Photography by Cyrielle Rigot
The winter before last, on the Greek island of Hydra, Oracle Sisters holed themselves up inside an old carpet factory converted into a recording studio. Backdropped by the Peloponnese mountains, Covid had emptied the streets and storms rattled the building. Transporting their equipment by donkey, the trio – Lewis Lazar, Christopher Willatt and Julia Johansen – found refuge. Seemingly suspended in time and place, they conjured a world of their own making – and across two months a debut album was realised.
Titled Hydranism, the record reflects this moment through a million worlds. Holed up inside their eccentric location, its quirks and sensibilities filtered directly into the making of the record – vocals were recorded down wells, and drumbeats captured in ballrooms – conjuring idyllic stories that shimmer like Mediterranean waves, reflecting a cosmic romanticism that surfaces throughout.
Alex James Taylor: Congrats on the album, I’ve been following you guys for a while and it’s so nice to hear a full album come to fruition – it’s amazing.
Lewis Lazar: We’re very happy, it feels like a fun moment.
AJT: I’m really intrigued by the influence of Hydra on the record. What made you go there to record the album?
LL: I’d heard about the island for a long time, since I was a kid almost. The writer Henry Miller, who wrote Tropic of Cancer, wrote about Hydra in his book The Colossus of Maroussi when he visited Lawrence Durrell and all these writers right before the Second World War. I was fascinated by it from that, and then obviously discovered Leonard Cohen [Cohen lived in Hydra during the 60s].
There was a certain point while I was living in New York, right before moving to Paris to start the band with Chris, that a painter friend invited me to Hydra on the back of a break-up. She said, “Come here, I’ve got a place for you to stay.” I was painting at the time and she said, “I’ll introduce you to some people who will buy your work so you can afford this trip,” because I couldn’t afford it. Lo and behold, she did and some people bought my work. I was introduced to the artistic community on the island and so I kept coming back. There’s a very supportive community there and there was a guy who lent me his house during the offseason in exchange for paintings.
When we started the band, me and Chris went there a couple of times. We stayed on the island and wrote songs for a couple of weeks. We met the sponge divers, the local musical families. The island attracts a lot of very interesting artistic people so it became a weird second home over the years while we were starting the band. We got to know people and became part of the family on the island. We met this guy called Stephan Colloredo-Mansfeld early on, who was talking about his plans to build a studio in this old mansion [now known as Old Carpet Factory recording studio] – I think his family had got it back in the day for dirt cheap. Leonard Cohen babysat him a couple of times, he was from that era. We spoke about one day recording there if the opportunity arose, and so when the pandemic hit, I was over there and he’d just opened the studio. We thought it was a perfect time to bunker down and make an album. We made a deal with our record label, who gave us an advance and we put the money into bringing everyone over from Paris and bunkered down in the studio. We were locked down there for a month or two writing and recording every day, cooking together, the gear was transported on donkeys. It was this otherworldly place in time.
“It was this otherworldly place in time.”
Photography by Ella Herme
AJT: I’m always fascinated by bands who create draw a specific location into an album, whether it’s the Stones in Nellcôte or Bob Dylan’s Big Pink, etc.
Christopher Willat: It’s really nice to create that space for yourself where you’re five minutes walk to the studios – a bunch of the engineers and musicians were staying in the studio. But there was also this peculiar… there was definitely a vibe change on the island because the island wasn’t locked down when we first got there. That was September, October, but then end of October, November, the storm clouds came in. Then all of a sudden, they announced lockdown on the island, so no one was out anymore. We had to tiptoe across from our houses to the studio every day, and there were thunderstorms. We were hiding out in this old studio that was kind of rattling a bit with the storms.
AJT: Did you write the tracks while you were there?
CW: Lewis and I got there maybe a month before the studio. We had a bunch of songs and then we allowed ourselves that space to see what we come up with. We ended up coming up with a load of songs that made it onto the album, just meeting up every day with a guitar and piano and trying ideas out. We had a huge list of songs so we put quite a lot of pressure on our engineer and musicians. We wanted to try and get through 30 songs in two weeks.
LL: We recorded about two albums worth of material and trimmed it down later. Not because the other songs weren’t good, we just didn’t have time and had to focus. We’re now talking about maybe finishing up some of the songs and putting them out later this year as a sort of bonus. It was very, very productive – very busy. A little too intense sometimes, because it needs to be. Anytime you read about great records, there’s always got to be a certain amount of friction that happens at some point, it can’t all just be like, la-di-dah. There’s always going to be a certain amount of tension. You need to take yourself to the edge of something. But the studio is beautiful, you look out over the port, and you see the Peloponnese in the distance and they’ve got the old weaving rooms where they’d make the carpets back in the day. Very high ceilings, so there was this beautiful reverb up there we used for a lot of the backing vocals. Then there’s a well in the basement, which is the old furnace room where they’d cook for all the people who worked in the factory, we’d do all the live takes down there and pick up these crazy reverbs by putting a mic down the well. The studio definitely made its impact.
AJT: And there was a ballroom as well?
CW: Yeah, it’s the big high-ceiling room, so it would have been the weaving room back in the day and then became the ballroom when it was more of a residence. It’s the most beautiful room in the studio. It’s got these huge arched windows and this beautiful view. That’s where we recorded the pianos, a lot of the vocals, some of the acoustic guitars up there.
Photography by Mr Herold
AJT: In terms of creating the record, how did you want it to feel in comparison to previous singles? It’s a real story on its own.
CW: We definitely wanted something cohesive for the album by getting certain musicians together and knowing what our limit was with regard to instruments. We knew that would take us in the right direction. I don’t think we were setting too many limits on ourselves but we knew that by limiting the ingredients we would create something cohesive. Then the sound, our songwriting and the kind of songs we write would create this story.
AJT: I was travelling on the train the other day while listening to it and it’s such a transportative record – worlds and eras seem to float in and out.
CW: That’s certainly something we wanted. It’s great for throwing on in the car or on a train or you want it to elevate you out of something, pull you out, make you feel light.
LL: The train is my favourite. Night bus is my least favourite.
CW: We did our European tour by train. We got an Interrail Pass and did the whole thing by train.
Oracle Sisters’ debut album Hydranism is out now.
The band begin their UK tour in Manchester this evening – see the full list of dates here.