Finding Clues With Starlight Assembly

Photo collage by Jay Cloth

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I’ve always been a sucker for collaborations, especially those from artists and musicians that I’d never expect to work together. When Starlight Assembly, the duo of Dominic Appleton (Breathless, This Mortal Coil, etc.) and Matteo Uggeri (Sparkle in Grey, Hue, etc.), came across my radar, I was immediately intrigued. I associate both musicians with very different genres, so I had to know how it would sound. Like most of my favorite collaborations, it sounded nothing like either artist and instead mined new ground to unearth a special magic.

I interviewed Dominic and Matteo in November and the vulnerability, exuberance, and humor in their responses add a lovely bit of context to their debut, Starlight and Still Air. It’s clear these are two artists with a real affinity for one another and a special connection that bleeds into the music they make.  Starlight and Still Air is out now on Beacon Sound

So, how have you all been holding up these past 18 months?

Matteo Uggeri: Ah! After a true panic situation when the virus came to visit my city, Milan, for his long tour in Europe, I think I’m doing good now. Seriously, my family and I had pretty hard times in the spring of last year, and I’ve lost a friend, the same age as me, because of the virus. But since Summer 2020 I can honestly say that my life has gone better than before in many aspects. Musically speaking, I stopped anything in nearly the whole of 2020; first for lack of time, then for lack of inspiration. I wrote a book instead, a manual (not on music). I restarted my creative activities around Summer 2021.

In any case, Starlight and Still Air is not one of the many children of the pandemic as we finished the whole album when Wuhan was an unknown city for most of us here! 

Dominic Appleton: Teo and I met in person for the first (and, so far, only) time in January 2020 and then it all kicked off. As our working relationship had always been online nothing changed for us in that respect. In my personal life, when I’m not making music I work as a gardener and in a nightclub on the weekends. I’m very lucky, I was able to carry on gardening right through the lockdowns as, obviously, the work is outdoors and I could work alone. I had to keep the business alive but, above and beyond that, it was a strangely beautiful time for me. I feel guilty saying that, knowing the horrors that people were going through, but so many of the anxieties and stresses of living in London suddenly disappeared. Even the fact that I live alone was no problem for me – it seems I really do like my own company! Also, the weather in Spring and Summer 2020 in London was unbelievably beautiful and people (whole families thrown together) connected with nature in a way I hadn’t seen before. I honestly loved it. I think there were some very positive things that came out of the lockdowns here. I only hope we’ve learned from them. I didn’t miss the nightclub at all. It made me realize, after 26 years, it’s probably time to move on. We’ve got our 26th birthday party coming up this Friday and I see that as a perfect time to bow out. I’m sure for many people it has been a time to reassess priorities.

I’m curious how you two met and came to work on this project together? When I first heard about it, it seemed like such a surprising collaboration, but of course, hearing the results it all makes sense. But I never would have predicted such a collaboration…

MU: On my side, I can just say that I’ve been a fan of Breathless and This Mortal Coil since I was like 20, and Dominic’s voice has always moved me. I discovered them in the early 90s thanks to the tape network, exchanging tapes with a fan of The Cure, Anna, who was far ahead of me on “alternative music”.

For an Open to the Sea song (Enrico and me), “Facing the Waves,” I dared to search for Dominic on the web, but it wasn’t easy. When I found him, thanks to Ari Neufeld, I didn’t think too much about whether he had ever written lyrics for any other than Breathless, I only recently realized this exclusivity. I was very excited listening to the vocal track he sent me… I remember listening to it in my living room with my family. The funny thing is that the girl who dubbed me Chasing Promises twenty years ago, now played bass on “Empty City”! (She is the sister of Paolo Mioni of Jennifer Gentle).

DA: I guess it is an unlikely collaboration but that really was the attraction for me. I absolutely loved the tracks Teo sent me, and I found them so inspiring even though, or because, they were so different from music I’ve worked on in the past. It was really refreshing.

To me, one thing that makes this project and this record so special is how, in many ways, it doesn’t necessarily sound like a Matteo record or a Dominic record – it’s something so different and new for each of you. What kind of mindset did you go into it with to bring your own, separate creative practices together in new ways?

MU: Well, I think we both have an open mindset. When I sent “Facing the Waves” to Dominic first, I did it because, mindful of Breathless, that song had a sort of crescendo that I thought would fit with his style. But, when I sent him the whole finished album, where our other tracks were more destructured, experimental, weird in a way, he said he sort of preferred the other ones! That’s why I then dared to ask him for more, like “Good! So why don’t we play with some more experimental music?” I think we have quite different creative processes, but they are complementary to each other. 

DA: I think an open mindset is right. So, the best approach for me is to just dive into the music and see where it takes me. I’ve never really thought of myself as coming from a pop perspective (admittedly a very melancholic one) but to Teo, that’s exactly where I’m from. I guess, looking back at it, my challenge was to tease out the melodies in Teo’s experiments.

It can often be such a hard part of collaboration in my experience… doing something that doesn’t sound mostly like one artist involved with some small additions by others, or even just two separate approaches that don’t quite meld organically, but you all have avoided all those pitfalls with such a depth and elegance. Did you all have conversations about what direction you hoped to take things in or what sonic spaces you wanted to explore? I’m really curious about the process…

MU: It’s funny as you’re not the first asking us this. Really, I think we never discussed the musical direction to go toward or the mood of the songs… I know it may sound banal, but we just did what we felt. I think we were both quite insecure at the beginning. On my side, I was thinking “Oh my God, I’m doing an album with one of the best singers I know! Will he like this track I’m sending?” But on the other hand, we had nothing to lose. You know what? I think we’re both kind people, respectful in a way. This does not mean that I didn’t ask Dominic to re-do a vocal line or I had to tell him that I preferred a previous version or so on… and he made me crazy in refining the volumes of vocals (he’s maybe the only singer on earth that asks to lower down its vocals all the time!)

DA: No, we didn’t discuss it at all, it really was a case of ‘how can I develop this and what can I add?’ Early in the collaboration, I did find it quite intimidating; a track like “Cold Sun” for example just seemed so perfect already. I was frightened to add to it. I was frightened I might take something away from it. With all the songs I would just listen to them over and over again until I found a place in them. Recording at home is amazing for this as you can try so many things, recording it every time, and listen back to find what works best. 

Dominic, I was so interested in the materials for this album where you talked about dragging your feet on this project for a time because of a bit of a crisis of confidence. Was this more specific to this project or a general feeling? I know it mentioned your lunch with Ivo Watts-Russell and his encouragement, but how else did you manage to get yourself over the hump, so to speak, to fully pursue this album?

DA: I’m not a confident person. Ha! I’m riddled with anxieties and I needed the push. Collaborating with a total stranger isn’t a straightforward thing. You’re laying yourself open to looking very foolish if it turns out your collaborator doesn’t like what you’ve done to their stuff. Also, writing lyrics is very exposing. It’s funny, I enjoy writing them and as they are written I’m pleased with them but as soon as an album is released I’m suddenly mortified by them. What was so honest, and evolved so naturally through (and was suggested to me by) the music, suddenly seems preposterous. Does that make sense to you? 

Absolutely, yes. I relate to that on a pretty deep level and I think that’s one of my favorite aspects of collaborating with new people. It’s terrifying, but maybe exhilarating too… the possibilities endless! So, is there a particular story behind the project name, Starlight Assembly? It’s a great name.

MU: Better if Dominic tells about it… I can only say that it took ages to choose a name! The very first was MI/LO, but I didn’t like it… and Dominic didn’t like my proposals (I don’t even remember them!). We tried hundreds of names until we agreed on this! I’m happy you like it, Brad!

DA: Oh yes, I’d forgotten about MI/LO – as in Milan/London. I liked that but to Teo, it’s a powdered chocolate drink! Fair enough, I wouldn’t want us to be called Nesquik…

Once work got going on the album it looked as if the title would be Starlight and Still Air pretty early on. It suited the sound and mood of the album. As such, we considered calling ourselves that as well but it sounded more like a title than a ‘band’ name. It did amuse me though that we could have been like Batman and Robin: Teo could be Starlight and I’d be Still Air. 

So for a long time, we played with names using ‘Starlight’ until one day Starlight Assembly popped up. It was as simple as that. It just sounded right.

Thematically – from the lyrical content to the sound design and production – it’s a very spacious record, but there’s a very human aspect to it like it’s simultaneously looking back over where we’ve been and looking ahead and asking questions about the time we have left. Were there specific themes and ideas you wanted to thread through this album? It gets back to what I was talking about earlier from the collaborative cohesion of it, how the music and lyrical content fit together so well and Matteo’s compositions really enhance the things Dominic is singing about (I keep thinking about “There Is No Crisis To Come” especially and the urgency in the music and themes in the lyrics and how it creates such an incredible, visceral listening experience).

MU: Wow! Thank you! Again I can say that we didn’t discuss specific themes or ideas, but – as Dominic says – we’re often on the same page. The song you mention, “There Is No Crisis To Come,” is indeed a good example. I gave that title to the file I was working on after I had just been to my psychotherapist. Then Dominic kept that title, wrote the lyrics, sang with his beautiful style. 

Now, after we talked about that song, months after it was done, I know better what it means to him, that is different from my original feelings. But it’s great! And I love it, and I think this is how good music and good lyrics work… they’re open to interpretations. 

About the “spacious record”… Ableton Live is my toy. I have a lot of fun placing the WAV files where I feel they fit! But I think I owe quite a lot to Giuseppe Ielasi, who I have known since I was a boy – he has worked on many Sparkle in Grey records – to help me with the mixing. He’s so good at finding the right spot in the sound space, in the frequencies, the reverbs, in the pace of the tracks. 

DA: There weren’t any specific themes or ideas for me either. For the bulk of the songs, I was writing to the music that Teo had put together. It’s the music that suggests the themes and, I think, there’s a lot of subconscious thought and ideas that are at play. That might sound a bit pretentious but very often, in writing music and words, when everything is done I listen back and think ‘that’s great, I know we made it I just wonder where the f**k it came from!’ 

Matteo, there’s such a huge array of musicians and artists that participated in these recordings. Are these mostly people you regularly work with or did you have specific musicians in mind for specific parts or songs? Was most of this instrumentation done remotely or were you working together in the studio with these artists?

MU: It’s a bit complex… It depends. I’ve got many musician friends that have been collaborating with me for ages. Firstly, there are all my buddies in Sparkle in Grey, who can play a wide range of instruments, from the violin and viola of Franz Krostopovic to the bass of Cristiano Lupo, up to Simone Riva’s drums. For this record, I didn’t ask them to play on the songs, but I grabbed previous recordings (mostly outtakes) from my hard drives. I did the same with other friends: Andrea Serrapiglio for the cellos, Mattia Costa for other drums, Alessandro Sesana for the trumpet. The deal with them, when we meet to record in my studio or someone else’s, is: “Play what you want, I’ll do what I want with the recordings.” So I did it for Starlight Assembly, again grabbing WAVs from the hard drive. 

But some songs needed a specific contribution: this is the case of the above-mentioned Anna Mioni, and for Ruben Camillas, guitar or bass in “Look What…”, “Looking for Cues,” and “Unravelling”.

The piano in the last track, by Francesco Giannico, has a longer story, but I don’t want to steal too much time from you and the readers!

Ah! Not to forget the wonderful contribution of Gayatri Lyndsey Robertson and Sharon Shahani, which Dominic involved as backing vocalists. Their contribution is also fundamental!

We’re going to have even more people in the new album…

By the way, have you all met in person yet? And if not, have plans been made? 

MU: Dominic and I met in Jan 2020, but, all things considered, we haven’t had the opportunity to see each other again. But if you mean all the plethora of musicians I’ve just mentioned, it would be complex but great to meet maybe here in Milan. We’re even considering making some live gigs, but both me and Dominic are not really ‘stage animals’… although playing our music in front of an audience would be wonderful! Anyone interested?

DA: I’m planning to go back to Milan in January 2022. I can’t believe that’s 2 years already. We should be doing the final mixes of the next album then. It seems crazy to me that Teo and I have spent so little time physically in the same room as one another as we’re constantly in touch and working on new music.

What’s next for Starlight Assembly?

MU: I replied to part of this lovely question while exporting premixes of the new Starlight Assembly album. Dunno why, but it’s going to be darker and more melodic than the first. It’s strange as the first LP is still in the pressing process at the moment, but Beacon Sound is such a supportive label that our enthusiasm and will to do more is rising, in spite of any dark signal from the music market! We’re also working on a remix cassette of the first record, with confirmed artists like Ramleh, Derek Hunter Wilson, Nocturnal Emissions, and Scanner. 

DA: Yes, the new album is well on its way to being finished, I’m loving making it. Teo and I know one another better now and I think we’re playing to each other’s strengths.

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