Simon Emmerson (1956–2023)
Peter Gabriel remembers the life and musical career of Simon Emmerson.
Fri, 17 March 23
Released 05 April 1999
I believe that my musical heritage comes not specifically from my own culture. I believe I am heir to a universal form of inspiration.
Singing for my own enjoyment as a teenager, music became a form of catharsis for me. I was insular and inarticulate. Singing became my primary means of expression. Early on in my career I realised there was no-one in my genre to teach me the rules. I had to discover my own musical principles by myself. These factors have made me pragmatic, fiercely independent, and voice-led. When I write I go into a mental space where I’m not female, I’m not Asian, I am nothing but a curious mind, and for me the impulse to create often comes out of things I don’t hear. I make albums I know I can’t go out and buy.
I started my life as a singer, signed to a major record company and at sixteen had an international mainstream chart hit with the groundbreaking single ‘Ever So Lonely’. For people who remember me from Monsoon, the journey from my work with them to the trilogy of albums I made for Real World must seem like quite a leap. The beginning of the period which marked the emergence of the trilogy was indeed a time of change. I decided after recording my fifth solo album Roots and Wings (Indipop) in 1990, to conquer the two remaining fields that I had previously been too busy as a writer and singer to tackle— live work and my business arrangements.
I decided for my first ever live concerts that I would appear alone on stage, supported only by the occasional drone. I wanted a vehicle to show off the very subtle nuances of the voice which you don’t normally hear. Fusion doesn’t just happen when you put different instruments from different cultures together, or even if you layer voices— it can happen in one voice, one mind. I also felt that solo concerts would be the fastest way to learn about the dynamics of the performer/audience relationship. I had started to get curious about that twinkle in an audience’s eyes after a great performance, and had decided to set myself the challenge of testing out my own theories about how this was achieved.
When I write I go into a mental space where I’m not female, I’m not Asian, I am nothing but a curious mind, and for me the impulse to create often comes out of things I don’t hear. I make albums I know I can’t go out and buy. Sheila Chandra
Consequently, a new catalogue of material using only solo voice and drone had to be written. Having committed to a season of festival performances around the world with WOMAD, I formed my own production company and offered an album of the new style material to WOMAD’s sister company Real World.
A few months before going on stage, there came a time when I wanted fire walkers, jugglers and a dozen dancers out there with me— anything to keep the audiences’ attention! I kept wondering if this kind of solo voice concert could possibly work… that’s when I needed all my courage to stick to the initial vision.
On stage, alone, and with only my voice to carry me, sometimes my own conscious and active ‘waiting’ in a performance is rewarded by an incredible feeling. It’s as if an outside influence has entered me, sound is channelled through my body like a flute and there’s no sensation in my throat.
If I am lucky, this connection with something that feels like a higher intelligence happens when I’m writing too. I am not in charge as far as my albums are concerned. I am kept in line by these songs. They pour out of my throat with far more levels of meaning in them than I could possibly cobble together out of my own consciousness, or than I can see at the time. I have learned to simply prepare well and then get out of the way of the process, in the hope that it will happen. That is why a lack of record company interference is so important to me.
I think of my albums as living entities— as personalities in their own right. So I’m not about to sit back and let something in a way as innocent and defenceless as my recordings come through and be manipulated away from their full potential for the sake of simply making money. Instead, I protect them through my publishing and production companies, and by working very closely with Real World. I am able to do this because I’ve never taken on a manager, I negotiate my own recording contracts, I own my own recordings and currently lease them for a limited period only. Each of the trilogy albums has been signed to Real World as a one-off, and only once I’d completed the final mixes and was satisfied with the result.
Throughout this period Real World have been very brave about letting me get on with and supporting me in my own musical vision. I chose them because they were, and have con- tinued to be, willing to let me maintain my previously found creative and business control. But they have also enhanced and expanded all aspects of quality control and helped my music find new audiences worldwide.
They have let me become part of the family at Real World and WOMAD and this, certainly for me, is not a factor to be underestimated, coming as I had done from the tiny and isolated ‘Indipop’ label (God bless ‘em!) and very much ‘in from out of the cold.’ My move in 1991 to live in Glastonbury, only a short drive from Real World, has helped me find a new sense of spiritual and musical home that has given me the confidence to attempt more and more.
So, why voice and drone? There is something arresting about the power of the single voice and something magical about the power of a drone which almost all musical cultures have honoured at some point in their history, and which many of the most compelling musics keep alive as a central and funda- mental part of their structure.
A drone will at once both support and form a contrast or harmony with the note of the lead vocal over it. Following this changing relationship, or counterpoint of intervals between these two notes, is often where the interest lies. At the same time, whilst it will offer an instant atmosphere, the drone will not colour the melody in emotional terms, as chords do. It throws the responsibility back on the singer to create enough interest and emotion to engage the listener. The drone empowers the singer even though its harmonics contain seeds of melody. The tracks on ABoneCroneDrone take this fact even further and attempt to make these seeds of melody within the bones of the drone the main focus, and visible even to an unskilled ear.
Musical structures are easier to mix when they are stripped down to their bare bones. Many of the cultures which take the voice seriously use fixed note scales of as few as five notes, which immediately create a ‘personality’ for the melody. I have often contrasted and segued these. Key vocal ornaments— ie trills, turns and arpeggios— remain the same through many traditions, although they are used with differing psychologies. Add to that the unaccompanied singing that incorporates the use of an implied (or unsounded) drone and you have very similar structures which can be weaved together without any of them losing their individual identity.
In the impetus to blend all these vocal styles, my voice has always been the guiding presence. The fascinating thing for me is that these connections really are waiting to be discovered on an almost organic level. It’s as though we have a kind of library of knowledge built into us cellularly, and if you keep playing around with these musics you discover crossing points, gateways, nexus points and these sorts of connections resurface. In a way, it means that none of this knowledge can be lost.
I set out to write these solo voice albums as a vision of the unchallenged power and beauty of the voice. It’s strange but, as one solo voice, they exist physically on the minimum amount of tape— they’re almost not in this world. However, you do need a greater density of ideas for this kind of album, because you can’t rely on the string section or gospel choir coming in on the second chorus to keep up your interest.
The fineness of the creative world I enter is enthralling to me. Less can be more. There is a large vocal palette available to the singer, for instance, variations of vibrato, ornamentation, tone, volume, etc. I notice that what is called ‘good’ singing weaves combinations of these colours faster than the audience can follow and with greater imagination! My own extensive writing periods have involved me getting out these fine brushes to decide which tone, texture or harmonic is needed on a certain note or phrase to deepen the emotion.
“The last eight years have been a period of immensely exciting growth for me as an artist. In that time a trilogy of albums for Real World has emerged as a cohesive entity. This compilation features some of the best of that work.”
I love the final mixing— it is such an abundant process— one voice, a million pounds worth of equipment… I just sit back and enjoy watching the specialists at work. In any performance, the voice and the acoustic environment become one, just as on a record the studio is the hidden instrument. Steve Coe (writer and producer) and Stuart Bruce (mix engineer) go into the same intricate detail of sound enhancement in the studio that I go through vocally in preparing these pieces. When you’ve only got one voice to concentrate on, any subtle changes of vocal tone or studio enhancement are much more noticeable. There is nowhere to hide, but you are free to play around with the physics and psychology of silence and sound.
The same writing, recording and mixing team have worked on this trilogy— including the two new recordings— over an eight year period. This continuity and technical evolution has been integral to my own process as a writer and singer.
In an age where we are constantly being bombarded by very accessible musics constructed to grab your attention immediately, it is gratifying to know that people do leave space for music which requires them to move towards it and that calls out for their active participation. You have to be ready for my music and decide to let it in. In my experience, it doesn’t work too well at cocktail parties!
Monsoon’s work was an evolutionary leap. From Monsoon to Moonsung feels like another to me, and yet there are many common underlying threads. Journalists have often asked me throughout the trilogy if I could see myself returning to pop music… One reaction is that in many ways I feel I’ve never left pop music. Steve and I were brought up on it, and contained in the small worlds of these albums are every pop trick in the book! Of course, another answer is “I can make a classic pop album anytime I damn well choose to!”.
All tracks produced by Steve Coe.
All tracks mixed by Stuart Bruce at Real World Studios, assisted by Ben Findlay/Jacquie Turner/Claire Lewis/James Cadsky.
All tracks recorded by Andy Allen and Rik Dowding at The Coachouse, Bristol, except: ‘Ever So Lonely/Eyes/Ocean’ recorded by Stuart Bruce at Real World Studios; ‘ABoneCroneDrone 1’ and ‘ABoneCroneDrone 3’ recorded by Andy Allen at Christchurch Hall Studios, Bristol, with additional recording at Brave New World, Pfaffenheck, Germany.
Mastered by Ian Cooper at Metropolis Mastering, London.
All drones sung and played by Sheila Chandra and Steve Coe except: bagpipe drones on ‘ABoneCroneDrone 3’ by Paul James.
All tracks written and arranged by Sheila Chandra and Steve Coe except: ‘Ever So Lonely’ written by S Coe; ‘Eyes’ written by M Smith/S Coe; ‘Nana’ written by Manuel de Falla.
A Real World Design. Graphic design by Anna-Karin Sundin. Photography by Sheila Rock. Sleeve notes by Sheila Chandra. Malayalam script by S K Kurup.
Released 10 May 1992
Released 21 September 1997
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