At the centre of British symphonic prog rockers IO Earth is a songwriting partnership that has been carefully cultivated for over 30 years. It began when guitarist Dave Cureton and keyboard frequenting multi- instrumentalist Adam Gough were just doe-eyed 11-year-olds. IO Earth was founded as their outlet for creativity, which since day one has taken their melodies through a raft of styles and subgenres. Many musicians have joined them on their forays, both on tour and in the studio, but the songwriting team of Cureton and Gough have remained the band’s centre of gravity and creative directors.
“I’ve known Adam since secondary school, and I’m 45 now. That’s quite a long time, right?” Dave Cureton scratches his chin as he reflects on those intervening years, which have seen the pair play across continents and release six studio albums together – not including the stripped-down Acoustic Vol 1 and Cureton’s own solo record State Of Mind, which Gough also co-produced. “It’s true as well that we never really have any cross words. We never disagree with each other. If someone is very passionate about a certain idea, we just roll with it because they obviously really want to do it that way and we trust each other.”
With IO Earth’s latest release, Sanctuary, now out in the open, Cureton says: “Our writing has matured a lot. Over the first couple of albums we wanted to throw the kitchen sink at everything, but we’ve learnt to be more reserved now. Our relationship hasn’t really changed, but our work ethic has; and from writing in our bedrooms to having our own studio where we can spend entire weekends writing together, that’s worlds apart from where we started.”
IO Earth, then, always have and always will be their band. No one else writes the music and sculpts the vision. That’s why it’s so interesting to hear the guitarist talk so fervently about vocalist Linda Odinsen’s homecoming, returning from a 2016 split that no one wanted to happen.
“As far as I’m concerned, she’s our singer, period,” Cureton says. “We’ve had other singers before, but Linda is the singer for us. Every time we write, we write with her in mind, so it’s amazing to have her back.
“When we parted ways originally, Linda lived as north of Norway as you could possibly get. So at the time, for her to come and do shows for us, it took her 24 hours to get to Oslo. Then she’d have to fly to England from there. It was a massive strain on not just her, but also on the whole band because we wanted to be touring a lot more.
“But I told her that the door was always open for her. So when the opportunity came for her to come back, I didn’t hesitate. I had a phone call with her for probably about an hour, and in that conversation she was back in the band and it was like we’d never been apart.”
During their time apart, the band explored a darker sound with Solitude, which was released in 2018 and the first of two full-length records with vocalist Rosanna Lefevre. Aura followed in April 2020 and then, in what Cureton defines as a “kind of weird, horrible blessing,” the big pause due to the pandemic saw Linda’s situation change.
“The whole of Sanctuary was recorded before Covid, save for a few little things,” says Cureton. “When we got back, Adam and I started listening to the album and it wasn’t really doing it for us any more. So we scrapped about three-quarters of the album and started reworking the songs that we had left.
“Meanwhile, since we parted ways with Linda, she’d moved to Oslo, she’d gotten married and had a baby. So by the time we started working on the album again, it felt like the stars had aligned for Linda to come back into the band. We look back at it like: she’s had a break, she’s got her life in check and now she can focus on music again. It’s all worked out really well.”
Odinsen’s return jump-started a surge of creativity for Cureton and Gough. “We wrote Running, which is very poppy, very quickly and Airborne, which has the dance music elements, came out of nowhere, really,” says Cureton. Of all the songs born out of that writing spree, the tender ballad Close By soars above the parapet.
“We felt like we needed a song to show the world how good Linda’s voice has gotten,” says Cureton. “It’s just a piano and a voice and that’s all it needs to be. We could have added a string quartet and loads of other layers, but it wouldn’t have worked. I think we’ve realised now when we need to shut up. And I think that’s a very important thing, because the spaces are just as important as the music, leaving the gaps and letting the listener absorb what just happened before you hit them with something else.
“Live it’s been going down really well, too. When we played it at Prog Stock [in New Jersey, 2022], I took my in-ear monitors out and the whole theatre was deathly silent. It was a proper goosebumps moment.”
Is this a song the band could have written years back, then, or is it a testament to its maturing songwriters? “We could have,” Cureton says, “but I don’t think we would have wanted to. We would have felt like it had to be bombastic and very big. We’ve had stripped-back songs before, but even then they’ve had an undercurrent of strings of synths that made it a little bit more atmospheric. Nowadays we just let the song say what it needs to say and that’s it.”
Weaved throughout the record are dashes of pop and dance music; a first for the band. They’ve always peppered their sound with different flavours, but this time around the differences these largely Gough-inspired flourishes provide are night and day. But for Cureton, it was important that those sounds added to, rather than redefined, the sound of IO Earth.
“I think that music listeners aren’t stupid. They can hear it when things are forced,” he reasons. “We didn’t want to lose the vibe of the band. It’s like a chef getting the amount of seasoning just right, rather than just whacking too much salt in and ruining the flavour. We wanted to hint at those flavours rather than go: ‘this is a dance section, this is this section.’ It’s nice to blend it in rather than force-feeding this listener and overpowering them.
“We never want to repeat ourselves, but we have a sound that people like. The good thing is that we’ve stapled down an expectation from our fans that we aren’t going to do the same thing every time. If we were to announce that we were going to release a country and western album – which we won’t – I’d like to think the fans would be accepting of that. Even though it’d be horrible,” he adds, with a grin.
Accentuating that, the band sought no external help with Sanctuary. “This was the second album after Solitude that we’ve done by ourselves and that was important to us,” Cureton says. “We didn’t have to keep anyone else happy; nothing had to be diluted. It was a very organic process and the luxury of that was that we could take as long as we wanted to get it right.”
With Odinsen now expecting her second child, the band are holding off touring, meaning Cureton and Gough are retreating back to the studio to do what they do best. This time around, however, they do so knowing it will be the voice of their chosen singer that heads their next compositions.