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The recovery position

On Christmas Day, when much of the country was stuffing itself silly with turkey, Rachel Sermanni was on a plane, touching down in Australia.

And so while most of us are currently feeling the onset of the post-holiday January blues, it is quite possible the young singer-songwriter can be found busking on a beach in the Aussie summer sun, enjoying an impromptu jam session or performing on stage as part of the Woodford Folk Festival in Byron Bay, her reason for being Down Under.

It might sound like the kind of activities that blur the line between work and play - and when things are going well for the Scottish folk artist, this is exactly how she sees being a musician - but this is Sermanni's full-time job. She is there to work.

In her short but successful career, Sermanni has performed hundreds (and hundreds) of gigs around the world. She's been called the hardest-working woman on the Scottish music scene, a description which resonates with truth when Sermanni tells me how, in 2012 - the year her debut album, Under Mountains, was released - she found herself physically and mentally drained

It was an almost imperceptible thing: that moment when her mind, body, her spirit even, said enough was enough. Months of endless touring had taken its toll and, in short, Sermanni was spent; so tired she didn't even realise she was tired.

"And that's a really dangerous point," recalls the 22-year-old. "Because I don't think I was looking after any part of me. I knew something was wrong, but I didn't know what. And I was just ... sad."

Not so today when we speak. Her voice has a bounce to it. For the most part, she is feeling upbeat, ready to embrace a new year. In fact, the youthful cadence of Sermanni's speech is also the only giveaway of her young age. Otherwise, when she talks - of worldly truths, wisdoms and life lessons - there's a maturity to her words, delivered at times with an almost lyrical quality. Unsurprising really, given that Sermanni is a natural songwriter.

Her first material in 18 months - an EP appropriately entitled Everything Changes, recorded in New York with producer Alex Newport (Bloc Party, Frank Turner) - is about to be released. In it, the arrangements are simpler, the voice deeper and the writing more literal; although the same eloquent, captivating music remains. Her biggest headline concert to date is also happening at the end of the month, at Kelvingrove Art Gallery, as part of this month's Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow.

For now, it is a week before her trip to Australia and Sermanni is sitting in a cafe in Aviemore, close to the family home where she lives with her parents in nearby Carrbridge. Outside, it's snowing. Inside Sermanni's head, hidden under the positivity, like the leaves under the falling snow outside, is a hint of anxiety. "I can feel my nerves tightening," she says. "And my sleep's been a little bit more disturbed because I know there's a departure imminent ..."

It is at home, predictably, that Sermanni is most at peace. It was in part due to having so much time away from her base that led to 2012's ... what do we call it? Breakdown? Depression? Had she simply become jaded with it all?

"Most definitely," she whispers. To the point that it seriously affected her health? "Oh yeah, I think so. I over-toured. It sounds so dramatic; it really isn't a diva thing. I was just working a lot, flying everywhere and it was intense. And I was alone for a lot of it."

Such is the life of a solo singer, with the exception of a trusty tour manager. She fell out of contact with friends, was experiencing stress around her album release and had said "yes" to so many things she wasn't getting time with her family.

"You have to realise when you need company and when you need home. My mind was getting a little warped with everything. I can't even remember how I got there now," she reflects.

Whatever "there" was, it took 2013 to get over it. "It was a real recovery year. It brought many gifts that have helped; more spontaneous musical adventures and new friends in the music world."

She became more travelled, more confident. "I've also I've been aware of what happened and therefore been able to sort of … "- she searches for the right word - "wield what tools I have in order to make space for myself. I'm more comfortable and able to realise I can take control."

There's now a community of people looking out for her, she says. She started touring with her good friend, Jennifer Austin, a piano player, who is also in Australia with her. "And I've got a wonderful tour manager, Jimmy, and so that's changed everything. The company that you travel with is so important."

She is also being less shaded. "I'm getting more and more able to look after myself, which is a really nice feeling. You learn to make your space."

All these reasons, she says, are why she is running into 2014 with energy, not running into the ground.

Yet 2012 lives on in her music. Sermanni recalls a song she recently recorded entitled Dear Granville, originally a spoof letter written for her dear friend and first tour manager, nicknamed Granville. It depicts a series of different feelings; of life not being the same, everything being a bit darker and missing someone's company.

"One of the verses says 'I'll just have another tipple to help let everything go', and I'm not remotely that way inclined when it comes to alcohol," she explains. "But there was one night toward the end of a tour … I'd over-disciplined myself. But in that year, when my body, everything was kind of falling apart - probably because my head was in the wrong space in the first place - I was taking it a bit too extreme."

A promoter bought some whisky and Sermanni, out of politeness, couldn't say no. The result was a horrific two-day hangover. She laughs in memory.

"That was the only hangover I had in a year, that's not bad. I deserved it. That verse was all about that."

The song, she says, simply reflects what was going on in her head at the time, acknowledging that it took a long time to get back to feeling creative.

"I was like deadened inside. You feel it inside when you've got to write, and when it's satisfying to write. It has to be obligatory in some form. But if I'm trying to get through things, the songs do come when I need them, rather than when I want them."

She admits she finds it hard to write in a happy frame of mind because "the best songs come out of the imbalances", adding that: "There are certain songs I'm thankful for because they feel like a real relief." Yet when she performs - during which she enjoys "silences" - she wants to do so with her emotions intact.

"Maintaining your spirit is very important, especially when you're singing to people. It's important not to give them some poison you're brooding over, because you do if you're not careful.

"You can give them a nasty song," she muses, "as long as you give it to them without nastiness inside you."

For someone so young, Sermanni is already a seasoned performer. While she still has the world at her feet, the past few years have also taught her that the music industry is full of "smoke and mirrors".

"I feel like I'm successful at learning everything is an illusion," she says with a laugh, admitting that this is probably not the thing to say to someone who is interviewing her. "People think you're doing well, but you're ... it's not like you're not doing well."

What I think Sermanni is trying to say is that the music business is hard. As well as the endless touring, there are the logistics and finances to worry about. Making music takes money. (The new EP is being funded by PledgeMusic, an online direct-to-fan music platform that has similarities with crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter.) But Sermanni is young, has no children, so it is about embracing the uncertainty, she says.

"I've just got to go with the flow. I've got enough energy to know it will all be OK. If I wanted a normal life, though, this is not the path," she says with a chuckle.

That said, the dream is to one day have "a nest", most likely near the family home in the Highlands. And if the past few years have gone at supersonic speed, this year promises more gigs, with a UK tour followed by a European and Canadian tour and possibly more festivals.

"It does mush and blur," says Sermanni. "But it's going in a positive direction. People deem success in different ways, but I'm getting closer to feeling a little more ... balanced."

Everything Changes is released on January 27 and is available for pre-order at www.pledgemusic.com/projects/rachelsermanni. Rachel Sermanni plays Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum as part of Celtic Connections on Friday, January 31, 8pm; for more information and tickets, check www.celticconnections.com

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