Fyfe & Iskra Strings have just released their debut full-length collaborative album, ‘Interiority’. Blending various genres, it’s a contemporary mix of post-classical-meets pop with electronic elements. 

Fyfe & Iskra Strings are Paul Dixon (Fyfe) and James Underwood (Iskra Strings). Their collaborative journey began during a recording session they did for another artist. At the end of the session, the idea to combine their skills to record together was born and the pair haven’t looked back since. Both artists come from a very musical upbringing, with James initially being hired to give private violin lessons to Paul. The pair slowly became firm friends, often using each other as a sounding board for their current individual projects. James is a composer who arranges strings for many different artists in the industry while Paul, a singer-songwriter/producer who also works on tracks for various artists. Despite the pair being on different paths sonically, the music they make together fuses the two and takes you on a journey into their unique world. They describe their music as post-classical-meets-pop with cinematic undertones but it’s much more than that – It’s a collision between genres, a blend of skills driven by their experiences in life and the industry. 

The new album traverses themes of self-discovery and internal narratives, highlighting the importance of not letting yourself become consumed by technology – most notably social media. All too often we find ourselves being engrossed with vanity-driven distractions, not able to see the bigger picture. The album is a magical concoction of dark electronica, bright pop, and neoclassical moments with a cinematic atmosphere. Including some exciting collaborations coming from the likes of Aquilo, Ghostpoet and Mysie to name a few, the album is sure to appeal to a wide range of audiences very much giving people a taste of everything.

With a passion for carbon sustainability, Fyfe & Iskra strings are doing their utmost to make ‘Interiority’ a carbon-negative album which is frustratingly proving to be a larger task than it should be. We caught up with the pair to chat about the new album, how their collaboration came about, and what they are doing to make the project sustainable. 

Hi Paul and James, congratulations on the release of your first official full-length album together, ‘Interiority’. Can you tell us a bit about your writing process and what your initial vision for the record was? 

Paul: It’s an album that came about quite organically through us continuing our collaboration. I don’t know if when we first started the sketches we really conceived it to be a full-length record, we were just reconnecting – especially as it was through the lockdown period – and redefining the Fyfe and Iskra sound. Once we started those initial sketches, the body of work started forming quite quickly. 

The process itself in terms of writing really depends from track to track. Often James will have a set of chords or string ideas that he’s sketched at home and then bring them into my studio where we will sometimes hardly touch it or will form and build on it but occasionally completely ripping it up and starting something radically different. It depends on our feelings in the moment.

James: The process changed with lockdown. Originally, we were having ideas of making a dystopian dark-sounding record which can be heard on a couple of the tracks we finished quite early on such as ‘<deletia>’ and ‘Purpose’, both have a darker sound to them. Weirdly, during that COVID lockdown period, I think we were both wanting to create sounds that felt warm and embracive which was weird because we were feeling quite the opposite. We all had our dark moments in lockdown so wanted to make music to envelop ourselves in as a contrast to what was happening in the world. 

Paul: The claustrophobia of lockdown definitely made us want to make music that was otherworldly. We were so stuck in our tiny, tiny worlds such as our living rooms and bedrooms. We ended up having a lot of chats about Space and what lies beyond the world or beyond our solar system and just thought about how we get so caught up in our own little narratives.

For anyone who may not be familiar with Fyfe and Iskra Strings, can you sum up your music for us?

James: It’s quite a hard question for us because we’re never quite sure what it sounds like. We want to be quite cinematic in ambition but also pop in the way of song structures and melodies, stuff like that. 

Paul: It’s our worlds colliding. It’s post-classical-meets-pop sensibilities. Even with the more instrumentally focused tracks, there’s still a sense of melody, repetition, and structure you probably wouldn’t find regularly in more traditional classical settings. There are hallmarks of us both throughout, whether it’s a feature track with a vocalist, me singing or whether it’s not a song at all, I think it is our world fusing. When I say pop I don’t mean chart pop, just the idea of a song and seeing coherent structures. 

James: With collaboration, I like the thought you are collaborating with somebody who does something quite different from yourself. Paul is the songwriter but I’m not from that world so this is my songwriting project. I’ve learnt from him some of the ways of creating and structuring songs so I’m learning that skill and hopefully there are things he can learn from me – both learning from each other. We individually do something so different so when we come together, we try to share the different worlds we are a part of.

The two of you have been friends for a long time, beginning with you James being hired to give private violin lessons to Paul. From there your friendship blossomed and led you to where the two of you are now. Was there a specific moment when you both decided you wanted to combine your skills and create something together? 

James: Paul was doing other projects and he would sometimes use me as a sounding board or ask me to come and play on his recordings. At that point, I was organising strings for lots of different artists and helping them realise their visions. Secretly, I was also working on making little ideas of my own and recording them really cheaply on GarageBand on my laptop. There was a time I went over to Paul’s Studio nervously sharing some of the things I’d been working on and he kind of leapt on it. That was the point where we started working together and it was really exciting to see these little ideas I’d worked on come to life. Sometimes they just got fleshed out and became bigger, spinning off in crazy directions I wasn’t expecting!

Paul: I remember that session. Had you come in to record something else? 

James: Yeah, I had. There is a Belgian Congolese rapper, Baloji who is really great. He was putting out a record on Bella Union and needed some strings, I was kind of a fan of his so I was trying to do everything on a really small budget and called in a favour with Paul, who had also pulled in lots of favours with me in the past, which was fine [laughs]. We were recording for him and at the end of the session we sprung the thought we would build on some of these ideas.

Paul: We owe it all to Baloji [laughs].

Fyfe & Iskra

You both had very musical upbringings so the importance of music was instilled in you early on. Who were some of your biggest influences and do you have any in common?

Paul: We both love Jóhann Jóhannsson who James toured with doing live strings. Yurt are a point of reference for us as are Massive Attack and all three are fusing genres, actually.

James: With Johan Johansson, he’s probably in a different sound world to us as he was marrying classical with electronic and doing it in quite a left-field way. Because he was doing something quite experimental, I think Hollywood saw how unique he was which got him into scoring films. Also with someone like Massive Attack, they are producers but get collaborators and guest artists. They have that cinematic element but do maybe come from more of a Dub/Reggae world with the Bristol thing and are definitely an inspiration.

You are both extremely passionate about Carbon Sustainability, previously mentioning that you want to make your new record, ‘Interiority’, a carbon-negative album. Can you tell us what it takes for an album to gain that title? 

Paul: The truth is it’s actually really, really difficult to do with any integrity and we are struggling to facilitate it well. We are using recycled materials on our physical products so our vinyl and CDs are made of recycled plastics. The tempting thing to do is to just buy a load of trees and plant them, which seems the easiest solution. But for anyone who looks into the economics of carbon, it soon becomes very tricky to know how to quantify what you’ve used and how to offset it effectively. The truth is, we haven’t properly come to a full-on solution yet. We are still asking for advice from different people but it feels like it’s a very, very new thing for our industry to do in earnest. There are easy ways to do it, to try and get that tick but there are no straightforward solutions at the moment. Worst case scenario, we will just buy some trees and try our best but just feel like it’s probably not a holistic solution. The holistic solution is to make less stuff and use less which is what humanity needs to do in the long term. We are trying not to make too many products such as merch that people don’t want and also try not to tour too intensively. At the moment we only have one show booked in London so are not doing any huge tours to support the record. It’s thinking about the practical. What decisions are you making about your products and also, with the products you do make, how are you going to make them as green as possible without trying to greenwash everything to make yourself feel better or make your brand look better?

James:  We are independent self-releasing artists so while we are trying to make our corner of the industry ethical, there also needs to be a wide industry shift. Rather than artists trying to bear the brunt of making sure their streams are carbon-neutral, it actually needs the gatekeepers to take those issues seriously too. We are trying to do our bit but there needs to be more done by the industry and hopefully the more artists making noise about it, the more of a serious issue it will become.

Collaborating with some wonderful artists on your album, including Aquilo on previous single Its a waste man, has given the album an extra layer of intrigue in my opinion. Surfing between genres and styles, having other artists put their own spin on it has been a great addition. How did these collaborations come about and did you always know you wanted to include other performers? 

Paul: A whole host of different ways with each artist. In the case of Ghostpoet and Ray Morris, we wrote the tracks really early on. After the first lockdown, we were able to get back into a room together and make those two instrumentals. I remember being in the session and telling James I could hear Ray Morris singing on this or I can hear Obar’s [Ghostpoet] voice on this other track. At the time we just thought “In our dreams” and got on with our day but then once we had got halfway through the record, we thought we might as well start reaching out to people like that to see if they might be interested. Amazingly, it all worked out, especially with those two. To get those tracks back with such incredible voices, artistry and writing was a really amazing moment – to actually hear our work elevated by collaboration.

Another way it happened was because I do a lot of writing and production with many different types of artists I come across and collaborate with all the time. We made a track called ‘<deletia>’ with Mysie who is a new up-and-coming, amazing singer. We were further into the record at that point when I said I thought her voice would really suit this track. I was in session with her writing on one of her tracks so at the end, I played this thing we were working on just to see what she thought and she loved it. We then wrote ‘<deletia>’. With Aquilo, I was writing with people at the time and they were writing for their own music but this track I wrote with them. They hadn’t used it for their record and I just absolutely loved the song, thinking it was one of the most beautiful things I had been a part of writing. At the time, I messaged James too because we are always sharing the music we are working on, not just the music we are working on together as we are always sending music back and forth. He really loved it too and Aquilo were up for us bringing the song into our world so James and I arranged it with a bit more writing over the top. 

James: The Aquilo track is probably the most unusual. In fact, I think all of the other tracks were created specifically for the album but the Aquilo one was a song that already existed. We could see it sitting on our record really nicely and they were really up for it. It was a very different type of track for our album and a really nice moment. 

Paul: Also, the final track we were working on we thought Kelly [Lee Owens] would be amazing. I had written with Kelly on various things in the past and she is amazing. It’s such a thrilling moment when you get the vocals back and it just absolutely exceeds any expectations you might have had.

Both successful artists in your own right, what do you think you gain from making music together rather than individually? 

Paul: I started my career very insularly. I made music by myself for probably almost a decade ago and sort of got to a point where I reached the end of what I could do alone. I was just so absorbed with dredging up emotions. The same chords, the same melodies will come in and I don’t know who suggested collaboration to me but the first day I did a writing session it was like “What have I been doing, I’m such an idiot. Why did I waste this time?”. The amazing thing about collaboration is it doesn’t just affect the moment you are in. It’s amazing because, with James and I, we’ve made these two EPs and an album, which is brilliant, but it also affects every other aspect of what you do. When writing with another person, you are always referencing your experiences, the creativity that has touched you and the musical experiences you have. It’s an incredibly enriching experience I would recommend to any young or not young artist – In my case, I was late to the party, but just get out of your own space and give it a go. Even if it’s a disaster, even if the session is terrible, it will inform in a very good way what you do next because it just opens up your world. 

James: Making creative connections with people is always great. Collaborating with people that do something different to you and have a different way of seeing music is a really healthy thing and keeps you from getting stuck in a rut or helps you to see music in a broader way. Paul has drawn out different elements of my own creativity and without that I never would have imagined writing songs or coming up with song titles. I come from a classical background. I’ve helped other artists to bring that kind of stuff together with strings but this has helped me step into a different world.

Obviously you are both proud of the album in its entirety but do either of you have any stand-out tracks you are particularly excited for people to hear, or which hold a very personal meaning to either of you? 

James: This album was particularly interesting because of it being a collaborative album so some of the tracks I am really excited for the world to hear. You feel like you are bringing something new to the table, in particular, tracks like ‘Spirograph’, ‘Purpose’, and ‘Origami’ are all examples of collaborations which have taken our music to a different world. I was really excited for ‘It’s A Waste Man’ to come out because I think in some ways it is a more traditional song, showing real songwriting craft so I was really excited for people to hear it. The response seems to be really strong. 

Paul: There’s a track called ‘An[n]ew’ that I wrote while my Granny was dying. She had a fall and then there was a week where she was semi-conscious in a hospice before she died. In that state of semi-consciousness, my dad was visiting her and sending us updates so I wrote this piano piece around that and it has a very deep, personal connection to me. When I have had these connections to tracks before, they have sometimes resonated with people more widely in ways I had not expected. There is a song on our last EP called ‘214’ which ended up doing just that, quite widely. I wrote it after a friend died so I don’t know whether it has something to do with death that people have a deep connection with but I’m quite interested to see if the track on the new album resonates like that? It will be interesting.

Finally, what is next for the pairing? 

Paul: Well, we have already got a few tracks we’re working on and have people in mind we would love to work with. I think it’s a case of keep pressing on with collaboration which is genuinely really exciting. I would also love to soundtrack a film. I was lucky enough to soundtrack a documentary a couple of years ago which was an amazing experience so it would be fun to do something like that together if we got the chance. Any other music to picture would be a really fun thing to do too.

James: We also have a live show to prepare for so are trying to work out how to get 100 violins on stage at once! [laughs].

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