Interview with Vicky Johnson of Winter In Eden

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Interview by Paul Quinton

 

It’s been a couple of years since Winter In Eden came to our attention, as that rarest of beasts, a British symphonic metal band with the potential to compare with the Dutch and Scandanavian giants. Their first album, ‘The Awakening’ had a lot of very positive reviews, and now there’s a second release, ’Echoes of Betrayal’. Before what became an absolutely triumphant appearance at the Cambridge Rock Festival, Midlands Rocks’ Paul Quinton sat down for a chat with lead singer Vicky Johnson to discuss the album, the art of songwriting and the unfortunate circumstances behind the need for the band to recruit drummer Steve Hauxwell.

 

MR:- Since the first album, you’ve had to change drummers because of Wayne being ill. How did you get to meet Steve?

VJ:- What happened was, and it was literally the day we did the video for ‘Torment’, which was after we’d finished the album,Waynesaid that his condition had got to the stage where he couldn’t carry on. We knew a drummer in a local band called Reflection In Exile, who was going to help us out. But Reflection in Exile are doing quite well, I think they’re playing Bloodstock this year, so things are starting to build, and I think he felt that there was going to be too much going on with both bands.. We only had one rehearsal with him, and so we contacted Ralph, our manager and said ‘we need a drummer!’ Ralph used to manage Marshall Law and he said the drummer there was really good, he said that he knew that Marshall Law really put him through his paces, so did we want to get in touch? We thought, ‘well it can’t do any harm’, sent Steve a message and he replied that he’d listened to our stuff and was very interested. So I had a chat with him and he was very much up for helping out. But this was only weeks before our next gig. We didn’t want to cancel any of the gigs we had coming up because they were to promote the album, otherwise we would have taken more time to get things just right. He put in a hell of a lot of work, including travelling, because he’s not based in the North East.

 

MR:- With him not based in the North East how big a problem does that make rehearsing?

VJ:- We used to rehearse every week. Ian (Heddle, bassist) and Wayne teach outside school hours, so they’d finish teaching, then we’d rehearse. But with Steve, what we’ve had to do is keep our normal rehearsal for writing, just the four of us, and the aim is then to send stuff to Steve for him to mess about with, for when we get together.to jam it out. As for rehearsing existing stuff is concerned, he came up for a few weekends in a row, before the gigs, stayed in the area, and he’s tried to do a lot of rehearsing at home, but from the point of view of getting together at the drop of a hat, it’s more difficult.

 

MR:- Would you have been able to do that anyway, with the rest of you holding down day jobs?

VJ:- It is difficult. I think you have to have that mentality of ‘How much of a priority is the band to you’, and if it is a priority, then you make time one way or another. Steve seems to be of that attitude, and he will take a day off work to come and sort stuff out. It’s always difficult, there are always pressures on time, but if you enjoy what you do, you’ve just got to make time for it.

 

MR:- Did the new boy have any input into the album?

VJ:- No, he didn’t get involved, literally, until the album was finished. The album was finished, we’d just done the video, andWaynetold us he couldn’t carry on. Being fair, we knew it was coming for a while, because he’s been struggling with his health for some time, but the decision really had to come from him. Then he basically said ‘enough’s enough’, literally on the day we did the video. It wasn’t until after that that Steve got involved.

 

MR:- Before that, when it did come to putting the album together, you followed the same route as for the first album.

VJ:- Well, as far as the writing was concerned, that was all done before we went into the studio. When we wrote the first song for ‘The Awakening’, ‘Fate Will Oblige’, we’d never written together before. Me and Steve (Johnson, keyboards) had written together for many years, but as a band we’d never written together. When we formed, we thought ‘right, we’d better write some songs’, then it was a case of trying to discover how things worked and how we were going to do things, because Wayne came up with some lyrics for ‘At The Edge Of The World’ and said ‘Do you want to put a tune to that?’, which was difficult for me, because I’d never, ever done it that way round. We managed to stick to a lot of the original lyrics, but we had to rewrite them, take a lot out, because he’d basically written it more like poetry. But in the end, we got to more of a formula, in that someone would either come forward with an idea, a guitar lick, or Steve would have a keyboard melody thing going on or some kind of tune somebody would have in their heads. They’d bring it to the table, then we’d just get together, jam it out, go over it until we got something together, then people would go away, come up with a solo, Steve would come up with the orchestration and Wayne or I would write the lyrics, and we have pretty much kept to that formula for songwriting. But we also develop the songs at gigs, the more you gig, the more you can say ‘that’s not working, we need to get to the verse quicker, or you’re not getting as much reaction from that as the song before’. We didn’t get the same opportunity to do that as much with this album as we did with the last one, we pretty much gigged every single song on the last one apart from ‘The Awakening’ itself. With this one, I think we only gigged about half of them, and some of them we’d only played once, so it was a bit more difficult to gauge how people were going to react. But studio-wise we went back to Fred (Purser, producer) and the process of recording was similar to last time, but we did spend more time trying to hone it. We did think about going somewhere else, but that was one of the problems we had with time constraints, and day jobs, of course, which kind of dictated where we went.

 

MR:- With what you said about the lyrics, do you find it hard to sing other people’s words or was it just the question of how he’d written it?

VJ:- It wasn’t a problem with the lyrics, just that I always like to have a tune first. Trying to write a tune around the lyrics, that was the difficult part, because I’ve always done it the other way round. For example ‘Oblivion’,Waynewrote the majority of the words for that. When I’m singing stuff to a new tune, it can be bizarre, because when you’re writing a melody, some of what you sing can be gobbledegook, as long as you get the overall tune mastered. But every now and again, you’ll come up with some words or phrases that stick in your head, and with ‘Oblivion’ it was ‘Welcome to the middle of my world’. I just couldn’t get it out of my head and it stuck.

 

MR:- That’s interesting, because if you take Rush as an example, everyone always says ‘Neil Peart, best lyricist there is’. But if you read interviews, he does write lyrics, but when Geddy Lee gets hold of them, he often changes them around so they’re easier to sing.

VJ:- Yes, Wayne wanted to know what the phonetics were and how I was going to sing things, but even then it got to the stage where he knew what I needed and it did fit, there were occasions where I had to change things. ‘For The Few’, for example, the only one that he’s co-written the lyrics for on the new album, he was supposed to write all the lyrics for that, but by the time it came back…you’ve got to tell a story and you’ve got to believe in the lyrics, and we got a certain point where I said ‘There’s too much repetition in this and I don’t think it’s working’. So I went away and rewrote half of the lyrics and it ended up as a co-write. If it feels right, it usually is right, and it certainly got to the stage where it wasn’t a problem fitting the lyrics into the tune we’d come up with, but whether or not you believed in the lyrics.

 

MR:- So where do your lyrical ideas come from? Because you’re a ‘symphonic rock band, do you always feel the need to introduce a certain Victorian Gothic, Romantic element into it? Your song titles, for example, ‘The Awakening’, ‘Trapped’, ‘Lies’. They do fit the template.

VJ:- I’ve always been quite melancholic! I feel that music is a way of expressing yourself.  When you come home from work, and you’ve had a really bad day, you want to sit at the piano and you want to get it out and express it, and I’ve never really been a happy lyric writer. I have written some things that have been quite cheery, but the more I’ve gone on, I’ve started to realise how important lyrics are to me. It’s funny, because before I went to see Roxette play recently, I was listening to some of the later albums and I thought ‘I’m not enjoying this as much as the earlier stuff’. I think it is definitely because my tastes have changed, they’re heavier than they used to be.   Some of the lyrics were very simplistic and obvious, you knew exactly what you were getting.  I think I’m starting to become more cryptic, where you can get a few different ideas from the same lyrics so different people can read it in different ways.

 

MR:- Listening to the album, and please tell me if I’ve got the wrong end of the stick here, I got the impression you were trying to move away from the ‘symphonic rock’ template a little. Keeping your identity, but trying to move into different areas, try different things, or is that just a natural progression from the first album?

VJ:- The only thing I think is that, because ofWayne’s illness, he wasn’t able to cope with some of the ‘metal’ drumming, and that may have caused it to sound more of a rock album. That said, we’ve always felt like we were more of a rock band than a metal band. Ian’s moving forward with his songwriting, and there’s more input from everybody this time as everyone’s feeling more comfortable with contributing, but I don’t think it’s a deliberate attempt to move away from where we were before.

 

MR:- It’s interesting what you said about being more of a rock band than a metal band, but the first album seemed like more conventional song structures, whereas on ‘Echoes of Betrayal’ you seemed to have gone beyond ‘verse-chorus-verse’ etc.

VJ:- I think the reason for that was because, on a lot of tracks on ‘Awakening’, we had to think ‘How are we going to finish this track.? Well, we’ll have two choruses’. So for this one, it was almost a matter of ‘Well we can’t do that again, we’ve got to make it a little more interesting. Let’s have a couple more verses before we get to the chorus’. In that respect, we have tried to change.

 

MR:- Did you find yourself repeating things?

VJ:-  At first it was more in the structure of the songs rather than the content. So it’s like ‘obligatory guitar solo, break down,  middle-eight’. But as mentioned above we tried to think about it a bit more.  This time I’m hardly singing any middle-eights at all. There’s a lot more ‘Oohing’ and ‘aaahing,’ though.

 

MR:- Is that when it becomes conscious, rather than a natural progression?

VJ:- In that regard, yes, and I think people are more comfortable in speaking their mind now. And with Sam coming from a more prog background, me and Steve from a more commercial background, so for us the issue of the double chorus isn’t a problem, whereas Sam….

 

MR:- He doesn’t want lengthier instrumental passages , does he?

VJ:- It’s interesting, because Sam’s a great solo guitarist, but he will be the first to say ‘No, we can’t do a guitar solo for that long. In and out, leave them wanting more.’ Completely different to your usual self-indulgent guitar solo, although I don’t mind that, in the right place.

 

MR:- Gives you the chance to go off for a breather, doesn’t it?

VJ:- Exactly! But Sam’s very much of the attitude to leave people wanting more.

 

MR:- One thing I did find interesting about the new album as a whole is that you’ve got the continuation of ‘The Awakening’ on here, finishing the story with a three-part piece, and yet you haven’t used it as the start of the album or the big finish with Steve’s piano coda. It sort of falls in the middle.

VJ:- We had quite a big discussion about where to put it. I liked the idea of putting it at the beginning. However all the chapters had to be together, as Parts 3, 4 then 5, but we didn’t think ‘Regret’ was an opening track. But if you put it at the end, you’re doing something we regretted about the first album, which is sticking something we genuinely thought was the strongest track right at the end. The compromise was mirroring the number of the chapter with the track number on the album.

 

MR:- It’s a very old-fashioned idea, but it’s as if it ends the first side of an LP. The piano piece brings it to an end, then it’s time to get up and turn the album over.

VJ:- I know what you mean, but the other way that I looked at it was that with  ‘Awakening’, you almost had three blocks of songs, and I like the idea of that, because you have a break when ‘Ruled By Fear’ comes in, which was originally going to be the first track on the first album, and then you had the instrumental ‘Windelfell’ breaking it up again and keeping the interest. This time you couldn’t put the songs in an order where similar tracks were together, because they’re all different in their own way. So we tried to do it in the way that you have two heavier tracks to start with, then you slow it down so that you don’t have too many slower songs together. It was difficult.

 

MR:- So, you’ve followed exactly the same recording process for the album, same studio, same producer. How much consideration did you give to changing things this time around?

VJ:- A lot of thought. We did look at going to different recording studios, different producers, but ultimately it was the comfort factor, everyone felt comfortable with Fred. He’s a lovely guy and we knew he would do things the way we wanted to do them. I suppose, in hindsight, people would say ‘You need a bit more independence’, but there was also the fact again that we all had day jobs so travelling up toNewcastleto record was easier. Steve and I took holidays but the others were still working, so it meant it was easier for them to do their stuff after work. Don’t forget we’re still self-financing, even though we’re managed by Lycan Media, so we couldn’t necessarily pay for the album as well as the other guys missing work and losing money as they are self-employed. I think we’ve got to the stage where we’ve gone as far as we can with Fred, and he’s been great for us, but I think the consensus is that we need to move on to the next stage and use a different set-up next time. I think we’re possibly looking toEuropefor the next album. Maybe for recording, but certainly we’re thinking about the mixing and mastering being done on the continent.

 

MR:- You must be really chuffed at some of the reviews the album has had.

VJ:- Yeah, very chuffed. The more I read the reviews, though, the more I take them with a pinch of salt. You find someone will say the keyboards need to be reined in, it should be more about the guitars, then others will say the complete opposite. Some people have been very complimentary about me, others that the band need to get a different singer, and others say that I’m an operatic singer, which I’m clearly not. I’ve seen all extremes, but the one big thing was that the production is not getting to people as much as we wanted it to and maybe we’ve not taken as big a step from ‘Awakening’ as people thought we might, and I think that’s why we’ve thought about recording somewhere else.

 

MR:- Those reviews you’ve mentioned, and I suppose it’s inevitable because you’re a woman fronting a band, does it bother you getting singled out like that?

VJ:- It doesn’t bother me, only from the band’s perspective. Yes, the singer is always going to get more attention than the others in the band, but to completely focus on me being female means you almost eliminate the other four guys in the band.

 

MR:- But it’s a common theme with most symphonic rock bands, that instead of having a bloke at the front it’s a woman. It’s still a very conservative business in some ways. Do you become more aware of that?

VJ:- Yes, I think we all are. I’ve been lucky in that people have been complimentary about me, but you do get some reviews where they start with ‘Oooh, it’s a female singer in an already saturated genre’, and the review is all about the fact that it’s a female singer. The male-fronted bands that massively out number female-fronted bands are rarely described as ‘over saturated’. I want all the band members to be regarded equally, I want to be thought of as part of the band, so that I’m also an equal part of the songwriting, as everyone else is. I remember reading a review once that said I was only in the band because I was married to the keyboard player, which is the sort of comment you’re going to get every now and again.

 

MR:- But then, you’ve got the four blokes in the band, who are concentrating on playing the music, while you’re the front person, so is it down to you to put on the show and present the band?

VJ:- Well, to a degree. One of the things that people did comment on in the early days was that I was giving a performance and that some of the lads were just standing there. I didn’t necessarily agree with that at the time, but if I look back at old videos now, I can understand that. But the more that we’ve grown together as a band, certainly everyone’s more focussed on the fact that it’s not just about giving an immaculate musical performance. Even Steve’s said to me ‘I could play some bum notes, as long as I’m performing well, people are more bothered about that than about hearing a 100% perfect recital.’ I think all of the lads have taken that on board and really grown in their performance. I do feel it’s more of a band performance than it used to be. Yes, it’s down to me to speak to everybody, to present the band, but then I want the band to speak for itself.

 

MR:- Do you feel it’s time to move away from the ‘Basque and Ballgown’ element of your image?

VJ:- I have thought about this, but it’s more from me being conscious about what I wear than anything else.   I have thought about wearing other things but I don’t think they wouldn’t necessarily suit me on stage. Wearing a corset makes me feel like I’m playing a part and it’s not until I’ve got the corset on, that I think ‘Here we go’ and I’m ready. If that’s one of the things that contributes to you being put in a certain category, then I appreciate that, but I just feel quite comfortable in wearing the things that I  do because psychologically, it helps get me to a certain place.

 

MR:- And as a singer, who would you say are your influences, because you clearly don’t follow on from people like Tarja?

VJ:- No, definitely not. I look at Marie from Roxette. Her voice is just amazing and I grew up listening to her and thinking ‘Oh, I wish I could sing like her’. It’s certainly her that’s influenced me, but there are a lot of male singers that I like as well, and I suppose when I first started, I was singing a lot of ‘male’ songs when we were out doing cover versions, because it seemed to suit my voice a bit more. I guess I’ve stuck in some sort of comfort zone but I’ve tried to reach out a bit more on this album.

 

MR:- So, where next for the band? You’ve got gigs lined up between now and Christmas. Not enough, in my opinion, as I really think you ought to play more often. I know you’ve got lives outside music…

VJ:- It’s not really that. We would quite happily do more gigs. I think the problem that we have is the type of gig we’re offered, whether it’s going to do the band any favours, purely from the point of view of the size of the band that we are, with the orchestration etc, that you can’t go out and play in a pub that’s got a really bad PA.  We’re not snobby about the gigs that we do, but it’s important how we put ourselves across, because if you come out of that gig and the sound wasn’t right, you are judged on that rather than the performance.  That’s not good for us, nor the fans, so we’ve had to be a little picky about the gigs that we do. We’ve been offered a few more, but they haven’t been the right type of gig.

 

MR:- Presumably, as well, you’re starting to think about another record?

VJ:- With Steve being in the band now, we’re very interested to see which direction this will take us. I can see us going down a slightly heavier route, just because that’s where Steve’s background is, he’s more of a metal drummer. But we won’t ever move away from the Winter In Eden sound, because it’s part of us, but I can hear metal elements starting to come in much more than they have in the past.

 

MR:- Finally, and don’t take this the wrong way, do you ever feel that where you come from, where you’re based in the North East, is a hindrance to you?

VJ:- Yes, I do. If we were based inBirminghamor inLondon, then I do think it would help us a little more. However, there’s almost an upper ceiling, wrongly, for the type of stuff that we do, because it’s very much European based. I was hoping it would be more ‘Here’s a British band doing this type of stuff, good for them!’ But it seems to be more ‘They’re not European (ie on the continent), do we want to know about them?’ So it’s almost had the opposite effect to what I thought it would. Whether or not we ought to move toHolland, I don’t know. There is a limit to where you can get in this country.

 

Winter In Eden’s new album ‘Echoes of Betrayal’ is available now from the band’s website. They play the Assembly, Leamington Spa, supporting Karnataka , on November 17th