Foundation five: Serafina Steer

The songwriter and harpist talks about the magic of animation, skipping sleep for a week and her fear of composing...

Anita Awbi
  • By Anita Awbi
  • 15 Jan 2013
  • min read
This is the second in a series of quickfire interviews with PRS for Music Foundation grantees. Each instalment we’ll be putting the same five questions to innovative musicians and organisations working across Britain to find out what makes them tick.

PRS for Music Foundation is the UK’s leading funder of new music across all genres, so you’ll be introduced to some of the best new composers and organisations working in every conceivable niche!

This time round, Sarah Thirtle from the Foundation catches up with songwriter and harpist Serafina Steer, who received funding in the Women Make Music category. Serafina’s new album The Moths Are Real was released yesterday and has already garnered rave reviews in The Times and The Guardian.

She is playing live at St Leonard’s Church, Shoreditch, London, on 24 January.

What inspired you to create music?
Initially, mainly, I think I was first inspired to make music by words. Despite having played and experienced music all my life, I found that the written or spoken word was my way in. Having a strong gut feeling about words and music together, other peoples' or my own, gave me a touch of confidence about it. Plus for a long time, no one else ever had to play it or even hear it very often, if I didn't want them too. So that was also a factor, inconspicuously realising that I could do what ever I wanted.

How would you describe your music?
I'd say it was pretty weird and a bit magical. I wanted to write a kind of Alice Coltrane-esque cosmic harp soundtrack to Sam's surreal animation with the Foundation funding I received. We are both always stuck on narratives and tying things up so we were trying to challenge that instinct. We had quite a funny time devising and deconstructing the storyline. I'd say things like, 'Oh yes great, then the steam can start forming occult symbols on the wall which becomes a swirling portal where then, we see a forest wait - a singing forest - no a swimming forest...' and anyway, in short Sam repeatedly had to explain that animation isn't actually magic. But of course, it sort of is. And so is the harp.

What has the PRS for Music Foundation funding enabled you to achieve?
I have only recently started to explore writing instrumental music. The Branchage/PRS of Music Foundation project with Sam and live harp soundtrack was really the beginning. Ha, now I can say, I was absolutely terrified that I wouldn't be able to do it! And, such is the nature of writing music for films (I bought a book about it) that you have to wait until the film is finished so I had a protracted period to incubate self doubt after we got the green light and Sam was busy animating away.

I had ideas and themes like ‘evil second world', 'exploding ladies' but I couldn't tie it all up until the film was done. I didn't really sleep for a week once I finally got my hands on it. I had some notions about the effects on the harp and I learnt how to do them all live with the laptop though, rather unhilariously, the whole of the soundcheck for our first gig at Branchage Film Festival in Jersey was spent trying to stop my pick-up mic picking up and broadcasting the local radio!

We've been really lucky to have been invited to perform it at the London Short Film Festival and Glasgow Short Film Festival, along some of our other collaborations and animations/short films that we liked.

My answer to question one was 'words', so the fact that I had the financial support, encouragement and platform to devise some music from an entirely different perspective was in my small world, a big deal. I have just made an EP for a bonus CD for the Rough Trade Album Club which is nearly all instrumental and even features a trumpet. I don't know how to be explicitly clear about achievements or how things would have panned out without the funding. Of course I wouldn't have just stopped doing what I was doing but perhaps I wouldn't have ventured forth into these other more 'composery' areas without that initial boost. Even writing the word composer gives me the willies.

Have you any tips for other artists applying for funding?
I wish I did. I guess it's very important to devise a project/concept that is truly integrated with your existing work and aesthetic. I think it's good if it has a bit of humour to it.

What's next for you?
We're (myself and Kristian 'Capitol K' Craig Robinson) were on a Twisted Folk tour with The Revival Hour. My new album The Moths Are Real is just out and I'm doing a fair bit of performing around then too. The big one is the album launch at St Leonard's Church in Shoreditch on 24 January. Everyone that played on the album will be performing (hopefully) so it should be quite a strong experience.

Picture above by Rachael Robb.