The Bella Union boss on the creative processes behind new album In Quiet Moments, matching music to vocalists, finding rebirth from death and the ongoing thrill of discovering new artists
Simon Raymonde may be primarily known for playing bass in the Cocteau Twins and running the Bella Union label, but there’s a third creative offshoot which has come increasingly into focus over recent years, namely Lost Horizons, his project with ex Dif Juz drummer Richie Thomas.
After first appearing in 2017 with their debut Ojalá, the pair are now back with the release of their second album In Quiet Moments, an even more wide-ranging and ambitious follow up that continues the trend of incorporating multiple vocalists (the 16 songs here each have a different singer).
From the moment we start talking it’s evident that Raymonde has a limitless, bounding love not only for music in general but also for the process of making it and for the many artists he promotes and nurtures via his label. During our conversation he enthuses endlessly about these artists and speaks with wonderment of the various musical revelations afforded by the album.
How do you feel now that the album is about to come out? Was there a reason why half of the album was released back in December, with the other half following now in February?
“I’m thrilled by it. It’s been a really nice set up with how we did it in two parts, but also a bit odd and unconventional. I think for this kind of record, where it is so long and there’s a lot of different things going on, the traditional way of doing an album where you’d release a couple of singles then release the album, just wasn’t going to work. People would not understand the album in, say, two tracks. If the first single was the Porridge Radio track then the second single was the John Grant track people just wouldn’t get it. I knew it had to be a much longer drip feed of tracks. So that was the reason behind the two halves, but now we’re almost there it’s wonderful. It’s a bit unusual for me in that I still really like it. Usually by the time an album comes out, I’m over it and want to crack on with the next one”.
How did the album work in terms of timeframes?
“We began the record at some point in 2018. Richie and I started our improvisations, which is always how the songs start. With all the different vocalists on a record like this you need to have a lot of patience and not have a deadline in mind. I’m lucky in that respect as I don’t need a deadline. When I’m making music the goal isn’t to put a record out, it’s more about producing something that I can really get my mind involved in and feel creative with as I’ve missed out on that over the years”.
How did you go about recruiting the singers?
“I knew I wanted to have some ‘repeats’ from the first album like Karen Peris of The Innocence Mission, Tim Smith formerly of Midlake and Cameron Neal of Horse Thief. I also wanted to get John Grant on the album this time. The largest part of it however was wanting to work with brand new people. I wanted to try to broaden this album out from a guitar record to something more soulful. The development of my partnership with Richie is partly why the record sounds broader than the first”.
How did the process work in terms of lyrics?
“The lyrics are all done by the vocalists. The catalyst for making this record from my perspective was my mum passing away in 2018. I didn’t really grieve it deeply enough at the time, I was just dealing with other things. Coming back into the studio was my way of processing it. When I was speaking to the vocalists I would tell them that the theme of the record from my perspective was death and rebirth. I was missing my mum but I was also thinking about how everything gets born again, how there’s always something new that comes from a passing away. It can be new ideals, new ideas, new thoughts, new consciousness”.
“So I laid that on a plate and told the vocalists ‘that’s what I’m thinking about’ when I’m creating the music. I told them they could take that as a starting point if they wanted but if they want to go off and do their own thing, that’s fine as well. A lot of the singers did take it as a starting point and a few didn’t. I always leave that side entirely up to them”. Over the course of our conversation we zigzag our way back and forth across the album track by track until Raymonde’s reflections on each have been captured.
Halcyon (featuring Penelope Isles)
“Penelope Isles are like my own family so I always knew that I wanted to have them on the record. This has always been one of my favourite tracks on the record. As soon as Jack finished it I knew it was going to be the first track on the album. I’m absolutely crazy about this song”.
I Woke Up With An Open Heart (featuring Nubiya Brandon of The Hempolics)
“I’d heard them on 6 Music a couple of years ago and I thought they sounded great. Richie and I made this tune, we were jamming the riff in my studio and as we were doing it felt a bit like The Clash musically. It had that kind of loose, dubby feel to it. Richie is a very dub inspired, reggae inspired drummer and I’ve been massively into dub since I was 16. I’ve always had that music in my DNA. I suppose you could say some of my basslines in the Cocteau Twins were a bit dubby but in terms music itself being inspired by that genre, I’ve never really gone there. So when we made this track I knew that I needed to get the right singer for it. It needed to be authentic. I tried contacting Linton Kwesi Johnson who is one of my absolute heroes but I wasn’t able to get any joy with him but then I suddenly thought ‘what about The Hempolics?’”.
Grey Tower (featuring Tim Smith)
“Tim is quite a reclusive type. He doesn’t like playing live and he doesn’t do this kind of thing very often. So asking him to appear on the first record, I thought it was more than likely he was going to say something like ‘thanks but I can’t even finish my own songs, never mind one of yours’. I was convinced that I wasn’t going to hear from him but then I got an email back from him saying he really loved it and he wanted to do it. He had a few struggles with it but we changed a few things in the structure of the song. I then got Richie to put the drums on it and suddenly it took on this sad, Courage Of Others-like, monochrome, wintery sadness that he does so well”.
Linger (featuring Gemma Dunleavy)
“This is a very special track. This came from our first time back in the studio since the first album. It was just Richie on drums, me playing the piano and Jack from Penelope Isles was engineering the session. There was quite a lot of excitement. Richie helps me overcome my lack of confidence in my musicianship. The strange set of piano notes at the start are quite unusual, it’s almost got a Thom Yorke sound. It’s nowhere near as good as Pyramid Song but it’s got that similar strange juxtaposition of nice notes and weird notes and I loved it. I thought it was very dark and a bit Massive Attack-y by the time I had added the bass. Gemma really took the theme of death, the song is about ghosts and the lingering feeling you can have after someone has died”.
One For Regret (featuring Dana Margolin of Porridge Radio)
“A song might take 5 minutes, it might take one day, or it might be done over the course of a month. Then you send it to the singer and you might not hear for a month because they’re busy and then they say they can’t do it for 6 months because they’re busy with something else but The Porridge Radio track happened really quick. Dana did her vocal really swiftly and everything worked out really well”.
Every Beat That Passed (featuring Kavi Kwai)
“I found out about Kavi at The Great Escape festival in 2019. We always host in-store events at our Bella Union shop and I’d offered an in-store to Alice Boman. I’d heard from her manager Tom Malmros around the time I was putting the track together. He said he was managing this Swedish artist called Kavi Kwai and played me a song and it was absolutely amazing. People say she’s trying to copy Liz Fraser but I didn’t get that at all. Her own music is absolutely nothing like it. I asked if he thought she might like to sing on this tune I’ve just finished. I thought it might work but I did not know how amazing it was going to be. It was so emotional, I cried so much after I heard that track.
Nobody Knows My Name (featuring Cameron Neal)
“Cameron Neal was on the first record and we’ve been working with his band Horse Thief on Bella Union for a long time but they have never really had any breakthrough. He has an unusual voice but I love it. This track always seemed like music he would get”.
Cordelia (featuring John Grant)
“I was blown away by this track. It’s not the only song on the album to have elements of my past, in terms of the Cocteau Twins stuff. John is a huge Cocteau Twins fan and I knew he loved Victorialand in particular. When I was doing the guitar parts I couldn’t help but think ‘blimey, they are a bit like Victorialand, I wonder if John would like this’. Then I added pedal steel guitar and strings and that really helped take the song off into this other atmosphere where it didn’t just sound like a parody. I thought I’m just going to take the plunge and send it to him. John is so busy and I was dreading sending it to him in a way as I was sure he would come back saying he didn’t have time to do it. That’s what most people say when they don’t want to do it but to my absolute delight he said he loved it and he’d do it. When he sent it back with his vocals I was close to tears. It’s less of a song and more of a mood piece”.
In Quiet Moments (featuring Ural Thomas)
“This came completely out of the blue. The tune was almost finished but I couldn’t think who was the right person to sing on it, then I got this email from Ural’s team. They had sent me some stuff that he had recorded and said ‘I don’t know if you know if this guy, he’s 80 years old, he lives in Portland, we only discovered him ourselves a few years back, he’s amazing, I wondered if you’d be interested in putting the record out?’ It sounded fascinating so I read up on him and listened to some of his previous albums and it was amazing. I emailed back asking if they thought he might also be interested in listening to this tune I’d made, maybe with a view to doing something on the record. They were so enthusiastic about the idea so that’s how it happened. I really lucked out on that”.
Circle (featuring C Duncan)
“I’ve been a fan of C Duncan for a long time, since his first album Architect. He actually covered Pearly-Dewdrops’ Drop by the Cocteau Twins, one of the few people to do it successfully. I don’t even need to hear anything that guy does to know that I want to work with him in the future. Luckily he was out of a label deal so I went up to Glasgow to meet him and had such a lovely day. He’s such a great person and perfect for our little family. I’m just totally in love with everything he does. He’s way more talented than even he has shown on his own records. When I sent him that track I had a good idea of what he was going to do. When I got it back I think I listened to it about 50 times in a row”.
Unravelling In Slow Motion (featuring Ren Harvieu)
“Ren has got such colour and character to her singing. We had signed her to the label a few months before and I was working on this track, finding it difficult to conclude. I couldn’t get my head around what it needed then I got some strings from Fiona Brice, who plays all the strings on the album. Once she added the string element I felt it had that Dusty Springfield, Helen Shapiro vibe. I thought to myself ‘who is the most 60’s type singer we’ve got on the label?’ It’s Ren Harvieu. So she wrote the lyrics and nailed it”.
Blue Soul (featuring Laura Groves)
“I’ve loved Laura Groves for a long time, going back to when she did stuff on XL with her band Blue Roses. I always wanted her to be on the album and I knew this was the track for her. That’s what this music does, it brings back memories of all these people I’ve met and thought even if they don’t end up on Bella Union I must keep in touch with these people that I really admire. That’s the beauty of this project, it could be anything”.
Flutter (featuring Rosie Blair)
“Rosie was in a band on Bella Union called Ballet School, they made an album but didn’t follow it up with anything but I’ve always kept in touch with her. She has one of the purest, most gorgeous voices out there. The album was starting to take shape and I was getting an idea of the flow. Richie wrote the piano part for her song and I didn’t think it needed any additional music so I just left it alone and I couldn’t think what sort of vocal it should have but then I suddenly thought ‘Rosie!’. Her music is quite electronic but this is quite different so I thought she might like it. When I got it back I knew that was the missing piece. The record needed another quiet track. I wanted a bit of space and a bit of ambience and this brought it”.
Marie (featuring Marissa Nadler)
“The part that took ages on this song was the mixing. It took me about two months going backwards and forwards before I finally got it. It was a very messy recording and the drums are a bit splashy and a bit hissy. I like the fact that it’s a little imperfect, but it makes it difficult to fit it sonically into the rest of the album. Marissa had done such a beautiful vocal, I kept listening to it in the car, coming back in and making little tweaks. I did that for months until eventually I got it. Sometimes music is like that”.
Heart Of A Hummingbird (featuring KookieLou)
“KookieLou is Lily from Penelope Isles. They’ve been on an incredible journey over the last couple of years. They came on tour with Lost Horizons across the UK in 2018. They’re part of our extended family and it felt absolutely right to have both Lily and Jack on the album. There’s a lot going on under the surface on this song”.
This Is The Weather (featuring Karen Peris)
“Karen is the most affecting singer I can think of, I’m her biggest fan. I’ve loved The Innocence Mission since I was in my 20s. Karen has never sang on anyone else’s record. When the album was taking shape and I knew it was going to be a long album with a journey across lots of different sounds it made total sense for this song to close the album. I mean where else could it go? When artists respond with so much enthusiasm to a track it’s like getting a big hug”.
In Quiet Moments by Lost Horizons is out on Bella Union on 26 February. Further information can be found here.