As a collaborative concern that’s as feted internationally as it is on these shores, Fovea Hex – the loose collective helmed by Banbridge-born Clodagh Simonds – has worked with a variety of unique and prestigious talents, from Brian Eno to Robert Fripp to Donal Lunny. Recent years, however, have seen a much fresher-faced talent emerge from its ranks and into the spotlight. Galway-born Laura Sheeran has been a core member of the collective from the age of 15, but since first starting her solo musical project in 2005 she’s showcased a unique and compelling vision that marks her out as a fascinating talent in her own right.
Much like Fovea Hex, Sheeran’s approach combines the traditional with the avant-garde, the earthy with the impressionistic. Her debut release proper – 2010’s Music For The Deep Woods EP – and last year’s crowd-funded album Lust Of Pig & The Fresh Blood were stunning and evocative works that reflected a restless, curious and inventive mind. Combining elements of folk and baroque pop with abrasive electronics and gothic textures, her eerie soundscapes were complemented by a potent vocal range, along with lyrical themes that ranged from the forlorn to the macabre.
Last year’s full-band shows in support of Lust Of Pig…, meanwhile, were a revelation: fleshing out her songs and revealing new nuances with the accompaniment of a string section, harp, bowed saw and electronics. Even when she doesn’t have the advantage of a full band, Sheeran’s theatrical sensibility (the visual arts being a long-time interest of hers) comes to the fore, whether it’s with her attention to stage lighting or – as with her show in Whelan’s last year – utilising dramatic pole-dancing accompaniment.
What’s most exciting about Sheeran is that the quality and diversity of her music is more than keeping pace with her prolific work-rate: since the Music For The Deep Woods EP she’s released two further EPs (To The Depths and Murderous Love), a collection of live studio recordings, her impressive soundtrack accompaniment for Paperdolls’ ABSOLUT Fringe festival performance, a split 7” with Katie Kim, three remix EPs, and now her new album What The World Knows. On top of that, she’s increasingly focusing her attention on the ‘alien pop’ duo she’s formed with collaborator Marc Aubele (who mixed most of her solo releases), Nanu Nanu – a more upbeat, synth-based project who have an album due this year. Phew.
“I cried all day and I didn’t even get a kiss” is the arresting opening line on What The World Knows, but the album wastes no time in forcefully grabbing your attention. From the off, the sound palette recalls the ominous, malevolent textures that characterised Lust Of Pig standout ‘A Wake’. The opening title track and ‘Redlight’ are all guttural, juddering electronics and seething melodrama; the sinister feel of the latter further heightened by a dispassionate, robotic-sounding vocal. Which is an interesting inversion: on previous records Sheeran’s vocals have stood out as a turbulent, elemental force, whereas on the early stages of this album the dramatic instrumental backdrop is as much an indicator of inner turmoil – if not more so.
It doesn’t quite retain that sort of intensity throughout though – indeed, this is the musician’s most varied record yet. ‘Forever Love’ is possibly the best thing she’s done: a low, hypnotic drone and a quietly insistent rhythmic heartbeat framing a superbly measured vocal performance. Meanwhile, Sheeran’s filmic craft – that impeccable ability to conjure mysterious imagery in your mind’s eye – is as evident as ever on tracks like ‘Until Danger’s Gone’ and the ornate, classically-tinged ‘Hurricane’. Lyrically, references to loss permeate ‘Lonesome Soldier’ and ‘Death Of A Star’ – the latter an elegy of sorts to her late mother.
State interviewed her in advance of this weekend’s upcoming full-band show in Whelan’s (due to be her only performance of What The World Knows material this year).
The new album has a strikingly different sound and feel to it. Does it feel like a new phase in comparison to your previous work?
In a way yes it does, and I think it’s a lot to do with the experience I have gained in relation to recording and electronic production and things like that. Over the past year or two I’ve learned so much. It really made this album a lot easier to make, both for me and Marc Aubele who mixed the record.
Would it be fair to say that the Murderous Love EP was sort of a chance to get some remaining songs out there and wipe the slate clean, in a way?
Yes it was, but to be honest I have felt like that about every release so far – and even on this album there are songs that I had already recorded long before my debut album even surfaced, songs like ‘Hurricane’ and the title track ‘What The World Knows’. It’s only now, having released this one, that I really feel that I am up to date with my music and can actually start looking ahead at what new material may be brewing… exciting times.
What The World Knows leans more towards electronic textures in general. Did you take a different approach to recording the material for this record than you did on the previous ones?
I’ve always enjoyed experimenting with electronic sounds and fusing that with acoustic and more orchestral sounding music, but really for a long time I didn’t know what I was doing. This album was a chance for me to put some of the techniques and skills I had learned from the last records into play, and it definitely helped create a more unified, slick sound. I also had a new microphone that I used for all my vocals and also the cello and harp – so sonically, it was much easier to fuse the acoustic and electronic elements as there was a common sound across the board. That is a problem that I have often encountered through recording albums myself at home, or wherever I happen to be recording. It can often lead to difficulties in terms of combining all the recordings to sound unified, or like they were from the same time/place. This album has a lot less of those problems, and I think it definitely comes across in the overall sound of the record.
You’ve been involved in music for a long time, and you were/are a part of the Fovea Hex collective. How much of an influence or inspiration was it working with musicians like Clodagh Simonds and Cora Venus Lunny? Were there any live performances that were particularly memorable?
We have done some really incredible gigs, mostly in Europe. It was an invaluable learning curve getting to play with such great musicians/creative minds from the young age of 15. It really opened me up to a whole world of musicianship and professionalism that it would have probably taken me years to get to see had I not been on board with Fovea Hex. Getting to see how gigs are run in places like Italy, Spain, Austria and France was also very insightful, and something I’m glad I got to see before I really started gigging myself here in Ireland, because I had a good perspective on how well things can be run.
With the Fovea Hex performances we did, it’s actually very difficult for me to pick a favorite…they were all so special! I guess there were two in particular that blew me away. In 2007 we were invited by David Lynch to close his ‘The Air Is On Fire’ exhibition that he was running in The Cartier Foundation, Paris. We played outdoors in a natural amphitheatre surrounded by ancient trees, and our dressing room was the entire penthouse of Cartier, Paris. We all got such a shock when we got brought up in the glass elevator and they opened the door… that was a serious ‘wow!’ moment. I think we spent the first half hour bursting into fits of laughter in disbelief at what was actually happening. Another really special Fovea Hex gig was when we played outdoors in Trentino, way high up in the Italian Alps. We were at the very top of a mountain – they have an astronomical observatory there – and we could see literally for hundreds of miles. Singing out into those huge valleys as darkness was approaching was another amazing experience. I also got to see (thanks to the observatory folk) the surface of the Moon, Venus and one of Jupiter’s Moons – if I remember correctly – through their amazing telescope.
Would you have found that Fovea Hex’s music influenced your own solo work?
Well, being involved in Fovea Hex was one of the first recording experiences I had – and my first exposure to digital recording techniques – so I really took a lot from that. Before then, I had only ever recorded onto an 8-track. When I would go up to Dublin to do vocals for Clodagh she was recording everything herself in a studio in her house, so it was very personal – we weren’t just renting out a recording studio for a day or whatever – and I saw everything: how to put a track into a record, how to position the mic, ways of applying reverb, ways of editing out crackles and pops from the vocal, not to mention the realization that songs don’t have to always follow the same rules of ‘verse, chorus, verse’. Her style of songwriting is so unique and at 15, you’re still so impressionable – you’re soaking everything up. I’m sure that would definitely have had a big influence on me.
There’s a very theatrical feel to your music and a very strong visual element (whether in terms of the accompanying promo videos, or just the images it conjures up when you’re listening to it). When you’re writing the material, do you have specific images or associations in your mind? Do some songs have more vivid associations than others?
I do think of imagery when I’m making a song, but it seriously could be anything… a series of lines, a scene out an old rotting window, the colour orange, a scene from a film that might not even have been made yet, it varies so much! I can’t help that though. I don’t try to do it on purpose to like, ‘help’ the song come out – it just sort of happens on its own. Sometimes it’s crap because you might not really like the imagery your mind has associated with it…but you know yourself, once you have an image in your mind it’s near impossible to get rid of, like when you see a car crash or something.
I know for ‘A Wake’ I always see a moment from my friend’s mother’s wake back in 2005 – but it looks like it was happening through a filter of Bjork’s ‘Human Behaviour’ video, and then a vampire woman that’s on this 3D poster I got ages ago sits up in the coffin. Yeah, makes no sense…and not really that related to the song! But you get the idea of how random it is. For ‘Sleep F**king’ from my first album I always see a huge whale skimming the surface of the vast ocean as it gathers air for another momentous dive to the depths.