Released 21st July 2008
'Rayla No Lullaby' live:
moomLooo: vocals, synthesizer, drum machine, ambient sound. Keiron: acoustic guitar, ukulele, banjo, mandolin, pizzicato violin, bass guitar, electric piano, organ, omnichord, flute, recorders, tin whistle, glockenspiel, percussion, clapping, chimes, spoken voice.David: acoustic, nylon and tenor guitars, ukulele, baritone ukulele,4 and 5 string banjos, bowed mandolin, bass guitar, organ, drums, drum machine, percussion, glockenspiel, clapping, chimes, fold-up bike.
Smile Down Upon Us is a very modern kind of band. Comprising Phelan Sheppard, the duo behind celebrated album Harps Old Master, and Japanese artist moomLooo, it’s a project that crosses cultural and musical boundaries. And, for the duration of recording their self-titled debut album, it existed solely on the Internet, as the three have never met.
The band came about when Keiron Phelan, a prodigious MySpace trawler, came across moomLooo’s page and her enchanting recordings for Japan’s Clay label. He sent a message introducing himself, and she responded saying she admired his work too.
“None of us had any reservations about working together from the word go,” says Phelan. “It just seemed natural – a touch of kismet.”
Soon, they began sending ideas back and forth on the Internet, sound files whizzing between Tokyo and London. Though initially a project to occupy Phelan whilst David Sheppard was writing his much-anticipated Brian Eno biography, On Some Faraway Beach, Phelan’s long-time fellow group member soon came into the fold. The pair set up in East London’s Soup Studio, in the basement of ukulele shop Duke Of Uke. There, they purloined parlour guitars, banjos and ukes from the shop and recorded them into ProTools, blending old and new, as well as east and west.
Over in Japan, at home and at Tokyo’s Naturebliss studio, moomLooo recorded her largely electronic parts and field recordings, adding delicately captivating vocals and spoken word, half in English, half in Japanese. Soon, they were writing parts for each other, playing to each other’s strengths.
“I don't speak any Japanese and moom's English is so-so,” says Phelan. “In order to understand each other, we had to use simple language, and our emails began to look like a dialogue between two hyper-enthusiastic nine year-olds. We could only discuss things in a very ‘primary colour’ way and the music seemed to become extremely vivid too. Dave and I had the idea that this was sounding like a Chagall painting looks. That seemed a really strong and suitable feeling for the band, so we pushed it along that road.”
Between the language barriers, time differences and hours downloading files, the process of creating the album took almost 14 months. When moomLooo emailed the last part over, it came with a recorded message introducing herself to the pair.
“It's been a very mysterious process,” says Phelan. “I email moom all the time, but I know very little about her. I've never met her, never spoken to her. I don't know how old she is or what she does for a living. None of the usual things. And I think we all found this an intriguing situation.”
The resulting album has a strange kind of magic, an essence running through it. Blending warm wooden instruments with moomLooo’s icy vocal, it sounds modern at the same time as aged, distinctly Japanese but rooted in the conventions of modern, electronic folk music. More structured than Phelan Sheppard’s usually instrumental music, it reveals a new, accessible side to their work, one that’s sure to appeal to fans of Bjork, Deerhoof and lovers of beautiful, beguiling music everywhere.
The next step in the evolution of Smile Down Upon Us is to turn it into a functioning live band. In Japan, moomLooo has assembled a couple of musicians to recreate the songs until she finally meets with Phelan and Sheppard this summer, when they intend to stage what’s bound to be some very special live shows indeed. “It would be quite something to have a Smile Down Upon Us (East) and a Smile Down Upon Us (West),” says Phelan. “Dave and I have never met or spoken to these musicians, don't even know their names. But soon we’ll be able to look on YouTube and see them playing our songs! It's a weird but pleasant feeling.”