EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH VIRGIN BLACK’S SAMANTHA ESCARBE
Australia’s Virgin Black recently released the second album (and final part) of their Requiem trilogy, Requiem – Fortissimo, and it’s been getting them a lot of attention… and deservedly so (read our review here). Even if it weren’t part of an ambitious, ongoing epic of a project, it would still be an excellent funeral dirge of a doom metal album, a monstrous work worthy of your attention and respect.
I recently got to e-mail some questions to Virgin Black guitarist/co-vocalist Samantha Escarbe. After the jump, read Samantha’s thoughts on the songwriting process for these three mammoth albums, the decision to release the albums out of order, religion, and more.
How did the decision come about to create a three album cycle?
For years and years I had this hopeful craving to one day write my own requiem.
Unbeknown to him, Rowan [London, vocals/pianos/keyboards/producer] approached me with the words, “what do you think about releasing a requiem next?” I was elated… but also terrified. So I began to write. And once I began to write, it almost all burst out, so fluent, almost uninterrupted and effortless. I guess there was a lot to say. Rowan’s experience was similar to my own. We knew what had begun as a single album could not be confined to a single album. There was too much to articulate, and each voicing needed its own…well, “means.”
Does the trilogy have a story line? If so, is there anything you can tell us about it? How does the music reflect the story?
A requiem is a piece of music written for someone who has died. This is our own requiem.
Each album increases in sonic intensity.
The first piece (unreleased) is Requiem – pianissimo. This is entirely classical. It features beautiful choral arrangements, tenor, soaring mezzo soprano and soprano solo voices and was recorded with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra.
The second album, Requiem – mezzo forte, is where the band is ushered in and joins the orchestra.
The third album, Requiem – fortissimo, turns up the aggression and heaviness up a few more notches yet still maintains that classical flavour. When played end on end, each album flows into the other flawlessly. Each album has its own unique identity yet simultaneously reflects the essence of the other. Each album has its own unique voice.
What was the writing process for such a huge undertaking like? How specific did you have to get in terms of repeating certain musical phrases?
Well, I could encapsulate it all within a single word… “exhausting.” Writing three albums simultaneously and not just normal albums; the responsibility of having to write all the scores and translate what you envision in your head accurately on paper… I don’t expect people to understand but I found it to be an incredibly difficult period in my life.
Having said that, there isn’t a single regret. It’s something I had to do for myself; its music I needed to hear.
Can you tell us a little about what it was like to work with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra? Did the band write all the orchestral parts or was it more of a collaboration?
Rowan and I wrote everything. All the orchestration, all the choir parts, all the solo voices…we wrote everything.
We had only a single day to record with the orchestra and the first time the musicians saw the music was on the morning of the recording. So, as you can imagine, it had to be perfect. It was terrifying because we honestly didn’t know if we could pull it off. The conductor had also warned us, if they didn’t like the music, they’d let us know and possibly walk. So terror defines that day. But terror quickly transformed into elation.
Sitting there, an audience of two, hearing our own music played to us, was the most surreal and sublime experience in my life.
Why was the cycle released out of order? Was it purely a marketing decision, or was there some other thought process behind it?
Requiem – mezzo forte (the middle album) was released first. It is the centrepiece of the three albums and best portrays characteristics of the other two. Ideally, the three albums need to be heard within their context but after getting feedback it was decided that releasing three albums at once would be too much to digest. Hence, mezzo forte was released first in order to pave the way and help people understand what was to follow, to help people understand the entire package.
How – if at all – do you envision these albums being presented in a live format?
Obviously Requiem – pianissimo will be the greatest challenge. Falling short of a full orchestra, we have been known to re-interpret certain pieces and present them within a live context. One just needs to do so wisely as it’s important to remain true to that piece of music.
You’re a Christian band… can you tell us how, if at all, your religious beliefs play into your music, particularly these albums?
I feel compelled to broaden the parameters by saying that I am more of an agnostic under the banner of Christianity. That means that while I have an unerring belief in the basic ideals of Christianity, within those wide parameters I am searching. This is not out of any sense of being unfulfilled, but borne more from a need to be constantly genuine.
The commitment to being genuine is imprinted in the music. Rowan and I have both been lone wolves our whole lives, something that has encouraged a certain value system. A value system that places honesty and being challenged, over meaningless fluff. I hope that the music does reflect that attitude.
Are there any other bands out there these days that really get you going?
I actually haven’t been listening to a lot of music these days. But I do have a soft spot for Antimatter and Agalloch.
What lies ahead for Virgin Black?
It seems we will be heading to the U.S. in September. I look forward to it. And in the mean time, there’s one more album to release.