Across her second album ‘Dust Gatherers’, the London-born composer, multi-instrumentalist, and vocalist Seaming To draws from her roots in classical composition and jazz improvisation. Equal parts magical realism and mythological pop, she describes it as “a collection of stories that have been gathering dust inside myself for some time,” hence the title. Summoning up a psychedelic wonderland of alluring songs draped in pastoral string arrangements and playful synthesisers, Seaming sings with a siren’s call, inviting us to explore the visions, secrets and dreamscapes that lurk just beyond our view in the mirror.
Seaming’s story in music began in the late 90s when she moved to Manchester to study at the Royal Northern College of Music. There, she fell into the orbit of two genuinely legendary musicians who became crucial to her artistic development, Paddy Steer and Graham Massey (of 808 State). Through performing in Paddy and Graham’s respective Homelife and Toolshed groups, Seaming became part of a deeply interwoven network of bands, producers and DJs that included Ninja Tune icons Mr Scruff and The Herbaliser, both of whom she recorded with in the early 2000s.
Following last year’s ‘Natural Process’ EP for Lo Recordings, ‘Dust Gatherers’ represents the latest stage in her artistic reemergence. Before its release, I got on a video call with Seaming and asked her about some of the songs and collaborations she’s recorded over the last twenty-four years.
Homelife, ‘Nervous’ (1999)
I’d just been introduced to Yma Sumac and Les Baxter when we recorded this. I loved the lush string arrangements, the feeling of dreaminess, and the vast cinematic soundscapes and harmonic progressions of Exotica music. Yma was mind-blowing, just to hear someone with a classical technique but a slightly different edge. Exotica is also very jazz, and it’s got 20th-century compositional roots. Before Homelife, I was into classical. I used to love Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Ravel, and Debussy, but I was also being introduced to jazz by my mum’s cassette collection. I‘d listen to Ella Fitzgerald to copy and learn her improvisations, sounds, and nuances of her voice. So that sort of got me away from classical as well.
Toolshed, ‘Nubaahn’ (2005)
Toolshed is a forum for improvised music alongside Graham Massey’s crazy electronic beats. We had a regular event in Manchester where we were the house band, and Graham curated the lineup. We’d play first, and then we’d have these various electronic dudes perform afterwards. We had four drummers on stage when we supported Joe Zawinul from Weather Report at Bridgewater Hall. The band members moved around, but there were usually quite a lot of people from Homelife playing in Toolshed. It was a wonderful time.
Mr Scruff & Seaming, ‘Beyond’ (2002)
I used to go to Mr Scruff’s nights at The Music Box, where he did these storming four or five-hour DJ sets. Back then, Scuff, Homelife and I were all managed by the same guy, Gary McClarnan, so it was a natural fit. Gary just said, “Look, he’s got the ‘Trouser Jazz’ album coming. Would you like to go and work on a couple of songs with him?” One of them was ‘Beyond’. At the time, I lived in a shared house with my own room and studio setup. Scruff came over, waded through my clothes, and we started sort of making the song. It was fun to do. Another track called ‘Valley of the Sausages’ was more improvised. I listened back to it recently and realised my voice sounds very different now.
The Herbaliser featuring Seaming To, ‘Something Wicked’ (2002)
Growing up, I was an indie kid who listened to things like Pulp, Lemonheads, PJ Harvey and the first Radiohead album. However, I did love ‘Army of Me’ by Björk, which I listened to religiously. Hip-hop, if we’re going to term The Herbaliser as hip-hop, was quite new to me. I used to get teased because I went from there to meeting Graham Massey and various other people involved in electronic music. They came to a gig that Homelife played. When we met backstage, they asked me if I would sing on a song for them. They had a few words they wanted me to use, but it was mostly another improvised thing. I did a lot of improvisation back then. I still do now, but I make it into songs. These days, even the parents at my kid’s school know that tune. It seems to have had quite the impact, which is great.
Seaming To, ‘SodaSlow’ (2006)
I’ve spent my whole life making music, compositions and that, but the shift to being a singer was quite a struggle for me. Being a singer is very different to being an instrumentalist. The voice is the only instrument that can express things with words, and it’s quite a lot of pressure when you’re not naturally a songwriter. I had to do a lot of learning. I still consider myself a musician rather than a singer. Working on this track with James Ford (from Simian Mobile Disco) was great. I went to the loo, and when I came back, he’d made the beats. He had a lot more free time than he does now, so we met up, and he allowed me to use his studio to record.
Robert Wyatt featuring Seaming To, ‘Stay Tuned’ (2007)
I was in the first generation of a UK mentoring or music development program called Take Five. It’s produced by Serious, who organise live jazz concerts. As part of this program, they told me I could have a mentor. I gave them a few names, David Lynch, Kate Bush and Robert Wyatt. Serious sent me this postcard from Robert, saying he would be delighted to mentor me. This was pre-email, so I received all these postcards and letters from him, but then I went and hung out with him for a weekend in Louth, where he lives in Lincolnshire. We just sat and listened to music.
Later on, he asked me to record for a song on his ‘Comicopera’ album. I sent him two different versions. The one he liked was really earthy, raw and dirty, but I wanted him to use the other one, which was smoother. In the end, Robert and Brian Eno let me choose which take they used, which was very generous. Looking back, I probably should have let them use the one they liked.
Leila featuring Seaming To, ‘The Exotics’ (2008)
Again, these are all just personal connections. Leila is really good friends with Graham Massey. She had this massive flat where you could do cartwheels down the main corridor, which had all these rooms coming off it. We spent a lot of time there listening to music.
Anyway, she had this track called ‘The Exotics’, and since we both had this love of exotica and Yma Sumac, she asked me to come and sing on it. She had a really driven and direct idea of what she wanted. I’ve always loved her music. I love her off-kilter but very romantic sound. She’s also very into classical music as well. I don’t know if people can hear it, but she’s very influential.
Seaming To, ‘Mermaid’ (2012)
That came out a month before my Seaming album came out. It was almost a calling card for the album. The main track was very pop for me, but the rest of it is quite avant-garde and less tonal. In the early 2000s, I did a lot of collaborations that were led by beats, but I’m not beats led at all. I come more from the perspective of harmonic and melodic structures.
Although the technology I use has changed over time, I don’t think I’ve changed at all. I actually listened to a tape of a composition exam I had for GSCE when I was fourteen, and it sounds so similar to what I do now, but more cheesy and just with piano.
Simian Mobile Disco featuring Sea Ming, ‘Fourteenth Principles’ (2012)
James Ford (from Simian Mobile Disco) is an old Homelife guy. He was in Toolshed as well. When I met him, he was studying Biochemistry in Manchester. When I was living in London, they sent me a few tracks, and I recorded on them under the alias Sea Ming, but ‘Fourteenth Principles’ was the one they used. Again, it was just another old connection.
It would be great to do something with James again. We’ve talked about doing an album, but he is the busiest man in rock at the moment. He’s very talented and really quick. It always seemed very obvious that he’d go all the way.
‘Dust Gatherers’ is out now.
Words: Martyn Pepperell
Photos: Holly Broomhall