Rolling Stone Feature on Ummagma
December 14, 2012

Ummagma: “We never wrote music with the idea that we’d have to please anyone”          


In the music world, there are many examples of successful duets and creative tandems, and the music of such groups is almost always accompanied by a unique life story. In the case of Canadian-Ukrainian duo Ummagma, their history is also a love story. Alexander Kretov and Shauna McLarnon met in Moscow at the concert of guitarist Ivan Smirnov, but began playing music together only after diving into a romantic relationship. According to the Canadian half, the tracks they have created have, in terms of the scale of their impact, have gone far beyond their small kitchen at Moscow’s Sireneviy Boulevard.


“Moscow is certainly a meeting place of cultures and this union is a good example, where someone from a remote part of Northern Canada and someone from a remote part of Western Ukraine could come together in this mega metropolis, find love and give birth to some pretty fantastic music,” explains McLarnon. “It’s as if we also found ourselves through the mirror that is Moscow – some people get pretty lost here while others end up finding themselves.” Alexander and Shauna have been making music purely for their own enjoyment: she would deal with composition for a fair lot of their songs, while he primarily handled the main task of writing and performing instrumentation, as well as arrangements.  As they admit themselves, they are two rather different people with their own divergent musical tastes, which often makes for somewhat complicated personal relations and, an explosive mixture can also occur in the creative process, which inexplicably gives birth to something quite interesting.


"Ummagma is our raw musical connection – it’s the part of us, as a duo, that works best. Yes, apart from this we also happen to be a married couple and that part seems to be a bit more challenging to keep in balance compared to our music – the marriage is like the constant dose of ‘real life’ that the music then has to remedy – you know, like providing an antidote to all of that stuff. In fact, our relationship can be very challenging at times and that is why Ummagma is so essential to us – as if to restore harmony and equilibrium in our lives”.


At first, the couple didn’t plan to make their musical works public, but after eight years of experimenting they, all of a sudden, decided to give the world two debut albums, which were released at the same time. Both releases can be considered autobiographical, with each of them reflecting a certain period in the life of this group. The first one – “Ummagma” – conveys emotions that were linked to what they were experiencing as they were starting their life together and may seem to be a somewhat shambolic and hazy mixture of styles and genres, which may otherwise seem challenging to follow.  This is a full kaleidoscope of sounds, harmonies and musical instruments, which is suddenly pierced with a voice or the emergence of extraordinary sounds. The second album “Antigravity” comes across as significantly more thought-out and is also more mature. While it has a clear melancholic tone, this is not what you would call depressive music. Several songs may be associated with the birth of a child, and the album can open up imagery for the listener, for instance, of a children’s room flooded with light or a cozy evening in the warmth of one’s kitchen.


“The fantastic thing about this is that we never wrote music with the idea in mind that we would have to please anyone - no particular audience or any label or anyone in ‘the industry’ per se. We write songs with the intention of making the best music we can, according to our own personal taste – so we write music that comes naturally, that allows us to stay in our own comfort zone and that gives us room to just be ourselves, without any genre-based limitations or attachments.”


This approach is what gives these two albums their pre-eminence or vantage point and also makes them somewhat of an anomaly. I don’t want to use the term “fighting the system”, but despite the unusual format they have chosen for these debut albums, the Internet audience has enthusiastically, and with great interest, embraced this duo’s creative output, and raving reviews have been pouring from all sides. It still remains questionable as to whether the wider public will come to know these songs, but that’s really beside the point when it comes to such music. McLarnon and Kretov identify their main musical influences as being Cocteau Twins, David Sylvian, and Pink Floyd, while the Western press tends to generously elevate them with parallels to Brian Eno, Robert Fripp, and Slowdive.


"Practically every second review of Ummagma’s music mentions an affinity to Elizabeth Fraser and resemblance to music from the 4AD label’s golden period,” McLarnon explains without hesitation. “The most accurate description so far has come from Scotland – something to the effect that if you melted them all down into sonic jam and spread them on freshly baked bread, Ummagma is probably what you'd taste.”


As is the case with the aforementioned artists, Ummagma’s songs will likely not embed themselves in your mind upon first hearing them. This is music for the intellectual listener and especially those who are attentive. Over a period of eight years, this duo have had the opportunity to pay attention to every detail of their songs, to every sound and every word; the result turned out to be massive with an intricate fabric, all the details of which are likely only fully understood by the authors themselves.


“We’ve spent quite a lot of time reaching out to people we know share the same musical passions as us, and we’ve been thrilled to learn that they are responsive to what we do,” explains Shauna.  “In order to find our audience, we have intentionally reached out to countries that are often not considered major music markets and are thus, overlooked and we’ve done so in ways that are often not fully explored – it seems that is what sets us apart and has created such a buzz surrounding Ummagma in just a short amount of time.”



This is music that one definitely should not simply listen to on the run – this entails a full-fledged leisurely musical account of the bizarre stories encountered by two creative people moving from Russia via Ukraine to Canada and all the way back again. “Ultimately, it all does boil down to producing good music. We’ve worked hard to get it heard and to give it some space to take flight, and the beautiful thing is that now it really seems to be doing just that.”


Author: Denis MENDRELYUK


Releases 2012