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Amanda Somerville - Trillium Interview

Amanda Somerville - Trillium Interview
Performed in October 2011

Amanda Somerville

It’s no surprise to the metal world that American-born singer-songwriter Amanda Somerville has (finally!) made her own metal album. She has worked as a co-lyricist and choir / backing vocalist for Epica, After Forever, Kamelot, Avantasia, and a slew of other European bands. And don’t forget her involvement in the metal opera Aina, last year’s Kiske / Somerville duets album with ex-Helloween singer Michael Kiske, and After Forever guitarist Sander Gommans’ thrashing HDK project. Somewhere in between all that work, however, Somerville has found time to develop her own project: Trillium, a hybrid of rock and metal. If you listen to the Trillium album, Alloy, you’ll hear bits of gothic, symphonic, classic rock, heavy metal, and other styles that make up Somerville’s crossbreeding.

Prior to the release of Alloy, Sonic Cathedral staff writer Sara Letourneau chatted with Somerville about all things Trillium. What compelled Somerville to start this project in the first place? Did these metal songs bring out a different side of her that fans don’t hear on her usual pop albums? Will she tour to promote Alloy? And what about that creepy album cover? Find out the answers to these questions and much more below!

Sara:  Hello, Amanda! Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to Sonic Cathedral again today.

Amanda:  Of course! Thank you for your interest in talking to me about Trillium! I’m very excited.

Amanda Somerville

Sara:  The Trillium album comes out on November 1st in North American and on November 4th in Europe. How do you feel now that the release dates are coming closer and closer?

Amanda:  Oh, you say that so forebodingly! Naughty girl!

(Sara and Amanda laugh)

Amanda:  Yes, I’m so excited. It’s always a little nerve-racking because of the promotion shindig, doing all the interviews and everything. My first interview this evening was just over a half-hour ago, and then I’ve got 10 or 12 tonight. So, it’s quite a packed schedule! (laughs) It’s really exciting. I’m looking forward to it. My fingertips always get tingly, like I’m a little kid at Christmastime. You never really know what to expect. Next week, I’ll be getting the CD for the first time, holding the physical copy in my hand. It’s all very… Woo hoo!

Sara:  (laughs) You’ve worked with a number of rock and metal artists over the years. So, really, for me and your other fans, it’s no surprise that you’ve finally done your own rock/metal record. But the question has always been, “When is she going to do it?!”

Amanda:  (laughs)

Sara:  So, tell us, when did the idea for Trillium start to blossom?

Amanda:  Well, I guess I have to back up a couple of years to 2007, when I was writing and recording the project HDK with [former grunter/guitarist of After Forever] Sander Gommans, who also worked on Trillium with me. Even though I had worked in the metal scene for several years at that point, that was really a big turning point for me because I really got into it. It was the first time that I had really been like, “Oh, I like this! I like writing these songs. I like performing this music and recording it.”

After that, my songs were getting progressively darker and heavier, and they kept going in this direction. I was planning on having my next solo release be more uniformly in the metal genre. And then I was approached by a record label about doing a solo metal project. And I was like, “Eh, well, I don’t know, ah, um…” That’s when the light bulb came on. DING! I thought, “Why not?” I had all this material I had compiled… Oh, jeez, I probably had written about 30 or 40 songs that you could consider metal. So I thought that, since I’m schizophrenic musically (laughs), kind of all over the board and eclectic with the songs I write anyways – and if you’ve heard Windows, you know what I mean – I thought, “Why not keep it separate? Keep things purely metal so as not to confuse the metal fans?” And then I can go ahead and put a Jamaican drinking song and a jazz ballad and whatever else I want on my next solo album and not have to apologize to anyone about it. So, that was the idea behind [Trillium], and it really grew on me. I liked it more and more, the idea of having a solo metal project. And then I can keep the rest of my solo stuff separate so that I can bounce around in my padded-wall room however I want to. (laughs)

Amanda Somerville

Sara:  (laughs) You make it sound like you’re a little bit crazy sometimes when it comes to your music.

Amanda:  (laughs) Sometimes! Because when I was 19 or 20 years old and had first moved over to Europe, I was sending demos to record companies. And [the record labels] were always like, “Well, what kind of music do you do?” And I’d say, “I like it all! I’m a singer-songwriter, and I like pop, and I like jazz, and I like rock.” And they were like, “No no no, that’s WAY too schizophrenic for us. We need to be able to put you in a drawer.” And so that’s how my whole boycott against the record company music industry started. I thought, “Screw you! I’m going to do whatever I want to do.” And then I started working with the Gate Studio team, and the ball just rolled all over the place from there. It’s not like I think it’s a bad thing or that I’m crazy or that I apologize for it at all. But, [my solo work is] kind of all over the board. Looking for a record that is uniformly in one particular genre or type of music… Well, they’re going to land wrong with me. (laughs)

Sara:  And I think that people like me, I don’t just listen to rock and metal. I listened to pop music before I got into the metal scene about 6 years ago. So, for people like me who listen to different kinds of music, that’s what makes Windows so interesting. You’ve got all these different things going on. You have the rock and the R&B and the pop. And for people who like different kinds of music, it makes a lot of sense. And tsk tsk tsk to all those record labels who turned you down.

Amanda:  (laughs) Well, thank you! I appreciate that. And I still have the same standpoint!

Sara:  Back to Trillium and the album Alloy. As the album title implies, Alloy is a blend of different rock and metal styles. What kinds of rock and metal, or which artists, specifically inspired the music on this album?

Amanda:  You know, the whole “naming specific artists for inspiration” thing, it’s tough. I’m a bit of a lone wolf; I just do whatever I want to do and what feels right. So, I wasn’t aiming for any particular style with any of the songs. It wasn’t conscious or contrived in any way. So, I guess I’m going to draw a blank on that. I’ve been inspired by all of the artists I’ve worked with throughout the years. I’m sure that has definitely been the biggest influence on me writing more heavy and dark songs. But, I think there are various types of rock and metal [on the album], like you mentioned. We find the gothic, and there’s some heavy metal and doom in there, as well as hard rock and modern rock. Some of it even floats toward the pop/rock side. So, I guess I can’t totally escape from being diverse. I can’t make one song after another that sound the same. I just can’t do it! But for me, I guess this is as uniform as I can be on an album. And as far as my inspirations go, I guess it’s just been the work that I’ve done in the metal scene for the last 11 years.

Amanda Somerville

Sara:  Alloy was produced by Sascha Paeth, whom you’ve worked with on a number of projects and bands. You also collaborated with Sascha as well as Sander Gommans on the songwriting. What did each musician bring to the table for Trillium?

Amanda:  Oh, so much! Half of the songs were written pretty much by Sander and myself, and the other half were written by Sascha and myself. With Sander, it’s a little bit different, because he’s a very prolific songwriter. He’s been doing a lot of writing for other bands as well because he had stepped back from the live scene and wanted to concentrate more on studio work and songwriting and things like that. And, he had some of these songs like “Bow to the Ego” and “Coward.” They were just instrumentals at first. I was there when he was working on them, and I really liked them. I asked him, “What’s this?” And he said, “Oh, I don’t know. I don’t know what it’s gonna be for!” But, I really liked it, and I was like, “You know, I’d love to do something with this song, if you wouldn’t mind and if you don’t have any specific place for it.” So, we sat down together and went through some things, rearranged some stuff. “Bow to the Ego” had a totally different song structure and intro at first, and no real or defined chorus – from my feeling, anyway. So, we re-wrote the song a little bit. I wrote the lyrics and vocal lines to it, and it ended up the way that it did.

For “Machine Gun,” I was playing it in the studio, and Sander heard me playing it. It was basically the opposite of “Bow to the Ego”: He liked it and asked me if he could take it and do something with it, because it was pretty much already finished as a piano/vocal demo. And then he took it and added the intro melody. (imitates the melody)

Sara:  The Halloweenish vibe?

Amanda:  Yeah, exactly. It’s really creepy. And Sander has this creepy writing style that I love. (laughs) So, yeah, that is a recurring theme throughout the song. It added so much to it. I just love it. So, that’s how Sander and I work together. As for Sascha and I, we’ve worked together so long on so many projects and in so many settings and types of songwriting. We know each other so well, both personally and musically. So, our work flow is always really great. I never write a song the same way twice, and I love that because each song has its own little story of its unique inception. I love background stories like that. It’s like each of my songs is a child, and I’m telling about when they were born. (laughs)

But, how Sascha and I typically work together is that I will already have a finished, written song – and again, it’s a piano/vocal demo – and I’ll send it to him. And he likes to take his time, let the song grow on him and develop, and then he’ll work on it and do a demo and send it back to me. And 95 percent of the time, I’m like, “Oh, I love it! This is great!” And we go from there. That’s the basis. That’s how it was for a lot of these songs, like “Mistaken,” “Path of Least Resistance,” and “Purge.” He just took them and added so much to them. Like “Purge,” for example, he wrote the bridge with the guitar solo. And on “Mistaken,” he wrote the bridge and the guitar solo, too. That’s the one thing I love about working with guitar players like Sander and Sascha. Being a piano player, I hear and feel and write songs from a completely different perspective. And then putting the two elements together just complements everything so well without adding too many cooks to spoil the soup. So, I like the play we have off of one another and the creative input they can add that I don’t necessarily have when I’m playing piano. A piano is tough to write a guitar riff on. (laughs) Or a guitar solo, because I’m not much of a riff or solo person. So, long story made longer, but that’s how it works! (laughs)

Amanda Somerville

Sara:  (laughs) That’s OK! Because Trillium is so different from the music in your solo career, when you were first singing these songs in the studio, did you feel like they brought out a different side of you?

Amanda:  Yeah! It’s very fun, and this is exactly what I had with HDK, when I was like, “Oooh, I like this!” I guess, in a way, singers and musicians – on the most basic level – are not much different from actors and actresses. We’re very theatrical. We like to play a role. You tell a story with the song that you’re singing. I think it appeals to me as like I’m playing a different role. I loved to dress up and play Cinderella or whatever when I was little. And I guess that, musically, it’s not much different. It’s fun to do something that you’re not necessarily used to doing and put yourself in a different role or a different position. But, it’s also a great emotional outlet. I think that’s why I can be in my normal, everyday life a happy and positive person, and that’s because I can pour all my outrage and my angst and doubt and all of the negative feelings into my music. And it’s really cathartic to sing [those songs]. I think there’s no better therapy in the world than to write and pour all your emotions into a song, and then be able to perform it and bring out those emotions in the performance. So, yeah, it’s always a really invigorating experience. (laughs)

Sara:  I’ve read online that you made a video for “Coward.” Why did you choose to make a video for this particular song?

Amanda:  Well, I’m not one for picking favorites because I think it’s not fair. As I’d mentioned, my songs are like children. But, “Coward”… I just kept coming back to it and coming back to it as my favorite song on the entire album. And that’s also a new thing for me, because I’m never able to choose a favorite song! It always goes by my mood. Each day, I have a different favorite song. But, “Coward,” I continually come back to it as a favorite of mine. And, I really wanted to put that into an image to kind of complete the whole artistic picture or landscape of the song itself. So, yeah, that’s why I ended up choosing it, and it was very fun. I’m really looking forward to seeing the finished video.

Sara:  Can you tell us anything about it yet?

Amanda:  Yeah! (laughs) What do you want to know?

Amanda Somerville

Sara:  (laughs) Whatever you want us to know at the moment. I know it’s not out yet, so I don’t know how many details you want to give away beforehand.

Amanda:  Well, you’re going to see me in a little bit of a different atmosphere than normal – just like in the music, I suppose. Like I said, I’m generally a positive, bubbly – maybe annoyingly so – person. (laughs) You see that in my video blogs. I’m a total nerd. I can’t hide it, and I’m not going to apologize to anyone about it. That’s just how I am. But, I’m a little bit scary in this video, I must say. I looked at it, and I was like, “Ooooh, I would not want to piss myself off!”

(Sara and Amanda laugh)

Amanda:  So, we [shot the video in] several different locations. It was so much fun! The director lives in Nuremberg, [Germany], so I went over to Nuremberg two weeks ago, and we shot it in Nuremberg in the backstage rooms of the Opera House, where we shot the Kiske / Somerville video for “Silence.” This time, it’s not in the actual main theater. It’s in all the backstage rooms where the actors and ballerinas put their makeup on. Then, we moved actually to castle ruins in a place… Oh, shoot, where was it? Neumarkt! That’s what it’s called. It’s near Nuremburg, and it’s home to these castle ruins that are just amazing! As an American, you come over here and can so appreciate these things in Europe because we don’t have anything like it. This building is thousands and thousands and thousands of years old. So, we did a lot of shots in the ruins. And, the ruins themselves had a little chapel on the grounds, so we shot some scenes in there as well. I’m part psycho-bride and part gothic muse in it. (laughs)

Sara:  (laughs) That sounds like it should be very interesting!

Amanda:  I hope so!

Sara:  Speaking of things looking scary, the cover of Alloy looks very, very evil. Considering this album comes out the day after Halloween in North America, it’s also very appropriate.

Amanda:  Yes.

Amanda Somerville

Sara:  Was that kind of the idea behind the artwork and photoshoot: to do something dark, spooky, and – once again – different from what you normally do?

Amanda:  Yes, definitely. I wanted to really portray the music with these images and give the potential listener an image that sums up the music as well. I think it does that very well. I chose Stefan Heileman to do the artwork, and he’s done really brilliant work for all kinds of artists and friends of mine also. So, I was already familiar with the style he did his photos and artwork in, and I thought it fit brilliantly with the music and the album and the concept. He took it and ran with it, which is great because when I asked him if he’d be interested in doing the artwork for me, I wrote this 5000-word essay describing the video and my vision for it and everything. (laughs) And he is an artist himself with a vision. So, it’s really great to work with someone who you can bounce ideas off of. I think the artwork is as important of a representative as a name or the logo and going along with the music itself. So, yeah, I wanted it to be dark and show a different side of me, and I think it did so quite well.

The cover maybe needs a little bit of an explanation. The things that are behind me – they’re actually me! (laughs) They’re my inner demons that are coming out and trying to grab me and rip me back into their world. I’m not sure if you noticed, but there’s one hand that’s on my neck underneath my hair. And where they touch me, I’m turning into metal. That’s part of why my brain is already turning into metal. So, it fits into the whole concept of Trillium.

Sara:  I’m going to have to take a closer look at the cover!

Amanda:  Yeah! There’s a whole hidden backstory there. (laughs) But, those are my evil sprites coming out of me and dragging me over to the dark side.

Sara:  Alloy is your second album in a row with Frontiers Records. The first one was the Kiske / Somerville album, which came out last year. What about your experience with Kiske / Somerville made Frontiers the go-to label for Trillium?

Amanda:  Well, I thought they did a really nice job. They treated us well. They were very open and respected us as artists. When I was originally asked to be part of the album, I said, “Well, I’d love to lend my voice to the project and be alongside Michael Kiske, of course. It’s a great honor. But, is there any room for me to contribute anything creatively? Because I’m as much a songwriter as I am a singer.” And [Frontiers] was like, “Yeah, sure!” And three of my songs ended up on that album, which I thought was really great. And [Frontiers] was so enthusiastic about the project, and just the way they went about the promotion and everything, I just had a good feeling about them.

And [Avantasia and Aina guest singer/guitarist] Oliver Hartmann, I’ve worked with Ollie for a number of years. He was under their label. And Jorn [Lande, who sings on the Trillium song “Scream It”] and Bob Catley, they had shared their experiences of working with Frontiers and the guys who work at the label. It was all very positive. It was by a different record company that I was approached last year about this solo metal project. I ended up turning them down and then went to Frontiers and asked if they would be interested because I was so impressed with them as a record label and the job that they had done. So, that’s how I came to go with them.

Amanda Somerville

Sara:  I’ve read that there’s a chance you may be touring next year for Trillium. Is this true?

Amanda:  This is totally true! So far, it’s just a European tour that’s in the planning. But, I really hope to get over to North America as well. I’m going to work on that very hard. But I can’t divulge the details, unfortunately! We’re still kind of in the business negotiation process and everything, so I can’t publicly announce it yet. But, those are the ballpark plans anyway. So, yeah, I’m really excited to bring this live on stage.

Sara:  Would it be a headlining tour or opening for someone else?

Amanda:  I’ll have to see. Probably opening would make more sense, but I’m not sure at this point.

Sara:  I did see on your Myspace page recently that there were some tour dates for January 2012.

Amanda:  Yes.

Sara:  I’m guessing those must be for something different?

Amanda:  Those are for Rock Meets Classic.

Sara:  So you’re doing that again?

Amanda:  Yes!

Sara:  Cool!

Amanda:  It’s going to be a lot of fun. It’s not something that brings me further as a solo artist necessarily, but it’s a lot of fun. You make a lot of connections with people. The audience is great. And the songs – oh! How can you pass up an opportunity to go on tour with these great artists and do all these classic songs and stuff? It’s a lot of fun.

Amanda Somerville

Sara:  I’ve got two more questions for you, Amanda, and then we’ll be done. The first of those two questions is: Do you think you’ll do another pop/rock album in the future like Windows? Or, could Trillium be the start of a new and permanent path for you?

Amanda:  Oh, no! Like I said, I had not only these metal songs that had piled up since 2007, but I also have another 50 songs in the direction of Windows. And I go through so many different moods and phases; I also wrote some pop songs while I was working on Trillium. So, I don’t think that this is going to be a permanent path for me. Just as I have become comfortable living in Europe and I can’t see myself – though I miss going back to the States, and I go back to the States several months out of the year – I can’t picture myself living in one place permanently forever and never ever going anywhere else! It’s the same thing musically for me. This is definitely a new chapter in my life and my career that is opening up, and it will stay that way. But, it’s not that I’m going to discard anything in place of that.

Sara:  You’re quite the multi-tasker, aren’t you? Writing pop songs while you’re working on a metal album. Wow! (laughs)

Amanda:  Yeah! (laughs)

Sara:  Well, looking at the time, I’d say we should wrap up the interview. Thank you very much for your time, Amanda. In closing, what would you like to say to your fans and to our readers at Sonic Cathedral?

Amanda:  Well, as always, I thank them from the bottom of my heart for all their support and interest in the things that I’m doing. It’s a great honor. And I can only keep on doing this with their support, and the love and generosity from people like you. So, I really appreciate it, and I hope that I can come and present these songs to you live and meet you in person someday!

Sonic Cathedral thanks Amanda for taking the time to talk to us again! Also, many thanks to Dustin Hardman and Elio Bordi at Frontiers Records for arranging the interview.

Amanda Somerville

Check out the following websites for more information on Trillium and Amanda Somerville:

Amanda’s Official Website
Frontiers Records