lot more exciting to agree to keep moving, rather than to insist on forcing everything into some shape or other you decided on, in the abstract, before the movement began. I remember a funny conversation I had years ago with Brian Eno – we were talking about when you mis-hear lyrics. He had been listening to some old recording of a gospel song, and the refrain was „Surrender to the Will“, sung repeatedly, with great animation and much handclapping. But he had heard it as „Surrender to the Wheel“ – we both really loved that! In one way, you could say both phrases are saying the same thing – but we agreed that the second one, the imagined one, is actually far more eloquent.......(I wonder if that will translate into German??!!)