The Hall Of Mirrors were the best new band I heard last year. Their spacey dreampop is simply lovely. I met up with band leader Jessica Spencer (vocals, keyboards) and synth player Andrew Sleightholme at The North Pole pub near Latimer Road shortly before the December holidays.
So you’ve had quite a busy year, when I saw you for the first time in March you had a completely different line-up than you do now, and you’ve released four singles and have been playing a bunch of gigs. How’s it all going?
Jessica Spencer: When we release our singles, they’re only online, cause they’re all demos, everything that we do is demo’d but we thought people like to hear something that’s not quite finished, not quite polished. So we released our first single, Springtime, and it went really well, we got a lot of good reactions from that. Then over time, each single that we released got a better and better response. Lovechild’s currently out at the moment and it’s doing really well. And it shows that by giving people free music, it enables us to get more fans and more people interested and talking about us. And hopefully they’re sharing it to their friends, that’s our aim really.
I didn’t think of those as demos. They sound pretty done to me.
JS: Really? They could have a lot more done to them. I’d love a lot more done to them. But for now they get the idea across of what we’re all about. So, that’s what I like. What else? We did the Eliza Doolittle tour. And we played Secret Garden Party, on the main stage. That was amazing. We thought ‘oh, we’ll be playing to nobody’ We had about a handful of people that we could see at the beginning, in the front of the crowd, and then suddenly, as soon as we started playing, loads of people just starting walking down the hill to our music and really dancing. It was just such a nice atmosphere and vibe. I think we kicked off Saturday at the main stage and it was just so cool seeing everyone running down the hill towards our music with all their arms flailing and going ‘Woooo!’ We got quite a few people that liked our Facebook page after that, saying how good it was, so that was cool. And what else have we done? I’ve been recording at the moment, on the album, doing more top end demos with producer Paul O’Duffy. He’s done quite a lot of people, he’s done the James Bond theme with John Barry, and he’s worked with everyone really. Swing Out Sister in the 80’s, Dusty Springfield, Amy Winehouse on the Back To Black album. And he’s just released that new Amy Winehouse album because he’s got lots of footage of her when she was recording with him. He was showing me all the stuff that she was singing. She’s great! She’s really good. But I’m getting off the point. The band is now a six-piece. We’ve had the same people now, minus a couple, since March this year. When did you see us play?
At The Half Moon in Herne Hill.
JS: Ah, that was a completely different line-up. Had the same drummer then. So since then we’ve got a new bass player, a new guitar player, a new backing vocalist, and a new keyboard player, and he plays all the organ parts, string parts, Mellotron, you name what instrument, he’ll play it, he’ll find the right sound for it. We don’t use any backing tracks or anything like that; everything’s done raw. It’s just easier having it on the keyboard rather than live violin players cause that’s too expensive as well. It’s great. We’ve got some really good shows coming up.
Any personal highlights of the past year?
JS: Personal highlights…supporting Eliza Doolittle, playing Shepherd’s Bush Empire supporting her. That was great. The biggest audience that we played to this year was something like 5000 and that was at Warwick Racecourse. It was crazy, one whole day filled with horse racing, which I love, and then about 6 o’clock we had a lovely meal with all the crew overlooking the horse race. We went and watched the last horse race from the balcony and then we went straight on to the stage. And it was just thousands of people! Just screaming and we thought that we wouldn’t be listened to, cause we just thought they’re there to see Eliza Doolittle and not here to see us. But they were a really, really good audience, they really engaged with us and clapped at the right times. And here’s Andrew! (keyboardist Andrew Sleightholme joins us, having been dealing with his car breaking down) Andrew, what was your highlight of this year?
Andrew Sleightholme: My highlight was joining the band, actually.
How did that come about?
AS: I just answered an ad, that was on a particular website that I’m on for music jobs. There’s loads of stuff on there for keyboardists and most of it’s not that good. But this one band came along called The Hall Of Mirrors and I listened to the demos on the website and I thought, ‘Ah, there’s something really special here’. So I met Jess and I played you something unbelievably weird-
JS: (laughing) Yeah. I just went ‘just play me something’. Play me anything.
AS: So I did that. And then I had another audition with the rest of the band, to play through some songs, and that was kind of it, really.
You handle the Mellotron and string parts? We were just talking about that.
AS: Yeah, basically strings and other sorts of sounds. Like glockenspiel and there’s all sorts of weird and wonderful things in there.
JS: He does it all. He’s got three keyboards, he needs to have three hands.
AS: So it keeps me busy on the fingers front.
So what are the plans for the coming year?
JS: Quite busy, actually. January we’re gonna kick off with a nice six-month plan, hopefully. Which consists of releasing 4 EPs. They’re all gonna be related to a season, and our first EP is gonna be around Spring, and that’s hopefully being released in January. What else are we doing?
AS: We’ll be doing a tour at some point.
JS: Tour in May, I hope.
Why isn’t Winter the first EP in January?
JS: We’re going to do Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter…I was actually thinking that, it should be Winter, Spring, Summer, Autumn. Autumn would be in June though. Cause we’re doing it in 6 months rather than 12. So in a way it doesn’t really matter what season we do first. With each EP I want to do an instrumental piece of music that relates to a season. Depending on what kind of piece of music I write at the time, we’ll see what it relates to, which will then determine what the EP will be.
And another thing we’re doing is we’ve got a club night called Psychedelic Sunday, that’s what we’ll be pushing as well. We wanna try to get lots of people to that, lots of people talking about the night, cause we don’t want it to just be – I bet everybody says this but – we don’t want it to just be about music, we want it to have when you walk into it like you’re somewhere else. So we’ll decorate it in a certain way, we’ll have artists doing live painting, poetry, and we’ll be the resident band. But we want to involve as many new and wonderful acts that we find, that we work with or that we don’t work with, just people that we love, to do it with us.
Any in mind?
JS: Yeah, I’ve recently come across a band called The Hypnotic Eye (also playing at the first Psychedelic Sunday, Feb. 19th), and they’re quite good. They’re like a 60’s garage, female-fronted band, which I quite like. And then there’s Alex Monk who does ambient, really slow, long drawn-out soundscape kind of music. But it’s really haunting cause he uses a loop effect on his voice and with all different, crazy instruments I’ve never seen before. But it’s just really interesting to watch. It’s more like sound-art. He creates art with his music. It’s not like a song – verse, chorus, verse, chorus. There’s quite a few people that I like.
Have you done any yet?
JS: We’ve done one. And that was really cool.
AS: Because the stage at the place we did it was quite small, so I had to play piano, which Jess normally plays. But there was just something about that gig, it was so…I really, really enjoyed it. Cause we were right there next to the audience. The stage was almost touching the bar, it was so close. And everyone was really into it, weren’t they?
JS: Everyone was just going wild. It was such a nice feeling! Because we’re a new-ish band, as in we haven’t been playing together very long, we still need to have all these gigs to make us a tight band.
AS: Just speaking personally, it takes a while with a new group of people to just feel comfortable with everyone. I think for the gig to be, for the music to come out really well you have to just feel really relaxed with the people around you, so that you can create something really wonderful together, and not feel slightly self-conscious about it. Perhaps it’s just me who feels like that-
JS: Because music is all about emotion.
AS: A connection with each other.
JS: Yeah, a connection. And when you’re in a room with people you don’t know, how can you be at ease with putting all your emotions across in a piece of music when you haven’t even spoken to them for long, or you don’t know anything about them. The point of rehearsals more as well is getting us to know each other, have a laugh with each other and just really feel at ease with each other. So that when we’re on stage, even if something really awful happens, we all know how we’re gonna react to it and what we’re gonna do. I feel we’re really getting to that point now. We’re really comfortable around each other now.
AS: Yeah, I do as well. We have a really good laugh with each other and really enjoy hanging out together.
AS: I have. I play in another band at the moment called Mishaped Pearls, which is like a folk-classically sort of thing. Which is fun. I’ve got more of a classical background, a bit like you do (points to Jess). I read music at university and trained as a classical pianist. It’s only really the last few years that I’ve got more into the sort of pop keyboards. But I’m having a really good time so it’s good.
(To Jess) Have you done anything besides Hall Of Mirrors?
JS: Yeah! Yeah, I’ve been in lots of different things, different projects. I’ve always written my own songs since I was 16. I’ve trained in opera and piano from an early age, so then from that I was always in musicals and things like that. And then I went and had my first punk band when I was about 16. Then when I was 17 I joined a drum & bass band, which was really fun cause it was improvised. So I had to just sing all these crazy lyrics and melodies, not knowing where the music was gonna go. It was really jazzy, it was like jazz but drum & bass, just crazy. That was quite fun though. And then I was in The Confederate Dead, which are like a drone, psychedelic band, really heavy. And that lasted for about 2 years. But I was always doing my own thing on the side, really. I’m still in a side project, we just write and record together, probably gets to be once or twice a year nowadays. We call it (the style) Chinese Big Beat.
So The Hall Of Mirrors is a good band name. Where did it come from?
JS: Do you know the band Kraftwerk?
YES. Ah, yes.
JS: They’ve got an album and the first song on it’s Hall Of Mirrors. And I just thought ‘Oo, what a great name, I love that name!’ And then I love the fact that just saying The Hall Of Mirrors makes you think ‘what the hell is that?’ Cause you see all different reflections and it creates different images in your mind, and that’s hopefully what the music does, tells different stories and creates different images. And I think it fits quite well. There’s a whole world, a whole Hall Of Mirrors, it’s all ethereal and circus-like and that hopefully is what the music sounds like.
So besides that, how would you describe your music?
JS: I’d say most of it’s about telling a story, words to music. Because everything I write, I don’t ever try and be something I’m not. It always comes straight from my heart. Everything I do is pure, hopefully, and that comes across in the music. That it’s all from my heart at the time I’m feeling it. I might not be feeling it now. Like the song Love Child, I don’t feel that about my father now. But at the time it was really, really sensitive to me and it just came out that way. I try and tell a story, give it a beginning, a middle, and an end. And not try to be too negative or too positive, just to-
AS: Just to be authentic.
JS: Yeah, authentic. It’s hard to explain. I don’t sit at the piano and go ‘right, I’m gonna try and be like this or try and be like that’. I don’t try, I just let it happen and see what happens. Sometimes it’s too…like Love Child, I didn’t even want to release that song because it was just so personal and then everyone made me. And now I’m glad I have because so many people have messaged me saying ‘that really touched me’ or ‘that really helped, I really relate to that’. And I just think ‘oh, okay, those kind of songs are quite good to release’.
So do you want to talk individually about any of the songs? Springtime, perhaps? That was the first one I heard.
JS: Springtime I was listening to Jools Holland and there were some chords that I liked in that and that was more of just ‘oh, I really like the sounds of these chords,’ I really liked a melody line and then I came out with Springtime. It was just about springtime cause I looked out my window, I was living in Crouch End at the time, and I had a high-rise flat, and I looked out and I had a whole view over London. And the sun was coming up and just made me think of springtime and the sun and the flowers and the breeze in my hair, and that’s where I came up with that song. And love, I was in love at the time.
So what about Transparent Love?
JS: That’s about someone always putting their guard up and never letting you into their world, but really, I can see through it. But he thinks I can’t see through it, so it’s transparent love. And how he never really says what he feels or what he should do. So what’s the point of putting a guard up if I can see through it anyway? Won’t you let me in your heart, those are the words (laughing).
Say Goodbye started about…you know the story of the woman, Miss Havisham, looking out the window for her lover to come home and he never does. And that’s what I thought, it’s say goodbye. It’s about a woman who can’t just let go and she needs to…It has two meanings, that song, it’s about going out with a druggie and also about not saying goodbye to a deceased love.
AS: It really reminds me of, not musically, but just in terms of the words, it really reminds me of one of Joni Mitchell’s early songs called Marcie, it’s on Joni Mitchell’s very, very first album (Song To A Seagull). And it was about a woman who’d obviously had an affair with a sailor or something and she spent every day of her life just waiting for him to come back. And obviously he was never going to come back. Really sad song but similar kind of feeling.
JS: We’ve got some new songs all about to be released with the EP and everything. They’re a really different vibe, more upbeat. The first songs are very autobiographical. We’re in a more vibey, groove-based direction now. Lots of great sounds and great chords. I’m really excited just to get them out, that’s what our EP will be. It will have lots of hard-hitting songs. And I even wrote a disco tune last week! Can’t wait to release that.
What’s it called?
JS: Digital Love. It’s all about people having relationships online rather than seeing the real world, doing things in the real world.
So I’ve heard you cover I Wanna Be Your Dog and Wear Your Love Like Heaven, who are your favourite bands and singers, musical artists?
JS: I love Minnie Riperton, Donovan…obviously, Velvet Underground are my favourite, Love-
You’re big on love aren’t you?
JS: Yeahhh..I love Love. I Love Love (smiles)…Jefferson Airplane I really like, The Zombies. I love Donna Summer, my favourite’s Serge Gainsbourg, all the French pop singers, France Gall, Brigitte Bardot, Françoise Hardy, Jane Birkin…is the obvious one, she should come first. I love classical music as well. Debussy, Liszt, Liszt is my favourite –
AS: I actually really dislike Liszt.
AS: I just find him really pompous. I love Debussy and Ravel. I’m more kind of French-leaning. Liszt’s a bit of a show-off. Do you know what I mean?
JS: Yeah. I don’t listen to his orchestral works. All I listen to are his French songs. I love it. I love all of his songs.
AS: I didn’t know Liszt did any songs.
JS: Yeah. You know Chanson D’Amour, my song, that’s the lyrics to one of his songs. He’s written so many beautiful short songs, that last about 3 minutes.
AS: They’re not very well known, are they?
JS: No, I don’t think so. But because I learnt opera when I was young, I used to sing Liszt, throughout my whole life. And they’re just great. Really good. (sings)
Do you listen to anything modern?
JS: Yes. Is Radiohead modern? I like Radiohead.
AS: They’re really interesting musically, aren’t they, Radiohead.
JS: Yeah. I like Radiohead. I like MGMT. Broadcast.
AS: I tend to listen to very few things and I just listen to them obsessively, over and over and over again, until I’ve squeezed out every last little line that you might hear. I’ve got very few things on my ipod but I just listen to them over and over again. Like Goldfrapp I love, I just find them so musically interesting, especially what they do with all the synths and the different layers and I love Alison Goldfrapp’s voice as well. It’s amazing. Some of the stuff that we’re doing is slightly Goldfrapp-y, like early Goldfrapp, that kind of vibe. But I listen to classical stuff as well. I love Benjamin Britten, Debussy, Ravel…
JS: Do you like Thomas Tallis?
AS: Yeah, I do. I really like early stuff, like medieval, people like Ockeghem and Dufay. I like all sorts. There’s this really fantastic, fantastic, singer called Sam Amidon who came to London recently and I missed it but he’s fantastic, he’s really interesting, what he does. He’s got a superb voice, this really sort of humble sound in a way but really interesting music. Really good.
(To Jess) You have a very strong visual sense. The videos for all the songs are great, you’re always posting photos, and you always have really cool outfits on stage. In terms of the more visual arts, stylistically, who do you like?
JS: With all the visuals, obviously The Pink Floyd, when they first started out and they did all the live projections and oil wheels and light shows, that’s all inspired me into doing that for our band, for our live sound. And then with the styles, obviously I love 60s and 70s music, so I’m gonna like the dress sense as well. Some great dressers I believe would be Nico with her trouser suits. I love Nico’s trouser suits. And Edie Sedgwick. Even though I’m against the whole Edie Sedgwick thing, I don’t like what it all stood for, cause it was all just a show and an image and shallow, but she did have some good dresses. You can’t take that away from her (laughs) I just love big sleeves. There’s something about big sleeves that I really like. Because when you’re playing the piano, you want something to look at, because you’re static onstage and my big sleeves create an image and something to look at when I’m playing. So having big sleeves helps me out.
I just like bold colours and bold statements. Lots of mini-dresses, A-line dresses and big sleeves. White tights, maybe some white heels, white boots…and trouser suits. I’ve got the really girly look and then the really masculine look. But both are just as equally a fit, really (laughs)
I’ve always said that there’s something about a really great pop song that’s akin to the feeling you have after you’ve first kissed someone you’ve fancied for quite a while. What do you think is inherent in all great pop music? Or of great music in general.
JS: I think honesty. Because people always relate to you being honest. If the person listening to the song believes the person singing the song then you’ve already immediately got that connection with the song. If you don’t have that then you’re wasting your time. Which is what I mean when I was saying before that I’m not trying to be somebody else, you have to sing what you believe in and what you feel, because if you don’t, you can’t connect to it as much as you would want to, which means the people listening to it can’t connect to it as much. So I believe that when you’re writing a song, you have to be honest, completely honest. That’s the main thing for me.
And my standard last question – Say you’ve stolen a space shuttle and are flying it directly into the sun, for whatever reason you might have, what would the soundtrack be?
JS: It would have to be something to do with Ennio Morricone. Wouldn’t it? (laughs) Ennio Morricone, definitely.
Anything specific by him?
JS: (Laughs, starts singing) I don’t know the song titles. Just the whole vibe. I’d just put Ennio Morricone’s back catalogue on. Play that from start to finish.
How about you (to Andrew)?
AS: Yeah, probably something, if I was flying a space shuttle into the sun I would probably want something quite epic.
JS: Yeah (laughs). Or just put something really laidback and chilled.
AS: Like a bit of Ella Fitzgerald. (we all laugh) Well, I’d be torn between wanting something that reflected the moment, like Ennio Morricone or Michel Legrand, maybe a snippet from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (laughs), slightly camp but hey, or just something that I just love listening to, cause if you’re flying a space shuttle into the sun you’re probably not going to last –
JS: You’re going to die.
AS: You’re going to die. It’d be like my last meal on death row.
JS: Yeah. Maybe Somewhere Over The Rainbow. (sings) I think that’d be good.