Guardian Interview – 10/08

They rehearse in a treehouse full of harmoniums, but the Mummers have their sights set on the Albert Hall. Maddy Costa meets their frontwoman

‘My life has been a series of accidents,” says Raissa Khan-Panni cheerfully. She’s not kidding. The fact that she is a singer comes down to a random encounter with a busker when she was 16. She bagged her first record deal at 21 on the strength of just three songs. Her new band, the Mummers, came together by chance. Unlucky timing meant her two sons, 10 and three, were born just as she was embarking on these separate chapters in her musical career. Their births heightened Khan-Panni’s awareness of the need to “make the most of the accidents when they come along. You have to be prepared.”

She wasn’t ready for her first stab at pop fame. Signed to an independent label when she was still studying music in Bristol, she was quickly picked up by Polydor and “spoiled. I was in a very privileged position, and I wasted time doing nothing.” That’s not quite true: under the name Raissa, she and her two-piece band recorded three albums in quick succession. “We banged them out,” she admits. “I was still finding my way, vocally and musically. I didn’t have the vision that I have now.”

The Mummers are “totally different in every single way” from the work she did as Raissa. Their debut album, Tale to Tell, is a lushly orchestrated, Technicolor fantasia, inspired by “marching bands, big bands and fairgrounds”, not to mention Rufus Wainwright. The songs were recorded live in Brighton, with as many local musicians as she could gather together. Now 32, Khan-Panni thinks she was edging towards this “big, classical” sound a decade ago – but in 2000, after she had failed to achieve a top 40 hit as Raissa, Polydor dropped her. “Back at square one, and totally skint,” with a two-year-old to look after, Khan-Panni got a job as a waitress near her home in south London and tried to work out what to do next. She carried on writing songs, and fell in with the drum’n’bass scene: “I wanted to experiment with putting vocals on vile, grimy, crusty beats.”

But she knew that wasn’t really what she wanted. She had kept in touch with Paul Sandrone, her guitarist from the Raissa days, who had set up his own studio in Brighton. One day in 2005, she visited him to record a few songs. Among them was a cover of Nick Drake’s River Man, a tape of which was fortuitously passed to Mark Horwood, a jazz pianist and aspiring film composer. He built an arrangement around her vocal and sent it back to Khan-Panni.

The arrangement was “amazing”, exactly what she had been searching for. There was just one problem: Horwood hadn’t given her any contact details, and by the time she tracked him down, he had moved to LA for a year to work on a short film. On his return, she and Sandrone visited Horwood in the treehouse he had built for himself on the outskirts of Brighton. The Mummers started that very day.

The treehouse is “in the middle of the countryside, pine trees all around”, and packed with “old organs and harmoniums and Indian percussive instruments” picked up by Horwood while travelling. So it makes sense that the music produced there has a fairy-tale quality. But Khan-Panni says the Mummers’ sound is also rooted in her own desire to escape. “Working in a restaurant, it’s a grim slog every day – mundane, tedious, boring. So you create visions just to keep yourself sane.”

She regrets that it has taken so long to realise those visions. “I’m a bit of a late developer. I live in my own world quite a lot, and I like to dream. I feel life goes too fast for me sometimes.” Khan-Panni’s unorthodox upbringing may have something to do with it. Her father, a political journalist, was born in Hong Kong and grew up in India; her parents met when he was visiting England, and they stayed in London together. Both loved to travel: “They didn’t spend their money on anything, except every couple of years we’d go somewhere brilliant.” Once, they took Khan-Panni and her younger brother out of school for a three-month trek across India. It had quite an effect on their daughter: “I always wanted to break out from wherever I was – and when I arrived somewhere, I always wanted to go somewhere else.”

She couldn’t abide school, and started bunking off at a young age. She had begun music lessons at five – piano, then oboe – and at 13 she and a friend began busking in Leicester Square. Her parents found out. “I was shitting it about what Dad would say, but actually his reaction was: ‘This is a very good way of earning money.'” Her father began dropping her off and collecting her from each stint.

It was through busking that Khan-Panni discovered she could sing; she was taught by Jocelyn West, a fellow busker and Prince fan. Busking also taught her how to perform. “You’ve got to get people’s attention,” she says, “because you need money, so you learn what works and what doesn’t.” Khan-Panni got to a stage where she could earn £50 an hour.

You get the impression she would still be doing it now, if it weren’t for “the busking mafia not letting you play, and constantly being moved on by the police”. It would certainly help to finance the Mummers: since she stopped waitressing to focus on the band, Khan-Panni has effectively been living off credit cards. It’s a risky way to live – but she’s comfortable with that, because her family has done the same. “My dad was always taking massive risks. He gave up his job and invested in the stock market just before Black Monday [in 1987]. He lost it all in one day. It was really funny. One day we had a car, and next day we didn’t. All of a sudden there was nothing there. I kind of didn’t mind: I thought it was liberating.”

For the same reason, she much prefers working independently with the Mummers, without “a record company breathing down our necks. Even though we don’t have any money, we have complete control to build the world we want to build.”

So if a top 40 hit isn’t the goal for the Mummers, what is? “It sounds a bit mad,” Khan-Panni says, “but I have one vision in my head. The goal is to have a big band march through Brighton, gathering musicians and people along the way, all the way to London, to the Albert Hall, where we’ll do a massive gig. But it won’t just be our band playing: because the music is so multilayered, anyone who can tap anything, or play recorder or something, can join in. So if you can get us a gig at the Albert Hall, we can make it all happen”.