Gifted with a seemingly superior aptitude for the creation of palpable atmosphere, Moth Rah, the artist moniker of Cassandra Solon Parry, explores her penchant for the unconventional by weaving tales of forest magic, in which, a sinister and seemingly source-less shadow lingers in the thriving vegetation with enigmatic intent. Whilst thematically in keeping with her previous work, her recently released second EP, titled Wild Wedding (June 2015), is a folk-seeped departure in musical style from the more electronic-tinged tracks that led to her featuring on the first volume of our Oneiric Escapism series, back in February. I caught up with Cassandra to learn more about this change in style, her interest in the magic of nature and the importance she attaches to the creation of art.
For me, making art of any kind is basically the conservation of life. It's a spiritual kind of process; it's being in touch with what it is to be human.
Cassandra: I’ve been doing Moth Rah since 2013; I’d say my whole life led to its conception. [laughs] I was in a band for a few years before I started doing Moth Rah called Bear Driver – I was doing backing vocals, playing tambourine and driving around the country with boys in a band. It was good fun, and I didn’t over-intellectualise why I was doing it at the time, but as it got more serious and we were playing bigger gigs and spending more time in studios, I began to be very conscious of the fact that I was in a supportive role and wasn’t getting to express myself, which led me to think a lot about what I would say if I had the opportunity. I felt so strongly about it that it kind of became evident to me that, actually, I felt there was a huge amount I would say. It hadn’t really occurred to me before.
So, I started inventing myself as a musician, and I remember writing lots of lists at the time, where I was just writing down my favourite things – writers, visual artists, musicians – and I was drawing lines between all the different names. If one artist had more than one line going towards it, I was like, “That person is particularly relevant.” Kate Bush had loads of lines coming off her. [laughs] Little by little, I had this strong feeling for this character who I call Moth Rah.
Cassandra: No. I was about 24 or 25, and I had written songs before but never with any serious intention. I was just sort of floating along through life, I think, and got to the point where I thought, I have to strike out on a path here.
It was terrifying. I don’t really know why, in retrospect. Maybe just because there was so much to learn – you go from playing tambourine to orchestrating a whole band… I guess that’s taking on a lot of responsibility. It requires a lot of self-belief, and for some reason, that’s a difficult thing.
Cassandra: [laughs] Well, that’s nice.
Cassandra: No, it doesn’t anymore. I’m totally okay with self and belief. I think it’s just taking those initial steps. I also remember, at the time, I was very keen on the idea of helping other people with their projects. At one stage, I developed a bit of blow out, because I was editing this person’s book, and being in this person’s band and helping this person with their shopping. I was helping so many people that you just don’t have that space, and for some reason it feels like a really selfish thing, if you’re in that headspace, to think, hang on, what about me! It’s just part of growing up, and when I eventually just went for it, it was a very positive experience; the sky’s the limit for me now.
Cassandra: I don’t know if it’s a question of it being important as simply how the songs come out. I come from a creative writing background rather than a musical background – I did an English literature BA, I was president of the creative writing society and, actually, when I left university I was getting little stories published, so I guess that naturally fed into my music. Also, I think, if you don’t come from a strictly musical background, what you tend to listen to is the lyrics, so for most of my life, I was very conscious of the words when I was listening to songs. I think that’s why that comes out. And I do love stories; I’ve always got my head in a book.
Cassandra: I used to think it was a huge disadvantage, because I was so aware of everything I didn’t know. I didn’t grow up with very much music in the house. The first time I kinda owned music was when Napster came into being and you were able to download it; you didn’t have to have a tenner to go and buy a CD that you’d only heard one track of. But, in retrospect, I think it’s quite interesting that I didn’t have a huge amount of musical input, because I think my sound is quite idiosyncratic, and I’m sure that comers partly from having to make things up, to sort of imagine what the world of music sounds likes. [laughs] And often I’m quite surprised as to how similar a lot of music sounds, because there are so many possibilities.
Cassandra: That’s entirely naturally how it’s developed… although, I have to say that I do like that. I like to wallow in my strangeness. [laughs]
Cassandra: Yeah, definitely, I’m a very visual person. I’m a maximalist, and I like to surround myself with lots of colours and images. It’s that whole thing of people saying that they like their space to reflect what’s going on in their minds, and if I’m in a very quiet space, then I feel like, somehow, everything’s off-balance. I need to fill spaces with things.When a song comes to me, it’s often with a visual story, and I wish I had more time and that, personally, I was more of a visual artist, because I often have these ideas for very elaborate music videos that I don’t have the means or energy to get around to making. Saying that, that’s been a lovely means of collaboration – writing the songs, that can be very lonely, and I like to use the visual side of things to involve other people and just take a lot of joy in what they’re doing.
Cassandra: I think with every song I start, it’s sort of a new beginning, and at the beginning, you’re struck by how brilliant it is to just be alone with that song because you can do whatever you like with it and you don’t have to compromise at all. After weeks and weeks, maybe months, of building up different layers on one track, it starts to get boring, because you’re alone and you start to lose perspective on what it sounds like. You wish that there were other people around you who could say, “Well, obviously the next thing you want to do is this.” [laughs] But the more I’m moving towards a live show, which is what I’m currently developing, and the more I meet artists who enjoy what I’m doing and want to work in a visual way and contribute to this sound, it’s easier.
Cassandra: Well… [laughs] I can say yes, but only because of last night. I played a song at Shoreditch Church as part of a really interesting event called Sun at Night, which is set up by a band called The Butterfly Wheel. It’s a very unusual event – last night’s theme was ghosts, and it was guest-hosted by a reverend who has had a lot of ghostly experiences. So, I sang The Elder Tree, which is my song that’s also a ghost story. I did that with a guy called Harry ‘Dream’ Dean, who is in the previous band I was in, Bear Driver, and it went well, so more Moth Rah shows are on the horizon. I even have a whole bunch of scenery that an artist called Daria Hlazatova, who I’ve worked with, has drawn for me.
Cassandra: Definitely. I wouldn’t say necessarily that I’m a perfectionist, although maybe I am, but what with being a maximalist… I don’t feel like I’m the kind of musician who can pick up a guitar and just stumble into a local pub, jam out a set and feel satisfied with that. I want there to be all sorts of visual elements; it has to be a really spectacular occasion, so getting the music to the stage where I can share it is only half the battle. I have to meet people who can help me make that happen, and I’ve got to that stage now, where I have enough people around to be that support network. And, since not playing with Bear Driver for a couple of years, it’s like it’s a new thing all over again. Also, I’m going to the stage as this new character… How does Moth Rah talk to an audience? [laughs] We’ll find out…
Cassandra: I have to wait for songs to happen and, generally, I’ll be doing the gardening or riding my bike or something, or, occasionally, going through an emotionally stressful time. Generally, when something does come to me, it’s fully formed and I get very excited. I try not to get too excited because I think if you get too excited the song goes away. You have to kind of creep up on it – “Quick, get the phone. Press record. Don’t frighten it away.” [laughs] I sing the song on my phone, and often I then hear the orchestration or have a very strong sense of the kind of impact that I want the song to have. Then I spend the next three months trying to recreate that experience of what I heard and make the most faithful impression of that to share. I do that working with a computer a lot – I work with Pro Tools and use a lot of midi synth, electronic synth and then a few things outside of the box. If I’m doing percussion or something, I’ll just grab a couple of spoons and start bashing them together. If I want some live instrumentation – if it’s something that I can do myself, then I will, but if it’s a more difficult guitar part or something, I’ll get Harry to do that. On my most recent release, I worked with an amazing drummer called Nicky Francis, who plays in a band called Goldheart Assembly.
By the time I bring in live musicians, the track is basically there. A lot of the time I’ve even written in the part that I want them to play, and they just play it. I find that really interesting, and it’s a really important part of my process – the difference between electronic sounds and acoustic sounds, where they meet and whether you can tell the difference between them, because on the whole, these days, the midi sounds are so good that you don’t know if you’re listening to an electronic algorithm or someone using their hands to do something. I just find that really interesting, because that’s the future… well, a lot of people perceive that as being the future, but it’s the current time. To me, there’s a kind of magic to that, because it’s like two worlds colliding. I find the new world really exciting because there’s so many possibilities – it’s like you create something out of nothing, and I find that a really engaging and very creative process.
Cassandra: Yeah, I don’t know if you just saw the mad flash in my eyes there. [laughs] But yeah, you do get really power crazy. From just the slightest bit of reverb to using some sort of insane grand piano sound that’s being played in an Austrian concert hall on your computer, those possibilities are endless. It can be quite frustrating then if you do involve someone and it’s so limited in what they can do. Quite often I take that sound and I rebuild it, as in it’s like a fusion of the two processes.
Cassandra: I think it’s intuition. If you’re writing within a genre, or if you have a band, there’s a kind of system in place, but the way I approach music, without limiting what I’m doing, so that I just work with the infinite possibilities on my computer, it means that it’s entirely up to my own intuition which way I decide to take a track. It’s easy to go off on a tangent and get lost in an idea that isn’t really true to what you were originally doing. So, I think the most difficult creative obstacle I face is just being so dependent on being able to follow my own whimsical intuition. Sometimes it can feel like I’m up against a brick wall, and it takes quite a long time to find out where the door in that wall is.
Cassandra: No, I don’t think that’s me, really. I’d say that I’m intuitive and dreamy. I mean, as well as what I’ve just described being an obstacle, it’s also just my process, so I love it as much as I hate it, and it loves me as much as it hates me. I guess, I do have to be a little bit decisive and ruthless, especially if you do involve other people, because they bring their own set of ideas and if you want to be a solo artist, you have to build up the courage to just say, “Actually, this is what I want, so if you’re not going to do that, then I’ll just have to find another person.” And that’s fine; it just means that if people like what they do, then they’ll still work with you and they’ll be happy to be a part of that. Or maybe, they’ll kind of realise that they don’t really like what you’re doing that much, and therefore they would be happier to go and maybe do their own thing.
Cassandra: A lot, actually. I have a little evening job working in customer service at the theatre, and I should think my colleagues can probably tell when I’m in an intense writing period. [laughs] What that means is that, in the daytime, I’m so focussed on this little world that I’m creating that I’m completely lost in it, and that doesn’t really wear off in the evening. So, when I’m at work I tend to be quite introverted, and there might be a delay of a couple of seconds before I respond to someone. I get very pensive, and I’m always drumming out little things on the counter. But if I’ve recently finished a song or something, then I’m very good at customer service. [laughs]
Cassandra: Yes. I mean, I’m very happy when I’m writing but it’s not like smiley happiness, it’s just a really deep sense of fulfilment. Unless, of course, I’m going through one of those really frustrating patches.
Cassandra: I have immense enthusiasm for creativity. For me, making art of any kind is basically the conservation of life. It’s a spiritual kind of process; it’s being in touch with what it is to be human. It’s a very abstract thing to make something out of nothing, and it’s completely divided from the idea that you have to earn a living to have a roof over your head and eat. To me, it’s kind of away from everything that is mundane and draggy about life. It’s a link between your own experience of life and your awareness of the context of everything that is much bigger than you.
Cassandra: No, I’d say that it’s the other things that become too much. I do think the art is a celebration of being alive, and even if you’re drawing it from a dark place, so it’s come from a very negative or frightening emotion, it’s a way of channelling that in a way you have control over. With art, you do have control over it – to the extent that I see it as a collaboration between you and the universe – but then there are plenty of other things that you don’t have any control over in your life, whether that be your job or money, family, relationships or whatever. I think art is a safe place for me, and no matter what else is going wrong, that can be a constant.
Cassandra: What don’t I daydream about? [laughs] … It’s a really difficult question for some reason, and I’m not sure why. I think I see daydreaming as a sort of permanent process, so even if there are other thought processes going on… and maybe, on the whole, I’m having the other thought processes, like, “Oh my God, what am I going to eat.” I like food a lot. I probably daydream about food quite a lot. [laughs] That’s the kind of lesser daydreaming. But, when you’re asleep and you dream, that’s not because you’ve told yourself to have a dream, that’s just what happens; it’s a perfectly natural process. I think when you’re awake, that process continues. I think that’s where songs and art and stories come from – it’s when you suddenly become aware of that happening, and maybe some strong emotion is informing that and so, suddenly, all these quite random symbols that float around in your subconscious all the time kind of come together. I think I daydream all the time, but I’m just not always aware of it.
Cassandra: I’m fascinated by nature. Not in a scientific way – I don’t really know anything about it. I’m not even a good gardener; I can’t even get my flowers to grow! – but just the abundance of life gives me a lot of pleasure. Going to the park, or just walking down the street and seeing things growing in everyone’s gardens. It’s like that link that we don’t really understand to the world that is bigger than us and all its cycles. I like the idea of the life-death-life cycle – there’s a book I read some time ago, which is called ‘Women Who Run with the Wolves’, by a Jungian psychoanalyst called Clarissa Pinkola Estés, and she talks a lot about the life-death-life cycle, which is the idea that life continues and then it reaches a death, and out of the death there always grows new life. Energy never dies; it’s always converted into one form or another, and nothing is ever lost. So, I think that whole process of life really fascinates me. I am really interested in psychoanalysis as well, particularly from a Jungian perspective.
I like symbolism a lot – the idea of universal symbolism isn’t a universally popular idea but, for me, I certainly find it a useful way to think about my life. I like tarot, because any story or strong kind of pattern that uses symbolism, you can apply it to your life. And symbols do speak of life within the greater context. The idea that you have a tarot reading and someone tells you, “Oh, you’re going to become rich”, that’s not really what tarot readings are about. Those kinds of symbols, they speak about life on a much deeper level, so, for instance, if you did interpret a tarot card as saying that you would achieve wealth, that would most likely be a spiritual, creative or knowledge wealth.
I talk about magic a lot in my songs… and my general ramblings. [laughs] I don’t mean magic in the sense of doing a trick, or burying someone’s fingernails and that then impacting on their life in some way. I like the idea of magic because of the idea that it is a transformative force, so you take one thing, for example, a negative emotion, and by a process that you might call magic – looking at that emotion from different angles, or applying different outside forces to it – that emotion is transformed into something else.
Cassandra: True love. The sense of surrendering oneself for that love – I’d say that’s what To The Lake is about. That’s a duet between lovers, where they declare their undying love for each other and them jump off a cliff at the end. [laughs] Symbolically.
The Elder Tree is inspired by regrets, the things that haunt you from your past, things that should be laid to rest but somehow still get up and walk around. It’s a ghost story.
Dreamer is a song I wrote about ten years ago, before I knew I was a songwriter; only now has it seen the light of day. That was written from my perspective of a disapproving eighteen-year-old, looking at people who are taking lots of drugs and seem to think that it’s a really enlightened thing to do. The song is saying that you can chase an opium dream, but it’s still just a dream.
The first track, Wild Wedding, was one of the strangest songwriting experiences I’ve had, I think, because nothing particularly special was happening. I was actually working on another track and, suddenly, I started getting all these words in my head. I was trying to dismiss them, but they just kept coming. I was so distracted that I wasn’t really aware that I was writing a song, I just thought, I’ll record this so I can get these words out of my head and carry on writing another track. So, I clicked record on my microphone and I started singing, and I sang the whole song from beginning to end without thinking about it. I pressed stop and I was completely gobsmacked. While I was singing the song, I sang it in this quite strange way, like I was singing with the voice of another person… I don’t mean to imply that I was possessed or anything – nothing like that. [laughs] – but, I was really projecting a character, and I had the sense that she was this sort of fusion of Titania, from Midsummer Night’s Dream – the fairy queen – and Dido, from the story of Dido and Aeneas, from The Aeneid. (The gist: Dido and Aeneas fall in love. After a period of time, during which they consummate their relationship and live together, the former believes their union to be life-binding. Aeneas, apparently, does not. He leaves on a ship bound for Italy at the behest of the Gods, leaving Dido, irreparably heartbroken, to order the construction of a funeral pyre upon which she curses Aeneas then fatally stabs herself. Ed.)
I’ve had conflicting feelings about marriage in my own life, As you may guess, I was sort of raised in a family of hippies. [laughs] My parents weren’t married, and I always perceived it as an optional lifestyle choice. I have felt, largely, that it’s not a very sacred act… I have to say, those aren’t my current feelings – [laughs] – but at the time I wrote the song, they were. Anyway, with the song, the character is saying, she will wed you when she wants to, and the way that she wants to. So, it’s about how the spiritual union of two souls, two selves, is entirely separate from any sort of legal process, or any process that you enact with a ring or whatever – that, in itself, is a little bit meaningless. It’s like a woman’s voice, but it’s also the voice of someone who is more than a woman.
Cassandra: I really like the idea of past, and a lot of my songs use evocations of remembering; echoes; time gone by. For me, that kind of takes me to a space where things have a significance, not because things in the past are more significant than things in the present or future, but I think it just takes you to a space in your mind where you’re going to reflect, and I think that’s why I probably like nostalgic sound and imagery like those black and white films.
Cassandra: It’s a gradual thing, and I just felt like that was the natural process. It wasn’t really a conscious decision. I think it’s because when I started writing music as Moth Rah, the only way I knew how to go about it was through the electronic method, so it made more sense to have a more electronic sound. Also, I think, because I was just getting started, I wanted to do something that was quite bombastic and exciting, but I’ve always felt that the themes I use have this folk and folklore influence, so in a way, I think this record is going back to my roots. I read this really amazing book called ‘Electric Eden’ by a music journalist called Rob Young, and he writes about how folk music has progressed into the electronic era. So, from pre-recording – people singing a cappella in their own communities – to people like Donovan and Kate Bush and Patrick Wolff, kind of incorporating folk sensibilities into an electronic sound.
Cassandra: I’m very happy with it, particularly because, in one sense, this record has been more collaborative than my previous records. In another sense, it was a real step forward for me, because I produced it, mastered it and collaborated with the artwork, so I’ve taken more responsibility for this record than previously.
Cassandra: A lot, I think. I sort of feel like my musical output is me as a person. If someone says to me that they’ve heard my music and they found it really surprising and didn’t think that’s what I’d sound like, then I kind of think, oh, you really don’t know me very well. [laughs]
Cassandra: It means personal freedom, freedom of expression and, outside of just being a personal achievement and something to apply myself to, I see it as important in a wider context, partly because I know that it is a struggle for female musicians sometimes to get to the point where they can have complete creative control of their work. I see it as a positive thing, especially when I collaborate with other ladies. That’s just a really nice thing.
Cassandra: I think that it’s maybe more difficult to get to the point where you have the skills to do it. I think it’s a lot to do with the fact that, certainly when I was growing up, role models weren’t really very evident. I remember, at the age of eighteen, discovering that women could play guitar and that being a complete surprise to me because I’d only ever been aware of men playing guitar.
Cassandra: I know. It’s because… I mean, yes, everything is there that you need if you have the gumption to go out and find it. Certainly, in the nineties, there wasn’t really a very positive presentation of women in the industry. I think, maybe, that’s changing now, and with the internet, it’s so much easier to find things that you’re interested in and discover communities that you can engage with. It’s not completely dependent on what’s being played on XFM, or whatever.
Cassandra: Yes, that’s definitely true, and I think, actually, what I enjoy is walking the line between those two things. A girl I worked with on my first two releases, Victoria Wijeratne, who really was key to me starting out as a solo artist – she gave me a lot of support, producing my first record – she was quite surprised when she heard my latest release and these more, almost kind of nursery rhyme-like fairytale songs. She finds them really really unsettling. I don’t know why. [laughs]
Cassandra: I’m really looking forward to getting my live show off the ground with all its different features. I look forward to more collaborations – the girl who made the music video for The Elder Tree, Layla Holzer, I expect that we’re going to work on more films together. And, I have started work on an album. No doubt it will be next year, probably, before that sees the light of day. So yeah, there’s lots going on.
You can keep up with all things Moth Rah on her Facebook and Twitter pages and grab her new EP, 'Wild Wedding' in both digital and physical form over on Bandcamp, where you can also download her previous releases for a price of your choosing.
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