From yoga to music: introducing Heather Findlay and Dave Kerzner's Mantra Vega

Mantra Vega's Heather Findlay and Dave Kerzner throwing yoga poses on a red sofa
(Image: © Will Ireland)

S he’s the ethereal folk rock voice from York, who so many fell in love with through Mostly Autumn – not to mention appearances with the likes of Jethro Tull, John Wetton and Uriah Heep. He’s the Miami-based producer and sound guy to the stars (from Jon Anderson and ELP to Steven Wilson), who found his creative feet in crossover proggers Sound Of Contact; plus, more recently, his solo project The Dave Kerzner Band. Together they’ve masterminded one of the UK’s more intriguing rock collectives, Mantra Vega.

It’s quite the team effort, making a colourful credit list for their debut album The Illusion’s Reckoning; a dreamy, spiritualised amalgamation of Fleetwood Mac folkiness, contemporary prog and classic rock. Besides Findlay and Kerzner, the band features an impressive cast: Dave Kilminster on guitars (Roger Waters, Steven Wilson) and a cast of Mostly Autumn and Heather Findlay Band-ites including Chris Johnson, Angela Gordon, Stu Fletcher and Alex Cromarty. Not that we’re forgetting Troy Donockley on guitars – who was down to produce/spearhead the record, before his Uilleann pipe duties with symphonic metallers Nightwish took over.

“I think I’d overlooked how mental Troy’s schedule with Nightwish was going to be,” Heather concedes, in Prog’s three-way chat with her and Dave Kerzner over Skype. “We got a little way into that, but I’d been putting songs together for a couple of years and we’d sort of been going through picking and choosing them.”

It didn’t take long for Kerzner to step in. He initially approached Heather to sing on a tribute project he was producing, after discovering her via Mostly Autumn. The musical chemistry was there. She told him she was part-way through a solo album and looking for a producer. They wrote their first song, Island, via Skype sessions, followed by Mountain Spring. The roots of collaboration were planted.

“I really liked her voice,” he says. “It reminded me a bit of Kate Bush and Stevie Nicks and certain sounds that
I like to write with, but don’t often get the chance to.”

Accordingly, a series of Skype sessions and transatlantic studio-hopping began.

Not an easy feat for an independent band. But aided by executive producer Howard Rankin, they managed to combine both their studios – the best of Miami and York, with Alex Cromarty and Stu Fletcher flying over to the former to lay down drums and bass, while Heather stayed behind largely due to “costs and children” (Heather is a mum of two).

“We had to get the rhythm section down in a great studio and Dave owns one,” Heather adds, “so it made sense to get Al and Stu over there.”

“We Skyped with Heather so she was very much there virtually,” says Kerzner. “But a lot of it was really just in the moment, recording live, creating our base. From there I flew to York. So there was a lot of experimenting, but we managed to make it work.”

Indeed, the dynamic between Findlay and Kerzner was quite unhindered by the ‘bittiness’ of their schedule. Back in York the two continued to be firm friends, as well as music partners.

“We had to get a stop-clock in the studio if either of us wanted to talk about something, because we could just really talk far too much!” she chuckles. “Creatively, I listened to the Sound Of Contact album, and it was the first time in a long long time that I’d had to put an album on again straight away after hearing it. And it just took a few chats to realise we were both big Fleetwood Mac fans, Led Zeppelin fans… The common ground was clear.”

I really liked Heather’s voice. It reminded me a bit of Kate Bush and Stevie Nicks.

Mantra Vega aren’t exactly the first to join forces like this. With Lonely Robot, The Mute Gods, Halo Blind and Headspace all taking off in recent months, prog ‘supergroups’ are not a new thing. So what makes Mantra Vega different? Quite a lot, it turns out, with an immediate individual veneer stemming from Heather herself –
a female lead in a genre that, with the rise of Lonely Robot and co, sometimes feels like a bit of a sausage-fest.
“There’s a tendency with other prog bands to have male-orientated line-ups with guest vocals from female singers,” Findlay nods. “That seems quite a popular thing to do. Certainly with Lonely Robot, Kim Seviour [ex Touchstone] and I guested on that, but it’s really all about John, isn’t it?”

“To me, while Lonely Robot is mainly about John [Mitchell], this is mainly about Heather as a front person,” Kerzner says. “She’s been involved with so many other musicians. People really love Heather and her voice, and also the way that she collaborated with Bryan Josh on Mostly Autumn. I guess I’m not quite filling a role like Bryan’s, but really giving Heather the room to express herself through her lyrics. It was like ‘you be the voice and I’ll support it with my style of eclectic prog stuff.’”

An extra characteristic streak, they suggest, comes from metaphysical, spiritual qualities – in the songs and even the band’s name.

“That’s something a bit different, blending the eastern vibe in,” Heather nods. “There are definitely zen elements, and I had the idea for a name involving ‘Mantra’ for the Eastern element it brings.” She breaks off and laughs: “I think I said ‘how about Mantra Vega?’ to Dave.”

“Mantra was Heather’s thing,” Dave grins, “she’s into meditation, and she got me into meditation actually. And ‘Vega’, I’m into science fiction, the movie Contact [1997 adaptation of the Carl Sagan novel] was an inspiration. But this idea of combining a sort of earthly human spirituality with the universe… The name just kind of fit, and it fits the music.”

Indeed, this slightly bohemian quality resonates with Heather Findlay as a person, as well as in The Illusion’s Reckoning itself. She’s no stranger to the spiritual side of life. Away from music, she studied reiki for three years – a natural healing technique, based on the principle of a therapist channelling energy into the patient through touch – and has since pursued yogic practises more seriously.

“I’ve always been a bit hippified and into yoga and anything slightly out-of-the-box,” she tells us. “After studying reiki I met Yogiraj Gurunath Siddhanath and he taught various ancient yogic techniques that just seemed to click with me. It shook me on some levels, I suppose, and helped me get in touch with a ‘realer’ me.”

Last year she delved further into it by going on a retreat in India; staying in the Siddhanath Forest ashram, in Pune Maharashtra in “a fairly basic, rustic” jungle environment. Days were spent practicing Surya Yoga outdoors, absorbing teachings and chanting bhajans (devotional folk songs) at campfire satsangs under the stars. Her children ran through mango groves and drank fresh coconut water “with kids from all over the world”.

“On Maha Shivaratri, The Great Night of Shiva, there are more formal ceremonies and celebrations with fireworks, and lots of colour and singing,” she remembers. “I loved how the whole land is so richly imbued with spirituality and how where in the west, we would perhaps see Sony in huge neon lights in the cities, in India it’s not uncommon to see a great Om symbol beaming out into the night.”

Back at home, yoga and meditation still form a big part of Heather’s life, feeding naturally into her songs – as seen through the Mantra Vega likes of Learning To Be Light. “My daily life has evolved to become more about pausing and remembering that I am just a teeny tiny part of what makes this world whole,” she says. “It was naturally something that I just began to write about. I often feel that songs just come through, and I don’t argue.”

Not that The Illusion’s Reckoning is about her journey “from darkness to light”, as some early reviews have suggested…

It shook me on some levels, I suppose, and helped me get in touch with a ‘realer’ me.

“I’m by no means an enlightened being!” she laughs. “But certainly there are various stages of enlightenment and you can experiment with different paths and become lighter as a human. That concept does come through in the record.”

For Dave, it was Sound Of Contact that first led him to places he never imagined himself – being a lead singer in his forties, after years behind programming desks. It snowballed into The Dave Kerzner Band and now Mantra Vega, both of which are playing Progdreams festival in Holland. The former, however is his live priority.

“I’d always been content with working in the background, ’cos I’m fascinated with production,” he says. “I tried for years to have different bands and it’s so much work that for a while I got disheartened with it. In the 90s I was like, ‘OK Sonic Reality, I can rely on that.’ But after a while it was eating at me; ‘I’m making all these tools for other people to make music, I need to make sure I spend enough time being creative myself.’”

The current abundance of projects does make touring with Mantra Vega difficult. He and Findlay went into the project focused on making a record, he says, and with he and Dave Kilminster occupied with separate tours it looks unlikely that gigs will feature Kerzner as more than a guest.

“Most of Mantra Vega was her band anyway, so she’s gonna tour as the Heather Findlay band, but playing The Illusion’s Reckoning. It’s her lyrics and lead vocals anyway,” he explains. “So we’re a studio project, with the possibility that if we’re in the same place at the same time, we could play.”

Not that he regrets spreading himself this widely. “I’m a bit of a workaholic,” he concedes. “I probably ‘overeat’ in terms of music. But I’m making up for years of being in the corporate world, and it feels good.”

Still, it’s difficult to picture him at home in sunny Miami – production nerd, rare instrument hoarder and all-round studio animal that he is. It’s almost a relief to learn he does take breaks on the beach, and actually likes the sea so much he’s been nicknamed ‘Squids’.

“I’m a sea creature at heart,” Squids explains. “I love fishing, swimming, snorkelling… it is amazing here. So yeah, I get outside.”

He does have a soft spot for the UK though, and all its pubs, fish n’ chips, and music joints; York especially, after spending time there with Heather and the Mantra Vega team.

“It’s a beautiful city,” she smiles. “Though I’ve travelled a lot with Mostly Autumn especially. But when you come back to York, drive back towards the Minster you think ‘wow, I live here!’ And the music scene is thriving. There’s a gig every few paces in the city.”

Dave nods approvingly: “I would trade some palm trees and coconuts to have the scene that you guys have in England.”

The Illusion’s Reckoning is out now via Sonic Reality Records/RecPlay. See Mantra Vega’s website for more information.

THE BAND IN FULL!

Mantra Vega’s cast of characters…

Heather Findlay – vocals, percussion, low whistles, acoustic guitar
Best known for her role in Mostly Autumn, Findlay is the voice, lyricist and driving force behind Mantra Vega. She’s also performed as part of her own Heather Findlay Band (featuring members of Mostly Autumn).

Dave Kerzner – vocals, keys & sound design, acoustic guitar
Kerzner wrote much of the music on The Illusion’s Reckoning – whilst also working on his own solo project, The Dave Kerzner Band, as well as Sound Of Contact. Prior to both these his primary calling was with his sound/sampling development company Sonic Reality.

Dave Kilminster – lead, rhythm and acoustic guitars
Kilminster recreates David Gilmour’s lines in Roger Waters’ The Wall shows. The Brit guitarist has also played alongside Carl Palmer, The Nice and John Wetton, and last year replaced Guthrie Govan on Steven Wilson’s tour.

Chris Johnson – lead, rhythm and acoustic guitars
Guitarist (and prolific producer and songwriter) Chris also masterminds Halo Blind, and plays with Mostly Autumn and the Heather Findlay Band.

Stu Fletcher – bass
Bassist in the Heather Findlay Band and Halo Blind, Stu has sessioned for Happy Mondays, Saint Etienne and The Calling, among others. Before that was the bassist in (John Squire’s post-Stone Roses band) The Seahorses.

Alex Cromarty – drums
Cromarty has hitherto been best known as the latest drummer from Mostly Autumn (they’ve gotten through a few…), who’s also played in the Heather Findlay Band.

Troy Donockley – vocals & lead guitars
These days his main gig is with Nightwish, but multi-instrumentalist Donockley’s CV is huge. Besides stints in Mostly Autumn and Iona (with Nick Beggs), he’s released three solo albums and sessioned for The Enid, Magenta and Karnataka among many others.

Angela Gordon – vocals & recorders
Angela also plays in Mostly Autumn, was in Odin Dragonfly with Heather Findlay, and will be playing keyboards on the Mantra Vega material on Heather current solo tour.

Arjen Lucassen​ – lead guitar
Dutch prog metal man/rock opera composer Arjen Lucassen is the driving force behind prog project Ayreon. He also founded prog metal supergroup Star One (with Damian Wilson, Floor Jansen and others), and has appeared with the likes of Within Temptation and After Forever.

Irene Jansen – vocals
The Dutch singer – sister of Nightwish frontwoman Floor Jansen – appeared in Ayreon’s album The Human Equation, as well Star One. She was also lead vocalist in power metal group Karma, and has lent vocals to various other projects.

Remko de Landmeter
Dutch flautist Remko de Landmeter has been testing the boundaries of the flute for years – applying it to classical, jazz, flamenco and Brazilian music, as well as work with Focus’ Thijs van Leer. For Mantra Vega he plays bansuri (that’s the Indian bamboo flute, in case you were wondering) on In A Dream and I’ve Seen Your Star.

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