Interview: Rachel Sermanni

by Maria Sledmere

The Rainbow Life: an Interview with Rachel Sermanni

What do you get when a body of water meets a body of water? Rachel Sermanni’s new EP, Every Swimming Pool Runs to the Sea (Jellygirl Records), is a feat of delight and thalassic possibility. Intimate and playful, the four new songs see the Scottish singer-songwriter rediscover creativity and self as a mother and artist – living anew in the present. Produced with Patrick J Pearson, the EP began life in the currents of the River Dart and flourished on Sermanni’s return to Edinburgh. 

Conjuring magical spaces, a ‘maze of glass / and underwater caves, these are songs of the liminal: ‘gentle recital’, ‘night-sweet’ and rolling in the ‘extra miles’ of daily tenderness. Not quite sleeping, not quite alone; truly quotidian but somehow elsewhere. Where 2021’s Swallow Me EP collects the musings of many big changes, ‘burning it down to the sound of birdsong,’ beginnings and endings in surrender, Every Swimming Pool is a lighter turn which learns from the inner child and the elements. Opening single, Aquarium Kisses, is a sweet tale of being kissed by a friend in the blue glow of fish tanks and shadow. Elsewhere, melodies summon themselves from the lilt of a ‘happy birthday’ or the ‘holy’ sensation of sluicing along the Silk Dart

These are irresistible, pared-back songs, which drift and eddy, make calls and arrangements in ‘precious time’. Sermanni’s music has long meditated on fantasy landscapes and forces, from the Marshmallow Unicorn of 2012’s Under Mountains to the celestial swishiness of 2015’s Tied to the Moon. On Every Swimming Pool, her lyrics feel like a return as much as a search for new horizons. What connects these songs to the past, perhaps, is that inimitable gentleness (see her 2015 Gently EP) which feels radical in the way it holds us. These songs mother and tuck you in, pouring a soft red wine, ‘feeling time’. 

Water runs through Sermanni’s music. There’s the elegiac ‘ripple on the water’ in Marshmallow Unicorn and the aquarium pleasure of Every Swimming Pool. I can’t help but think of a short story, The Waters of the World, by the Ukrainian-born Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector, where she writes ‘[a]s a human being she once posed a question about herself, becoming the most unintelligible of living beings. She and the sea’. I like to think of Rachel Sermanni’s diverse body of work as offering the endless tale of ‘She and the sea’: the feminine will of creativity, mystery and the generosity of assenting to the ‘unintelligible’ in all its passing of arrival, departure. The medicine of the sea. Sermanni’s songs invite a form of close listening that carries you through story in the joy of vignette and lyrical daydream. There’s sorrow, and there’s company in hope. This work is a gift. 

On a bright afternoon in June on Zoom, ahead of her performance at Glasgow’s Dandelion Festival, Rachel and I had this brilliant, luminous conversation about everything from menstrual cycles to philosophy, yoga nidra, rest and rainbows. When I asked her about mystery, how she sees it play out in her work, she brings up phenomenology. How ‘there’s the surf, I think of it as a rainbow, and the fact that we live a rainbow life. As you and I have this conversation right now.’ It’s a rare thing, having the conversation right now, which feels ephemeral and extra and somehow as necessary as the rainbow. Something you want to reach out and touch but can’t exactly. I loved that already we were being steered to the realm of direct experience, even in our little virtual windows and glitchy voices. Rachel spoke of her daughter’s artwork, how recently she’d traded a rainbow drawing for grapes, and the magical accident of a certain smile on some scribbles of portraiture. It made me realise there’s a paralanguage to her own work: an emotional currency of surprise connection that runs just beneath the surface of that soothing voice, its strokes and flows.

I was curious about the origin of the EP, which Rachel locates in bodily study and a ‘lust for life’ found in ‘warm summer air and swimming in water,’ chatting with ‘lovely new people.’ The songs were not exactly by-products of a change of scenery, but forms of emergence in the aftermath of reattuning the senses. Songs written not to understand something so much as to recognise it, metabolise the energy of change, growth, return. I think of particles of water and instrumentation working together, softly, percussively, in the quiet hour before sleep. In the Covid lockdowns, Rachel started a podcast, Rachel Sermanni’s Finger That Points to the Moon, and accompanying workshop series for songwriters at all levels. Forging a generous space for sharing tips and strategies towards lifelong creativity, this project seems a natural extension of her own approach to writing, performing and collaborating. In our conversation, she emphasises the importance of being amenable to chance: the way the world acts upon us; the way we might cultivate a certain openness to receptive states of mind. And ‘it’s not necessarily about knowing the process, so much as that element of acknowledgement’. The affirmation of being together, sharing and writing, which feels so important — especially in a time of forced isolation, separation and closure.

There’s a phrase Rachel used in our interview: ‘the actual sense of the bigger picture, which I think is the magic of creativity and art in general.’ In a fractured, heavily mediated existence, ‘the bigger picture’ can be obscured by the rush of the feed and its claustrophobic algorithms. The demands on our attention which smash every facet of existence up into data-borne atoms. But then there’s the rainbow. To catch it is to recognise that others are seeing it too, off in the distance. Something big and beyond, and we share it. There’s a song by Stornoway, The Bigger Picture, which recalls ‘a dream eighteen times greater’ and ‘a billion other fires’. Rachel Sermanni’s work has that impulse to the bigger dream and its ongoing burning, giving space to other wavelengths and hemispheres of the brain. And how that process can spark simply in the appetite for exposing yourself to other people’s creativity and learning. Some of her students take the workshops because of that basic urge: ‘I feel something in me, I just want to be here’. 

When I ask her about her own development as a writer, Rachel brings up jazz. A jazz musician, she says, ‘is almost like a monk or a nun, going into a tradition to go deep, like in the Buddhist tradition, going all in to learn every theory in the book, everything in practice, until it becomes something that binds them, but their ultimate goal is liberation.’ Jazz is sometimes ‘euphoric and understandable, and other times it’s really without any anchor.’ There’s something of that devotion and desire for experimental departure in her music: unafraid of a meandering verse, a daring instrumental or vocal shimmer; and yet so invested in the careful craft of songs. In Every Swimming Pool Runs to the Sea, things have simplified. ‘There’s nothing fancy about it,’ Rachel admits, ‘and in a way that scares me as a musician to put something out like that.’ ‘After being a professional self-employed musician for like ten years or so, and now that I’ve got a daughter, maybe that simplicity reflects the time and energy I have to explore’. Teaching creativity to others, her biggest lesson was ‘there’s so many ways of expression.’ 

And where to find that expression? Going deep into the anatomy of form is one way, but reattuning to one’s inner child is another. After years of feeling pressure to perform her musical expertise, there’s a sense here that the pressure has shifted. Creativity becomes a form of unravelling. What results is a savouring of unmastery, stumbling and defamiliarisation, like Matisse in his sick bed drawing on the wall with a ‘really, really long stick.’ There are certain tricks, Rachel suggests, for getting yourself into these states of play, and she relishes them in workshops. ‘Everything’s quite polite’ at the beginning, and ‘what’s beautiful’ is when people are asked to draw or imagine with their eyes closed ‘and then there are genuine smiles on people’s faces, there’s a silliness.’ I like to think of that silliness bubbling up in the swimming pool at the heart of this new EP, becoming the sea.   

If life feels overwhelming in the wake of the past few years, here’s an artist finding fresh ways of splashing around and dwelling in play. That ‘taste of something else’ might be a process of streamlining, seeking new ways of connecting our loves, pursuing tangents in a world unplugged or wired to the moon. In the future, for Rachel there will be thoughtful work towards an album, the first summer holiday with her daughter, a few festivals. ‘My life has been loads of liminal spaces,’ she tells me near the end of our conversation, ‘with these spurts of occurrence. I need to make space for those boredom moments, that end up becoming the seed planted for creativity.’ Whether that happens in cycles, streams or bursts, it’s a joy to see lovely and slow seeds flourishing in these songs. If her last EP was a pomegranate, ‘the darkly feminine,’ this one is ‘a more accessible fruit’: ‘something simple, an apple could work, something you just get off the tree, and bite into it’. The rainbow? I ask. ‘Or a pack of skittles!’ 

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