Interview: Esben And The Witch
I think it comes across that it’s the sound of people who trust each other, not just musically but personally; trust each other to be vulnerable, and to take some risks and support each other. We wanted to imbue that feeling of it being a safe space, not just for the three of us making the music but hopefully for other people to listen and to find some solace in some sense, to escape into their own little realm that feels comforting.
The music of Esben and the Witch has always been a source of power – sonic, dynamic and emotional – but their sixth full-length Hold Sacred hits the gut in a different way. Recorded at a series of rural retreats across Europe, it’s an intimate snapshot of its three players at their most guileless, delving deep into their relationship while reigning in the runaway energy that has marked previous works. Starkly beautiful and haunting in its simplicity, it’s a truly game-changing record for the band so to commemorate David Bowes spoke to vocalist and bassist Rachel Davies to discuss its creation, influences and where they plan to go after this.
E&D: Thanks for your time, I really appreciate it. And for the new album! It’s a beautiful record, very striking and not what I expected.
Rachel: Yeah, it’s a little different to our last output!
E&D: Yet everything in it feels like a part of your sound. There are things that have been explored before but in the past you’ve had that bombastic aspect, which isn’t as prevalent here. It feels like a risky move. Was it?
Rachel: In some ways, yeah. We were definitely aware that in some ways it was a shift from what we had previously been doing and was less dynamic than our previous catalogue, but it was necessary for us. It wasn’t us saying, “Let’s do something different and take away the heavy elements,” it was more that we all wanted to create something that was a little quieter, a little more mellow. Like everything we do, it was very important for us to do things as naturally as possible and analyse it after.
E&D: The one impression that I got from listening to the record is that there is a feeling of safety, and of togetherness. Was a sense of community between the three of you something that you were trying to convey with the record?
Rachel: The three of us are very close, being friends as well as bandmates for approaching fifteen years now. I think it comes across that it’s the sound of people who trust each other, not just musically but personally; trust each other to be vulnerable, and to take some risks and support each other. We wanted to imbue that feeling of it being a safe space, not just for the three of us making the music but hopefully for other people to listen and to find some solace in some sense, to escape into their own little realm that feels comforting.
E&D: It was written all across Europe – first in Italy, then Portugal, France and finally Germany. How did those sessions develop and progress?
Rachel: We had some quite intense discussions before we started writing again. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to write again at all, to be honest. I think we were all feeling a little bit disenfranchised and a little bit aimless. We made the decision to spend the money that we would have used on booking a studio, where you feel the pressure to create something – we don’t work well in those situations at all – and just book a family holiday. We found this beautiful artist’s villa just outside of Rome, there was no pressure, and Daniel in particular was very patient. If nothing comes of it, if we don’t enjoy it, we’d at least have a nice time together – eat some good food, soak up some sun. I brought a microphone, Daniel brought a keyboard and Thomas brought his guitar, and said, “Let’s just make music and go back to why we did this in the first place. Why we make and like music, and why we like hanging out together.” To make it enjoyable again, basically. That led us to Italy, and it was a wonderful experience where it felt like there was a new energy, a new warmth here, so we decided to continue it. We thought, “Where should we go next?” – obviously, this was before the word ‘lockdown’ ever existed. We went to Portugal and continued building these sketches. It became this really beautiful thing – and very privileged thing to be able to do, obviously – to escape from everything, creating this music in little rural retreats across Europe.
E&D: Have you ever had writing experiences like that in the past, or was it a completely new experience to be able to have that level of freedom?
Rachel: This was completely new, and it was crucial to us to be able to do something completely different. Going to another country, approaching it like a holiday, and not needing to rehearse, to spend all day thinking that we have to get these songs done. It was definitely new and the most – and I think I can speak for the boys here too – enjoyable writing experience that we’ve ever had over the years that we’ve been making music together.
E&D: Was the material that ended up on the record everything that you came up with? How much editing ended up being necessary?
Rachel: There was a few, which is always the bit that’s the hardest. We had a few tracks – not many, because we’re not that prolific; we had maybe two that didn’t make it, though they might make the light of day next year in a different way. Still in keeping with the palette and the themes of this record so they do feel like they’re a part of it, they just didn’t make it to the final cut. There were tough conversations to be had, and compromises to be made.
E&D: One of the most striking things about the record is the lack of any live drums, though it does feel like it ‘clicks’ with the material very quickly. Was that decision a purely practical one, based on the equipment that you had with you on your travels?
Rachel: A little bit, which always tends to lead the way with us. We do everything with just the three of us, basically, where necessity is… what’s that phrase?
E&D: Necessity is the mother of invention?
Rachel: That’s it! Going back to the writing decision, where we obviously couldn’t fly a drum kit to rural Italy, and Daniel, who is maybe the most versatile of us in terms of musicality, has always been interested in keys. He started playing guitar and then moved onto drums so I think this was a really nice moment for him, to go back to a more melodic position in the band, rather than purely rhythmic. He was really excited, and he had this tiny little keyboard that was really easy to transport, and also the music that the three of us were listening to over the past few years, was lots of ambient music, lots of classical and instrumental. We have eclectic tastes but over the past few years it’s gotten mellower, or maybe we’re just getting older. It was a necessity but for Daniel it was a nice respite for him, returning to that melodic position. Also, it was in keeping with that spirit of doing something new, a bit calmer or meditative. That’s not to say that we won’t go back to drums in the future, as they certainly can be meditative in a different way, but I think we had explored on previous albums the more primal, aggressive dynamics. That’s also enjoyable but this time around we were not in that headspace and just wanted to have something that was a bit more delicate.
E&D: Lyrically, this album saw you move away from dealing primarily with myth and metaphor and onto something a lot more literal. How comfortable were you with that?
Rachel: Not very, to be honest. For me, there’s always going to be an element of metaphor with anything I write and it’s a bit shrouded, a bit obscure – certainly more than I think it can be – but this one, I felt a little braver to be more open with certain things. To be less arcane, writing about ancient myths that resonated with us on a personal level, but to actually be a bit more direct and open. It’s definitely something that I don’t feel fully comfortable with but I felt like that was why it was going to be good, to push myself out of that comfort zone and, for me, to be a bit more vulnerable. It was necessary, as a cathartic release as well.
E&D: Have you made any plans for performing this material live, and are there any nerves about letting yourself be open in that kind of space?
Rachel: Yeah, for sure. I always get nervous about sharing things like that. I find it different on stage because I feel like we go into a different space. It’s a bit cheesy but there’s a different energy; it feels transportive in a different way but I’m hoping that a certain level of nerves when you’re performing is a good sign. I’m usually saying that to myself! It brings a certain energy, right? That’s what I’m hoping.
E&D: You moved from Season of Mist for this album, and it’ll be out on Nostromo. How did that come about?
Rachel: Well, Nostromo is us, it’s our own record label. We started it years ago. The first two records were with Matador the third one we put out on Nostromo, the fourth and fifth were on Season Of Mist, and then this we decided to go and do it ourselves again. It was a very conscious decision. The three of us are all control freaks in different ways and are very self-sufficient, and independent. It was a difficult decision, and hard work obviously, but we just thought, “Hey, let’s just do everything ourselves.” Also, on a more practical level for artists and musicians it’s really important if you can potentially keep hold of your masters and have ownership over everything. We all appreciate the DIY aspect to these things, so it was a no-brainer in some ways, especially with everything we were doing, with this record being about the three of us creating a space to do this exactly how we wanted to do it.
E&D: You’ve been a band for almost fifteen years now. Are there any moments that stand out for you, either positively or negatively?
Rachel: Oof! Being in a band is a series of highs and lows. It can really be quite a rollercoaster. I feel so grateful to be able to have seen so much of the world, to play to people in places that I could have never dreamt I would be able to. It’s easy to take that for granted when you have the lows of vans breaking down or playing to a room of two people. There are those lows, or the times where it feels like things just aren’t working creatively but the highs, when you’re performing in those moments or you feel that what you’ve done has emotionally resonated with a stranger is a really powerful feeling that I hold sacred. It’s quite incomparable to me, if I’m playing live, especially, and someone has their eyes closed and are singing along. That’s a powerful feeling. It’s definitely a high.
E&D: There has been a lot of discussion recently about the issues of being a touring band now, like with venues taking massive cuts from merch sales and sites like Ticketmaster hiking up fees. How doyou feel things are looking for touring as an independent artist?
Rachel: I think it’s so hard but we’re a small band who exist in this tiny microcosm. I fully support bands who are boycotting venues that take cuts from merch. For us, we sell all our own merch behind the desk. Like most bands, that’s the way we can survive and I think it’s really hard to be an independent band. On the positive side, there’s a real sense of community with certain venues, more independent or community-led venues particularly in mainland Europe. It’s real heart-warming, especially as the three of us are quite cynical in lots of ways. It’s reassuring to see that people are really trying and the nature of things is that the harder it gets, politically as well, it’s reassuring to see the counter emerging, of the subcultures and people really want to support live music, be it going to see it in small venues and promoters. There’s a real positivity to come out of the more mainstream corruption and big business that there is.
E&D: There has been a rise in nearby bars allowing bands to set up and sell merch before and after gigs.
Rachel: That’s really wonderful. People may not see us as a punk band but the way we’ve always approached things, while maybe not in music, but the spirit of things like that really resonates with us, and with me.
E&D: I was watching the videos for ‘True Mirror’ and ‘The Well’, both of which turned out great. The one for ‘True Mirror’ in particular was really striking. How did that shoot come about?
Rachel: I made that myself, using the microphone that I have here and my phone. This was my attempt at making a budget Maya Deron arthouse music video that had a nod to the ending of Twin Peaks. I’m a big fan of simple, strong concepts and again, due to necessity, it was just me in my bathroom. I thought I’d do a simple strong concept and there was no-one else so I thought that I could perform without a level of self-consciousness, like there would be if there were ten people, or a whole crew, budget allowing. I really enjoy making things, everything to do with the artwork for the merch designs to the videos. It’s really important to me that everything has a really consistent aesthetic that is all-encompassing, as grandiose as that sounds. So yeah, that’s how all that came about.
E&D: It was really effective, so kudos! How was it compared to ‘The Well’? That seemed a touch more grandiose.
Rachel: Not to blow my own trumpet but that one was also self-made. I found this amazing space. I like going to these strange places in the countryside, saw that there was an old grotto and thought that it was amazing. I was looking for a space to potentially make a music video so I found that space and was allowed, for just two hours. I had this concept in mind and that’s how it came to be. I’m really proud of that, and the space is incredible. It’s hidden and not open to the public, amazing and incredibly old grotto that’s covered with minerals, shells and cobwebs. When I read about it, I thought, “Wow, this is too good to be true.” I don’t want to give these secrets away because it ruins the mystery somewhat but it was an amazing old space that I was lucky enough to be able to use.
E&D: To me at least, you have one of the most identifiable voices in this type of music. Who were your influences and how have you shaped them to create your own style?
Rachel: Oh, thank you. I’ve never tried to emulate other voices but there are some. Beth Gibbons is an obvious one, Liz Fraser… especially when I was growing up, I thought those voices were beautiful. How heart-breaking Beth Gibbons’ voice can be at certain times. I really like melody, I listen to a lot of soul and R&B, which might be surprising to some people. I like strong, emotional voices that are melodic. That’s what I always listen to. Also, the ones where who can hear the cracks sometimes; like Liz Harris Grouper, who I’m a big fan of. It might not be that classic power ballad kind of voice but emotionally, I think the weight of her music is incredible.
E&D: You’d said of this album that it could be your last, or it could be the start of a new beginning. Now that it’s done and dusted, how do you feel about moving forward?
Rachel: It feels really strange, to be honest. When we went to Italy in 2019 and started this process, COVID happened, which no-one was expecting. To add two years onto the writing process has elongated this. So much has changed for us, as a band and individually. It’s a strange feeling that it’s been a long time coming and it’s a little like going back into a past life. I’ll see how it feels when we’re performing. I’m hoping it’s going to be a cathartic experience and I’m proud of it. I want people to listen and hopefully feel some kind of emotional connection to it that could potentially be helpful. I’m nervous and a little apprehensive but I am intrigued as to how I’ll feel when it’s out and we’re playing it. I think it will be cathartic.
E&D: You described that your intention for the record was to create your own version of those ambient albums that you hold dear, and that you feel safe and comfortable in retuning to. What are those albums for you?
Rachel: Again, going back to Grouper, Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill is absolutely one of my favourite albums that I definitely seek comfort in. I think all three of us are big fans of William Basinski. The other day, when I had a disastrous journey on public transport, I was thanking God I had my headphones and listened to that on repeat. It feels like having a bath. I love it and it calms me down, just listening to Disintegration Loops on a loop while it rains was a wonderful experience. A record I listen to a lot is by Jefre Cantu-Ledesma, called Tracing Back The Radiance and it’s just beautiful. All instrumental, organ and really quite joyful. Off the top of my head, it’s those three. Who else… Ana Roxanne, who I saw play the other day which was nice, Harold Budd, Mary Lattimore – who I also saw recently in a café in Weston-super-Mare, which was very strange but excellent. Quite surreal!