NERISSA SCHWARZ
Playgrounds Lost
(Nerissa Schwarz Music)

 

Germany-based musician / composer Nerissa Schwarz is making sonic waves of joy with her 2016 solo album Playgrounds Lost. Much like the title of the album, the music on Playgrounds Lost is both haunting and ethereal. In the progressive music community, much has been said about Nerissa’s mellotron-based compositions and througout her album, there’s plenty of dark, mellotron soaked hues that drift in and out of the sound spectrum like passing clouds over the sonic terrain. The music on Playgrounds Lost was written, arranged, produced and performed by Nerissa, yet the entire album is well done and sounds absolutely mesmerizing. Speaking about her initial introduction to the 'tron, Nessisa tells mwe3.com, “I think I heard the mellotron for the very first time in King Crimson's “Epitaph”, when I was a teenager. I remember the strings sound giving me goosebumps, although I didn't know what it was back then. Later I heard the mellotron in a lot of music I loved, like Genesis or early Tangerine Dream, but also newer music such as Radiohead or Portishead, and I gradually fell in love with its quirky, wobbling, warm and beautiful sounds.” In addition to her evolving solo career, Nerissa has also recorded several albums with the band Frequency Drift, and with Playgrounds Lost she will undoubtedly win over a faction of the progressive music audience looking for bold, current musical ideas. Fans of the time-honored mellotron and all forms of New Age inspired instrumental music, as well as ethereal movie soundtracks, will find much to like about Nerissa Schwarz and her Playgrounds Lost album. www.nerissaschwarz.com

 





mwe3.com presents an interview with
NERISSA SCHWARZ


mwe3
: Can you tell us where you're from originally and where you live now and what you like about it? What other countries have influenced you both musically and as a human being? Do you feel the world has become smaller because of the internet and have you been to the US yet?

Nerissa Schwarz: I'm from Germany and I currently live in Bayreuth, a small town in Southern Germany. It's surrounded by beautiful nature, which is great, but it can also be hard to find like-minded musicians for collaborations in such a fairly secluded place. Luckily, this was not relevant to my solo album because I played everything myself.

I love traveling and I also lived in the UK for a short time, which has probably influenced me most musically and as a person. Many of my favorite artists, musicians, filmmakers, and writers come from there. I remember one of my first visits to the UK, sitting on a bus and listening to The Beatles and The Police on my, portable cassette player… so that was quite some time ago. Unfortunately, I have only been to the US once, to New York City, but not yet as a musician.

As for the internet making the world smaller, this is a huge, pardon the pun, and complex question, so I'll stick to its impact on my music. I've had great reactions to my album from people around the globe, which made me quite happy. There have been reviews from around the world, internet radio from France, Germany, the UK and the US have played tracks from my album, and I can sell my music via bandcamp, all of which is fantastic. The downside is, of course, that there is so much out there to get people's attention, so while it's easier than ever to release your music worldwide, it's harder than ever to get noticed. But I'm not complaining, as in my particular case, internet exposure was really helpful.

mwe3: Does your new album Playgrounds Lost have a musical theme running through it? You mention the wonder, fragility and traumas of childhood as being part of the inspiration.

Nerissa Schwarz: There is a musical theme, but it developed with the music. When I started composing, I didn't have any particular plan except writing music and creating sounds that satisfied me.

But maybe the ideas existed in my subconscious, because sometime during the composition process, hazy and distorted images, dreams and memories from my own childhood and adolescence, both good and bad ones, kept popping up in my mind. They later mingled with imagery from films that have impressed me, such as Don't Look Now with its very tragic opening scenes, when the protagonist's little daughter drowns while playing outside, or a bittersweet Italian film called Io non ho paura, about children growing up in the idyllic rural landscapes of Southern Italy and discovering all of a sudden that the trusted adults around them harbor a very dark secret.

The music and the imagery I had in my head became inextricable and influenced each other, so I soon started having ideas for the artwork and song titles. This is how the concept was born.

mwe3: You play throughout the whole album on electric harp and mellotron. How did you become interested in the mellotron? It was huge in the late 1960s thanks to Mike Pinder of the Moody Blues and his turning on the Beatles and Donovan and then it became a staple of progressive rock. Do you play it that way? For instance on track two, "Dance Around Black Hole" has some intricate sequences of sound in it. Is that track all mellotron, even the parts that sound like a Fender Rhodes? Do you also use sampling?

Nerissa Schwarz: I think I heard the mellotron for the very first time in King Crimson's “Epitaph”, when I was a teenager. I remember the strings sound giving me goosebumps, although I didn't know what it was back then. Later I heard the mellotron in a lot of music I loved, like Genesis or early Tangerine Dream, but also newer music such as Radiohead or Portishead, and I gradually fell in love with its quirky, wobbling, warm and beautiful sounds.

“Dance Around Black Hole”, like most pieces on Playgrounds Lost, is a mixture of electric harp and mellotron, so what sounds like a Fender Rhodes to you might well be the electric harp. When I play it with certain effects, it does sound like an electric piano sometimes. But I also try to use the mellotron in not so obvious ways. I have a collection of guitar pedals and effects processors, and I love experimenting and using them one at a time or in strange combinations with both the harp and the mellotron to create sounds that surprise myself and fit the mood of the piece. The distorted flute sound you can hear in “Dance Around Black Hole”, for instance, is mellotron run through a bass distortion pedal. I didn't use any samples except the ones from my mellotron.

mwe3: Tell us about your mellotron. Is it real original mellotron or a computerized version? I know there's a lot of ‘Tron software out there. Do you find the original is better than the computer software versions of the mellotron? Have you played the original mellotrons or chamberlins?

Nerissa Schwarz: Actually, I have an M4000d, a digital mellotron whose frame is based on the original M400 models. It contains samples from original mellotron master tapes, including the tape hiss. It has a half-speed switch and a pitch wheel, and the tone stops after eight seconds, so it's as real as it can be. The beautiful thing about digital trons is that you have hundreds of sounds at your immediate disposal, including Chamberlin and Optigan sounds, while in an original mellotron there is a limit to the tape frames you can use.

Most mellotron recordings I know use the classic strings, flutes and choirs, and I love and use those sounds, too. But there is also so much more a mellotron can offer, like pianos and all sorts of vibes or tuned percussion, so it's great to have this variety of sounds.

Personally, I don't buy into the “analogue is always better than digital” kind of philosophy. While I may be a gear freak to some extent, it's the artists after all who make the music, and as long as you creatively use the means at your disposal, it's not always that important whether you use original instruments or high-quality digital emulations. To me, my mellotron sounds neither better nor worse than the ones with tapes, but it sounds absolutely authentic and just right for my music.

That being said, I admit to having romantic notions about mellotrons with tapes… maybe because I've never had to put up with one myself! I would love to play one, if only for the tactile experience, and I'm intrigued by its mechanics and how it can age and react to temperature and humidity just like any acoustic instrument. But I would not dare to take it onstage and I'd probably worry all the time about what to do if it ever needed repairs.

The only two companies that still build and service mellotrons are quite far away from where I live. I once came across an old mellotron in a shop for rare and analogue keyboards, but alas, it was broken, and they had no idea how to fix it. But the new models being built now are said to be more sturdy than the old ones, so maybe one day I will buy a tape mellotron.

mwe3: There's so much variety of sound on Playgrounds Lost that it's almost hard to believe it's all mellotron but for instance on track four "Fireflying" you realize the true beauty and power of the mellotron. What else can you tell us about that track? It almost sounds like you can see the Fireflies prancing in the grass. What do you make of Fireflies? They just started coming out again here in south Florida. Good to see them again!

Nerissa Schwarz: You're lucky to see them so early, I'll still have to wait for a couple of weeks in freezing Germany. To me “Fireflying” is less dark or ambiguous than the other tracks on the album. It has this dreamy, wistful, summer evening atmosphere, so the thought of fireflies, and the childlike sense of wonder you can experience when watching them seemed to fit the music very well. This is also why I used the classic bright mellotron flutes here, because they were more fitting for this particular song than the eerie and disturbing sounds dominating much of the album.

mwe3: What is your background in music? What instruments did you take to early on in your career and of course everyone wants to know your musical influences. Have you heard Mike Pinder and his Moody Blues tronscapades? The Beatles began using the tron just in time for the birth of prog and "Strawberry Fields Forever" after Mike told them in the summer of '66. Talk about serendipity It's notable the Beatles first used it on "Tomorrow Never Knows" but it’s harder to figure out how!

Nerissa Schwarz: The first instrument of my choice was the harp. I love its full, rich “natural” sound, but what I enjoy even more is creating new and strange sounds with my electric harp, sounds that aren't even easily recognizable as harp anymore. I think this is quite an untrodden path, which makes it all the more exciting.

I only started playing mellotron a couple of years ago, but of course I know the Moody Blues and Mike Pinder, his tronscapades… l like that word, are absolutely beautiful! I didn't know he turned the Beatles onto the mellotron. So he's partially responsible for that iconic beginning of “Strawberry Fields Forever”? This brings me back to what I told you earlier about listening to the Beatles on my portable cassette player. I'm quite sure I listened to “Strawberry Fields Forever” back then without knowing that the flute sound was mellotron.

As for my musical influences, I have ridiculously eclectic tastes, and the few artists I have mentioned before are just a tiny fraction of what I listen to. This includes progressive rock or art rock, well-done pop music, electronic music, folk, world music and a lot of unclassifiable stuff, which is often the most interesting music for me. I never try to emulate one particular artist or style, but I'm sure that all the music I listen to is reflected in my own somehow. I've also listened to a lot of so-called classical music, both old and modern, as well as film music, which probably influenced my love of dynamics, structured composition and recurring motifs.

mwe3: Do you find that younger listeners today are hip to the mellotron or do they say, that sounds like an instrument my grandfather would listen to! lol I hope you make more albums as great as Playgrounds Lost as it's the best mellotron album I've heard in years. Have you heard Rime Of The Ancient Sampler?

Nerissa Schwarz: Thank you so much, I'm very glad to hear that! And no, I haven't heard Rime Of The Ancient Sampler, but I will check it out. As for younger listeners… my mellotron once made the acquaintance of a 19-year-old guy, and he was immediately hooked! I suppose I was lucky that the mellotron was too big to somehow just disappear in his pocket!

Anyway, I didn't grow up in the golden mellotron era, and still I discovered it, so there's hope that future generations will do so, too. The fact that there are now two companies building real mellotrons again, as well as a variety of digital versions, shows that the instrument is alive and kicking. And it won't die as long as there are some sensible people with good taste out there!

mwe3: What other plans do you have for 2017 and beyond as far as performing, writing, recording, and producing new music or working with music in general? What kind of album would you like to do next? Are there more areas to explore with the Tron?

Nerissa Schwarz: I'm also in a band called Frequency Drift, and we are currently working on a new album, so I probably won't be working on new solo material before 2018. As you know, I did everything myself on Playgrounds Lost, which was intense, personal and exactly how I wanted it to be for this album. Next time, maybe I'd like to have some contributions from other musicians. But I honestly don't know yet what my next solo album will be like. The only thing I can tell you for sure is that it will have unusual sounds on it, whether from the mellotron, the harp or other instruments, because sonic exploration, within the framework of structured composition, is one of the things I love most about making music.




 

 
   
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