Though they formed over 20 years ago, the Moulettes are still taking their music to unexpected places. What was once an orchestral folk group is now a multi-genre collective of musicians, many of them based in Brighton. This month they’re playing at Fail Better’s ‘Big is Beautiful’ night at The Old Market, on Sat 17th Feb, alongside Rum Buffalo, Voodoo Love Orchestra and Nine Dead Mice. As if that line-up wasn’t diverse enough, the Moulettes are performing in various incarnations, each in a different style. We spoke to cello player and founding member, Hannah Miller, about the band’s latest recording project, the importance of communication and why nothing should ever be pinned down.
What version of the Moulettes will we see at The Old Market this month?
We’ve been working on a project called ‘Xenolalia’ where we took 11 songs and reimagined them with five different ensembles. So there’s a cappella, strings, electric, electronic and horns. At The Old Market we’re going to bring numbers from all the different ensembles and do a big spectacular multi-ensemble show with a cappella and strings and then a big electric finish with the horns.
Do you enjoy these kind of shows that have a big thematic element?
Yeah, it’s put on by Fail Better Productions who really celebrate maximalism. From what I’ve seen they’re going all out on dressing the space. And they’ve got aerialists – all the bands are going to have an aerial performance during one of their songs. Personally, I really love shows where there’s a lot of curation in how it’s presented, where every sense is taken care of. And so it’s great to be collaborating with people who are thinking big about what they’re doing. You want to create something for an audience that’s special, something that takes them away from their normal experience of life. Brilliant music can bring something to any space and transform it. But if you can kind of fill in the gaps then you get something that starts to be a bit more transcendent.
‘Xenolalia’ is a huge project… did you feel the band needed to embark on something bigger?
Yeah, we started it in lockdown and at that point it was actually quite easy. Everybody was at home, you know, so we were doing a lot of file sharing and writing together, and it gave a really nice focus for the project. We got quite a lot done in that in that time. And then as soon as we could get out of lockdown, we started doing residencies. At the Rose Hill we did the a cappella in the round; the audience were all gathered around us and I really enjoyed that. It was a bit of a challenge for the last gig when we had 25 musicians! But that was such a gorgeous release from being locked in. I felt everyone there was quite tender, and I had some really beautiful conversations after the gigs. I think a lot of people didn’t realise how much they needed the sensation of participating in a live music experience. I’ve really noticed that after lockdown, even up to this point now.
Did you miss playing live?
Oh yeah, I love playing with all those people. And once you’ve kind of got around all the architecture of doing it, it’s a real buzz to play in a big band. Especially a band that’s made up of so many singular, gifted, talented, wonderful people. It’s a real community. And with this slightly changing line-up there’s quite a lot of room for improvisation and for people to bring their character to things. So it’s always delightful in the moment because it’s got a freshness to it.
Do you have a personal favourite out of all the different ensembles? Is there one that you really look forward to playing with?
I wouldn’t say so. One of the reasons we decided to do this was because there have always been these elements in the music we’ve made. It’s had elements of electronic music and some quite full vocal harmony, it’s also been very string-centric. I’m a cellist and so it very much comes from a stringy place. We’ve toured the electric stuff mostly, but I’ve really enjoyed touring the strings – we’ve done a couple of UK tours and a Canadian tour in the last two years. Those are really nourishing gigs, because it’s all about nuance and ensemble playing.
But then doing the a cappella, that’s very dreamy. We’ve got some of our favourite singers ever: Kassia Zermon (aka Bunty), Faye Houston, and Blythe Pepino who’s also of Mesadorm. And of course, Raevennan Husbandes and myself. And that’s just very… it’s very therapeutic actually. It’s the simplicity of just the voice – and having nothing else to depend on intensifies it. The group has to be strong and very with each other to make that work. And that’s a real, real buzz.
But then you’ve got the horns – they bring the party! They’re incredible. So it’s like having all of the cake and eating it… but you know I’ve always thought that phrase doesn’t make sense. Because what’s the point of having a cake if you can’t eat it? But there’s a Romanian version, which is: the goat can never be reconciled with the cabbage. So in this case, the goats are all getting reconciled with the cabbages!
Is it a challenge performing a cappella in bigger venues? As well as The Old Market you’re also doing an outdoor gig in Cornwall…
Yeah, we’re going to playing in The Minack Theatre for a kind of ‘Xenolalia’ finale gig on the 7th of June. It’s such an incredible place. The seating is like an amphitheatre and it’s carved into the cliff. And the backdrop is the sea. The woman who built it, Rowena Cade, she had some help, but essentially she did it on her own. She kind of masterminded it and carried the sand up from the beach to make the cement and then did all these intricate carvings around the seating. And there’s all these succulents that smell amazing, and there’s birds and seals, it’s just out of this world. So yeah, we’ll be thinking very carefully about how to stage that to get the most out of it. You asked if it’s a challenge… I guess it is. It’s quite a lot to organise, but yeah, the payoff is good.
Are you still based in Brighton and do you feel part of the scene here?
I’ve actually moved out of Brighton. But Jules Arthur, who is a core member of the group, runs the Rose Hill with Kassia Zermon. Raevennan also works for the Rose Hill, as does Abe Moughrabi who will be doing our sound (SOURCE recently interviewed Abe here). So it’s very much a Rose Hill family outing. I do feel connected and I’ve still got loads of friends in Brighton. I just couldn’t afford to live there!
On that note, can you tell us about the band’s Patreon? How does that work?
I love recording music, I love making records, I love making songs. It’s probably my happiest place. But you know, music is available for free and people expect it for free. Its sense of value has been massively compromised. I think maybe we had been stubborn before about doing crowdfunding. Idealistically we thought we would prefer to, you know, get paid for the thing we do. But the climate for independent musicians now is as dreadful as it’s ever been. I don’t need to bang on about that, but we’re kind of in a feudal system where we pay rent to all the platforms that we have to use. It just made sense to try and carve out a way to communicate our music to the people who want to hear it.
And it has worked, you know, it’s saved our skins a few times. It’s really nice to see people engaging and it’s got a directness that I really appreciate. On other platforms, like social media platforms, it’s become so difficult to get the message out unless you pay. So having that direct contact is really invaluable. And the project itself is about communication, so it’s very appropriate. We still have to keep thinking about ways to present music in a way that works for musicians and the people who want to hear it. But it’s one of best solutions we have right now.
How are you planning to wrap up the ‘Xenolalia’ project? Or is it still a work in progress?
It’s the last gallop to the end! And we’ve hit upon a way to present it that I think works really well. So we’re making a book that has sections on all the songs and how they were explored with the different ensembles. It’ll have lyrics, artwork, interviews, scores and a QR code that links to a holding page on our website which will have all the tracks available to download. So that’s 55 pieces of music and a huge deep dive into the whole thing, all the people involved and a family tree of what else they do, kind of mapping the project and people in it.
The artwork on the covers is pretty spectacular. Who’s behind that?
That’s me. It’s all collage – which I never stick down. I photograph them and bring them to Photoshop and play with them in there. So I’ve kind of done the same thing with the artwork. I’m like remixing the bits, remixing my favourite bit of paper! But I don’t like sticking stuff down, I don’t know why…
Is there a parallel there with the arrangements often changing?
Yeah! I think so. I suppose when you commit something to a recording you are sticking it down, but not really. They live, they live in the moment.
Have you had any thoughts about what you’ll do after ‘Xenolalia’?
Oh, lots of thoughts! But I think it’s better not to talk about things until you start doing them, just in case. Otherwise you can feel like you’ve done them. I think the whole experience of ‘Xenolalia’ has been a huge learning process. That was what we wanted: not to get stuck in our writing habits or stuck in a form. It provided a playground to be experimental and to welcome in strange ideas. So from that perspective the project is already a success. But I will feel some great joy for it to be kind of contained and presented in a beautiful book. And to do this Minack show… I mean, it’s a life goal kind of gig, so it will be a beautiful one.
The Moulettes play The Old Market in Hove on Saturday 17th February 2024
Tickets available here