Photo: Gaelle Beri

Interview: Rachel Sermanni discusses yoga, motherhood and her new Swallow Me EP

As far as philosophies go, ’embrace the jellyfish’ is an unusual one. But when you feel like a sea-creature being flung about in a storm, you’ve got two options: fight it, or embrace it. For Rachel Sermanni, embracing the storm was a conscious decision that she made during a personally tumultuous time.

Anyone familiar with the Scottish singer-songwriter’s previous work will know that Sermanni is no stranger to weaving personal and enchanting stories into her folk-focussed sound. Both her 2012 debut album Under Mountains and 2019’s So It Turns were particularly accomplished in that regard. And whilst only available as a single, 2017’s “Lay My Heart” is probably the finest musical embodiment of contentedness you’re ever likely to hear.

On her latest EP, Swallow Me, Sermanni dives deeper than before, describing the transition from a relatively carefree life – one where she admits to travelling freely, creating boundlessly and enjoying the romances that came her way – to one where motherhood became the primary focus. It’s evidently not all been plain sailing, but one of the charms of Swallow Me is how fiercely honest the songs are.

I talked with Rachel about the journey that inspired this latest EP: The highs and lows of becoming a parent, laying down roots, vulnerability, and, of course, embracing your inner jellyfish.

Hi Rachel. How are things?

Good thanks! I’ve come North to the highlands. I’ve been here for a week, and I’m staying for another week. Normally I’m in Edinburgh, so it’s lovely to come here and spend time with my daughter and my mum.

What’s on the agenda while you’re there?

I’m doing a night-time, online yoga course. It’s called Yoga Nidra, and it’s kind of a sleeping form of Yoga. I’m doing a course every night for the next nine days, and in the meantime, enjoying the Cairngorms. It’s so beautiful here, and you have endless options for things to do. Beautiful lochs to visit, walks to have, hills to climb.

Is the yoga something you do for your own personal enjoyment or will it be in addition to your music in the future?

The Nidra course is a teacher facilitative thing. I’ve been really interested in the actual practice of Yoga Nidra ever since I had my daughter and realised I needed more rest, rather than physical activity. Meditation was a massive part of my life before she arrived, but since the shock of becoming a mama and being tired and having a different physical body, I got interested in more feminine, woman-based teachings. Nidra seemed to come out on top. It goes against some of the stuff I’d learned beforehand, which was quite disciplined and upright, where meditation involved having a very straight posture and all of that. Nidra is about getting as comfy as you possibly can, and then entering different consciousness states. The notion is that you are entering sleep, but with an alert mind. It’s more for me to immerse myself in it, but I’m really interested in helping other people be creative and I’ve done a few workshops in my time which talk about finding another means to express yourself.

You also spent some time at the Samye Ling Buddhist Monastery, which inspired a lot of So It Turns. How different is Yoga Nidra compared to what you did at the monastery?

At the monastery, I spent as much time as I could studying Buddhist philosophy and Buddhism, but the main practices I took part in were Green Tara practice, or Puja, which is a kind of meditation on a deity. She’s an archetype of motherhood, or the feminine aspect of the God. You can see her in multiple ways, but the main image of her was as a ‘Green Woman’ – I like to think of her as Earth. And then there was just sitting meditation, upright for an hour, mainly just watching your breath. That’s what I did at the monastery, and that’s what I practiced for years afterwards. Ever since I started touring, I did forms of yoga – wherever I was, I would book myself into the closest yoga studio I could find. I just loved the stretching aspect, that it worked my core. I never knew the theory or philosophy behind that world, but I know it developed my ability to breath, and therefore sing and perform. Nowadays, I do some sitting meditation, but I do yoga that’s much more orientated to the female body and laying down. Lots of dream meditation, which is just fun!

So there’s a lot of overlap between the exercises you’ve learnt for your yoga and meditation and what’s involved as an artist who is essentially using their body as an instrument?

Yes! There’s a woman called Iva Bittová, who’s a violinist from the Czech Republic but lives in New York now. I read in an interview recently where she said she needs to get lessons for the violin, but the violin teaches her how to sing. I loved that. Learning about myself, being in a deeply relaxed state, that taught me how to perform, give and create. It definitely helps give you inspiration for writing songs.

I think it’s fair to say that femininity and females are big sources of inspiration for you, given what you’ve talked about, the fact that you used to do your naked lady drawings and this new EP which draws on your experience of motherhood.

Definitely. Drawing naked ladies was a thing I used to do all the time. Perhaps it was because, on reflection, I wasn’t really as connected with my body as I am now. Those naked ladies were my expression of aspects that I didn’t really hold in my own self. They were a bit more sassy, confident, cheeky. It was just so fun drawing them. It’s about creativity. I’m listening to this podcast called This Jungian Life which is three Jungian analysts having this conversation, talking about how the unconscious being is such a huge part of us and we all need means to express and create. That’s why I’m interested in helping other people create, because it’s such a huge part of you and it feels very good when you let that creativity out.

We should probably talk about your new EP, Swallow Me. I’m under no duress here to say that I think it’s a gorgeous record! How are you feeling about the EP being released into the world?

I feel great! In a sense that it’s been ages since I recorded and made something. It represents what we’ve been speaking about, which is a transition period for me, but also, however small an evolution it was in the history of humankind and art, it’s about a different phase of being. Most of these songs were written whilst I was pregnant, so the lens is looking at that particular time, but with it coming out just now, there’s a lens on the present moment which is more of an assuredness or a confidence. A place where I feel well supported. I think the music just sounds really cool. I loved Fin [Greenall – aka Fink] being the overseer and getting all his friends involved. I was connecting with these people I didn’t know and we’ve made something that I feel is really alive. I usually like to record as live as possible, in a room with people, to create some sort of feeling. That’s not been possible recently, but I just don’t feel that’s lacking from this EP.

Musically, I also feel like it’s really satisfying. The songs have depth because they came from a place where I was experiencing multiple layers of feeling and I was trying hard to express as much of that as I possibly could. Now I’m in a much clearer space and looking at the EP it’s lovely to know that a lot of the questions I was asking at the time, that held a lot of doubt and fear, are kind of being presented by me now with a confidence and an understanding of yet another capability. And also the ultra-beauty of going through that turmoil, and now there’s a beautiful baby human as a result, who’s brought so much learning and light. It’s a nice way to present something that at some moments is quite dark. Or even self-absorbed. I can see that I was just worried for myself at the time in many ways. And scared at points. Now I’m seeing it from a different angle. So it all feels good. I also feel that the professional team that surrounds it is the most lovely and supportive I’ve ever experienced. It feels nice to be supported.

That’s lovely to hear. The vibe I got from Swallow Me is that it’s quite a vulnerable set of songs. Not that you’ve ever shied away from that before, but you’ve really opened yourself up on this record. How easy did you find it to do that, knowing that people are going to discover lots about you when they listen?

I’m not too concerned about what other people think. Because I’ve had practice, maybe. I’m sometimes concerned with what the people closer to me might think. I would hope that my daughter, for example, won’t feel weird.

Well, of course. Not only has she inspired a lot of these songs, but she’s going to listen to them when she’s older!

Right! And my main consolation is that she’ll maybe get pregnant one time and it’ll be a bit of a shock for her and she’ll understand. But one part of motherhood that I’ve realised is that there’s a lot of shying away from the darker aspects. I guess my feeling is that yes, there’s vulnerable and slightly more shadowed reflections of what it was like for me to become a mother, but I know a lot of women who live in those shadows. It’s just so important for us to acknowledge those aspects of ourselves, otherwise it gets suppressed. The shadow is always there. That’s brought me some solace. Some women have been in touch already and have been grateful for that expression. That’s the truth of it when you’re vulnerable, and so I hope it will resonate with people on different levels.

Absolutely. There’s no doubt that being a parent is incredibly hard work. So having this EP out there which acknowledges that and says ‘hey, it isn’t just feelings of joy and happiness’ and there is some element that things are just different now, that will be really important for people. It’s a powerful message.

Absolutely. You can’t go back! The teacher on this course I’m doing has written the hugest tome of a book for women and about yoga, and it talks about one of the Goddesses who is a good one to connect with as a post-natal mother. Basically, the image of this deity (Chhinnamasta) is that her head is off, but because she’s decapitated herself. She’s being supported by these two people that are drinking the blood spurting from her neck. And I felt…that’s what it’s like! Symbolically, you are cutting your identity off. Especially in the postnatal period. You need that support, but you’re also constantly nourishing, whether you’re feeding from your own body or a bottle. You’re feeding constantly. You’re just a food machine, trying to keep this thing alive! You have no idea what’s happened or who you are anymore, which is kind of like being headless. Seeing that image and having her describe it like that was handy, because there’s a huge evolution that occurs in that moment (of motherhood).

So you’ve described the EP as charting your journey to motherhood. We’ve talked about how some of that journey is difficult, but there obviously are some good bits. What have been your favourite part of that journey.

There are so many lovely things! Obviously having Rosa, even in this period of my life right now, it’s just so much fun and so beautiful. It’s so cool to watch her developing into the human that when you reflect back you realise was there from the start, but you start to appreciate it more. Hearing her sing now as she’s cooking with her Auntie and making cookies, it’s just so lovely and beautiful. And because it was a pregnancy that me and her daddy [musician Adam Holmes] didn’t necessarily see coming, we hadn’t been together for very long at all, so there was the coming to terms with the relationship that I hadn’t really seen to be anything that I was committed to at the time. We’ve worked so hard (laughs) and there’s always hard moments, as with anything, but we’ve achieved so much.  Giving birth was amazing. And intense. Very intense, but I think that’s why I liked it. It’s the most alive I’ve ever felt. It’s one of those incredible things, where you realise your sense of capacity as a human being and there’s a power to that which is so amazing. And settling. Obviously, lockdown has settled us in many ways, additionally. But the finding of a place to stay, even with it’s challenging aspects, has been very welcome and I feel like a more steady human being basically. So many positives when I think about it. Thanks for asking that question!

It is important to focus on the positives sometimes! Now, songs are like children, in the sense that you’re not meant to have favourites. But you’ve put this EP out and it has four songs on it. Do you have a favourite? Or one that you feel more in tune with than others?

Yes! Of course, I could just make a choice here and not commit to it too heavily. “Swallow Me”, “Brighton House” and “Travelled” were all written when I was in America, pregnant. “Love My Love” was written a few weeks before I even conceived, so that song lives in a slightly different space. But I remember loving writing it, and I love that it’s a bit quirky. It has some weird sounds that Fin was quite bold with, so I think I like the quirk that’s been brought in to the EP from the “Love My Love” song. I’ve been obsessed with the symbol of the jellyfish and the motions in “Love My Love” are very jellyfish like.

So I understand you conceived of this character Jellygirl in a dream and you got together with visual artist Ursula Cheng to help bring her to life. One of the themes of the EP that’s relevant here is that “jellyfish go where the current flows. It takes courage to be passive.” How good have you been at embodying that philosophy recently?

(Laughing) Probably not very successful! I read over what I said, because various places are quoting what you say. I wrote it – “It takes courage to be passive”. I don’t want that to be misinterpreted, in the sense that you don’t engage. That’s not what I meant. Sometimes, a more convicted and wrathful engagement is necessary, even in passivity. That’s what this Jellygirl is. She’s kind of convicted in her engagement. I think for me, I guess that’s where I’ve been mostly successful, in the jellyfish-ness. When things arise, when things happen to me, I try to embrace them. It means that they’re intense, sometimes initially, but it also means that they don’t stick around and get rotten by not being paid attention to. However, there are a few things that have arisen thanks to becoming a mother that I wouldn’t have known I was avoiding. Being a jellyfish in a proper seastorm, you have no choice in the matter to some extent. Maybe it a choice. I don’t know. The choice to be flung around? It felt like that’s what was being given to me. A bit like: “Well, this is the next mission. Off I go!”

And you accepted it! It’s kind of an active passivity, right? You’re accepting that this is how things are going to be for now. How did you meet Ursula then? Because you’ve talked about the new network of artists and people that have been involved with this EP. You do seem to have a great network of Celtic artists around you. Was Ursula a newcomer into your world?

She is a newcomer, but what resonates with me from what you’re saying is that while in lockdown, despite the fact that Fin was in Berlin, musician wise I’ve felt like this coming inward of the community, even in the area that I’m in (Edinburgh). It’s just so nice because prior to then I might have overlooked what was right there. Establishing myself there has been cool. It’s nice to have felt like we’re helping local people. Ursula was introduced to me by a guy that owns an independent skate shop in the centre of Edinburgh (Pieute). I like the designs that they use for a lot of their merch so I asked him about it and he immediately said that Ursula is your girl. She’s Northern Irish and she was so fun to work with. She was just so up for it – I gave her all these concepts and these visions that I’d had and she created such beautiful things, and very swiftly. The same is true for the videos – an old time friend, Mike Guest, who’s a neighbour directed them. And another neighbour who has a daughter who’s the same age as Rosa, she designed the costume for the music videos and stuff like that. So there is this sense of a pooling together, where you highlight the artistry going on in your local area, which feels so nice.

How was it recording the videos for “Swallow Me” and “Travelled”?

They were recorded on the same beach (Portabello beach) at very early morning, dawn situations. Cold, but lots of fun!

What a gorgeous location to have on your doorstep! You’ve also just announced some live dates to go with the EP. Everyone obviously has their fingers crossed that these things go ahead and live music makes a return. How are you feeling about the concept of playing live again?

I’m feeling dangerously excited! In the sense that I would love for them to happen. It’s a bit tense, obviously, but it would feel like an utter relief and a total joy to play live again. I’ll have to do some practice. Some stamina training and practicing of the guitar. It’s going to be rusty! But generally, I’m just excited.

What have you missed the most about playing live? Because everytime I’ve seen you perform live, you like to get the crowd involved, and you can’t necessarily do that as easily over a webcam or during an online performance.

I have actually really enjoyed the online things. Obviously, you can’t hear people joining in, but I never felt disconnected, which I hear a lot of people saying they do and I can understand why. But even just simple things when doing livestreams like being able to see comments makes me feel connected.

So you get some feedback?

Absolutely. People are so warm. I feel when you acknowledge people they know that you’re engaging as best you can, even if that’s just responding to a couple of comments. But in real life, you didn’t just have your own energy and bunch of comments from a screen. There was so much more human interfacing going on that was more energising and so enjoyable. Like an actual exchange. I think that it’s also the ritual of being the performer, moving into that space. Gigs are what we went to, where we’d all congregate. Even being able to share silence when someone is singing. All those tiny wee things that we acknowledge and get to share in is so lovely. So I’m just excited about all of that.

As a final question – what music, other than your own, are you listening to at the moment. What’s inspiring you?

Right now, I’m listening to Adrianne Lenker. Her new record [Songs] is something I’d recommend. I also had a return to Joni Mitchell, at the start of the year, to her earlier, more folky records. She has an album with Charles Mingus, which is great. And also his own album Ah Um, I’ve been listening to that recently. They’re oldies, but things I’ve been returning to.

Rachel Sermanni’s Swallow Me EP is out now. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.