by James A. McQuiston FSA Scot, USA
EDITOR’S NOTE: We’ve been lucky enough to land interviews with many great artists, musical and otherwise. For “DeSEMber” we feature an actress, author and singer-songwriter from Austria who goes by the stage name of SEM. In civilian life she is Sandra Elizabeth Mae, and she appears to be taking the Celtic and alternative music world by storm with her latest album, Hero. Let’s get right to the questions.
CG: Welcome to the pages of Celtic Guide. Even though we were aware of ancient Celtic history in Austria, we were very surprised to hear the strong Celtic influence in your music. Where do you think that influence comes from?
SEM: I’ve always loved Celtic music, both Celtic traditional folk music, and also in a “modernized” form, as in Celtic Rock bands or, multidisciplinary, in gothic or symphonic metal music, so I began incorporating these sounds into my own music. Moreover, I am a huge fan of the Arthurian legends, and everything else that has a Celtic or medieval background or influence - mystical fantasy literature like The Lord Of The Rings, for example – so my passion for all these kind of things can be found in my blend of musical sounds.
CG: Celtic music is so timeless. You are quite young and we imagine your music is not considered mainstream by your age group. How are your fans reacting to your unique sound?
SEM: No, my music is definitely not mainstream, that’s why it makes it rather hard to be featured on radio stations over here, since almost all Austrian radio stations focus on the U.S. charts only. I guess my fans mainly enjoy the authenticity and emotionality that my music conveys, and the things I stand for as a person, as well as the mystical and fantastical atmosphere my songs can create. My fans are mainly age 30+ and primarily come from India, Asia and Poland, which surprises me, because I was expecting more Nordic countries to be interested in my music - countries like Norway, Iceland or the Netherlands - where successful symphonic rock bands like Within Temptation come from. Well, maybe they will be interested, and just haven’t heard of me yet ;-)
CG: We’ve read that you began music lessons by the age of eight and wrote your first song by the age of 14. As often is the case – no overnight success for you! Can you tell us a little bit about your latest album, and describe to our readers the nature of your music, overall?
SEM: I like to describe my music as mystic-melancholic and rocking-romantic. My debut album Hero reaches from bittersweet piano ballads to Celtic pop and symphonic rock songs, covering topics like pain and joy, love and grief, doubt and hope. Hero - The Album is about going on, about keeping faith, about overcoming obstacles, and our own fears and sorrows. It’s about that hero who lies within all of us, who keeps us going whenever we think we can’t get up and fight any more. It’s about letting our true colours shine through and wearing our hearts on our sleeves.
CG: We’ve noticed that your music is quite dynamic in that the rhythm can sometimes change abruptly, or the instrumentation. How do you capture those extremely technical ideas while in the songwriting process?
SEM: Actually, I never think of technical stuff while in the songwriting process. It just happens! As far as the instrumentation, I don’t really think about that either, not until the song is finished. Then, I go to my fellow musician, Reinhard Reschner, who runs a recording studio, and together we decide what the final nature of the songs should sound like. My ideas are always quite precise, and Reinhard knows exactly how to implement them perfectly. Let’s say it’s a symbiosis of creativity and common honesty!
CG: Which comes to you first, the music or the words, and where do you find inspiration for each of them?
SEM: My inspirations are drawn from my own experiences in life, my feelings and thoughts, but also from books, or movies, or people who inspire me. When I write a song, most of the time the music comes first and the words follow shortly afterwards. Sometimes it happens the other way round, too, although I don’t really know why. Maybe it depends on how I’m feeling. But one thing’s for sure: both music and lyrics always come from my heart. Sounds cheesy, but it’s true!
CG: Are you regimented in writing music, a certain time of day, or so many hours a day, or is it just when the mood strikes you?
SEM: That’s easy to answer – when the mood strikes me! Once, I tried to sit down in front of my keyboard and write a song because I just “had time to” and felt like I “had to” – didn’t work. Wasn’t really surprised about it, though.
CG: Do you ever get lost in the music?
SEM: Oh yes! And I always feel better afterwards.
CG: Are you involved in other creative pursuits?
SEM: As a professional actress, I’m involved in theatre plays in Linz, Austria, and I’m also part of a show group that focuses on entertainment for company celebrations, Christmas events or other festivities. Moreover, I’m a freelance writer at a local newspaper, which is a really nice way of having creative variety. I enjoy all of these jobs, but my wish is to be more on the spot with my own music and other projects of mine; I write theatre plays and novels as well.
CG: What’s next for SEM?
SEM: Hopefully, a second album and some concert gigs, depending on how well and how quickly my first album finds a market. I need all the support and fandom I can get! I would also love to produce a film soundtrack at some point.
CG: Finally, what is that one thing you’d like Celtic Guide readers to know about you?
SEM: I want to inspire people. I want someone to look at me and say: “Because of you, I didn’t give up” – because it was music that helped me keep going whenever I thought I couldn’t keep the faith and strength any more. I hope to help people the same with my music, to give them comfort or hope, to take them to visionary, adventurous places in their imagination. Thanks for your time and attention, CG readers!