Chrissy Mostyn and Rick Pilkington, the multi-instrumentalist duo from Manchester, who perform as The Blackheart Orchestra, are a revelation for those into enigmatic progressive pop. For the most part of 2017 they toured promoting their debut album Diving For Roses and have since then reveled under the attention of curious onlookers. If you ask Chrissy and Rick who they get compared with the most, they might roll their eyes and say something like Kate Bush, Pink Floyd, Florence + the Machine or the Cocteau Twins. These are all really nice comparisons. And sure there are some similarities, but for the most part everything else almost seems boring in comparison after listening to their weave of ‘80s pop and classical music. Interestingly, I soon discovered after delving into their album that Chrissy and Rick are not afraid to experiment, in fact when it comes to the creative process there are no rules. That said, I recently caught up with the duo to talk about their cinematic yet intimate album, their grasp on the array of instruments they play and what they ultimately hope to get out of music.
Tell me something surprising about the recording process of your debut full-length album Diving For Roses?
There are quite a few probably ‘hidden’ surprises on the album…
We decided to use Chrissy’s heart beat as the kick drum on Breathe.
The string parts are played by Rick on a guitar tuned down to D and played with a child’s violin bow.
We were mixing Now That We Are Ghosts and right at the end there was a beautiful single note that appeared. We didn’t play it or sing it and have no idea where it came from but we thought we’d better keep it in!
The artwork for your album is stunning. Is there a great story behind it? What does the title Diving For Rose refer to?
Thank you. We were really pleased with how the album looks. Like all our album covers, logo, posters and everything we do visually we conceived and designed it ourselves. We then worked with an amazing photographer from Brighton called Sam Eddison to make it happen.
Rick actually came up with the title for the album after making me read out all of the lyrics of the album tracks. The idea was sparked by a lyric from Right By Your Side …“We’ll take a breath and we’ll dive in never to be seen again”. As soon as he said ‘diving for roses’ it gave me chills and instantly felt right. It seemed to capture the dream states, surreality and edge of reality that we venture into in our music. It’s almost like diving into your own soul and emerging with something beautiful and unexpected.
What acoustic guitars and keyboards do you use on stage and in the studio that helps bring that unique sound together?
We use pretty much the same instruments and effects on stage and in the studio…
- Gretsch G3203 Hawaiian Acoustic Guitar
- 1970s Fender Paisley Telecaster
- 1981 Suzuki Omnichord OM27
- Yamaha Keytar
- Yamaha Portasound 100 Synth
- Gibson 185 Blues King Acoustic Guitar
- Gretsch 300 Acoustic Guitar
- Ovation Custom Legend
- Fender Telecaster Custom
- 1966 Gibson 335 12 String
- Fender Precision Bass
- Boss ME-50 Multi Effects Board
- Boss VE-70
- Boss Chorus Ensemble
- Korg X5 Synthesiser
- Casio Mini Synth
- Alesis Percpad
- Hohner Melodica
- Beat-Root stomp box
- Paiste 2002 Cymbal
Have you ever had any gear disaster during a show or in practice?
Oh a few come to mind! We were playing at the Cambridge Rock Festival and during our soundcheck there was a power cut. The power was restored but what we didn’t realise was it must have really upset my omnichord which we needed to start the first song of the show. So we walk on stage and I begin Hypnotize on the omnichord and it has totally lost its tuning. Pretty scary! In the five seconds of panic Rick carried on extending the solo guitar intro while I rapidly put on my acoustic guitar and eventually we carried on playing the song in a way we’d never done before! We have no idea if the crowd had any notion of the overdose of adrenalin and sheer terror that was running through our veins, the response was amazing and in a way the little blip made us enjoy the show even more.
The other occasion was at The Union Chapel in London. I had started the intro to Breathe and as usual expected to hear Rick’s guitar swells coming in and thought…ok he’s leaving four bars later tonight. I glanced over to see him sweating furiously while frantically trying to check his guitar lead, pedal board etc. The sound guy rushed on stage to help but to no avail so once again the crowd got a very stripped back one off version of the track surprisingly no one seemed to notice but it was pretty scary!
Your grasp at so many instruments (six or more) is amazing. Have any ever intimidated you over the years? What do you love about what you can do with any instrument at any given time?
We see the instruments as colours and textures I guess so it is just like creating paintings. We find that each new instrument we add to our family expands us in exciting new ways and we love the challenge of getting to know a new instrument, we are very much ‘feel’ players rather than technical players so we just play what feels and sounds right, we don’t really have rules and that’s really freeing. We would hate to fence ourselves in.
What is the most important aspect of what you hope to get out of music?
Expression and connection. I feel like we can express through music that which we could never just say in words. Each song feels like it reveals more of our deeper selves. Often we only realise what songs are about once they are actually written, the process is almost like allowing the songs to come to us rather than writing them. I think also the important part for us is the connection they make with other people. We have lots of comments from our fans at the end of shows saying that they find our music really spiritual and almost primal, which I guess it is. Many people cry at our shows and come and tell us stories about what a song said to them or reminded them of. We see that as the ultimate compliment…our music does feel like it comes from elsewhere en route to somewhere else.
What are some of the influential albums you listened to growing up?
I think we have to answer this one individually…ok Chrissy first…
This is really difficult as there is just so much, it feels like every thing you listen to has an impact in one way or another. I must say when I discovered artists like Tori Amos, Alanis Morissette and Bjork, they seemed to speak to me much more than other bands. It felt like they weren’t afraid to be powerful and fragile at the same time and taught me that it isn’t just about singing prettily. They really put their whole emotions into their music whether it’s hurt or anger, it’s art. I also really enjoy lots of instrumental composers such as Ólafur Arnolds, Jon Hopkins, Ludovico Einaudi and Phamie Gow. Rick actually introduced me to Phillip Glass who I think is also incredible.
There’s just so many but I’m going to say Tales of a Librarian by Tori Amos and Nightbook by Ludovico Einaudi.
Cream / Disraeli Gears taught me to play electric guitar.
John Renbourn / So Clear taught me to play acoustic guitar.
JJ Cale / Troubadour taught me that fewer notes are often better than more.
Henryk Gorecki / Symphony No.3 taught me that three notes can make the human soul weep and that music has a power beyond our understanding.
Philip Glass / Koyaanisquatsi taught me that electronic music can be emotional.
KD Lang / Hymns Of The 49th Parallel taught me the greatness of great songs.
My collection of Bach/Handel/Telemann albums taught me to fall in love with harmony.
The Who / Live at Leeds taught me the glory of rock and roll.
Joni Mitchell / The Hissing of Summer Lawns taught me that every album has to be your masterpiece.
Everything else almost seems boring in comparison after listening to your weave of ‘80s pop and classical music. Was it always your intention to bring your eclectic feel to music in this way?
Thank you. It’s strange as when we started it was just two voices and one acoustic guitar but even then lots of people said we had a different sound. It has just been a very natural progression. I think we are always striving for new things, we were never going to be happy living within any genre, instrumental structure or musical format. Our ’no rules’ rule licenses us to just create whatever feels right with whatever instruments sound right. We always want to get to the gig early to try something new. We’re experimenters. We’re sound painters. I guess we are always looking forward and feel excited about what may come next. We’re really just bored children who want to eat the sweetshop.
Manchester is home, but I get the feeling you love being away from home too?
We are addicted to playing and performing and are very lucky that music has taken us all over the world – we love new places and new experiences. We are also lucky that we have a beautiful bus which has been our ‘road home’ now for six years so wherever we wake up, we always know where the kettle is.
Hypnotize is quite epic. It stands as my favourite track on your album. What can you tell me about it?
This song evolved again seemingly by itself. The intro came about by Rick playing around with huge long echoes harmonising to his own playing originally thinking of adding it as a solo to the song but I suggested adding it as an overture as it felt too important to just stick in the middle of the song. It’s this part that gives the feeling of hypnosis and the guitar feels like the hypnotist. I can’t even remember how many guitar parts are in the album version but it was a lot.
Which song(s) are you most proud of and why?
That’s a really tough question…it’s like choosing your favourite child! I think I would have to say Breathe. Live it is our longest song at around 10 minutes and feels like a real journey. Even though it is a few years old I still feel like we are very connected to it, and it is continuously developing as each night it almost takes on a life if its own. We try to make the final climax more massive each night and after the last cymbal crash there is always a few seconds of pure silence where the audience is thinking “…is it finished?” and we are thinking “…it’s finished!!!” The production was fun to create too with using our breaths and heart beat as the basic rhythm track, it kind of produced itself.
Another song I love is Invisible. Originally two songs which came together. Chrissy wrote the verses about the presence of someone who had passed away and I wrote the chorus about what God might say to us if he wrote a song to the human race. We hadn’t played it for several years and then were inspired by a famous 70s musician who did such an incredibly soulful version of it we thought, let’s re-invent it and now we love it again.
Both these songs have a deep spiritual element which seems to move us every time we play them. They are emotionally exhausting.
I love the stunning visuals to your music videos. Sebastian, in particular, is very clever. How did that story come about and evolve by the time it was shot?
The video for Sebastian was actually conceived by filmmaker Steve Glashier. The song is about a kind of dark obsessional love and the video really captures this. The soldier being Sebastian’s victim and the injuries symbolising the emotional scars endured in such a relationship… but it has a happy ending thankfully!
Finally, I understand you love working on new sounds and songs all the time. When can we expect to hear new music by Blackheart Orchestra?
We are hoping to release a new single this autumn followed by a new album next year.
Check out The Blackheart Orchestra’s debut album Diving For Roses on bandcamp and Spotify. You can also connect with The Blackheart Orchestra via their website. You can also follow The Blackheart Orchestra via their Facebook page and Twitter feed. Follow them on Instagram. Watch them on You Tube.
Photo credits: All photos used are copyright and courtesy of The Blackheart Orchestra. They cannot be used without their expressed permission. I am not the uploader of You Tube clips embedded here.