SIRENIA – A Winter Serenade
Luck comes in all shapes and sizes, but so does ill fortune. Sirenia mainman / guitarist / bassist Morten S. Veland knows this greater than most, the group having gone through a variety of female singers; Fabienne Gondamin (August 2002’s At Sixes And Sevens), Henriette Bordvik (August 2004’s An Elixir For Existence), Monika Pederson (February 2007’s Nine Destinies And A Downfall), and Pilar ‘Ailyn’ Giménez García (January 2009’s The 13th Floor). Sirenia’s initial brace of four full-lengths all feature different female vocalists, the position seemingly a poisoned chalice. Luck has prevailed at last though, Ailyn supplying vocals to fifth studio album The Enigma Of Life.
Having Ailyn return to handle vocals aided the songwriting process for The Enigma Of Life, as Morten Veland explains. “I remember in the past when I was in the middle of the process of writing material for an album, and we at some point would lose a female singer. I had to compose material for several months without having a female singer in the band. I was sitting there working on the songs, and I was wondering whether we would be able to find a new singer that could actually sing these ideas, and whether her voice would suit these ideas. These questions were in my head, and it makes you a bit unsure, and you lose focus of the job you have to do. With this album though, The Enigma Of Life, I had a feeling from the very beginning that I had found the right singer for the band. I knew that Ailyn was here to stay, so I could just work on the songs calmly and peacefully and be very focused, and I could compose every song especially for Ailyn’s voice. We had the possibility to come together and check out the ideas when they were ready, and we could really spend a lot of time on developing the ideas and getting in the studio as soon as possible. With this album compared to the previous ones, the biggest difference is with the melodic things – all the melodies, and harmonies. Especially the vocal work and the performances on the album I think are maybe where we did the best, and I think a lot of this has to do with having the same singer all along.”
Many metal outfits elect to make instrumental work the focal point of their compositions, whether it be in the form of guitar soloing, extended instrumental passages, and so on. Sirenia, however, elect to make vocal work the focal point, something much more common in the pop sphere. “The diversity of the vocals has always been an important concept for us,” explains Morten. “We have the female vocals, we have the choirs, the extreme male vocals and the clean male vocals, which are all different kinds of vocals. This is something that has been important for us from the very beginning, though the way we use vocals and so on has changed a bit over the years. For example, in the beginning on the first two albums, the male extreme vocals were the lead vocals of the band.
“With our third album, we changed that and decided to go into a more melodic direction. The female vocals got the leading role and the extreme male vocals took a smaller role, but still, we have all these different kinds of vocals. They all are an important part of the band’s expression and musical concept, but it’s the female vocals these days which are the most important. In the past for example, we didn’t even use guitar solos and so on. Of course we have instrumental parts and so on, but usually they’re not too long. I like that a lot of things are happening all the time in the music, that there’s a lot of dynamic in the songs. We try to keep the listeners interested while they listen to our material. There’s not too many instrumental parts, but where it’s needed there is. Also, for the last three albums, we started including guitar solos again. As long as they’re melodic solos and they serve the song in a good way and everything, I find it really cool.”
The songwriting process for Sirenia’s fifth record proper entered its initial gears immediately following the completion of The 13th Floor, the wait between albums a mere two years. “Writing material for me is a never-ending process,” Morten notes. “When I was finishing tracks for the previous album, I already began coming up with ideas for the next album. I began composing material for this album about two years ago; the composition process goes on for some time, and then I start to have enough ideas to get some songs together, and I have some melodies and everything. Our singer then gets involved, and we try out all the ideas to see what is working well and what isn’t working well. We then make certain changes, and try to improve things that can be improved and so on.
“For this album, I had written between thirty to forty songs altogether. Sometimes, I just have to pick out the songs that I think are best and the songs that I want for the album. Somewhere along the way, I decided on the twelve songs that are on the album where I felt ‘These are the best songs and these are the ones I want.’ I then started working on only these twelve songs. Most of the recordings we did in my studio again, and we had a recording session again at Sound Suite Studios in Marseille, France where we recorded violins, acoustic guitars and the choir, the Sirenian choir which have sung on every Sirenia album. All the rest of the stuff was recorded in Audio Avenue Studios which are my own studios here in Norway, and we also mixed the album in my studios. Eventually, all the songs were sent to Finland’s Finnvox Studios where the album was mastered by Mikka Jussila.”
By all accounts, The Enigma Of Life is Sirenia’s most melodic album to date, but how does it compare to its predecessor? “I think there’s a lot of similarities, but there’s not any huge differences between the albums. The 13th Floor was our first album where Ailyn sung. As soon as she joined the band, we more or less had to go directly into the studio and start working on the album. With this album, we really tried to just take what we had on The 13th Floor and we tried to work on the details a lot – we tried to improve the things that we could improve with our songs, the performances and especially the compositions and so on. I think that with The 13th Floor, we found our sound, and with The Enigma Of Life, we tried to perfect it.”
Album cut ‘All My Dreams’ possesses a slight industrial flavour. “I like that song too,” the mainman exclaims. “The expression is perhaps a little bit different than what we’ve done with other Sirenia songs, both on this album and in the past. In the same way though, also it has all the typical Sirenia ingredients. Exactly where the inspiration came from, I don’t know – maybe just playing around in the studio like I usually do most of the time. I tried to give each song on the album its own expression in a way, and I think we definitely succeeded with that on the song ‘All My Dreams.’ It sounds quite different than the rest of the songs I think.”
The Enigma Of Life’s title track is a ballad affair, particularly different to its fellow album tracks. What inspires such material? “Mainly, I get my inspiration I think from Norwegian writers and the society up here, and everything that goes on around me. I’ve noticed over the years that I become way more productive in wintertime than I am in the summertime for example. In the winter, it gets dark really early, and I get this feeling at least to stay inside, that there’s not really much you can do outside. It’s dark, it’s snowing, it’s cold, so I always tend to lock myself up in the studio and work in a calm and focused manner. In the summer for example, when it’s warm and sunny, it’s nice outside and I always tend to get very restless. I want to go outside, I want to do stuff, and I want to see friends. In the summer it’s harder to maintain that focus and to get the inspiration, while I get really inspired by the Norwegian winter. Maybe nowadays I hardly read books or see movies, but whenever I see a movie, it invokes some emotions in me which again can inspire me to write some music and so on.”
Is the mood of the Norwegian winter prevalent on Sirenia’s music? “Yeah, I think absolutely. I think it’s my main inspiration in a way, and also I’m very privileged to the place I live. I look outside my window, and just my view is a huge inspiration really (laughs).”
Naming an album The Enigma Of Life raises an inevitable question, a question many likely ponder over the course of their lives: what is the enigma of life? “I always get these questions, and I always feel very uncomfortable talking too much about the album titles or my lyrics. I always try to write lyrics that are very indirect, and I use a lot of parallels, metaphors and things like that to make lyrics that people have to go a bit in-depth with to try to figure out what the real meaning behind them really is. To me, it always felt like reviewing my own work, breaking it down, work which I have built up by talking about it. I always prefer to just leave those things up to the listeners and let them listen to the music and read the lyrics, and try to get their own interpretation or understanding about it.”
When penning lyrics for another individual to sing, that individual’s personality has to be taken into account. When writing lyrics for someone of the opposite gender, however, surely that has to be also taken into account? “Yeah, absolutely. I have to keep that in mind, and also the part where I’m singing. Whether it’s a girl or it’s a boy singing I have to definitely keep n the back of my mind when I’m writing the lyrics. I think that’s important.”
When presented with your lyrics, does Ailyn suggest more appropriate words she can sing and things of that nature? “No, not usually. Sometimes she comes up with some ideas for the melodies, and then we try them out. Maybe then I’ll get more ideas and we can work together just to fine-tune and work with certain details. I always write the lyrics myself. Also, I think at this point it would be very difficult for Ailyn to write lyrics in English. When she joined the band on the previous album, she couldn’t speak a word of English actually (laughs). She has been working really hard with learning English these days. We can have a good conversation in English, but I remember when we were recording The 13th Floor that it was really challenging. We had a lot of funny situations in the studio because she only spoke Spanish, and I don’t know Spanish. I only know Norwegian and English, and she didn’t know any English. I also think that what she did on The 13th Floor is really amazing if you keep in mind that she actually couldn’t speak a word of English. She obviously had to do a lot of repeating, especially on the pronunciation and so on for this album. I think she has made great progress and things went way more easier this time around. She’s really a hard working singer and I think she’s improving fast. It’s one of the reasons why we are so happy with her, because she’s taking things very seriously and she’s working very hard.”
An angel-type figure adorns The Enigma Of Life’s cover artwork, an illustration helmed by Gustavo Sazes, a Brazilian whose ever growing metal portfolio includes designs for the likes of Arch Enemy, Firewind, God Forbid, Manowar and several others. “When he came up with the first version of the cover, I didn’t actually speak to him,” Morten chuckles. “I checked out different designers, and I agreed with my record company that Gustavo was a really good choice for Sirenia, and that we’d like to work with him for The Enigma Of Life. Sometime later, all of a sudden I got a preview of the cover in my mailbox and I thought it looked really amazing. He just made some small changes that I requested, and then we had a cover that I think fits the title and the whole concept of the album very nicely. I think he did a great job – he really nailed it with that cover.”
2009 marked the arrival of Mortemia, a gothic metal solo project where Morten Veland handles all instrumentation as well as production, engineering, and mixing. This culminated in the February 2010 issue of Misere Mortem through Napalm Records. “With the third Sirenia album, Nine Destinies And A Downfall, I decided to make some bigger changes in terms of our musical concept,” reveals Morten. “I removed a lot of the more extreme elements in our music, and the music became more mid-tempo and more melodic with more female vocals. We reduced a lot of the extreme male vocals and so on, and found out this was the path that I wanted with Sirenia. I found it more interesting and more challenging to write more melodic stuff, and work with harmonies and things. These days I also listen to melodic music a lot more, so it feels more natural. After some years, I also began to miss composing a little bit more intricate stuff, harder stuff – more extreme stuff in a way. I got the idea of putting Mortemia together into life. Now I have projects for both things, I can work with all my melodic stuff with Sirenia, and I can work with more… well, I don’t think Mortemia are that extreme, but more old school gothic metal. Now I can use more of my creativity and live out two different concepts, so that feels really great.”
Mortemia fans need not fear since Misere Mortem isn’t scheduled to be a lone, one-off album, with Sirenia plans also afoot. “Right now, I’m writing new music for Mortemia so I have the intention of putting together a new Mortemia album. With Sirenia, right at the moment we’re obviously doing promotion with all the interviews and so on. We are looking into touring possibilities and setting up shows and so on for promoting the album; we’re already confirmed for Wacken Open Air this summer, and we’ll play Masters Of Rock in Czech Republic. We’ll be playing more festivals. We can’t make those dates official yet, but of course we will keep everybody informed on our website as soon as we can make things official.”
The Enigma Of Life was released on January 21st, 2011 in Europe and on February 15th in North America, all through Nuclear Blast Records.
Interview published in February 2011
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