Not pop, not rock, not classical, not comic, not baroque. As Vyvienne Long prepares to release her debut album, TONY CLAYTON-LEAmeets Damien Rice's former bandmate and tries to pin down her singular sound
CATERPILLAR SARABANDE? What’s all that about? And what about cello pop? Or even cello rock? These are taxing, necessarily blunt questions for sure, and you can blame Vyvienne Long for inspiring them.
Long has been a peripheral fixture on the Irish music scene for more than several years now. Her profile was first established when she was an integral member of Damien Rice’s band, but she was around for some years before that, performing in orchestras and chamber music ensembles. She says interesting things about her love of music, and her development as a musician – such as learning music before she was truly interested in it, and starting lessons before she became emotionally involved with it.
“I started playing the piano when I was eight,” she recalls, “and a couple of years later, it was the cello. It’s only after you reach a certain level of proficiency that you can start playing with other musicians. You can get really involved in it when you’re a better musician, and that’s when so many other musical options open up.”
Following a degree course at Dublin’s College of Music, Long studied in Barcelona, moving on to Madrid for the final year of her Master’s. She was, she admits, a naturally inclined musician – “good, but not genius, yet good enough for my parents to push me to continue.” We can thank Mr and Mrs Long that they pushed their daughter often and firmly enough, for Vyvienne Long has surreptitiously altered her role from band member to frontwoman.
When we last spoke to her, it was in the final weeks of 2007, and even at that point, there were coherent plans for a debut album in the first quarter of 2008. Being the patient lot we are, we waited. And then after that, we waited a little bit longer. And then we waited some more.
"I took a lot of time with it," is the simple reason Long gives when asked about the lengthy delay in bringing out her debut album, Caterpillar Sarabande. "I probably could have completed it in a shorter time, but I worked with a few different people on it, and the writing process was relatively quick in comparison to the recording side. I wanted to try different instruments, different things. Some songs were done quite quickly, and others took time."
The album is a serious piece of work, utilising strings (cello, violin, viola), trumpet and French horn) alongside piano, organ, double bass and percussion. It isn't rock music, then, and neither is it, despite the choice of instrumentation, anywhere close to classical. It isn't anything as stupid as cello pop, either. And if you think it sounds as whimsical as Happy Thoughts, made famous in a TV ad for cheese, then you would also be mistaken.
“I’m sure there are lots of people who would never have heard any song of mine other than from that television advert,” she reasons. “Some might call them comedy songs, I suppose. But I just put on to the album what I thought would suit it; as it is, it’s quite contrasting, with a few different styles, all of which are linked by the instrumentation and me playing and writing them.”
From the funk of Freaksceneto the rhythmic jauntiness of new single Tactless Questions, Long successfully steps out of the perceived notion of her as a stringdriven pop songwriter/performer. In relation to the aforementioned two songs, she says that the novelty was in writing something for an instrument she doesn't play. "That was a challenge, but I still wrote the melodies I heard and hoped they worked for the instrument I had them in mind for."
Descriptions aside, what of her change of circumstances over the years? From being a foot soldier in Damien Rice’s charm offensive to being in charge of her own music is not just a lifestyle change but also a managerial one.
“If you’re just involved with something fronted by someone else, it’s easy just concentrating on playing the cello and enjoying it. Whereas with my own thing, I have to do and be everything.”
Each has positive and negatives, says Long. She loves performing with other people and their music. “It’s less stressful, and although you obviously don’t get all the rewards at the end, it’s easier in many ways. You don’t have all the responsibilities of carrying a band.
“Now, however, I’m learning in particular how expensive success is, especially if you’re an independent artist. There is a stage of intense investment now, as well as the responsibility of everyone getting paid – the retailer, the distributor, the musicians, the PR agent, the promoter, the venue, the mixer, the master, the producer. Everyone gets paid except the artist, so that’s difficult.
"I've got to remind myself that Caterpillar Sarabandewas created, and it gives me joy to listen to it, to perform it. It may bring joy to others, so I have to remember that. I'm getting close to a reward, I hope, if not creatively and financially, then critically."
Long describes herself as a quiet person who is very busy. She might come across as ever so slightly quirky and prone to fanciful statements, but as she herself notes, it takes more than bravery to go out on stage and invite criticism as well as compliments.
“That’s part of being a musician,” she says. “I think I enjoy most things the same as other people. I love being outside, and I love meeting new people, which intensifies living. It’s much easier to be quiet and hide away, and not really get involved with things.”
Despite the probability that some people won’t like your music? “I’m very much aware that it won’t be everybody’s thing, so I’m ready for that. I didn’t set out to write something that was going to be very commercial. I don’t know if I could have, because I don’t play those kinds of instruments, I don’t have that kind of equipment, and I’m not good at software and samples.”
Finally, to end where we began: Caterpillar Sarabande. What's all that about, then? "It's a slow seasonal dance for caterpillars," answers Long. "A beautiful dance; and the album is so titled because caterpillars deserve some sort of tribute. They're pleased with the album and they like to get a bit of positive media every now and then."
Vyvienne Long is currently on a nationwide tour: The Thatch, Rahan, Tullamore, tomorrow; Errigle Inn, Belfast, Feb 25; Sugar Club, Dublin Feb 26. Caterpillar Sarabande is out on March 12