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Band Interviews Features Interviews

An Interview With Mors Certa

Any of our loyal Vault Hunters who caught the first installment of my Dungeon Crawl column have already heard me wax rhapsodic about the debut album from PNW Dungeon Synth artist Mors CertaThe Ever-Turning Wheel. If you happened to miss it, allow me to briefly recap: I called it ‘easily the proggiest DS record I’ve ever heard’ and ‘nothing short of brilliant.’ Now that I’ve had a bit more time to spend with it, I feel like I may have actually undersold it a bit. Not only is it the best Dungeon Synth album I’ve heard thus far in 2019, it’s also an early front-runner for the top spot on the year-end list I’ll probably once again swear I’m not doing and then change my mind about at the last minute…

I had a chance recently to conduct the first-ever interview with Fortuna, the cloaked individual behind the project. We spent a couple of days going back-and-forth over a Google Doc while she was snowed in up in Seattle, and I think I managed to gain a bit of insight into both the concepts and motivation behind the project and who she is a musician. So if you’ve not yet heard The Ever-Turning Wheel…don’t give it a listen while you read the interview. Listen to it first, because it deserves your undivided attention, and when you’re finished go snag one of the handful of tapes currently remaining from our old friends at Fólkvangr Records. Then check out my interview with Fortuna below…

Indy Metal Vault: So for starters, thank you for the interview. I’m not exaggerating in the least when I say that I was completely enchanted by The Ever-Turning Wheel about two minutes after hitting play, and I find myself becoming even further enraptured by it every time I put it on. There are a lot of things I want to ask about the record, but before I get to any of them…as near as I can tell, there’s no real information about Mors Certa anywhere online – or, at the very least, there are no interviews. Assuming you’re not one of those goddess figures in who just came strolling out of the water one day fully formed, are you willing to talk a bit about the history of the project? What’s your musical background? Is Mors Certa your first recording project, or did you do other demos or other play in other bands prior to The Ever-Turning Wheel?

Fortuna: Thank you for having me and for the kind words. I do have somewhat of a musical background. I began taking piano lessons when I was about 7 and picked up the guitar when I was 12. I was a drummer in concert band in middle school as well. In high school, I started a band with a friend and since then have had several other musical ventures. I’ve got a band here in Seattle that is working on music and getting some shows booked. I also went to school for sound engineering, which has helped immensely in my recording process.

IMV: Sound engineering? That certainly explains a thing or two. I wasn’t going to get to this topic until later, but since you’ve given me a natural segue here – one of my first thoughts when listening to the album was ‘holy shit, this is ambitious for a debut.’ There’s something very episodic about your songwriting, for lack of a better way of phrasing it. The two tracks that make up The Ever-Turning Wheel really unfold more like novellas than songs in that they’re made up of discrete, interlocking sections instead of repeated riffs or motifs. How much did that engineering background play into your writing process? Is the album a pastiche created in the studio, or did you essentially compose the tracks in the form in which they appear?

F: I actually don’t think the engineering background was influential in my writing process as much as it was in my recording process. It’s definitely helpful to know how to use the software I’m using and how to make sure every part of a track sits well in a mix, but, in my mind, that part of it is very separate from the writing. The writing process for me tends to be very organic. I start by playing with melodies and sort of let the song lead me from there. So the album became this, as you said, episodic piece. Along with that though, I began writing this album with a fiction in mind. There’s a story behind it, so there was also the goal of illustrating a narrative.

IMV: With a setup like that, I feel obligated to ask the obvious follow-up. I got the sense while listening to it that there’s a narrative element to The Ever-Turning Wheel. At first, I thought the title could be a reference to Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series. However, the combination of Silvana Massa’s amazing cover art and the fact that both song titles could be references to the Major Arcana of the tarot – “Rota Fortunae” translates as Wheel of Fortune, and then there’s The Moon – has me wondering if that’s somehow indicative of the narrative. Are you willing to unpack the story at all?

F: I wasn’t thinking of the tarot when brainstorming the concept for the album, but I can definitely see how you would draw those conclusions. I was actually doing research on the culture surrounding death in the Middle Ages, which I knew was something I was interested in exploring musically and came across the wheel of fortune, or rota fortunae. It was a very popular topic in medieval art and it was supposed to illustrate the transience of life, the inevitability of death, and fate. Those at the top of the wheel eventually end up at the bottom, regardless of their status in life. I immediately connected to it and built the fiction behind the album around it. It’s very centered around fate in general. I’ve got plans to delve more into the story at some point, hopefully sooner rather than later, so that’s where I’ll leave things now.

IMV: Is that fascination with Medieval death culture where you got the name Mors Certa? If I’m not mistaken, it comes from the phrase mors certa, hora incerta, which roughly translates from the Latin as ‘death is certain, its hour is not.’ Which came first, the name or the theme?  

F: It is where I got the name, and it was the theme that inspired it. In fact, it was that very same Latin phrase.

IMV: Is there a known origin for that phrase? The Googles let me down on finding a source for it. And since research has come up in the last couple of responses, let me ask you about the poems you incorporate in each track. I’ve gone a round or few with The Canterbury Tales, and I took a Chaucer class in grad school; however, that is the extent of my flirtation with Medievalism, and I’d assume the average IMV reader is even less familiar with anonymous Middle English texts. Can you talk a bit about the Findern Manuscripts and the Carmina Burana? Where did you first encounter them? What in particular drew you to them?

F: I’m not sure of the origin for the phrase. I’m wondering if anyone is certain about that, or if it’s just one of those old sayings that has been passed down over the years.

English Literature was my favorite class in college, and I actually came across the Findern Manuscript while writing a paper on what can be learned about the role of women in the Middle Ages from the literature of that time. It caught my attention because of its uniqueness. It’s not a literary investment in the traditional sense, but rather a compilation of sorts, collected by a wealthy family, the Findern family, over a period of time. It served as a kind of greatest hits, with works by Chaucer and other writers in his circle, as well as original poems, and even household notes such as a butcher’s bill thrown in for good measure. There is evidence that suggests women wrote many of the poems, thus the relevance to the paper I was writing. I found the poems to be beautiful and just really connected to them.

I came across the Carmina Burana when researching for the album. A miniature of the rota fortunae was used as the cover for the manuscript, which is a collection of poems and texts written by mostly students of the clergy. Many of the pieces found in it are satirical in nature. I thought “O Fortuna” fit quite nicely with the theme of the album.

IMV: I’m glad you’ve introduced this topic, because I wanted to get around to it eventually but wasn’t quite sure how to navigate our way there. I’m still not completely sure, so this question may take a minute to develop…

Some sources have said that only about 1% of the female population was literate – for the sake of contrast, the same sources say that number was 10% for men. Thus why it’s remarkable that a number of the poems in the Findern Manuscript were likely written by women, but completely unsurprising that it was compiled by a wealthy family. For the most part, it was either nuns or women from wealthy families who were literate, and it seems unlikely that nuns would have written  ‘secular love literature,’ as I’ve seen the Findern Manuscript described. 

I could very easily use ‘secular love’ as a springboard into ‘courtly love’ and go on a long digression about the ways in which the roles of women in the Middle Ages varied greatly depending on class, but I won’t. Instead, I want to go back to the concept of rota fortunae.

You already mentioned that the cover of The Ever-Turning Wheel was inspired by rota fortunae, but I notice that there’s only one woman on the wheel – one clearly from a noble family, given how she’s dressed – and she’s seated at the top. I suppose that could be a nod to these lines from  “A Medieval Love Poem: Fortune’s Wheel,” which you incorporate into “Rota Fortunae (Fortune, To None A Faithful Friend):

Then turne thy whele and be my frende again,
And sende me joy where I am nowe in pain.

 However, I can’t help but wonder if there’s more significance to it than that – if that research into the role of women in the Middle Ages somehow ties into the idea of fate that drives the album’s narrative? The Moon does play a huge role in the divine feminine as well…

F: There is more significance to it, and it goes back to the fiction that the album is narrating that I mentioned earlier. I don’t want to say too much, but I will say that the woman on the cover is the main character of this story. She is, in fact, from a noble family, and, due to a series of unfortunate events, she doesn’t stay at the top of the wheel for long. These events start her on a path very different than what she had planned, or rather, what had been planned for her, from birth.

With this narrative, I’m not trying to say, “See, this is what happens when you’re privileged. You’ll eventually get yours.” I’m more trying to illustrate just how small the amount of control that we as people actually have. We are all sort of caught in a current or the cogs in a wheel, so to speak. Things can happen that completely alter the course of our lives, and that doesn’t even necessarily have to be because of choices we make. This character was headed in one direction, a direction which was chosen for her based on status–and, yes, in some ways based on the fact that she is a woman–and then, because of events out of her control and the malicious actions of other people (something I won’t go into just yet), she is thrown in an entirely new direction. My research into the role of women in the Middle Ages definitely influenced how I approached the creation of this character and her story. How would her femininity have affected her fate? It’s something that was very interesting to think about.

IMV: Okay…you’ve been leaving me with such perfect segues here it’s like you know exactly where I’m hoping to go next. I very, very rarely ask gender-related questions because…well, because a lot of reasons actually. It’s primarily because no matter how well-intentioned the questions may be, I think most of them come off sounding like ‘so…you have a uterus and you play an instrument – how exactly does that work?’ However, I saw a totally dismissive reaction to a post about Mors Certa in one of the Dungeon Synth groups on Facebook a week or so ago that really fucking irked me because my first thought was ‘dude wouldn’t have said that if Mors Certa were a male.’ Granted, that could just be my own cynicism coming through, but it did get me thinking – I can’ think of more than two or three female DS artists. Is Dungeon Synth really that much of a boy’s club? Are there any female artists you can look to for advice, or are you something of a trailblazer? Or do you find that DS artists and fans don’t really give a shit that you’re female?

F: I think I know which reaction from the group you’re talking about, and that was my first thought as well. I’m not going to pretend to know the intentions behind those comments, but I do wonder if their justification for saying that was influenced by the fact that I’m a woman. I don’t like to dwell on it too much because, to me, my femininity doesn’t define my music, and also because, by and large, the Facebook groups and the DS community in general have been amazingly supportive. I haven’t felt like an outsider and I’ve met some great people. I think that most DS fans could care less that I’m female and it’s the music that matters. As for your question about other female artists, it’s really cool to see artists like Huldur and Chloe Bray of Sojourner doing their thing and being absolutely incredible at what they do. And we were privileged enough to get Morrowdim’s beautiful DS album Wandering Songs before we lost her.

IMV: You are rather visible on social media, though – at least in the DS groups. I’m friendly with a number of musicians who aren’t anywhere nearly as visible as you are, and I hear stories from them way too often about guys who DM them and ask about their bands but have…let’s call them ‘ulterior motives.’ One in particular sends those dudes a 9-minute song so that when they message back two minutes later like they listened to the whole thing and start trying to get flirty, she can be like ‘how fucking dumb do you think I am?’ Have you had to deal with anything like that yet?

F: Well, there was one incident of someone messaging me on Facebook the day I announced the release of the album asking about gear, when what he really wanted were pictures of my feet…

IMV: That does seem fairly innocuous compared to some of the stories I’ve heard, but it’s still not cool at all. Since Dungeon Synth is such a male-dominated genre, I can’t help but be curious: as a musician, what drew you to DS in the first place? I’ve been trying to pick out your influences, and they seem to be all over the map. I even think I hear some 70s prog in there – if you weren’t raised on ELP, I’ll be stunned.

F: I grew up listening to classical music and soundtracks. The music is usually the first thing I notice when watching a movie or playing a video game. Later on, around middle school, I got into other types of music. First, it was bands that my brother showed me, like My Chemical Romance and Coheed and Cambria. That kind of music was really popular and accessible at the time and the narrative nature of some of those albums, particularly Coheed, really appealed to me. I was very interested in the lore behind it. And perhaps that’s why there are some prog sounding moments in the album?

The darker aspects of these bands led me to explore more extreme forms of music, such as black metal and its subgenres. The textures and atmospheres often found in metal are what really drew me to it. I definitely look for that feeling of escape in the things I listen to. I’ll listen to anything if it moves me in some way. I also think DS allows me to blend my love for music with the love I have for good storytelling.

IMV: Since you mentoned Chloe Bray – who I’ve actually had the pleasure of interviewing, along with the rest of Sojourner – The Ever-Turning Wheel is being released by Fólkvangr Records, who also put out both of Sojourner’s albums. How did you end up getting together with Mark for its release?

F: I actually found Fólkvangr through Sojourner. Both of their albums are stellar, and I still listen to them pretty regularly. I’m also pretty enamored with another DS project Fólkvangr released, Sanguine Moon. That led me to check out the rest of the artists on the roster. Mark just puts out quality releases. So when I was thinking about whom to approach for a cassette release, Fólkvangr naturally came to mind. It’s been such a great experience working with Mark. He’s asked for input and kept me in the loop every step of the way, which I appreciate immensely. And it’s evident he believes in the artists he works with.

IMV: Okay…we’ve covered a fair amount of territory here, but thus far we’ve done so mostly in broad strokes. I want to circle back around to your songwriting. Since it’s not a studio pastiche as I’d guessed, how did the two songs on The Ever-Turning Wheel come together? They’re each 16+ minutes long, I’ve already mentioned how they’re more episodic than linear in structure, and there truly is a clear narrative arc to both. You described your process as ‘organic’ a bit earlier – did you do any pre-planning at all in terms of structure before you started to compose? How long did the writing take for each?

F: Aside from the ideas behind the concept and research into that, I didn’t do much pre-planning. As a kid, I was always getting into trouble with my English teachers because I never did the pre-writing assignments. I always just jumped straight into the writing process. Old habits die hard, I guess. It took me about two weeks to do the actual composing, but the concept was something I had been thinking about for several weeks before that.

IMV: So then is The Ever-Turning Wheel basically both the first and the final draft of the album, so to speak? Or was there some revision as you went along?

F: You could say that, yes. There wasn’t much revision in the actual composition of the parts, but I did the mixing as I went along and went back and touched that up a bit before I considered the tracks done. I think something that made this approach easier was focusing on the pieces of each track individually and asking myself what I wanted to narrate with that specific part. What could be added here to represent this part of the story, and so on. I also focused on the different atmospheres I wanted to create with each part.

IMV: So you basically wrote it in your DAW as you were recording it? I would never have guessed that. What is your setup like, by the way? Do you prefer to keep it simple, or are you a gear nerd?

F: I’ve never really been much of a gear nerd, to be honest. I’ve always preferred the creative aspects of songwriting over the technical aspects. That isn’t to say you can’t be creative with gear. I know a lot of artists whose songwriting is really influenced by the gear they use, and that’s awesome. Part of me wishes I were more interested in that side of things. It would have made audio engineering classes much more enjoyable. But no, I prefer to keep it simple.

IMV: Okay…I think I’m getting close to the end of what I want to ask about here. I’ve already mentioned Silvana Massa’s incredible art for The Ever-Turning Wheel – how did that come about? Did you end up giving her much direction in terms of what you were looking for?

F: Silvana is amazing! She does really incredible work. She’s done the artwork for several other DS releases, and that’s how I first came across her art. I messaged her about doing the album cover and sent her the first track to see if it was something she’d be interested in doing. I just gave her the bare bones of the story and a couple of reference pictures of the rota fortunae and let her work her magic. I love what she came up with.

IMV: So what’s next for you, either with Mors Certa or your other musical endeavors? You mentioned having put a band together a few questions back.

F: I just moved to Seattle a few months ago and one of my goals in coming here was to find people to play music with. I managed to do that and we’ve been practicing, preparing to book some shows around here hopefully soon. We haven’t released anything yet, but I plan to when it feels like the time is right. As for Mors Certa, I’ve got a bunch of stuff in the works. I’m currently working on a track for a tarot-inspired compilation coming out on your label [Akashic Envoy Records]. And I’m actually done with the music for the next Mors Certa release. There are some logistical things that need to be finished before I let it out into the world, but it’ll happen at some point. Hopefully sooner rather than later.

IMV: Thanks for being willing to take the time to answer a few questions. I like to leave the final word to the artists – anything else you want to add?

F: Thank you again for the interest in an interview. I’d just like to say a huge thank you to everyone who has supported me thus far by picking up a tape from Fólkvangr, getting the album digitally, or listening to it on Bandcamp. It really means the world. I’m grateful to be a part of such a creative community. Here’s to the future of DS. I can’t wait to see and hear what the future has in store.

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