Bartholomew Fair was my one and only flirtation with the “supergroup” concept. Comprised of Sonya Waters from Orange and grEGORy simpson from Grace Darling, it existed for a brief, shining moment in 1991 before imploding. Left in the aftermath was an epic EP, and a whole lot of wasted potential.
This is their story…
The Rise and Fall of Bartholomew Fair
In 1990, Sonya Waters of Orange first heard Grace Darling perform ‘Sleep Knows No Melody’ on C’est La Mort’s Doctor Death’s Vol. 4 compilation cassette. She contacted C’est La Mort owner, Woodrow Dumas, to find out if Grace Darling would like to tour with Orange. Woodrow passed the information on to me and I went to see Orange open a show for 4AD recording artists, Lush. I was immediately moved by Sonya’s voice as much as she was moved by my music.
We spent the next year listening to each other’s music and talking about a side project, but each of us was too busy with our own recordings to put the necessary time and creative energy into a collaboration. Finally, in the fall of 1991, we started to record.
Our concept was to draw as much as we could from our shared influences, which rather surprisingly turned out to be medieval music and ritualistic Masses. Inevitably some of our dissimilar interests would also end up in the mix (my love of opera and industrial noisescapes, plus Sonya’s interest in modern alternative rock). We decided to make one long album where the listener couldn’t tell when one song ended and another began; more a series of movements than a series of songs. We chose to write and record the album linearly, adding something new to whatever we’d recorded previously; letting each movement influence the sound and recording of the next.
To make things even less radio friendly, we opted to record wordless vocals. There were a number of reasons for this. First, I thought Sonya’s voice was so moving that I didn’t want any actual words to distract the listener — an idea I got from my love of Italian opera, which I was always able to “understand” in spite of speaking no Italian. Second, we decided to record many of the vocals as a series of improvisations, so words would place an unnecessary metrical constraint on the process.
The first recording sessions produced ‘Never Never No,’ which stays quite true to the album’s concept. Following sessions led to the sparse and haunting ‘The Well’ then into ‘D’ea Dia’s’ opening liturgical movement, the modern folk medieval middle, and its closing industrial climax.
After ‘D’ea Dia,’ we started to stray a bit. I had this pretty little piano piece that I didn’t know what to do with, so I gave it to Sonya, who added words, and it became ‘Secret Winter Trees.’ I was initially against using it for the Bartholomew Fair project, but two things happened. First, it provided a nice bit of “down time” after the heavy industrial climax to ‘D’ea Dia’ and, second, I couldn’t understand a word Sonya sang! This song actually had fewer recognizable syllables than the previous wordless songs!
The final orchestral strings of ‘Secret Winter Trees’ inspired me to program a synthesizer patch that would sound like some mutant combination of those strings and the church bells I planned to use in the next song. I was happy with the new sound, but I didn’t have any musical ideas to accompany it. One day, while walking through the streets of San Francisco, I heard a common city sound — an annoying, pulsating buzz warning pedestrians that a car is about to pull out of an underground parking garage. I decided to make this sound beautiful by setting it in a new context. I programmed the sound on a synthesizer, then recorded all the instrumental parts to Hush in a single evening.
Vocal Hush – The End
Let me preface this by saying that ‘Hush’ is, to this day, my absolute favorite among all the songs I’ve ever recorded. It was also the undoing of Bartholomew Fair.
I knew immediately that I was in love with this song and that Sonya’s voice would be a spectacular addition. When we recorded the vocals, I had Sonya sing dozens of different improvisations — each performance was breathtakingly beautiful, yet completely different than any other performance. When it came time to mix the song, I couldn’t decide which vocals to use! And that’s when I hit on an idea — I would use Studio Vision Pro (an early digital audio/MIDI sequencing program from the late, great Opcode Systems) to “build” the perfect vocal. I spent a week painstakingly auditioning every note of every vocal — digitally dissecting each performance into tiny individual sounds and syllables. I shuffled these syllables forward and backward in time, creating totally new melodies and totally new harmonies. Sonya’s voice was like a sonic Tinker Toy set with which I could build any melody I wanted.
I was both enamored with the process and delighted with the result. I played the final mix for Sonya, and announced that I was going to use this same recording technique to record the rest of the album. I had never felt so musically inspired!
Sonya and I never recorded together again.
In my obsession to create “the perfect song,” I had destroyed all of Sonya’s creative input and reduced her from an equal partner to just another sound in the soup. Bartholomew Fair had become my project, not ours. At the time, I didn’t understand why she was hurt, but it’s obvious to me now. The great Bartholomew Fair “super group” ceased after only a couple months of recording and our grand concept album is only a cult EP.
– grEGORy simpson