By Carl Begai
Back in July, vocalist Amanda Somerville spilled the beans on her first official metal solo project, Trillium (interview available here). With the release of the debut album, Alloy, only weeks away she shot a video for the song ‘Coward’, and we got together the following morning over tea to delve a little deeper into the new album.
It’s safe to say Somerville efforts will surprise a lot of fans – in a good way – and earn her some new ones along the way as Trillium plays out. And while it’s a no-nonsense metal album, anyone that’s followed Somerville’s decade-long non-metal career will wonder if some of the songs were consciously tweaked from a singer / songwriter / acoustic state to the tough-as-nails tracks we’re hearing now. Take away the distortion and the tracks in question would easily fit on her 2009 solo album, Windows.
“It was very conscious, actually,” Somerville reveals. “Songs like ‘Path Of Least Resistance’, ‘Purge’ and ‘Mistaken’ were pretty dark, and I’d planned to put them on my next solo album, which was going to be darker and heavier than anything I’d done before anyway. I had all this material that was building up, and since I’m a piano player and not a guitar player, it was clear to me I’d have to work with someone who played guitar as their main instrument like Sascha (Paeth / producer) or Sander (Gommans / HDK) so they could metal it up. That was the idea from the start, and the way things progressed led to those songs being on this album.”
“The songs that I wrote with Sander – and he’s a prolific songwriter, cranking them out like crazy – we already them had in mind for this project. Sander was totally into it, and every time he sits down with his guitar a song comes out of it. The way we typically work, he writes the instrumental parts and then I come in and suggest whatever changes I think should be made. Then I take the song and write a vocal line and lyrics to it. Sander likes a good challenge as well, though, and when he heard the piano / vocal demo I had for ‘Machine Gun’ he asked if he could work on it. He came up with the big main riff, which really supplements the running theme through the whole song.”
Somerville officially stepped out from behind the background vocalist curtain with the HDK debut in 2008, System Overload, a full-on metal experiment with Gommans. With that in mind, were there any left over ideas that were transformed into Trillium songs since Gommans was also involved in the songwriting for Alloy?
“No, because the stuff that Sander does for HDK is so extreme that… I don’t know if it would have worked. There were no leftovers anyway, and the things that he’s written since then, they wouldn’t have fit. I definitely have a vision of where I want my metal stuff to go.”
Folks that are expecting Somerville to follow a similar path to the work she’s done for Epica and Avantasia on Alloy are in for a shock. Some tracks are attitude-laden cousins to melodic rock, others are heavy-edged and bordering-on-Black Sabbath dark. The album is almost completely devoid of orchestral arrangements and features no neo-classical bombast whatsoever, carried through numerous twists and turns instead by the vocals and some almighty riffs. Bottom line: Alloy is loaded with plenty WTF moments.
“Which is a good thing (laughs). Nothing about what I do is contrived; it all comes out the way that it comes out, and sometimes it needs to be a little more conformed, I guess. Literally, as cheesy as it sounds, the music pours out of me the way that I feel it. I don’t like following formulas. My songs have a typical song structure – verse / pre-chorus / chorus – and that’s just in me, but in terms of trying to fit a certain formula, that’s not a conscious thing for me. It’s not something I want to do, either. That’s why there are no Latin choirs on the album (laughs).”
“I’ve actually gotten comparisons to Epica and After Forever. In fact, one guy made the After Forever comparison before he knew that Sander was one of the songwriters on Alloy. That kind of surprised me, but Sander does have a signature sound, but I don’t hear the similarities.”
Working with Sascha Paeth on Alloy was a no-brainer for Somerville thanks to a strong working relationship that’s now over a decade old. An ideal situation on one hand, but there’s always a danger of a producer’s signature sound turning what was meant to be something diverse into music easily compared to unrelated previous productions.
“Maybe that’s the case,” Somerville agrees, “but Sascha is one of those people that constantly has awesome ideas. So much of what I’ve learned about working behind-the-scenes and in the studio, he’s been my mentor. He’s taught me so many things about music theory, sound engineering… I can thank him for everything I know about working the studio, and he’s a great teacher because he’s patient and I’m not (laughs). Sascha always has these fresh ideas, and I don’t know where they come from. He’s a well of ideas; definitely one of those bottomless glasses. Working with Sascha has also cemented my belief that it’s good to be diverse, that it’s good to have various musical backgrounds and to be into different types of music. That’s why he doesn’t always do the same thing.”
Having heard some of the early Alloy demos thanks to Somerville, it’s a relief to hear that the final product has retained the dark atmosphere and aggression of the original compositions. Just as working with the same producer can smooth out too many necessary rough edges, tweaking and reworking songs so that they fit the “final album” standard can result in bleeding the music dry of intensity. Asked if she ever hit that point on Alloy, Somerville admits it did happen.
“Definitely, and there have been several instances where we’ve had to dial it back. Sascha’s awesome, and what I love about working with him is that for the most part we have the same taste in music. He also doesn’t like this over-the-top bombastic orchestral stuff. He and Miro (keyboardist / producer) even though they’re close colleagues and best friends, they’re at war with each other most of the time, which is hilarious. Sascha will get a bazillion keyboard tracks for a song from Miro that he has to mix and be like ‘Dude, why do you always do this to me?’ Sascha can play any instrument, and he does a lot of the keys on Alloy, but he’s always saying ‘Those fucking keyboards, and I always get this shit back from Miro..!’ (laughs).”
“When I told him that I wanted Miro to do the keyboards on the album there was dead silence on the other end of the phone. Sascha loves Miro, but I’ll get the key and orchestra tracks back from Miro and he’s done something exactly the way Sascha didn’t want it (laughs). It’s like, ‘Come on! Stop using my time for a pissing match!’ (laughs). I love those guys, but there are times when I have to say “Well, I actually like the way things sounded on the demo better.’”
Somerville offers her reaction to hearing the final version of the album…
“I was totally stoked. It’s funny because Sascha sent me the basic final produced version of Alloy, and he was saying ‘You’re not going to believe it. Just listen… you’ll know what I mean in the first ten seconds…’ I turned on ‘Coward’ and there’s this harpsichord line. And I was like.. ‘Wow’. Sascha said ‘I can’t believe I did it! After years of Rhapsody, I’m damaged because of the damn harpsichord, but somehow it fit…’ (laughs).”
Alloy is a career high for Somerville, particularly since it was crafted in the aftermath of huge personal upheaval. There were plenty of positives that came with the making of the album – not the least of which was venting pent up rage in song – but she considers having Avantasia bandmate / Masterplan vocalist Jorn Lande come in to sing on ‘Scream It’ with her Alloy’s crowning glory.
“When I wrote the song with Sander, I totally had Jorn’s voice in mind. Totally. I kept thinking, ‘Oh my God, he would be so perfect for it.’ I was afraid of asking him because I didn’t want him to say no (laughs). I fell in love with him when we first went on tour with Avantasia in 2008. He’s a beautiful person, he’s hilarious, we get along so well, and he’s got The Voice; honey with a little whiskey (laughs). It’s just awesome. I can’t find the words. So, I finally asked Jorn, telling him that I knew it was a far-fetched idea, but would he sing a duet with me? He wrote back, ‘Of course,’ like it was the most natural thing in the world. I was blown away he said yes, and he did an awesome job. It was exactly what I wanted.”
“The thing is, Sascha has worked with Jorn for years, and he told me that the song was going to come back completely different to what I’d laid out. I didn’t know this, but Jorn usually takes vocal lines that are given to him and throws them out, then does whatever he wants. That was fine with me, because what he does on his own stuff and with Masterplan is fantastic. He kind of stuck to the basic idea for ‘Scream It’, but in the meat of it he was just all over the place (laughs). I think what he came back with was so damn cool.”
Check out Somerville’s behind-the-scenes look at the making of Alloy here.