Marena Whitcher’s solo project, “Shady Midnight Orchestra”, has a debut album out now: “Ghostology”.
The Internet connection freezes and for a moment the image of Marena Whitcher is burned into my computer screen.
She’s looking quite demure in a button-up plaid shirt, covered for the most part in a maroon pullover. Her hair is up in two ponytails, while a chunky gold necklace rests under her collar. Speaking from her home Zurich, having just returned from a show in Langenthal where she performed with her seven-piece band, she is in good spirits, but it is soon clear that this is just her natural disposition. Her personality radiates with confidence and bubbles with eccentricities.
We are discussing her solo project Shady Midnight Orchestra and the debut album Ghostology, but to understand Marena’s music, you would have to start at her roots.
I grew up singing American and Swiss folk songs.
Born into a creative family to parents Douglas Whitcher and Lucianna Braendle, the arts had always surrounded the young Marena. Her mother had introduced her to theatre; a talent Marena’s sister Lea would eventually adopt, while their father, a semi-professional guitarist, filled their home with music.
I grew up singing American and Swiss folk songs. And the Beatles, my dad is a big Beatles fan. We always sang together when we were home. He also sent me to every imaginable music and dance class.
With all this influence around her, Marena picked up the piano as her instrument of choice. At fourteen, when most of us were rebelling against our parents, Marena took a part in a school play and found she “really loved singing” and began taking singing lessons on top of piano. Her father’s influences were still never far away and although she discovered new music in Radiohead and Björk, she still turned to American folk music and Jazz.
It inspired a Bachelor’s Degree in Jazz voice and soon she was performing and recording with some of the Swiss Jazz elite, while working on various different projects. For Shady Midnight Orchestra however she wanted an outlet where she could be free to explore her music as an individual.
I wanted to create an alter-ego for myself…to take the chance to be someone else for a change.
For me it was about letting all my ideas and my imagination flow freely, doing everything that I have fun with, that I like, with no boundaries whatsoever.
I wanted to have a concept for a band. I wanted it to be a ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’, a red (or as someone once said a black) line that goes thought the whole band, combining the musical, visual and contextual layer. I wanted to create an alter-ego for myself on stage since I like to act and like to take the chance to be someone else for a change.
A hauntingly beautiful narrative that evokes a musical similarity to Tim Burton’s visual quirkiness.Mischa Mathys
Marena shows me a reel from the music box she played on the album, one of the many instruments she played, but still a very small part of the work she had put in for the album. She “wrote all the music and finalised all the parts” for Ghostology. The compositions are intricately composed, taking exquisite care in every single detail.
Dense textures are delivered in a hauntingly beautiful narrative that evokes a musical similarity to Tim Burton’s visual quirkiness. Her ability shines through everything, and one senses a devoted effort in each note. It all comes together in a theatrical aesthetic in the way of early Genesis or Coco Rosie, every piece telling a distinct story that makes part of the larger narrative of the album.
My mom is a big influence on the theatrical elements in my music.
It’s this theatrical tendency that planted the seed for SMO and Ghostology when Marena Whitcher found herself dreaming of a world where ghosts were a very real and corporeal construct. Prompted by her “very vivid imagination” she delved into a personal study of ghosts she called “ghostology”.
Listening back to our interview, I wonder what inspired this study and get the reply in the form of a lengthy email the next day. Dotted with her eccentricities through smiley faces and the occasional ‘Ha’, Marena’s personality even shines through in text. I was surprised to find that the concept for the band, and the album, was actually born out of ice.
Ice is a very fascinating material, it’s so beautiful and clear, somehow dangerous and strong but yet, if you think of the crazy shapes it can freeze into, I mean like the crystal shapes and snow flakes, changeable and light.
Last chance for ghost dance’, the story of a young woman’s encounter with three ghosts.
She moved past this concept however when she realised that the idea of ice had a very specific sound that perhaps wouldn’t suit her eclectic style of writing music. “So I followed the idea of white and the next obvious thing were ghosts.” These ideas soon turned into songs like ’Last chance for ghost dance’, the story of a young woman’s encounter with three ghosts.
Coniunctio Oppositorum is a more intellectual study that highlights the contrasts in ghosts. They are dead but they are still alive in a way and they do all these tangible things like haunt people.
Her initial ideas regarding ice made an appearance on ‘Ice soldiers’. Lea suggested the name Shady Midnight Orchestra and Marena recorded the ideas with the help of other musicians who put their own personal stamp on it, making the music even more alive.
The band has a life of it’s own. It’s always such a nice moment when the guys and girls play a new piece of mine for the first time. I usually get used to the sound of my demos pretty fast, so then hearing the music being played by such great musicians is always very exciting and wonderful!
Marena accomplished all this while enrolled in a Performance and Composition Master’s Degree at Bern University, making her possibly the hardest working 25-year old around.
I tend to get sucked into the music work cosmos or bubble.
The school ended up to be more like a side thing, but it’s still a great place to get valuable feedback from. There’s a lot of inspiring teachers and students around! I have two bands and 3 bands where I am a side-woman and they tend to take up a lot of my time. I tend to get sucked into the music work cosmos or bubble.
She finds it difficult to find time to unwind. Her hard work and determination have paid off and her accomplishments are now being recognised, with the recent announcement that she is the winner of the prestigious ‘art-prize’ from the Berlin Academy of the Arts.
It came out of nowhere. I was quite shocked!
Her tour has already kicked off in Berlin and she’ll be incorporating Russia and Pristina in the near future. She’s a little unsure of which direction she’ll be taking SMO into the future, but she knows she’ll want to continue in the same aesthetic.
I just asked myself a question today; if I want to continue with these ghost stories or move on to a different theme. The name of the band points me in a certain direction.
Shady Midnight Orchestra Ghostlogy is out 17 April.