Richard Barbieri: ‘The atmosphere outside had a big impact on the music’

“I’m sure it’s the same for a lot of artists, they just had to rejig their plans,” says Richard Barbieri, reflecting that his latest solo album, Under a Spell, is far more introspective than he had originally envisaged.

Richard Barbieri. Picture: Carl Glover

“For me, it was going from one extreme to another,” says the former Japan and Porcupine Tree keyboard player about this collection of instrumentals recorded in lockdown. “You couldn’t work in the studio with people, you couldn’t get all these things done, so then I had to think, ‘do I want to make another album?’ and I felt I did, I felt creative, I felt ready, so I started.

“The atmosphere outside had a big impact on the music as well as my own mental state – weird dreams and everything. It all merged into this surreal conscious/unconscious state.”

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One recurring Blair Witch Project-like dream, the 63-year-old explains, involved “walking through this forest and there was a feeling that there were things going on quite close to you but you can’t see them, you can hear little mutterings and movements, so then your imagination comes into play, it all gets unnerving, but on the hand you can also have very positive experiences, it can be very comforting, almost like a cocoon type of thing, where you feel quite secure”.

“These dreams would carry on into the day,” he says, “and it coincided with the walks I was having in these woods, and it just fed into the music. I tried to recreate those sort of feelings.”

Under a Spell has a narrative arc. “It can be difficult with instrumental music because you’re not giving people lyrics to help them,” Barbieri says, “but I tried to do that first with the titles of each track. I tried to make those as indicative as possible of what’s going on, and then it’s something I’ve done all my life, really, as a musician, I’ve managed to create these audio scenes with synthesisers and with sound design and effects, I can set an atmosphere, and that’s the challenge.”

In this instance, Barbeiri allowed his enthusiasm for film scores to “bleed” into this album. “On the opening of the title track there’s a lot of vibraphone by this really great Swedish musician that I work with [Klas Assarsson]. I got that from The Man Who Fell To Earth, the long opening scene where [David Bowie] lands and he’s coming down this hill and then he’s walking along, and it’s got a great score by a Japanese composer called Stomu Yamashta. It’s a jazz piece and it has this really odd progression, that always stayed with me and I always thought I’d like to use something similar to that in the piece, and I managed to do that with that intro.”

A deluxe edition of Japan’s third album, Quiet Life, is due to be released on March 26. Barbieri reveals he was “involved to a certain degree and then I got thrown off the project”. “I love remastering of the album itself, it sounds fantastic, and then there’s another disc which is all the singles and remixes...and then they added this third disc which is an audience recording of a show we did in Japan,” he says. “The quality wasn’t good at all, it was cutting out and going from speaker to speaker, and it was quite early in our career in Japan so it was girls screaming from start to finish. You’ve got this mass of screaming and us in the background. I just said it sounds horrendous and at that point I wasn’t really involved any more.”

Under a Spell is out on Friday February 26.