I must say the progressive world has totally embraced us, which is wonderful (Chrissy Mostyn)
A word of explanation is probably in order if you aren’t familiar with The Blackheart Orchestra. First and most important would be that they aren’t an orchestra. In actual fact, they are scarcely a band by the acknowledged definition of the term, being made up of just two people, Chrissy Mostyn and Rick Pilkington (no relation to me, I hasten to add. No favouritism here, folks!). The fact of them being a ‘mere’ duo is, however, mitigated by the fact that both are multi-instrumentalists and at times onstage appear to have been blessed with the miracle of multiple arms, as they play everything live with no backing tracks. This is especially true of the octopoidal Pilkington, who appears to attempt manfully to play every instrument ever invented, short of having a bass drum on his back and cymbals between his knees, while Chrissy handles the lead vocals as well. It’s quite the sight to witness, and makes the Orchestra an essential draw in a live setting.
Reproducing this in the studio when no-one can marvel at the plate-spinning magic going on is a different entity altogether, however, and when they release a studio recording you’d better believe it needs to be good on its own terms. Thankfully I can report that the latest album, Mesmeranto, is excellent. You can read my full review of the record elsewhere on this very site, but suffice it to say that it is an album with a conceptual edge to it, as Chrissy’s mother was sadly passing away during the recording, and it drove her to explore the highs and lows and extremes of emotion that life can throw at you. As such, it does seem to have a consistency of vision and focus that the previous album, Diving For Roses, didn’t aim for so much. When I met up with the pair recently, that was the first thing I wanted to ask about…
VT: The new album seems to be very much single minded in its purpose, whereas with Diving For Roses it seemed to me that you took the approach more of throwing all of these great ideas you has at the canvas and seeing how the picture came out.
CM: You know what, I think you are right there. We didn’t particularly set out to do things like that, but we certainly reined things in a bit. With Diving For Roses we recorded so much stuff that we ended up taking quite a bit out, but this time we kept a short leash on it and just recorded what we needed to. Would you agree, Rick?
RP: I think so, yes. To my mind the biggest thing is the fact that we were very single-minded about the material throughout the twelve months or so it took to record it. There’s a conceptual unity about it – it’s not like a box of Quality Street if you like, with each song being a different flavour. It was very much of a whole.
CM: That’s true in a way I think, although there were a lot of different emotions on the album, it was very varied in that way. I think there was definitely a singularity to the writing, with my mother’s illness providing the catalyst, and production-wise it is much more unified than before.
VT: Looking at the songs on the album, lyrically I assume it’s all from you, Chrissy, at least on this album as it is clear that you are expressing your own emotions, be it anger directed outward or even inward, as on the song Never Do Do I, and in other places grief or even joy. What about the music though, is that a collaborative thing?
CM: Oh yes, absolutely. You’re right that the lyrics have mainly been me, apart from the odd line, but the music is a whole different thing. I might start off with a vocal idea, and create the bones, but Rick tends to flesh it out more, and is definitely the man on the production side. We both have our places in the process for sure, and the music grows organically, no matter how much the lyrics have a constant theme
RP: That’s true, but I must say I agree that this album does sound, much more than the last one, like a unified whole. I know we didn’t plan it that way, but I was only listening to the album in the car earlier and I found the same thing, it sounds as if we had a grand plan, even if it isn’t the case most of the time. I’m really happy it came out like that, I think it’s great.
VT: One thing which struck me about the album is how precise and measured the playing is. More so than any of your previous stuff, there is no ostentation or overplaying at all – when some lead guitar comes in it’s done with almost surgical precision, almost in the way Mike Oldfield would construct something with layer after layer to make the whole. That must be difficult for a guitarist to do, because the electric guitar is an extrovert instrument, there’s no getting away from it.
CM: You’re absolutely right there. Rick is an exceptional guitarist, and I’ve heard how good he can be, but he was so disciplined about his playing on this album, even when the temptation was enormous. I mean, he had a little sulk now and again (laughs) but he sort of disciplined himself with his playing.
RP: I’m really glad to hear you say that it worked, because it did take discipline, and Chrissy and Glenn, the engineer, would tell me repeatedly that I should rein things in a bit, and I’m so glad they did because it’s absolutely the right thing for the music. I’ve always been a guitarist first and foremost, and like all guitarists I love that ‘foot on the monitor with a Marshall stack’ feeling, but that isn’t the kind of thing we do and I know that it wouldn’t be the best for the music. It wouldn’t move us forward, and it might even move us backward.
CM: You need to do a solo album to get that side of you out I think!
VT: You always play things live without any extra backing help, so I have wondered whether there is ever a temptation to multi-track things in the studio to a point where you realise that you can’t play it live
RP: No, not at all. In fact, we never write and record something in the studio, we always play new songs live before we attempt to record them. The way I think of it is that the live version of a song is always the definitive one. The studio recording is like the ‘deluxe’ version.
CM: Of course there are tracks on this album, such as More and Another Lifetime, where we’ve added strings which won’t be available live, but the music was always road-tested first so that while it might be different to the record, it isn’t lesser, or stripped down. That’s of paramount importance to us – if we lost that and started using backing tapes and samples, we’d lose everything that makes us what we are. I see the album as a different beast entirely, really. We don’t try to make the live shows sound the same.
VT: Let’s talk about your voice now Chrissy, if we could. To me you really are a vocal chameleon, because your voice sounds so different on Mesmeranto compared to the previous one. The big thing for me with this one is that you are very much channelling Dolores O’Riordan, from the Cranberries, but on Diving For Roses I didn’t get that al all – if anything the feeling on that one was more Kate Bush if anything.
CM: Gosh, really, are you serious? That’s so weird, as I haven’t thought about that at all. I mean, I take that as a massive compliment because Delores had such a wonderful, influential voice – a ‘marmite’ voice that you love or hate probably, but then I’m very aware that I have a ‘marmite’ voice myself, that’s for sure. I’m really surprised by that. I think probably what you’re hearing is that o this album I’m exploring my lower register more, whereas on Roses I was mainly in a higher register, because that’s my comfort zone. I know I can sing high, so this time out I deliberately tried to use a lower pitch as well, which might account for the change of identity. But no, definitely not deliberate! I do get Kate Bush mentioned t me at gigs quite a lot, and of course she has a divisive voice as well. I’m quite pleased really, because I tend to think I just sound the same all the time. Maybe I’m growing up – no, can’t be that (laughs).
VT: It’s really interesting to look at the dynamic between the pair of you as a duo, because you’re obviously from two different generations, and thus grew up with different musical influences. How on earth did that come about?
CM: What it was, I’d been singing with lots of bands, searching for the right thing, and I ended up joining a band based in Chorley whose drummer was the roadie for Rick’s band, and he asked him along to watch a rehearsal, probably to show off his band and maybe also ask for some advice, I don’t know. Anyhow, we got on really well and I went along to a couple of his gigs, while the band in Chorley split up! I joined another band which happened to feature his band’s drummer, so it was getting complicated, and I started to put some solo stuff together, I wrote some lyrics and stuff. I really wanted to steal Rick away from his band if I’m honest, but one day he came along to a rehearsal with his acoustic guitar and some lyrics I’d given to him and said he’d written some music. And that was how it started.
RP: What you have to understand here is that I’d never written a song in my life before. When we met I was in a Led Zep tribute band – and absolutely loving it by the way – and most of my life I’d been in cover bands and that, and writing music was always something other people did, though I’d always been envious of those who did. So this was fantastic, a new world had opened up to me, and the Led Zep thing finished really because I’d become obsessed with what we were doing. I’d discovered – a bit late in life I suppose – the thrill of performing your own music, and I couldn’t go back.
CM: It was a bit odd early on, because we were much more acoustic with the instrumentation, and although we had all of these influences between us from rock to pop to classical and everything else, we didn’t know what to call ourselves! We thought well, two of us, acoustic guitars, we must be folk – which of course we weren’t really. Nowadays I must say the progressive world has totally embraced us which is wonderful, and I guess ‘progressive’ comes closest to defining what we are.
VT: Genres are a tricky thing, but of course in the real world they have to exist, because to get people interested in wanting to hear you, they naturally want to know what, or who, you sound like.
RP: Absolutely, but it’s not always about the sound you make, or the instruments you might use, it can be about the attitude you have to the music which defines what you are, I think.
VT: Yes, I entirely agree there. In fact, I can back up what you say with another example. As you know, I was Gordon Giltrap’s biographer, and one thing he repeatedly said to me is that he considers himself to be a prog rock musician. Obviously he did the prog thing with the band in the ‘70s on the albums like Visionary and Fear Of The Dark, and n more recent times with Oliver Wakeman, but even when doing his solo guitar material he says he feels that’s where he sees himself, and that is the mindset he has when writing the music.
RP: That’s absolutely perfect, that’s completely what I was trying to say. I have to say, well done Gordon for saying that because it’s so true. If you have that attitude you are shaping your own lock if you like, whereas if you are trying to fit into a certain pigeonhole of sound then you’re continually cutting pieces off your own key to fit that lock. I think that’s a realy important thing to get across – don’t be defined by the instrumentation or set-up you’re working in, just apply your own mindset to it, and the music will be so much better as a result.
VT: Let’s talk now about the work you’ve done with Hawkwind, because of course you supported them on their orchestral tour last year and went down really well with audiences. Were they good to work with?
CM: They were absolutely wonderful! They couldn’t have been more helpful making sure we got a decent soundcheck and things, and we’ve really been made to feel like a part of the Hawkwind ‘family’ since. We’ve been to visit them and it’s been great. In fact, we’re playing with them again soon.
VT: That’s interesting, is that the upcoming UK tour again?
CM: Yes it is, it’s a marvellous opportunity for us again, and we can’t wait.
VT: The tour you did with them last year must have presented some new challenges, in terms of the larger venues, as of course a part of what makes your show so great is the way you use the acoustics to really fill small venues with a big sound, but it’s a whole different thing having to fill a big theatre I’m sure. Did that cause any issues?
RP: You know what, it really didn’t. I mean, you’re right, we were more used to bouncing the sound off the walls and filling the smaller space, but what we did for the Hawkwind gigs is we used our own PA and our own mixer, we just fed that into their desk. So what we had was the familiar sound we’re used to, just with this sort of throb of power from behind us, which was absolutely great. Those were some of the most enjoyable gigs I’ve ever done to be honest.
VT: Hopefully that will be the same this time, with the added boost of the new album to promote
RP: I’m sure it will. But you know what, promoting the album is a nice bonus but it really isn’t the driving force. The things you get out of this business are far more important than money. The well-wishers at shows, the lovely Facebook messages we’ve had about the album – those are the things which have paid for the cost of recording the album, ten times over as far as I’m concerned.
Chrissy nods her total agreement at this as I wrap things up, safe in the certain knowledge that here are two people making this music because it genuinely gives them joy, and that they in turn love the joy that it brings to others.
And, to me, you can’t beat that sentiment. As Sounds magazine used to have it, way back in the ‘70s, ‘The Music Is The Message’. And 45 years later, it still is.