Members: Andrea Haines, Molly Noon, Katie Jeffries-Harris, Barnaby Smith, Blake Morgan, Euan Williamson, Chris Moore, Jonathan Pacey
Interviewee: Andrea Haines
Current release: The new VOCES8 album Infinity is out August 27th via Decca Classics.
Recommendations: Album: Gabriel Kahane - Book of Travellers. Written after the artist took a two week train journey across USA, it relays the stories of the people he met.
Painting: Canaletto - A Regatta on the Grand Canal. I could look at it for hours and still be finding new things in it.
If you enjoyed this VOCES8 interview, visit their official website for more information and links to all their social media profiles. You can also find them on Facebook, Instagram and twitter.
When did you start playing your instrument, and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started singing at the age of eight in my local church choir, and went on to join as many choirs as I could, spurred on by my choirs directors there who saw potential and made a huge effort to support me. I listened to all sorts of music growing up, from the pop charts to jazz and vintage rock, and I was totally fascinated by the way music could ‘say’ something that no other medium could, cause you to feel a certain way, or process emotions you hadn’t even managed to put your finger on yet.
When I started, it was all about the repertoire and the high I got from singing amazing music surrounded by other people (that hasn’t changed - I still get more pleasure out of making music with others rather as a lone artist). As I went deeper into singing and music, my listening widened and I spent a lot of time absorbing recordings by Emma Kirkby and Carolyn Sampson, particularly because their voices all had this beautiful combination of clarity and warmth.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
It’s always trial and error! Usually I have in my head the sound or effect I was to achieve, and then it’s about experimenting with how to get there, which is different for every singer. I learn a huge amount from listening and aural perception so I often sit and listen to recordings of singers who were producing something similar to what I want to do, on repeat, picking out how the sounds are technically achieved.
Within VOCES8 I’ve had 13 years to develop and evolve with the unit of the ensemble, learning to control and strengthen my voice to achieve the high, clear and quiet singing which is so distinctive to the group.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
My interests and passions in other elements of art, like painting and poetry, can really lift my singing, either through visualisation or if someone has set a really great text to music. There are also hardly any full time singing jobs in ensembles out there for women, so I’m proud that we have three female full time singers in VOCES8.
What were some of your main challenges when starting out as an artist and in which way have they changed over the years?
When joining any group that tours as extensively as VOCES8 (performing 100-120 concerts a year), stamina was something that took time to develop. Getting to know my limits and how they might differ to my colleagues, deciding whether I could do my job 100% the next day if I had one more negroni … Self awareness is hugely important and takes time to develop and maintain.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first instrument?
Singing acoustically has always been the clearest expression of humanness to me, partly down to the fact that it comes directly out of our bodies; it’s not transferred through another vessel or instrument before it gets to someone’s ears. Putting microphones in front of that turns it into a whole different instrument, so there have been some steep learning curves in sound checks before shows on mic, changing the timbre, vowel shapes and volume in a bid to better control the frequencies flying out of our mouths and bodies.
Tell me about your instrument, please. How would you describe the relationship with it? What are its most important qualities and how do they influence the musical results, including your own performance?
As most people would probably say, it’s a love/hate relationship. Having our instruments ‘in-built- is a blessing and curse; emotions, physical and mental health all have a direct influence on how it works and sounds, and it’s different every day based on those experiences. That’s both a beautiful and a scary thing.
As part of an ensemble, you spend a lot of time sacrificing your individuality for the good of the whole sound, so much of the time I’m practicing how to better control my voice, and shut down extra frequencies which would otherwise disturb the balance or tuning. I spend my time between knowing this is a sacrifice we all make, and realising that my singing in that style has become one of the most defining things about the VOCES8 sound.
How would you describe your approach to interpretation? Where do you start and how do you develop your view on a piece, what are some of your principles and what constitutes a successful interpretation for you?
We try to work fairly democratically within the ensemble, because if everyone has the chance to chip in, we’re more likely to have eight committed artists on the stage. But we acknowledge that also takes time and can sometimes lead to the bigger picture of a musical work being lost or diluted amongst several different ideas, so our Artistic Director, Barney, keeps an eye on that side of things to ensure the music’s purpose stays true.
I think any interpretation has the power to be successful as long as it’s honest and organic.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives?
We’re really lucky to have a huge team of wonderful people we work with, from record producers, engineers, agents, managers, to educators and our own Foundation’s dedicated staff. Musically, we’ve had the opportunity to collaborate with orchestras, period ensembles, bands, other a cappella groups, and crossing genres into working with rappers, electronic sound artists, dancers and digital visual artists.
I’ve always enjoyed the fact that we’re willing to experiment. Beyond the joy of making music itself, it also serves as a great opportunity to reassess our own methods, ethos and approach to rehearsal and performance by watching others. During lockdown we set up our own online festival ‘LIVE From London’ which opened up the possibility to collaborate with loads of other artists.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
No two days are the same, but mornings usually involve a cup of tea (I have to take my PG Tips away with me on tour!) while I work through my emails and notifications. I manage the VOCES8 social and online media output, so there’s usually correspondence from our manager, collaborators on future projects, our record label, or supporters to respond to, before scheduling any posts that need to go out that day.
If we’re on tour, I’d then head out to grab a coffee and some brunch or lunch with some of my colleagues, maybe make a call home to friends and family, before we head to the venue where we might run a masterclass with a local choir. We always have a two hour rehearsal before a concert where we tend to be practicing music for events several weeks or months away, before topping and tailing the repertoire for that evening, blocking any movement and then heading to the dressing rooms to get ready for the show, and have a snack.
Our concerts are typically two 40 minute halves with an interval, and as soon as we’re off stage we head to the lobby of the venue to meet our audience - I think staying in touch directly with our audiences is one of the most important things we can do and vital to our own growth that we acknowledge what they thought of the performance, and it’s great to get constructive feedback. Then we’d head off to a local bar or restaurant to grab some late dinner and a beer to wind down before hitting the pillow.
It’s often pretty difficult to define where work life stops and personal life begins; I don’t switch off from being a musician when my music work ends.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
It feels like there have been several different ‘breakthrough’ waypoints along the way, but the growth of VOCES8 feels pretty organic which is nice.
Releasing our first album on the Decca Classics label, and our first concert for the BBC Proms would both be up there for me. We often get so tied up in minute artistic endeavours and being our own harshest critics - it’s those moments when you can stand back for a moment and appreciate the confirmation that other people enjoy your work too, and you’re doing ok.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
For my own creativity I’ve certainly found that I have a window of inspiration just between ‘on the verge of stress’ and ‘on the verge of breaking down’, and I think that’s quite common, though not necessarily healthy to always wait for this to be the trigger. Beautiful surroundings help, if I can walk our of the door and see mountains or the sea, it provides an immediate perspective on life.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
I certainly have certain memories attached to particular pieces of music which might make listening to them difficult, but it’s still all part of a greater healing. Listening to and performance music allows me to internally process a feeling, experience, emotion, without verbalising it, or even sometimes being able to really identify it myself. There’s still true magic and mystery in music and the way it does that.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?
I, and many of my colleagues, would definitely associate a sensory musical experience with tuning systems and the harmonic series. Hearing a chord which is tuned and balanced perfectly using ‘just’ intonation gives a lot of people a warm fuzzy and satisfied feeling inside, whereas hearing beating frequencies can really disturb and unsettle.
One of my favourite aspects of the job is touring and therefore getting to eat in so many different places, so I’d probably associate some concert programmes in my memory, with the food I had directly before or afterwards!
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
I feel there’s definitely a responsibility for artists to be the soundtracks to society, to respond and reflect. Can you truly consider yourself an artist if you’re not trying to say anything?
I do also believe that there’s an important role to fill in providing comfort, escape, and art for art’s sake, particularly in a world where switching off has become so difficult (but necessary), and music is considered a luxury rather than a part of what makes us human.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
It can explain everything to one person, and the same time as explaining nothing to another. Perception and perspective.