The Blackheart Orchestra create glorious soundscapes together, hugely emotive and held together by an ethereal enchanting voice.
A beautiful enigma, difficult to define musically but easy to like, the North West duo comprises Chrissy Mostyn and Rick Pilkington. Our chat is filled with laughter and the sense of two best friends, complimentary talents and characters whose different routes into music feed each other’s drive and enthusiasm. Their creative relationship crackles with an underlying sense of racing to catch up with opportunities that their time together and a growing instrument collection presents.
Marking their transformation from the folk rock of Blackheart to a deeper, richer and more alternative sound with the album Diving For Roses, the last year has seen them win deserved acclaim in PROG magazine’s readers’ poll (#4 Best New Band of 2018) and a nomination for The Limelight Award in the 2018 Progressive Music Awards. They’re enjoying recognition from new audiences as their fan base increases across genres.
For Pilkington, the forward looking, broader reach of today’s progressive music (“music that’s trying to go where music hasn’t been before”) is what they aspire to. The duo are embracing bands like Sigur Rós and The Cinematic Orchestra while acknowledging a debt of inspiration, certainly in Pilkington’s case, to the “great days” of ELP, Genesis, Barclay James Harvest and their like.
But their respective backgrounds are quite different. Pilkington grew up in Bolton, eschewing the formality of school music lessons in favour of a Spanish guitar his mum bought him aged 11. “I was bored out of my brain,” he says. “Even though the teacher was beautiful, a guy called Neil Smith, and a fabulous player. He still is.” Within the couple of years, a combination of finding Cream’s Disraeli Gears in a Porthmadog record shop on a Sunday school outing, teaching himself every song on it and being surrounded by a group of music-obsessed friends, ignited a lifelong passion.
“I knew nothing about music, I just bought the album that had the most exciting cover,” says Pilkington. “We had a such fantastic group of people there [at Bolton School]. Tony Wadsworth [former MD at the Parlophone label and Chairman of EMI Music], Bryce Edge [manager of Radiohead], Mark Radcliffe [BBC Radio presenter], oh, and Mick Singleton who became the drummer in the Buzzcocks. It was such a musical gang, you know, we used to go and see bands together. Growing up together was fantastic. I formed my first band, Black Cat Bone, with Tony (and, for a while, Mick) and a bunch of other guys and we went on the rampage around Bolton and surrounding areas creating havoc rock ‘n’ roll at the loudest possible volume that we could record.”
Meanwhile, Mostyn was born and raised in Wigan and, with a predominantly Welsh family, spent most of her time in Wales, Manchester and Liverpool. “None of my family were involved in music. There was music in the house, but no-one was playing it or creating it and school experiences didn’t help either so I don’t know where it came from. Growing up I just knew I wanted to be a singer. Maybe I was just born with the urge? My dad always told me to follow my dreams and my sister urged me to do it, so they really helped.”
Mostyn trained at Wigan University to be a counsellor. Did she still have one eye on music even at this point? “Oh, I had both eyes on it. I just trained to be a therapist because I’m interested in psychology and it helped with songwriting.”
In subsequent years, an interest in minimalist classical music (shared with Pilkington), lots of singer/songwriters across genres and, more recently, exposure to bands like Sigur Rós and Soap&Skin have influenced Mostyn, but she believes it’s “still important to make it your own music”.
A chance meeting (or “good accident” as Pilkington calls it) led to the two coming together. Pilkington was at rehearsal studios with a rock band. “I was a big noisy Gibson Les Paul, Marshall stack kind of guy playing Led Zeppelin music and that sort of blues rock sort of stuff.”
A roadie’s band had invited Mostyn along to the same studio to audition for a project they were putting together. On hearing her voice, Pilkington was impressed and the two hit it off straight away, talking music for hours afterwards. Pilkington began attending Mostyn’s gigs and then offering a helping hand to work on her solo act. Soon after they were writing songs together. “I’d never written a song in my life,” he reveals. “That’s something Chrissy brought to me. I’d just been a guitar player.”
Describing how they create songs today, Pilkington says: “Chrissy’s the architect and I’m the painter and decorator. She creates the big ideas for songs, and the lyrics and the concepts for songs. I basically just play along. In my head I’m hearing a production. It’s my job to enhance and expand the song. After a while, I thought ‘should we do some gigs together?’. Little gigs, pubs, you know. We ended up doing 148 all over the place in our first year. I had a big day job. I worked in advertising as a partner in a business in Manchester. It was a pretty heavy job, so music was my escape. But soon I escaped completely when we got together.”
“And the rest is history,” adds Mostyn with a smile. “We became Blackheart for a few years, we were just acoustic guitars and voices. It was much more stripped back, no electronica. It just feels like it’s grown from there. I think it was an evolution. People told us our name sounded like a heavy rock band. Our sound had expanded a lot with the addition of synthesisers, keyboards, percussion and more atmosphere had been added to the music.”
“We started off with one guitar, a Gibson 185SE,” says Pilkington. “That, and the two of us stood side by side on stage.”
Mostyn explains their passion for collection instruments to further build their sound. “I then started playing guitar on stage, then purchased our Suzuki Omnichord – now called Clive – and just fell in love with it. That was the first electronic instrument that entered the band. Then, a little Yamaha Portasound I rescued from a junk shop in Tasmania. It was $20.”
“Everything we’ve got is ancient,” adds Pilkington. “We’ve got things that real keyboard players would’ve thrown away 20 years ago. But we understand what they do. It’s about the sound, isn’t it? We just want to keep adding new ingredients to our sound.”
Describing the name change, Mostyn says: “We were at a gig, a concert at Blenheim Palace watching Ludovico Einaudi and Rick said, ‘what about Blackheart Orchestra?’ and it just fitted.”
Various videos across the band’s career express the balance between the story they envisage and how they’re open to interpretation. The Hey Pluto video was created by media students at Plymouth University who set out interpret their music in visual form. In Sebastian, it’s the videographer’s interpretation, but one that conveyed the writer’s intentions well. A soldier returns from war but is revealed to be a woman, a victim of emotional wounds on the battlefield of love. “We liked that it was a girl rather than a guy wounded by what had happened to her,” says Mostyn.
Mesmerento, the new album, is due for release this Summer with a UK tour to follow.
“If you like Diving For Roses [the 2017 album] you’ll definitely like it,” says Mostyn. “We’ve almost been more disciplined on it. We’ve used more silence, we’ve allowed our fragile side out even more. It’s about us not following any rules, just doing what we think the songs require.
Words and images by Marc McGarraghy
Mesmerento is released Summer 2019. The UK tour to support it starts in September, but live dates are scheduled in the North of England beforehand.
View the video for Sebastian below: