Mostly Autumn: "We could be an arena band"

A portrait of Mostly Autumn
(Image credit: Stuart Wood)

“I played the baby some Mostly Autumn the other day… definitely liked it! And there was some kicking along to The Moody Blues too,” vocalist Olivia Sparnenn-Josh says, stroking her growing belly as she lets Prog in on her secret. She and her husband, Mostly Autumn’s co-founder Bryan Josh, are expecting their first child in July, not long after the band’s support slot with Rainbow at Glasgow’s SSE Hydro.

“We could have Ritchie Blackmore delivering our baby!” laughs Josh, before adding more seriously, “This is why I’ve had to scale things back with our live shows and leave gaps throughout the year, but we’re absolutely planning on carrying on after the baby is born.”

The year planner spread out on the table behind us gives a visual representation of their touring schedule, and fans can breathe a sigh of relief because Mostly Autumn’s itinerary is certainly busy. Then again, they have just released their 12th studio album, Sight Of Day.

It’s a drizzly spring morning when Prog visits Mostly Autumn’s HQ, where the new recording was conceived. Bryan Josh’s home studio is a bright and calm space situated in a picturesque village just outside the city of York. Its cream walls are painted with dark branches, its windows are framed by voiles patterned with autumnal leaves, and strings of fairy lights bathe the room in a warm glow. A black heart hangs on one wall, and on another, there’s an Epiphone sunburst guitar, previously owned by Josh’s late uncle: “He died a few years ago and left it to me… He was the one who taught me how to play.”

Tucked under its strings is a hand-written memento from Supertramp’s Roger Hodgson.

The path leading to the door is decorated with Moroccan-inspired lanterns, which add to the overall impression that this is the gateway to a magical kingdom. Perhaps the illusion isn’t so far from the truth as the magic and serenity of this creative space have been poured into Sight Of Day, an album that explores what Josh refers to simply as “life”.

Bolstered by a line-up that includes bassist Andy Smith, guitarist Chris Johnson, keyboard player Iain Jennings, flautist Angela Gordon and drummer Alex Cromarty, the album brings back some of the collective’s early folk influences and mixes them with their modern blend of melodic rock. Celtic whispers are augmented by guest appearances from former Trans Siberian Orchestra violinist Anna Phoebe, while long‑term collaborator Troy Donockley lends his distinctive Uilleann pipes and whistles to three of the tracks. Then there’s Native Spirit with its symphonic flourishes, and heart‑wrenching songs like The Man Without A Name that are transformed into beautiful ballads thanks to Olivia Sparnenn-Josh’s stunning vocals. Her voice caresses Josh’s melodic tones elsewhere, adding an extra layer of warmth to the album.

As we talk about the release, it becomes clear that the couple are thrilled with the way it’s turned out. The collaborative effort is the lyrical opposite of 2014’s macabre conceptual work, Dressed In Voices.

Sight Of Day was definitely a reaction to the previous album, which was quite harrowing to record,” Josh says. “Every time we played it live in its complete form, I’d have tears in my eyes. It was really dark, and it felt like something positive needed to happen for our own sanity. Sight Of Day changed our studio dynamic – it was like a ray of sunshine, a weight off our shoulders.”

Sparnenn-Josh adds, “Bryan writes some amazing stuff so it’s been fantastic singing his lyrics. It’s like reading a story and you’ve got to put yourself in that person’s shoes. When you’re in a relationship, you learn things about each other so you understand what the lyrics mean, and it’s lovely because you get to find out more little details about them. It’s taken time over the years, but we have a different relationship now we work together musically as well.”

One of the album’s highlights is the 14-and-a-half-minute title track that celebrates the miracle of life. The lyrics took Josh on a trip down memory lane to his own childhood, and pay homage to one of the more famous bands they share a member with.

“The line ‘The greatest show on earth’ is borrowed from the final track on Nightwish’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful, which I thought was phenomenal. I do wonder if that song subconsciously influenced what we were doing musically as well,” he reveals. “I met [bandleader] Tuomas Holopainen through Troy and we’re great friends now. We regularly take them camping up in the mountains. Funnily enough, Olivia nearly got the job as their singer a few years ago [after Tarja Turunen was fired] – we now know that she was down to the last two or three vocalists – so it’s a really weird coincidence that our paths have crossed again.”

Where Nightwish’s album explores evolution, Mostly Autumn’s begins with a human birth. One might assume the theme was intended to tie in with the Joshes’ own plans to start a family, but the couple maintain it wasn’t a case of art imitating life.

“I thought Olivia wouldn’t fall pregnant for years because I smoke and drink far too much!” laughs Josh, when asked about the coincidental timing. “We found out she was after I’d written [the title track], and it all fitted in. The album was never supposed to be interpreted like that, but now it’s taken on a new meaning. It’s almost like destiny, in a way, and then my sister [sleeve artist Suzanne Bielby] put a baby on the album cover…”

“She had no idea I was pregnant,” adds Sparnenn-Josh, “so it was all a bit strange.”

It might sound like a cliché, but Mostly Autumn really are more like a family than a band, their members coming and going, and tied to a number of other progressive projects, including Mantra Vega and Odin Dragonfly. (A few hours after our interview, members of Mostly Autumn went on to perform at former vocalist Heather Findlay’s birthday party.)

The collective have been going in various shapes and forms for the last 22 years and, during that time, they’ve weathered both the storms and the calm that go hand in hand with being in a band. From multiple line-up changes – Bryan Josh and Iain Jennings are now the only original members – to record deals that didn’t work out, each hurdle has been overcome, and the very fact they’re still so active after all this time is testament to their ongoing passion.

“I’ve said this so many times, but we’re more like the Alan Parsons Project than people realise,” says Josh. “I run this band as a singular-minded person and that’s why it’s still here after 20-odd years. We’re not Led Zeppelin – every album is a project and you weave a band around that. It keeps it fresh, but then you get a line-up that really works and you want to keep it.”

On the surface, things couldn’t be better for Mostly Autumn right now. Independently run and self-financed, the collective operate as a full-time business. Their album sales are on the up – the limited edition pre‑sale version of Sight Of Day sold out in record time – and they’ve played a number of high-profile gigs in recent years, including support slots with Canadian rocker Bryan Adams at Edinburgh’s Murrayfield Stadium, and with Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow at Birmingham’s Genting Arena. Their fanbase is constantly growing, though Josh wonders whether Mostly Autumn have struck a glass ceiling that only a weighty block of gold could smash.

“We could be an arena band, but how you get to that is another matter,” he says. “Our music is absolutely designed for that – it’s so expressive. I could design shows in my head and it would be lovely. Financially and creatively, it’s better for us to be independent, but if we could afford to advertise between Coronation Street and Emmerdale every night with an amazing video, we’d be able to reach millions of people. It’s about letting people know you exist, and if you’ve got a budget of a few million pounds, you can do it – that’s what big record label companies do.”

Mostly Autumn have released material via their own imprint for over a decade, but is the idea of being signed something Josh is now warming to? “It would have to be the right deal,” he says almost immediately, confirming he’s given some thought to it. “I’ve spoken to labels before and they’ve said we should be changing this and that, and we’ve told them to eff off. I’m doing music because it’s my life and I want it to be genuine and real, but obviously if someone came over, like David Gilmour, and said, ‘Oh, I really like this project – let’s do this…’ Well, you never know. David, if you’re reading this, come ’round and have a barbecue, and we’ll talk about stuff!”

(Image credit: Stuart Wood)

If Mostly Autumn’s spirit of independence has hindered their reach, it’s also earned them the respect and status of a cult band. They may not be in the same ballpark as David Gilmour, Steve Hackett or even Steven Wilson, but they haven’t given up on their ambitions.

Critics might accuse them of selling themselves short by playing the same venues to the same audiences, but Josh dismisses this. He believes the band are on an upward trajectory thanks to their live shows and coverage provided by this very magazine and its sister publication Classic Rock. But are they doing enough to get where they want to be?

“Obviously it would be nice to get over to that wider audience, but I guess we’re part of a scene. You’ve got Panic Room, Magenta, Karnataka, Touchstone, and no doubt a few others as well. Maybe it’s a niche market, but what can you do?” says Josh with an air of resignation. “Over the years, we’ve sold around half-a-million units and people still want to hear our music, thank God. We do okay with gigs so at least we know the ground level that we can exist on now.

“In Germany, there’s a huge market but it’s a catch-22. There’s a massive audience out there who would probably love what we do if they heard us. We play gigs and festivals in Europe, but to reach the right people, you’ve got to be known in the first place. Someone like Arjen Lucassen’s got it covered, and he writes brilliant albums too. We play at the Boerderij [in the Netherlands] and at some big venues… there are more that we could be playing, but it’s hard cracking into it over there. At the end of the day, you just have to carry on. It’s hard for a lot of bands, but you never know what’s around the corner.”

Sparnenn-Josh adds, “I think there’s a bit of frustration with the European side sometimes. It’s the difficulty of branching into those venues. We’ve got a fanbase and we play gigs out there, but it’s expanding into those areas where you know people love that music as well.”

The collective hope that further dates in the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium and England will help spread the word, and there are still more shows to be confirmed.

With the band’s profile on the up, Bryan Josh is on a creative roll with his solo work, too – he hopes to release the second part of his vampire concept album Transylvania later this year.

“Selling albums and tickets is what keeps this ship afloat – it’s about people investing in the band and believing in it,” he says. “We’ll keep going for as long as people want to hear our music.”

Now that their youngest fan is about to make an appearance, they’ve never had a stronger incentive to do just that.

This article originally appeared in issue 76 of Prog Magazine.

Natasha Scharf
Deputy Editor, Prog

Contributing to Prog since the very first issue, writer and broadcaster Natasha Scharf was the magazine’s News Editor before she took up her current role of Deputy Editor, and has interviewed some of the best-known acts in the progressive music world from ELP, Yes and Marillion to Nightwish, Dream Theater and TesseracT. Starting young, she set up her first music fanzine in the late 80s and became a regular contributor to local newspapers and magazines over the next decade. The 00s would see her running the dark music magazine, Meltdown, as well as contributing to Metal Hammer, Classic Rock, Terrorizer and Artrocker. Author of music subculture books The Art Of Gothic and Worldwide Gothic, she’s since written album sleeve notes for Cherry Red, and also co-wrote Tarja Turunen’s memoirs, Singing In My Blood. Beyond the written word, Natasha has spent several decades as a club DJ, spinning tunes at aftershow parties for Metallica, Motörhead and Nine Inch Nails. She’s currently the only member of the Prog team to have appeared on the magazine’s cover.