In the lead up to the release of a new album, harp-playing songwriter Serafina Steer reflects on her creative process
Known for both her solo work, including four studio albums, and her collaborations with the likes of Patrick Wolf, Cerys Matthews and Hannah Peel, Serafina Steer has been a welcome presence in London’s alternative scene since the mid-00s. By building songs around her harp playing, there’s always been something unique and rich about her music, offering a different take on what we should expect to hear from a singer-songwriter.
New album The Mind Is A Trap, comprising nine tracks, highlights both the scale of Steer’s compositional strength and her rare songwriting gift. Styles flutter from the overtly electronic Whatsmystone to the minimalistic Time To Recover, making it clear that she’s bringing all she has to offer to this record. Here, in this exclusive diary extract, Serafina counts down to its launch…
I had the album launch venue confirmed last night. On the bus up to the park for a walk to try to clear my head, I am speaking to my friend Ben about the design for the tapes. He says, “But it was hard because you didn’t say which fonts you liked,” and I say, “Mmm,” and I realise I am feeling really quite anxious and it is because there’s a real live launch now. I recognise these symptoms – feeling like a fake etc.
I find £5 on the street which I decide I must take as a good omen. I call my brother who is at his studio nearby and we go on the pedalos for half an hour, which is very calming. I get home, make lunch and fall asleep. Finally, I do some practice yoga-like scales on the big harp since I have been playing electric all summer and feel like jelly fingers. Feel like I will be able to make some proper headway tomorrow.
I have decided to make some acoustic harp versions of the tracks as bonus tracks and so am practising arrangements. Which is also another form of not practising for the launch gig, but at least it’s in the right arena. I keep thinking how the mind really is a trap – corny as it sounds to quote my own album title.
But yes, setting myself this task to put this relatively homemade record out under my own steam is like a challenge in maintaining a positive attitude for more than two minutes at a time. It’s good for me and it really is making me appreciate lovely people that decide to make indie labels/communities! The first single got its second radio play today on NTS, so that’s a boost.
Recorded with James (Garskie) today, who I met through the Jarv Is band. I love going into the studio. Even if you think someone is ‘just recording’ you – it never works out like that. Their musical tastes and history seem to always bring a lot to the table.
Thinking about how I am writing these diary entries, but that a lot of the record is about me exploring writing music without words and using words more as an integrated texture. A type of song I suppose. How song form is often – not always – largely similar (verse/chorus/etc) and takes the pressure away from thinking about musical form in a more infinite way.
On tracks like Whatsmystone, Lapse and Say What You See, I enjoyed trying to find more 4D ways of communicating. I felt my own voice was limiting the emotions I was able to express. This is not really even about the limitations of my songwriting skills, of which there are many, but just whatever you are singing about you have a position, a cultural heritage, a bundle of associations, etc and I just wanted to not deal with that so much.
I was trying to develop as a ‘composer’. Trying to imagine how the tracks could work with film. Tracks like This Is My Emotion contain literally four words, but I was interested in how/if the meaning of the words changes throughout the track as the music moves from a state of dark uncertainty to euphoria.
The Mind Is A Trap, the lead single from the album, came out on Friday and has had a positive response. It’s a bit influenced by DNA featuring Suzanne Vega’s Tom’s Diner. This is the track with the most lyrical content on the album – the title came from a conversation with my father. We were talking about a situation and when he said it, it felt like a revelation.
I’m not particularly spiritual, really. I have had a guardedness towards spiritual people since some early experiences left me feeling it can actually result in selfish behaviour that leaves others to pick up the pieces. But I am softening my stance these days and that sentiment felt like the only real solution to the predicament I was in – you have to sometimes stop thinking about something, you can’t help or do anything.
Been contemplating how to present these tracks live and finally feel like I am getting somewhere. I think it’s necessary to work around a sound palate and approach that differs from the record in order to make the tracks come alive. I’ve never made such an electronic record before. I don’t want to have a laptop onstage. I tried putting everything on backing tracks/sampler and leaving some parts to perform live but it just feels so weird pressing a button and playing along to the sampler. I wanted to perform solo. Anyway, I am getting there, I think.
I’ve also been really ‘connundrumming’ about how to present the gig as a whole. I wanted to find a neutral studio type performance space where people could sit down and be prepared for a more ‘deep listening’ experience. But due to time constraints and stupid confidence setbacks* the venue is actually kind of the opposite, with a sweaty, punky, backroom-gig vibe.
*If I self release an album again – which I probably will – I would have more strict deadlines! People will often not write back and that means no and you shouldn’t wait/delay your schedule for responses. Always have one or two backup options on the go!
The Mind Is A Trap is out now. For all the latest news, head to serafinasteer.com