Music grad Merlyn Driver on his debut EP

"Music is music"

What can you tell us about your new EP? 

It’s actually the first collection of original songs that I’ve properly recorded and released, so of course means a lot to me! I’d wanted to release something for years, but I was living off about £5 a day, after rent, when I first came to London, and so my music had to take a back seat for a while. During my Masters at SOAS, I finally took the plunge and set up a Kickstarter campaign. It hit the target within just two days, and that was really important, not just in terms of raising the necessary funds, but also in giving me the confidence that this was something I was meant to do.

As my first release, the EP is mainly about introducing people to what I’m about. One of the songs on the record is more than five years old, and one of them was finished on the eve of recording, so in many ways it’s a distillation of what I’ve been doing between now and when I first picked up a guitar and started writing songs about a decade ago. The reaction has been great, and a few of the tracks were also played on BBC 6 Music and BBC Radio 2, which was a dream come true for me.

You’ve been a big part of the SOAS Concert Series for a few years now – what makes it special? 

In my opinion the SOAS Concert Series is absolutely unique. It’s the only place in London where you can experience world class musicians from around the world, performing for free (or for £3 if you want to guarantee entry). In the past we’ve hosted the likes of Bassekou Kouyaté (Mali) and Mokoomba (Zimbabwe), and this season we’ve got the celebrated French-English songwriter Piers Faccini coming up, as well as a host of other brilliant acts from four continents. For some reason, the concert series remains one of SOAS’s best kept secrets among the student population, but I’m doing my best to change that! The concerts are regularly attended by over 200 people – including the occasional celebrity – and are very much the ‘public face’ of music at SOAS.

How many instruments do you play? 

Ah – that’s an interesting question! Well, because I’m completely self taught, I’m inclined to say that the only instrument I can truly ‘play’ is my voice! But I like to use it in lots of different ways. For my own music I also play guitar, and I particularly like to ‘prepare’ it (à la John Cage) by, for example, putting metal bird identification rings around the strings, or by attaching buzzing West African rattles to the headstock. My brother and I have recently designed and built a custom-made percussion desk, which incorporates dry leaves, seed pods, a water drum, shells and other textural bits and pieces. I’m slowly learning the jews harp and various other instruments too.

Who are some of your influences? 

I’d say that my main musical influences come from Celtic, Scandinavian and African musics (and of course from pop and other contemporary Western genres too). I was born and brought up on Orkney, a group of small islands in the north of Scotland, so my voice – so I’ve been told – has something of a ‘Celtic lilt’, but I don’t truly belong to any one folk tradition. I’d say my music lies at the intersection between ‘folk music’ and ‘world music’, though I treat both of these labels with a healthy dose of scepticism! Music is music.

Since about 2009 I’ve been very interested in joik, which is an ancient vocal tradition belonging to the Sámi people who live in northern Scandinavia as well as a small corner of Russia. I wrote a dissertation on the subject back in 2011 and have travelled to the Norwegian Arctic several times. I even taught an introductory joik class at SOAS music summer school this past summer! The opening track on my EP features a fantastic Sámi joiker called Marja Mortensson (as well as one of the sax players from the Brooklyn based band, Moon Hooch, who plays a killer sax solo).

I think my music is also influenced a lot by my upbringing on Orkney, because I didn’t go to school until my early teens and was raised on a smallholding without electricity. I spent most of my time outdoors, watching and listening to nature, and I think a lot of it got inside me. On my EP I’ve incorporated several of my own nature sound recordings from Scotland, the Norwegian arctic and even Nicaragua, and I’d like to do a lot more of this kind of thing.

What role has SOAS played in your budding music career?

SOAS has played a big part, for sure. I finished my Masters in Ethnomusicology last year, and besides what I gained from the teaching, it was really inspiring to be surrounded by so many fantastic musicians from around the world. Like me, several of them are attempting to balance academic interests alongside a music career. One of my friends performed at the BBC Proms the day after handing in her PhD thesis at SOAS, so there’s a lot to be inspired by. It is possible to do several things at once, you just have to love what you’re doing and be truly committed. 

For my Masters thesis I explored something called the ‘buzz aesthetic’ within the Mande music of West Africa. Since the 1950s, ethnomusicologists have described a distinctly African musical preference for dense overlapping textures and buzzy timbres, but nobody had ever really questioned what this buzzy aesthetic is all about. The research I’ve done on this subject will be published soon, but I’ve also been really deeply affected by the buzz aesthetic as a musician. I’ve even converted a traditional Mande buzzing rattle (usually used on hunters’ harps and other traditional stringed instruments) for use on my guitar! The buzz aesthetic has opened up a whole new musical world to me. ‘Clean’ sound is great sometimes – in the same way that a clean white shirt can be great – but when you’ve got a never-ending wardrobe at your disposal, it doesn’t make much sense to put on the same thing every day! 

Where can our readers listen to your music? 

My EP is available on all the standard platforms, including Spotify, iTunes and Bandcamp. You can also have a look at my website.

And I’ve also got plenty of performances coming up in London and further afield.

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