Interview / Marsha Swanson

Marsha Swanson

Hello, Marsha. It is great to speak to you. The album cover for your new album, ‘Near Life Experience’ is a visual masterpiece designed by Storm Studios, known for their work with iconic artists like Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. How do you feel the artwork complements and enhances the depth of the musical content on the album?

There is a very particular way in which Storm Studios create their art. Alongside listening to the music there is a long exploratory process with the songwriters, delving into the meaning, emotional and intellectual themes on the album. Their ideas all sprang from thinking about the songs and the huge amount of things that I told them. I remember describing the predicament of us humans being the only animals aware of our mortality, and how we have the unenviable task of navigating how to live our lives with the shadow of death always close by. We are used to hearing about Near Death experiences, but I thought flipping it round to consider what it means to nearly live would be interesting. After much discussion about what a profound personal experience of impending life might look and feel like, their idea was to create something that visually exists more on the boundaries between real and artificial to reflect the title. The plan was to create a composite photo in black and white and then hand-colour it, like something that might have been created around the 1900s, not kitschy but more theatrical and arty. They thought that having an element of spirit from that era would also resonate with the dance I do musically and lyrically between past and present, and between different generations on the album. This includes a central piece about the relationship between turn of the century classical composer Gustav Mahler and his wife Alma.

In terms of an immediate visual representation, what we came to fondly call, “The plant” was perfectly fitting.  The roots that we come from and return to are in death, yet we continue to reach for the light. I will never forget when they initially described the first concept to me,  a long dress that starts off black and dead but grows towards the sun and becomes a fresh green shoot with a real me at the end! My mind boggled as to how this could be practically achieved, but the initial sketch was striking from the offset. The finished artwork encapsulated the central theme in a way that words alone can’t.

You collaborated with legendary producer Iestyn Polson and Henry (King Thumb) Thomas, both acclaimed for their work with iconic musicians. Can you share some insights into the creative process and how their contributions shaped ‘Near Life Experience’?

Iestyn’s process began with meeting me to discuss in detail what my intentions were. He challenged me to really question why I would want to release a record in such an over saturated market, and with such little guarantee. I had already accepted long ago that my drive to create had its own momentum, governed in the main by a means to problem solving.  However, when I turned the question back on him asking why he still did it and he answered, “To make great records”, I knew that we had common ground to work from. The next part of Iestyn’s process was song selection. I went to his place and sang him the various contenders that I had pre-selected using a simple piano recording of demos on my phone for backing. He was very instinctive about his choices. He picked three that I had hoped for and one that I didn’t expect him to choose but was pleasantly surprised that he did. This was the song “Generational Transmission” which isn’t an obvious “single” but had enough about it that interested him.

 We were in agreement from the outset about the creative direction. We wanted a live band and the kind of organic sound that could have come straight from the “brill building” era. What I couldn’t have anticipated, however, was the process and detail he applied in order to achieve this. The band practice ahead of recording was key to the solidity and tightness of the rhythm section. He brought in drummer Keith Prior, who had previously worked with Iestyn for David Gray and who was therefore fully accustomed to Iestyn’s intense rehearsal regime! In the recording and mixing stages, Iestyn’s  razor sharp ear (developed from his extensive sound engineering background) meant that he knew how to maximize the quality and clarity of sound for each instrument. On top of this was an intuitively led and unrelenting insistence towards getting the right performance.  My tendency is to go big on harmonies. On the song “In Parallel” for instance (which comprised of 4 part vocal harmonies), Iestyn was able to meticulously remove problematic areas of “mid-range” that could go undetected to normal ears but that ultimately muddied the sound. This was a process that needed constant review, particularly when adding the string section.  I felt like a co-detective at times, sitting beside him at the computer with multiple tracks laid out in front of us, spotting bothersome sound clashes and trying to identify by process of elimination what the culprit was!

Henry Thomas’s influence on the creative direction of the album was born from his own unique holistic approach and a belief in the nurturing process as a means to getting the best creatively out of each musician.  He is the only person I’ve ever worked with who wrote me a letter ahead of starting setting out his clear intent and integrity to what he called “the pursuit of artistic truth”. We worked tirelessly together deconstructing and reconstructing every aspect of the songs so that everything that remained in the track at the end had been fully considered and chosen for its inclusion. His mission was to hone in on the core message and emotion of each song and to select not only skilled musicians but also highly attuned, empathic and thoughtful individuals who could pick up on these key components, and enhance them.

The album opens with ‘Facing Life,’ addressing the delicate balance between protecting and preparing a child for life’s uncertainties. How does this theme resonate throughout the album, and what inspired you to explore this aspect of life in your music?

I was born 2 days after my Grandmother died. My Father was attending his mother’s funeral while my mother was in hospital hoping that he would return in time for my birth. In this way, it could be said that my first entry into the world was surrounded by a complex mix of joy and grief. My birthday celebrations each year thereafter in those formative years were also intertwined with that same mix of both celebration and commiseration. This gave me a pre-verbal imprint and sensitivity towards the birth/death connection. Becoming a parent often invites an opportunity to revisit childhood experiences with a new lens. I wrote “Facing Life”, following a conversation with my brother about my parenting style. He observed that whilst I was very good at facilitating good experiences for my daughter, enabling any area of interest to be explored, he wondered whether I had done enough to prepare her for things not working out. We both agreed that this was an equally important part of parenting that I hadn’t embraced quite as fully. His looming cancer diagnosis was also in the ether at this point and these vibrations were certainly infiltrating, heightening an already well established predisposition to the fragility of life and the potency of love.

‘Mahler’s Letter of Intent & Alma Mahler’s Lament’ delves into the tragic relationship between Gustav Mahler and Alma Mahler, drawing on their love letters and diary entries. As a distant descendant of Mahler, how did your personal connection influence the creative process behind these tracks?

I had always been aware of the connection with Mahler as a child. However, it wasn’t until I was an adult that I could properly appreciate the significance of this blood connection. It was when my piano teacher (who was also a Mahler fan) introduced me to his symphonies at the Royal Albert Hall that I was completely blown away and began reading more about his life. I suppose knowing the personal connection intensified my experience of learning about his life and music and when I wrote the piece I felt unusually attuned empathically to his story.

‘Waltz for Life’ and ‘In Touch,’ represent life’s openings and endings, while the songs in between reflect the content of life and the inseparable nature of its highs and lows. Can you elaborate on how you crafted this unique structure and the significance of the instrumental pieces in conveying the album’s overarching themes?

The instrumental book-end pieces were both ones that I wrote as a child.  “Waltz for Life” was written at aged 14. I had always intended to find the right home for it as I hadn’t written anything quite like it either before or since. I knew I wanted it to be included on “Near Life Experience” but I wasn’t sure initially how it would fit in. “In Touch” was my version of the kind of sad movie soundtrack that you see in films or television when the credits roll at the end. I loved the mournful music in the “Incredible Hulk” series as a child and later in the “Rocky” franchise. I always knew that “In Touch” would be my end piece for this reason, but it wouldn’t have worked so well without its contrasting counterpart.  Just as play isn’t the same without the context of work, life and death also cannot be viewed separately. “Waltz for Life” was the closest I could get energetically to the Zest or fire for life. Although I discovered the shape of the album retrospectively, perhaps as a child I had already absorbed the connection between these two halves of the same coin and had expressed it musically before I had it in in words.