There’s some kind of witchery going on behind Wovoka Gentle’s creature-like songs. At some point later in the interview Ellie Mason will describe their writing/recording process as an “open heart surgery”. Alongside her band mates Imogen Mason (her twin sister) and William Stokes, the three of them are multi-instrumentalist, singers and songwriters; which makes both their music quite intricate and their live performances, quite compelling. On stage, you get to see them quickly switching positions over their triangle set tables (three instruments stations set in a way that they face each other) every couple of songs, amongst which stand out the episodic, shape-shifting harmonies and arrangements behind tunes like When Cameron Was in Egypt Land, Let my Cameron Go (from their last year’s third EP: Red) and Likeness and Piece is its own reward (both from their second EP: Blue), just to name a few.
For their new double-A side single They Mostly Come At Night Mostly // Branscombe, released on April via Yucatan Records, the trio went back to work with producer Gareth Jones (Depeche Mode, Grizzly Bear). And now they’ll be going on a big tour all over the UK during this spring and in the summer they’ll be playing festivals Bluedot and Boardmasters. “It’s our first time as a band doing such a long series of shows. It will be interesting to see how people react to our music outside of London,” says William, now sitting backstage after one of their first shows of the year in Oslo, Hackney. “It’s always fun to formulate a new set. We try and make all the songs fit in the show, from start to finish, without gaps. And we try to give it an identity as a whole, instead of just being a collection of songs played live,” he adds.
How did you come up with this interesting set and rotating dynamic of a band?
Ellie: We used to arrange everything -the two synths tables, the standing drum kit, the guitars, banjo, violin- in an open semicircle open at the front and it was very fun and dramatic. But maybe after one of our first shows, having to fix the whole thing in a very small place, or maybe from rehearsing in the living room of our house, either way, we decided to put the tables facing each other and we really liked it because it allowed us to be closer together, facing ourselves.
Imogen: The swapping around just comes from when we are arranging a song and we kind come up with different ideas or parts of it. We sort of do whatever feels organic as we all play different instruments, so it’s not like everyone is at their own fix station. I remember one of our earlier shows when I was playing guitar and I would have to run the length of the stage to get to the synth in like two bars. Like hopping over monitors (laughs.)
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You’re first project as a band was to write and perform a live score a stage theater performance…
Ellie: Yeah. So we had to come up with a bit more of an hour work of continuous music. And they wanted for it to be avant garde, and to have some electronic elements as well. So we were really able to experiment with instruments that we weren’t that familiar with at the time.
William: We were playing in folk bands at the moments. We all met in Edinburgh while my previous band was doing a short tour over there, and they’re previous band was opening for us. Then after that we share some recordings and shows with other bands. But those bands sort of became looser in terms of commitments, and we realized that we wanted to play together. The three of us sort of float to the top of it. Or sunk to the bottom, as you want to put it (laughs).
It was gravity, anyway, it pull you guys together?
Ellie: Yeah. And it was right after that performance scoring that we realized how much we liked that type of structure of a song, and wanted to explore more out of it. So we took ourselves away, and ended up writing the music and lyrics for our firsts EPs.
Where the 3 EPs -Yellow (2015), Blue (2015), Red (2016)- planned to be released like that?
Imogen: We started with the first two of them planned like that, yeah. We went to Saint Andrews and wrote and recorded them there in three months and then came back to London to mix and produce them. The Red one was its own thing but we still wanted it to be in the same series cause it felt like it was also part of our beginning as a project, while we were still getting to grips with the type of songs and experiment that we were doing as a band. The Yellow and the Blue are quite distinct in terms of sounds and the Red it’s kind of a progression on that.
William: We like to sort of arrange things into series, but didn’t want it to be too sequential, so we came up with the idea of the colors. There’s no need to approach them in any specific order, you won’t feel like you’re missing out on something. We could’ve continued like that but I guess we ran out of primary colors…
How did you approach this new recording experience? Was it a similar process?
Ellie: It was a similar process, in a way, yeah. To write the first two EPs we were able to take ourselves away for three months. For the Red EP with did that, but in ten days. It’s become a sort of a tradition. This year we went to Edinburgh in February and stay there in a little room for a whole month and we wrote a lot of songs. And these two of the double A single came out as the most developed or finished, at this point.
William: We found that escaping our routines here in London, really help us. When you’re in a band with three songwriters you can’t really rely on only one of them to come up with everything. You sort of have to compound on your ideas, every step of the way. Even if one of us has a very formed idea of a song, we then will have to make it our own as a band. And even in that way, escaping help.
Are songs deliberately chameleonic, or episodic, in a way?
Ellie: Sometimes that is part of the initial idea for the song, yeah, to be written in different sections. And sometimes it comes from the ideas of two different songs that one of us find could work in one altogether. Or even what was the outro of another song becomes part of a different thing. So that’s the good thing about having two other people that come up with ideas that you’ve never thought of for your initial own song. Whatever comes out of an extended jam might be a riff that we can pop in another song. We like to chop up each others songs in a way. It’s like doing open heart surgery on a song.
Are you guys excited about going on tour? Are you touring in your own van with all your stuff?
Imogen: Yeah! It’s a van that fits us three, and all the equipment… And that’s it!
William: It used to be the smallest car…
Imogen: Yeah. We upgraded!
And how do you handle tours? Who’s in charge?
Imogen: Well, Ellie and I do the driving.
William: I’m the executive in the back.
Ellie: Yeah. He’s either taking a nap. Or passing on the chocolate (laughs).
Imogen: You do the music selection too..
William: Yeah, I hijack the aux cable in the van. In this band everything we do, we try to do it together. We don’t really delegate. We take turns on the cooking. These guys take turns to drive. So, maybe that has to do in some way to the way we do music together. It would be a bit weird if it was some other way, like the minute we stop making music: Okay, you’re in charge. That’s how we operate on almost everything.
And what do you listen to while traveling? For example, going from London to Edinburgh this time around.
Ellie: We actually listened to every single disc of Laurie Anderson… was it live at Carnegie Hall?
William: No, that’s something else. This is called America live? Or something like that. It’s like five or six albums box set from her songs in the 80s [Note: it’s United States Live].
Imogen: John Grant, we’ve been listening to him too.
William: And what’s the name of that guy… Asgar?
Imogen: Asgeir, yeah. He’s an Icelandic musician.
Ellie: Is that in the car now?
Ellie: We’ll I haven’t really heard that.
William: Okay. Scratch that (the three of them laugh). What else? Red House Painters.
Imogen: Flying Lotus?
William: There you go: Red House Painters, Flying Lotus and Laurie Anderson.
Is it true that one of you got to play with José González?
Imogen: Ellie did, yeah.
How was that?
Ellie: It was great. We were on a cruise together. Well, not together (laughs). He was playing a show there, the next day that I met him. We were just having a beer, and talking about music, and I mentioned that I played the mandolin. And he asked me to play with him. It was great.
Did you happen to have your mandolin with you?
Ellie: Yes. I was playing with some people on the ship. Just jamming, for fun really. And I didn’t think that he was serious. But he was like: well, why don’t you join me on stage tomorrow. And I was okay, sure. I didn’t think he wasn’t being serious. Then I ran into him at breakfast the next morning and he told me: “sound check’s at 4pm, see you there”. And I’m like, great! Totally great.
And what’s a dream collaboration you’d love to have?
Ellie: We don’t have any plans like that really. We try not rely on anything that we couldn’t perform or do ourselves, to stay more true to our sound. There’s like a million drummers we’d like to have, or instruments that we can’t play. But it’s not part of the essence of our sound, I think. We like to limit ourselves to the things we can actually play ourselves. The soundscape of our songs wouldn’t change.
Imogen: It may be cool to bring someone out for the new album though.
Like who? If you could go big…
William: David Byrne! (laughs) No, but I’d thought about maybe having as a guest for example some great vocalist to add something to a song and that’s it. Who knows?
And what about TV shows or movies, any directors you’d like to collaborate with?
Imogen: It would be cool to do the music for the new Stranger Things series. We could come up with some cools sounds for it.
Ellie: I’d like to see what Lars Von Trier would do as music video for one of our songs.
What if it’s something terrible…
Ellie: Yeah. It’ll probably be something very dark and dream-like…
William: I’d like to try something maybe more emotionless, like a Wes Anderson film, but that´s a really boring answer… Let’s go with David Lynch. That should be better!
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