Heijra Interview Thu, 2019-03-21 14:57
Hejira’s music has been bubbling away at the edges of the London alternative music scene for a while. Comprised primarily of session musicians Sam Beste, Rahel Debebe-Dessalegne and Alex Reeve, Hejira came together in the late 2000s to create their own signature blend of post-rock and neo-soul. In 2012 their music caught the ear of acclaimed British composer and producer Matthew Herbert who released their first album Prayer Before Birth on his Accidental Records imprint in 2013.
But just as momentum began building behind them, Rahel, Hejira’s singer and bassist, was struck by a personal tragedy that deeply affected both her and the rest of the group. Their second album Thread Of Gold, released February 22nd, was born out of this moment but truly took shape during the band’s trip to Ethiopia; a trip that became somewhat of a homecoming for Rahel and sparked a new phase of heightened creativity and self-exploration for the group.
Thread Of Gold is a powerful and nuanced exploration of community, love and friendship and their unlimited capacity to provide solace and healing. I caught up with members Sam and Rahel in ahead of their album launch party at Oslo in Hackney March 7thto discuss the process of releasing such a personal record and how its developed into a live show.
How have you felt since you released the record? Because I know it’s been a while since you started working on it? How does it feel to have it finally out?
Rahel: It feels really good! It was a bit strange at first. On Friday morning I was a bit ‘aaaah what does this mean?’ But when I saw Sam and Alex and we went to the studio and had a rehearsal that day there was a kind of sense of occasion around it – and it started to sink in that yeah the record is out. Or when we started to get text messages from people and they’ve said they’ve listened to a song that you haven’t released yet – and I was like ‘what you’ve heard that song?’ It takes a minute for your brain to adjust even though you’ve been building up to it for so long. But it feels really good to finally release it. Now its become a kind of exercise in letting go because we’ve had it in our little world for quite a while and letting people live with it and letting it become whatever it is. Its exciting to hear peoples’ responses breathing life into music that we’ve essentially finished a year ago but it takes a while because we are releasing it ourselves to get into that position where we can finally do it in the right way.
S: It feels a bit like a new beginning again for me. Its quite interesting because the campaign started in September 2018 with the first single and then we did the first single in January. But it still feels like an album coming out feels so much more to people because people who hadn’t messaged me about the singles coming out have been messaging me about the album coming out. And it’s really encouraging. It feels like people still want bigger statements and there’s an audience for that. I guess our album is that kind of an experience and its nice to get some feedback from people who said they’ve listened to the whole thing and gone on a journey for the whole record which is what we were hoping for or what it ended up being.
In some ways because it’s been such a long time coming and we’re so familiar with the music its quite odd in a way that it comes out and actually feels quite organic. I mean its always going to be quite a gradual organic way in which the record finds its way into the world. I mean its not like we’ve got a huge budget and there’s a huge splash going on everywhere – it just feels quite chilled in a nice way.
When you started the recording process for Thread of Gold were all the songs fully formed or has it been a gradual development process with songs being added into the mix along the way?
S: Well one of the tracks was actually fully formed by the time of the last album in 2013, which is Empire. But that song was written towards the end of that process and almost made it onto that album but then didn’t and we were still working on it after that and throughout the period leading into this album. Then there are tracks dotted along the way because we were always working in different studios whenever we could find time and it was recorded in quite a few different places at different times. But our trip to Ethiopia galvanised everything and gave it a spine.
Could you talk a little about that trip to Ethiopia. Why you went and what it meant?
R: My father passed away in 2012 and it was in the midst of the debut album coming out and we were in the middle of that world and that process. It didn’t really give me enough time and I wasn’t able to adjust mentally to what that meant to me really for me. After a while after the record had come out I started to feel like I needed to reconnect with my heritage and my father.
When my dad died we took him back to Ethiopia and I went for 6 days and buried him there and then I came straight back and then we released Prayer Before Birth. I was suddenly back in that world. And obviously you go through these stages of grieving but its weird and difficult to work out how it connects to your life and how it connects to your world and your music and your creativity and expression and all those things and your every day. And it’s really hard to work out. Its like you’ve smashed something on the floor and all your feelings are in different places. It took me a little bit of time to find a way to open up with myself and Sam and Alex about that.
And when I did I had this feeling that I really wanted to go back to Ethiopia. I hadn’t really connected with that part of my life and that world in my adult life. I’d had a bit of a connection with the place when I was younger because my mum lives there so I had been there quite a few times. But I hadn’t really had a positive experience so I didn’t really know what to make of it. And then to go back there and bury my father obviously changed my perspective but I didn’t really have enough time to process what that meant. I wanted to figure that out and some of these ideas in the album like ‘I Don’t Belong To Anyone’ were kind of to do with that as well. I was trying to understand my relationship with my mother and trying to work that out through conversations with Sam and sketching all these ideas out. But I had this strong feeling that I would like to go home and make this trip around Ethiopia and get to know my family on my own terms.
I went back first with my family and toured the north and did a historical trip all by car. 10 days to travel around the whole of North Ethiopia. It was an incredible experience to see the landscape. It’s so vast and expansive. It was like a pilgrimage. And I was taking videos and recordings and writing a lot of poems I guess and bits of that ended up making it onto the lyrics of the record. You can hear some of the field recordings that myself and Sam took while we were there on the album as well.
But the music really came later once Sam and Alex arrived. I’d kind of asked them to come out and they’d kind of asked themselves as well. So when I got back to Addis and I picked them up from Bola airport and that’s where it all started. They met my family and we travelled around and we soaked it all in and we went searching for vinyl which is a really hard thing to find there because there’s hardly anything. And we met with this amazing record collector, who actually sold us a bunch of completely mashed up records, but it was worth it for the experience of sitting on his porch and learning the history of Ethio-Jazz and the music and connecting all the dots. And we went to these Tej Houses where they drink honey wine and theres a lot of acoustic musicians and traditional players and its very interactive and I’d not ever experienced that side.
When I went as a young child you don’t see any of that because your parents parade you around all the extended family and you’re tied to whatever their schedule is. It was nice to sink into that and seeing that with and as Hejira gave us that space to do that. It was really inspiring.
This was clearly an important and deeply personal experience for you Rahel. I’m interested to find out what makes Thread Of Gold, an album so heavily rooted in that experience, a Hejira record rather than your record?
R: Hejira for me is a friendship. Everything that we’ve done together so far is always to support each other and find a voice for each other and to elevate each other. I feel that’s what Sam and Alex were trying to do for me at a time when I couldn’t really express myself. But we were on that journey together and the record is definitely our voice – because it was a shared experience in many ways.
S: We’re such close friends that its like family or being in a really long term relationship where you get to know somebody really really well. And when any of those people go through something so life changing then it affects everybody because you want to be there for that person, you want to help them through it and support them through that process. And you feel the hurt that they’re feeling when they’re upset. That has changed over time with Hejira according to what each member’s needs are at any given time and what they’re going through.
It’s more multi-layered than just Rahel’s experience as well. A lot of our lyric writing happens together. It’s a kind of communal process trying to digest what we’ve been through as a group.
What do you mean when you say your writing is a ‘communal process’?
S: That has also changed over time. The music always happens in some of grouping. Some of the lyrics on this record, Rahel brought pretty much by herself. But that was a new thing compared to the first album where I maybe brought a few more of my own lyrics to the record. There was a different dynamic, which changes over time. Hejira is never something that is just for one person. Its what we make together. But at the heart of this record is something that Rahel went through and there are other themes, which we explored together, but ultimately its Rahel’s experience that ties it all together.
R: The songs can mean different things to each of us at different times. Sometimes when I write a song I get a bit nervous because I don’t know what it means or what I’m really trying to say. Then I’ll listen back to it at a different moment and it will suddenly click and I’ll understand then what I was expressing before. And I think a lot of the time you can’t really articulate what you were expressing in the moment because it’s something that we draw out of each other.
S: It’s very fluid but its always communal – we have tried writing things ourselves and then taking it to the group but if they’re too fully formed then it doesn’t really work. There needs to be space for everyone to bring their own ideas to it.
What kind of music was influencing your writing and recording during the making of Thread Of Gold? It seems to have been quite a drawn out process. Was there one overarching influence or did loads of influences creep into the music as time went on?
R: I was watching an interview with Mark Hollis, the singer of Talk Talk who died recently. People always reference Talk Talk when they talk about Hejira and to be honest I hadn’t ever listened to them until Paul Lester mentioned them in reference to us in The Guardian. But someone was asking Mark Hollis in an interview about the writing process and its very similar to how we write. He said that its quite drawn out because it involves everybody and everybody has to have a space to create something and that’s Hejira too. But I feel mostly we don’t even know who or what are influences are not only because of our own creative process but also because we are constantly sharing videos and songs with each other all the time during rehearsals and I think all those little interactions seep into the music.
A while back we were going through this Nina Simone phase and you (Sam) showed me this video of Nina Simone performing. And she was so fierce and righteously angry and it was really powerful to see her owning her feelings on stage. And then I remember having a similar experience after watching that while performing ‘Save It For Another’ and it shook me in my boots because I didn’t know that I had the potential to do that. That was quite a pivotal moment for us realising the live essence of this record as well. It’s kind of helped us as well – we do things that we never used to do for the last record. We have little meditation sessions before we go on stage now and it gears us up.
How has the live performance aspect developed with this record? Thread of Gold is largely quite meditative and immersive but how does that work live with a 3 piece?
R: Well we perform as a 5 piece. We have two additional musicians Johnny and Calum. Johnny is a drummer and Calum plays guitar. There’s obviously more that you can do with that.
S: It’s really a different realm playing live. Sometimes I long to record our live show because its so different to the album. It’s a different iteration of the same ideas or like a continuum exploring the same material. ‘Save It For Another’ live is so much more explosive. I like that on record its very contained and detailed and that it holds back its emotion in a way. There’s a lot of emotion in it but its quite internal. But live that emotion becomes way more outward. Our live show is very fluid and is always evolving over time and I feel we’ve really grown into a band performing this material live. And I think now we have developed an experience of this music live that is totally additional to the album experience.
Recently you’ve been shedding light on the community around Hejira. What was the reason you decided to do that now?
R: Recently we did a photo shoot party with all our friends and we invited them down to celebrate the release of our single ‘Joyful Mind’. It was an idea that came into my mind because the idea of a sense of occasion is quite an important theme for me and for the record. Creating new rituals, besides just the ones that we have like birthdays and funerals and weddings, to connect with people and using music to create new memories and experiences and to celebrate each other. I think its part of the main themes we are exploring on the record. I think that’s why we wanted to celebrate our friends and family now.