MUSIC, ENTERTAINMENT, LIFESTYLE AND LOW RENT CULTURE

Avatarium – Interview with Jennie-Ann Smith

Avatarium

Originally published in Powerplay Rock and Metal Magazine Issue 160 – December 2013

Joining a new band that see’s you working in a different genre of music from the one you have spent most of your career in can be a challenge but that challenge can only be greater when your bandmates have come from some very successful acts. Following doom legends, Candlemass calling time on their recording career bassist and songwriter Leif Edling began writing material with the help of Evergrey guitarist Marcus Jidell. Early material was intended for a doom project featuring Hellacopters drummer Nicke Andersson with Opeth mainman Mikael Åkerfeldt  singing however when Opeth began work on their next record plans for that were shelved. Enter Jennie-Ann Smith, a vocalist with a background in jazz and blues. How did Jennie become part of Avatarium? “Marcus asked if I would come to the studio and sing on some demos. They originally planned to have a male singer with a bluesier feel, someone like Robert Plant but lucky they liked what they heard.”

Jennie is modest when speaking about her part in this super group, yet one listen to “Avatarium” will show you how important her role is within the band. The rich melting pot of influences in Avatarium’s music takes in classic rock like Rainbow with jazz overtones and even a pinch of folk. Where did these influences come from? “I never really listened to metal before so this was quite new to me.” Jennie admits. “I grew up with singers like Aretha Franklin, Mavis Staples, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell although I did sing in a rock band when I was fourteen. We mainly did covers of Led Zep and Rainbow songs, which were where my love of rock comes from. Jon Mitchell taught me how to be soulful but Dio taught me how to sing with power!”

Indeed working with such luminaries would be a baptism of fire. Where nerves a factor for Jennie-Ann early on? “Leif is such a great composer and it is a pleasure to work with such great players. I was a little nervous to begin with but Marcus and I had worked together with another Swedish artist so that made it easier. Our producer Ronni Lahti was very encouraging. He understood that we wanted to make an album that sounded natural and emotive rather than technically perfect. Leif and Marcus are great at writing melodies so inspiration came very easily.  I have been a freelance musician, doing a lot of session work in Stockholm, which allowed me t work with a lot of different people. I also work part time as a psychosocial counsellor in a hospital in Stockholm so I have been able to take on creative projects that suited me. When I got the call from Marcus I couldn’t wait to get started!”

A classically trained alto vocalist, Smith’s contributions make Avatarium stand out from other female fronted acts like Blood Ceremony. Leif Edling has said that Avatarium’s lyrics are inspired by “heretical idolatry of the pre-Christianized cults throughout ancient Europe and esoteric allegories of the late medieval secret societies” the vocalist was somewhat taken a back at this revelation. “I did not know that but that’s very interesting. Leif wrote all the lyrics and I helped with arrangements. This album has historical themes like the one you mentioned but contemporary ones also. “Moonhorse” is about a sick child who daydreams of another world to escape the pain of his illness. It is a very emotional song for me to sing because I have worked in paediatric care, seen a lot of sick children and spoken to their families. It feels very personal for me even though I didn’t write it.”

Multifaceted with great depth and hidden meanings, Avatarium are more than just another occult rock act. Jennie may not have written the lyrics to these songs but her stamp is all over them. Considering “Moonhorse” was originally intended for Opeth’s frontman did Jennie have trouble adapting? “Actually that one was no problem. The most difficult track to sing was “Lady In The Lamp”. I wanted that song to feel like “Catch The Rainbow” or “Greensleeves” but we had to be careful. We did not want it to sound corny. Even the gentle moments on this record are accompanied by very dark themes.”

Indeed Avatarium’s work never comes close to being corny or trite. The band even took the bold step of recording Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” for the b-side of the “Moonhorse/Boneflower” maxi single. A risky enterprise considering how frequently this particular composition has been recorded, by other artists with mixed results, it could have gone horribly wrong. “It could have. Jennie admitted, “I think we got it right. The acoustic arrangement has not been done for this song I don’t think. “War Pigs” was actually my idea. We relished the challenge of covering such a famous song. The twelve string guitar really add a different element to that. It gives it a different feel, while retaining the power of the original. It would have been cheesy to try to do a big electric arrangement of the song. That would be a pale imitation of the original.”

Avatarium have yet to make their live debut save playing a couple of songs at the private birthday party of their drummer Tiamat stickman Lars Sköld. When can we expect this compelling group to play live? Considering these musicians involvement in other projects arranging live shows must be quite a challenge. “We are discussing our options. Obviously, Lars is touring with Tiamat this year and Marcus has Evergrey but we will come to an arrangement. We want to play a few shows and some festivals next year. We can’t wait to show people what we have created!”

Indeed Avatarium have created an enchanting blend of folk, blues, rock and doom. How would Jennie describe her bands sound? “That would depend on who was asking what we sound like! I would describe it as “Dark, heavy and poetic” for people who have not heard metal. I think it will surprise many metal fans who expect only one thing from Leif and Marcus. This is a new band, not some rehash of our other projects. I described us to my mum as dark poetic music, which seems to fit. This is the first album from Avatarium but it will certainly not be the last! I can’t wait to hear what the world makes of it!”

Avatarium’s self titled debut album is out November 22nd on Nuclear Blast

ROSS BAKER

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