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Fabulous Flip Sides of Barbra Streisand and Pink Floyd with new duo Illuminae

Agnieszka Swita and Ian Jones of Illuminae discuss their influences and debut album “Dark Horizons,” which includes special guest guitarist Steve Hackett (Genesis), saxophonist John Helliwell (Supertramp) and more musicians
Illuminae CD cover

GOLDMINE: I know it is early in the year, but Dark Horizons is certainly one of my favorite albums of 2021.

IAN JONES: Thank you very much.

AGNIESZKA SWITA: Thank you. We really appreciate that.

GM: I went through your list of influences and I think I may have found a match in your opening number “The Lighthouse,” sounding like what may happen if Barbra Streisand sang with Pink Floyd.

AS: She definitely should, you know. Ha ha. That would be a perfect mix.

GM: Well, she did a full album with Barry Gibb, Guilty, in 1980, on Columbia, the same label as Pink Floyd, who were enjoying success with The Wall at that time. The final song on the first side of Guilty was “The Love Inside,” which also served as the flip side of the duet “What Kind of Fool.”

AS: I did my homework for today’s session and refreshed my memory on that album, coupling with Barry Gibb. Barbra is no stranger to the theme of love. She has said that love is what makes us human, so that is a recurring theme in her music, not dissimilar to one of the driving forces for us in Illuminae. “The Love Inside” is a beautiful song, and an amazing use of different kinds of voices in one song, coloring emotions.

Illuminae Barbra

Barbra Streisand

Flip side: The Love Inside

A side: What Kind of Fool (with Barry Gibb)

Top 100 debut: January 31, 1981

Peak Position: No. 10

Columbia 11-11430

GM: After the No. 1 success of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall,” Columbia released the beautiful “Comfortably Numb” as a single, with “Hey You” as its flip side, a compatible pairing.

IJ: Those are great tracks from a great album. The factions in the band were starting to show in their music and sometimes the best work comes out of artistic tension. I love the whole operatic sound and feel of the album. The band evolved so much from their earliest recordings to this album. “Comfortably Numb” was one of the few songs that David Gilmour co-wrote, and his guitar really drives the track and “Hey You” was so fitting at the time. When The Wall was released, it was a turning point here in England socially and politically.

Illuminae Pink Floyd

Pink Floyd

Flip side: Hey You

A side: Comfortably Numb

Debut: July 1980

Columbia 1-11311

GM: The Wall was a double vinyl album and now your debut album, Dark Horizons, is also available in a double vinyl format, beginning with the nine minute song “The Lighthouse.” Agnieszska, your vocals, and Ian, your piano, jump out at me. This is wonderful work.

AS: Awe. You are like our headmaster. It's an amazing track in that it has different variations, as our opening number. Lyrically, it is a theme of someone finding somebody whom you have been longing to find, and is one of the themes that runs throughout the album, to almost be reunited with a person you feel you have known all your life. “The Lighthouse” is a symbol of the journey, moving toward the future. I sing about a summer house, and recently I spent six months of my coronavirus lockdown at my summer house in Poland. It felt like coming back home, amidst the constant changes in life. I think we all need that, especially now, having friends and family, and a place where you can go to where things don’t change, and you can feel loved.

IJ: It was quite a decision to start with such a long song, but that is the place where it seemed to fit best in the album and it was great to start off with Steve Hackett joining us on guitar.

Illuminae vinyl

GM: When I played “Blood On Your Hands” for my daughter Brianna late last year, when it was released as a single ahead of the album, I compared it to the band Evanescence, who my wife Donna and I saw in early 2004, when they were first starting out. Brianna compared the sound to the group Lacuna Coil and another I didn’t know, Icon for Hire. Your string arrangement stands out.

IJ: For the strings, I used samples from real orchestras. One of the influences was Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir.” I am influenced by Indian and Middle Eastern sounds. I have been to India a couple of times. I like how western musicians have incorporated eastern sounds, like The Beatles and others have done. On this album I am using a lot of strings, maybe more than original keyboard sounds. It is easier to capture emotions through string arrangements with textures and dynamics.

GM: “Lullaby” reminds me vocally of Pat Benatar and Candice Night of Blackmore’s Night, who also have a new album coming out this month. Your voice is very tender yet powerful, plus the violin and guitar stand out on this track.

AS: “Lullaby” is the first song that we started recording. I remember that quite vividly. I was sitting there quietly, getting into the groove of the song, and then I heard massive explosions and asked, ‘What the hell is that?’ as there was some sort of a pop. So, I said we should start again. Then we realized we started recording the song on Guy Fawkes Day, which is one of the loudest celebrations in the UK, filled with fireworks to make gunpowder sounds. I grew up in Poland where we didn’t have that holiday. We decided to go ahead with the recording. We thought the vocal sounded really good and that is not a pop, but an actual firework you may hear. “Lullaby” is a story about how dreams can transport you from one place to another and we have wonderful musicians joining us, with a climactic build up, not that dissimilar to Barbra Streisand’s “The Love Inside” that we discussed, with a similar concept. It starts really quiet and then you have a massive sound to build up and resolve, making a really effective proposition.

IJ: Troy Donockley played Uillean pipes and Luke Machin played lead guitar on that track. Other than Steve Hackett on “The Lighthouse,” it is Luke on guitar throughout the album, putting so much feeling into his playing, and always putting the song first.

GM: “Sanctuary” is delivered with wonderful drama like Madonna’s later works or Lady Gaga for a current reference.

AS: I have a lot of respect for both of those artists, with recognizable voices as soon as you hear a bar or two of their deliveries. I love the timbre of their voices. Both have made a stamp on the history of popular music.

IJ: Plus, I would offer Evanescence as another comparison for this track, but I enjoy your Madonna reference. Her Ray of Light album, with William Orbit as its producer, would be in my Top 100 albums of all-time.

GM: “Sign of Infinity” has a rolling piano, 3/4 time, which always impresses me, and a great saxophone guest spot.

AS: The song is a nice lull on the album that could fit on BBC Two radio.

IJ: That is one my favorite tracks and one of the simplest, recording it in a stripped back way. It was going to be an acoustic track and the drums were almost a last minute addition. Supertramp’s John Helliwell played some amazing saxophone on the recording and a little bit of clarinet, too. The song just floats and maybe is a nice counterpoint to some of the more epic tracks, and as a forerunner to the title track finale.

GM: That is a wonderful finale, referencing the lighthouse theme from the beginning of the album, and there are some wonderful high vocal notes. I enjoy the rhythm and there is a David Gilmour Pink Floyd-like guitar part in the song, too.

IJ: Luke’s guitar solo is just perfectly adventurous, maybe a Pink Floyd thing, tying in with our “Hey You” discussion.

AS: If you close your eyes when listening to Luke’s solo it will allow you to drift away, reminding me of flowers blooming. It is beautifully delicate.

GM: Congratulations again on your debut album.

IJ: Thank you. We met eleven years ago through a mutual friend and we finally have our first album together. Thank you for taking the time to do the interview with us.

AS: We are also beginning to work on songs for our next album. The one song we just worked on, I can’t get out of my head, and I think you will enjoy it. Thank you for introducing our music to Goldmine readers.

Illuminae: Ian Jones and Agnieszka Swita,

Illuminae: Ian Jones and Agnieszka Swita,

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