Space explorers: that's what Laura Cannell and Kate Ellis are. Two musicians who've taken the spark they felt in March 2020, when they met in person for the one and only time, and fanned it into a flame that's fuelled nine recordings since then, described as "a year documented in sound and art", with three more to come before the year's end.
Both musicians have a rich history in collaboration and in seeking out the liminal spaces where intriguing things can happen. Cannell is a composer, recorder player and violinist with a penchant for mining ancient, improvised and new music. Her musical identities are many, and include writing for film under the name of Isobel Raven. She’s almost finished recording a bass recorder album titled Antiphony of the Trees, an exploration of birdsong in her native Suffolk. And next summer, she will release an electronic synth album, Destruction Horizon, under the name of Huntress, “exploring the idea that this current period in time is our destruction horizon, and we will be able to look back at it at some point, but at the moment we are inside it”.
Kate Ellis is a cellist and musical director of Crash Ensemble. She’s also a member of Martin Hayes’s Common Ground Ensemble, as well as Yurodny, Taquin Experiments (with Francesco Turrisi) and the multimedia co-operative RESOUND. Both musicians draw on multiple sources of influence, from traditional and folk music to classical, minimalism and improvisational impulses.
Cannell and Ellis are clearly hardworking, curious musicians whose first collaboration, These Feral Lands Volume 1, was released in November of last year on Brawl Records. Theirs was a twilight world full of emotional dissonance and utterly in sync with Covid time. A month later, the pair released a Christmas EP titled Winter Rituals. And in January, with a performance-free calendar looming, they embarked on a major collaboration: These Feral Lands: January Sounds was the first of a suite of 12 monthly CDs, released on the last Friday of each month, each one featuring new music recorded that month, and capturing how they felt in that time, with all of the strangeness and oddity that being an artist and living through lockdowns, online performance and social distancing entails.
It’s a rich and intense work output from a pair who’ve only met in person once. But Cannell lives in Suffolk, and Ellis is originally from Essex, so perhaps their shared geographical heritage has played into the fluidity of their partnership? Cannell sees it differently.
“I just think that we live in such musically similar places but geographically I don’t know anything about the Irish music scene at all,” she says. “But collaborating with Kate has definitely been a lifeline. Having someone who I can have a real musical conversation with. It’s a big relief every month, a feeling of ‘now, I can just be me’.”
For Ellis too, the connection feels more visceral and intuitive than most of the more usual and highly diverse professional collaborations she enjoys.
“The way that we both talk musically is the key,” she says, smiling. “We understand one another’s musical language so we don’t have to explain ourselves to one another – and that, for both of us, is huge. What I find is that the less talking we do, the better. We just play and see what happens.”
What began in These Feral Lands Vol 1 with a desire on Cannell’s part to “revoice animals through instruments” has evolved organically into something that’s all-encompassing, wrapping the listener in a sheath that seems to both deflect and reflect the uncertainty of the times we are living through, capturing the often disquieting waxing and waning of the year with pinprick precision. Many of these monthly releases feature Cannell and Ellis alone, while others include guest musicians and artists. But at their core is this ineffably grounded and spacious presence that is Cannell and Ellis.
"This is a very personal, very open but very specific project," Ellis offers. "When we've approached collaborators [including comedian Stewart Lee, musician Adrian Crowley and visual artists Laura Sheeran and Rory Tangney] we've left it wide open for them to contribute whatever they choose. It's about capturing that feeling in that moment in time. I think that that's what so many people are searching to put something into words or music: something that reflects how they're feeling in these moments in time."
The recordings feel very raw, but I can hear how we were in a strange place of overwhelmedness and grieving and all sorts of different things
Both Ellis and Cannell acknowledge the clear evolution in the sound and mood they’re evoking as the year rolls on.
“I think you can hear a big evolution,” Ellis offers, “but honestly, I think that I’m not detached enough yet. I think I’ll be able to judge it more clearly after a little more time has passed – maybe next year. Musically, though, I can hear a honing-in, and an exploring, always an exploring.”
For Cannell, it’s the back-and-forth between them that resonates most.
“Listening through from January to October, I feel like we’re co-composing,” she muses. “We’re parallel and then intertwining. We’ve developed our own sound. I still feel very emotional about it, to be honest. The recordings feel very raw, back in January and February, but I can hear how we were in a strange place of overwhelmedness and grieving and all sorts of different things. I feel you can hear all those textures in there. Each one is so intense.”
Listeners, however distant, are offering the kind of feedback that fuels further purpose for both musicians too. What started out as a streaming project has morphed into limited-edition CDs being released monthly (some with accompanying videos and other visuals), and almost all of their releases have sold out. Clearly, Cannell and Ellis are hitting the mark.
“People tell us that they really need this,” Cannell says. “It’s amazing to realise that what we’re offering means so much to some people. I really love performing and I really do feel like it’s where my communication is at its best. It’s so important but realising that other people appreciate it, and need it – it’s not frivolous and really means something to other people and to us. It’s so good to feel like you’re giving something. It’s been a strange but really good feeling too.”
In recent months, Ellis has been busy with many live-streamed performances with Crash Ensemble, as well as enjoying a slow re-emergence of live gigs, including one with Ye Vagabonds on their barge tour, and subsequently in Vicar Street.
“Streaming and recording is a great thing to have but it’s been a very slow process to coming back to performing,” she says. “It’s so emotional. What happens in the room, between musicians, and between musicians and audience, is so particular to that moment in time and it’s something to be treasured.”
And for Cannell, who’s wary of any rush to return to live performance given the prevalence of Covid, this collaboration still has much to reveal of itself.
“The goal is being the best that you can, playing the best music that you can,” she believes. “We both have this outwardly looking approach. Really, it’s about informal and integrated music-making.”