"Our last album was definitely a transition and that’s why a lot people might have thought it was strange,” says Olivia Sparnenn. Mostly Autumn’s frontwoman is in a contemplative mood as she and founding guitarist/vocalist Bryan Josh consider the last few years of musical ups and downs. First music distributor Pinnacle went bust, having a knock-on effect on the band’s independent releases; then long‑time member Heather Findlay moved on to pastures new. But with Sparnenn’s subsequent promotion to lead vocalist and their fantastic show at last year’s High Voltage Festival, the British collective are back stronger than ever, with a new album and a new sound to boot.
It’s hard to ignore the mixed reviews that 2010’s Go Well Diamond Heart received from fans. Even though most of it was written before Findlay left the band, some followers felt it wasn’t up to their usual standards. Josh takes such criticism on the chin and sighs: “Half the buggers would write the album for you if you let them! Honestly, most of the feedback we’ve had was positive, although I suppose the more negative comments are what people remember. You’re always going to get criticism when you do a new album but there will also be new people coming along who like what you’re doing. When it comes down to it, I don’t pay attention to the negative comments – if I did, I’d never get anything done!”
Two years on, and by his own admission, its studio follow-up The Ghost Moon Orchestra is the sort of album that needs a few listens to get stuck into. It’s heavier and more dramatic than their last few releases, adding a touch of metaphorical thunder and lightning to their rich sound. It even invokes the spirit of early 00s releases Storms Over Still Water and Passengers. Although Josh lends his voice to a handful of songs, the album is a showcase for singer Sparnenn, who comes across as a confident and very able frontwoman.
Josh says: “I guess it was a case of wanting to make a fresh start and demonstrate where we are now… We gained confidence with the last album and felt we could properly move on – it was about half letting go of the past and half moving on, so we wanted to hit the ground running. Some of the heavier influence was to do with Olivia but a lot of it was to do with the way the songs just came about. Musically I grew up with music from the 60s and 70s so that’ll always be in the background, but it’s also nice to get something heavier in there for live shows to get the energy going.”
Keen to remind fans of their lighter side, they’ve also released a limited-edition version with a second disc of acoustic numbers.
Even though their recent past has been scattered with peaks and troughs, Mostly Autumn’s actual album-writing process has been a comparative doddle. The fantastical title came to Josh at the beginning of the year, while he was on holiday in the Lake District. Tucked up by a warm fire, he thought he saw a face emerging from the flames and the words ‘The Ghost Moon Orchestra’ popped into his head seconds later. “I have no bloody idea where it came from,” he chuckles, “but it all made sense afterwards. It’s a concept based on a group of phantoms who sit outside of our world playing everybody’s symphony… They’re the ghosts responsible for the musical soundtracks in our heads, like when something sad happens or you hear music in your dreams. It feels like I was a radio receiver and I tuned into something because once I had the title, the music came naturally and the album wrote itself.”
The result is a perfect blend of eclectic genres that expand on Mostly Autumn’s trademark sound. Less folky than their previous albums, their 10th studio release has a strong symphonic influence and a generous helping of Americana, particularly evident on The Devil And The Orchestra. However, one of the stand-out tracks is the Celtic infused Wild Eyed Skies, co-written by Sparnenn. The stunning song also features uilleann pipes from old friend and regular guest musician Troy Donockley.
“Writing for Mostly Autumn is still quite a new thing for me and I really enjoyed it,” says Sparnenn, who also contributed to the lyrics of two other songs on the album. The singer adds: “Having this new album has given me more confidence because I’ve had a bigger role in the writing process. The real beauty of Mostly Autumn’s music is that it’s about life and it’s very passionate – you can relate to a lot of what it’s about, even if it’s been written with another person in mind. That said, it definitely helps to be singing songs that you’ve had a hand in writing!”
Now nine months after its conception, the 10-part symphony that is The Ghost Moon Orchestra is ready to be officially birthed through the band’s self-funded Mostly Autumn Records. Yet given that so many of their peers have recently secured album deals, do the collective feel the DIY approach is still right for them? Josh says, “We’ve been offered quite a few record deals but the problem is, when you go down that road, you’re lucky if you get 40 pence back per album because the labels take a sizeable cut, so our little business would disappear. But I’d consider it if it was a good deal and we still had the control. If you’ve got a big deal with a lot behind it, you can really get big and that would be fantastic, but those sorts of deals don’t really seem to exist these days. Most of them seem to be about short-term investments and at the end of the day, you’re none the better for signing them.
“Obviously it would be great if we sold more records so we could put on bigger shows, but I’m pleased with the way things have gone for us so far. After all, we make real music because it’s our passion, not because we want to be rock stars, so if we can just stay where we are but grow, that would be fantastic. I think the very fact we’re still here after 14 or so years is an achievement in itself.”
Of course, Josh has a very good point. Despite their financial losses when Pinnacle Distribution went into receivership at the end of 2008, Mostly Autumn remain determinedly independent, not to mention optimistic about what the future could still hold. Now in their third decade of tireless self-promotion, it’s their never-ending enthusiasm and determination that they’re taking out on the road with them as part of their forthcoming autumn/winter tour. A cluster of dates are already lined up right until the end of the year, and one of those will be filmed for a live DVD.
“It’ll be our first DVD with Olivia as frontwoman,” Josh explains, “and we’ll be filming it in Holland at the Boerderij, which is one of the nicest venues in the area. We’ve always had a fantastic audience there so we wanted to do something special and it’ll be a record of this moment in time with a lot of the new album on. It should be a magical night.”
The as-yet untitled DVD comes off the back of last year’s Still Beautiful live CD, which was recorded on their last tour, and Josh gives his assurance that fans of the band’s older material won’t be disappointed with the set. Given last year’s performance at High Voltage, we could all be in for quite a treat.
But perhaps the biggest question on the lips of fans is about the future. Will the next album have the heaviness of The Ghost Moon Orchestra? Josh is hesitant in his reply: “I can’t say because we won’t know until we start writing it. This heaviness is something we’ve been ready to do for a while and it’ll definitely be our sound for the immediate future.”
One thing that remains quite certain is his ongoing friendship with Heather Findlay. In fact, shortly after this interview, Josh and Sparnenn were heading out to the Lake District for a camping holiday with the former Mostly Autumn singer. “We’ve got a lot of booze so we can have a good laugh by the fire,” Josh says, clearly looking forward to the break.
But will there be any musical activities taking place? He chuckles: “Well, a lot of my inspiration comes from the Lakes and we’ll have a guitar up there… We’ll just have to see what happens. You never know!”
This article originally appeared in issue30 of Prog Magazine.