Ferna: “I can feel like a background character in my own day-to-day life”

Belfast-based artist Ferna (fear-na) – Hannah McPhillimy to her friends – is fresh from winning Northern Irish single of the year for ‘Wasting’, a remarkable achievement for her debut release. The same track will soon take pride of place as track two on ‘Understudy’, an album that aims to build on a slow-growing sense of style and place, fuelled by factors from time in the US, to a need to rebrand.

“It can be a hard thing to measure, but I can safely say that in terms of my emotional state and confidence going forward it was huge,” McPhillimy says of the prize win. “‘Wasting’ was the first official single I put out under Ferna, and I really had nothing to go on in terms of how the new music was going to be received, so to get that kind of external affirmation from the get-go was a massive psychological boost, which is really precious, let me tell you. It also does give you a nice way in with industry people when making an approach or pitching something, so I will most likely be going on about it for the rest of my days!”

“Writing the album was much more meandering,” she continues. “The process ballooned from a month-long project into something that took years! Partly, this was because it was my first time working in a hands-on way with a producer, and it took us a while to work out our process. Partly, it was the first time I had strayed out of the acoustic realm, so we also had to hone in on what sound ‘palette’ I wanted to incorporate.” 

“In the end, we landed on a soundworld where every electronic element had an organic quality to it, and most live sounds were digitally altered in some way, so the listener is never quite sure what sound belongs to what world. We also worked out a system for the production where I would bring a batch of songs in, then we would strip them back to their core components – lyrics, melody, chords – and then work on filling out the arrangement together, playing pretty much every part ourselves. “

The result is subtle and textured, a work with obvious undertones of attention to detail, and deep elements of storytelling, both personal and more broad.

“Most of the songs are autobiographical (‘Open Up’, ‘New City’, ‘River’, ‘Go Quietly’, ‘Lights Out’), as I can often feel like a background character – if that doesn’t sound too sad! – in my own day to day life if I’m not careful! ‘Watchman’ and ‘Morning After’ are a step removed from that. They are still about scenarios in my life, but I wrote them from the perspective of fictional characters. In the first instance, the song is literally from the perspective of a watchman protecting a city, and in the second it’s a man feeling he has no say in the future of his relationship. It helped to have that level of separation, to help me voice some very painful feelings, of say depression, and dissociation.”

“‘Wasting’ is inspired by the protagonist of the novel Milkman. I concede that she is the opposite of a background character, but to her community she is not a player, and she has no influence over the events that are unfolding in her life.” 

“Finally, both ‘Walk On’ and ‘Bleed’ were written about the life of Coretta Scott-King (activist, author and wife of MLK). When I was in America, I was living near Detroit and started learning a bit about the civil rights movement. She is a super interesting person – a musician, way ahead of her time in terms of LGBT rights and Apartheid in Africa, someone who MLK credits with getting him into activism, highly qualified and articulate – but someone we don’t really treat with the same gravitas as her husband. It felt right to include her story here as well.”