December 05, 2006

Tasmin Archer

If there is one song from the early 1990s that is still quite as captivating, it is Tasmin Archer's hit song, "Sleeping Satellite." It's a slinky yet quite catchy number that is both dark and haunting, yet is wonderfully well-written and hard to forget, and it was a wonderful balm in the midst of Grunge and hard-rock. It made an appearance on the US charts during those halcyon Alternative days of 1992, and the album it appeared on, Great Expectations, was full of equally wonderful songs, all of which were as good--if not better than--"Sleeping Satellite," which, to be honest, is quite a feat, considering "Sleeping Satellite" is nearly perfect. It looked like Ms. Archer was set to become a name, if not in households, with those who appreciate good music and the art of excellent songwriting. Great Expectations seemed to be the sort of record that would help build a foundation for a long-term career. In 1994, an EP entitled Shipbuilding was released; this mini-album contained a number of excellent Elvis Costello covers, as well as some live versions of songs from Great Expectations. For those who enjoyed the album, it was a nice treat to tide them over until the follow-up.

Alas, it was not to be. After that, nothing; to those who fell for Great Expectations, her voice sadly went silent. In the United States, she disappeared into obscurity and the inevitable "one-hit wonder" status, yet her career was not over. She released her follow-up album, Bloom, in 1996, but as you will read below, this record wasn't released in the United States, and only in limited numbers in Europe.

For years, I believed that she had gone the way of Vashti Bunyan, Linda Perhcas, or Mary Margaret O'Hara--excellent musicians who made stunningly beautiful debut albums, but who were destined to be hidden treasures, because they disappeared after making that one great artistic statement. It took me by surprise, then, when I learned earlier this year that she had a brand-new album, ON, set for release. Upon learning this happy bit of news, I took it upon myself to get a copy of the record and to talk to her. ON is a wonderful record; it's mellow and pretty, and it moves into a territory that's a bit more electronic than Great Expectations, but it's the lyrical content that really struck with me. The album is full of deeply personal songs, songs about getting older, staying true to yourself, and about keeping your head up high when things don't go right. That's my interpretation, at least. As you can see, I had about fourteen years of questions to ask her, and ask her I did; the interview below is one I'm quite proud of, as it was an honor for me to get her to answer my questions about her career. I think this interview and Tasmin's story should serve as a lesson for younger musicians who are entering into the profession. But enough about that; Tasmin Archer's back, and that's one thing that made 2006 a wonderful year in music!

Great Expectations was a critical success both in Europe and in the US. When you completed it, did you have any notion that it would do as well as it did, or were your expectations about its greatness what led to its title?

No not really, at the time I knew EMI were putting a lot of backing behind us and although that's no guarantee of success it certainly helps. I didn't choose the title because I was expecting great things in terms of sales or critical acclaim. I chose to call the album Great Expectations because I loved the book by Charles Dickens and I felt some sort of affinity with the character 'Pip'.

"Sleeping Satellite" is still a wonderful song. Was it a song that you and your label at the time immediately recognized for the hit that it would become?

The demo of that song, which is a similarly arranged if less polished version of the released one, was one of the tracks that was on our original demo reel when we were first trying to get a deal. Every single major UK company turned us down at that stage. Later, after we'd signed to EMI and recorded the version that appeared on the album, they began to hear its potential I guess.

I remember hearing "Sleeping Satellite" a LOT. Was there a point during the success that you felt like too much focus was being put on the song and not on you as an artist?

I don't recall feeling that way because we were so busy promoting 'Sleeping Satellite' and doing live performances of all the other songs that were on the album. I suppose I was too excited that I didn't really get too bogged down by all of that.

Did life change much for you during this time?

Yes, I would say so. The one thing I'd say that changed for me dramatically was the long periods of time I spent away from home traveling the world & promoting Great Expectations. Before this I had only ever traveled to Denmark when I was at college and then to Italy on holiday. So really this was a big change for me because I had hardly ever been out of my home town growing up in West Yorkshire.

How would you describe your relationship with "Sleeping Satellite" now? Did you ever have a love/hate relationship with it?

We've have grown together and we've always maintained a good healthy relationship. We're fine in each others company and I don't ever remember feeling any animosity toward the song ever.

Tell me a little bit about how Shipbuilding came to pass.

I was always a big Elvis Costello fan. EMI were pressing me to release something in between albums and so I decided to do a 4 track EP of songs I liked of his. Originally it was only intended to be an EP, and in the UK it was, but in the US the label decided to add some b sides and make it more album length.

From what I understand, your relationship with your label started to become complicated. Looking back at it now, what was the root of the problem, and do you think that things could have been avoided?

I wouldn't say it was complicated. For my second album they wanted one thing and we wanted another. They wanted Great Expectations mark II and we wanted to expand our horizons and do something that stretched us as artists. They saw things from a purely commercial perspective, as they would, and we saw it from an artistic one. The two things just didn't mix. I suppose I could of given in and avoided the problem but I'd have been very unhappy so I chose to dig my heals in and stand up for what I wanted artistically.

Were there any early warning signs of problems yet to come?

Not necessarily a warning. We argued for 12 months about it until they eventually, albeit reluctantly, gave in and put Bloom out as it was intended. For a time I thought we'd convinced them we were doing the right thing for the long term but there was a key personnel change at EMI during the whole discussion process and that threw another spanner in the works. I felt I'd had enough success with Great Expectations for them to at least give me a little leeway and support me in a less commercial project but it seems I was wrong. Ultimately they weren't interested in letting me develop as an artist. That's the nature of the business with major labels, even more so now, so you have to accept it and move on.

How was the experience of making Bloom?

The making of Bloom was a very relaxed affair and recording the initial takes 'live' as a band was a more organic way of recording for me. The musicians who played on the album with us were all stunning. They played with real beauty and edge. I wanted to make a more earthy, edgy sounding album and these guys were perfect for that.

Admittedly, I've never heard Bloom--and, to be honest, until a few months ago, I didn't even know about it! How do you feel about the record now?

The US EMI label declined to release it so this is probably why you hadn't heard of it. It's also not available on US iTunes. Bloom never achieved the same level of commercial success as the first album because it isn't a 'commercial pop' album which was my label at the time. I felt with the right support it could have crossed over into other areas but it didn't get the same backing as Great Expectations in the marketplace. I am still intensely proud of it, probably more so than Great Expectations because I think it's better than that album from a songwriting and musical perspective.

After Bloom, you went silent. Was this because of disillusionment with the music business, did you intend to retire from music altogether, or were you following in the steps of artists like XTC and Michelle Shocked and going on strike against your record label?

I'd just had enough of the music business so I decided to take a break. I only really intended on taking a year out but it turned out to be more. I never planned to be away for so long, it's just the way things panned out.

I have also seen that in the interim, your former label released a hastily-compiled 'best-of' and rarities compilation album that quickly disappeared from labels. Did you have a hand in this collection, or did you stop it, a la Aimee Mann?

I don't know anything about that. They don't inform us when they are to re release any of those old recordings that we did when we were signed to them. They own all those old recordings so they do what they like, when they like and never get in touch to seek our approval. We never know what they're up to.

During this silence, did you continue to make music?

Yes. We never really ever stopped writing we just never finished anything. I was still inspired to write and so the ideas just kept piling up and piling up.

I read somewhere that in the last few years, you suffered from writer's block. Do you think a lot of that was based in a deep-seated reticence from your experiences within the music industry and of making music?

I don't really know if it was totally to do with that. All I know is I was exhausted and needed a break away from the business side of the music industry, but the block happened after the break that I had planned which obviously extended it.

How did you break the block's spell?

I found out as much as I could about these type of things. I did other practical things that were creative outlets for me like painting, moulding clay and dabbled a bit in Shamanic Journeying. I had to do something artistic that would enable me to see an end result and this is how I worked my way through the block.

Jumping ahead to the present: how was the creation of ON for you? Being thoroughly in control of your destiny and your music must have been a totally new, invigorating experience, in light of your previous records.

When we started shaping the songs that are on ON we made work in progress versions available as free downloads for fans. We received some good feedback which was very encouraging because back then we weren't even thinking of putting an album out, much less putting it out on our own label. We were just feeling our way in the dark a bit. We were starting to really enjoy demoing and developing the songs and we wrote a ton of material during this time. As time went on, step by step, we found certain songs were standing out as if they might sit well together as an album so we thought why not put it out.

We had no intention of giving up creative control to any major label ever again so we eventually decided to set up our own label for this purpose. It was, and still is, all new territory for us but we're learning about all that side of it as we go along. It was a steep learning curve for us at first, even the recording and producing of the album at our home was a challenge. In the past we had worked with some really good producers in the best studios so it was a real challenge just trying to get the sounds we wanted and the best performances. It all took time but it was an enjoyable experience and rewarding. As well as co writing all the songs on the album John Hughes did all the recording, all the production and mixing, as well as playing the majority of the instruments on the album. The only other person appearing on the album was Bruce Thomas (of The Attractions) who played the bass.

The songs on ON read like letters of hope--not just to the struggling, depressed, or downtrodden, but also to you yourself. I take it that with the message of staying positive and focused and seeing a brighter day ahead of you, that this is a deeply personal and meaningful collection of work for you.

Yes. This album, like all I've done, defines me in the present or at least recent time. A lot has happened during the making of this album. My mum passed away in January 2004, so some of the songs on this album have a deeper personal meaning because they are strong reminders of that time. The songs are largely inspired by life and are at their root observations about the different lives people lead and the different emotional situations they encounter in today's world. The songs are, to an extent, informed by my own personal experiences but include a sizeable dollop of poetic license. I like all albums to be more than just a collection of unrelated songs and for each song to have some common connection. I like to think of ON as a self contained piece of work with each song being analogous to a chapter in a book. I will admit that I do get a sense of satisfaction that we did it all by ourselves.

I know I've focused on a number of negative aspects of the past decade or so of your career, but what were some of the good memories from your success?

There are lots. Performing all the songs off Great Expectations and Bloom live was a great feeling. Appearing on live music TV shows alongside wonderful great artists was a thrilling experience for me too. Traveling has given me a wider outlook and perspective on the world. Having the opportunity to work in the best studios with truly great musicians & producers was also informing and really good fun. These are just some of the great highlights for me but I have many wonderful memories of that time. In general all the musical side of things were rewarding while the business side of things leaves a lot to be desired.

What are you working on now, and what do you have planned for 2007?

We are constantly working on developing new material. We are considering spending some time early next year doing some small stripped down gigs in the UK. We're also progressing with other projects and pursuing commissions to write music for film and TV which will hopefully finance the production of the next and subsequent albums.

Finally, what advice would you give to young artists entering the business?

Be true to yourself. It's hard enough to deal with the business side of the music business as it is, so if you find yourself compromising your music just for commercial success you will more than likely become uncomfortable with it.

Tasmin Archer's wonderful new album, ON, is available now on Quiverdisc


grillermo said...

Nice change in your template

Matthias said...

I'm glad to have come across this while searching for info on Ms. Tasmin Arhcher. Thanks a lot for the great interview.