Interview : Sera
Caernarfon based singer songwriter Sera has a new single out on Friday 19th August, an album, Little Girl (reviewed here) on September 2nd, and an appearance at the new North Wales festival Gorjys Secrets on September 17th prominent amongst a slew of other dates.
The album has already gathered a good deal of deserved praise.
On meeting Sera the immediate impression is of someone genuine and self effacing, but also very determined. A quick trawl through a few of her most recent videos, released in the eighteen months or so before her 2015 Welsh language Straeon EP, namely Fireworks, Lifeboat & Collide - demonstrates a gifted songwriter and an accomplished performer - whether the song is upbeat folk-pop or more soulful and melancholic. Behind these tracks is the depth of an extensive and remarkable back catalogue.
The interview began with practicalities - as it was the week her single was due to come out - with which tracks are on it, and why?:
"I'm releasing another double A side single through Folkstock Records on August 19th, and will be performing that night at Dylan's in Menai Bridge as part of the Menai Seafood Festival (Meic Stevens and Al Lewis also performing at the gig) to mark the occasion."
"Folkstock released 'Creative side / Waterside' back in March and I was thrilled that they wanted to release some more of my music, which is a big help to me in getting the music out to as many people as possible. The songs this time are 'Little Girl' and 'Your Joy'. 'Little Girl', being the title track of the album, was an obvious choice. And it is one of the more personal songs on the album too. It starts quite delicately but rocks out a bit in the middle! Folkstock chose 'Your Joy' to accompany it as Helen (Folkstock) really liked it and felt it would appeal to followers of her artists and label. 'Your Joy' is also on the Welsh EP as 'Agor dy Galon' - translated as 'Open your heart'. "
Following this single the new album, Little Girl, will be finally released.
Little Girl is not a sudden progression in any specific way - but a myriad of little changes have compounded to make the recording stunning. It does leave a desire to understand better how this has come about, with the natural question about how Sera herself views the album in the context of her previous work prompting an honest response:
"It's been a long time coming, and the whole process has been ongoing for a few years. I'm just really ready for it to be out there and for people to hear it (which is also quite stressful ... making sure it reaches people, radio play etc) I'm happy with the response so far from people who have heard it. People have said that it's a step up for me as an artist, and has a really different sound, which is what I was going for....but without going too far from my goal as a songwriter, which is to present original, authentic music that tells a story."
"I'm happy with the album, but I'm already looking forward to start working on the next one, though God knows when I'll have time to even think about that! I feel that as long as you are moving forward, challenging yourself as an artist, that's progress. This album has done both those things for me, and I'm really happy with the outcome."
The album has been produced with Eddie Al-Shakarchi at the helm, a new working partnership, which raises the issue as to whether this change has altered the way Sera writes and records:
"It was a very different way of recording. I was used to going into a studio, with the producer and me separated by soundproof glass, working 9am-5pm, in perfect conditions. Close to home, familiar. This was not the case here. We recorded in the same room, in a house on a farm, with the occasional tractor or lawnmower passing by, or an airplane overhead. There was no 9am-5pm. Ed likes to start late and I had to adapt! I also was suffering badly with hayfever....and recording on a farm was a challenge! Also, the album was mostly recorded with just Ed and I playing all the instruments, with a violinist and a cellist coming in to do some tracks - but that was it. I was used to getting people in to play, but that was when I was recording close to home and knew lots of people."
"The whole process was a challenge and very different. I wouldn't say that it has changed the way I write, but perhaps the way I record. Ed was very particular about the sound - we spent a long time trying out different vocal microphones that he had, and guitar sounds - so that a lot of the final sound was already there before mixing."
She then explained how this new and productive relationship came about:
"My manager at the time had worked with him on other projects and loved him. My last album, which I was really happy with, had a more polished sound, and they suggested that I go down a different route, and so I took a gamble. I applied for a small grant from the Arts Council of Wales for help with recording time with Ed. Ed's history was as an urban producer, so I was a little nervous if I'm honest. As an interesting collaboration it got the support of the Arts Council, so we decided to go for it! He has an incredible eye for details and is an exceptional guitarist - and as I was writing more and more with the guitar instead of the piano, my sound was changing, and I needed to go with someone who could embrace that."
"The process took a long time though, based at opposite ends of the country was a challenge."
Geography also turned out to be important in her working with other songwriters for the album. There are three very different co-written songs on Little Girl; Mond am Eiliad / Moments (with Sion Russell Jones), Carry Me (Gordon Mills Jr) and Through the Night (Eddie Al-Shakarchi) - they are important to the record, so I wondered whether Sera had sought out these partners to write with deliberately for the record or were they more chance collaborations:
"With the co-writes, it was more a case of making the most of where I was. At the time, my management was based in Cardiff, but I was in Caernarfon, so I was getting booked for gigs, co-writes and meetings down South a lot. So I'd always try to do as much as I could when down there to make the trip worthwhile. One was a gig in Devon, which is also where Gordon Mills was based. The same with Cardiff gigs, and hooking up to write with Sion. It was all around the time I was talking to Ed about starting on the album. I had so many songs, that Ed and I spent some time just listening to my demos and from them choosing contrasting songs, strong songs, ones that stood out to him. Some songs I'd written years before made it to the list, such as 'Waterside', as well as the more recent ones, such as the co-writes. 'Through the Night' was a result of Ed playing a guitar riff and me playing along with the piano. It was written one night when I was really really tired and Ed, who is a night owl was in full swing!"
"I never really set out to deliberately write for the album - I tend to know when it's time for an album. I write when I feel the need, and they are always an expression of what's going on in my life, or sparked from an idea. So the album ends up being a chronicle of the last couple years, various stories, moment, ideas and collaborations".
One of the collaborations, the song Carry Me (which is about a Landrover), has already brought a visit from Ben Fogle, as Sera detailed:
"The song was released in December (2015) and was playlisted on Radio Wales. I then went and made a video for it. But it wasn't until Ben Fogle tweeted about going to Anglesey to do some research for his Series One Landrover book that the song started getting a bit of attention. A fan of the song tweeted Ben about the song, and he then got in touch with me. We had a lovely time on Red Wharf Bay driving around and exchanging stories. Since then, I've had people from all over the world contacting me about the song - mainly Series One fans who found it via an internet forum. I've had messages from Australia to Holland. People really love their Landrovers and seem glad to have an anthem now! Ben's going to be using the lyrics in his book and I'm *hopefully* going to go to the launch."
Sera has had a fully bilingual musical career - it is impossible not to notice that her last EP, Straeon, was sung entirely in Welsh, whilst this new album just has the song Mond am Eiliad, the rest is in English - the sounds of the two are subtly different too.
How bilingual artists decide to use language is a fascinating issue, sometimes as a deliberate choice, but can often be a more ad hoc process, as it seems it is for Sera:
"I never really decide as such. It depends what comes out! With co-writes, it also depends on who it's with. I have only ever translated a handful of songs from English to Welsh, as it doesn't always work. For the Welsh EP - I specifically wrote 'Alaw Ti' and 'Esgyn', 'Oes yn ol' I had written for Can i Gymru, and 'Agor dy galon' was a translation of an English song that I was working on for the 'Little Girl' album. I translated it to go on 'Heno' on S4C. 'Mond am Eiliad' was also going on the 'Little Girl' album but I didn't want to wait for that to be ready so I featured it on the Welsh EP. There is an English version of 'Mond am Eiliad' on the album (CD, not digital) called 'Moments', and that is maybe the first time that a song was in Welsh first, then translated into English."
"It's fun to work bilingually, and there isn't a rule on choosing which language to write in. To go back further, I started out writing in English, and only started writing in Welsh when Sain Records offered me an album deal."
Which brought us to talking about how after an album comes out the hard work doesn't relent, aptly evidenced by what Sera has lined up promotionally in the next few months, as she outlined:
"Some lovely gigs coming up including a live session with BBC Horizons at the Eisteddfod (Aug 3rd), Menai Seafood festival (Aug 19th), a TV performance on Heno, S4C (Aug 22nd), Copperfest in Amlwch (Aug 25th), and Festival Number 6 (Sept 4th) when I'll be launching the album and signing CDs!"
"Then The Big Cwtch (September 10th) and Gorjys Secrets (September 17th) as well as a live session on BBC Radio London with Gaby Roslin (Sept 25th), Acoustic Folk Highway in London (November 13th) and a series of album concerts in October/November which include Liverpool Nordic Church (November 26th)."
"I'm also a part of CEG, a musician's collective, and we're working on a number of projects including Yn y Golau (mentoring 6 young artists from the area) as well as organising a Musicians Against Homelessness event in Caernarfon in October. "
And that final question, and the detail of the blurring flurry of activity Sera has planned, brought the interview to a close.
Our review of Little Girl stated at its end: 'the music ... is genuinely distinctive, striking, flawlessly crafted and emotive - (it) is a stunning album on any measure.' Listen back to Sera's earlier recordings, and listen to her talk about her new one, and it is easy to understand why.
[read our preview of Gorjys Secrets + get an exclusive ticket discount before 22.08.16]
SERA I Little Girl / Your Joy
SERA I Carry Me