by Mike G, June 26th 2014
For trippy ambient of the most subtle kind, Ishq sets the bar very high. Composer-producer Matt Hillier and vocalist Jacqueline Kersley create psychedelic sounds of gentle awe and wonder, evoking both their Cornwall home and the invisible landscapes beyond. Ambient Music Guide talks to the duo about 15-plus years of lucid music making.
The sky is crystal clear. I'm gliding high above a patchwork of fields, long hedges and lush grasses. The horizon shimmers and sparkles with a glowing gold band. Above, the sun is incredibly, supernaturally bright. Below, the landscape slowly starts morphing into different colours and geometric shapes. I've been here before. Or have I? The thought recedes as I continue gliding, somehow airborne while encased by nothing but my own skin.
It's all in my mind, of course. And that's precisely the point. I'm listening to "Lanyon", a sublime piece of float music from Ishq's latest album Blue Infinity (2014). Music that really takes you somewhere, while still allowing your imagination the freedom to shape what that somewhere looks and feels like, is surely a fulfillment of one of ambient music's greatest potentials.
And the psychedelic ambient of Ishq does it better than most.
Welcome to Cornwall
Matt Hillier and Jacqueline Kersley live amid idyllic English countryside near St Ives in Cornwall, home to some of the most beautiful landscapes in the British Isles. It's undeniable that the region is a deep well of inspiration for the duo, right down to the plethora of nature effects and field recordings that permeate Ishq albums. But for the listener, the magic of Ishq is that this sonic art is not limited by the landscapes that spawned it. The imagination is free to roam. And Hillier's hyper-real, three-dimensional sound design puts you right in the middle of it.
Still, much of the music that he composes could be seen as love letter to Cornwall. When did the magic of the region first strike him? "It was coming down here for holidays as a kid when I first got a taste for the West Country," he says. "Then in the late 80's I moved down for work and family reasons and eventually I fully fell in love with the place."
I ask how he would describe the place to someone who's never been there.
"It's a small fishing town surrounded by granite hills and with green fields going down to the sea, a mix of harsh and angry coastline and pretty sandy coves. In the summer it can be idyllic but in the winter the weather can turn it into something out of a horror film. As a town it's famous now for the second Tate gallery. But the area's had a strong art scene for years, largely based around painting and sculpture and it's also a very popular holiday destination."
Historically, St Ives' art scene has drawn a lot of unusual characters like Bryan Wynter and Sven Berlin who, in the 1940's and 50's, were famously involved in early experiments with mescaline. Their psychedelic experiences helped kickstart a new wave of abstract and figurative art and, according to Hillier, they were dishing out mescaline to sundry other now-famous artists in the area. "So that, along with an an underlying Pagan community and a landscape surrounding it that's very spacious, gives the place a certain image, even if it's only in my head. To me it feels like another land set apart from the UK a lot of the time."
For her part, Jacqueline Kersley says it's the Pagan and traditional Celtic character of the place that resonates. "I love the artistic energy of Cornwall, but it's also the feeling of it being slightly untouched. The traditional festivals and celebrations are still so strong down here. Cornwall also has a slight rebelliousness as a region and it stands outside the UK a little, like Wales and Scotland."
The psyambient sound
And so to the music.
One thing that sets Ishq apart from a lot of UK and European ambient is a quality many people would baulk at, at least in theory: the new age element. It's always been part of the Ishq sound - nature themes, a meditative vibe, metaphysical ideas - but in Ishq's case it's been fashioned in such a way that's utterly central to the music without being cloying or cheesy. When you think of all the faux artists who've come up with exactly the opposite, that seems an almost miraculous achievement.
I mention the reappraisal and rediscovery that early independent new age music - mainly American - is undergoing at the moment, with the release of compilations such as I Am The Center (2013). "I wasn't aware of this, no" Hillier says. "I do remember the early new age stuff on cassettes and really it was not far off the early ambient stuff on Fax Records or Tangerine Dream. But then new age music went very retail and became quite one-dimensional."
Unsurprisingly, he struggles with definitions and ambient sub-genres.
"Maybe I'm 'psychedelic new age'. My own thing is certainly leaning more towards psychedelic music of all kinds. I'm still writing music largely for psychonauts and the imagination and hippies. At the same time some of the releases are also quite meditative and can work on other levels, like Eno's idea of ambient. And I also like the idea of music as healing and transformative - I think most humans are in a process of healing and transformation anyway."
Matt Hillier's creative relationship with Jacqueline Kersley has always been something of a mystery to fans. The pair have known each other for a long time; their sisters were good friends and they knew each other from school and social groups. In fact the duo that came be known as Ishq were already a couple before Hillier started making any music at all.
How did they come to be working together in the studio? "Jacqueline originally did some very spontaneous vocal takes when I wrote the Orchid album and the early material, so in that way she became the voice of Ishq. Her energy is very strong in some of the music. I'm the sole writer and producer in a practical sense, but it always felt right to give her half the credit as I am not sure some of the main Ishq works would have the same energy without her voice."
Kersley's voice appears in many different guises; you can expect almost anything except actual lyrics. Wispy solo bits, multi-tracked chorales, operatic figures; all colours for Hillier to paint with. After she records her vocal parts in the studio, what's it like coming back and hearing the finished results? "It's always a strange experience", she says. "Matt pushes the vocal takes a lot with reverb, reversing, delay and other effects and most of the takes I do are dry with no backing track. It's more like raw sample material for processing. I have no idea where or how they will be used most of the time."
Also inseparable from the music are Hillier's graphic designs and photography. The artwork found on Ishq albums - and the Ishq.org website - is trippy, exotic and textured, setting the scene beautifully for the music.
"For me, the art and music work hand in hand," agrees Hillier. "It just seemed to evolve that way. There are deeper elements to the designs, like the Virtual [his record label] glyphs and the use of symbols and hidden text. The intention is to create a more magical work or something that's not quite as obvious as most album releases. I suppose I'm always trying to create things which feel like their from another world or dimension."
Terence McKenna & the invisible landscape
The spirit of the late Terence McKenna (1946-2000) - philosopher, visionary, crazy guy and the most sampled voice in electronic psychedelia - circles in close orbit around planet Ishq. Perhaps thankfully, it's not in the form of yet more zany voice bytes about gnomes, dribbling basketballs and new ways to say hooray.
Like LSD guru Timothy Leary, McKenna was a fascinating and polarising figure. Some of his insights about consciousness expansion and human potential were original and penetrating. He also seemed completely fearless about exploring within. Producer of the Hearts Of Space radio program Stephen Hill recalls a lecture McKenna gave at Berkeley in California in the 1990's, in which he made the quite terrifying assertion that the only real way to experience the powerful hallucinogenic drug DMT was lying down alone and completely isolated in a totally dark room.
Each to their own, but upon listening to Ishq's delicate strains it would be safe to conclude that the music wasn't inspired by McKenna's psychedelic bungee jumping. The real connection comes from his intriguing concept of 'the invisible landscape'. Matt Hillier has spoken of this before, telling ezine Fluid Motion in 2008: "Visual art is a a big part of what I do...I write visual music which paints an image of what Terence McKenna called the invisible landscape, the inner worlds and planes. So I guess I always wanted to be a landscape painter, painting in the invisible world."
Just recently Ishq released an album actually tiled The Invisible Landscape (2014), surely a direct McKenna reference?
"The album title was in part related to his books, yes. It's also a direct reference to the inner world and landscape of the imagination. I give him credit for the title, as it was the first time I heard the term. I think most of what I've done since then is in some way me trying to paint this landscape, but it also relates to the landscape of the natural world. The invisible landscape of the imagination is something you can't put it into words. People have to see or feel it for themselves. For me it's as real as this world. just way, way more beautiful and colourful in some respects."
The road to Orchid
Ishq's debut album Orchid (2002) is a bonafide psyambient classic - a gentle walk through imaginary gardens, pristine landscapes and celestial spaces rendered with a strong melodic sense and deeply immersive sound design. It's often beatless, standing it apart from the beats-based chillout scene where the album initially found an audience. Even though Matt Hillier mostly prefers releasing music on is own Virtual label, Orchid's release on Canadian-based Interchill Records was valuable exposure and helped a great deal in introducing Ishq to the world.
The road that led to Orchid's creation was not mapped out; in fact the album almost never happened.
The story begins in the early 1990's and Hillier's involvement in the early UK dance and rave scene, initially as a punter on the now legendary free festival scene. He and his friends were soaking up anything and everything: psychedelic rock, rave, acid house, Detroit techno, ambient. It was around this time that he met the late musician Jake Stephenson aka Optic Eye, who was also a distributor/retailer of music out of his front room in the evenings.
"Jake had built a studio and me and some mates had been doing acid jams on old home keyboards and guitars," Hillier explains. "It was Jake who got me into studio recording and started selling me all his old studio gear as he bought new stuff. I started making a mix of ambient, electronica and dance music, as that's what we were all listening to. One minute it was hard Tresor stuff, the next it was ambient like Fax Records and then it was space rock and so on. Then I got a release deal with Kinetix Records via Jake and wrote the early Indigo Egg stuff with him, as well as some trance and dance".
The Indigo Egg material - dating from 1995-96 and totaling two albums - segues between kinetic midtempo techno and more exotic downtempo psychedelia. Occasionally you'll hear a gentle combination of floating chords, nature recordings and jazzy chord changes that are suggestive of future Ishq. But, as Hillier explains, "the rave scene then kind of took over in the UK and psytrance kicked in. So I got more into writing that kind of stuff. But I was not really ever regimented enough to write that music well. It requires you follow lots of rules so that you produce a very specific sound. I was really banging my head against a wall doing that stuff for a few years and then I kind of gave up making music."
In truth, he says, he was burned out. He sold most of his studio gear, left London and moved back to Cornwall with Kersley. It was while slowly rebuilding his studio that he realised he was more into ambient and electronica than high velocity dance. He toyed with the idea of self-releasing. "I thought that I could probably self-release in small numbers and began working on the Virtual label. I wrote Timelapse in Mercury [an album later released on Virtual] and then began working on Ishq material for what became Orchid."
That material, however, was originally a demo of just one track and it may well have gone no further. Hillier was still having a crisis of confidence that dated back to his departure from the London scene, and he distrusted the whole music business. It was at this juncture that Jacqueline Kersley stepped in.
"After we moved to Cornwall, Matt had really lost a lot of faith in making music on a personal level," says Kersley. "He'd resigned himself to either stopping or doing something purely off his own back, which was the start of Virtual. Then one night he came up with one track which stood out from all the Virtual material - 'Bhakti' - and played it to me the following day. I remember me saying 'you must send this stuff off' and him saying 'what's the point?' as he was fully pessimistic at the time." But Kersley was persistent and eventually Hillier decided to try. After a search under 'ambient' on Yahoo he chose two labels: Hearts Of Space Records and Interchill Records. He sent the CD-R demo of 'Bhakti' and eventually heard from Interchill. It was that label's request for more material that resulted in Orchid, eventually released in 2002.
Interchill founder Andrew Ross Collins recalls: "Gordon Field and I were running the label at the time and he had a few demos from Matt, including the amazing track 'Bhakti'. When he played them to me I was blown away - kind of spellbound and in awe. So when I was over in the UK I traveled Southwest and met him in Cornwall at this beautiful and mystical location. Things just flowed from there." Of the album itself Collins says: "Orchid is a landmark album. Matt has always had his own sound. A humble person and creative genius.”
Stephen Hill, who was running Hearts Of Space Records at the time, is also a fan. "I place him in a small but distinguished category of English ambient musicians who have authentic sources of inspiration, rather than a technical or commercial orientation," says Hill. "He just makes really enjoyable records. As for the ‘Bhakti’ demo, I'm honored that Matt thought we were worth submitting his music to, but I can't say I recall it. The reason is probably that by 2000 the label was winding down and we sold it in 2001."
The next decade and beyond
Hillier's recollection of Orchid's initial reception is very positive, and it's an album that he feels had something to say (though, dear listener, it's up to you to decide that exactly that is). Looking back on the album also finds him pondering the whole creative process. "It's always felt its own work. I have a weird relationship with the music I release, as I really don't feel fully that it's mine or created by me. It's hard to explain but by the time I finish an album I'm already onto the next, and the one I just released feels like it was written by someone else."
There was a downside to Orchid, however: the album's very success meant no major releases from Ishq for almost a decade. The problem? Fan expectations and the resulting Difficult Second Album Syndrome.
"That album was not premeditated," he says. "It was me jamming and writing tracks really with zero thought of an end result. The tracks just came out like that and somehow were perfect for Interchill at the time and it worked for a lot of people. But then with a second album people begin to expect a certain sound, more of the same. They want it as good as the first experience. The scene expects this of you. That pressure did me in a bit. I'm not good at meeting expectations and premeditating music. A kind of rebellious nature kicks in - if you say I must go right then I'll go left. With Ishq after Orchid, a part of me wanted to press delete for a while and also I wanted to keep experimenting."
And experiment he did, releasing ambient and downtempo music mostly under other aliases: the beautiful/strange Faeri-themed noodlings of Elve, another album with Jake Stephenson as Colourform, and so on.
The Ishq drought finally broke in 2010. Two major albums appeared in quick succession - the outstanding Sama in 2010 on Electronic Soundscapes, followed in 2011 by And Awake on Interchill. There has also been a raft of new Ishq releases on the Virtual label - some are new music, others are archival releases and compilations.
The albums on Virtual tend to eschew beats even more than the three 'main' Ishq releases but vary quite widely - from almost pure abstraction (such as Lyght from 2012) to pieces built on rich, harmonic, droning chords (such as the aforementioned Invisible Landscape and Blue Infinity albums). That Hillier often chooses a beatless direction makes him an exception among producers from a dance music background, whose chillout music is usually anchored by defined drum loops. "With the whole beat and no beat thing, personally I'm just into it all," he says. "I always liked deeper, stilling music but many people don't. It's natural to want to add more kinetic energy. It's just that I often prefer it without any beat or bass for some reason and that's just what's flowed out in Ishq's music more recently. I'm still working on a lot of kinetic music, though. I love it all."
Today, Ishq's catalogue is substantial and easy to find and buy, including most of Hillier's obscure collaborations and another projects, which is manna from heaven for those fans who felt starved of music for so many years. He says, though, that Ishq never actually went way. "I was literally writing music all the time after Orchid in that style. Some of it became Sama and And Awake but most of it formed an album I will release sometime as the next main Ishq release."
The art of mastering
When he's not making music, Hillier also does professional mastering for other artists and labels. Given the sometimes extraordinary attention to detail that's apparent in his productions, mastering seems a natural choice for him.
He describes the craft as "very dark", insomuch as listening preferences change like the weather and people can be very particular about how mastering should make a piece of music sound. "You'll find artists and producers who think a heavy limited/compressed mix is great and sounds 'right' and who find a light mastering mix or one mixed for headphones 'wrong'. So it's become quite a strange world of 'right and wrong' when in truth there's neither. It's just personal preference."
His own preference nowadays is to tread lightly. "I correct any bad EQ that's irritating, leave in some transience and life and try and allow the music some room to breathe, not flatten it to death or over gloss it. If I can make it sound a little better, wider sometimes, richer and free from bad irritating errors, then that's it. I feel mastering is really about correcting and enhancing what the musician and mixer have achieved and just working with their sound and preference."
Until the end of time
As our interview nears it's end the topic drifts back to psychedelia and - if you'll bear with me a moment - The Incredible String Band.
This brilliant psychedelic folk group recorded a series of exotic, nature-loving albums in the 60's that evoked a rare sense of cosmic wonder and other-worldliness. It's a quality found in all the best pastoral psychedelia including - in its own way - the music of Ishq. In an interview in 1994, the ISB's Robin Williamson said something rather profound - and funny - about the source of it all: "Music is an eternal power that runs from the beginning of time to the end of time and musicians get allowed to play it," he declared. "And you either get that, or think it's a load of old bollocks."
I put this to Matt Hillier.
"That kind of sums it up. I tend to think of people who make music more as a medium or prism. I got the impression many times with music I heard - and also made - that I had heard it before. So time comes into the equation; time as a possible illusion. Then there's the whole subject of the musician as a channel, about how the musician's own ego or personality colours but can also weaken the music, turning it into a construct rather than a free expression."
"Personally I feel that creating music is more a revealing of it," he adds. "It already exists as a work. We just have to realise it."
Ishq music & reviews
- All Ishq releases are available from ishq.org and the Ishq Bandcamp page.
- Listen to This Is Ishq - a 90-minute psyambient mix complied by Mike G.
- Read Ambient Music Guide's overview of Ishq's best albums.