Interview: Ferris & Sylvester on “Otherness”

Credit: Daniel Alexander Harris

Mix a dollop of Dolly Parton, Peter Green and Frank Sinatra with a bit of hip hop.

Things have been very hectic for married couple Ferris & Sylvester since the success of their debut album. They have consolidated their position as a touring band, gone public with their own record label, and became parents, they also managed to find the time to write and record the songs that became their second album, ‘Otherness’. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Ferris & Sylvester over Zoom as they managed to spend some time at home during their current tour. They explained that they see themselves as primarily songwriters, which helps explain the eclectic nature of ‘Otherness’. It is also clear that they take a very hands-on approach to each aspect of their career, including using the album cover design to inspire the recorded sound. Archie Sylvester lets his techie enthusiasm run wild as he explains how he mixed digital and analogue technology to produce what has been called a timeless sound on ‘Otherness’. Issy Ferris shares her admiration for Dolly Parton, particularly her songwriting, so much so that she has been playing her one year old son Dolly Parton albums. Giving an insight into the couple’s musical eclecticism, Archie Sylvester recounts how it was Peter Green’s vocals, songs, and guitar playing that made him realise how music can invoke various emotions in listeners, and how he will mix subtle hip hop influences into their overall sound. Finally, they explain how they used Peter Gabriel’s personal studio at Real World Studios to record parts of ‘Otherness’.

Where are you, and how’s the tour going?

Issy Ferris (IF): We are on tour but we have managed to come home for two nights.

Archie Sylvester (AS): It’s going well, thanks, we are three dates in and it feels like we’ve kicked off now. You always feel a bit nervous in the build-up to the first one because we are playing some new songs and some new arrangements of older songs, thinking about the set order and stuff like that. The first gig of a tour is really nerve-racking, and then you get into the swing of it and you feel a lot more comfortable, we feel we’ve got the ball rolling now and we are ready to keep going.

Your second album, ‘Otherness’ is coming out. Were you aware of the difficult second album syndrome?

IF: I wouldn’t say there was any kind of writer’s block or anything. We spent years writing our first album, and that was us finding out who we were and what we were about, and writing this album it felt like we knew who we were so it was just a matter of us being ourselves and writing the album. It came pretty naturally, and I hope people enjoy listening to it as much as we enjoyed writing it.

What are the songwriting dynamics between the pair of you?

AS: Our rule, if you like, is that we don’t really have a rule, we like to vary it up to make it interesting. Sometimes Issy will come with some lyrics and we just go from there, sometimes I might come with a chorus and we go from there, and on this album, there are a couple of songs we started with drums. We have a drum set and I just pieced together something, and we wrote a song from the drum groove I came up with. That was a new thing for us and it felt interesting. Some times we will sit at the piano and play something, we both know a little bit of piano but we are not virtuosos, mind you I can only speak for myself.

IF: Absolutely not.

AS: It feels interesting because we might play C G D and if it isn’t on an instrument you feel familiar with like guitar, it feels interesting and you can then be inspired for that song.

As is the norm these days, you released six tracks before the full album release, what’s the response been like?

IF: It’s been great, and we are very proud because we are releasing it through Archtop Records, which is the label that we set up years ago when we were releasing our first EPs, but we’ve just started talking about it publicly and we’ve been signing some new stuff. We are proud to be an independent band, we’ve always released independently, and when we know people are listening and reacting, buying a ticket and coming to our shows and pre-ordering, and adding our song to their own playlist, that’s a big deal for us.

AS: What’s great is that people are coming to our shows and they are familiar with our older stuff, but they’ve also been asking to hear some of the newer stuff, which is nice. ‘Mother’ has been a popular choice and it’s great because you always have that second album syndrome thing that they may not like it.

You are releasing the album on your own label and on a range of media covering CD, various coloured vinyls and streaming. How much of a challenge is format for independent artists?

LF: It is hard work, you have to put a lot of hours into running a label, making those decisions, and making the best product. The first thing you do is make the album, and Archie produces the records we are involved in, all aspects of it, and when it’s all done the next question is what sort of experience do we want for someone who buys it on vinyl, and that was really important to us from early on in the process. We focused on what song we wanted to close side-A and open side-B, and we had the listening experience on vinyl in mind for the first recording session. So, it goes on a journey and then you finally make these decisions and implement them with our distribution team, who are amazing, at Play It Again Sam. It is hard, but then it is also really satisfying, the moment they come through the post and you open the box and see it for the first time. That moment is amazing, especially if you’ve put every little detail you’ve been involved in, every single email, all of that stuff, it is really rewarding, for sure.

What is special about Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios?

AS: Well, it’s our nearest one, and it’s certainly worth travelling to as well. It is a beautiful place set in the countryside near Bath, and it is a residential studio but as we only live half an hour away we come home. It is a really inspiring place to be, and all of the rooms there sound great, the equipment they have is great, and it is just a nice place to be. For this album, actually, we were trying to book a few days at Real World Studios and the the time we wanted to be there they said a band had booked it for three months and nobody could get in, the whole thing, all the studios. It was really annoying because we needed to record the strings that are on the album, but we know them fairly well and they said, OK, we are going to email Peter Gabriel to see if he will let you use his writing room, which wasn’t being used by the band, who we found out later was The 1975. Fortunately, Peter Gabriel got back and said he wasn’t using it so we could use his writing room, which is another amazing studio at Real World Studios. We felt really privileged to use that room because nobody uses that room other than Peter. So that’s where the strings on the album were recorded, Peter Gabriel’s writing room, thanks to The 1975.

How important is the sound of a Ferris and Sylvester record and how do you achieve the sense of timelessness in your sound?

AS: With this album the first thing we started with after we’d got the songs was the artwork, we got in touch with an artist from Leaf and Petal Design, Karen Lynch, she makes collages from 1950s and 1960s magazines and she makes these otherworldly environments, which we’ve always thought were really cool. When we realised the album was going to be called ‘Otherness’ we had the idea to ask her to do the artwork having sent her some song lyrics and song ideas. She came up with the album artwork that you’ve seen, and we looked at it and thought that’s amazing, that image is how we want the album to sound. We printed it off really big and hung it up in whatever studio we were in, we even took it to Real World Studios and hung it in front of the desk. Every sound that we recorded had to fit into that landscape of the artwork, and that was a really nice way of doing it. What we realised in the end was that because she’d used images taken from the ‘50s and ‘60s magazines which were all taken on old film cameras, they all had a warmth and saturation, and that’s why we decided to use tape machines.

We used a tape machine from a similar era, which was actually a Swiss tape machine called a Nagra which is a portable quarter-inch tape machine. It is a beautiful machine and it runs at 15 inch, so it’s small but high quality. So, to get that sound we could see in the artwork we recorded digitally and edited it digitally, to make the most of modern production techniques. We recorded a lot of stuff live with overdubs and everything, we used all the techniques that have been invented over time, we edited digitally because it is way faster than on a tape machine, and once the edit’s been done you put it on the tape machine. It then comes back into the digital world and then there is a modern in-the-box mix that it’s mixed into. Hopefully, that answers your question. We were trying to make the most of the analogue world, but because it was 2023 and hip hop exists and people want to hear real low-end now. We love that as well, we want to hear punchy drums, we want to hear amazing stereo effects and stuff, so it’s analogue from the tape machine, it is all tube pre-amp stuff, tube microphones and tube compressors, as much tube as possible into an analogue tape machine, back into the digital world and finally a modern in the box mix.

UK Album Of The Year at the UK Americana Awards 2023 and your debut album hit #1 on the Official Jazz And Blues Album Chart. That’s covering quite a lot of bases, how do you define your music?

LF: All those genres are representative of what we do, for sure. Americana for sure, blues, folk, soul, there’s a bit of country in there as well, we tap into all those genres but we think of ourselves as songwriters, we want to do the best by the song. So, if we’re writing a song and we feel it requires that blues grit, like ‘Dark Side’ for instance, we will lean into that and go for it, or if we’ve got something like our latest single ‘Headache’ which by its nature is a dark, intimate song, and I was like, I want Dolly Parton to love this song so we need to make it like a 1970s country song. It’s always been important for us not to think we are this band and we going to write within these walls, we like to make sure we are writing the best songs we can really.

Who are your go to influences?

LF: I would say I’ve been most heavily influenced by the women who sing like angels, so Dolly Parton, Joni Mitchell, Susan Tedeschi from Tedeschi Trucks, Brittney Howard who basically taught me how to sing, her expression is unbelievable, Madison Cunningham who’s vocals are amazing. Also, I’d have to put Nick Cave in there, I know he’s not a woman, but Nick Cave just because of his songwriting.

AS: I agree totally with Issy and the ones I go back to would probably be my earliest influences which were stolen from my dad’s CD collection. I remember hearing Peter Green, early Fleetwood Mac, and back then his voice was stunning and he had great songs as well,  and the way he played guitar wasn’t fancy with loads of notes it was just the tone. I didn’t know what I was feeling when I was listening to Peter Green playing guitar, it made me feel sad or happy, and he made you feel emotion. That’s the kind of thing I go back to even now, Peter Green’s ‘I Need Your Love So Bad’ with the string arrangement, I just love that. Also, bands like Free were a big inspiration for me early on, Paul Kossoff and Paul Rodgers, that’s why I play the Les Paul because of Peter Green and Paul Kossoff. I’ve always tried to sound like Paul Rodgers but I don’t sound like any of them, actually.

LF: Also for this record, there’s Glen Campbell for instance, with his traditional country sound, and even Frank Sinatra with his string section, all of that made it into this record in quite a big way. We really wanted to make something slightly more classical.

I’m getting a feel for the interaction between you, but how do you work together as a band, rather than as man and wife?

AS: We sort of limp along, don’t we?

IF: It is interesting that you say not as man and wife but as a band because to us it’s all one.  We met eight years ago, and in those eight years we’ve probably only spent days apart, we’ve spent all our time together. I think you get into a pattern of working, living, and doing life together, not always easy for sure, but we have a rule that we are always friends at the end of the day. We both care about it so much, we do argue but it’s all for the right reasons because we want to make the best music we can. So, always be friends at the end of the day.

AS: We’re a good team as well, and maybe we don’t give each other enough credit for it. For example, we’re on tour at the moment and it’s great to have each other because we can share the responsibilities a little bit. Just naturally on tour, I’ll take a little bit more care of the techie stuff, while Issy’s doing the merch. We have our skills and we have our weaknesses.

IF: I would actually say we are the definition of co-dependent, in a good way because that word is always used in a bad way. Also, being together and working together for so long when you have to split the responsibilities there are some things about our careers I know nothing about, and the same with Archie, right, this is my job, this is your job. I think that is something to celebrate because it works, touch wood.

What are you expecting on your tour of Germany?

AS: It’s not the first time we’ve been over there but it is the first time we’ve done headline shows over there. We’ve actually done a fair bit of touring in Germany as a support act, we’ve opened for Larkin Poe over there, we did a tour with Jade Bird, who’s a good friend of ours, we did a tour in the summer with Zuccero the Italian rock star who’s big in Germany, and we toured with others and played a few festivals over there. We also played for King Charles in Germany, so we’re not sure whether he will come and watch us this time. We are very excited and nervous to be doing our first headline show in Germany. We had people messaging us with when are you coming to Hamburg, when are you coming to Berlin, and we were like we’d love to come and fortunately, we found a promoter who wanted to book the tour, so we’re doing it.

IF:  We are learning a lot about the German market at the moment, they love physical, they love listening to CD and vinyl which, obviously, I think our music lends itself to that as we discussed earlier, because that’s how we picture it when we write it. Whenever we’ve played in Germany we’ve always had a really great time and the crowds are amazing. As Archie has just said, we are really excited to be going again.

We like to share new music with our readers, so currently, what are your top three tracks, artists or albums on your playlist?

LF: We’ve got a one year old son and in the mornings I like to give him a little history lesson, a music lesson, and at the moment we are going through Dolly Parton’s back catalogue. It’s been amazing, and we’ve done ‘Hello I’m Dolly’, which is her first record, and we’ve also been listening to her much darker stuff from albums three and four. There’s a song called ‘The Bridge’ about this girl who gets herself pregnant and at the end she throws herself off this bridge, it’s dark stuff but she is an amazing songwriter. I’ve really enjoyed going back to the beginning and working through her career.

AS: I’ve been reading a book by Quincy Jones and I’ve been listening to his back catalogue, the big band stuff, his disco stuff with The Brothers Johnson. I’ve just basically been doing a Quincy deep dive. Brittany Howard has just released an album and I’ve listened to it once but I want to get into that a bit more.

LF: Also, we saw Margo Cilker at the Americana Awards and I’ve been listening to her, she was the standout of the week for me, for sure. Glen Campbell as well.

AS: Elliott Smith, I’ve been playing him. Also, I’ve been listening to Chris Cornell because we were talking about Nine Inch Nails. As you see, we are fairly broad.

LF: We think it is really important to stay broad, keep your ears open, and listen to different types of music. What were you playing me the other day, a playlist of songs written by..?

AS: Bert Bacharach.

LF: And there was just hit after hit after hit, that was a good car journey.

AS: That’s the third album, we want to write an album that sounds like it was written by Bert Bacharach, and produced by Quincy Jones. You’ve got to aim high.

Is there anything you want to say to Americana UK readers?

LF: To everyone who has supported us we want to say a big thank you and to the Americana UK community who have really championed our music, which we are very grateful for. We won Album of The Year at the Americana Awards last year which was incredible, and we hope you are proud of us with this next record.

AS: Stick with us, we are trying not to let you down.

Ferris & Sylvester’s ‘Otherness’ is out now on Archtop Records.

About Martin Johnson 389 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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