Issy Ferris and Archie Sylvester formed a duo in 2016 and, since then, have released a string of critically acclaimed singles and EPs, including 2018’s ‘Made in Streatham’, which was recorded in the kitchen of their flat in London. Through constant touring and stylish videos, they have been steadily building up a sizeable fanbase and creating a real buzz; the video for recent single ‘Flying Visit’ has been viewed 57,000 times on YouTube in the last four months. 2019 has seen Ferris & Sylvester play various festivals, including Black Deer, Isle of White, Glastonbury and AmericanaFest in Nashville. Soon, they will be returning to the USA to record new songs and 2020 looks set to be even bigger. After completing their biggest headline tour to date, the pair took the time to talk to Andrew Frolish of Americana UK about performing, song writing and preparing to record their first full-length album.
You’re coming to the end of your biggest headline tour yet. What’s it been like out on the road?
Issy: You’re right, we’ve come to the end of our biggest tour yet as a headline act but we’ve been out on the road pretty much non-stop for just over a year. It feels really weird to be back at home but we’re off again on Monday to support James Morrison on his tour. We love touring – It’s the thing you always dream of doing. Of course, it’s never as glamorous as you thought it was going to be; we spent the last year driving around and staying in questionable hotels but it’s been quite a ride! To go to different places you’ve never been before and have people there know your songs, not just know them but to have connected with them in some special way, it’s a real privilege to be able to do that. It’s something that we’ll never take for granted.
When you’ve been out playing, which songs of audiences reacted well to?
Archie: It’s a good question because we weren’t quite sure at the start of the tour which songs people would react to. People always respond well to songs like ‘Burning River’ and ‘London’s Blues’ but the real surprise for us on this trip was ‘Flying Visit’. We found from the first few dates, people knew all the words from the first verse right through to the outro. We were amazed by that. When we play ‘Flying Visit’, we play it on acoustic guitar and sing into one microphone, which is a nice intimate way of doing it although it presents quite a few problems for the sound engineer. We started doing that because for some reason during the summer, when we were playing festivals, something kept going wrong with the sound: my guitar wouldn’t be working or the microphone wasn’t working or my kick drum was broken so we realised it was probably the way to do it. Because it’s a bit quieter, we could really hear people singing along. At first, people were nervous to sing along because it was quiet and they thought they would overpower us. Eventually, at the second London show we did at the Omeara, people were singing along and we encouraged them; there was an amazing chorus of voices singing ‘Flying Visit’ back to us and it was a very powerful moment to experience.
You mentioned playing festivals. You played a few recently including Glastonbury and AmericanaFest in Nashville. How does it compare playing festivals do your own shows?
Issy: It’s a different game. It’s a different kind of pressure. When you’re playing your own show, the pressure is not to disappoint your fans, people who bought the tickets because they’ve seen you play or heard your music. You want to do the best show you can for them. It’s a great pressure but it can be difficult sometimes. For festival slots, the game is that we have to win over a crowd. The chances are that they don’t know your stuff and you want to keep people on their toes the entire time. You’ve probably got 25 minutes to half an hour and in that time you’ve got to show people who you are. So, it can be a lot of fun but it can also be absolutely terrifying. At the beginning, you might have no one on your side but by the end you want to have won over most of them. We have played on some amazing stages this year like Glastonbury and Nashville. It really is a good feeling when you sense people warming to you as a band. We’ll never get used to that.
What was it like going over to the USA?
Archie: Well, it was great. Our music takes a lot of influence from American music. Having said that, we are proud to be from the UK and that is an important edge to keep in our music. Going over to Nashville for the first time was a real experience. It’s crazy over there. It was 40°C…very hot! We could barely go outside but there were people walking down the street in cowboy boots, jeans, denim jackets and cowboy hats; we wondered how they were even surviving under all of that! We saw some great music. We went and cut a vinyl in Jack White’s Third Man record shop. There is a really old recording booth; it’s tiny and I could barely fit in there so getting us both in was a challenge! You record straight to acetate. We somehow managed to cram my guitar in and there’s one microphone in there. We recorded versions of a couple of our songs. There is one copy only of each of those songs and we have them here. So, that was all good fun – we did a lot of the tourist stuff. And we did a couple of really good shows! We are back in America in a couple of weeks to record the album in Seattle.
When you perform, you’re loud, bluesy and really rock out. How hard is it to translate your recorded sound onto the stage?
Issy: That’s a good question because I think with us it’s actually the other way round that can be a bit more tricky. The way we work with our songs, we make sure we are always happy with how they sound in their simplest form on an acoustic guitar with both of us singing. Then we work up a demo that will exist in different forms. We’ll work on a song for a while sometimes, sometimes not so long, and then we take it into the rehearsal studio and get it ready for touring. So, by the time it’s been on the road for a while, it’s existed in lots of different forms, it’s grown, it’s come to life. I think what’s interesting is that when you come back to the demo it sounds so different because of how much it’s developed. There is something magical about performing in live. It’s something that we work on every week, to make the live show as strong as it can be. So, I think really the hardest part for any live artist is to go back into the studio and translate what you captured live back onto the record.
When you have recorded music, I know that you recorded a lot of it at home in your flat. What’s that like in practice and would you continue to record like that in the future?
Archie: We will be doing that this afternoon! We are in Streatham at the moment. You’ve got to be creative because we don’t have a lot of space and we can’t make loads of noise because it’s a flat and we have neighbours! You have to use your imagination. We love doing demos here. The whole of the ‘Made in Streatham’ EP was recorded here. We have graduated and moved on to big, amazing studios but a lot of what we’ve learned from working in small spaces can be transferred to the big spaces and you’ve got a better idea of what you’re trying to do when you get there. For example, we were recording a couple of days ago and we wanted the sound of a chain dropping on the floor. Strangely enough, we don’t have any big chains lying around so we were forced to be creative and use one of Issy’s necklaces. The way we were able to record it sounded a bit like a chain dropping on the floor. It’s things like that that we’re always having to contend with. Our favourite records that we listen to, the songs are great but the recordings have a fidelity of space and depth that we struggle to create in a small space. It shouldn’t limit your song writing. You shouldn’t need a big studio to write a good song. You should be able to write the best song in the world in your bedroom. So, we work with that mentality. Any restrictions we have we try to use to our advantage.
What is your writing process like from the nugget of an idea to a recorded demo?
Issy: I touched on it a little earlier. We don’t like to have a formula. I don’t think many writers do. If we have an idea, we try to run with it and to be as creative and as free as we can at the start. Ideas can originate from loads of different places: it could be something that Archie has come up with or I’ve come up with and can come from anywhere. We can work songs out for an hour or it might be a couple of days before we are happy with it in its simplest form. That’s probably our only rule of writing: we don’t go in to record anything until we’re happy with how the song sounds, the lyrics and structure with just the two of us playing on an acoustic guitar because that’s how you know when the song is good enough. We then start demoing the song. For some songs, you just need to know when to stop and you might just do one demo before playing it live and it takes on a life of its own. But for some songs, we work up lots of demos before we agree on the structure. For example, the song ‘Sickness’ has existed in so many different forms before we settled on the version of it that’s out in the world now. The main thing about writing I think we’ve learned is that if you can get to the point where you’re not afraid to make mistakes and you’re confident enough to work on an idea or a little impulse, then the fun begins and you can make interesting stuff.
When you sing together your voices blend beautifully. How do you decide who will sing which parts or how your voices will work together?
Archie: Firstly, thank you. The nice thing about having two vocals is there’s so many possibilities. We can sing in harmony and when we are recording, we can add three or four vocals. We can sing in unison or in octaves or one of us might sing an entire song and that keeps our options quite dynamic, I think. We’ll experiment and try to use our voices to help tell the story of the song. That’s when it works at its best. When we write a song, we normally have an idea of who will sing the tonic, if you like, on the song. Sometimes you do only want to hear one voice through a song. We have to remember that sometimes – just because we can sing harmonies doesn’t mean we should sing a harmony all the way through a song. I think if you came to see us play and saw us singing in harmony, you’d think ‘Oh, that sounds nice,’ but, if we did it the whole way through the show, you’d probably get bored of it and we feel exactly the same! There are no real rules but we try to be creative and dynamic and do what’s right for the song.
Your songs have such a range of influences and they’re quite varied. Do you ever set out to write in a certain genre or to write a particular type of song? For example, a song like ‘Burning River’ is quite anthemic and it’s great live. Did you set out to write an anthem or is it more fluid and organic than that?
Issy: I think often it can be about what you are listening to at the time. So, it’s not necessarily based on genre. Sometimes you’ll be listening to an album and you can pick out things that you’re really enjoying about it and that influences the way you want to write things. For instance, for ‘Burning River’, we were interested in experimenting with percussion and the rhythm of the song. We were listening to loads of D’Angelo, a funk-jazz guy, nothing like how we sound. That’s why it’s so important for us to listen to so many different artists and genres. You pick up on things and that’s literally how that demo started. We found a cool rhythm and thought we could do something with hand claps so that it would sound sort of alternative-folk. We very rarely set out to write folk song or a blues song. Because of all the development, a song that you imagined might be a raw, far-left blues song could become something completely different. The main thing is to focus on what is best for the song not what you think is what people want to hear.
One of the things that’s most striking about your songs is the videos, which are like works of art in themselves and really enhance the songs, especially with the animation on ‘Sometimes’ or the party scenes in ‘London’s Blues’. The video for ‘Sickness’ is quite sinister as well! What role do you play in the creation and production of the videos?
Archie: we’ve been really lucky to be friends with some incredibly talented people. The guy we have been working a lot recently is called Sam Parish-Rookes who’s a filmmaker. He actually got in touch with us completely out of the blue on Facebook about 2 1/2 years ago and said he wanted to make a video with us. He showed us some stuff he had done and we thought it was really cool. We’ve become really good mates with Sam. Sometimes, when we’ve written a song, we’ve sent Sam the demo before we’ve properly recorded it so that he can start thinking about the music video even before the song itself is completely finished. We’ll have long-winded phone conversations to talk about the idea. We’ve learned a lot from making music videos. Unfortunately, there’s lots of artistic things you would like to do but in the world we live in and with social media today you sometimes have to curtail your ideas. People want things that are immediately interesting. Sometimes, we’ve thought of long scripts and storylines that we’ve had to simplify and we ended up going for images that can tell the story from just a still or from any part of the video you have an idea of what the feel is supposed to be. We are very lucky to work with some talented people, including Sam.
How personal are the narratives? For example, in a song like ‘Sickness’, is it a personal narrative or is it more character-driven?
Issy: in reality I think it’s a little bit of a combination. We always try to write things that are true to ourselves. We don’t try to fabricate things too much. There are some character-based songs like ‘Party’s Over’, which is a new song that we been playing in the live set, but most of the time we do try and keep it personal to us. That’s the starting point and then it grows and grows and the endpoint might not be an exact version of reality. All the emotion and the intent comes from a very real place and that’s what can make song writing really interesting. It doesn’t have to be a true memoir of your life. There aren’t any rules about that. But then it’s interesting when you do just say it how it is. For example, a song like ‘Flying Visit’ is written from the perspective of a child who I used to look after as a job. We wanted to write a love song from a child and that’s exactly what ‘Flying Visit’ is about. Never tried to fabricate anything more from it. It just is what it is.
Going back in time, you both played on the London music scene before getting together as a duo. How did that come about?
Archie: Yeah, we were both solo acts. I had a blues trio for quite a while – a couple of years – and Issy was doing solo, singer-songwriter stuff. We met in a bar in Camden called Spiritual Bar, which is a fantastic live music venue. You should definitely check it out if you’re in Camden. It’s our favourite live music venue in the entire world out of all the venues we be lucky enough to go to. It’s got a tiny stage in the corner and it’s run by a very passionate guy called Rafael. Issy and I met through there – we were on the same bill about three times before we actually properly met. We only met because a friend of mine dragged me along to one of Issy’s shows because he fancied her and he wanted me to be his wing-man! So, I reluctantly went and then Issy and I got talking and I really loved her lyrics. I loved her voice as well but I really liked the lyrics that I felt were incredibly honest. We were able to chat afterwards and shared a drink and decided to do some writing together. I thought we could potentially write some cool stuff together. So, the next week we were writing together and that was the birth of Ferris & Sylvester. That was at the start of 2016 – February 2016 was the birth of Ferris & Sylvester!
I can tell the London music scene remains important to you. Do you still go back and play the same venues?
Issy: We do but it’s harder now. We live in London but we don’t spend a great deal of time here because of touring. We haven’t really been able to play in the same way that we were doing in the past but it doesn’t mean you can’t still integrate it into life. For instance, we had two nights at the Omeara during our tour, which was amazing. On the opening night, we had Rafael from the Spiritual Bar On stage; he is an amazing harmonica player and we invited him to play ‘Sickness’ with us. The three of us stood at the front and he did a big one-minute harmonica solo, which was amazing. To be able to do things like that is really special, especially as we can’t head up to the bar every week like we used to. Very special people in London!
What led you to that London music scene? Did you play and write music when you were younger?
Archie: We were both playing and writing music from an early age. In fact, what we both have in common is that our fathers are both into music. Our dads are both guitar players. We took a huge amount of influence from our dads’ music collections. I used to go to my dad’s CD collection from the age of about 11. It was in perfect alphabetical order from A-Z but by the time I got to the age of 14 none of it was in alphabetical order anymore and I had listened to all of it! I tried to work out the guitar licks for artists like Simon & Garfunkel. Issy is doing the same thing with her dad’s music collection. I was in bands from the age of 13 or 14. Issy was 13 when she did her first gig. We’ve never wanted to do anything else from a very early age and we probably have a harvester thanks for that.
Gigging at 13 is very young and must’ve taken a lot of courage.
Issy: it was great. I can’t speak for Archie but I’m not saying I was any good whatsoever! I just really wanted to do it. I don’t remember thinking that much about it. It wasn’t a big decision. He is just something I want to do and my dad is the drive in Leamington ones. I just wanted to Wednesday. When you’re young, and you have an instinct, it isn’t scary. It did then become scary and I used to get stage fright when I was about 17 or 18 but when you start doing it as a child, you don’t worry about how you look or you sound you just do it because you love it. As Archie said, we are very lucky to have dads who supported it and he told us it was good when it wasn’t!
Archie: My dad definitely didn’t say it was good when it wasn’t!
Issy: My dad definitely did and would always find something positive to say when it was just him in the audience! I think that gives you the platform to make mistakes and write dud songs and to forget the words. Every time it makes you a better performer and songwriter.
Over the last few years, you’ve released well-received singles and EPs. You’ve not rushed an album out – is that all part of the plan orders that reflect the changing music industry?
Archie: Good question. A little bit of both actually. I think, if it was 10 or 15 years ago, we probably would’ve had an album out already but we’ve had to work really hard to build a following so we feel the time is now right to put out an album. We put singles out on Spotify as the first thing and that gave us the opportunity to tour. We built up a live following as well but the time to do the album is now. As soon as we finish the tour with James Morrison, we are flying out to Seattle very next day to record about half the album with a guy called Ryan Hadlock, who has worked with The Lumineers and Brandi Carlile recently. So, we are very excited to get out there and then we’re finishing the album off with Michael Randall, who is the producer who has worked on all our recent stuff, such as ‘Flying Visit’ and ‘Sickness’. We’ll be doing the rest of it down at Sawmill Studios in Fowey in Cornwall, which is the most remote and beautiful studio you can come across. You can only get in or out by boat and only when the tide is high. I don’t know whether it’s going to be crazy or we are going to love it!
What can we expect from the album? How is your sound developing?
Issy: You’ve seen the live set and, when we put the live set together, we wanted it to sound how we want the album to sound. We wanted a mix of all the writing we’ve done in recent years and to bring it all together. We played a lot of the new stuff out on the tour along with older stuff. When you listen to five or six albums from one band you can see that an album is really a moment in time, which is really special. An artist might have six albums and they all sound slightly different because they reflect who they are in that moment in time. It can be quite scary to decide if you’re ready now and is this that moment. The most magical thing is to go make a record that we love right now and that represents who we are. So that’s what we going to do!
Will there be some of the existing singles on there or will it all be new stuff?
Archie: Good question. Those are the decisions that aren’t set in stone at the moment. I would say there will be a smattering of stuff that you may recognise but there will be enough new songs to make it feel like a new album as well. That’s what we’re aiming for.
How did it go about that you’re working with Ryan Hadlock? Is he someone you met while you were playing in the USA?
Issy: Yeah, we actually met him at South by Southwest this year. We got talking and he is a very interesting producer because he works with a lot of depth in his recording and that’s something we are really interested in, having worked with a lot of bedroom demos. He knows how to work a big sound in a big room. We think it will really work for our first record. We met him out there and we been chatting throughout the summer and got the dates in. We can’t wait to get there. He’s got a studio called Bear Creek. It’s beautiful and we’re very excited.
One final question…What do you hope for in 2020 and beyond?
Archie: We hope to have the album out. That would be the first thing. We hope to continue touring as much as possible. We hope more and more people come to see us play live and, in the most general sense, we hope to keep doing what we love. We’re working as hard as we can and hope to do the same in 2020, maybe on a larger scale.
Photo credits: 1 & 2 Mdrn Love; 3, 4 & 5 Andrew Frolish
Ferris & Sylvester play Cliffs Pavilion / Southend-on-Sea on 14th November and New Theatre / Oxford on 15th.