INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
The Irish Times NOVEMBER 3, 2008 - by Tony Clayton-Lea
KEEP THE HEX ROLLING
Clodagh Simonds has never had a creative strategy, but after four decades as a musician, the success of her band, Fovea Hex, proves that patience can pay off artistically, writes Tony Clayton-Lea.
Contrary to popular industry opinion, there are actually some music acts that don't need, want or chase media coverage. These acts are content to potter around the studio and to allow life to potter around them, all the while indifferent to the humdrum scrum and chit-chat of people scrambling around looking for a record deal or a few crumbs that have been brushed off the music industry table.
Clodgah Simonds, and her nominal band, Fovea Hex, is one such example. Relatively speaking, Fovea Hex is an evolving ensemble, whose roving band of musicians includes Brian Eno, Roger Eno and Carter Burwell. Simonds, however, has a few decades under her belt as a musical outsider who decided many years ago that she didn't want to engage with the music industry in any traditional sense. In all likelihood, her decision could be based on the fact that, as a former toiler in the industry, she didn't want to be yet another name casually crossed off a record company's release schedule. The thought of being one of thousands of forgotten pop stars or, perhaps more cruelly, being regarded by some people as a dried-out also-ran rankled with her to the point that for years she didn't even think of making music again.
You'd be forgiven, by the way, if her name doesn't ring any bells, but many moons ago, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Simonds was part of one of Ireland's most highly regarded folk/jazz/hippie acts, Mellow Candle. The band, long since defunct, is now regarded in certain cultish circles as the missing link between Pentangle and Devendra Banhart, while its sole album, Swaddling Songs, has achieved a certain notoriety, being described as "the holy grail of folk-rock" by some critics.
Once Mellow Candle was snuffed out, Simonds disappeared. Her curriculum vitae from 1972 onwards amounted to singing duties with Mike Oldfield, a lifelong friendship with Brian Eno, work for Richard Branson's then fledgling Virgin Records, a move to New York (where she hung out with Andy Warhol and company), and a weekly residency in CBGB's club with a band called The Same. Her life, you can safely guess, has been a long, strange, tumultuous, serendipitous trip, yet Simonds - quietly, subtly, in her own sweet way and quite subversively - has managed to survive creatively to the point where Fovea Hex perform more often in Europe than in Ireland.
The musical unit, she says, began to develop about eight years ago, due in part to the recording process becoming affordable. Musically, she adds, it was "circuitous - Fovea Hex was like a ball rolling, and I had no idea what shape or form it was going to take". Unusually for someone who is, in effect, a career musician (despite some protestations to the contrary), Simonds has little or no strategic creative plan or base from which she works. No wonder she and the music industry never really hit it off.
"Creative strategies? I actually work the opposite of that," she says. "I start something off, see where it goes, and I follow, rather than have a clear plan and make everything that happens fit that plan. I prefer working in a way where something begins to reveal itself, and so you think, oh, okay, that's what's next, so now I'll include this, now I'll include that."
Is that the way she is in real life? "It kinda is."
Musically, Fovea Hex is more than the sum of its parts. The band's most recent release, Neither Speak Nor Remain Silent, is the perfect example of music not necessarily being what you think it might sound like. From the band title (the fovea is the only part of the retina where images are received with complete clarity) to the equal parts febrile and sublime music, Simonds represents the epitome of the informed hippie/punk hybrid.
"Things aren't necessarily what they seem," she muses. "And that has definitely been a thread running through my whole life. It's also one of the reasons why I became someone who follows instinct rather than logic or strategy. To me, our music is perfectly normal. We have this problem constantly - I read what people write of it, and some of it I can't quite gather what they're talking about. I don't know, it is hard to categorise. The folk influence is there, the electronic aspect of it has come in fairly recently. What you can hear on MySpace is fairly indicative."
After our interview, in an e-mail message, Simonds writes that her friend, Brian Eno, might be able to proffer a more informed opinion. So I get his view.
"Clodagh is so self-effacing," says Eno, "that she would never talk herself up in any way at all - and I'm quite happy to do that for her. My feeling is that, having known her for such a long time, I have seen the kind of things that she has become excited about and watched how she has very cleverly woven them into her music, into something that doesn't sound like any of the sources she was impressed by.
"She gets the important qualities, yet she has picked up the spiritual qualities without mimicking the formal ones. Her music is very evolved and well thought-out."
Has it always been that way with her or is it part of a natural development?
"It has always been that way," he says. "She's a very slow, careful worker, not madly ambitious, but totally committed to what she does. I've heard and known some of her music for a long time, watched the band come to life, and while she's not prolific, what's interesting is that she's always earned her money in ways other than music. Music has been something she has done purely for love. She hasn't been under pressure to do anything other than work at her own pace.
"It shows in her work - it's very considered, and you have a feeling that it's a vision, that it's something she has worked a long time on. She has taken advantage that she wasn't an instant success in the 1970s, and she has quietly kept on with what's she's doing. She has stayed extremely true to her artistic vision."
It seems as if Simonds's creative life has been one of tootling about - true? "Not so much tootling about," she says, "as following my instincts, not having a drive or strategy, and moving away towards something that made me content and feel right. I'm not one of those people that can develop a really clear strategy, goes for it and forces everything into submission. I don't think that's a great way to live your life. I also realise it's quite passive, but it works for me."
And what about the cult status of Mellow Candle? The name crops up more and more these days in the context of the psychedelic folk acts such as Devendra Banhart, Espers, Joanna Newsom, and so on. How does Simonds feel about that?
"At first I found it astonishing, and ultimately it's very gratifying," she says. "One of the reasons Mellow Candle broke up was that we were getting nowhere. We shared a manager with Thin Lizzy - Ted Carroll - and I think, in a funny way, the meteoric rise of them caused our floundering, in that Ted suddenly had his hands full with them.
"And there we were - we weren't folky enough for folk clubs and we weren't sophisticated enough for the kind of venues that Pentangle would play. We were somewhere in the middle, and we were rough around the edges, which meant we weren't taken very seriously."
Perhaps, she ponders, that's why the band is gaining quite some notice now - not, you sense, that she'd ever go back. "It was an incredible shame in the way it went for us," she says. "We became disheartened, we were all very demoralised, we weren't getting any work and we had no money. We were all so young - raging hippies! Where else was it going to go?"