Sephine Llo – A Long Time Coming
I don’t recall exactly when we first met, but I know I’d only been at Surrey a few months before our paths would have crossed. Sephine – or Josie to friends and family – was a final year student studying Music and Sound Recording (“the Tonmeister course” – it features heavily in the Tape Club story). I remember that what she was doing stood out. She’d written fantastically interesting works for larger ensembles for internal recitals/competitions – often featuring peculiar instruments/noise makers underpinned with more traditional groups. She had a quiet but brilliant competence in the studio and she could sing too. So, a pretty special all-rounder, really.
At this point the label would have been just a few years old and so there was little to no planning or organisation – it was a total free-for-all. I’d probably gotten over-excited over a coffee and suggested we must do an album. In fact, I seem to have a memory of a little Costa in Guildford – perhaps that’s where we decided to give it a go.
Josie had tonnes of material already recorded – she was big into the kora at that point so the earlier stuff was a more avant folk version of what people were doing with ukeleles, but with something no one else could play, let alone sing along to. Over time these songs and demos became more grandiose and detailed, and the vocal component more focused and refined. By, I’d guess, 2010, the majority of the work for an album had been done – this is one of the pleasures of working primarily with music makers; they can record and mix everything themselves without it having to go elsewhere, where it may also be influenced by outside opinion (not a bad thing, some would say, but I think Josie has a better idea of what she’s doing than anyone else).
In 2013 we released a handful of the album tracks as an EP, “Flame”. You get a sense of how long these things can take (probably more owing to the small scale of our operation – not Josie’s work rate!). These songs were accompanied by a visual aesthetic that I couldn’t be more pleased with. Josie actually organised the photography and design work – an ode to the organic, warm, handcrafted world but with an underlying sense of depth and intensity that screams a focused sense of artistry, to me, anyway. Look at some of her early shots to get an idea.
Anyway, we were all set to release the full album within a year or so after the EP, but Josie learned of her fiancé’s cancer diagnosis and understandably, her concentration shifted. Years went by and her then husband Robbie grew more ill, and in early 2017 passed away. At one point we’d aimed to release the record in time for him to see it, and I still feel upset that we weren’t able to do that.
With his passing, a pregnant Josie vowed to press on and release her music, as much for the sake of Robbie as for herself.
“I, Your Moon” features songs that move across a range of emotions and with a dynamic that I’ve not heard a great deal in modern music. From programmed electronics, to isolated vocals, and further beyond to amped-up large-scale ensembles, it’s a helluva journey. I feel really strongly that it’ll only get better with age and that at this point those of us lucky enough to enjoy it are party to something extremely exciting.
So on to Josie’s process, described by her as “usually a long one!”.
How do you arrive at a finished song – what’s the process?
“I have a folder of ideas on my computer, including little improvisations on instruments and vocal melodies recorded on my phone. Lyrics and rhythms usually come to me when out walking. I get inspired by new timbres and noises, so I collect those along the way. When I get a chance, I sit down and listen back to ideas and see if any sit together. I then think about structure and build up the song from there. There comes a point where I feel the song is complete and I try to stop there…though it’s tricky to sign it off without faffing for quite a while longer!”
What’s your setup?
“My setup is quite simple. Most of this album was recorded with a 2nd hand AKG C3000 (I’ve since treated myself to a few nicer microphones), some Adam A5 monitors and Pro Tools. I don’t have any fancy plugins, just a nice reverb and compressor (Waves Renaissance) and other than that I mostly use the freebies that come with Pro Tools for things like EQ etc. I don’t really have a desire to get my hands on a lot of fancy gear – if I have too many options I get overwhelmed, I prefer the restrictions and familiarity of what I know… perhaps I’ll get more experimental for the next album!”
How much are you a songwriter/composer versus a producer/engineer?
“My main passion is definitely songwriting. I went into engineering so that I could control my own recording and mixing process for my songs. Going into a studio to record an album wouldn’t work for me as I’m quite private and reclusive when writing, and the songs evolve slowly as I record them. It has made me a bit of a perfectionist, which I think I need to work on to avoid songs sounding too clinical and not enough like a performance.
Along the way I have found producing other artists really rewarding, as it gives me the opportunity to be creative and experiment in a different way, helping another songwriter realise the sound they are after, and hopefully surprising them and pushing their boundaries a bit.”
“I always find this question impossible! I don’t consciously have any influences but I suppose it is mainly what I’ve absorbed from childhood from my parents’ vinyl collection, as well as from songwriter friends, and from my classical music background.”
How do you find yourself integrating such a mixed bag of instruments into your work?
“I used to write songs as a teenager on guitar, but to be honest I wasn’t very good! I quickly got bored of the sound of just my voice and strumming and started adding other instruments and sounds. Having been a classical violinist and pianist, I tried writing with those instruments but I found my training and skill frustrating as it was hard to write something beautiful rather than just “impressive”. I was also bored of the sound of those instruments! I started collecting and messing around with instruments from around the world, and the restriction of not knowing how to play them properly was strangely liberating. It helped me to build unique textures from simple but interesting components, and I found I could give each song its own sonic character, and not be led by standard structures and predictable sounds. I can now comfortably add violin or guitar etc in a way that adds to the song rather than leading it.
I also enjoy collecting my own sound samples to add to the songs. I’ve been known to stick a microphone out of the window to capture the sound of footsteps in the snow, or to go round the kitchen banging pots and pans and slamming cupboard doors… I like things to be organic and real rather than using sounds from a library that I’ve not captured myself.”
What part does music making play in your day-to-day life?
“At the moment it consists of singing almost constantly to baby Laurence, be it made up daft songs as a running commentary of what I’m doing (like washing up or changing his outfit) or ones of meaning, like his father’s songs or lullabies my parents sang to me as a baby. I’m looking forward to introducing him to my collection of instruments…I already have a selection of colourful kiddies toys, like boomwhackers and homemade shakers (rice/pasta in a kinder egg shell!)
When I’m back to work I’ll be teaching violin and piano in schools, starting part-time. I lost a lot of clients when I had to give up work to be full-time carer for Robbie, and then I was in the full swing of pregnancy…it has worked out well though in that I can go back part-time and build up from there.
I used to do some composing for things like adverts, idents, ringtones etc, but that type of work is a bit unpredictable (commissions coming in late at night to be finished before the morning) so I’ll likely not take on any briefs for a while until Laurie is a bit older and doesn’t need feeding every few hours in the night…
On Sundays, I work as a chorister for Choral Evensong at a church I’ve sung at for nearly 2 decades – it’s the church that Robbie and I got married in, so that will always be a special place to me, and a job I’d happily do for free. It also keeps me on my toes as we sightread most of the music and the choirmaster is ambitious with the repertoire!
One day I’d like to get back to playing in other songwriters’ bands again, in my heyday I was in 4 gigging bands, 2 choirs and a string quartet, on top of teaching 60 pupils… how did I ever fit it all in (there was less laundry to do then I guess…)?! One of the bands I’ve toured with all over the world; what an experience.
I’ve been very lucky to be able to make a living doing what I love. There was a turning point in my life, I originally went to university to study maths (very sensible), hoping to keep music as a hobby, but I soon realised I could never be fulfilled that way and so changed to music and sound recording (the Tonmeister course). I told myself “I’d rather be a poor, happy musician than rich and miserable in a job I don’t love” – one of the best decisions I’ve ever made!
There’s a great deal of rebuilding my life to do, both emotionally and professionally… one step at a time.”
Sephine Llo’s debut album ‘I, Your Moon’ is available here.