Denis Boyer interviews Clodagh Simonds, FEAR DROP, April 2012

Original text in French

Seeing in the dark. Fovea Hex's music, based around the Irish musician and singer Clodagh Simonds, describes this paradox: any sense of the two separate worlds of song on the one side, and ambient music on the other, seems to melt into an elegant combination whose absence prior to this seems extraordinary. Shards of Eyeless In Gaza and Cocteau Twins sometimes seem to glint in the music of Fovea Hex, but behind this is a panoramic view. Clodagh Simonds's career began in the mid 60s. Still a teenager, she formed the group Mellow Candle, whose album Swaddling Songs (1972) has since become a collectors item.

The following years saw her emerge on the recordings of various musicians, and mingling with artists like Brian Eno, who guests now and again in the music of Fovea Hex. Between Brian Eno on one side, and Andrew McKenzie (The Hafler Trio) on the other, the spectrum of abstraction to figuration which corresponds to the vision of Fovea Hex, can be loosely defined. The EP trilogy Neither Speak Nor Remain Silent consists of Bloom, Huge and Allure, was published by the German label Die Stadt between 2005 and 2007. Now the album Here Is Where We Used to Sing draws the veil back once again, revealing this beautiful world of surrealism and pastoralism. Pianos, organs, harmoniums, Clodagh Simonds' voice, mixed with, or reflected by others (Brian Eno, Laura Sheeran...), strings (Cora Venus Lunny, Kate Ellis, Julia Kent, John Contreras) electronic incursions (Colin Potter of Nurse With Wound, and Michael Begg of Human Greed ...) make the music of Fovea Hex a perfect rendezvous between experimentation and lyricism, with the beauty of the Aurora Borealis: melodies that break out over a dense carpet of light rays. Here is the secret world of Clodagh Simonds.

I feel that your music is mainly built on the idea of apparition, epiphany, manifestation – the fovea being that spot in the eye where the most accurate details are captured; your first EP as Fovea Hex is called Bloom, and more generally speaking, your music can be heard as an awakening. Can we say about your music that it is as an approach, a place where the forms come out of the mist?

I've always loved twilight – you can trace an energy there, more easily than you can trace it throughout the night or throughout the day, it's like a charge of some kind, a strong current connected to the edges of the day. I mistrust the hunger for clarity, the assumption that only clarity is valid, and the need to have everything always in broad daylight. I think it's a little closer to reality that only a small percentage of what we see can really be clear. It's very comfortable in a way, to have the feeling that we see everything clearly, we know what everything is, and where it belongs – I know who you are, you know who I am, we know how things work, we understand what's going on – it's comfortable to have that sense of order. But – to me, anyway – it isn't real, it's a lie. When I was a small child I was absolutely fascinated the first time I saw some tromp l'oeil murals. I thought that was just the best idea ever – to have my senses tricked and disarmed – something had to remain suspended, it couldn't land or find a home. I just loved that feeling of up-in-the-air uncertainty – it carried a kind of thrill for me, a real joy. Almost like a physical thing, it was very strong. I wouldn't say I ever took a conscious decision that I wanted to represent such a place musically – but it's definitely been a preference of mine, the uncertain over the certain, the place before/beyond/above 'definition' – it's a bias I have, so I suppose inevitably it is reflected somewhat in the music I write.

With people like Andrew McKenzie, Colin Potter and Michael Begg, as past or present members of Fovea Hex, it seems like there is a will of integrating very abstract elements into a universe of songs. How did you come to this idea? Very often, there two musical worlds are isolated one from another, and the encounters are quite scarce...

I would never make a clear plan, like "I think I will integrate abstract elements and songs", or draw up a list of people I want to work with, or decide what this or that song will be about. But it is true that I felt for some time that the craft of songwriting had become very jaded, but that there must be alternatives to out-and-out deconstruction – cut-up words, sampled spoken voice, and so on. Those extreme measures didn't interest me much, even though I think that historically, they're important. There's something very arid, clinical – the result is not a fresh kind of song, it's a non-song. Okay, "interesting" – but might something else be possible that would be more true to the form of Song? So I've had that question for quite some time, and I'm still asking it. I don't feel I can just decide on a strategy to pursue. In a way it's a matter of faith, I suppose – I have learned to just trust something else. It seems to me that the "something" which you trust doesn't have to be too clear – it doesn't matter if you can't name it, as long as you have a strong sense of it. And the trust that you develop in it must be very strong – the quality of the trust is what makes the "something" begin to be reliable, it seems to me it's like a co-operation. If you really trust chance – really, and not just theoretically – she will favor you. So – it wasn't a specific strategy that I was following. I was just following my nose, trusting to chance, and this is where it led me.

On three EPs of the Neither speak nor remain silent series, there is a tension between sound texture and lyrical elements (song). Then, the album Here is where we used to sing is much more "song orientated". How did this evolution occur?

Partly I think it is because we discovered that the songs on the three EPs were extremely difficult to reproduce live. In many places on those recordings, there is no clear rhythm, and yet the voices are quite tightly synchronized, as are many of the transition points. It's a very challenging juxtaposition in a live setting – really it's impossible if you have limited resources, limited rehearsal time, players who are not all that familiar with the pieces and so on, and every time we have performed, those have been the conditions we have had to work with. The way I write hasn't changed, so we are not really talking about an evolution in that sense, just a different way of structuring the arrangements. When we were recording Neither Speak Nor Remain Silent, we used quite a luxurious, impractical approach – it was never an issue, whether we would be able to perform them or not. I didn't even know if the opportunity to perform would arise, or if I had any wish to perform them. It was just not on the agenda. So things like metre, definition, strict tempo, linear structure, were not an issue. I really like the freedom that comes with not having to be concerned as to whether something can be performed live – although I admit it does feel like a luxury. I think it's perfectly valid to make recordings which can only exist as recordings, in the same way as I think it's valid to make films which you can't perform as plays. But with Here Is Where We Used To Sing I felt like exploring those limitations and demands that live performance makes, rather than just continuing to ignore them, so I chose to observe some rules I hadn't observed before, and that did have an influence on the way the arrangements are structured. I might have been able to accomplish the same end by sacrificing all the extra voices and harmonies, by arranging the pieces for just one solo voice, over a much less defined and less articulated background – but that doesn't appeal to me at the moment. I might explore that later.

In the lyrics of the songs Huge and That river, there is a struggle against a sedentary tropism. Is it a way to speak in praise of nomadism?

I don't really decide what I might praise, or what this or that song will be about. Lyrically, something intuitive and quite naive will be the guiding force, not my thoughts about "I must make this kind of statement, because I believe this, or that". It always feels as if I'm working in the dark. I begin usually with sounds, phonetics, not words – and then there is something like a process of recognition that enters the choices I make. Something suggests itself, a line or a phrase – sometimes it makes sense to me, and sometimes not. It's a bit like doing a jigsaw, perhaps three or four lines will appear first, but they don't seem obviously connected – perhaps two are at the start of the song, and one is in the middle, and the fourth is at the end. I might move them all around, I might leave them where they are and see what appears which might connect them. Maybe nothing comes, and I start all over again. Sometimes I will listen to them after they're finished, and suddenly I see what I'm saying... in fact sometimes, it comes as a shock...but it's never a decision I took, to make this or that statement. In the lyrics of Still Unseen, you find the whole idea of "homecoming" is celebrated, so I don't think I particularly favor nomadism. Being rootless can be just as much of a trap as being rooted – I wouldn't favor one over the other. Assenting to be trapped or not, one way or the other – that's a more interesting question!

The 2005 / 2007 trilogy is entitled Neither speak nor remain silent. Is it related to the very feature of music itself, the first way of eloquence, without language / out of language / before language?

I didn't particularly intend it to be, although perhaps it is. I just found it an appealing and engaging phrase, it isn't immediately clear what it means (which, of course, I love!) and I like the rhythm of it. I'm really not a conceptualist. I am more interested to work naively, just follow a scent. I get a better result from leaving my head out of it, no theories, no big overriding "concept" I obey, no stylistic imperatives – keep moving, but in the dark. Only turn the light on when it's finished. And sometimes be quite surprised by what's there.

Your lyrics sometimes refer to a missing person, called, dreamt of, seen... but maybe not conscious of this attention. This person seems suspended in the call. Do you think that music is the most appropriate way to express the unspeakable, this grey area of the thought?

I wouldn't be too sure. If I could write a play, make a film, paint a painting, perhaps I would be qualified to compare them and decide which is most appropriate, but I can't. I've never really thought about it. I am aware that some people believe that music has the greatest potential to convey the ephemeral, but it seems to me that each of these forms has certain limitations, and certain possibilities which the others don't have. I suspect that it's more to do with the artist, than the art form, how successful it is, and I also feel that they are complementary – each of them represents a certain kind of effort to communicate in a way that isn't "ordinary". But I'm also interested (in rather an unscholarly way) in the neurophysiology of sound, and I've read some fascinating material about the different levels upon which we process visual and auditory stimuli. I find it intriguing that hearing is generally the final sense to shut down as we die. But I'm just meandering, that doesn't answer your question! Although perhaps it's related in some way.

In your music I feel an important tension between abstraction and lyricism, as I said before, between harmony and melody as well. Is it the reason why you ask people from various musical horizons to join Fovea Hex, so that their different experiences may fuel the tension?

I would very rarely decide to ask a certain person, because I want a certain something. As I've said, I'm not very devoted to Certainty, generally speaking, and I generally don't attempt to manipulate the people I work with in any way. I just begin, and then see what happens. Ideas will appear as soon as I begin – I don't start with a whole lot of ideas, and then make them happen. I always begin very very simply, and just keep an eye on what's happening around me, who's around, who do I encounter, or what seems to be happening – remain very open to what's going on around me, keep weaving, keep including the fresh, sometimes completely discard what I began with, sometimes hold it – depending on what, or who, appears next. All the people who have appeared on Fovea Hex recordings have been people I encountered, if you like "by chance", rather than I went out recruiting with a clear objective in mind.

In your lyrics one can also hear a melancholy which is not actually sadness but rather, to quote French writer Pascal Quignard, "La joie dont on peut mourir dans la retrouvaille imprévisible" ("A joy which can make you die in the unpredictable reunion"). Can Fovea Hex be defined in the realm of this melancholy / nostalgia? (Sehnsucht)

I do know what people mean when they say there is a melancholy element in my work, I understand why they might feel that way – but to be honest, I don't think about it much. It's just something I accept – that seems to be how people hear it. I have a strong sense of wanting to honor something which I can't quite name, something which is always just out of reach. Personally, I don't think that is melancholic – and I don't think my nature is at all melancholic. I'm actually quite jovial! By nature I am not given to nostalgia either – in fact I have a bit of an aversion to nostalgia and sentimentalism. At the end of the day, I think it will always be others who define Fovea Hex, not me. I never know how to define it. When people who haven't heard my work ask me "so, what kind of music is it?" I never know what on earth to say – but I don't think I've ever once said "It's melancholic". I'm more likely to say "Well... you can't dance to it." I just have this innate dislike of definition!

What is your relation to folk music?

I came to folk music in my late teens – and American folk first, like Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Simon & Garfunkel. There was no traditional Irish music in my background. When I discovered the Incredible String Band, at about age 17, it made a stronger impact – it was like discovering your own family – those early albums of theirs resonated so strongly. It was only after that I began to discover Irish traditional music, through Donal Lunny and Andy Irvine, and the first Planxty album was astonishing – people forget now how radical it was – it was a completely new take on Irish traditional music, and it found a completely new and much younger audience. My first ever public performance was in 1970, organized by Donal – we were opening for The Chieftains, on St. Patricks Day. Irish traditional music in those days was still a relatively hardcore, minority pursuit, and the majority of people in the audience would have been over 40. The guys in the Chieftains were all still working at their dayjobs. We were a bunch of hippies, we had electric bass, electric guitar, electric piano, and we didn't go down at all well. I remember a lady in the audience trying to hit me with her handbag as we made our way back to the dressing room – she was clearly disgusted by us. It was through Donal, later again, that I discovered Sean Nos – I just couldn't believe that we had never heard any in school, that nobody had showed us this amazing material which belonged to our own heritage, instead of teaching us Gilbert & Sullivan, or Schubert. It was a very strong experience for me, the first time I heard Sean Nos. I've never really considered myself to be a folk singer. Perhaps by default I am – I'm not a rock singer, or a jazz singer, or an opera singer – maybe that's why I fall into the "folk" category. I don't really like too much polish on the voice – I prefer a plain voice, not too much styling, and I always have – that's something I would share with most folk singers I guess.

About Three beams, the black drone twin of Here is Where We Used To Sing produced by Michael Begg, Colin Potter and William Basinski: who had the idea of creating it? In my opinion it restores the balance towards abstraction, Here Is Where We Used To Sing being more lyrical. What were the "orders" given to the three musicians?

Each of the Neither Speak Nor Remain Silent eps also had bonus cds which were remixes of some of the material on the ep, so we were just continuing the tradition. I gave no orders at all. Each of them had carte blanche. Michael and Colin chose which tracks they wanted to work on – in William's case, I suggested it, just because I had the impression he didn't have a lot of time to listen to all the tracks and ponder which one to do. And I decided it would be good to take a few words out of each song, and use that as the title – Michael took all the stems from "Falling Things" and we named it "Fall Calling"... Colin took the stems from A Hymn To Sulphur, and we named it "Cup of Joy", I gave William the stems from Still Unseen, and we called it "Glaze".