Interview: Rotten Bliss

Photo by Emma Nathan

With every single sound on The Nightwatchman Sings – the long awaiting debut album of Rotten Bliss – I am gifted a glimmer of history and circumstance. Never enough to help me know, but enough to make me question. Part of this is down to the array of fidelities, instruments, FX and recording locations that all wander in and out of these songs – the seams and prints of process are very much visible – but there’s something intangible too; just how certain rooms seem to communicate an atmospheric foreboding, or how faces and voices tell of the weathering of life. 

There’s so much to dive into here. While it’s fun to speculate, it’s fascinating to hear Jasmine Pender (aka Rotten Bliss) reveal the stories of how this album actually came to be. Below, we discuss singing in public, her relationship with the cello, strange voices on the Isle of Barra and feeling alone at the end of the world.

I understand that at least some of the songs on The Nightwatchman Sings have been with you for a decade now. Do you feel liberated for finally releasing them into the world? How much have they transformed since their conception, both sonically and in terms of how you understand them?

I feel a lightness, like sharing a secret with someone. Although these songs have been heard many times before in my live performances, I’ve always been in control of how they are experienced: the room, the volume, the lighting, the visuals. Releasing these songs unaccompanied into the world is unnerving (what if someone plays them out of their phone speaker?!) but I’ve been carrying them for a long time now and I’m relieved to let them grow and transform in other people’s ears. I heard one of the songs used in a sound collage on Olivia’s Radio Ravioli show on WFMU, and it was thrilling to hear it reinterpreted. The structures of the songs haven’t changed that much actually, but the meanings have continued to evolve as I’ve performed them live.

I’d love to know more about your songwriting process. It feels like the means of recording these songs – which vary in terms of their fidelity and acoustic setting – is intrinsically woven into the architecture of the songs themselves, rather than simply being a means of framing the material. Where do you initially write your songs? Could you tell me about the relationship between the songs and the means/location of their capture?

Most of my songs arise through play and experimentation rather than concepts or structured compositions. The compositions usually start in my home studio with a collection of sounds or a riff and a few words and I build from there. And there’s often whisky involved. It sometimes feels like uncovering something that’s already there, allowing something to emerge and then shaping it, catching a glimpse of a golden strand and following it to find out where it goes. At some stage the song starts to feel alive, and then the compositional choices I make aren’t about what sounds best but what sounds right, what honours the spirit of the song, and it leads to some very odd lyrics and stories. I have tried composing in a structured way but it doesn’t work for me, especially for lyrics ­– they don’t sound natural when I sing them, whereas the things that come out of my mouth when I’m playing and exploring sound right, perhaps because they come right out of the music, responding to the physicality of the cello.

For the more sonically complex songs, in order to get to the playful experimental bit, I often have to first do a lot of heavy coding to create the sound world playground, which involves diagrams and notes and swearing. To create “Corridors”, for example, I set up light sensors to trigger the samples of music boxes (and augment their speeds) and trigger the winding sounds. It was a while before I tried playing within that soundworld, then the moment came one day when I’d been up all night and I didn’t have the energy to play cello so instead I sat on the floor in the dark with the light sensors in front of me, torch in one hand and mic in the other, and I played with the music boxes and improvised vocals, and that became “Corridors”. I tried re-recording that piece with controlled levels and smoother vocals, but it kept drifting from the mood of that first recording, so in the end I went with the flawed but faithful original. 

“Time Erase”, “Song From The Belly Of A Gale” and the outro on “Another Ocean” were recorded on the Isle of Barra. That location had a huge effect on the songs. I wrote them in an afternoon during a gale when it was impossible to go outside. I didn’t have any preconceptions about what kind of songs I might make that day, I don’t even really know how to play a ukulele, so I messed around with the tunings until I liked what I heard and kept playing until the songs emerged. I’d been there alone for several days in this big rattling cottage and the rooms had developed their own characters. One room had two single beds and I started thinking of it as “the twins’ room”, started imagining things. I felt a bit like a ghost wandering through those rooms. The gale was so strong the windows rattled and I started to wonder whether the whole cottage would rise up into the sky. It felt like I was alone at the end of the world.

PHOTO BY EMMA NATHAN

I’ve been enjoying the video of you singing “Twa Sisters” as you walk through Greenwich Foot Tunnel – it’s eerie and compelling to hear a murder ballad resonating through a space while people navigate their day-to-day. How do you find the experience of singing in public? Is there anything in particular you derive from this experience, beyond the acoustics of the place itself?

The Greenwich foot tunnel was the first time I’ve sung in front of an unsuspecting public like that; I’ve never even busked before. I was a little nervous, but I soon faded out the other people. I wonder how different it might have been if I hadn’t had my recorder. Perhaps I’d have felt more self-conscious. I generally like to hear people singing on the streets. There’s a man I often pass on my morning walk along the Thames who sings along to his headphones as he walks. He really gives it a lot of swagger, it’s great, gives me a smile. I enjoy the unpredictability of making music in a public space. I play with a classical cellist, Tim Bowen, in an improvised cello duo called False Echo, and we’ve started playing concerts in public spaces. We played our first one a few weeks ago in a public space full of ambient sounds and good acoustics, and we had a rule that we’d only invite people through phonecalls, as an antidote to all those Facebook events. It was kind of exciting calling people up and relaying cryptic messages to meet at a certain time and place, and swearing them to secrecy (they were allowed to pass on the invite, but only by phone). I’d like to do more of this, maybe assemble a choir of strangers in the foot tunnel without discussing what we’re going to do and see what happens. It’s too bad I’d already delivered the masters by the time I tried singing in the foot tunnel, otherwise I’d have staked it out at dawn and done a take to use on the album. The reverb in the foot tunnel was gorgeous, and I loved that there was a sense of chaos when I made those recordings because many elements were outside of my control. That allows for the possibility of revealing a new angle, a new element.

I love the vigour of your cello-playing. There’s often something very earthly and cracked about it; I’m regularly led to thoughts of autumnal scenes (dry leaves, boisterous winds). I see that you’ve been playing the instrument for many years now. What does your relationship with the cello look like at the moment, and how has this changed over time?

I’m a little bit obsessed with autumn. I delayed the release date by a few months to push it into my favourite season and schedule the release party for the first full moon of autumn. The longer I play, the less it is recognisable as a cello. I’ve always been more interested in harmonics than proper notes, and programming my own effects using Max/MSP created a whole new world of digitally assisted extended techniques. My relationship with the cello is propelled by curiosity and experimentation. Maybe if I stopped finding new sounds I’d lose interest in it. I see it as an extension of myself, an expression of my inner world. Some people can express themselves with harmonious chords or melodies; I guess my inner voice is a lot noisier! It might be to do with my unstructured thoughts – the fact that I don’t tend to process thoughts using language. It’s all images and symbols and that’s what I hope the cello conveys – outlines, impressions, landscapes, feelings. That said, I do occasionally sit down and play through the Bach cello suites and for a moment afterwards I feel a pang of conscience: am I abusing this beautiful instrument?

I hear that you’re currently working on training your voice. What inspired you to go back into training your voice, and how has the experience been?

I wanted to have more control over my voice for live performances. Before I started training it was all a bit of a mystery to me, some alchemy of the right balance of whisky and cigarettes to create the voice I need; it actually turns out to be a far more prosaic matter of larynx, diaphragm and resonance. I was worried that vocal training would lead me down a road to a ‘normal’ singing voice, so I decided to use a book instead of a teacher. It’s helped a lot with fluidity – I’m less afraid of squeaking now because I know how to prepare my voice. The book I’m using encompasses everything from public speaking to opera and beatboxing, and I’ve strayed a little into those other sections, to great amusement! The idea is to ingrain certain disciplines and warm-ups until they become second nature so they’ll look after me in a live context when the nerves come on. I used to open with a looped vocal drone as a way of preparing my voice but lately I’ve been opening with an acapella song so I have to have that first note ready to go.

By the looks of it, you’re an avid field recorder. The Nightwatchman Sings is rife with the sounds of places in collision. Could you tell me about some of your favourite field recordings on the record? What informs your decision to press record and capture a particular space/event?

“Places in collision” – I like that! Contrast is a big part of my aesthetic. I am very affected by the sounds around me. I find it very easy to disassociate them from their origin and get into the texture of the sound. It’s a big problem when I’m on the phone with someone, it’s easy for their voice to just become sounds to me. The sound of the gale on the Isle of Barra is my favourite. It’s evocative and warm and lovely and I think it connects anyone who hears it to that cottage. One of my favourite recordings, which I haven’t used in anything yet, is the New York Public Library – the not-quite-silence, full of rustling and measured footsteps and hushed voices. A lot of the time it’s impossible to predict what the field recorder will capture, or what the recording will sound like divorced from the scene, and inevitably the sound world changes the moment you press record. And sounds transform out of context. I recorded busy street sounds in the medina in Tangier, and I thought they were going to be fantastic for something, but when I played it back in my studio it just doesn’t work. The field recordings that seem to work best in my songs are single-event recordings: a gale, a whir, some footsteps, water. The more complex recordings are overwhelming – too much like an amplified open window. As for the process of making field recordings, much like with photography it can be a distraction from immersing yourself in your surroundings. There’s always a little sacrifice in pressing “Record”, a little future investment, because you’re taking away from the present moment to create something that will hopefully be of value to you or to someone else in the future. It takes a little faith. So perhaps in order to press record I can’t be having too lovely a time or I couldn’t rip myself from the present moment.

PHOTO BY ATELIER DIPTIK.

I was particularly struck by your vocal delivery on “Song From The Belly Of A Gale”. Your vibrato here sounds delicate, almost frail. I barely recognised it as you (assuming, of course, that it is you?). Do you see the utilisation of different vocal techniques as a means of embodying different characters? Or do you utilise these techniques as facets of your own identity? 

I surprised myself with that vibrato! It was one of the songs I recorded on the Isle of Barra; I composed and recorded several songs that afternoon, and the vocal delivery grew stranger and more alien throughout the day. I was picking up on something in the cottage, the island, the gale. Like “Time Erase”, the vocals are wholly improvised, and the voice, words, vocal melody and accompaniment I chose all arose together. I can’t really imagine singing like that again, which is why I don’t sing that song live, but it sounded right in that place and time. I think of the voice as a flexible instrument which can be bent in different ways to express the essence of a song, but they are all voices from within myself rather than something I put on to tell a story.

The release party for The Nightwatchman Sings is taking place on October 5th. What have you got planned?

I’ve asked some of my favourite people to be part of the release party. The members of my first band, Pleasure Bridles (AJ Dehany and Daniel Cross), will be reuniting to do something involving radios (my direction); Jowe Head, my partner in 11th Hour Adventists, is going to do something with all kinds of odd noisemakers; Tim Bowen, from False Echo, will be singing with his international folk choir (7 Headed Raven); Pete Johnson will be playing a disturbing, heart-melting, educational-by-the-back-door DJ set; and I’ll be playing a live set to finish up. As well as the CD, there will also be some t-shirts and dream shields (eye masks) for sale. I insanely decided to hand-paint everything using a paint splattering stencilling technique, which took a crazy amount of time and may be my first and last attempt at hand-making merchandise, but it seemed fitting given how hand-made everything else is, including the CD packaging, which is hand crafted by Roger Linney at Reverb Worship. I’m very excited about the release party, I just wish I could experience the night as a punter instead of running around with a knot in my stomach and nightmare scenarios flashing through my mind.

What records have you been listening to recently?

I’ve been listening a lot to The Hare and the Moon, which is actually how I connected with the Reverb Worship label: their sound felt so close to Rotten Bliss so I looked up their label and got in touch with Roger. The other sound I’m big into at the moment is Funeral Doom Spiritual by M. Lamar. I had a fun phase a few weeks ago of listening to old suspense radio dramas on ROK Radio with the Ambient Sleeping Pill internet stream playing underneath. Highly recommended!

What’s next for you and your music? Has the release of this record led you to consider where Rotten Bliss may go from here?

I’m going to release another album as soon as possible, maybe an EP, hopefully in early 2018. I already have the sketches down, including some of the songs I’ve been performing live recently. I already feel like I’ve moving on from the Nightwatchman sound and I’m eager to share the new songs. It’s going to be very different releasing a second album. Probably a little less exciting, but this release has been a nerves rollercoaster so I’ll take a calmer experience with the next one very gladly. There are so many directions I want to explore; you can probably detect the seeds of a dozen different directions on that album, and I’m hungry to dive into each of them and show the world what I find there.