DATE OF INTERVIEW: 9th June 2019
The brainchild of Leah Marcu, Israeli band Tillian recently released their debut full-length offering, ‘Lotus Graveyard’. An album that’s as nourishing for the mind as it is for the soul, songs are awash with refreshing creativity and sublimely reified affections that provide an emotionally engaging journey through the essence of its positive transformative narratives. And it’s a beauteously profound work that seemingly continues to transform, revealing ever more depths and nuances upon each new listen, and ultimately transcending any sense of genre (despite a generally prog metal core). Metal Discovery posed a series of questions to Leah, to learn more about Tillian and their rather magnificent debut…
METAL DISCOVERY: Hi there! Firstly, huge congratulations on a stunning debut album. All very top notch stuff in terms of performances, songwriting, production, etc. Did you have initial expectations on how you hoped the album would turn out, and did it exceed those expectations in any way?
LEAH: Hi Mark, and thank you for taking the time to go so in-depth with our album. I would say that the album theme of transformation was also very present during its making. In the beginning I was alone and had no expectations. I was writing songs on and off since I was a teenager, sometimes performing in small bands. The decision to make an album brewed beneath the surface for some time, until I met Ciro (producer) and then the decision was made. We started working and the experience was magical. More musicians came on board and so my expectations started to grow in the process. The bottom line is that the outcome of both the album and the band definitely exceeded my expectations. Really, sitting alone in a room with my guitar, how could I have imagined such a thing? Even though there are definitely things I’ll do differently the next time around, it was all one big adventure for me and a most amazing one.
(Leah Marcu on the introspective inspiration for her creativity)
"Some writers hear the calling of a muse, maybe an angel from the sky, putting the words on their lips or fingers. For me the calling has always been from a down below place. A dark inner landscape where I have to dive, digging through the murky bottom to see if I can find any pearls."
Interview by Mark Holmes
Photograph copyright © 2017 Enav Kedar
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MD: I gather Tillian started life as a solo project in 2014, but transformed into a full-on band in 2017. What prompted you to make this transition? Was there a realization that the vision for your music was more ambitious in scope and required a band to bring your songs to life in the ways you envisaged?
LEAH: When the pre-production of the album was completed and we started recording, that’s when the musical vision started to take form. That made it possible for me to raise my head from the studio computer and start to think about the next steps. It was somehow clear there just had to be a band. The rough mix sounded so powerful and layered and I wanted the big challenge of doing something like that live. Also, I kind of missed being in a band and having a clan to rock with on stage.
MD: With your music evidently so personal to you, was it difficult to find the right musicians to form a band, who you trusted and respected to perform your music alongside you?
LEAH: Generally speaking, together works better for humans than alone. Really, science confirms it! In reality, it’s just not that easy to share, to let go of control and more than anything - to trust. This was very much part of my personal process in this journey. Of course luck always plays a part in meeting the right people, I guess the universe threw some at me and I met awesome musicians who were really into the material and the artistic vision, some old friends and some new.
MD: There’s some amazing cello on the album, and the more instrumentally minimalist pieces like ‘The Beggar’ and ‘Earth Walker’, where Alexandra’s cello accompanies your voice, are utterly sublime, like some sort of perfect emotional synthesis. Have the two of you grown up performing music together? I presume she’s your sister?
LEAH: Yes of course, Alex is my sister and she’s a rockstar. We come from a musical home but this project was actually our first collaboration. Mind you, there’s an age difference of 11 years between us. Alex joined the production when she was only 17 years old, gifting it with some beautiful haunting cello lines. Since it was early on in the production the cello comprises a part of the musical core of this album, holding counterpoint melodies to the vocals and the guitars. We got to rediscover our relationship through making music together, the synergy you noticed probably stems from that.
MD: I particularly like the way the album shifts between various styles and moods in the most seamless and natural of ways. Is genre secondary to the actual songwriting for you, and you’ve simply used different genre elements to colour, enhance and convey certain emotions inherent within the compositions?
LEAH: Yes, we are getting a lot of different feedback about genre fluidity from fans and reviewers.. I think you nailed it exactly: Genre and influences are interesting to talk about but are secondary to the songwriting. The biggest challenge during the production was probably to remain true to the songs’ original meaning, emotion and dynamic while infusing them with different flavours from the various influences (that are always subconsciously there) - in a way that serves the song.
In the band we share a love for modern prog bands - Opeth, Pain of salvation, Karnivool, Soen, stuff like that. Personally, I grew up on 70s prog rock and delved into prog metal in my early 20s. A major influence was also singer-songwriters such as Kate Bush, Tori Amos, Jeff Buckley or Bjork. When you seriously listen to artists like these, you can discover such rich and intricate productions, often more minimalist and much more exposed than the walls of sound we sometimes get in metal. Mostly, I would approach the compositions from its bare roots, just a vocal line with guitar or piano. If a song works well when it’s bare and small then all you have to do is not to ruin it as you’re letting it grow bigger and richer in sound and genre influences. I guess that’s also my take on progressive rock music - to tell a meaningful story while always reaching out from rock to other genres like metal, classical or ethnic.
MD: There are some very nice transitions throughout the album, from traditionally Western scales to more exotic sounding Eastern scales (to my ears, I can hear use of the Phrygian and Persian modes). Is the use of West/East musical contrasts and transitions supposed to reflect the transformative narrative themes within the context of differences between Western and Eastern cultures, philosophy and psychology?
LEAH: That’s a really interesting theory! Indeed, different cultures vary greatly in their understanding of death, rebirth, realization, becoming. I’ll let you in on a little secret, I don’t really know a lot of scales by their names, these things are not pre-planned or guided by some rational philosophy. Although the ideas are fascinating and I love to read or talk about them, there has to be an element of intuition, what “just feels right” in the song, For example, in ‘Monster’ there’s a contrast between lyrics that say, “I will never be fearless like that again, use both of my lungs and all my skin, conjure up spells to pull you in” and the wild Spanish guitar thing with castanets in the background. This contrast was made to highlight the freeing aspect of grief, especially when you lose something that was very precious but also consumed and drained you. Does that also have a cultural context to it? I heard once that a real Spanish guitar can make you laugh about the tragic things in life and weep in the face of its beauty. So maybe!
MD: What’s the meaning behind the album’s title? “Lotus” can symbolise purity in certain cultures, both in a cognitive and somatic sense, so are you suggesting that purity is too idealistic a notion and a state of being that’s difficult to attain and perpetuate in our contemporary world? Or maybe “lotus graveyard” is an overarching key metaphor for your transformation theme, of the world’s two greatest enigmas, yet both universal certainties - from birth to death? And rebirth, of course.
LEAH: The lotus flower is pure and beautiful, yet it grows in murky swamps, its roots deep in muddy ponds. In Buddhism that is a symbol of the enlightenment we can all achieve within ourselves through transformation. The graveyard symbolises death, but also the pain and memory of what we lost. It is a main metaphor weaved through the album together with the more western metaphor of alchemy, turning lead into gold.
MD: Obviously, everyone digests and interprets art in all kinds of different ways… a potentially infinite number of interpretations (the wonderful power of polysemy!). But, if listeners take away one overriding message and feeling after engaging with ‘Lotus Graveyard’, what do you hope that would be?
LEAH: That we all carry the burden of a personal and collective graveyard but we all can work through it, understand and discover the beautiful lotus that grows from each grave.
MD: What’s your background, music-wise? Your vocal range is rather incredible, it must be said, in terms of tonality, pitch and style, so is that pure, natural talent, or have you had some sort of voice training in the past?
LEAH: Thank you very much! I have done some years of vocal training alongside different instruments, none really stuck except the vocals. It’s very important to know how to use your instrument in a healthy way, especially if it’s attached to your body 24/7. I worked hard on my vocal performance, as natural talent takes you only so far. Also, my vocal range is not abnormally wide or anything, I think it’s more the way I approach vocal compositions and use the voice as a melodic instrument in the song. Vocal training made my instrument more strong and flexible so my body didn’t limit my imagination too much.
MD: I described your vocals, in my review, as “100% emotionally sincere and passionate, through conventionally sung parts and all kinds of eccentric singing delights and odd, yet delightfully deranged vocal intrusions.” Would you say that this is reflective of your personality - an emotionally sincere and passionate person, and delightfully eccentric, too?
LEAH: Could be! Let's meet up next time we play live in the UK and you can judge for yourself :)
MD: It states in press blurb that you “explored a cycle of inner progressions: Love to pain, pain to beauty, beauty to spirit and spirit to love.” Was this merely within the narrative of the songs, or did you experience any such progressions and transformations in a more introspective way? If so, was the creative process a cathartic one at all?
LEAH: Most of the songs have meanings connected to my personal life experiences and the way I understand them. Some writers hear the calling of a muse, maybe an angel from the sky, putting the words on their lips or fingers. For me the calling has always been from a down below place. A dark inner landscape where I have to dive, digging through the murky bottom to see if I can find any pearls. I think it was a healing process in a way; some of my most painful experiences turned into songs that other people can enjoy. Transformation. Lately I’ve been looking for more places to write from; I’m really excited to write new songs together with the band.
MD: I said in my review that the album reveals hidden depths with each new listen. Even the tracks that seem to be minimalist on the surface have nuances and depths in terms of the emotions they convey, that only seem to reveal themselves through each new listening experience. Are you now too ‘close’ to the music yourself, or does it still have the power to surprise you with the emotional depths it holds within?
LEAH: Wow, I am so “too close” to it that I’m almost too far away. Listening to so many mixes I started hearing stuff that’s not even there. Still, when we got the physical CDs a month ago, I put one in my car and couldn’t believe that’s me, that’s the music we made. So right now it is more yours than mine. The album definitely has many layers to it, I’m very curious how it will sound to me in 2, 5, 10 years.
MD: Does the music provide you with any kind of catharsis when performing the songs live? Do you experience any kind of inner progressions and transformations during a Tillian live show?
LEAH: On stage something different happens. I’m less within myself and more with the band and the audience. I feel it’s my responsibility to stay connected to them, to perform the songs in a way that can convey their meaning and touch someone else. It’s a much more extroverted place, and it’s so important to have fun on stage with your bandmates, there’s a lot of magic in those moments on stage. One time, during a loud intense part, Alex hit the cello too hard and ripped all the hair off her bow. The crowd started noticing and pointing but she was so into it that she just kept hitting the cello with the bare stick for the whole part, laser focused. The look of surprise on her face when she realized what had happened was priceless. There’s a video of that, it’s quite hilarious.
MD: I gather your live shows provide a theatrical experience, which I guess matches the narrative-centric essence of the songs. In what ways do you incorporate theatrical elements into a Tillian live show? And do you have ambitions to make the live show more and more theatrical, if and when the budget allows?
LEAH: While it’s true there’s some theatricality in our music, we actually try not to overdo it live. I think the purpose of a musician on stage is to create intimacy, form an emotional connection and bridge the gap between performer and listener. That’s no small feat, especially when there’s only one of you on the projecting end and hundreds on the receiving end. We try to do this by being true and honest in the way we use our colours and our greys. We also try to create a sense of community for the people who come to the shows, usually by catering to more senses than sound and sight. For example, for one show we had a custom beer brewed especially for the occasion and distributed free of charge for our fans! On another, we had a boutique Hummus stand. On our release show our staff handed out cotton candy on a stick. How would this transfer to shows of much larger scale? I don’t know yet - but we’re up for the challenge.
MD: I guess there’s a fine line between the theatrical and the histrionic. Musically, your songs have a refined theatricality so are definitely rooted in the former, but are you always careful not to overstep the line into more melodramatic territory?
LEAH: That’s a very thin line indeed, and a subjective one to complicate the matter. I am reminded of a Leonard Cohen quote from ‘how to speak poetry’: “Never act out words. Never try to leave the floor when you talk about flying. Never close your eyes and jerk your head to one side when you talk about death. Do not fix your burning eyes on me when you speak about love”. It’s hard to tell the truth about things we can’t touch or see. Ideally, the theatrics are there to better express it. Like with the production of the songs, the challenge is to make it augment, rather than cover up the meaning and the message.
MD: Do you have plans to take your live show beyond Israel at any point soon? Have you got a booking agent, to help you jump onto a tour as support act, perhaps? Any interest yet, from overseas promoters, in booking Tillian?
LEAH: There are definitely plans! We don’t have anything concrete that we can reveal, but we’re looking into opportunities to get our amazing show on international stages.
MD: Who would be your dream artists and bands to tour with?
LEAH: Wow.. Universe, are you listening?: Daniel Gildenlow, Bjork, Ayreon, Dreadnaught, Leprous, Bent Knee.
MD: Finally, in the spirit of the transformative theme of the album, and turning lead into gold, I’ve anagrammatically transformed “Tillian Lotus Graveyard” into “Gilts a live tour lanyard”. Some kind of hidden prophecy there, do you think? You’ll be touring soon with gold lanyards?!
LEAH: Definitely a better angram prophecy than us changing careers to “Ultra loyal advertising”!
MD: Thanks for the interview, best of luck with the album now that it’s out there in the world, and hope to see you over here, on UK shores, at some point in the future!
LEAH: Thank you and looking forward to that as well!
Review of 'Lotus Graveyard':