This woman is dressed as an haute couture woolly octopus. This woman is NOT a kook. Keiron Phelan meets singer- songwriter and harpist Serafina Steer and finds a strong mind, a clear intelligence and a love of life’s ambiguities.
Watching Serafina Steer play is an engaging experience. She cuts quite a figure sat at her harp, she and it seemingly made for each other in a way sometimes seen with an exceptionally fluent saxophonist and his/her horn, but rarely elsewhere. Moreover, “Sefa” Steer’s performances are bedecked with charming idiosyncrasies. As she plucks, strums and vocally scatterguns her way through the labyrinths of her lyrics, her concentration is complete. I’ve seen many a confident stage presence; I’ve seen others with appalling stage fright, even some pretending to have appalling stage fright. But Serafina is the single most abstracted (note: not distracted) stage performer I have ever seen. During each song she is totally “in the zone”. Once the applause has died down she seems slightly perplexed, prone to frowning and staring, somewhat accusingly, at both her fingers and harp strings. The next song will be introduced with a series of incremental non-sequiturs which will not necessarily refer to the imminent performance at all. No matter, all the songs get introduced in the end.
Sefa herself is both animated and amused by this. “In some ways it feels like a big confessional and I should be saying, honestly, what I’m thinking. But I know I’m just doing a gig, so that would be totally inappropriate. I get so many thoughts about what to say, all wrong-footed by the knowledge that no one says anything back. And I have no ‘persona’ to use as a cloak. I want to say something relevant, then I think, ‘ don’t say that’, because then you’ fill have to explain other things, then you have to explain THAT, and before you know it you just sound like a loony.”
I once witnessed Sefa pull a “dead stop” in the middle of her beguiling version of Brian Eno’s ‘By is River’ – the first song of her set. Momentarily and illogically I wonder if we, the audience, have done something wrong. But Sefa’s concern was with an offensive snare drum inharmoniously rattling about on the stage. She unhurriedly collapsed it and returned with a bright “Sorry!”
“I did ask them to fix that!” she admonished, mild. “… fucking drummers!”
For the uninitiated, 26year old Serafina Steer is a first-class Honours graduate of Trinity College of Music, who also studied at Dartington College under sitar maestro Ravi Shankar. She garnered critical plaudits last year for her debut LP, Cheap Demo Bad Science (on the ever-excellent Static Caravan imprint) and, more particularly, for its attendant single, the exquisite ‘Peach Heart’ – both at a considerable remove from the classical canon. The transition to indiedom was not a difficult one, it seems. “I’ve never been a big fan of quite a lot of harp repertoire”, Sefa confesses, “Although I started playing in one (orchestral) camp, it always had practical loopholes in it. I was taught to busk along in a lot of styles.” That spontaneous spirit found parallels in her nascent non-classical work. “I didn’t really have any idea that making an album was what I was doing… it was meant to be a demo,” she reflects. “And I didn’t realise things were moving quite so smoothly with the record company either. Actually that made it a really nice way to work.”
Adorned with deft, judicious moments of feathery electronica courtesy of producers Mike Lindsay (of Tunng) and Kristian Robinson (aka maverick soundscaper Capitol K), the concise -minute-long Cheap Demo… is a near-perfect debut album. Moving swiftly, moving slowly, it splendidly showcases Steer’s considerable compositional talent – her songs blending acute observation of the human condition, a magical gift for storytelling, wonderfully essayed melodies and, above all, lyrics of genuine brilliance. In fact, in the case of ‘Peach Heart’, for sheer mysterious imagination, emotional reach and skill of execution you would be hard- pushed (in my less than humble opinion) to find a better lyric written by any English songwriter this decade. The Wikipedia entry for Serafina Steer notes that “her compositions are a mixture of thoughtfully written everyday vignettes and slightly upsetting dreams”. Well, yes, they are that, writ simple. But it’s rather like describing champagne as a “grape-based, pleasant tasting, bubbly drink”.
One warm summer’s afternoon I head to sunny Deptford to meet the “upsetting dreamer” in question. Sefa H.Q. has for some time been located at Utrophia, a large, airy former builder’s merchant’s now converted into studio and living spaces for the seven (reasonably) like-minded souls that make up this art collective. On arrival, black tea is served and Sefa worries that her room is untidy (it isn’t). Our interview is both amusingly and absurdly discursive. Sefa tends not to “do” sequential thought as such and, after several minutes of discussing various questions that I haven’t exactly asked her, we both end up laughing and feeling slightly lost. Then we start the process over again…
Observing a lengthy rail of variously-hued clothing, I’m reminded to ask about her image, which has enjoyed considerable stylistic variety over the last year or two. In addition to the “woolly octopus” images you see here, she’s been decked out in boiler suit and long dark tresses, something resembling an MI secretary – all natty twin set and heels – and, latterly, coming over all blonde for her recent trip to Japan. I ask if image is important to her. “Yeah, I need to get one!” is her unexpected conclusion. “It’s a fine art dressing to be filmed or photographed or whatever and I NEVER get it right!” she reflects, sadly. I volunteer the possibility that perhaps she is, unintentionally, getting it right. “Well, I see some photographs and… what WAS I thinking! I don’t really have an image …but I’m going to get one!” she reiterates. But wasn’t it nice, being a woolly octopus? “Oh, yeah, doing these photographs was amazing, all the different things they were able to do. It was a completely different [experience] and so much nicer – apart from being fucking cold. It was January and my knees went completely red”.
Not unlike her clothing choices, Sefa’s musical influences are diverse, eclectic and occasionally surprising. “In kind of composite ways, Laurie Anderson’s good stuff, Brian Eno and I really like the Cocteau Twins! Maybe something for the next LP there”, she declares. “But I do like a good song, so, Leonard Cohen. I’m nowhere near as bonkers as Ivor Cutler but I really appreciate him too.” Other checked bands include such ’os indie luminaries as the Raincoats, Young Marble Giants and the often splendid but now largely forgotten Band Of Holy Joy. But these influences are worn in the best possible way, which is to say, lightly. And it’s revealing that an obvious “influence-list” doesn’t come easily to her mind. Fundamentally, her own sound is pretty much stand-alone. “Maybe it’s the fact that a lot of the stuff that I listen to – ’80s post punk, contemporary classical – isn’t anything to do with my instrument. So, I might feel like I’m re-creating some existing ‘style’, but to the rest of the world it’s never going to sound that way.”
Inevitably, the conversation swings round to Joanna Newsom (against whom Sefa will not breathe a critical word). In some ways making comparisons between the two is so pig obvious that it would be stupid not to. After all, the music world waits forty-odd years for a perceptive harp- playing singer-songwriter to turn up, and then two arrive at once. And who else has there ever been? Research the history of the harp in popular music and you’ll find not so much slim pickings as absolute poverty. Granted there is the harp arrangement on the Beatles’ superbly touching ‘She’s Leaving Home’, but it does little more than chocolate box the thing up a bit. en there’s ‘Harp Rock’ by Cristina Kline: “Fourteen classic rock songs you have loved throughout the years reinterpreted by the angelic musical talent of…” Perchance that will have you scuttling to the bargain bins with hope in your harp-loving little hearts. In addition I found Le Sacre Du Printemps, a French electric harp and rock band circa , doing something unfortunate to Stravinsky (as if Rick Wakeman wasn’t on that case already) and someone attempting a harp version of Zappa’s ‘ e Black Page’. Oh, and there’s that dude playing ‘20th Century Boy’ in the Heineken advert. Now that IS good!
So, while Sefa and Joanna are destined to be compared, there’s actually very little commonality. Newsom’s voice is reedy and stretches out; Steer’s is cut-glass and staccato. One is strongly American, the other almost quintessentially English. The nature of the songwriting differs wildly too. While both are indubitable talents with a shared penchant for unwinding narratives, Sefa’s songs are rooted in the gritty here and now and are somewhat dark around the edges, whereas J.N. is far more “away with the fairies”, with an added soupçon of Emily Dickinson. Newsom would fit snugly into some post-Woodstock rural idyll, Serafina into angular post-punk urbanity. Even as harpists they’re divergent. Our floaty friend from California tends to a propulsive, regular style of play the better to underpin her vocal acrobatics. Sefa’s technique is more complex, more chip-chop, almost a “conversational” style into which her voice becomes seamlessly woven.
For Sefa, the harp has become both help and hindrance. Rarely is she written about or spoken of without it being mentioned. There is the practical advantage in that it always keeps her in work and, as she herself points out, when asked what you do for a living, “playing the harp” has a certain comedy value. But the downside is that focusing upon the harp distracts from her abilities as a wordsmith. Sefa’s facility for tapping into the essential ambiguity of life’s simple, everyday episodes marks her out. Events in life are, or course, rarely simple – relationships never so. As she puts it in ‘Uncomfortable’, “It’s all going to shit/Or coming together depending on how you look at it.” She is not one to burden us with torturous musings about “her pain”. “I’m not going to drag my feelings into this” she observes in the majestic, still to be recorded ‘Valley’. The acutely observed ‘Council Flat’, meanwhile, creates a beautiful emotional flat line between the events in the lives of its characters: the reflective girl upstairs, the violently argumentative couple downstairs. is is no kitsch version of “kitchen sink”; it’s un-ironic and painted with a very fine brush. Add to that the drollery of Sefa intoning the hook “bring it on….wanker!” in her best, Flying Lizards-influenced, posh deadpan and at a stroke she gloriously explodes the idiotic and patronising orthodoxy that means songs about the working classes must always be sung in “Mockney”. As Sefa pithily observes, “work with what you’ve got!”
The story line of ‘Peach Heart’ has variously been described as “magic realism”, “women’s low self esteem”, “Pygmalion on acid” and “a folkloric transmutation fable” (okay, the latter was my idea, greeted by Sefa with an expression of no slight amusement; but check out The Mabinogion, it’s a hell of a book. Especially in the original Welsh! Oh, alright, just read The Owl Service by Alan Garner).
I meet something of a smiling wall when I ask for Sefa’s own interpretation of the lyric. “It’s just a song… I CAN’T explain it to you personally, hmm… if I was capable of saying these things, I probably wouldn’t have written it!” The song’s most mysterious and haunting quality lies in its very ambiguity – the seeming impossibility of knowing if the story itself is a happy or sad one. It exists in a flux between passion, exploitation, fatalism and doubt, all given even weight of expression. In Sefa’s songs, as in life, this is a question that never gets answered. “I think that atmosphere is there in quite a lot of the songs. I generally feel that way about life,” she concurs. “But it’s ambivalence in a good way, it’s certainly not indifference.”
Public spirited, a rather intriguing four-song EP, has appeared subsequent to Cheap Demo… but only in an extremely limited pressing that was largely intended simply to tie in with a recent tour of Japan. Catch it if you can find it. It’s impressive work; a step forward, but also suggestive of a transitional period.
As to the future, a proper new album is on the agenda. “Well, I’ve just started a band” [the mysteriously named Nighttime Ron] Sefa reveals. “I’m aiming to get the album done with them this autumn – maybe I’ fill make it to forty minutes this time! I want a bash at doing something in a logical way… also I just want to make a bigger sound. So far it’s all been very acoustic and very quiet. I’m not going to throw that out of the window, but I’ d like the opportunity to get the excitement up a bit.”
Having made an auspicious beginning, Sefa has set the bar pretty high for her next collection of songs and the fact that the Nighttime Ron lineup includes two synthesizers, drums, clarinet and guitar suggests that she might be about to throw her audience a big musical curve ball. Indeed, Serafina may still be something of an artistic “work in progress”; she even sees herself in that light. “I don’t think I’ve actually done anything to be THAT proud of yet” she reflects candidly. “It’s very important to me to keep developing things”.
Keep an eye (and ear) on the multi-talented Serafina Steer; she might finally settle on an image one of these days, then, surely, the world will be hers…
I first saw her play live about three years before the album started happening. I remember thinking she was fantastic but never assumed we would work together. I got to know Sefa better through some mutual Brazilian friends, which sounds kind of exotic…. hmm, maybe it is! Anyway, I don’t remember how it started, but I offered to record her and we ended up doing ‘Peach Heart’. After that I was hooked and generally wanted to record as much as possible with her.
I have a studio in Old Street which has a little live room and we just went in there whenever we were both available. Sefa already had the tunes. She’d play me one and we’d work on it. Actually it’s very much her record; she’s very strong-minded and has her vision of how things should be; so I’d play around, chopping up some sounds and say, “I’m really into this, what do you think?” and she’d be like, “hmmm, well, its quite nice; I like that bit… but, er, what if we didn’t do that and did this instead…” Generally her ideas worked much better.
I’d never recorded a harp until then. It’s really amazing, the first time you hear and see a full size harp, although the studio’s in the basement and I’m always nervous of being crushed to death trying to get it down the steps, or worse, smashing the harp to death – it’s worth more than me! I’m not sure that I really mastered recording it. There’s such a range on it. It’s tricky to get that lovely bulbous bottom end sounding good. Maybe we can do more tunes sometime and I’ll figure it out!