Currently celebrating 20 years piloting the revered record label Bella Union, Simon Raymonde has scaled another personal peak, a new collaboration with drummer Richie Thomas. They’re called Lost Horizons, and though neither of them have strictly been lost, their stunning debut album, Ojalá, is a rare
sighting of two gifted musicians who, for different reasons, have been largely absent from music-making for the last 20 years. Yet the record is proof of a telepathic relationship through music, established when the pair first became collaborators and friends in the eighties.
Ojalá also incorporates a heady cast of guest singers. Some are signed to Bella Union, such as Marissa Nadler, former Midlake frontman Tim Smith, Cameron Neal (Horse Thief), others are long-time favourites of Raymonde’s (Leila Moss of The Duke Spirit and Ghostpoet), or newer discoveries (Beth Cannon, Ed Riman, Gemma Donleavy and Phil McDonnell). And then there is the incomparable Karen Peris of The Innocence Mission, one of Raymonde’s all-time favourites, in her first collaboration outside of The Innocent Mission and solo recordings.
Together, the Lost Horizons ensemble has created an hour of exquisite, expansive and diverse spellcasting, from facets of soul (‘Bones’, featuring Cannon, and ‘Reckless’, featuring Ghostpoet) to dreamier invocations like ‘She Led Me Away’ (featuring Smith) and Ojalá’s lengthiest trip, ‘The Engine’ (featuring Riman). There’s the odd louder, faster detour, like ‘Life Inside A Paradox’ (featuring Neal, with Sharon Van Etten on backing vocals, and the first Lost Horizons track to emerge, on a split 7” single with Mercury Rev, for Record Store Day 2016), but the dominant mood is a deep, rich melancholia. “It’s just something I’m drawn to,” says Raymonde. “But he was equally drawn to working with Thomas.
Before he started Bella Union, Raymonde was the bassist of the revered Cocteau Twins, where the vein of melancholia went very deep. Even before the band had signed to 4AD, the label were releasing records by the instrumental quartet Dif Juz, arguably the first word in post-rock, 15 years before it became a trend: Thomas was their anchor the engine room of their wondrous free-flow. The two bands became friends, and toured together.
“Dif Juz are still one of the best live bands I’ve ever seen, and I adore Richie’s drumming,” says Raymonde. “He plays in a really unusual style, with his hands around the wrong way… He’s got a dub-reggae style, but with a jazz feel. He makes the whole drum kit come alive.”
Raymonde and Thomas had made demos together in the eighties, but filed them away - though they did collaborate on ‘Ivy And Neet’, found on This Mortal Coil’s second album Filigree & Shadow (1986), with Thomas adding a spiralling saxophone to Raymonde’s improvised piano. But both found their journeys diverging. Long after Dif Juz split, Thomas had toured with The Jesus And Mary Chain, Moose, Felt and, in the nineties, Cocteau Twins. But as he recalls, “The business side of music became too painful. I had, too much love for music that wasn’t returned. But Simon has music in his heart and soul, he’s extremely talented, and I wanted to get him making music again. And when the idea of jamming together came up again, I got really excited, which I hadn’t felt about music in ages.”
If Lost Horizons was Thomas’ first recording in 20 years, it was only Raymonde’s second in the same time frame. When Cocteau Twins split in 1997, Raymonde found himself running a record label, and not making music until he joined forces with singer Stephanie Dosen under the name Snowbird, releasing one album, moon, in 2013. “I’d found it so hard to get my own music going,” he admits. “Part of my problem was, what was the point of working with another singer after [Cocteaus’} Elizabeth Fraser? It was foolish to think that, but understandable that I’d compare everyone to her.”
In the meantime, “I felt obliged to put everything into Bella Union. I was deeply involved in music, just not my own. I always felt Snowbird was more Stephanie’s record than mine, but it was the germ for Lost Horizons, to fill the hole I still felt in my stomach after all these years. And Richie was always my first choice to record with.”
The pair booked just four days in an east London studio, with Raymonde on piano and Thomas on drums, and a simple plan: “It must feel like fun, never a chore, and it had to be improvised,” Raymonde explains. If it never became a record, it didn’t matter. It was all about recapturing that feeling when you’re 15, making music with friends. “
Raymonde added bass, guitar and occasional electronics, turning improvisation into songs, and a second four-day session was booked - the day that David Bowie suddenly died. “I didn’t know if I could go through with it,” Raymonde says, “Richie was just as upset, but he said, ‘Let’s use that energy, and power through,’ and I’m so glad we did. That energy and excitement is still on the finished record.”
Thomas: “Better we recorded than watch the news! It became this very positive experience. The music that day had a sensitivity that might have influenced the vocalists. Listening back to the record, it was such an emotional experience for me.”
As all the songs took shape, Raymonde began thinking of singers to suit each, and to his surprise and joy, they all agreed. The same ground rules as the original sessions applied: “There were no, ‘Am I going in the right direction?’ conversations. It had to be about the moment, about what felt right.”
Given the role of guest singers, the common ground that Raymonde and Thomas shared, and the love of melancholia, it’s not surprising that Ojalá has something in common with This Mortal Coil - underlined further by the plan to add a bonus disc of ambient recordings that evolved into solo piano pieces, similarly transformed into haunting song, “as a quieter contrast to the band pieces,” says Raymonde. I love the tracks I’m not playing on just as much,” says Thomas, referring to ‘Frenzy, Fear’ (featuring Riman), ‘Winter’s Approaching’ (featuring Nadler) and ‘Stampede’ (featuring Lanterns On The Lake’s Hazel Wilde). “They’re super-emotional. And to be involved somehow in that music made it even more powerful.”
There are plans for a Lost Horizons live event, and the online gift of the instrumental ‘On The Day You Died’ (which refers to the late Bowie), plus and an EP featuring Marissa Nadler’s two Ojalá tracks and the pair she sung that didn’t make the final cut – which still amounts to 15 tracks (single CD, double vinyl) “For me, this was twenty years in the making, and I have a lot to feelings to get out!” says Raymonde. “We didn’t make this record with a commercial view.”
Indeed, Ojalá was made for its core duo’s need to make music, and to create something beautiful, and meaningful, in these dark times. It’s why the record is named after the Spanish for “hopefully” (or “God willing”).
“We live in a time where we need hope more than ever,” Thomas concludes. “And hope’s the last thing you give up on… ‘We live in hope’. And this record has given me a lot of hope. To reconnect with music, and that feeling of innocence that comes from playing music. And the hope for another Lost Horizons record!”