Sunday Times feature article 28/6/09

sunday-times-1Fairy tales, bassoons, Björk-like vocals- The Mummers’ world is well worth escaping to, says Lisa Verrico

Of all the bars in Brighton, Raissa Khan-Panni wants to meet in one called The White Rabbit. It could be because of its quaint location on a cobbled lane, or the Beatles songs blating from its speakers on a sunny Monday lunchtime. More likely, Khan-Panni has picked the pub for its name. The founder of the baroque-pop act the Mummers is a fairy-tale fanatic whose debut album Tale to Tell, works Lewis Carroll into cinematic songs with sumptuous, swooping vocals, in which protagonists fall in love with the fictional characters or wake up in imaginary worlds.

“I’ve always been obsessed with fairy tales,” says Khan-Panni, a slim, strikingly pretty 32-year-old who could pass for a decade younger, not least because she wears her hair in bunches and frequently bursts into fits of girlie giggles. “As a kid, I refused to go to sleep unless a fairy tale was playing on my little cassette machine. Alice in Wonderland was my favourite, but I adored anything by Lewis Carroll or Hans Christian Andersen. I had a tape of Oscar Wilde fairy tales that wore out because I played it so often. I’m still searching for a replacement.”

Khan-Panni’s plans to form an orchestral pop band, with a dozen members playing everything from double bass to bassoon, began in 2005, while she was working as a waitress. Not even the fact that, under the name Raissa, she had enjoyed minor chart success in her early twenties made her ambitiion seem any less absurd. At the time, she was a skint mum-of-one suffering from depression.

“It was a tough time,” she admits. “I had no backing, no money, and I was working in a basement restaurant in Brixton with no windows, so I hardly ever saw daylight. I was still writing songs. but at weird hours, in a haze of total exhaustion.

Partly because of the tiredness and partly because my life was so unbearably mundane, my lyrics became increasingly surreal. That’s when I decided my next project had to be huge and orchestral, and call on my classical training. I was convinced that was the only music that could cheer me up. I didn’t think about the logistics. Setting myself a ridiculous goal was great motivation.”

Pieces of Khan-Panni’s dream started to fall into place after her manager- who had stuck with her from her solo days- played her Rufus Wainwright’s Oh, What a World. Inspired by his mix of classical music, orchestral arrangements and pop melodies, she tracked down her former guitarist, Paul Sandrone, to Brighton.

A cover of Nick Drake’s River Man the pair recorded was passed to Mark Horwood, a soundtrack composer, who added an orchestral arrangement, then returned the tape to Panni. She loved it, but discovered he had moved to LA to work on a film. It wasn’t until 2006, when horwood returned to Brighton, that the band the Mummers finally began to take shape.

Khan-Panni knew she had stumbled on a kindred spirit as soon as she saw Horwood’s studio. “It’s built in a treehouse!” she squeals, sounding like an excitable seven-year-old. “You have to climb a huge ladder up a giant pine tree to get in. It’s full of vintage organs and old keyboards, with Indian percussion instruments hanging from the walls. I’m making it sound like a hippie hang-out, but it’s a genuine working studio that can fit 10 people. It was so perfect that, by the end of the day, we had recorded out first song, Wonderland. It’s about a young girl- well, someone who is halfway between a girl and a woman- who dreams of how she would like her life to be. At night, she escapes to her fantasy world, then returns the next morning to tell everyone what she saw. Am I that girl? I guess I am.”

Despite the complex nature of the Mummers’ music, there is a childlike, wide-eyed wonder to songs that take in vaudeville, military percussion, big bands, old-school show tunes and a nod to the Proms, perfectly capturing Khan-Panni’s personality. What is odd is that until she had a child herself, her music was much more grown-up.

Born in south London, the daughter of a political journalist from Hong Kong and a mother who designed gardens, Khan-Panni  spent her early years singing more often than she spoke. Too she to talk to adults or oven her classmates, she was given a solo in a school concert at five. As she performed, she heard the audience gasp.

Still, though, she didn’t want to be a singer. Instead, she planned to learn to play lots of instruments. She pined for a clarinet, but because there weren’t enough at school to go round, took up oboe instead. By 13, she was bunking off school to busk. She took her oboe to South Kensington Tube station and, dressed in her school uniform, made enough money that when her father found out, he encouraged her to continue.

Twice, Khan-Panni busked around Europe, first playing oboe with a group of dancers, then solo, backed by a ghetto blaster. She taught herself guitar and violin, but it was a friend who busked with her in London who finally convinced her she should sing. By the time Khan-Panni went to Bristol University to study music, she was fronting her first band. by the time she left, she had been signed to a major label on the strength of just three songs. 

With the fuitarist Sandrone and a programmer, Khan-Panni released three albums as Raissa. Their pleasant mix of indie pop and trip-hop never quite caught on, but there was plenty of praise for her bewitching, Björkish vocals. She recalls her Raissa records as “not very good”. “O was young, I didn’t have a plan. I was experimenting with sounds,” she sighs.

Dropped in 2000 after failing to have a hit single, Khan-Panni initially struggled to find a sound that suited her. She tried working with a garage and drum’n’bass producers, but when that came to nothing, she had to turn to waitressing to support her young son. Reading him the fairy tales she had loved as a child may have partly inspired the Mummers, although Khan-Panni claims it had more to do with being able to act like a child again herself. 

“I’ve never felt like an adult,” she laughs. “When I was signed, I tried to act grown-up, but I was hopeless at it. I’m naturally childish and love playing childish games, which I was allowed to do with my son. Now I never want grow up, no matter how old I am.”

By coincidence, Khan-Panni was pregnant with her second son, now three, when she started working with Horwood. Although a core group of three, the Mummers – the nave comes from traveling troupes of medieval musicians- required a cast of 20 to complete last August’s debut EP, Tale to Tell (Part One), released on their own label. Nine became permanent players in the Mummers’ live line-up, making touring pricey.

A handful of shows in London and Brighton began a buzz late last year, however, leading to a stunning slot on the last series of Later… with Jools Holland that instantly boosted their profile. The following day, their largest London show to date sold out in two hours, while iTunes featured them on its front page. Tale to Tell the album was released this month to rave reviews, and the Mummers hope that a summer of festival appearances in Britain and Europe will help sales.

Khan-Panni’s ambition shows no sigh of abating- gigs planned for later this year will feature a 25-piece chamber orchestra. Meanwhile, a recently signed deal to sell the Mummers’ music or films could be their breakthrough, not least with Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland adaption shaping up to be one of the biggest screen releases of 2010. If he hasn’t finalised the soundtrack yet, someone should send him the Mummers album sharpish.