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…
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…”
IAMTHEMORNING PICTURED IN GISKE, WHERE OCEAN SOUNDS WAS RECORDED.
IAMTHEMORNING, L-R: GLEB KOLYADIN, MARJANA SEMKINA.
MEETING THE LOCALS IN GISKE…