Lisa Gerrard: ‘When you’re working with another musician you can’t lie’

On a crackly line from Melbourne, Australia, Lisa Gerrard is explaining how her album Burn flamed into being.

Lisa Gerrard and Jules Maxwell. Picture: Robbie Perry

A three-way collaboration between the multi award-winning singer, Northern Irish composer and musician Jules Maxwell and English producer and electronic artist James Chapman, aka MAPS, the record has been more than five years in the making.

The seeds were first sown in 2012 when Maxwell began playing keyboards for Dead Can Dance, Gerrard’s long-running band with Brendan Perry.

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“Jules and I decided that we would try to do a piece together that we improvised every night,” she says. “We sort of walked together without sorcery or anything and said, ‘Let’s start with one or two notes and see what we can come up with’. We did that over a period of six or seven months of concerts and we developed a wonderful trust between each other.

“It is a thing when you’re working with another musician, you know you can’t lie. You either feel it or you don’t, there’s either something going on there or there isn’t. In so many situations there’s a desire to take control of that so that you box that beautiful energy in, because that’s human nature, but if you can work with someone that isn’t guided by human nature, and that is looking for the higher ground, that is artistic voices being developed in an atmosphere of unknown, if you like, then you end up doing something side by side that’s really special.

“That’s why I love working with Jules, because he doesn’t try to take control and he doesn’t try to box it in.”

The project began to take shape in 2015, when Maxwell was asked to submit songs for an album by The Mystery of Bulgarian Voices and he turned to Gerrard as co-writer. At Gerrard’s home studio they composed four songs for the choir as well as creating the building blocks for Burn.

Although a “dream assignment” for Gerrard, working with the Bulgarian choir proved a challenge even for an accomplished contralto with a three-octave range. “When we got together with the Bulgarian women in Sofia, I realised that you can’t do bel canto scale,” she explains. “When I sing, because I’m a Westerner, even though my voice can sometimes sound slightly exotic, (that’s what I use). They sing in quarter tones and fourths and fifths and drones within that.

James Chapman, aka MAPS, produced Burn. Picture: Phil Sharp

“In order for you to write a piece for Bulgarians you really have to study Bulgarian folklore. Typically Western musicians think ‘I know it all’ and I found out very quickly when I was working with them that it wasn’t that easy and I spent three years on the road with them trying to learn how to sing in quarter tones.”

Over the next five years Maxwell took the ideas he and Gerrard had roughed out in Australia and developed them at his home in France, bringing in Chapman at his publisher’s suggestion as producer. Gerrard says: “I was really pleased that Jules had taken those vocal pieces and harmonies and supported them in the most magnificently elegant way with his music and James’ production and then we have this lovely album that is actually really positive. It’s serendipitiously a really wonderful time to actually release that. All of those pieces were full of positive energy because I was so excited about writing things for the Bulgarians, and that intrinsic context was what he picked out and he’s turned it into something really special.”

For his part, Maxwell, 55, recalls striking up and immediate “rapport” with Gerrard, 60. “On the first day of rehearsals (with Dead Can Dance) she asked me to accompany her on my own for one song,” he says, via email. “It’s quite a thing to accompany Lisa Gerrard on your own even though what she asked for was very simple. It ended up being the final encore of the show and by the end of the tour it had become a five or six minute piece which we both really looked forward to.”

He credits Chapman with being “hugely important in shaping the tracks as they appear” on Burn, adding: “He had nothing to do with the Mystery of the Bulgarian Voices album but he was a vital cog in the machine for this one.”

The pair had not met before Maxwell’s publisher Daryl Bamonte suggested they work together. “In fact the truth is, I didn’t actually meet him in person until about six months after the album was completed,” he says. “I actually thought it might have been cool if we’d never met but in the end we did. But the truth is, at each stage there was complete freedom. I let Lisa do her thing in Australia. I did my own thing piecing the songs together in France and James had complete carte blanche when it came to producing it. I asked for very few changes to what he sent me. He is an integral collaborator in the project.”

Collectively they have made an album that sounds full of optimism. Given everyone’s experiences of the past year, he says they wanted to convey a sense of hope.

“I think it feels optimistic because it hints at big landscapes and wide horizons,” he adds. “And, as with all Lisa’s work, at the same time it touches something deep. It’s an emotional listen. In these days when life has become a little flat I think the album feels three-dimensional and that is pleasing.”

Or, Gerrard says simply: “If you are inspired and love, it will rise to the surface.”

Burn is out on Friday May 7.