Rachel Sermanni on new album So It Turns

The acclaimed Scottish folk singer discusses her forthcoming record, pregnancy, desire and transformative decisions

Feature by Fraser MacIntyre | 02 Aug 2019
  • Rachel Sermanni

A storm is brewing in What Can I Do, the first song to be let loose from Rachel Sermanni’s third studio-record So It Turns, recorded three years ago in Berlin. 'I feel so helpless, I feel so blue / What can I do Lord, what can I do?' Sermanni sings, accompanied by a progressively more foreboding instrumental that trudges forth with a grudging, almost mournful resolve. Written around the time Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, the song has only become more relevant in the years since, as we have all become increasingly accustomed to being bombarded by news of hateful chants and political anarchy on a daily basis.

"It’s come out at a good time," the Carrbridge-born songwriter begins, after sharing her experience of the despair many felt overcome by around the time she wrote the song, particularly as a result of the migrant crisis. "There’s definitely been an uprising of some sort, and now the song has a place and a purpose. A certain amount of proceeds from it will go to Extinction Rebellion Scotland, which feels like something nice and good."

Sermanni has been involved in several of Edinburgh's Extinction Rebellion demonstrations in recent months, while taking steps to lower her own carbon footprint. "I don’t really feel like flying anymore. Which is challenging, obviously, for a touring musician, trying to work out how I can do it as little as possible."

Making a living on the road has become complicated for another, much happier reason. Rosa Sermanni-Holmes, born last year, can be heard in the background once or twice during our phone call with her mother, vying for attention, and Sermanni is delighted to oblige: "Hold on a tiny second while I comfort this creature."

After recording So It Turns, Sermanni toured in Canada and Ireland before falling pregnant. "It’s been good to have these songs finished and waiting, so I’ve not been thinking about what next, I’ve just been thinking about getting this album out. I did write one song that didn’t have much relevance to anything except being in a blissful spot, called Lay My Heart." The song – one of the 27-year-old folk singer’s most warm and sublimely steadying offerings to date – was released in November 2017.

"I’ve stayed still more than I have since I began touring," Sermanni continues, speaking seven years after the release of her debut record Under Mountains. "That’s been enjoyable. There’ll be more of a tour coming… it is stressful as Rosa has her bedtime, and we haven’t quite found an on the road nanny she feels completely comfortable with yet. My partner, Adam Holmes, is also a musician, and he’ll be touring quite a bit around the end of this year also."

Sermanni pauses, then laughs loudly as Holmes’ voice joins Rosa’s in the background. "Adam is letting you know that he is also releasing an album this year," Sermanni says. "He would like to be on the front page if possible."

The two have no plans to join forces onstage anytime soon, though. "We had a tour together when I was pregnant with Rosa. Obviously, that was quite strange in itself, as I got pregnant after we’d been together for around three months, so it was a very intense period in our lives. I’m grateful for the experience, but we think it would probably be best to keep things separate, though that is how we got together in the first place, at a Celtic Connections gig."

Most of Sermanni’s new record was "inspired by my time in Samye Ling, a Buddhist Monastery down in the Borders. I was volunteering there after a year of touring behind my last album." After speaking with Lama Yeshe, the abbot of the Monastery, Sermanni decided to stop drinking alcohol. "I wasn’t much of a drinker, but I loved a whisky and a Steinbeck. I liked that kind of combination. I’m not saying that drinking alcohol is a really bad thing, but it’s done me a lot of good [not drinking]. I’ve had much more potent – and not necessarily comfortable – experiences because I haven’t been drinking."

Desire was also on Sermanni’s mind. "Put Me In the River, If I, Tiger and Come To You were all inspired by this feeling I was trying to deal with while I was at Samye Ling. A feeling I was convinced was causing me ruin, which was generally desire – a feeling that causes most of us ruin. I was looking at that with a bit of frustration at the time, trying to explore the feeling and look at it from various angles, whether they were having desire for something or someone, or having desire not to have desire."

Sermanni will be travelling up and down the country in support of So It Turns, sometimes with a band, sometimes solo. Parting ways with the record, however, became a daunting challenge after Sermanni lost a great deal of money to a scammer. "The album had been recorded in Berlin, financed by myself, and when it eventually came to the campaign I was to be releasing and supporting it financially myself. I lost a lot of my money, after already employing a lot of people to help me with an album campaign that was in full swing. Very, very swiftly I put up a Kickstarter."

Having toyed with the idea in the past, Sermanni embraced it quickly, offering an array of pledge rewards, from handwritten lyrics to house concerts, which would also feature something of a songwriting workshop if desired. "I asked for the minimum that I thought I could achieve, as Kickstarter say that if you don’t get what you ask for, you don’t get anything at all," she explains. "I needed some form of support and I needed it soon, so I asked for £4000. It ends in three days, and it’s currently at £13,000. I’m really, really happy. I can cover everything now, without delving into my own pocket, which doesn’t entirely exist."

The experience has been an incredibly affirmative one for Sermanni, who now has approximately 48 hand-drawn pictures to complete for her backers, all of which she has promised to put "much love into." The record itself is lying in wait, ready to captivate. Full of calm, wit, heartbreak, bite and beauty, So It Turns features many of Sermanni’s most striking lines to date.

So It Turns is self-released on 23 Aug
Rachel Sermanni plays Summerhall, Edinburgh, 10 Aug; Blue Lamp, Aberdeen, 11 Sep; Eden Court, Inverness, 12 Sep; The Tolbooth, Stirling, 13 Sep; St Andrews in the Square, Glasgow, 2 Oct