A Tale To Tell…
It takes two and a half hours to travel from London to Brighton. Through Purley and Earlswood, Haywards Heath and Hassocks, and on towards the sea. For two years, this was a journey that Raissa Khan-Panni would make several times a week; writing notes in her journal as the train edged past Three Bridges, staring out of the carriage window, dreaming.
Khan-Panni was once better known as Raissa, a solo artist that revealed an extraordinary jumble of influences; a mix of Chinese, Indian, Mexican and Englishness. She was raised in the South London district of Tulse Hill, immersed first as a child in classical music, and later discovered the delights of Rickie Lee Jones and Prince. Raissa learned oboe, taught herself to sing, and bunked off school to head up to Leicester Square and busk. In her late teens she busked all over Europe, performing Mozart in Vienna’s Mozart Square, playing guitar, oboe, violin, and singing along to a ghetto blaster, before heading back to the these shores to study music at Bristol.
Her solo career began not long afterwards, and she enjoyed critical acclaim across the media spectrum, most notably with the single ‘How Long Do I Get’. Despite the acclaim Khan-Panni remembers it as a period of some uncertainty. “I kind of knew that my solo albums were me experimenting and trying to find out where I was and not quite succeeding,” she says. “I think it was only after recording them that I really found my own voice.”
By 2001, the solo projects were winding down and she returned to work, waitressing fulltime in a Brixton restaurant. “The restaurant was under a church,” she recalls. “There were no windows there and it just felt as if here was no outside light, because you leave at three or four in the morning, and then you go back in the next day. That was my life.” It was a time she remembers as being “about anxiety and not being able to face the world. And not feeling right with yourself. “I did feel quite on my own.” She describes this period as “a time of having nothing again” when, after several years of excitement she returned to the mundane and the ordinary.
But out of this ordinariness came something exceptional; all the while that Khan-Panni was waitressing underground, living in half-light and feeling unable to face the world, she was writing lyrics that began documenting this period of her life but soon spun out into a star-spangled fantasy world. “I think looking back, because I wrote about quite mundane things they become slightly surreal fantasies,” she says. “And I think maybe being in this enclosed world which is quite tedious your imagination begins to wander. And because there was no pressure on me to produce records I actually found that my mind was just continually wandering and I found it much easier to write. Stuff just came out.”
She kept faith that she would one day leave waiting tables to return to music, she just did not know quite when it might be. “I knew I was waiting for this one project to be totally right, that I could feel was me. Which is why it took so long. And I had to find the right people. Because I wanted to go back to more classical stuff, I wanted that orchestration in there, because I hadn’t really used that before.” She was inspired, she says, by the enormity of sound in Rufus Wainwright’s work, and by the spacey-ness of the Flaming Lips. “But I needed someone I could bounce musical ideas off, and so it was a matter of finding the right collaborator.”
In a strange twist of fate, the right collaborator in fact found her. One day Khan-Panni was sent a track that a friend-of-a-friend had written around one of her vocals. “It was so completely amazing,” she recalls, “after waiting so many years I knew this was the person I wanted to work with.” The problem was the track came with no contact telephone number, just a name: Mark Horwood.
It took her a year to hunt him down. Horwood had posted Khan-Panni the track and then disappeared to Los Angeles to work on a film soundtrack. When she finally located him he was back on the South Coast, living in a treehouse just outside Brighton. She caught the train down from London and he picked her up at the station. “I wasn’t really sure what to think of him when I first met him,” she says. “It takes a while to get to know him; He’s quite shy, and not really part of a scene.” Horwood drove her out to the treehouse “where he’d built a studio up a massive ladder, this wonderful run-down little place full of vintage organs and keyboards and harmoniums and all these amazing instruments from the places he’d been to, and it was very natural, we just started messing about, started working on it straight away and the whole idea started to emerge.”
The ‘whole idea’ involved “big orchestration, lots of layers, proper instruments everywhere, trying to create emotion through these instruments.” They gathered a cast of 20 musicians from around Brighton and recorded the whole album in the treehouse with producer Paul Sandrone. “We’d get musicians to come in and out, occasionally they’d all be there,” she remembers.
For a long time the project was nameless; just Horwood and Khan-Panni and their ever-changing cast of musicians clambering up a ladder into a treehouse. Eventually they would take their name from the medieval performing troupes who would go from door-to-door wearing masks and costumes, staging plays in rhyme and song and mime. “One day someone said ‘The Mummers’ and I thought yes, you’re right, because we are a raggle-taggle bunch of disparate people just coming together and playing music.”
The project took two years, with Khan-Panni making the regular commute from London, the waitressing shifts gradually giving way to music. The result is Tale To Tell, originally sectioned into two separate parts. Khan-Panni describes these opening chapters as being the story of her time away in mundanity, but it is also a story that somehow manages to weave together nightbuses, negro spirituals, the Owl and the Pussycat, the Wings of Desire, orange trees, early morning walks through London and the fairytale tapes she would listen to at bedtime every night as a child, set to the sound of a carnival and a marching band and a string quartet, and sung in Khan-Panni’s bewitching tones; it is the sound of the ordinary cast adrift, of the humdrum left to float somewhere extraordinary.
“I’ve always been a daydreamer,” she says, “and I kind of see The Mummers as musical adaptations of real life events, of me trying to make fairytale versions of the mundane.”