Nephilm ft The Beijing Philharmonic Orchestra
by The Guardian's Nadja Sayej
With a blonde afro and a London accent, Ebony Bones is a visionary artist who works across genres and disparate sounds. What sets her apart is that she writes, composes, produces and releases her own punk-inflected, alternative soundtracks, many of which are graced with dark pop undertones. Studying alongside Amy Winehouse, Bones has been enlisted by Yves Saint Laurent and Alexander Wang to score campaigns and runway shows, and is also noted for her collaborations with Yoko Ono. With a forthcoming third album featuring The Beijing Philharmonic Orchestra, Bones is a self-produced artist and one of a few women in the male-dominated production world. Making her one of the most prominent female producers and redefining voices in the music industry today.
Bones was born to an immigrant father from the Caribbean who ran a vinyl stall in Brixton Market in London, and her mother, a fashion agent for top fashion designers, including Moschino. She studied at London’s Sylvia Young Theatre School alongside classmate and friend Amy Winehouse. At 12-years-old, Bones was discovered by Oscar-winning actor Sir Mark Rylance, then the artistic director of the Shakespeare Globe Theatre, and enlisted for his production of Macbeth as the First Witch.
At 15-years-old, she starred as a rebellious teenager in the British TV show Family Affairs, stealing the spotlight as the feisty young character - Yasmin Green. She garnered nominations for British Soap Awards as one of the longest-running actors on the show, which was syndicated globally which she starred from 1998 to 2005.
Befriending punk legend and drummer Rat Scabies, from 70s punk band The Damned, Bones began writing songs alongside Scabies in 2005, who gave the artist her eponymous stage name and taught her a DIY punk ethic and “trial and error” approach to making music. “It’s perfection comes from its imperfection,” said Bones. “In an age where human flaws are erased from music, the imperfect can be very striking.”
In 2008, Bones uploaded an anonymous demo to MySpace. The Orwellian-themed anthem
“We Know All About U,” was premiered by BBC Radio 1 Dj Zane Lowe, as ‘Hottest Record in The World,’ garnering millions of radio plays and raving reviews, becoming the BBC’s most played record by an unsigned artist.
In 2009, Bones released her debut album Bone of My Bones to critical acclaim. With tracks like ‘W.A.R.R.I.O.R’, ‘Guess We’ll Always Have NY’ and ‘The Muzik’, the album was used for runway shows and campaigns by Yves Saint Laurent, EA Sports FIFA and various Citroën car commercials including the controversial commercial featuring John Lennon.
Bones goes above and beyond with a high-watt stage presence, bringing a whirl of energy to the stage with her fashion antics. Known for her multiple costume changes, she can often be spotted donning designer pieces by Iris van Herpen.
Her music, however, isn’t the traditional punk trio. Pushing boundaries as one of the few female music producers to work alongside orchestras, there is a real cinematic feel to her work. Traveling the world collaborating with symphony orchestras from India and China she asks classical musicians to step outside their comfort zone to perform her unconventional compositions.
“By breaking down existing genre boundaries, my approach to music including collaborations with The Mumbai Symphony and The Beijing Philharmonic Orchestra, reimagines orchestral music while challenging the prevailing mainstream mentality, that classical music is an art form that can only be performed by, for and about white males, such as Beethoven” said Bones.
“I’m always pushing myself into unknown territory, I enjoy the challenge of stepping outside my circumference and learning from other cultures. There’s always a huge risk of recording alongside musicians you’ve never met, and don’t even speak the same language. Will it work? will you be able to communicate? In many ways it could be a recipe for disaster but these are all the elements that drive me as a creator. Music is the galvanizing force that brings people together.”
In 2013, her sophomore album Behold, A Pale Horse was released on her label 1984 Records. Premiered by NPR, who described Bones as “a major player for years to come,” the apocalyptic inspired album was recorded in India at YRF Studios aswell as Miloco Studios, London and featured tracks alongside The Mumbai Symphony Orchestra, and The New London Children’s Choir on a playful cover of The Smiths' ‘What Difference Does It Make’.
With its stringed percussion and harmonious chants, Behold, A Pale Horse is said to have “jagging guitars, jungle-inspired drums, and fierce vocals that seem to taunt as they go,” according to SPIN Magazine. The Independent heralded the album as “a beguiling blend of chants, afrobeat, and the darker end of post-punk,” the self produced album also featured contributions from Liquid Liquid’s Sal P for the remix of ‘Bread & Circus’. The video, directed by Al Pacino’s daughter Julie Pacino and Jennifer DeLia, was premiered by Jay Z via his lifestyle website Life & Times, describing Bones as a “producer with a wide variety of influences, inspiring others through that journey."
In 2015 Bones released Milk & Honey, Pt. 1, her debut EP, which included the catchy disco-punk track ‘Oh Promised Land’. The song was used by Ray-Ban for their summer campaign which also featured Bones. She then headlined ‘Pop-Kultur’ festival to a sold out audience at Berlin’s legendary Berghain venue, that same year. Speaking to The New York Times about music production, Bones explained “It was an ambitious thing; I saw a deficit of female producers, and it’s still that way,” she said, noting that every non-classical Grammy Award for Producer of the Year had gone to a man.
Catching the attention of Yoko Ono with her avant-garde approach, Bones was enlisted by the art legend to re-work her song ‘No Bed For Beatle John, for Ono’s ‘Yes, I’m A Witch Too’,
her first album in nine years. Released in February 2016, it was described by The Guardian as “a brilliant track produced by Ebony Bones that pairs Ono’s eerie falsetto with majestic horns.” Featuring artwork by designer Karl Lagerfeld, the song was originally recorded by John Lennon in 1969.
As a self-produced artist, Bones is one of a few women in the male-dominated production world, making her one of the most prominent female producers in a burgeoning feminist movement within the music industry today. Given that less than 5% of solo music producers are women, Bones alongside Grimes, Linda Perry and Tokimonsta were the few producers featured by HBO/VICE for their 2017 special. Her production is as important as the music itself, and her skills are informed by self-produced musicians like Kate Bush, Missy Elliott, Linda Perry and Lauryn Hill. “Gender and ethnic diversity are markers for many of the key things that make music and art vital and resilient,” says Bones. “However, with the frighteningly low proportion of female music producers, there is currently only one dominant voice that determines what we all hear, and what music gets made.”
Her highly anticipated forthcoming album Nephilim, released July 6th sees Bones continue to push her musical ingenuity. She makes her directorial debut with the breathtaking new video of ‘Nephilim’ released May 4th, which may possibly be her most stunning visual yet. Featuring collaborations with The Beijing Philharmonic Orchestra, Bones took time away from touring to write and produce the new album, recorded in Beijing, New York and London. Collaborating alongside the orchestra at Beijing’s Tweak Tone Labs Studio, the album explores several themes including censorship; the conspicuous kind in China vs the more insidious kind in the west; as well as the emergence of nationalism in the world, post-Brexit and post-Trump.
Unafraid to break down existing genre boundaries, the songs on Nephilim have an otherworldly, futuristic sound. She demonstrates an electronic avant-garde prowess, with experimental jazz, a sophisticated symphonic sense, teamed alongside afrofuturist overtones. There is a real cinematic feel to Bones' productions, displayed on orchestral tracks like 'Nephilim' and instrumental passages like 'Truth or Treason' that serve almost as a soundtrack for a film.
Bones reached out to the orchestra following her collaborations with Yoko Ono and The Mumbai Symphony Orchestra on Behold A Pale Horse. “I sent the Beijing Philharmonic the scores I had composed, and they were excited for the collaboration,” said Bones, who performed at the World Exposition in Shanghai 2010, which saw over 73 million visitors.
“Many people asked about recordings in Beijing and censorship in China, and while I didn’t directly experience any, it got me thinking about all the ways in which censorship manifests itself in our culture,” says the artist. “It takes on covert forms, like who gets to speak and who doesn't get to speak, and all the ways we silence the voices of people we don't want to hear”
said Bones. “Beginning with the theme of religious censorship, I made ‘Nephilim’ conscious of the fact that these were not subjects females usually write about.”
The manifesto-like lyrics in the punk-inflected track ‘No Black in the Union Jack’ begins with an audio clip of British Member of Parliament Enoch Powell’s notorious ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech attacking immigration in 1968. “This hate speech was so vile, it has never been broadcast in full,” said Bones. “It is one of the most incendiary racist speeches of modern Britain and this year marks it’s 50th anniversary.”
The new album also explores the emergence of nationalism in the world post-Brexit and Trump. “Xenophobia aswell as fear of immigrants and foreigners was strongly associated with support for leaving the EU; post-Trump and Brexit have created a hostile environment for immigrants, fanned by nationalist bile and scapegoating as displayed throughout these songs.”
Bones expanded on the larger issue of censorship “While writing the album, I began thinking about how women have been erased historically and all the ways we silence the voices of people we don't want to hear,” she said. “While I have accomplished a level of success in my art, I am not ignorant to the fact that for the majority of women, and especially women of color, invisibility, not being seen or heard is a through-line for most of our careers.”
The album was engineered by Grammy Award-winning masterer, Mandy Parnell of Black Saloon who also engineered Behold A Pale Horse. Bones enlisted a host of musicians for the album, including a horn section featuring saxophone legend, Jimi Hendrix and James Brown collaborator - Lonnie Youngblood. Among the new 11 tracks on the album, there is one cover, of the Junior Murvin/The Clash classic ‘Police & Thieves,’ which is performed by
The Bones Youth Choir.
Speaking truth to power, the afrofuturistic anthem ‘Kids of Coltan’ touches upon the subjects of neo-colonialism and human rights violations. “The song is about the culture of complicity, as I began thinking of the young child laborers who make our smartphones and electronic devices,” said Bones. “Modern day communication is built on coltan mining, by young children in the Democratic Republic of Congo. From picking cotton to picking coltan, I realised this is today’s modern slave trade, of which we are all complicit.”
From ‘Kids Of Coltan’ and ‘Police & Thieves’ to ‘I See, I Say’ and ‘What Difference Does It Make’, children are a constant theme in Bones’ work. “A child's innocence allows for greater perception. Kids tend to be good at expressing their creativity, but then as adults people tend to lose this as they grow older, it’s something we have to protect and nurture.”
The giant themes and futuristic sounds of Nephilim are a reference to Bones’ own avant-garde approach, and as science fiction author Philip K. Dick once said, “Artists have the capacity to accidentally predict the future, it’s in their essence as creators.” Bones proves to be a step ahead.
By Nadja Sayej -