Italy’s Lili Refrain has been producing music for 15 years, constantly touring and refining her craft. During this time, she has built a cult following across Europe and beyond.
Beginning in 2007 with her self-titled debut, 9 followed in 2009, but it wasn’t until 2013 with her third LP, KAWAK, that sparked more widespread recognition from the bellows of the underground. An album delivered in a similar vein to Chelsea Wolf’s Apokalypsis, with KAWAK Refrain had entered a sound world that has since grown over a time.
With 2020’s live session, the 20 minute single piece, ULU, creatively it was interesting to see where Refrain would go to next. Enter Mana – her ambitious fourth album, far removed from anything she has written.
While comparisons to Anna Von Hausswolff have been rife (Ki, Ichor), Refrain’s compositions are more complex, and while harder to pierce through the layers of dark textures and rich instrumentation, there’s little doubt that Mana is Refrain’s finest hour.
A series of trance-like meditative pieces that are akin to being dragged into the abyss, Mana is a belching fire enveloping the listener in dark harmony. From Mana’s strongest moments, the Eastern-inspired to Eikyou to the erotic charges of Mami Wata and Travellers, Refrain produces a cauldron of noise to be totally immersed in.
Following the release of Mana, which coincided with the Roadburn Festival where Refrain performed the album in its entirety, we asked her some questions about the album, her creative process, and Roadburn.
Sun 13: What are you earliest memories of music and influences?
Lili Refrain: “My earliest memories of music definitely go back to childhood and my father’s great passion for rock and psychedelia, which had a great impact on my listening and playing. While listening to his records that oscillated between The Beatles, Black Sabbath, Santana and Pink Floyd, I always had an imaginary guitar in my arms and pretended to play it following the music. Until the dream of that guitar became a reality during my teenage years.”
S13: Can you tell us about the writing process of Mana?
LR: “I started working on this record years ago and it was very intense work. After my first four albums, which always had the electric guitar as the main instrument, I felt the need to explore new instruments, especially percussion, which made this album much more tribal than my previous works. I explored deeper frequencies than before, and this allowed me to develop different vocal techniques that I let flow freely in their total spontaneity. I then started to give the songs a more defined structure by working a lot on the sounds thanks to the guidance of the invaluable Stefano Morabito of 16th Cellar Studio in Rome, the excellent sound engineer without whom this work would not have been the same.”
S13: The title of the album means ‘Life Force’. It seems fitting for these times. Was that the intention?
LR: “I started working on Mana both in a musical and anthropological way. Certainly this album is the result of a personal reflection on the model of society we live in and the current historical period, which with the pandemic has unfortunately highlighted even more the differences between humans instead of creating a more solid unity. We are all children of this world with a great human strength that we should learn to unite with others to increase it rather than disperse it, otherwise we risk losing our power and our own human nature.”
S13: Eikyou feels like one of the strongest pieces you’ve written. Can you tell us about it?
LR: “Thank you for your words! Eikyou is a song written for Taiko, a very ancient instrument that originated in Japan and combines the sound of the drum with the movement of martial arts. I started playing this majestic instrument in the school of Rita Superbi, an extraordinary person and a sublime teacher who allowed me to meet a true universe in Taiko. The rhythm was inspired by Marco Lienhard, director of the New York-based Taikoza, around which I decided to write the whole arrangement of synths, vocals and guitar.
“Eikyou means ‘impact’ and derives from what I learnt through the art of Taiko, which is that whatever we bring out by hitting, in this case the skin of the drum, is returned to us amplified. It is therefore a reciprocal impact. In Kung Fu it is the same. What this noble art teaches is the hard work in the constant search for balance between our inner energy and our surroundings. Because everything we do has a huge impact on the outside. Music in this sense is not at all different from Kung Fu.”
S13: Mami Wata is another highlight for me. It sounds like you’re harnessing the influences of Jarboe and Children of God-era Swans. How did this track come about?
LR: “This song is about people who are forced to leave their homeland to face a sea voyage, with the few things they can take with them, aboard barges uncertain whether or not they will land at their destination. And what will they find once they reach their destination? Humanity? New possibilities or terrible barriers? I tried to translate the theme of migration with Mami Wata, the goddess of the abyss in the voodoo religion, half woman and half snake worshiped by sea travellers. In life and in death they hope to receive her protection, either by landing on a safe beach, or in the deepest of the sea in her kingdom and in her arms.”
S13: Some people find that listening to music in solitary is more comforting than with someone or a group of people. Mana has a real ritualistic, communal vibe to it, I think. What are your thoughts on that?
LR: “Regardless of my record, I think music is one of the most powerful and sacred rituals we have and still celebrate. Alone or together with other people, we are crossed by waves that have the power to shake us on a very deep level. We may cry or get excited while listening to some types of music and we don’t know why it has this or that effect on us. But we are actually touched from within.
“Working at this deep level is what I look for both when I listen to music and when I create it. The concert’s dimension and the deep sharing that takes place during the live shows is for me the most beautiful and precious thing on earth.”
S13: Your compositions feel very complex. What are the key ideas behind your approach?
LR: “I started this project in 2007 and my main ‘modus operandi’ has always been based on the use of real time loops. All my pieces are born from the superimposition of layers upon layers of instrumental lines in this continuous game of counterpoints and references. The use of loop repetition has the same power as mantras in which by repeating the same phrase one ends up putting oneself in the background of something else, if not actually entering other states of consciousness!
“This type of composition is cylindrical and based on circularity. I usually start with a first guitar or vocal loop and start improvising by adding layers, until the total sum creates the final piece. It’s a process that gives its best during the live show, although certainly more difficult to manage, but the thing I love is that it puts the musician and the spectator on the same level, as they both see the piece being created layer by layer, with all its variables of possible errors and improvisations.”
S13: How much does your sense of identity influence your creativity as an artist?
LR: “My identity is not separate from what I create. Music is the communication channel through which I feel I can best translate what I feel and which allows me to put myself in communication with the invisible. Everything that is part of my life also becomes part of my music, my personal history, my past, my present, relationships with others, conflicts, shadows and lights.”
S13: You’re from Rome. How much does the surroundings of the city influence your work?
LR: “I was born and raised in Rome but I started living in other places from 2001 onwards. Rome is a wonderful city and living there is a great privilege for the aspects linked to the extraordinary beauty of all the art that this ancient city contains. It is also a very difficult place to live for those who live there, it is a city where everything must be conquered, even the most trivial things such as being able to move for example. If I think about what this city could have influenced me in my work, I would answer you in finding the strength to do everything by myself and depend only on myself.”
S13: You’ve always been a prolific performer constantly touring. How essential is the live experience to your art?
LR: “Totally! Being on tour is one of the things I love the most. It’s not easy, it’s tiring and being alone is always a tough test, especially physical because I have to lift almost 80 kilos of weights every time! But being able to travel and get to know the world thanks to music is one of the most precious gifts for me. I strongly believe in the importance of the depth of the sharing that is created during concerts, especially after this period of pandemic blockade, returning to tour makes me understand how much live concerts have been missed.
“Being able to share this exchange feeds our souls so much that I could never do without it.
S13: You performed the album in its entirety at Roadburn. How was that?
LR: “Playing at Roadburn right during the Mana release was an incredible honour for me and an experience that I will always carry within. I have met people from all over the world who have been attending the festival for two years, you can imagine how much excitement and thirst for listening there was! It was the perfect way to present this new album and the response was beyond all expectations! I am happy beyond measure and still filled with immense gratitude.”
Mana is out now via Subsound Records. Purchase from Bandcamp.