With Catherine Fearns: an interview with the artist of "half life"


Catherine Fearns is a British composer living in Switzerland. As keyboardist and guitarist for acclaimed all-female heavy metal band Chaos Rising, she is a busy songwriter in the field of extreme music. However she is also a classically-trained pianist, with a fascination for the surprisingly close links between classical and metal music. In exploring these links, she has developed a unique and exciting style of composition. Catherine is also an award-winning novelist, and for her, writing and composing are all part of the same storytelling process.

Hi Catherine, you are an emerging artist but with different results already achieved, can you tell us briefly what artist you are?

I have been releasing music for the past couple of years as a member of international all-female heavy metal project Chaos Rising. I compose songs for them and play guitar and keyboards. However although I love metal, my training is in classical piano, and so I decided to return to my roots and compose a classical album for solo piano.

What are your influences and your musical references?

I have very wide-ranging musical tastes. Heavy metal and classical piano I have already mentioned, and although most people would think the two genres are at opposite ends of the musical spectrum, there are in fact a lot of similarities. But I listen to all sorts of music, from jazz to folk to choral to techno. I love to combine styles in a way that feels organic, and the album 'half life' is an amalgam of many elements that make up my musical lexicon.

I often try composing for piano using the guitar, or for guitar using the piano, because translating an idea from one instrument to another often yields very interesting results.

How do you compose? Do you feel a musical theme in your mind or is it more based on creating from sensations?

It really depends. The pieces on the album are mostly what I would call 'tone poems'; I was inspired by a particular image or feeling and tried to recreate that musically. For example 'Salvage' is about the exquisite loneliness of being awake in the middle of the night with a newborn baby, and 'Cyclades' is meant to evoke the eponymous Greek islands. But others begin with a simple musical theme which I then develop, such as 'Fluid Dynamics', which has the feeling of a technical exercise.

I often try composing for piano using the guitar, or for guitar using the piano, because translating an idea from one instrument to another often yields very interesting results. For example 'To The Core' is an exact piano transcription of an extreme metal song that I wrote for Chaos Rising, and it gives the song a completely new dynamic.

How was your latest album "half life" born?

I am a novelist in my day job, and last summer, since I was in between writing books, I decided to try and write some poems. I was not very happy with the results and realised that just because you can write a novel does not mean you can also write a poem! However I had feelings that I very much wanted to express, at this half-way point in my life when I am in a period of reflection, growing into my new self. So I decided to try and change the poems into piano pieces. Initially I envisaged the poems and music going together, but in the end I decided to let the music stand for itself. I was very lucky to have the sheet music picked up by Universal Edition, because initially I only imagined other pianists playing it. It had been such a long time since I had played the piano myself. But I was even luckier when Blue Spiral Records shared my vision and offered me the opportunity to release the music as a solo recording.

At what time of the day do you like to compose? Is it an expressive urgency due to an inspiration or do you meditate and plan everything with scrupulous criteria?

I can compose anywhere, anytime! I don't need an instrument to compose, in fact I prefer to compose away from the piano, with pencil and manuscript paper. Only when I have a draft of a piece, either in my head or on paper, do I then try it out on the piano, and that is always an exciting moment.

When I am composing my own solo music, I just go with the flow and write when/if I have the inspiration. But I often compose for others as well; either for Chaos Rising in different metal styles that I am asked to do, or for soundtracks or backing tracks. So it really depends on the project.

Because I have four children, and they are my priority, I am able to turn on and off my focus whenever necessary - even if I only have half an hour I can get some composing done.

What would you answer to those who ask you why you should listen to your music?

Oh, I don't know! I'm not very good at selling myself yet! I guess people who are looking for ambient, background music will not get what they want from my piano music, because my pieces are short and dynamic. I am a very impatient person and I like to get to the point quickly. I hope that people will find quick inspiration in my music and something that speaks to them about a particular mood. And I would very much encourage people who play the piano to try my sheet music and find their own meanings in it.

What is the meaning of music for you?

The human brain and nervous system is wired for music. When you hear a song or piece of music that touches your soul in some way, even if you can't define how or why, it is pure magic. For a long time, during my twenties and thirties, I did not have music in my life; I suppose I associated it with sadness and regret, because I had given up the piano and closed the door on that possible life. But throughout that time I knew there was something profound missing. When I finally had the courage to take up music again, first only as a hobby, it really saved me. Now my life is enriched in a way that's impossible to describe.

Could you kindly anticipate us something about your upcoming projects?

I have already started working on my second album, which is going to be more ambitious than the first. Similar in style, but with a larger canvas and more instrumentation. I am excited about my signature 7-string guitar from Gini Guitars, and I am developing some duet music for piano and 7-string guitar which I think will be very interesting and unique.

I am also learning more about orchestration, and pursuing possibilities for collaboration, performance and commissions. And I will of course continue working with Chaos Rising - we have a double album on the way. The world of live music is just beginning to start up again after the ravages of the pandemic, so I am just excited about the future and staying open to whatever comes my way!