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 Nerissas mellotron-based compositions and
througout her album, theres 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
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
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.
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?
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
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.
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
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!
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
its 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
I only started playing mellotron a couple of years ago, but of course
I know the Moody Blues and Mike Pinder, his tronscapades
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
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