Iona’s story is as fluid and mystical as the band’s blend of prog, Celtic, folk and jazz. It started with a few session musicians and produced songs that have changed people’s lives.
When the project began, founding guitarist and keys player Dave Bainbridge had no idea how big it would become. After playing for other people, he thought it time to put out some of his own material.
“My plan was to record an album as cheaply as possible (as I had no record company interest) and make 100 copies on cassette,” he recalled. “I even started to make a list of people I thought might buy it! That was the sum total of my vision, but God had other plans!
“One of the tracks I’d recorded was a demo version of ‘Flight of the Wild Goose’. Soon after this, [woodwind player] David Fitzgerald and I began to discover the incredibly rich spiritual heritage of the Celtic Christian saints such as Columba, Aidan and Cuthbert and the idea for Iona was born.
“After our second gig (the first with Joanne Hogg) we were offered a recording contract and the debut album came out and sold about 10,000 copies in quite a short time.
“So not only was my dream realised of releasing an album with my music on it, but it sold over 100 times what I’d originally hoped for!”
The band was in the right place for its time. Celtic-related music was in its ascendancy, and key features of the early Celtic Church – stories of faith, miracles and deep respect for creation – resonated strongly with many struggling to live out their faith in the materialistic Thatcher years.
The band’s reputation grew. Their fourth album Journey into the Morn made Q Magazine’s top 50 albums of the year, and was much higher in its specialist section. Guest musicians included Clannad’s Maire Brennan and King Crimson’s Robert Fripp.
But still some in the music mainstream bypassed them for bookings and reviews, because of the ‘Christian’ tag, without even listening to them, which frustrated the band enormously.
“When people do get the chance to hear us though, their preconceptions are usually blown,” said Bainbridge. Growing impassioned, he added, “I think that Christian music should be at the absolute vanguard of creativity – after all we serve a God of infinite mystery, mercy, passion, creativity.
“We are touching something infinite and yet why is it that much music that is labelled ‘Christian’ is bland and a pale copy of the world? Wouldn’t it be great if whenever unbelievers saw [music labeled as Christian], they were excited, knowing that what they were about to hear was deeply spiritual, creatively unique, innovative, passionate, moving?”
We were speaking around the release of the 2006 album The Circling Hour. Looking back to recording the previous disc Open Sky, Bainbridge revealed how such music is birthed, “As always during writing sessions, I was recording everything. Jo started playing this lovely melody on the piano. I joined in on keyboards and soon Jo was singing beautiful words from this old hymn.
“As she was unsure of exactly where the melody was leading, she was singing in a very delicate and vulnerable way, which I remember sounded deeply moving. We played the piece all the way through and the format just presented itself as a completed song.
“Excited, we played another version to polish it up a bit, but by now Jo had become more confident with the melody, was singing and playing it much more stridently, and the original feeling had been lost. As we had so much material already for Open Sky, the song lay dormant in my ideas tape archive.
“Years later, when we had most of the material already assembled for The Circling Hour I remembered this old song idea.
“A few months earlier I’d woken up after a dream with the strong conviction that the theme for the new Iona album should be the preciousness of this gift of life. I thought that this could be a very positive statement in times when many seem determined to destroy their own and other people’s lives through callous acts of terrorism and retaliation. I could see how the songs and music were leading us in this direction.
“But what could link the pieces together? Then I remembered this song: ‘How wonderful this world of Thine / A fragment of a fiery sun…’”
This phrase ‘fragment of a fiery sun’ recurs on the disc. I wondered what made it so appealing.
“I like words that make you stop and think,” he replied. “That line, for me, conjures an amazing picture of how small, yet how incredible, our planet is and how fleeting in cosmic terms our earthly lives are. The album is filled with imagery of a world that is glorious yet fragile; of life that is breathtakingly beautiful yet always on the edge of eternity.”
That phrase, “edge of eternity” appears in the song “Children of Time,” based on a Celtic poem. Bainbridge recalled how the lyrics now have a double meaning for him. “While we were working on ‘Children of Time’, Jo read to me a passage from a book she was reading about abortion.
“It was about a leading doctor who’d performed numerous terminations, but one day saw some video footage of one. The baby in the womb seemed relaxed and happy, then the doctor could see the syringe injected into the womb, which literally burns the foetus alive. He could see the baby start to become agitated, then appear to panic and try to move as far away as possible from the solution to the edge of the womb. Then he saw the mouth open as if the baby were trying to scream, before it finally died.
“Suddenly the words, ‘Fair, they shine through the burning zone / The rainbow gleams of a world unknown’ took on a new meaning as the ‘Children of Time’ mentioned in the lyric became all those babies who’ve passed through this awful process, but are now safe in the heavenly realm with God. The doctor is now a staunch anti-abortionist.”
Adding to the spirituality of the album is Jo Hogg singing in tongues. Was that intentional?
“It was. That’s the first time we’ve recorded Jo singing in tongues in a studio, though I’ve often wanted to in the past. The ‘Water’ section of the track ‘Wind, Water and Fire’ was recorded late one night in my studio with Jo, Frank and I spontaneously recording each layer of sound together – keyboards, vocals, violins. There was a wonderful, worshipful atmosphere in the studio – definitely a high point during the recording for me. You don’t always need recognisable words to know that heaven is breaking through in the sound.”
While The Circling Hour was well received critically, the lack of touring and publicity meant that it did poorly financially. Something major needed to happen if the band were to remain viable and retain its vision. Something did.
Two years later, there were no Iona gigs and the band was re-assessing its future, while pursuing other projects. But despite the collective ennui, the four Christian members of the band were individually undergoing a revival.
Bainbridge explained, “We were discovering a new intimacy in our relationships with God and a renewed belief in the supernatural power of God to transform people’s lives. In short we were beginning to believe what Jesus told us to pray: ‘Your Kingdom come on earth as it is in Heaven’, and to imagine a world impacted by the love and values of Heaven.
“In Holland, a man I’d never met before prophesied an incredible word over me concerning my future and the future of the band. I made sure I had a written copy to consider, but couldn’t see how it could possibly come to pass with the band. 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 and how much of an encouragement.
“Towards the end of 2008 at a conference, completely out of the blue, the words ‘Another Realm’ popped into my mind as a title for the next Iona CD – remember this was when nothing was planned and the band’s future even seemed in question.
“I got back to my room and ideas concerning a new Iona album started to flow. In my notebook I wrote that it should be one complete work about the heavenly realm breaking through into the earthly realm; 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 real string ensemble textures and even that it should be a 2CD album!
“I shared all this and the prophecy I’d received with Jo – a big part of which talked about God opening up the ‘Ancient Wells’ of faith: places or movements which were once centres of great moves of God, but which had become blocked or muddied by religiosity and self (one of these places being Iona).
“Jo was amazed! 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). 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!”
It was still several turbulent years before Another Realm was released. Jo Hogg experienced what she termed a long struggle “with a host of personal battles; grief, health issues, relational stuff and the turmoil that comes when you go through a major shift in how you think and, consequently, how you live.”
Multi-instrumentalist Troy Donockley – around whose talents many earlier Iona tracks had been based – left to join Ade Edmondson’s The Bad Shepherds and was replaced by Uilleann pipes player Martin Nolan.
Recording Another Realm was as spiritual as its inception. Several pieces began as spontaneous worship sessions, such as “Ruach” and the first two parts of “An Atmosphere of Miracles.”
Bainbridge recalled, “As we focussed on God, Jo worshipped him, singing in tongues. What is on the album is the result – recorded in one amazing take (plus 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. Jo came up with these incredible words and then could hardly sing them because of God’s presence and the dawning reality of the possibilities invested in the words:
When we see beyond what appears to have died
When all is restored to be as it should
In an atmosphere of miracles when courage rises up
And the power of fear is defeated in love
A love that will heal
A love that will restore
Like water to the desert
Like a key to the door
That opens to freedom
That opens to life
Seeing what can become
When faith is alive
I just love that lyric. We’re not looking to the afterlife before we can experience the riches of heaven, but the heavenly realm 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 – as Jo says in her lyric, ‘It is for us if we dare’.”
Bainbridge was insistent that what they create should be accessible to all. “From the beginning our hope was that the music should be universal – something that would touch people regardless of their beliefs. We saw no boundary between sacred and secular, for to do so was to suggest that some people were loved by God and others not. In the days before the internet we’d get many, many handwritten letters from people sharing with us how the music had impacted them.
“For a while I corresponded with a guy who was in prison in the USA for murdering his parents. He wrote to us after discovering a copy of Beyond These Shores in the prison library. The album deeply touched him. He had become a Christian in prison and though he had no prospect of ever being released, the music had brought hope into his life.
“Another person came up to us to thank Jo for writing the song ‘Beachy Head,’ which stopped him from committing suicide.
“Many tracks have brought comfort to people at funerals and joy to people at weddings and reconnected them to a faith they thought they’d lost.”
The connection still continues as Iona take their faith into secular venues – not that ‘secular’ is a word Bainbridge likes, as he feels it implies division.
“Iona’s music has the ability to bring diverse people together and we’re so thankful. There is a great rapport between the band and the audience. It’s very rare that we get anything other than positive comments from the audience as regards the subject matter. I’m sure the reason is that being in an atmosphere where the presence of God can sometimes be so tangible is a wonderful place to be – for the band and audience. Whether we profess to be Christians or not, that is what I believe we were made for – it‘s in our DNA, and 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.”
But, although there were several signs in the writing of Another Realm that God had plans for the band and that material, it looks like being the last Iona album for some time.
“I’ve been totally committed to Iona for the last 26 years and I’ve turned down some very high profile work to follow that initial vision we had for the band. It has been a calling and I’ve been very blessed to have been part of it. However Joanne struggles with being away from her family and with touring, and wants to do much less. For me the music on Celestial Fire is a continuation of my work in Iona, both musically and spiritually. I’m not sure what the future holds for the band. All you can do is to give thanks to God for His grace in using what you have done in ways far beyond what could have been imagined.”
It has been a remarkable time – and a bit bigger than that early dream of 100 cassettes.