There have been lots of contenders for the title of first lady of prog in recent years. From Heather Findlay to Anneke van Giersbergen and Anne-Marie Helder, progressive music is simply packed with extraordinarily talented women. But despite being barely out of her teens, iamthemorning’s Marjana Semkina has the chops to take on them all.
With a voice capable of super-lung histrionics as well as the left-field quirks of Kate Bush, Semkina also possesses prog knowledge that belies her years. And that’s before you come on to her striking looks – a flame-haired beauty with dreadlocks that dazzle on this sunny day in St Petersburg.
Having recently released second album Belighted through Kscope, Semkina and iamthemorning’s piano virtuoso Gleb Kolyadin are on an upward trajectory. However, it’s been quite a story so far. “Gleb and I started as a chamber quintet with three string players,” says Semkina. “We played like that for a year. After recording the first album we changed musicians completely and started playing something heavier.”
One of the strengths of Belighted is the way it fuses the postmodern complexity of Porcupine Tree, the symphonic elements of 70s prog and the atmospheric cool of Anathema. And while the classically trained Kolyadin is a big factor in the clever arrangements, Semkina’s love for prog brings depth to the music, something reflected in the very name of the band.
“Of course, the band’s name was originally a song by Oceansize,” says Semkina. “It was a tragedy for me when they broke up. I love Oceansize because they’re more proggish than post-rock. They have odd time signatures and beautiful melodies.” One of Semkina’s charms is that she’s unafraid to be a fangirl. Getting her on to the subjects of Steven Wilson, his Porcupine Tree compatriot Gavin Harrison and Anathema lynchpin Danny Cavanagh is a delight. She becomes almost coy as she admits to wearing one of Wilson’s guitar picks on a necklace.
“I never got to a Porcupine Tree concert. The only time they played Russia, I was small and my parents wouldn’t let me go!” she laughs. “I got that pick from a Blackfield gig.” It was at that gig that she thrust a copy of iamthemorning’s first album into Wilson’s hands, though she doubts he ever got to listen to it. “I was so naïve. He must get a hundred flash drives at a Moscow concert.”
Yet it’s hard not to admire Semkina’s charmingly direct approach – an approach that brought Gavin Harrison into the London recording of Belighted The background to Harrison coming on board is almost Spinal Tap-esque. It’s as if iamthemorning’s drummers were born to be troublesome. “Our previous drummer left us a couple of months before recording the album in London,” Semkina explains. “We searched for another drummer but couldn’t find the right one in St Petersburg. They couldn’t play the material well enough. Even now it’s a problem for us to find a drummer.”
What happened next is a testament to cheekiness. Semkina messaged Harrison via his Facebook page, telling him about iamthemorning’s recording plans and asking if he fancied some session work. And to her surprise, he got back. “He turned out to be nice and friendly and liked the music a lot!” Her delight is infectious. “That was just incredible. Because he’s my favourite drummer on the planet – partly because of Porcupine Tree, but partly because he was the first drummer to make me understand there is a real music in drumming. It’s not just about time and rhythm – it’s music as well. To have him on the album is the greatest honour.”
Iamthemorning’s connection with Danny Cavanagh is also a reminder of the buzz they’re creating among prog royalty. Cavanagh has gone so far as to describe Gleb Kolyadin as the greatest pianist he’s ever heard. “It was the first day of our album recording and Danny came into the studio and he fell in love with Gleb’s playing,” Semkina says. “He saw Gleb improvising at the grand piano and since then he’s been in touch because he really wants to help us. He really gets our songwriting.”
Semkina, however, had bumped into Cavanagh before. When she was 15, she went to an Anathema gig in St Petersburg and, as she puts it, “I was in the front row and the crowd started slamming. I’m tiny and I nearly got killed! Danny stopped playing and pulled me out. When I turned up in London last year and met him, he recognised me and said, ‘You’re the girl from Russia!’” Amid the laughter, there’s something very serious about this ‘girl from Russia’. When asked about how she sees iamthemorning’s music, she explains that she’s not keen on labels, but says, “I love the term baroque rock.”
She’s also not kidding when she says all of her lyrics are about death. “We have a joke in Russia that our songs are about pain and death. I usually say this with a smile on my face, in a white dress at a concert, and people laugh so hard. But it’s actually quite true.”
And with their use of musical intermissions between tracks, the duo have a classical feel. “We like this concept,” says Semkina. “In operas they have intermezzos and intervals between acts. With our classical influences, it gives the music a special spirit. It invites you to take the album as a full piece of work and art.”
Semkina is one hell of an artist herself. Her lyrics on Belighted bring to life characters as diverse as the Snow Queen and the real-life Billy Milligan, who had multiple personality disorder. They make up what she calls “a bunch of stories about people who are restless souls”. She and Kolyadin hope to bring those stories to Europe in the new year, where they should find a big audience for their art.
Belighted is out now on Kscope. For more information, see www.iamthemorning.com.