The music of Willow Tea is undeniable. Easily identified by its soft, nostalgic sound, mesmerizing ambience and a sincere offering of Dungeon Synth vibes that are fit for almost any occasion. With a consistently growing catalog, as well as ventures into other realms under various project names, Willow Tea is one of the genres most revered artists. Being one of my favorite synth acts, it was inevitable for me to set aside some time to talk to the entity behind the craft and get some insight on the project, humble beginnings and what the future has to hold. Please enjoy this interview with the one-and-only, Willow Tea!
1. Thanks for this interview opportunity! I want to start off by saying that I’m such a fan of your music and the fact that you represent multiple genres is simply amazing. What drove you toward playing synth/electronic music?
Thank you for having me, I appreciate it.
Electronic music has been a part of my life for as long as I remember. Some of my earliest favourite musicians were New Order, Erasure, and Transvision Vamp, all of whom used electronic instruments to varying degrees. In the mid 90s I became interested in making music because most of the bands I liked at the time made it seem so accessible. The first time I actually made music with a computer was in 1999, making sounds with non-instruments and pasting them messily into a very basic audio editing program on my dad’s work computer. At the time I was listening to a lot of dark ambient and noise music (e.g. Brighter Death Now, raison d’etre) so what I was making naturally leaned that way. I dabbled a bit over the years but the results were pretty directionless and really just an outlet. It wasn’t until the last few years that I had the tools and skill to put together the things I’d been wanting to all along.
2. I believe my first venture into your music was with ‘The Iris River’ release. That was such an amazing little album and although it’s considered Dungeon Synth, to me it’s more like Dark Fantasy Synth with ambient undertones. Is this the style your ultimate trying to achieve with The Willow Tea?
I always felt like Willow Tea generally sits a bit awkwardly under the dungeon synth tag, though it shares a lot of the general DNA. My original intention was to make comfy synth but I sort of missed and ended up somewhere else. A lot of Willow Tea takes inspiration from fantasy films and stories, nature, and folklore, without being too deeply indebted to them – I’m not trying to soundtrack these things, but respond to them and reflect their moods or the impressions they left on me. Which is a roundabout way of saying that dark fantasy synth is a description I like and fits well.
3. Late last year, you released ‘Home’ and I have to tell you that dynamically, that album is soundtrack worthy. There are so many grand moments on that album and it’s not as dark as previous efforts. What was your songwriting approach to this one?
Home was loosely inspired by (or as above, a response to) a pair of movies I’d watched: The Witch and Hagazussa. These are quite atmospheric, quiet, dark stories and I really felt a strong urge to write something that fit with them without being an attempt to write something like an alternate soundtrack.
I definitely wanted it to feel a bit more dynamic than some of my previous releases; I felt like I was running out of steam with Willow Tea and wanted to do something a bit more ambitious and challenging for myself. More contrasts, more depths, unsettling but hopeful, and trying to do something that was intentionally structured as an album, rather than just a handful of sad songs. It’s probably my favourite stand-alone Willow Tea, and I am glad people seemed to respond positively to it.
4. Earlier this year you released a split album (under the Nebelkrähe moniker) with Thalmar. I love that raw, grainy Dungeon Ambient mixture that both artists displayed on this release. How did this collaboration come about and will there be anymore releases by these two artists in the future?
I am really glad you like Nebelkrähe. With this, I really wanted to attempt something that sat somewhere between some artists I really admire: Nibelung, raison d’etre, Cad Goddeu, and Woodland Spells in particular. Artists who really use depth and time to great effect. I’ve been listening to Nibelung a lot recently and their works feels so wide, like watching a grainy old film at a theatre. It’s been a nice challenge, trying to write music that has space to breathe and develop through small changes and variation, rather than something more straightforwardly melodic.
Colin approached me at the end of last year about working on a split, and it felt like a good opportunity to try out something less melodic and more atmospheric, more drone-ish, more grainy. It took me a few months to get moving, but when it did it all came together really quick and I feel like our tracks really compliment each other well. We haven’t discussed it yet, but I would like to do another one with Colin at some point.
5. Do you have any other collaborative efforts in the works with other artists?
I do have a few more splits coming up: one with Woodland Spells which will come up on Windkey at some point, another one with Gray Friar as Woods Of Sith Cala, and another one still in-progress but coming along nicely. They’re all quite different and I’m excited for them all.
6. You are so good at creating atmospherics in your music. Have you ever considered creating a straight up Dark Ambient album?
I used to make a lot more noisy dark ambient music, I think I got quite good at building a canvas but it always felt like it was missing something; I saw it like scaffolding or a framework, and I got to a point where I felt like I just wasn’t getting what I wanted from it. Nebelkrähe is a swing towards something more dark ambient, though it’s not quite there. My tastes and influences are constantly shifting, so maybe I’ll end up with something more purely atmospheric in the future.
7. When you’re not spending time making music as The Willow Tea, what other projects are you involved in?
Mostly it’s the broad umbrella of Woods Of Sith Cala where I spend much of my time, but creatively I have slowed down a lot because of life reasons. Nebelkrähe will probably be something I put more focus on, and last week I did a pair of droney, ambient pieces under the title Northwest Passage that I plan to develop further.
8. Do you have any physical releases (cassette or CD) planned for any of your projects this year?
Fiadh Productions just released a tape of Ancient Mariner, a noisy thing loosely based on the Coleridge poem, which I am pretty excited about. A couple of other split tape releases will surface in the next couple of months too. We may see the Nebelkrähe-Thalmar split get a tape release, we’ll see how that one pans out.
9. When I listen to your music I hear a variety of tones and effects. What is your setup like for recording and do you prefer analog or VST’s?
My setup is really quite basic: I have an ageing Macbook with Garageband and a handful of VSTs, and Audacity for admin and editing – though I am starting to use FL Studio on my desktop PC to explore different ways of working and some instruments and tools that aren’t available for Mac. On the hardware side, I have a small midi keyboard and a few other basic home keyboards and instruments which I am using a lot more in combination with some guitar effect pedals. My handheld Tascam recorder has been getting a lot of work recently for field recordings and sourcing atmospheres.
Overall I try to keep it fairly basic and rely on tools and instruments that I am already familiar with.
10. When you’re not spending time with your own music, who are some artists that you enjoy listening to (any genre)?
I have been on a real lofi kick recently, so things like Jötgrimm, Lochdraoidh, Woodland Spells. Recently I’ve been really into Aura Merlin, The Divine Accolade, Sjöhäxan, Ithildin’s Herbarium series, Elyvilon, Wych Elm, and Spectral Sorrow. Aside from dungeon synth, I have recently been listening a lot to Joy Division’s Closer, The Legendary Pink Dots’ The Tower, and Six Organs Of Admittance’s Luminous Night.
11. That being said, who are some of your main influences for getting started in music in the first place?
It’s an ever shifting feast in terms of who I am feeling inspired or influenced by. The ones that are always there and have been for a long time are Joy Division, Einstürzende Neubauten, PJ Harvey, raison d’etre, Nine Inch Nails, Alice In Chains, those are the artists who really made me want to make music. The artists who really made me want to make my own dungeon synth music were Fogweaver and Apoxupon, and I still feel strongly influenced by their music and the wider dungeon synth community.
12. Going back to the music of The Willow Tree and specifically with the album ‘A Drowning’, I get the impression that there is an underlying story for the buildup of these tracks? In can almost imagine a lone wanderer slowing transcending vast landscapes on an impossible journey. Did you have a story in mind when writing this album?
You’re actually quite close to where I was when making A Drowning. I sometimes have an idea of a narrative or theme or concept, A Drowning was one where I imagined a silent film about a trapper being lost in a blizzard in the highlands of Tasmania, and I just went with that image in my head. I like to set a scene or a landscape and just let it develop without getting too deep into telling a story. But I also like to leave space for others to engage with and respond to it.
13. What are some of your own albums that you like to go back and revisit from time to time?
I don’t revisit many of them too often, to be honest. After something is finished and before I release it, I will listen to it obsessively to make sure I’m happy with it, but once they are out there, I am sort of moving on to the next thing I want to make. I put on Dimmerweld by Fjaeldmark from time to time because I like the atmosphere, as well as the split I did recently with Wych Elm.
14. Do you ever draw inspiration from any of your previous works?
Sort of. There’s always a process of learning and developing and building on previous work, I’d never want to stand still in that regard. You keep on moving and further honing your skills and craft. sometimes I’ve spun off new projects inspired by moments or new iterations of something I did previously.
15. I’m really appreciate you taking the time to do this interview for The Dungeon In Deep Space. Do you have any final thought for those that will be reading this?
Thanks for the interview, and keep doing your amazing work. And to the dear dungeon synth community: keep being weird and creative and prolific and kind. You’re wonderful.