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Illudium Founder Shantel Amundson Discusses New Album, "From Ash To Womb," How California Shapes Her Music And Recording An Album While Battling COVID-19

When one thinks of California, images of sunshine, surfing and celebrities immediately spring to mind. But this sprawling area of the United States has much more to it than the Hollywood cliches. It contains some of the most lush forestry in the country, the staggering height of Mount Whitney, vast lakes and of course, the Mojave desert, which all come together to create a contiously interesting landscape and climates. Music has always been a big part of California's history too, be it the surf rock of the Beach Boys or the Bay Area thrash metal scene, but perhaps no one has captured the spirit and soul of the state more genuinely than Illudium.

Beginning life in 2011 as a solo project of Shantel Amundson, Illudium released its first album, "Septem" in 2016 and now, five years later, the world is being treated to a second helping from the Santa Cruz native. This new album, "Ash Of The Womb," encapsulates the true spirit of California, from its known beauty to its turbulent relationship with mother nature and is set to be released through Prophecy Productions on October 15th. To find out more about the album, we caught up with Shantel Amundson and discussed everything from the title to how she recorded her vocals while battling the COVID-19 virus to the deep seated love and pride she takes in California. You can watch the interview in full below.

Diamond Oz: The new album, "Ash Of The Womb" is out on the 15th of October. What can you tell me about the title? It’s a very interesting title, very dark and evocative. For you, what does the album title mean?

Shantel Amundson: You know, it’s hard for me to go into great depth about it because it is a very personal title, in terms of the choice. The elements of the album is something that I feel people can relate to without me having to go into my own personal depth as to what it means to me. But it’s basically meshing together these two elements that people don’t often relate to one another, which is death and birth and also, death within birth. There’s some other environmental aspects that are going along with the album thematically, but that’s basically the choice of the title for me personally, embodying that idea.

Oz: Is it important to you to have that mystery when it comes to your album titles and lyrics?

Shantel: Yes, it is. For the time being, yeah. It’s just a personal decision. I think that overall this album has a lot to do with the personal and collective experience, for me, of just living in California for the past four years and everything that’s happening, on all levels, with the world right now.

Oz: Interesting. How does "Ash Of The Womb" differ from "Septem"?

Shantel: "Septem" to me is such a raw album. I was so young when I wrote it. What I tried to do with this album was kind of explore deeper two opposing elements of harshness and rawness, in production as well, with softness and more intimate, ambient dynamics within our music. "Septem" is just all me, unabashedly raw as a songwriter and this album has a different approach, in terms of balancing those extremes.

Oz: That definitely shines through on the songs I’ve heard so far, namely the music videos, "Soma Sema" and "Sempervirens." They’re very stark, a little bit bleak but at the same time, very beautiful. The one that stood out to me was "Soma Sema," where you’re out by the coast with the rolling water. Were these videos quite easy to shoot?

Shantel: No, actually! I guess you could say that it was a little difficult in a remote sense to actually film these videos. At the time, we were outside and still socially distancing! It was really interesting. I had to travel pretty far for it, but it’s my favourite trip, or my favourite drive in the whole world, the Pacific coast. That whole stretch of land is so dear to me, as I was raised along the coast, so it was a really rewarding video to film and also it was lovely to just dip into the ocean at the end.

Oz: And do you feel that the end results accurately represent the music?

Shantel: Yeah! That’s the thing, to me, I haven’t been able to execute, or translate an idea into this exact form of what an album is in terms of production and everything that goes along with it. There’s no closure to it and you’re really just left with what you’ve created. So in that sense, especially with the videos too, there’s some parallels that are actually disturbing on some levels, like some of the shots that were used were filmed closer to Santa Cruz county which this season, fires just decimated. There’s shots where there’s forests behind me and now they’re gone. I’ve re-visited the areas and the trees are all burnt down and with the whole concept of the album and everything, at the time we did the shots prior to the season of the Complex fires, it’s just really interesting that that element was added into the video.

Oz: That must be quite hard hitting. Obviously, California’s no stranger to wildfires, which doesn’t make it any easier when they happen, but did that history of wildfires factor into that death and nature parallel?

Shantel: Yeah. Another thing too, amidst everything that’s happened which is so harrowing and heavy for us to process is that, like you said, we’re no strangers and the whole ecological history of California has adapted alongside fire and that part is at the forefront of this too. That beautiful element, which is supposed to be kind of inspiring, thematically, as well.

Oz: I think that also seeps through into the album artwork as well. Again, the album art is stark but it’s not bare. It’s got just enough that you can read into it to almost see anything you want, even though it’s a fairly defined image. How satisfied are you with the artwork itself and is this an accurate portrayal of the music?

Shantel: Oh, a hundred per cent. It was honestly a blessing to connect with Daniel (Erik Hart.) I feel like the work that they did was exactly what I was looking for to capture that time and that youthful energy and to be able to integrate that to my home, which has elements of childhood refuge and inspiring whatever is left when one goes through the fire of really bleak times. Whatever it’s an environmental fire or on a personal level. So it was really an honour to work with them and also being able to contribute some of my own personal photography to the album, which I haven’t really spoken too much about, but there’s some really personal pieces that I contributed and I think it also helped that contrast to lessen the darker elements.

Oz: You mentioned as well that when you were doing the video, you had to be distanced and this kind of thing. How was the recording process for the album? Was it a case of recording at home?

Shantel: Basically, we were fortunate in the sense that most of the album was recorded at the time the pandemic started. Something which I haven’t really disclosed too much is that I had COVID while I was doing a lot of the vocal takes on this album. This was like first wave too, right around the time of the lockdown and everything, so I was in really really bad condition so I just had to finish recording and what’s left is what’s left, which is another element of embracing what “Ash Of The Womb” ended up being, because I really didn’t have control over that. Or being able to go back re-record takes and stuff.

To me, it’s blemished and it’s imperfect. In that sense it’s so perfect for what it is but the pandemic definitely put a wrench into the plans and it’s the same for a lot of artists who were recording their albums or preparing to release them. It ended up being what it was and we had to do the whole distancing thing too for the mixing and mastering process obviously, which is a little easier but I was fortunate enough to run into the engineer, Jack Shirley, recently and thank him. It’s been an interesting process!

Oz: I think that’s something you can hold over other bands though. Next time you hear a band complain about how hard it was making an album because they were so bored, you can just say, "Oh yeah? Ever recorded an album with COVID?"

Shantel: Right, yeah! It’s hard though because I can hear it in certain areas but it ended up being what it was. The next album will be very different, hopefully.

Oz: Something that catches the eye, or stands out, is that as we’ve said this music is quite bleak, though not depressing. But you’re very proudly from California and people don’t usually associate California with this kind of music. Maybe Oregon, but no California.

Shantel: (laughs) Sorry I’m withholding my laughter… No comment! California, without having to go too much into it, is a really fascinating state. One that I am very proud to come from. It’s the type of thing where people who aren’t from here kind of joke about maybe seeing me in L.A. and I’m like, “That’s hundreds and hundreds of miles.” When I was in Europe, you could just drive for a few hours and you’re in a different country. With California, even to drive to the Pacific northwest, which I’ve been involved in that community over the last ten years as a performer, is like a thirteen hour drive. These communities are very far apart geographically but very integrated as communities.

But to answer your question, speaking musically and also environmentally, the Bay Area has a long history of synthesizing these elements of what comes along with living in the territory of living in an urban environment and how that overlaps into their sound. Bands like Neurosis, Worm Ouroboros and Amber Asylum, bands like that kind of encapsulate that sound to me. It’s a very different environment than you’d imagine. I guess in terms of incorporating my love for the natural environment into our sound, California is just such a fascinating region to me because there’s a lot of fighting for survival and there’s some really lush areas.

It’s something I hold very dear. It’s very different than up north, as you go up the coast into Oregon and the Pacific northwest. But yeah, like the Sierra Madres and Santa Cruz where I grew up, amongst coastal redwoods and the ocean and it really ties into my creation and where I go to find respite and inspiration. I’m certainly not alone in the music community when it comes to that. I feel like that’s a common element.

Oz: Absolutely. Like you say, for people who aren’t familiar with California, they don’t realise how huge the state is. Even when it comes to the election for example, it has fifty five electoral college votes. You don’t get that many if you’re a small area!

Shantel: Yeah, it has a very complex history in terms of everything that’s going on there but another thing that I think is really interesting is that as a Californian, the perception of distance is a little warped. I have family in San Diego, I have deep roots there. I live in Northern California and have a deep music family in the Pacific northwest and it’s worth travelling hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles to be in these environments that have impacted my life.

Oz: Just finally, now that things are starting to open up, very slowly, what plans have you got to promote the album and Illudium as a whole?

Shantel: I’d have to say that historically speaking, we’ve been pretty selective about performances. In some ways I consider myself to be kind of a recluse (laughs.) I have been an active performer for many years in other projects and with Illudium it’s something that I like to choose selective performances. We do have the intention of touring on this album, although it’s going to have to wait a little bit but we have some special things planned.

Right now our priority is really the international festival circuit. I’m going to be honest, with my years of touring, especially in the United States, because of how huge it is, it can be a little pointless to do a month-long run in some ways. So, we’ll be doing some quick jaunts along the West Coast and possibly on the East Coast next year but my priority, like I said, is moreso selective stuff internationally.

Diamond Oz's avatar

Ollie Hynes has been a writer for Metal Underground.com since 2007 and a metal fan since 2001, going as far as to travel to other countries and continents for metal gigs.

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