Robyn Ferguson talks about the production and story behind her Falling Forward album release and divulges her thoughts around the Covid-19 pandemic.
Hi Robyn, thanks so much for taking time out on a public holiday to chat to me – much appreciated. So your latest solo album, Falling Forward, is set to be released today (1 May 2020). What exactly inspired you to write this album?
Awesome, thank you for your time! So the album involves a number of things. It’s a combination of experiences from my disease which I got last year and it was quite debilitating so it was working through a lot of that and the frustrations that were coupled with it and the overcoming of it to get to that point of overcoming and actually making something good out of a really crappy situation. It was just the process of finding one’s self in all that because sometimes it’s really hard to connect yourself once you’ve been disconnected. So this album is a follow up from the first one, Alizarin. There’s a chemical compound for Alizarin which is the colour red. That particular Alizarin crimson red is quoted throughout history as being a momentous occasion and it’s something important. Something grand that’s happened at first perhaps… So following on from that, Falling Forward has a similar looking compound behind it and that’s actually the chemical compound for adrenaline. Part of the disease I’ve got involves a neurodegenerative transmission disease so I’m missing some neurotransmitters. You get different ones and adrenaline is one of them. Adrenaline not only gets you all excited and amped about life, it also helps you to generally live and breathe because without such your heart will stop and all of that. It’s also involved in just letting go and falling into your purpose. So throughout the time of my recovery last year, I had more than enough time to think because I was partially paralysed so it was quite a challenge. I started going down a really dark thought pattern and a dark place which you really don’t ever want to be in. To try and get myself out of it was really hard and to find something within myself to get over it, to go “yea sure, you can’t really feel your hand” and you believe your purpose is to play music and now how are you going to do this when you can’t even move – it’s quite a mental block that you get into. So the album was just a huge expression of overcoming and success in that and just stepping out of your comfort zone and falling into your future, into your purpose and knowing that things are going to be hectic but things are going to change. I mean we’re in this mad pandemic at the moment and we’re all stuck inside but despite that you can find yourself and your purpose in this life and in this world and it doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from or what’s going – that you can do it. If you put your mind to it, you can do it. That’s the essence of this album – work hard, play hard. If you believe you can, you can and it’s just a matter of persevering. It’s never going to be easy but you can do it.
The songs on Falling Forward are quite diverse in their disposition. Do each of these songs refer to the same event or different events with a range of emotions experienced?
It’s all related to the last year. The last year has had a lot of ups and downs – I relocated, I collapsed and was in hospital for a long time, I had a lot of recovery – it was just absolute madness. A lot of people can relate to a lot of parts of that. So each song was written at a very particular time within this past year where I was feeling a very particular way. Some songs were written when I was feeling incredibly sad, depressed and lonely and others were written when I was feeling incredibly happy, excited and stoked for the future and actually seeing my recovery and success in it. But it kind of takes you full circle. So the songs on the album have very specific titles. “Gravity” is just the heavy sinking feeling of being completely and utterly alone in your mind and in your physical space. It’s also feeling the weight of the world on your shoulders because you feel like there is no way out – if this is life then I don’t really want to be in it. So “Gravity” is the way through the situation that we all find ourselves in on a day-to-day basis. Like what wakes you up in the morning? Why do you feel the way you do? Why do you struggle with what you are struggling with? If you’re waking up in the morning and thinking “ugh, work…” why do you feel this way and what does it all mean. So that song is weighing very heavily on my heart – I wrote this song just before I collapsed. “Oxygen” moves to a space of… It will take you on a bit of a roller-coaster I hope… It has parts of feeling desperate and then parts of feeling a release – that’s how I felt when I was writing it. A lot of that album was written during the first turmoil of landing in hospital and having to get my mind wrapped around what was happening to me and the fact that I literally felt like I could not breathe and just finding a way to get over that. Part of what I have, you might not see it manifesting physically, I might look perfectly fine but there’s a disconnection between my brain and my body and signals don’t transfer the way they should. You look at your heart, you look at your hands and legs – there’s nothing wrong with them but you can’t move them no matter how much you try. You feel so incredibly trapped like you’re under water. So “Ocean Born” from the previous album is a similar feeling of feeling trapped and drowning but overcoming that. “Oxygen” likewise has that – sort of trapped underwater, can’t breathe, can’t move, can’t do anything – desperately seeking for a purpose and a reason of why is this happening? Why am I here? Who am I? What is this? Is thing even real, what is going on? If you are so mentally strong why can’t you do anything? What’s happening? “Carbon” is going back to the basics of who we are. We are all carbon life forms. We are just tiny molecules – a little speck is all we are at our core essence. I think we complicate life so much with our own emotions, the baggage that we carry from past events and we compartmentalise these things – I do that. I don’t really deal with any issues or problems – I just carry all of it and then there’s one event that you carry through and put it in its bottle (I have all these little bottle tattoos). You put it into its bottle and you think that you are keeping it safe, that you’re dealing with it and you’re in a cool place but actually all that is, is a vile of poison and if you open it, it’s just Pandora’s Box. So “Carbon” takes you all the way back to finding the basics. It’s also quite a different song to what most people know me for. I think a lot of people know me from Adorned in Ash or Sisters of Metal which is all brutal so it is quite different for most people and in a way it’s a little bit of a middle finger to a lot of people who are trying to put me into a box and dictating what my music should be. So it is boundary breaking and at the same time quite a simple song with its own complexities layered in. It’s one of my favourites actually – I listen to a vast variety of music so this was quite nice to do. Another thing about “Carbon” is that at the end of the day ashes to ashes, dust to dust – we all end up going back to just being dust and everything in life is temporary. “Cloud” has this push-pull motion at the end, that headbang part where everyone is just going to have fun. One day I woke up and felt tremendously better and I was able to walk around again and then suddenly collapsing and not knowing what is going on. So it’s one of the first songs in terms of sequence of events not in terms of being written. These songs weren’t placed in order of when they were written – so they do jump around a little but that’s just how I felt the album should flow. The push-pull part is a bit of heartbeat like coming back to life and trying to figure things out. I think these are questions people ask… Well, I have been asking them my whole life, why am I here? How do I connect myself after being disconnected? Then it moves on to “Petrichor” which is again, quite a different song and a very short song. I toyed with the idea of putting it on the album or leaving it off because I thought I’d get flak for it but then I thought it’s my music and I can do what I want. “Petrichor” is quite a fun song – I started with the idea on my way down to Cape Town. I was driving from Gauteng and if you’ve ever done that drive… it’s a long one… I’ve done it multiple times in my life and after one tour with Adorned in Ash where we all nearly murdered each other, I felt like I’d never ever drive to or from Cape Town again unless I was moving and then what happened? I moved. So I had to. That entire move happened quite quickly… I changed jobs and within two weeks I had to sell everything and move down. While driving through the Karoo, I took a break and I was sitting under this tree on the side of the highway in complete silence with nobody else around and in the distance, there was a storm cloud starting – it was a very interesting feeling and time for me. I have to give Clinton Watts who mixed and mastered this album a special mention because he is just absolutely fantastic – I’ve worked with him so many times. I can describe the song like this – it’s an autumn day and a little bit chilly, there’s light rain and you’ve got a cup of tea and you’re staring out the window pondering life – that is “Petrichor” and that’s the feeling it should give. It’s a little bit of fear, a little bit of peace. So, I’m sitting on the highway, completely alone and there’s nothing for miles – it’s kind of cool but it’s also kind of weird. Even though the song is a minute and half, it is what it needed to be. It was one of the first recordings that I did after the recovery. Currently I still can’t feel most of my left hand and as a guitarist this is quite something. At the time, I couldn’t feel or move much of my hand at all so it was a very emotional and frustrating time… But I found a moment of peace in getting those one, two, three notes correct and developing it from there. “The Fall” is the last song and also one of my favourites. I originally thought it would be the first song on the album and I realised it needed to be the last one because that is literally where you find yourself. In all of this madness, you find a moment of quiet in the eye of the storm and you realise I’ve got to do something different to what I’ve been doing up until now. So it’s taking that moment of fear and excitement, channeling it into one thing and just taking the plunge. It’s going into something and knowing that I’m going to do this. It is scary being a solo musician and it’s scary for me having this album out because I’ve pushed myself so much further than what I would have done before – to prove something to myself. “The Fall” takes me back to that moment where I feel on top of the world having moved to Cape Town and soon after collapsing on the floor and having a seizure and then waking up weeks later and having to piece my life together. What I’ve learned in all this and how “The Fall” helped me is to take everything and just rip it all apart and stop feeling sorry for myself. The great thing about “The Fall” is that once you have fallen so far and so hard and there’s nothing left of you, you scrape all those pieces together and you can either throw them away or you can take the time to meticulously mend them back together. You may not understand the reason why you’re on this planet, what your purpose in life is and why these bad things happen to you but you are here for a reason. I thought to myself, I can’t just give up and stop what I’m doing and accept life the way it is because life is so much more. That’s not only the essence of this song but the essence of the whole album.
What input did your producer Clinton Watts have during the process?
I wouldn’t necessarily call him my producer but rather my mixing and mastering engineer. He is just fantastic and I’ve worked on many projects with him such as Adorned in Ash, Forfeit Thee Untrue…I did my first album, Alizarin, with him. The way I approached it was similar to the first album. I said to Clinton, this is the story of the album and this is the story of the songs. We chatted quite long about it and I told him how I wanted the album to make you feel and how I wanted it be portrayed. There are specific parts of each song that I highlighted for him. I told him, this is the feel and this is what I am trying to express in this moment. Because we’ve worked together before… and because he is absolutely insane, he’s a beast, he’s just great! He’s got this deep understanding and I really trust him with my music. I could almost record something and give it to him and say do whatever. And in a way I did that. I said “Clint I trust you, have fun. Here are these songs so put your emotion behind it. These songs aren’t just my songs, they’re our songs and the people listening to them – it’s their music. Make it feel”. He is just fantastic. I’m fortunate enough that I can record everything myself, all the guitars, bass and drums and then give it to him to make it sound the way it sounds in my head in terms of tone and feel. I’ve studied sound engineering and still… he is in touch – he knows his purpose in life and he is connected in mind and soul. And that is what you need. To create greatness, you need to be able to connect with this. I respect Clint greatly and I feel he respects me too.
It seems Clinton managed to successfully create the ‘sound’ you envisioned prior to entering the studio.
It’s like if I took a flash drive and plugged it into my head to take out what I was envisioning the sound of my album to be like and then put it into his brain. He takes that information and takes it to a whole different level. I have so much respect for Clint. I think on the “Cloud” and “The Fall” in particular he has produced those in such a way that I couldn’t imagine them sounding any other way. I could not ask for anyone better than Clinton Watts to work on my stuff. I will work with him until I can’t anymore.
How long did it take to make this album from start to finish?
The recordings were only finalised around December/January. The last song was finished and recorded in the last week of December and within a week Clint had everything. It went so quickly. The first mix he sent for the entire album, I loved so much. I had two changes and a tweak here and there but honestly I think 2 or 3 of the songs I told him – don’t touch further, I love it. Once the recording was done, it was very quick. The recording itself took very long – many hours, blood, sweat and tears… lots of swearing. My poor neighbours, I don’t think they like me very much. The actual recording took a year which doesn’t sound very long but for 6 songs it is a long time. Ideally in a perfect world, if you really want to be on top of your game in the music industry, you need to not only record but release a single or 2 singles per month. I had to record some things many times because of physical problems and stamina problems. I couldn’t sit for long and play due to pain but eventually it went very quickly because I didn’t feel the need to stop-start, delete and rerecord – it just felt right. It was just so emotionally congested like having a fat cry on the couch with your cat. Amazing.
Who designed your album’s artwork?
I did. With all my solo stuff I try and do everything myself. I’m a bit of a control freak. I’ve been known as the General in bands but now I’ve let go of a lot things. I’m no longer such a militant control freak and I go a lot more with the flow. My poor band mates for the last like 20 years…but anyway, they love me. But still, I love every single aspect of creating music. My day job now is graphic design and the artwork for this album is meant to be something similar to Alizarin – there are some Alizarin crimson colours and shades. Nobody ever really picks up on these subtleties, but it’s for me and I like it. When I was coming out of an unconscious state into a conscious state again, I had lots of visions of this big void which started changing into almost like a portal or a window of opportunity. So I tried to visually represent not only the passing and changing of time but also the direction in which you need to go – that’s your sign, go for it.
We are facing difficult times right now especially in the entertainment industry. How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected you personally?
Well… It’s been rough – I’m not going to lie. I think everybody is in a very tough place financially, physically, mentally, spiritually… It’s crazy. I think everyone has a choice and it’s a very hard choice although it’s a simple choice. You can complain, moan and get down, stuck and worried or you can take it as an opportunity to make a difference. It’s the first time in the history of my life and many other people’s lives that staying home saves lives so you can actually make a difference. I think what’s making it so very hard for people (myself included) is the self-isolation. I am completely self-isolated – I have nobody with me except my cat and 3 goldfish. It does something to your mind because you are forced to be faced with yourself. I think it’s similar to being in solitary confinement in prison. You’re in this situation, it’s completely out of your control and human nature is controlling. We want to control how we feel and how people perceive us. Now we’re all stuck without control which is doing a huge number on our minds but we can choose to take this opportunity for self-growth. Now is the time where you can start to think about things so differently. People have been saying “the world needs to change”, well now we can. We have to! Things have to be different. Life is different. This is a dramatic thing that has happened to the globe and the world population. This will change things for years to come – how we think, how we act and how we are. I think there’s going to be great negatives and great positives but we can choose which path to look at. Just because you have a happy-go-lucky attitude doesn’t mean you don’t struggle – it means you are choosing to take it as a challenge instead of loss. Challenges are something you can learn and grow from. So I encourage everybody, as hard as it is, to sit down and take this quiet time and take this social distancing and use it for self-reflection and try different things. The world is a new world, what are you going to do about it? Are you going to sink or swim? Make the change and just try and if you fail, guess what? You were in your home all along and its okay. Let’s say this ends tomorrow, if you made a mistake, nobody is going to worry because everyone is also worried about themselves so just be you. Everyone is trying to be somebody else and it doesn’t work – just be yourself. This sucks and it’s okay to feel that way. What are we going to do tomorrow? You can learn a language, you can learn a new skill, you can finish that degree you haven’t had a chance to do, and you can write an album. During the Great Plague, Isaac Newton developed Calculus – a system that changed the world. So use this time to reflect and find out what you like about yourself and do something or create something with it. So many people are afraid of putting themselves out there because by doing that it opens you up to criticism and judgement.
And when things return to normal, do you already have a plan in place? Will you be performing songs from this album live? What songs are you most excited about in the live experience if you are going to perform live?
Well I hope that we will perform live. I think for the next while it’s going to be quite different or difficult. I think bands have to come up with new creative ways to reach their fans. I think it’s going bring amazing new music because we have to do it a different way. I think people are going to have a need for a lot of self-expression so they’ll need to go back to the basics on that. If we can find a way to all work together and truly support each other, not say we support each other and then go behind each other’s backs – we need to believe in each other and support each other. When we go back to everything, I think it will be a brave new world where anything is possible. Personally, I have a few shows booked for later this year and I don’t know if they will happen. The tour is international travel so I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do that. I hope that I will. If I do, I’ll be super excited to play all of the shows. I’m very excited to see how this will go down. Obviously being a solo musician, it’s a bit weird. I’ve played a bunch of shows as just me without a band and just a backing track and it’s very weird – I’m so used to looking around and seeing a band and now there’s no one. I am very fortunate that I can continue to create music even on my own because…well, I am on my own. There are guys like Francois Van Coke, he had a show via zoom or a similar platform and I think that’s fantastic. We’re going to have to do more things like that. I think it’s going to be great – I’m excited to see how this is. I’m trying not to get down. So many people are down and it doesn’t take the weight of the situation away from you. I’ve been a session guitarist where I was relying on playing shows – like no play, no pay. I get that. And I think there’s great initiatives currently helping people. Spotify has created a tab that you can link to your Spotify account so you can get some donations from that to help you during this time – it’s wonderful. But I think you either have to adapt or die.
I think this will be a trying time for many people and I’m sure your music will serve to uplift those who are struggling to get through this. It’s an interesting release with some beautiful melancholic melodies and very engaging material spanning multiple genres.
Thank you! It is quite different.
Alright, that’s it from me. Again, thank you for your time and wishing you all the best with your album release.
Thank you! I also have to send out a special shout-out to Devo – I would not have been able to achieve all of this without him so thank you to him and thank you to you too for your time out on a public holiday – I really appreciate it!
Follow Robyn Ferguson on: