“It’s amazing what music can do,” says Bryan Josh. “It lubricates any sort of stress or fear, things that are clogging up when you’re in a dark place. Music becomes like an exhaust pipe. There’s no two ways about it. It’s one of the best things in the world for that, actually.”
Graveyard Star, the new album from Mostly Autumn, was born out of the fear and darkness of the pandemic and the loss of people close to Josh and his wife Olivia Sparnenn-Josh. Facing lockdown with their young daughter at home, music was a way to process the experience. “All the inspiration for doing normal things like songwriting just went really, because it was a crazy, strange time,” says Josh. “It left a vacuum. It strips away the normal juices that flow, the inspiration, and what I found personally was that all that was left was dealing with the situation. That’s where this album came from, really. It was a real-life diary of what went on through the months.”
For bandleader Josh, the muse can descend without warning and must be answered before she slips away. “I don’t write songs, they happen,” he says. “They come really quickly: it’s like you’re a little radio station tuning into something, and it just comes in.” If there’s no guitar or keyboard to hand, the voice recorder on his phone will suffice to capture not just a song idea but the feeling that inspired it. “If you listen to the demos which I’ve got on my phone, you’re always trying to recreate what that was,” he says. “The feeling that was in it was deep and thick and emotional – it’s trying to make sure we kept that, but in a more polished version. But the songs are generally what they were in the first place. It’s very much written in that time.”
Graveyard Star may be the most heartfelt release yet in Mostly Autumn’s storied career, conveying a spectrum of emotions, from the depths of grief to the promise of brighter days ahead. “Every song is very different. For someone’s first listen you would never anticipate the sound of what the next song is going to be, but it takes you on a journey,” says Josh. “It’s a concept of how we felt going through it. You could almost say it’s a bit War Of The Worlds or Pink Floyd’s The Wall.”
The record features appearances from Nightwish’s Troy Donockley and Chris Leslie from Fairport Convention. “Troy has been a friend for about 35 years – we’re very close, almost like brothers,” says Josh. “He’s played on a lot of our stuff. He’s a very positive energy, a phenomenal player.” Donockley contributed uilleann pipes and whistles to four songs: “And some Portuguese mandolas.”
“I think he plays everything,” adds Sparnenn-Josh. “He just knows what the right thing is for the track, and he gets it perfect every time.”
Chris Leslie is another long-standing acquaintance, having also appeared on their 2003 album Passengers. “I’m a great fan of Fairport Convention, and he was very happy to do that remotely,” says Josh. “I love the violin. He’s a phenomenal player, world class.”
Although Mostly Autumn’s music drinks deep at the well of prog, as the presence of Donockley and Leslie bears testament, they’re never shy about expressing their celtic and folk influences. This side of the band has roots reaching back to Josh’s childhood. “I remember a place called the Wasdale Head [in the Lake District]. I must have been about eight,” he says. “I was ice climbing with my father who was a big mountaineer.” Father and son went to a local pub, full of “all the guys with the fiddles and they were playing all these celtic jigs and reels, all the sea shanty stuff. They had a big pot of ale they were drinking, and the vibe was unbelievable: everyone was dancing on the rafters. That sound: the whistles, pipes, violins and fiddles – there’s something very natural about it, very close to nature. When you hear it, it feels like you’ve heard it a million times even though you haven’t. It’s imprinted in us, that sound and what it does.”
Pre-pandemic, Bryan and Olivia frequently travelled to the Lake District in search of inspiring surroundings. “We’d often hire a cottage for a month and do some writing,” says Josh. “It doesn’t mean you’re always doing music about the hills and the mountains and the stars, but I guess it puts your head in a space of openness.” For the frontman, the essence of Mostly Autumn’s music has always been “life, loss, nature. Beauty and loss and putting that into words and music.”
Denied the chance to get out into nature during the lockdowns, some nights Josh sat in his van on the driveway with the engine running just for the momentary illusion of freedom. Feelings of disconnection and disquiet surface in Razorblade, perhaps the darkest song on the album. “The whole situation was getting to me,” says Josh. “We lost a couple of people who were close to us. It was like, ‘I need to get out of here.’ It was like the idea of going on a long car journey or when we’re on tour: ‘Just get me out of this place.’ That’s what it was initially, but then it’s also thinking about the two people that we lost. Get me out of this thing, get me away.”
This Endless War allowed Sparnenn-Josh to process her feelings with a song about reaching out to those struggling with grief. “It’s battling emotions, anxiety and the thoughts that came through in that time,” she says. “That was how I poured out my emotions from the situation.” Yet Graveyard Star isn’t all lamentation and sadness. Back In These Arms sees the first glimmer of light breaking through the shadow of the pandemic. “It was looking towards a moment where I could hold my mother again,” says Josh. “It was about all of us being able to just hold somebody.”
The physical distancing was a struggle for the couple. “We’re ‘hugging’ people,” says Sparnenn-Josh. “If you’re that sort of person, when you see people you feel you’re being rude because it’s natural to embrace somebody. And trying to teach a little one to not hug grandparents at that time, it doesn’t feel right.”
“Everything was taken away from you in that respect,” says Josh. “It’s going down the street, going to the pub, Christmas time, everyone together, the euphoria of that. That’s where the album switches to looking ahead from a very dark place when it was written.”
In the end the album affirms the bonds of family and friends and the resilience of hope. “People are the most important thing: seeing people, being around people, that’s what life’s about. It really is,” he adds.
For Sparnenn-Josh, the songs will always be a loving tribute to those they lost. “Hopefully it’s the nicest possible way that you remember someone,” she says. “As hard as it can be to do things that have been influenced by the loss of people, being able to create these things live and keep playing them and moving forward, I think it’s a nice tribute and it resonates with other people. One of the most amazing things is when you get people commenting, telling you about their own situation and how the songs have helped them through. That always blows my mind, that our music can do that for people. It’s a beautiful thing.”
This article originally appeared in Prog 124.