Iona talked to the Tollbooth about the background to their 'Writers' Pick' album, Another Realm.
There are some bands that have been so seminal and successful in what they have done, that it hardly seems possible that they could disintegrate while still remaining on good terms with each other. Yet this has been a risk for Iona, a band that has led the Christian Celtic music strand for many years and collaborated with artists such as Robert Fripp, while making mainstream commentators sit up and notice their work, and whose musicianship has been exemplary throughout.
In their pre-release blogs, the band hinted that their new collection Another Realm was also a new beginning for them. When guitarist / keyboard player/ co-founder Dave Bainbridge tells the story, it seems more like a resurrection from the dead.
“Back in 2008, two years after the release of our previous studio album The Circling Hour and with no Iona gigs planned for that year we were collectively re-assessing the band's future, whilst also taking time out to pursue other projects.
“Recording a new studio album at that time would have been very difficult in the quickly changing music industry climate, where record companies were going out of business left, right and centre and illegal downloading seemed rife. Whilst The Circling Hour album (funded by the band) was critically well received, the lack of major touring and publicity meant that it didn't do that well financially.
“In this uncertain time for the band I was playing with Frank [van Essen, drummer] at a Christian conference in Holland and a man I'd never met before prophesied an incredible word over me concerning my future and in particular the future of the band. At the time I accepted it and made sure I had a written copy to consider, but couldn't see how it could possibly come to pass with the band, as I'd almost come to the point of laying Iona down and moving on. However God, it seems, had other plans! Looking back now I can see just how accurate this prophetic word has been already and how much of an encouragement it has been too.”
For singer and keyboard player Jo Hogg, the album marks a change to a new phase in her life: “The release of this album has come at the end of what seemed like a long season of struggling with a host of personal battles; grief, health issues, relational stuff and the mental and physical turmoil that comes when you go through a major shift in how you think and consequently in how you live. In many ways, I feel like I`ve changed a lot since The Circling Hour, and the spiritual journey of writing and recording Another Realm and sharing it with audiences just feels new.”
Both members found their spiritual experiences over recent years gradually forming a fresh approach to the band. As 2008 progressed, Bainbridge kept the prophesy in mind until the sense of purpose developed at another conference.
“During one of the sessions the words 'Another Realm' just popped into my mind completely out of the blue as a title for the next Iona CD. I got back to my room and ideas concerning a new album just started to flow. In my notebook I wrote that it should be an album about the heavenly realm breaking through into the earthly realm - one complete work encompassing this theme; that Jo could write songs specifically based on this theme; that these songs and instrumental passages could interweave; that it would be great to feature more of Frank's real string ensemble textures and even that it should be a 2 CD album!”
Meanwhile, Hogg had been putting in some detail to this grand vision. She recalls, “While Dave had been formulating the concept and making notes on Another Realm, I was simultaneously writing songs on this theme, neither of us aware in the nature of what the other was doing.”
One of the details that showed God’s leading was that Bainbridge had been thinking of how the ancient wells of faith could be cleared. These were places or movements from which God had once moved powerfully, but which had become blocked by religiosity. It turned out that Hogg had actually written a song called “Ancient Wells.”
Fitting a band whose resurgence was prophesied, whose album is spiritually rich and whose songs are inspired by God, the recording process naturally began in worship.
“The vocals and main keyboard part on the first two sections of the track “An Atmosphere of Miracles” came through spontaneous improvisations between myself on keys and Jo singing,” Bainbridge recalls. “As we focused on God, Jo worshipped Him, singing in tongues. What is on the album is the result - recorded in one amazing take (plus subsequent overdubs). Towards the end Jo could hardly hold back the tears and you can hear the emotion in her voice. It was the same with the main vocal in part three of the track.
“Similarly some of the instrumental sections on the album came about through being in an attitude of worship. Martin's great low whistle playing at the opening of “An Atmosphere of Miracles” and the tracks “Ruach” and “The Fearless Ones” with Frank and our guest shofar player Wytze (were) again based on spontaneous improvisations after specific times of prayer.”
When they had collated all the songs, they found a mass of material on the theme and several songs naturally fitted together. They knew how they wanted the bookending tracks to work and the running order almost fell into place. They only needed to add an up-tempo instrumental track to balance some slower material, which turned out to be “Let the Waters Flow.”
Bainbridge tells, “I remembered a great rhythm idea in 11/8 time that Frank came up with during the week we were all together in the Netherlands several months earlier. Jo and I started jamming around that and came up with the main theme, chord sequence and vocal ideas for this track. It was later refined and then Frank re-recorded the drums and we overdubbed Martin's pipes and whistles and I think the bass parts last of all.”
For those who have lost touch with the band, the name Martin might be a puzzle. With increasing demands on his time as a producer for artists like Barbara Dickson and touring with Ade Edmondson’s lauded Bad Shepherds, multi-instrumentalist Troy Donockley has now left Iona and Martin Nolan is his replacement.
Hogg might be pleased to have another Irish musician joining her in the band and comments that Nolan has already “become an integral part of the band as a wonderful musician and contributes a great balance of spiritual depth and humorous banter.” Anyone who has seen the new line-up live will have noticed his penchant for comical quips.
She tucks away the comment about spiritual depth, but it is key to the project, as they have all experienced the personal renewal of faith she hinted at when talking of her own new way of seeing things. As well as joining the Causeway Coast Vineyard Church, which has been helpful for all her family, Bill Johnston, the pastor of Bethel Church, Redding, California, has impacted her own spiritual journey and his book title When Heaven Invades Earth has plainly informed her songwriting for this album.
Bainbridge, who has regularly quoted David Adam as a strong influence, says that his faith is currently feeding off what God actually does and has done. As well as a “fairly academic” account of the life of Columba, he comments, “I just love reading books and listening to sermons which contain testimonies of what God is doing around the world – and even better hearing these stories at first hand.”
Drawing on these influences and more, the new album urges its listeners to fully engage with what God wants to do in our world and to expect more supernatural elements to surface in everyday life.
“We're not looking to a future time or the afterlife before we can experience the riches of heaven,” Bainbridge insists, “but the heavenly realm and all that that entails is accessible now. Ephesians 2: v.6 says that because of the cross we are now seated with Jesus in the heavenly realm. Wow, what an incredible thought and what possibilities suddenly open up! Instead of a powerless, intellectual Christianity you suddenly have a dynamic, relational faith in which anything becomes possible, if only we have faith.”
Having experienced the reaction of a secular audience to the new material, I wondered what questions the band gets at CD signings after their gigs. They claim that comments are nearly always positive, but people do not always know what (or whom) it is that they are experiencing.
Hogg summarises the questions they get as “What is it about this music and you guys that has this weird effect on me? What`s this kinda aura that you have? What was I experiencing tonight?” adding, “I love it when I get asked those questions!”
Bainbridge is not keen on the word ‘secular’ “as it somehow implies division rather than coming together. "What is great about Iona's music is that it has the ability to bring together people diverse in ages, nationalities and beliefs and this is something we're so thankful for.
“There is generally a great warmth in the atmosphere at our gigs and rapport between the band and the audience - probably a lot more so now than in the early days. We don't have anything to prove, we just love playing together and making that connection with whoever is listening.
“I remember a great conversation with a really tough-looking guy after one gig we did. He said he'd been to hundreds of rock concerts but there was something amazing about our gig that he'd never experienced before. I explained that I believed this to be the Holy Spirit.”
So the live shows flesh out the ideas behind this release – that God wants to move supernaturally through his people, affecting all of his creation, and will work where he is allowed. As one line from the album puts it: “It is for us if we dare.”