Shauna McLarnon is the Canadian half of the music duo Ummagma, based in Kremenets in western Ukraine. Hailing from the Yukon territory, Shauna studied in the UK before moving to Moscow, where she met her future husband and the other half of the duo Alexander Kretov. Ummagma has put out two albums to date, which reflects a range of genres that can be considered an eclectic yet harmonious potpourri of alt pop, dreampop, post-rock, post-punk, ambient/ethereal, shoegaze and space rock. Shauma took time out of her busy recording schedule and taking care of her young daughter to share her experiences with Kyiv Weekly
KW: What brought you to Ukraine?
S.M.: I first visited Ukraine when I was studying in Scotland back in January 1993, but it wasn’t until 2004 that we actually moved here, during the Orange Revolution. My husband Alexander is from Kremenets, Ternopilska Oblast and we moved here together from Moscow, where we were living until this historic event took place. We took that as a good sign that it was time to cross the border and return home.
KW: What were your expectations about Ukraine before arriving and how has your view of the country changed?
S.M.: Well, I had a fuzzy idea of what to expect the first time I visited because my professor visited the Soviet Union frequently. Of course, the USSR had just collapsed, so it was not totally clear what to expect in terms of changes in the wake of that collapse, but we figured much would remain the same, at least in terms of the shortage of material goods and the mentality. I didn’t return until 2002 when I took a training course for my job with the Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and then later in 2004, when we finally moved here. So I’ve noted quite a few changes in the country, but I’d say that the way my perception has changed is typical for someone making the transition from being a tourist to someone living here for a long term. Basically, the rose-colored glasses have not only fallen off, they are gone forever. But this actually has less to do with Ukraine and more to do with the post-Soviet sphere, since this transition in my outlook actually occurred when I was still living in Russia.
KW: How long have you been here and how long do you plan to stay? What do you do here? And what do you want to do in the future?
S.M.: I’ve been here 7 years altogether and plan to be here for much longer. I’m a translator (Russian-English) and editor/proofreader, but where my passion lies is with music. My husband and I have a duo called Ummagma and we’ve been making music together since we met in Moscow in 2003. We set up a home studio, where we record all our music. This past July, we finally released our 2 debut albums at the same time, which were really well received. It’s been an awesome experience that we never expected before sharing this music. We’ve been rather fortunate with the amount of interest and support coming our way, which has brought some serious results. Our music is currently being played in over 30 countries and over 150 reviews and other press features have been written about us in 24 countries. Our music has been in the top 10 on NYC’s Indie Darkroom Chart since July 2012 and in the Scottish New Music Chart since August 2012. Since living in Ukraine has allowed us a lifestyle that is conducive to making music and being able to share it with the world, there’s no reason to think we would have to live anywhere else to realize this dream. It seems we are here for the long run. In terms of other plans, this year we should be putting out a new Ummagma release, as well as a joint EP with Sounds of Sputnik. So lots of hard work ahead for us to pull all of that off.
KW: Have you any interesting anecdotes concerning your stay here?
S.M.: Sure, more a story than anecdote. So one day I connected with a total stranger on Facebook, because he had liked our band page and I wanted to thank him. Upon introducing myself, he also presented himself as the Editor-in-chief of Rolling Stone Russia and informed me that he had learned about us from friends in the USA and had already listened to our music and enjoyed it. He then informed me that Rolling Stone Russia would run a feature article on our band. Now I think to myself "could this have happened to us were we living in Canada, for instance?” – the answer is clearly "no”… Likewise, last week Ummagma represented Ukraine in the Alternative Eurovision [and] actually won. This is yet another case where living in Ukraine has actually counted in Ummagma’s favor. There has been notably less attention towards Ummagma here in Ukraine, likely largely due to the fact that I don’t know how to adequately promote it here. While that is the downside, just look at the upside. This ride has been incredible for us! We’re happy to join other great bands in showing the world just how versatile and attractive Ukraine’s musical offerings can be.
KW: What do you like most in Ukraine?
S.M.: I sometimes have the feeling that time stands still here – not in the sense that nothing is happening, but more in the sense that whatever changes occur really don’t impact on the way things are or the way things work or people’s way of thinking or the way they live their lives. This does not apply to life in Kyiv – I’ve tried that and I definitely don’t get this feeling there. But I do get this feeling in Ternopil and Kremenets and I like this and the down-tempo pace of life in this part of Ukraine. About people in general, I admire their sense of self-sustainability or at least the feeling that this is an ideal that they should be achieving. It makes you realize how dependent so many of us Westerners actually are on our respective countries. I also really love Kremenets.
KW: What is your main language of communication and why?
S.M.: Russian is what I speak with everyone, and they may speak Russian or Ukrainian in their turn. I communicate in English with a few friends at their request and exclusively in English with my daughter, as it’s her native language. Both in terms of my translation work and promoting our music, I’m generally communicating in English.
KW: What are your informational sources in Ukraine? What are the most reliable/believable sources, in your opinion?
S.M.: I usually refer to English-language media in Ukraine because I get pretty tired of reading Russian all day at work and because they seem to less inclined to toe the government line. But, to tell the truth, I generally try to avoid the news as of late, because virtually everything you hear on the news is bad news and that can be very depressing. As a habit, it can be somewhat self-destructive and time-consuming and I’d rather spend that time doing something more uplifting like listening to music or spending time with my family. In terms of learning about Ukrainian music, there is a great online resource called UA Underground, which introduces and provides coverage of dozens, if not hundreds, of Ukrainian non-mainstream bands.
KW: Where do you go for fun and culture? What do you know more now about Ukraine?
S.M.: Well, we try to get out for concerts and gigs here in Ternopil, mainly for local bands, because they play rather frequently and involve a bunch of our friends anyways, but also for visiting bands. We have a 6-year-old daughter who is now in school, so I are somewhat busier than I used to be but also get to see the cultural aspect of school life here and, since I never attended school here, this is actually interesting for me. We try to visit Lviv at least twice a year, if not more, but I know that a visit to Kyiv is long overdue. The list of what I’ve learned about Ukraine is too long to get into here, but I have learned something that some of you likely don’t want to hear and most of you probably already know. Your music scene (most of what you see on TV and hear on the radio) is absolute nonsense, and support avenues for independent music, particularly alternative music, are sorely lacking. Hopefully we will soon be able to say "the times they are a’changing” in this regard.