If someone told me a 20-year-old swanned around Belgium, Holland, Germany, Denmark, France, Ireland, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Poland, Norway, Sweden, India and the United States over the past eight months, I’d probably think gap-year student or perhaps member of royal family.
In fact, this was the colossal touring schedule of Rachel Sermanni, a gifted young singer of some distinction from Carrbridge who finds herself in an endurance race that has no finishing line.
The fantastical images she paints with her romantic lyrics and the whir of acoustic guitar has won Rachel many followers in folky and indie circles, but what’s most remarkable – and refreshing – about this story is that she has come so far without signing a record deal.
Instead, the support of funding bodies and her manager Robert Hicks, of Highlands and Islands promoters Beyond, has allowed Rachel to not only embark on a global adventure with her music, but self-release her recordings (The Bothy Sessions and Black Currents EPs and new single Eggshells) through her own Middle Of Nowhere imprint.
With the finishing touches being put to her debut album, a potentially life-changing ‘stick or twist’ decision may soon have to be made if/when record labels come calling.
“As much as getting signed is really exciting and often the right way to go, it can become much more of a hindrance if some people aren’t really enthusiastic about it, because there’s all this investment,” reasons Rachel, sipping a black tea at a greasy-spoon café during a rare return to her ‘other’ home of Glasgow.
“Releasing the album on our own is perhaps a sort of haemorrhaging of money, time, patience and passion, but I’d be really happy if we did that and in the long run it could be more beneficial as you’re not paying anyone else.
“Sometimes people sign for the sake of being signed, or for the sake of just that little bit extra of a boost, and that’s not the way my music needs to go because essentially it will continue to grow organically and we can see how it pans out.”
Rachel, who was just pipped for the lead role in Stuart Murdoch’s Got Help The Girl film three weeks ago, has played more than 150 gigs in the past 12 months and she admits her breathless itinerary is causing some concern over how it might affect her songwriting.
“It’s a strange game,” she says. “I get a little bit upset sometimes in the sense that you have to strive not to sell yourself or sell your soul, and play music that’s creative and feels satisfying, and I think that will always be my main struggle. I find that being creative is still really difficult just now because there is so much touring and there’s not time for space.
“The second album is already a worry. There’s a nice wee buzz but I just feel so sorry for people who are really big and only have one album out because there’s so much pressure. I’ve not even got one album out but I’m already thinking, ‘How can I do another album?’. I’m sure the creative spark is still there but sometimes I think, ‘I won’t be able to write another song ever again… I don’t have anything to say!’. But that happens when you’re really tired and not thinking of different perspectives.”
While Rachel may question her sense of perspective, you don’t have to spend long in her company to appreciate just how humble and grounded she is – there’s very little likelihood she’ll ever take for granted the opportunities her natural talent has afforded her.
“I still do lots of busking,” she says. “That’s a good exercise, for me anyway, because you realise you’re just a musician, you’re just an entertainer, and on the street that is the perfect place for it. I’m so lucky to play music. Sometimes you get wrapped up in things like, ‘Oh my god, I’m not going to make it’ or ‘I can’t remain an artist blah blah blah’, all this pathetic stuff, and then I go out on the street and realise I could eat my dinner every night just through busking if I wanted to. It’s a reassuring thing because you know everything will be okay.”
Seeing as she has become such an international jetsetter, here are Rachel Sermanni’s six tips for touring:
1. Have a healthy diet
I try to stick to oats for breakfast – I buy porridge and boil it up every morning. If you’re going to treat yourself then do so in the afternoon because if you’ve got a gig later you don’t want to be all stodgy. Have something light or salady in the evening – I usually have lots of vegetables and loads of apples. Drink loads of water as well. Black tea is very good. Not too much coffee, though, because it thins you out.
2. Warm up your vocals
If you put a straw to your mouth, you’ve basically got a much smaller hole to breathe through, so take in a deep breath and sing out through the straw and go up and down the scales. You’re able to really finely tune and find where it’s difficult to sing.
3. Keep it clean
A lot of the bigger venues have washing machines. When you stay in a hotel you just wash your clothes in the sink. You usually end up becoming very smelly. It’s inevitable. If I desperately need extra clothes I just jump into a charity shop. You end up picking up some interesting things for the wardrobe that you usually throw out by the time you get back.
4. Fend off boredom
I keep myself occupied with books and drawing sketches [naked ladies are a particular favourite]. There’s less music than you’d expect on tour and it’s sometimes hard to pull out an instrument. You’re going to get really tired, though, and the times you’re not doing anything are actually really precious – all you want to do is catch up with friends and sleep. Sleeping is huge.
5. Learn the lingo
Most foreign countries are surprisingly forgiving to the fact that you’re singing in English as the people are so bilingual. But they greatly appreciate attempts at speaking their language. Whether I can do it well or not, I’ll always make an attempt, even just saying, ‘Hello’. I’ve been to Holland the most so I’ve learned some Dutch. ‘Ik hou van slapen’ means ‘I like to sleep’ – that relates to my song, Sleep. Another of my songs, Song For A Fox, is ‘lied je voor een vos’.
6. Explore your surroundings
You can spend your life in the bus. Often you’ll go to sleep and wake up at the next venue. That’s why you sometimes don’t realise where you are. You can literally go from one country to another and not be at all aware, which is terrible. When you’re staying in a hotel, force yourself to get up early and at least go for a run – you see more of the city and you feel like you’ve been there. You’ve got to make an effort if you’ve got the energy.
Photos © The Pop Cop
Rachel Sermanni – Eggshells (acoustic)
June 17, The Insider Olympaid, Aviemore (tickets)
July 19, Woodend Barn, Banchory (tickets)
July 20, The Wickerman Festival, East Kirkcarswell (tickets)
August 3, Belladrum Tartan Heart Festival, Inverness-shire (tickets)