Cultural History: Sienna’s Romantic Vision For A Postmodern Age

A thousand years from now, historians will access musical recordings and videos of performances to understand what life was all about in the 20th and 21st centuries. Arguably, there’s no better way to vicariously experience the lunacy that was the 1960s and 70s than listening to Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side Of The Moon,” or no more direct glimpse into the heart of a romantic than the latest disc by Passenger or Ed Sheeran. Put simply, musical compositions encapsulate passions and attitudes in a way that mere essays or news documentaries can’t.

Another romantic soul worth listening to is European electronica artist Sienná, who is busy traveling the globe and documenting a life in love with beauty. Her most recent release, the single “I Know Why” is the first on her “Anneis” label, and a departure from her previous releases. With vocals by Sienná and Hallvard Gaardløs, the lovely tune begins with an ethereal guitar figure and a sound close to dreampop before venturing into a more experimental style. The single is Sienná’s debut as producer and engineer as well. See and hear the video on you tube: https://youtu.be/pLMaMZNbcjs

Born and raised in Japan but now situated in Norway, Sienná rebelled against the conservative norms of her childhood to pursue music; since  launching her career she has toured all over Europe bringing alternate versions of her recorded music to audiences.  From the beginning,  Sienná  partnered with producer Abon to release an EP and three full length records.

About the differences between her recorded music and what happens live, Sienná explains: “We are three musicians on stage, and we always simplify them to the max, and also give a larger space for Hallvard (my bassist) and Vegard Lien (my keyboardist) to groove and improvise as they like. So, the audience may always expect something different than what they hear on the albums. I also experienced how much my music varies according to whom I perform with. ..I think especially house-music lovers tend to be surprised how groovy we are as a live band who does jazzy improvisations. It´s just like extra spices on the grooves they dance to. Live music lovers tend to be surprised how unique we are. Well, the world of music has become pretty much crossover, though we can still surprise people. I love it.”

Cinematic and Danceable Soundscapes

Sienna’s most recent full length album, Japonesque (2013) is true to her romantic vision, imbued with a poetic sensibility that celebrates the beauty in imagination, memories, and reflections on everyday life.

Sienná explains: “I had been trying to combine “European” type of music and Japanese music in my weird electronic way since 2008. What I tried to do on the album “Japonesque” was to do it much better. I guess ‘what one likes, one will do best’ as Japanese say. The word ‘Japonesque’ means something characteristically Japanese, with influence of something European – like my music, as well as my personality. The main concept came from me being nostalgic about my hometown Kyoto. I am far away from home, but I close my eyes and see in my mind what I used to see. Sometimes I start to hear sound added to it like a movie scene. So I take a note of what comes to my mind with any synths available at that point – that is probably why it becomes electronic-based music. I believe I am best at forming my ideas with synths.”

 The disc relies on a mix of sampled, digital and classic analogue synth sounds along with skillful guitar and bass, and features Sienná’s characteristically tasty dance grooves along with cinematic, sublime experimental tunes and Sienná’s exotic vocalizations. It seems ideal for play in many venues, from home to public spaces. In addition to drawing upon the wellsprings of imagination, Sienná is inspired by her travels, as is the case with the tunes “Gion” and “Fontabranda di Siena.”

It can happen wherever I am,” she explains. “I heard sound when I was walking down on the Gion district in Kyoto, or when I was sitting by the fountain in Siena (Italy) named ‘Fontabranda Di Siena.’ Timing is always unpredictable, but yes, I think travel is certainly a very good way for me to collect impressions. The sound I hear first can be changed as it processes later, but the basis and its concept usually stay unchanged. It´s interesting that you tell me about the medieval references. It´s nothing conscious about it from my side, though very very true! I am basically an educated cultural historian, so I admire things and places with long histories and stories. Also, I like to use my imagination and pretend stepping back in time here and there. That may be why people call me “an awake-walking daydreamer’ and ‘a contemporary traditionalist?’ I don´t know.”

 The album reaches a point where Sienná’s personal experiences intersect with universal experience in a cycle of four songs: “Tranquility (Black Tortoise of the North)”, Ascension (Azure Dragon of the East)”, “Rest (White Tiger of the West)”,and “Play (Vermilion Bird of the South).” These alternately soothing and danceable new jazz/electronica soundscapes combine atmospheric melodic elements with improvisation, resulting in sound paintings that engage the listener’s imagination.

Sienna explains: “The titles of the four songs represent what I used to do in each part of the town, combined with an image from the Four celestial guardians of Kyoto on the four compass directions – a kind of Feng shui concept the town was built upon. The northern part is a deep mountain area where I felt an endless tranquility. Sometimes I spent ‘rest time’ with my parents in the western part. I went to a school located in the eastern side, where I “ascended.’ And, I lived in the southern part. It was my ‘playground.'”

It’s the sense of play that permeates the album that makes it so much fun to listen to;  experimental but always melodic, “Japonesque” documents an artist at play, with the recorded medium as a canvas teeming with color.

The disc’s lovely final track, “New Day,” features lush pads, vintage analog drum sounds, tranquil piano and Sienná’s baritone/tenor voice urging listeners towards  “wonderland,” where “we keep the dream.” Like the rest of the album, it’s a gorgeous sound painting depicting the life of a dreamer. “Japonesque,” produced by Abon, features Sienna on keyboards and vocals, Hallvard Gaardløs on bass, and Abon on guitar. It has a lot to offer fans of jazz, pop and electronica who appreciate first rate musicianship and production, in a disc that engages the imagination and, at times, inspires you to put on your dancing shoes, or just chill out and enjoy. Get it on iTunes, Amazon, and hear it on Spotify. Find out more at www.sienna-web.com

 

Send In the Christmas Cat!

By 1984, electronic music had bullied rock and roll into a rather cold place, as David Bowie explained in an interview in that year. The iconic chameleon was right, of course; with some notable exceptions (Thomas Dolby, Yello, The B52s), extensive use of synthesizers and the growing role of digital devices in popular and rock music resulted in nearly a decade dominated by robotic drumbeats, overuse of digital effects, and a general lack of inspiration and humor. Depeche Mode weren’t tagged with the name Depressed Mood for nothing.

Thirty years later, things don’t look much better. The spawn of 80s electronic music that started with techno pop  is represented by dozens of electronica genres and sub genres, including ‘dance’ music that’s not danceable at all, many of these genres sounding like they were created using similar equipment and software. And in addition to the generic approach to music creation, the same lack of humor is a trademark of these genres (Psy’s Gangnam Style excepted). Send in the clowns.

Enter Gilles Snowcat. With his affection for plush felines and Hello Kitty, Snowcat puts a buffoonish spin on the seriousness of rock’s self-important swagger. If you put Frank Sinatra, Calvin and Hobbes, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Serge Gainsbourg into a transmogrifying machine, you’d get Gilles Snowcat. He sings about the places he loves (Japan, Vietnam, Belgium, France), about the perils of fame, about intoxicating beverages, and about the risks and rewards of romance,  all with a self effacing sense of humor. (His use of vintage analog instruments is an added attraction.)

In a recent photo, Snowcat looks the part of debonair bachelor, sitting with a drink in one hand, while his left arm drapes across the shoulders of an over-sized Hello Kitty plush animal. Yet despite his clowning, Snowcat can get very serious when discussing beauty and inspiration. “Beauty is not innocent at all,” he says. “It is quicksand with a sweet taste.” And despite his desire to give full reign to his inner Sylvester, Pink Panther, Fritz the Cat or Tony the Tiger, Gilles Snowcat has a serious approach to creating music and lyrics beneath the cartoon veneer, acknowledging the painful or lustful impulses that often accompany musical creation.

“This is probably a necessary part in art,” he says. “Art is not practical and therefore can be fed by any kind of intentions and still remain art. That’s the biggest difference between, let’s say an architect and an artist. An architect, however artist he is to design his buildings, has to respect rules of physics, if not his houses would collapse and therefore would not be houses anymore. A human being is somehow a complicated thing, and is repressed to show the whole self, for obvious reasons. If we didn’t censor ourselves in everyday life, we’d be in a perpetual chaos.”

Snowcat waxes philosophical: “Art not only allows the use of our worst feelings, but it works better with them. You mention rock’n’roll, as if rock’n’roll was more evil than other forms of art. I don’t think so. Rock’n’roll seems more on the dark side cause it shows it as a part of its image. ” For example, as Gilles goes on to explain,  a key difference between the rebelliousness of rockers and the seeming innocence of singers of pop standards is tied up in how they present themselves to their audience; what goes on underneath is the same. “There’s not much difference,” he says,  “between, let’s say, an extreme rocker who sings ‘Walk On The Wild Side’ about junkies, prostitutes and transvestites, a blue-eyed crooner who whispers ‘Strangers In The Night’ about a love story that begins, or a painter who depicts the pure beauty of an exotic landscape: they’re all driven by a mix of several feelings and intentions, including…devilish ones. Lou Reed will use the bad side to strengthen his image, while Sinatra will hide it as much as he can.”

All the world’s a stage. New York rockers and blue eyed crooners notwithstanding,  Gilles Snowcat positions himself as a player in musical theater, in the roles of cat and jester. Since his days as a member of Awaken in the ’80s, Gilles has been a musical experimenter, with an inclination away from self-censorship. It’s this freedom that makes his art and persona so appealing. Check out his newly-released 2014 Christmas single,  “Let The Cat Out,” coming soon to  www.gilles-snowcat.com . Update: Listen to it here: Let The Cat Out.

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