Iona – Clearing the Ancient Wells

Iona’s Dave Bainbridge and Jo Hogg tell Derek Walker how their Another Realm album has been a re-birth for the band.

Some bands have been so seminal and successful in what they have done, that it hardly seems possible that they could disintegrate while still remaining on good terms with each other. Yet this has been a risk for Iona, a band of exemplary musicianship that has led the Christian Celtic music strand for many years and collaborated with artists such as Robert Fripp and Clannad’s Moya Brennan, while making mainstream commentators sit up and notice their work.

In their pre-release blogs, the band hinted that the forthcoming Another Realm was also a new beginning for them. When guitarist / keyboard player/ co-founder Dave Bainbridge tells the story, it seems more like a resurrection from the dead.

“We were collectively re-assessing the band’s future, whilst also taking time out to pursue other projects,” he recalls, talking of 2008, two years after their previous studio disc The Circling Hour. It was a year without a single gig planned.

“Recording a new studio album at that time would have been very difficult in the quickly changing music industry climate, where record companies were going out of business left, right and centre, and illegal downloading seemed rife. Whilst The Circling Hour album was critically well received, the lack of major touring and publicity meant that it didn’t do that well financially. So something major really needed to happen if the band was to continue to be viable financially and also retain its vision.

“In this uncertain time for the band I was playing with Frank [van Essen, drummer] at a Christian conference in Holland and a man I’d never met before prophesied an incredible word over me concerning my future and, in particular, the future of the band. At the time I accepted it and made sure I had a written copy to consider, but couldn’t see how it could possibly come to pass with the band, as I’d almost come to the point of laying Iona down and moving on. However God, it seems, had other plans! Looking back now I can see just how accurate this prophetic word has been already and how much of an encouragement it has been too.

“Ironically, though the vision for the band was rather cloudy at this time, in our individual walks with God the four Christian band members, including myself, were undergoing something of a renewal in our personal relationships with God. In short, we were beginning to believe what Jesus told us to pray in the Lord’s Prayer – ‘Your Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven’, and to imagine a world impacted by the love and values of heaven.”

For singer and keyboard player Jo Hogg, Another Realm marks a new phase in her life: “The album has come at the end of a long season of struggling with a host of personal battles: grief, health issues, relational stuff and the mental and physical turmoil that comes when you go through a major shift in how you think and consequently in how you live. I feel like I`ve changed a lot since The Circling Hour, and the spiritual journey of writing and recording Another Realm and sharing it with audiences just feels new.”

These personal revivals led to new feelings about the band. Bainbridge kept the prophesy in mind as 2008 progressed.  Then he found himself at another conference…

Another Realm “During one of the sessions, the words ‘Another Realm’ just popped into my mind completely out of the blue as a title for the next Iona CD. I got back to my room and ideas concerning a new album started to flow. In my notebook I wrote that it should be an album about the heavenly realm breaking through into the earthly realm – one complete work encompassing this theme; that Jo could write songs specifically based on this theme; that these songs and instrumental passages could interweave; that it would be great to feature more of Frank’s real string ensemble textures and even that it should be a 2 CD album!

“Jo was amazed!” he adds, explaining what happened when he told her the news. “She said that she’d been writing some songs based upon exactly this theme and she was sure they were Iona songs (rather than solo album songs)! Not only that, but one of them was called ‘The Ancient Wells.’ When that kind of thing happens you know that you just have to go with the flow of what God is doing!”

What Bainbridge does not tell me is how the length of the album may have been a point of contention: “Mmmm… the ‘double-disc’ topic!” exclaims Hogg, tellingly. “He never mentioned the ‘double-disc’ aspect until we were nearing the end of the recording process…”

Unsurprisingly for a band whose resurgence was prophesied, whose album is spiritually rich and whose songs are inspired by God, the recording process naturally began in worship.

Bainbridge recalls how his spontaneous improvisations on keyboards and Hogg’s singing produced the first two sections of “An Atmosphere of Miracles,” a sixteen-minute highlight of the collection. “As we focused on God, Jo worshipped Him, singing in tongues. What is on the album is the result, recorded in one amazing take (plus subsequent overdubs). Towards the end Jo could hardly hold back the tears and you can hear the emotion in her voice. It was the same with the main vocal in part three of the track.

“Similarly, some of the instrumental sections on the album came about through being in an attitude of worship. Martin’s great low whistle playing at the opening of “An Atmosphere of Miracles” and the tracks “Ruach” and “The Fearless Ones” with Frank and our guest shofar player Wytze [were] again based on spontaneous improvisations after specific times of prayer.”

When they had collated all the songs, they found a mass of material on the theme and several songs naturally fitted together. They knew how they wanted the bookending tracks to work and the running order almost fell into place. They only needed to add an up-tempo instrumental track to balance some slower material, which turned out to be “Let the Waters Flow.”

Bainbridge says, “I remembered a great rhythm idea in 11/8 time that Frank came up with during the week we were all together in the Netherlands several months earlier. Jo and I started jamming around that and came up with the main theme, chord sequence and vocal ideas for this track. It was later refined and then Frank re-recorded the drums and we overdubbed Martin’s pipes and whistles and, I think, the bass parts last of all.”

For those who have lost touch with the band, the name Martin might be a puzzle. Multi-instrumentalist Troy Donockley has now left Iona, due to increasing demands on his time as a producer for artists like Barbara Dickson and touring with Ade Edmondson’s lauded Bad Shepherds. Martin Nolan is his replacement.

Hogg might be pleased to have another Irish musician joining her in the band and comments that Nolan has already “become an integral part of the band as a wonderful musician and contributes a great balance of spiritual depth and humorous banter.” Anyone who has seen the new line-up live will have noticed his penchant for comical quips, which helps him to fit Donockley’s chair more easily.

Hogg’s comment about spiritual depth is almost a throwaway remark, but it is key to the project, which reflects the personal renewals of faith that both musicians mention. As well as joining the Causeway Coast Vineyard Church, which has been helpful for all her family, Hogg has been impacted by Bill Johnston, the pastor of Bethel Church, Redding, California. His book When Heaven Invades Earth has plainly informed her songwriting for this album.

Bainbridge, who has regularly quoted Celtic writer and priest David Adam as a strong influence, says that his faith is currently feeding off what God actually does and has done. Citing a “fairly academic” account of the life of Columba, he comments, “I just love reading books and listening to sermons which contain testimonies of what God is doing around the world – and even better, hearing these stories at first hand.”

Drawing on these influences and more, the new album urges its listeners to fully engage with what God wants to do in our world and to expect more supernatural elements to surface in everyday life.

“We’re not looking to a future time or the afterlife before we can experience the riches of heaven,” Bainbridge insists, “but the heavenly realm and all that that entails is accessible now. Ephesians 2: v. 6 says that because of the cross, we are now seated with Jesus in the heavenly realm. Wow, what an incredible thought and what possibilities suddenly open up! Instead of a powerless, intellectual Christianity you suddenly have a dynamic, relational faith in which anything becomes possible, if only we have faith.”

Having experienced the enthuiastic reaction of a secular audience to the new material, I wondered what comments the band gets at CD signings after their gigs.

Hogg summarises the most typical questions as “What is it about this music and you guys that has this weird effect on me? What was I experiencing tonight?” adding, “I love it when I get asked those questions.”

Bainbridge is not keen on the word ‘secular,’ because “it somehow implies division rather than coming together. What is great about Iona’s music is that it has the ability to bring together people diverse in ages, nationalities and beliefs and this is something we’re so thankful for.

“There is generally a great warmth in the atmosphere at our gigs and rapport between the band and the audience. We don’t have anything to prove, we just love playing together and making that connection with whoever is listening.

“It’s very rare that we get anything other than positive comments from the audience as regards the subject matter of the songs. I’m sure the reason for this is that being in an atmosphere where the presence of God can sometimes be so tangible is actually a wonderful place to be – for the band and the audience. Whether we profess to be Christians or not, that is what I believe we were made for – it’s in our DNA, if you like. Whether or not people realise what (or rather who) it is they’re feeling, they know that something deep and appealing is going on.

“I remember a great conversation with a really tough looking guy after one gig. He said he’d been to hundreds of rock concerts, but there was something about our gig that he’d never experienced before, but it was amazing. I explained that I believed this to be the Holy Spirit. A number of people have expressed similar feelings to me.”

So the live shows flesh out the ideas behind this release – that God wants to move supernaturally through his people, affecting all of his creation, and will work where he is allowed. As one line from the album puts it: “It is for us if we dare.”

This version of the interview is based on the article I wrote for the PhantomTollbooth e-zine and includes quotes used in my article for the Church of England Newspaper, as well as others exclusive to this piece.

For my review of the album, see:

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