DATE OF INTERVIEW:
TREES OF ETERNITY
11th February 2017
Originally born as an acoustic project in 2009, a collaboration between singer/songwriter Aleah Starbridge and Swallow the Sun guitarist Juha Raivio, it was four years before the duo recruited further musicians to transform Trees of Eternity into a full band. So, enter the bros. Norman, Fredrik and Mattias, both ex-Katatonia; and Wintersun sticksman, Kai Hahto. Another three years on, and November 2016 saw the release of the debut album from this most intriguing of musical ensembles. It was worth the wait, as 'Hour of the Nightingale' houses a collection of timeless masterpieces - each majestic in conception, yet characterised by a mesmerising ethereal sublimity. Albums with this depth of emotional sincerity and beauty are few and far between. And with flawless, heartfelt performances from all involved; a superb production, mix and master from the ever-talented, always-reliable Jens Bogren; polysemic artwork from Fursy Teyssier; and guest vocals from Antimatter's Mick Moss and Paradise Lost's Nick Holmes, 'Hour of the Nightingale' is a mightily impressive debut release.
It's so utterly heartbreaking that Aleah passed away at just 39 years old, a few months before the album was out there in the world, whereupon it was lauded and revered by fans and critics alike. Juha, who was also her life partner and soul-mate, said at the time of the release that "this is the point where we can finally start this long journey and celebrate our Queen Aleah Starbridge whose words and music will live forever on." And, four months on, he kindly answered some questions for Metal Discovery about Aleah and Trees of Eternity, with words as sincere and heartfelt as the album itself...
METAL DISCOVERY: Congratulations on ‘Hour of the Nightingale’. I said in my review: “It reveals itself to be a work of profound sublimity - majestic in its conception; ethereal and emotionally moving in its execution.” Were you trying to strike a balance between the majestic and the ethereal in the songs?
JUHA: We wanted the album to sound big but, at the same time, very intimate; so in a way, yes. Aleah wasn't a fan of "operatic and orchestrated" metal music style at all and as she was more an "acoustic singer & songwriter" and mostly loved just simple acoustic guitar and a cello or violin approach. But I took her acoustic songs and we worked them together to a metal album, and we wanted to keep the ethereal, magical and earthy feel on it all the way, but still sounding as a metal band. Aleah’s voice is so unique that it could actually make any music style ethereal and soulful.
(Juha Raivio on Aleah Starbridge's artistry and vocal talent)
"Aleah’s voice is so unique that it could actually make any music style ethereal and soulful."
Aleah Starbridge and Juha Raivio
Interview by Mark Holmes
Photograph copyright © [unknown year] - uncredited
Thanks to Nathan T. Birk for offering and arranging the interview
Trees of Eternity Official Facebook:
MD: For me, the album is a real slow burner and grower. The music and its melancholy are just exquisite and songs lure you gradually into their charms, through both Aleah’s ethereal vocals and the mesmerising instrumentations. The album reveals more and more emotional depths with each new listen. As such, it has a genuinely timeless quality to it. Do you hope people generally regard the music as timeless?
JUHA: This album is truly an album of a life time for me and us, and the emotional depth and the painful but purifying truth that this album holds is really out of this world, literally. Aleah just could not write or release anything that was not 100% carved straight from her soul and I am so much the same when I write music. So, for us both, the first thing we wanted from our music is it to be timeless, but any music that is written straight from the heart, is timeless. Unfortunately, 90% of the music in the world is shallow and lacks any real depth, and there is nothing wrong with the shallow music as that is what 90% of the people want to listen on the background and makes them happy. But, for us remaining 10%, the depth and deep understanding of the music and the magic that lies within it is as important as the air we breathe. Yes, it hurts and cuts sometimes, and rips open the wounds, but mostly it will heal and will open the new gates deep within us. That’s the true meaning of the music for me, and for us. Timeless and meaningful. Music is holy.
MD: My utmost condolences on Aleah’s passing. I’m guessing you must have bittersweet sentiments about the release, although do you regard the album as a celebration, first and foremost; of Aleah’s music and creativity, and the wonderful gift she left for the world to enjoy?
JUHA: Yes, the most important thing was and is to bring out the music and the words of this magical songwriter that we all lost. It breaks my heart in pieces every day and every second that she is not here to write more music and bringing us this gift that only very few have. I truly believe that she would have been one of the most important songwriters and the voice in the future remembered among the names like Leonard Cohen and Nick Drake, and already she was in so many ways. But her spirit lives on in Trees of Eternity music and in her acoustic solo songs she wrote and the art she made. There will be more music and lyrics released from Aleah in the future as people need to know more about this amazing person and artist that already touched so many hearts with her art.
MD: I’m guessing with such a profoundly emotional and significant release in terms of what the music means to you, it will forever transcend any review or feedback from the listening public. But were you nervous in any way of how the music would be received once it was out there in the world?
JUHA: No, I was not afraid of any feedback and I never am as I and we knew that this is "The" album among the albums, as it was crafted straight from our hearts as a diamond. There is not a single note or a word there that would not speak the absolute truth. And, anyway, after you write honest music, there is nothing you should be afraid of about the feedback and critique as it has no ground to you when you know you wrote everything straight from the heart.
MD: I gather the album was three years in the making, so what are some of your happiest memories from the long creative process, in working on the songs with Aleah?
JUHA: Every time we were writing music together is a happiest memory of my life. Aleah could take months to write lyrics for one song, or come up with the right melody, as she didn't want to write anything that wouldn't feel absolutely right. It drove me crazy sometimes, but I also learned a lot from her about the honesty of crafting the music until it shone like a diamond at the night. We wrote a lot of music outside in the nature, as we lived deep in the woods with lots of animals, forests and lakes around. So there was lots of magic happening around writing the music and, for some reason, we could easily write together, even we both are very stubborn musicians with a very clear vision of what we want. To work with that kind of a person is a very difficult task, but it somehow worked totally naturally between us. No egos, no pushing the other down, just pure respect towards each other.
MD: You released a four track demo in 2013, ‘Black Ocean’, containing four tracks – ‘My Requiem’; ‘A Million Tears’; ‘Black Ocean’ and ‘Sinking Ships’ – in what ways did these songs evolve between Aleah and yourself recording them for this EP, and the final recordings with the full band on ‘Hour of the Nightingale’?
JUHA: Those songs did not change much at all. Jens Bogren, who produced the album, did minor changes somewhere along the way, but very little. Aleah was always about writing new music, so she didn't want to look back that much into the songs and especially go and change things. When we got our band mates, friends and these amazing musicians recording their parts for the album, the music really turned alive from the demo versions and the songs got even more depth into them.
MD: Now that ‘Hour of the Nightingale’ is out there and receiving glowing reviews and incredible feedback from fans, is it ever likely the ‘Black Ocean’ EP will be reissued at some point?
JUHA: I don't know about that. Those demo versions are not that different from the album that they would need an official release; but who knows, maybe some bonus material on a re-issue of the album or something someday, if people really want it. We did do about 30 minutes of new demo material for the second album and there was also something left from the ‘Hour of the Nightingale’ session. So I hope I could gather up those songs somehow and record maybe an EP out of them, even though they were just the starting point of writing the new songs, some songs even without any lyrics and just humming. But there is amazing songs there.
MD: You managed to secure such a strong lineup for the band, with Wintersun’s drummer, Kai Hahto, and the ex-Katatonia Norman brothers, Fredrik and Mattias, on guitar and bass. How did each of these musicians become involved with the band?
JUHA: All of these guys are our old dear friends and they loved the songs and Aleah's voice, so it was an easy line-up to put up together, even though it took quite long time before we really started to look for the right people to join the band. But you can also hear this respect and friendship on the album tracks by all the musicians; it’s all very natural.
MH: Did Kai, Fredrik or Mattias each contribute much to the creative process, in terms of the songwriting or helping to shape the sound and moods of each piece?
JUHA: All the music was ready before the boys joined the band, but they all brought so much of their own soul into the music with their playing. The first thing Aleah and me wanted from the people in the band that, first of all, they are good persons, and who can also play with big emotion. So this line-up was like a match made in heaven.
MD: Mick Moss from Antimatter and Paradise Lost's Nick Holmes both guest on the album, so how did each of these guys become involved?
JUHA: I got to know both guys by touring together with Paradise Lost and Antimatter, so I just basically asked if they would want to do guest vocals on the album. Aleah loved both bands a lot and, as she also wanted to have real British guest voices on the album, it all worked out the best. They both are great guys and did amazing performances; I'm forever grateful to them to do the guest vocals. Very proud moment to have them in there.
MD: You recruited the super talented Jens Bogren to produce, record, mix and master the album. Was he always your first choice for the sound and quality you hoped, and knew, he’d be able to bring to the songs?
JUHA: Yes, he was the one we wanted and he wanted to do the album with us, too. We live pretty near where Jens studio is located and we are old friends too, so it all came together naturally. He is just genius, that man, and a great person too.
MD: It states in press materials that Fursy Teyssier’s cover art has “so many hidden messages.” How do you hope the artwork will be interpreted, or do you want to leave that for each individual to apply their own interpretation?
JUHA: There are many hidden messages in that cover art that touched Aleah's life. But like the music, the art is also good to leave people to make up their own minds and truth about the meaning of it. Your own truth is always better than the explained one, as you live and look at them through your own life experiences. Fursy did very magical work on the cover art and we talked a lot about Aleah to make it perfect. I have huge respect for Fursy as an artist and musician too. He was also my and Aleah's first choice to do the cover; lucky we got him too, even he does not do that many covers anymore for bands.
MD: I’ve read that you might be considering the possibility of a tribute show for the memory of Aleah, to perform ‘Hour of the Nightingale’ in its entirety with another vocalist?
JUHA: Maybe one day, if my heart can pull it through to step on stage with that. If we ever do the tribute gig to celebrate Aleah's music and this album, we might be just using Aleah's voice from the backing track, but there are couple of great vocalists who might be able to do it with the right kind of soul and depth it needs. But I would break down on the stage during the first song, so it might not ever happen. But one thing is sure, there will never be another Trees of Eternity album with another singer, ever. But a tribute gig for her might happen one day, or not.
MD: You announced recently that you’ve been working on Aleah’s words and poems, and also her solo album. So, I guess we can expect more beautiful treasures that she left behind, from her creative being, to be released at a future date?
JUHA: I’ve been working on a very dark but beautiful project based on Aleah's lyrics and poems I found, and I am also working on her solo album for future release. There will be news very soon about these things. I made a promise that I will bring out as much music and words from Aleah to people and to her fans as I personally can. It is very hard in every way emotionally, but that is what I need to do. This shallow world needs these magical words and healing music of Aleah now, more than ever, and I try my best to carry her flame forward.
MD: Finally, how proud was Aleah of what you created together for Trees of Eternity, and what do you think she would have thought of such widespread critical praise for her art?
JUHA: She heard the album ready and was super proud of it, and we were ready to take the band to the world and bringing this music to the people. Like I said, she didn't look back, so she mostly had her eyes on the future Trees of Eternity music and albums already. We made this album and music as perfect as we humanly could because we were the worst and the best critics of our own work. We were just happy that this music was speaking the absolute truth and that was all we aimed for, and there is not a single pretended word or a note in there. That was the only goal on Aleah's mind. I’m sure she would have been so taken from all the personal letters, feedback and the critical praises, too, from the people and the fans. This album really has been speaking to people as the music spoke to us when we wrote it. Aleah's music and words might be the darkest, but also most beautiful spells of truth of the soul I have ever heard, but the true magic she had was the amazing healing power on her words and voice she crafted through her own darkness. People are just starting to find it out more and more and that is what she wanted from her music; that people would find their inner light by facing your own darkness without fear. That light shines deeply through this album if you let your soul open for it. She would have been so happy to hear how many people have found that path already. That would have been the absolute best critique of this album for her, definitely.