SIERRA: anger controlled and challenges met

SIERRA: anger controlled and challenges met

Pierre Sopor 19 février 2024

Over the last few years, we've been following the emergence and rapid rise of SIERRA with great interest. The young artist, whose music has been heard in commercials and video games, has toured with Carpenter Brut and a few months ago released her debut album, A Story of Anger (review). With her mix of darksynth and EBSM, she attracts audiences from metal, goth and techo circles alike, and recently played at Le Trabendo in Paris (we told you about it here), where she presented her new show.

Annelise Morel, aka SIERRA, answered spontaneously to our questions about her debut album and the live version of it.

Photo credit: Benoit Julliard.

To begin with, is there any question that people should avoid asking you?
Oh no, there's no problem, it's always cool when people show an interest in my work and I'd never say that I've already answered too many questions... Except if you ask me where the name SIERRA comes from, which I must admit I've already said over and over again for the last six years... there's no problem if you want me to repeat it, but it's the only question I'm a bit fed up with!

During an interview, the moment when you ask where the name comes from and the moment when you ask "by the way, do you have any plans for the future?", are the ones when you start to flounder! But since you mention it, have you ever regretted having chosen this name for reasons of online visibility or referencing?
Yes, it's totally a problem. If I had to do it all over again, I'd do it differently, that's for sure. It's a real problem. I didn't do my thing properly in terms of availability, referencing... I mean, you can have a slightly common name, like 'Danger'... The problem is with the social networks: I can't get Instagram or Facebook verification, for example. They consider SIERRA to be a geographical location because there are lots of places called 'Sierra something'. When I started a few years ago, I didn't ask myself these questions. I'd checked on Spotify to see if there were any other SIERRAs, but I didn't think about everything else. Clearly, if I had to do it all over again, I'd keep the name because it's dear to me, but I'd spell it differently. There are artists who do that, who change their name... that would piss me off, but if after a while I see that it's a handicap for my project, I'll have to make a decision. It's really a question I ask myself every six months, I say to myself "this is really annoying", I apply for certifications... I'm with Universal and even they can't get my pages certified! It's painful because you're there, you're trying to defend your music, to share it, and simple bullshit like that prevents you from gaining visibility...

There are a lot more vocals on your first album than on your previous tracks. Did you want to express something or rather shake things up a bit by setting yourself a new challenge?
It's both. I used to sing a lot before I started making electronic music. That's the first thing I did, when you pick up a guitar and play three chords like the old Wonderwall and stuff, I worn them out when I was twelve! It's the easiest thing to get into music. Then electronic music came along, and right from the first EP I felt the need to put in a few words, a bit of spoken word. But I sing regularly, at home, when I'm playing the piano or the guitar, and I wondered whether it wouldn't be interesting in the end to include a bit of singing but without distorting my more electronic and percussive direction. I'm trying to find a good compromise and I'm doing some research. My aim isn't to stick to the same idea all the time because I'll soon get bored if I do the same things all the time, so I explore... even if it means doing stuff that will be totally rubbish in the future, you never know! At least I'm trying things.

Was it more stressful for you to have to sing in front of a full house or play in a huge venue like Paris' Le Zénith?
It's a lot more stressful to sing! You see, when I opened for Carpenter Brut at Le Zénith, I was clearly stressed out, but when I had to sing for the first time with my album in September on my first date in Montreal, it was Hell in terms of stress! It was nothing like the Zenith! The Zénith was a piece of cake! When I played in Montreal, I knew there was this moment I was going to have to sing coming up, and I'd never done it in front of people before... Oh, the stress! I felt like I was feeling that stress all over again from the very first live show I'd done five years earlier. You put yourself completely out there, it's not an easy thing to do.

There's an almost funny side to it: you do your first few gigs, you do a Zénith, it goes down well... And then you start singing, as if you had to add to the stress!
Yes, I hope I'll always have new challenges... I don't want to feel too comfortable on stage. I mean, that's good, isn't it? It's cool, it allows you to get to the heart of your performance, but I like to add a little extra challenge as I go along after ten or so shows where I've felt really comfortable. My aim is also for people to really see an evolution every time they see me.

But in general, do you get stage fright?
I really got stage fright for my first live show in 2019 at Stunfest. It was weird because when I talk about it around me, people often tell me that when they get stage fright, they feel sick to their stomach, they shake... It wasn't like that for me at all. I was dizzy for a month before the concert! It was crazy. I'd only released one EP and I had to compose forty minutes of music for this concert. It was a huge challenge for me, I'd never done a live show before. It was too intense for me, my brain switched and I felt dizzy all the time. So that was my first live performance! Little by little, I got over it and after that I never felt stage fright again, or almost never. I get anxious, and the day before going on stage Id be a bit jumpy, but I don't really feel stage fright. Well, recently I've been rediscovering it more and more with the new challenges I'm setting myself. I don't know, I have the impression that it's linked to so many things and not just your performance, it depends on who you are... Let's just say that when you're in tune with yourself, when you feel good about yourself, it's always going to be different from a time when you don't feel good at all from a personal point of view. For me, they're inseparable. So finally, stage fright, sometimes I feel it, sometimes I don't, it comes and goes, but frankly it's fine.

But do you enjoy playing live? We make a big thing of it, but it sometimes demands so much of the artists...
I really like it. I really like playing live but it's true that I can't say that all the time. It's a bit like in love, in a relationship where all of a sudden things go well, there's a feeling: you feel that something really happened that night because there was an exchange with the audience or maybe because I was more in tune, or for all sorts of other reasons. And then the next day, for one reason or another, it may not go well at all, you may have a bad feeling! It comes and goes, but generally I'm very happy doing this, I love this job. It took me a while to really appreciate it, because now I'm lucky enough to have real support. I've got someone on lighting, I've got someone on sound, I've got someone on stage management, I've got a whole team. I'm starting to really appreciate it, because obviously before, when I was on my own and lugging around thirty kilos of gear all by myself... well, that's part of the job, no worries, but it's true that at times like that, when you're flying for five hours to play in front of people who don't know your work, those are moments that aren't always easy. Today I enjoy it a lot more.

For example, how did you feel about the concert at Le Trabendo?
It went really well. Paris dates are always a bit complicated, I find. A lot of people say that, and it's not just me! Of course, there are the mates who come, there's the family... I told my family not to come this time! I told them 'don't come, you're stressing me out too much'! Well, it's not them, it's their presence that's stressing me out. But then you've got the pros coming, the journalists and so on, and that's an added pressure, even though you're doing the same performance as the day before or the day after. I can't put it all to one side in my head, so subconsciously I'm a bit more restrained, I think. But I had a great time, it was a really, really good time and I realised that especially at the end, when the lights came up and I finally looked up. I'd seen it a bit while I was playing, but it's really impressive to see a hall filled to capacity like that. It touched me, I thought 'wow'. Yeah, something did happen from my point of view. But at the time, you have to be able to let yourself go and that's not easy, letting go on stage... it's hit or miss.

You took the time to sign each record at the merch before the concert. Is this something you do every time?
It's a fairly recent thing. I did a few dates in Germany in January and normally I'm at the merch all the time. But on the last few dates there were so many people there, it was like a madhouse. It's great, it's so cool, I like to have this moment where I talk to people, but I was totally overwhelmed by the people waiting, the payments and everything. So on the last few dates of this tour I thought I'd sign everything in advance, which would be a lot more practical in the end! At the Trabendo, exceptionally, I hired someone to do the merch, but I still wanted my records to be signed because I think that's cool. I don't know if I'll do it all the time, but when I can, I'll do it.

When you make electronic music, you're often alone. Do you seek a form of exchange with your audience when you play live, whether it's when you're at the merch or when you're a bit more advanced on stage?
I went to the merchandising stand myself at first because I wanted people to be able to buy my vinyl if they wanted to, and I had to sell it! That's how I came to realise that these exchanges were really cool. Well, I'm speaking for myself, I don't know about people, but I imagine they're happy too, because I'm the first one to be happy to have an exchange with the artist when I go to a concert! From my point of view, it allows me to connect with them a bit because in the end during the concert I don't address them directly. I tell them what I have to say through my music... So there's SIERRA and there's Annelise, and I feel like I become Annelise again when I'm at the merch. On stage, I explore things. I realised that being cut off for an hour behind machines, even though a lot of people do it and that's fine, made me want to reconnect with people a bit. I find that on certain tracks it makes sense, not necessarily all the time, but when I really have something to say to them in with my words. So sometimes I surprise myself, I go ahead and it wasn't planned, so I ask myself 'ah well? Why am I doing that on this track? Oh, come on, that's cool too'! It's nice to have the option of doing it by feel.

While we're on the subject of working solo: you had several featurings on your album. How did that work out? Who took the initiative?
It was me who approached them. I wanted to collaborate with Frank from Carpenter Brut, so I suggested it to him and he said yes. Corvad is someone I've been following for a very long time... In fact, these are people I always wanted to work with, like HEALTH... I offered them the beginnings of songs to see if they were inspired by them and that's how it went. With HEALTH it was a bit of a give-and-take, as we did two albums together, they'd work on a sound for me and vice-versa.

It's quite obvious how much care you take to come up with a really interesting live offering. Is that why you don't play your song with HEALTH?
I don't think there's any point in having vocals if the singer isn't there. Some people do it, like Carpenter Brut, and it goes down really well because he's already got musicians. I don't see the point of being behind my machines and having Jake sing like that, without being there... if anything, I should do a cover version and have myself sing, that would make more sense. You have to make choices when you put together a concert setlist. There are lots of things I'd like to play but I don't because it would lose a bit of its meaning. For example, one of my favourite tracks on my album is Traum. It's a rather ambient track, which is very slow and if I really had to listen to myself 1000%, if I didn't care what people might think and if I was only doing it for myself, I think I'd play a bit more ambient stuff like that. You also have to think about the live show itself, its rhythm, its dynamics and you can't go off in all directions either, you've only got an hour, you have to go for the essentials. You've got to go for the essentials. On certain concerts that are really mine, like the one at Trabendo, where I can play for as long as I want, I could go for stuff like that... But most of the time, I don't have much time and I have to make choices.

You have an Anger tattoo on your arm and your album is called A Story of Anger. What are you angry about?
I'm angry at a lot of things, but I'm not someone who's constantly angry. I'm not a rebel. People who know me on a day-to-day basis know that I try to be fairly peaceful. On the other hand, if something upsets me, makes me feel uncomfortable or there's an injustice, it can stir up some very deep-seated things in me. Injustice... I'm not necessarily talking about major social issues, it can be stupid things, everyday things, for example when someone makes an unfair remark and you start to doubt yourself, that can totally upset me. It's an emotion I wasn't necessarily aware of before. I used to get upset but I couldn't work out why and now I find it really interesting to listen to my emotions and this one in particular because it really is a warning message. It often means that something has been done wrong, that it's not in line with your values. Anger is really a feeling that's linked to your values, so when I feel it, I have to analyse what happened so that I can come back to it. That's how I deal with my anger today.

So you see anger as something that feeds you rather than something you want to get rid of?
Yes, I'm trying to associate it with something positive now. It's a very healthy emotion at its core, like sadness, we often need it to move on when we've been hurt. But the problem is that a lot of things stem from it and we all manage our anger so badly that it can have dramatic repercussions. I find that when you manage to control your anger before it leads to violence, it can be life-saving and even inspiring. It's a very complex emotion.

Was it a conscious and calculated choice on your part to take so long before releasing your first album, releasing a number of singles would maybe help you gain visibility before embarking on a longer project?
There are lots of ways of looking at things. Everyone will have their own perception. I don't think there's one right way to do it. Some people release several albums and after a while the fifth one, for example, will do very well... I didn't want to work like that because I didn't feel ready to do more than ten tracks at once. It's a bigger commitment, if only financially. I wanted to be surrounded by people for this release, with a label, promotion and a tour manager to support me, which I didn't have at all before. I didn't see the point of releasing an album if I was on my own, I didn't see the added value, apart from offering people who wanted a bit more sound.

You will play at the next Wave Gotik Treffen Festival. Do you know anything about the goth and industrial scene?
I'm discovering it more and more, but originally I wasn't at all. I used to listen to EBM, but more to EBSM, and little by little I got more interested in the genre to see where it all came from! Of course, I'm gradually getting to grips with industrial bands, Front242 and all that. I'm new to the scene, so I'm discovering it as I go along, and I'm slowly getting to know them because we meet up at a few events, often in Germany but also in Sweden and Switzerland. Recently I played with Ultra Sunn or Curses... I'm really happy to be at the WGT. I've already played at NCN, which is a bit of an antechamber to it, and it was a great time. I find the goth crowd very, very cool, a bit like the metal crowd in terms of feeling, warmth and approachable human beings. I got a great reception and it was a really good time.

The fact that you don't have any lyrics has probably helped your music to be exported...
Yes, that's for sure. I think that if I started doing songs in French, it would be more complicated. I'm not saying I wouldn't do it, but yes, of course, it's easier to identify with instrumental music anywhere in the world. Well, I'm telling you that but that's just my opinion, I don't know anything about it and besides, I'm putting more and more voice into my work myself! I don't have enough experience to know what works best, whether it's more exportable or not... I'd say it depends more on the scene you're in than on details like that. It's more a question of identification: I came in saying I was doing darkwave. Do I? I don't know. But I arrived saying that and that made it easier for me to export myself because I was identified with that scene, which is very international... and I like the term darkwave because, in the end, it doesn't mean anything! I think it's cool.

Thank you very much. And now that we've come to the end of the questions... do you have any plans for the future?
Yes, of course! I've got some big festivals coming up this summer, and they're general festivals, so that's going to be a change for me. I think I'll have to approach them a bit differently too. I'm going to re-think my setlist choices. I can't see myself speaking in the same way to someone who's never heard me before as to someone who's been following me for five years, so I'll have to find a compromise to try and please everyone to a certain extent and introduce them to my project. It'll be a nice change from the metal scene, which I'm often associated with but don't really know very well, so I'm happy to be able to play to a different kind of audience. And then the rest... we'll see, we'll take it easy!