iamthe­morn­ing’s lat­est creative en­deav­our is a vis­ual work of art cre­ated in the depths of re­mote Nor­way. Mar­jana Semk­ina brings Prog into their world…

Prog - - Contents - Words: Polly Glass Im­ages: Miles Skarin

The Rus­sian duo on mak­ing beau­ti­ful art in a re­mote stu­dio in Nor­way.

It’s a tiny, chaotic fairy gar­den, book­worm place!” Mar­jana Semk­ina gig­gles by way of in­tro­duc­tion to her 21st-floor, pa­per-walled pocket of St Peters­burg. Here, un­der the glow of fairy lights, she lives sur­rounded by books and dream­catch­ers, with pa­per cranes hang­ing

When there is a girl and a guy work­ing in the same project, ev­ery­one by de­fault as­sumes that the girl is there as a pretty book cover or some­thing, and the guy’s the one do­ing all the hard work. That is not true.

from the win­dow. And dead flow­ers. Lots of dead flow­ers.

“I plan to put them into empty wine bot­tles,” she ex­plains, “we do a lot of drink­ing wine here in Rus­sia be­cause if you don’t drink, you can’t sur­vive in this coun­try.”

Per­haps this is why she gets out as much as pos­si­ble, trav­el­ling abroad as of­ten as money, time and visa re­stric­tions will al­low. Re­cently she ap­plied for spe­cial dis­pen­sa­tion to move to the UK, with let­ters of en­dorse­ment from record la­bel Ks­cope and Prog edi­tor Jerry Ewing. The process hasn’t been plain sail­ing. Our ini­tial in­ter­view was resched­uled af­ter she was way­laid with visa of­fice headaches and pa­per­work. She jug­gles all of this along­side a day job in IT and, of course, iamthe­morn­ing, the band she co-founded with vir­tu­osic clas­si­cal pi­anist Gleb Kolyadin. It’s all rather at odds with the gauzy, waif-like char­ac­ter peo­ple ex­pect her to be.

“Peo­ple will of­ten tell me that I make an im­pres­sion of a del­i­cate flower,” she says in clear, ac­cented tones, “some­one that doesn’t re­ally have to work a lot, just a pretty girl in a pretty dress that is just… there. And this makes me so frus­trated, be­cause when there is a girl and a guy work­ing in the same project, ev­ery­one by de­fault as­sumes that the girl is there as a pretty book cover or some­thing, and the guy’s the one do­ing all the hard work. That is not true.”

Semk­ina is not the woman you might have imag­ined. Or at least, not if your im­pres­sion stems from her icily sweet voice and im­age that ri­vals John Everett Mil­lais’ Ophe­lia (the term ‘Pre-Raphaelite’ has prob­a­bly now been used to de­scribe her as fre­quently as ac­tual Pre-Raphaelite art). In con­ver­sa­tion she’s like­ably kooky but fiercely sharp and en­gaged. Her voice of­ten breaks into a high half-laugh-half-gasp, con­tra­dict­ing her steely no-bull­shit streak – much as the tat­toos and dread­locks off­set her porce­lain Kate Bush-cum-Tori Amos qual­ity.

Still, it’s these kinds of con­flict­ing qual­i­ties that make iamthe­morn­ing so al­lur­ing. Since they formed in 2010, their mu­sic has been called pro­gres­sive rock, cham­ber prog and ‘baroque’n’roll’ among other things: merg­ing height­ened emo­tions, an­gelic ethe­re­al­ity and Rus­sian clas­si­cism into one con­tem­po­rary prog pack­age. In 2016 all these tropes reached some­thing of a peak on sec­ond al­bum Light­house, an emo­tion­ally heavy but lush con­cept record about a char­ac­ter deal­ing with men­tal health is­sues, in­spired by the sto­ries of Sylvia Plath and Vir­ginia Woolf. It won them a Prog Award for Best Al­bum in 2016, which has also helped the afore­men­tioned visa ap­pli­ca­tion process.

To­day we’re con­ven­ing over Skype to talk about iamthe­morn­ing’s new stu­dio film, Ocean Sounds. Com­pris­ing live per­for­mances of tracks from their first three records, it was shot and recorded over five days at the Ocean Sound stu­dio in Giske, a re­mote, starkly beau­ti­ful is­land town near Åle­sund in Sun­n­møre, the south­ern­most tra­di­tional dis­trict of Nor­way. The gen­e­sis of the idea first emerged years ago, when Semk­ina stum­bled across the stu­dio on­line.

“This is when I made the de­ci­sion!” she says. “I had no idea what we were gonna do there, but I just knew for sure that I would love to take my band to record in this stu­dio. And of course be­cause the lo­ca­tion is so beau­ti­ful and the set­ting is just per­fect, I knew that we would have to do the vis­ual stuff. So when we de­cided we had space in our sched­ule to do the live DVD – and I wanted to cap­ture the sound of the live band we had at that point – it was very easy to de­cide to do it here, be­cause I’d al­ways had this place in my mind.”

Con­vinc­ing their la­bel wasn’t so easy. Nor­way is ex­pen­sive, Giske is hard to ac­cess and they had 10 peo­ple to fly from Rus­sia, Bel­gium, Ice­land, Eng­land and France.

“Of course la­bels and man­age­ment are sup­posed to think about things that mu­si­cians don’t al­ways con­sider, so I was like, ‘I wanna do that and screw you!’ This is ba­si­cally how we make de­ci­sions in iamthe­morn­ing. It took time to ne­go­ti­ate, but I think ev­ery­one is happy with how it turned out.”

Their band and crew were flown in, and Semk­ina, Kolyadin and their driver trav­elled for three days from St Peters­burg.

“We drove all the way through Fin­land, on a ferry to Swe­den, and then through Swe­den, through Nor­way and all the way to Åle­sund,” she rem­i­nisces, adding rather wist­fully: “It was a great ad­ven­ture ac­tu­ally, it felt like a proper road trip. The scenery that we saw dur­ing these three days was to­tally worth the long drive. Nor­way and Swe­den are both just so stun­ning and this type of north­ern na­ture is so close to us, and so close to the mu­sic, that it was very in­spir­ing and up­lift­ing.”

Cen­tred on their live setlist (and tour­ing band) from the last year or two, the aim with Ocean Sounds was to cap­ture a pos­i­tive time in the band’s life­span. Cin­e­matic shots be­tween songs show soft ex­changes in Rus­sian, with bare rocks and inky sea out­side, as the sun sets around the stu­dio, which has a glass roof.

“This was kind of a re­treat for all of us,” Semk­ina says, “to just en­joy each other’s com­pany and play mu­sic to­gether while also en­joy­ing this fan­tas­tic set­ting, and it was es­pe­cially easy to en­joy all the time be­cause the win­dows are so huge. So while we were record­ing and per­form­ing I was just look­ing at the sea, think­ing that this is prob­a­bly one of the hap­pi­est places I’ve ever been to. I’m al­ways hap­pi­est when I get to do what I’m sup­posed to do as a mu­si­cian, not some ad­min or crowd­fund­ing or talk­ing to man­age­ment, all that crap that mod­ern mu­si­cians have to do. But per­form­ing mu­sic that I wrote, and also be­ing next to the sea…

“A lot of the mu­sic and songs I’ve writ­ten are in­flu­enced by wa­ter and the sea,” she adds. “Light­house starts with the sea and fin­ishes with the sea. The girl is kind of drown­ing her­self, so it’s not ex­actly the hap­pi­est… Our first al­bum also starts with the sea and has the sea on the cover, and Light­house has the sea on the cover. We’ve got this very strong con­nec­tion with wa­ter and the sea: it just makes me feel like any­thing is pos­si­ble.” She pauses, then laughs: “I don’t know why...”

It was a ma­jor change from their reg­u­lar workspaces back home in St Peters­burg.

We drove all the way through Fin­land, on a ferry to Swe­den, and then through Swe­den, through Nor­way and all the way to Åle­sund. It was a great ad­ven­ture: it felt like a proper road trip.

Semk­ina’s 30-square-me­tre, 21st-floor apart­ment on the out­skirts of the city has the bonus of over­look­ing wood­land, but keeps her con­fined to a small iPad-based record­ing set-up. She speaks frankly about the dif­fi­cul­ties of be­ing an artist in Rus­sia: a place that, she tells us, for all its rich mu­si­cal her­itage, looks down on full-time mu­si­cians.

“Be­cause I have a day job, peo­ple some­times take me se­ri­ously,” she ex­plains. “But Gleb has a dif­fer­ent story. He’s a clas­si­cally trained mu­si­cian, he only does that, so he barely man­ages to make ends meet. When they ask him, ‘What do you do?’ and he goes, ‘I’m a mu­si­cian,’ they go, ‘Oh, do you have a real job?’ This is the at­ti­tude that we’ve got. In Rus­sia we have this say­ing that some­thing is ‘made in your lap’, like you’re sit­ting on a bench in a park and you write a poem, in a tiny note­book, in your lap. It means you’re do­ing some­thing in the con­di­tions that are not sup­posed to help you.”

She’s acutely self-aware as we talk, laugh­ing rather darkly at how “de­press­ing” this ar­ti­cle risks be­com­ing.

“But from a creative point of view, maybe stay­ing in Rus­sia is more pro­duc­tive, be­cause you know how artists are sup­posed to be de­pressed to be creative?” she sug­gests wryly. “We never re­ally had any sup­port in Rus­sia in terms of pro­mo­tion. I was the one talk­ing to the venues, I was the one print­ing posters and some­times even putting them out on the street and print­ing tick­ets and sell­ing them. So it’s al­ways been very much DIY.”

Semk­ina’s ex­pe­ri­ence of her home­land has long been fraught. Raised in an im­pov­er­ished house­hold in Kazan, she learned English at a “school full of rich kids” – her par­ents’ de­ci­sion, specif­i­cally be­cause of its rep­u­ta­tion for teach­ing the lan­guage. She was bul­lied from the be­gin­ning, com­ing to class in “shabby, cheap” clothes that her mother had bought from garage sales. Mu­sic quickly be­came a source of es­cape, even if her tastes fur­ther sep­a­rated her from her peers.

“I knew The Wall by heart by the age of five,” she re­calls. “My par­ents thought it would be an ap­pro­pri­ate bed­time car­toon be­cause it had mul­ti­pli­ca­tion in it! I kind of just mem­o­rised ev­ery­thing pho­net­i­cally and sang along to it. I don’t think it was en­tirely healthy, but at least I al­ways have an ex­cuse now to tell my par­ents why I be­came a mu­si­cian… So when I came to school I was al­ready a fan of Pink Floyd and The Bea­tles and all that, and I was so eager to share it with other kids! But that wasn’t wel­come at all.”

As a “mis­er­able” 14-year-old she dis­cov­ered Anath­ema, with the likes of Por­cu­pine Tree and Ocean­size fol­low­ing in quick suc­ces­sion. Af­ter univer­sity in Moscow, she and Kolyadin formed iamthe­morn­ing, gain­ing ini­tial trac­tion, es­sen­tially, for be­ing dif­fer­ent.

Their early au­di­ences con­sisted mostly of Rus­sian teenagers, and her voice bright­ens con­sid­er­ably as we talk about them.

“Our au­di­ence in Rus­sia is still mostly cute teenage girls in flow­ery dresses and guys in Haken shirts,” she grins. “They all dye their hair in dif­fer­ent colours and bring presents to us and write touch­ing mes­sages and fold pa­per cranes, the same as I do for the con­certs.”

As front­woman and the pre­dom­i­nant English speaker in the band, Semk­ina is iamthe­morn­ing’s chief mouth­piece. It’s re­sulted in a loyal fan­base – from the mar­ried cou­ples who met at their gigs to those whom Semk­ina, a trou­bled soul her­self, has talked out of self-harm or sui­ci­dal thoughts.

“That hap­pens reg­u­larly,” she says. “It’s not easy emo­tion­ally for my­self be­cause I’m not quite sta­ble too. But then they mes­sage me

[to say] I help them, and it’s very re­ward­ing. There are a lot of trou­bled peo­ple out there, just as I used to be, and still am, and mu­sic still helps me, and I’m re­ally happy to be that kind of help for them. This is very im­por­tant.”

It’s a lot to place on one, not-quite-sta­ble per­son. Do you and Gleb so­cialise much out­side of mu­sic?

“I’m… a bit of a her­mit, to be hon­est,” she says. “Gleb and I are very close but it’s not re­ally nec­es­sary to be talk­ing much when you are al­ready close peo­ple. I think this is a very high-qual­ity friend­ship.”

Go­ing for­ward, there’s a fourth al­bum in the works, one track of which ap­pears in acous­tic form on Ocean Sounds. As Semk­ina tells us, she has drawn in­spi­ra­tion from Vic­to­rian art and 19th-cen­tury English his­tory. Ac­counts of freak shows, pros­ti­tutes and wax mod­els of dis­sected women have fu­elled her writ­ing, and she’s also work­ing on a song that fol­lows 14th-cen­tury Ital­ian work The De­cameron, “Which is def­i­nitely not a Vic­to­rian pe­riod, but it’s still a mor­bidly beau­ti­ful story about the cor­rupted na­ture of peo­ple…”

She stops for a sec­ond. She seems sud­denly more child­like when talk­ing about new mu­sic, as if for­get­ting her life strug­gles and demons.

“So yeah,” she con­tin­ues, “a lot of fas­ci­nat­ing themes for the songs, but I’m still think­ing about how to shape it up into a beau­ti­ful con­cept to present to peo­ple…”




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