Interview by Demitri Levantis
Arianna Mahsayeh is a classically trained cellist who has a strong background in the UK extreme metal scene. Her positions have included guest work with UK melodic death outfit Countless Skies, performing with Resin on Bloodstock’s Sophie stage, and a collaboration with members of UK doom trio Bong. Arianna is currently in the acoustic Moonsorrow/Pagan metal cover project Stonebearer, and has been recording for the dark atmospheric group Darkher, with live performances in the future; all of which is being undertaken whilst studying for a PhD in Astrophysics.
I caught up with Arianna to discuss what she has planned for the near future and to find out how it feels to be a female metal musician today.
Thanks so much for giving us your time, Arianna. Let’s begin with what got you into metal, what were the first bands you enjoyed?
Thank you for inviting me! Ooh, way back when I was 6 years old, my cousin introduced me to H.I.M., and a few other Finnish metal bands, which I absolutely fell in love with. I started listening to Goth rock as well, Siouxsie and the Banshees is a particular favourite of mine. When I was a bit older and music streaming became a thing, I discovered symphonic metal, Nightwish, Epica, Within Temptation especially, and from there I branched out into melodic death metal, folk metal, and then found a home in black metal. My first metal gig was seeing Turisas play in London!
When did you begin playing the cello, and do you play other instruments?
I began playing the cello when I was 7, and I’ve been singing since a young age as well. I used to play a fair bit of piano and organ, and I’ve dabbled with other instruments, but I focus on my cello now.
At what age did you decide you wanted to be a musician?
Music has almost always been a part of my life, and so has an interest in natural sciences. Playing solo cello, in orchestras and in string quartets has always been something that I’ve done alongside my studies, so it was natural that I’d simply continue doing both!
Is music your main interest, or do you have other passions even bigger?
Music and Astrophysics are my two passions in life, and I don’t think I’d be able to do one without the other.
What has being in bands taught you about life as a musician, is it everything you expected?
One thing I have learnt about being in bands is that you can’t “expect” anything! You’ll always be surprised by what’s thrown at you, both the good times and the bad times, and you need to be braced for both. Life as a musician heavily depends on the people you’re working with, and people can be incredibly unpredictable (or painfully predictable). I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by friends in the industry who have shared their experiences with me and given me advice, which has definitely helped me navigate.
Do you prefer being a permanent member of a band or a session musician?
Why not both? When you’re working with like-minded people, and you’re passionate about the music you’re making, being in a permanent band feels great. Being able to build deep musical relationships with people is a beautiful thing! But I also love being a session and guest musician, as it’s given me the opportunity to experience lots of new and exciting things, try different musical styles, and work with a wide variety of amazing people.
What do you make, overall, of the way women are perceived in metal today?
Overall, it’s a very mixed bag. I’ve seen women being objectified and dismissed, both as musicians and as fans, and I’ve seen the complete opposite as well. It’s difficult to pin down particular problem areas of the scene because misogyny takes a lot of forms.
What is your opinion on the term ‘female-fronted’ when describing a metal band?
Oh, I despise it. It’s hardly a good descriptor when you have female vocalists with vocal styles as wildly different as Simone Simons of Epica and Onielar of Darkened Nocturn Slaughtercult, let alone the overall genres of “female-fronted” bands varying drastically.
Have you ever felt any difficulties or faced any obstacles being a woman in the metal scene including being of a certain ethnic background?
Yes, I’ve been in situations where I’ve felt objectified and disrespected as a female musician, but thankfully I haven’t faced any racism. I recently grew my thick Persian unibrow back in and people seem to really dig it *shrugs*
Who do you think are the most influential women in metal today?
All the wives and girlfriends of musicians who work tirelessly to support their partners’ dreams and don’t ask for anything in return – spending tours sat behind merch tables, enthusiastic promotion, lugging around gear, providing transport, fetching coffee and food, and having to put up with the bullshit groupie stigma and second-class citizenship of being “the girlfriend”.
What made you decide to fuse classical music with metal?
To be honest, I don’t think I do fuse classical music with metal. The cello is my instrument, and just because people are used to hearing it in a classical setting, doesn’t mean that everything played on it is classical. The majority of what I play with metal bands isn’t classical at all! The possibilities are limitless with such a versatile instrument and I’m so glad that I get to explore these.
Out of all the gigs you’ve played, which one(s) do you remember most and do you have any fun anecdotes from them?
Playing with Resin on the Sophie Stage at Bloodstock Open Air 2019 is probably the biggest rush I’ve had on stage. I had the pleasure of performing with fellow string musicians Nick Wragg (Eoten/Iron SeaWolf/Stonebearer), David Denyer (Modern Woman), and Resin’s own Emma Bennett, and the band as a whole was such a joy to work with! The whole experience was quite something, especially Nick and I have been going to the festival as fans for the best part of a decade, so to be casually practising scales backstage in the Sophie tent, being whisked off to the VIP band area for interviews, realising that Taake were the last band to perform on the stage before us… It was awesome!
Performing with Stonebearer is always special. At Warhorns last year we had such a great crowd, people sat down and swayed, and tears were flowing! I remember making a comment earlier in the day that it was jarring to be playing in a “normal” gig venue with Stonebearer, and that I wished we had more trees around us. At the beginning of our set, some of our friends surprised us by pulling out potted herbs they’d bought from the shop up the road and filling the front of the stage with them! It was so thoughtful <3
My first metal gig was with the first black metal band I was a member of, Hex Morbidity. I never got nervous playing classical music on stage, but this felt so different! I even insisted on sitting on the side of the stage I’d usually be on in an orchestra as that’s where I felt most comfortable. Of course, as soon as we started playing, it all fell into place, and I just enjoyed the music.
Are there any bands you follow religiously, like always make sure you capture a show every time they’re in town?
I wouldn’t say so! I love going to gigs and experiencing new bands live. Luckily with bigger bands, London is on their tour-route almost every other year, so it’s not the end of the world if I miss a gig here and there. If a smaller band is playing over here who don’t necessarily tour in the UK often, I will make quite an effort to go through. But I wouldn’t say that it’s for any bands in particular. Currently, at the top of my list of “bands I haven’t seen yet but want to see”: Cult of Fire, Mortiis (I’ve always been busy for his gigs!), King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard, Elder, Dan Terminus, and Author & Punisher.
If you could play with any band who would it be with and why?
Can I name a few? Moonsorrow… Because I already know all their songs. But seriously, their music is very dear to me, it’s so emotive, it makes me feel powerful and connected with something deeper. If Ulver were to do a black metal trilogie gig, I’d be ecstatic if I could join. Those albums are everything black metal should be, raw and beautiful. It’s also a dream of mine to play in Epica’s orchestra, they are another favourite of mine, and the way that they use the orchestra in their music is always exciting. I would say the same to playing in an orchestra with Dimmu Borgir and SepticFlesh!
Are there any negative assumptions from the outside world regarding metal, that you’d like to see changed?
Oh, you know, the usual “metal is just angry noise”. Sometimes it can be angry noise with a cello.
How has COVID-19 affected you professionally and do you have any plans on the horizon for this or next year?
It has indeed, but some effects have been positive. It was upsetting that our Darkher show supporting Faun at Union Chapel couldn’t go ahead, but it has been postponed, so it will happen eventually! The same goes for Call of the Wild festival with Resin, it’ll happen when it can. Lockdown has meant that I’ve been able to get a lot of recording done from home though, which ties into plans and releases for next year! I’ve recorded the cello tracks for Darkher’s second album, and will be doing some tour dates as and when they are confirmed. I’ve also been working with pirate metal band Iron SeaWolf for some upcoming releases! I have some other projects in the works as well, you’ll hear more about them soon, I hope.
How did it feel getting to be featured on the new Countless Skies album? Do you approach bands or do they find you?
I’m thrilled to be part of the new Countless Skies album, it’s absolutely beautiful! Finally getting to listen to the tracks I recorded for, and the album as a whole, made me very proud. I was introduced to them through the scene, we became friends, and they asked me to record for their second album! It’s been a mixture of both, and all the areas in between. Every experience is a little different!
What do you enjoy most about being a musician? Is there anything in the industry you’d like to change?
The thing I enjoy most about being a musician is the connections you make with people through music. Performing with others can be an incredible experience when there’s musical chemistry. Whether I’m playing classical music, powerful black metal, atmospheric drones, or pirate jigs, it’s the people you’re playing with that make it special. I would like to see a change in the way we deal with unacceptable behaviour, manipulators, and abusers. Whilst the scene seems openly respectful and protective of its members, there is still so much that needs to be done about the tolerance of misogynistic behaviour and people generally using their power to abuse their peers. It’s everyone’s responsibility to make our scene a safe and positive space, so the more we act against unacceptable behaviour, the easier it will be to call people out for it, and people will feel safer in speaking out about their experiences.
You’re studying for a PhD in astrophysics; this must take up most of your time? How does it affect being in a band, are your band members supportive?
It does! A PhD is a full-time job, but my PhD supervisor is incredibly supportive of my musical career, which enables me to do one alongside the other. All of my current band members and musical colleagues are incredibly supportive of my academic career as well. I feel very lucky! The two are yet to clash too significantly though, so I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it.
What do you like to do in your spare time when not making music, do you have any hobbies?
I love travelling and exploring nature. Luckily, being a musician gives me a lot of reasons to travel, and the scene connects you with people from all over. So I get to have big road trips, see lots of friends, and discover new places. I have plenty of other things that I enjoy and spend a lot of time on, such as cooking, rock climbing, gaming, and watching copious amounts of anime.
Finally, is there anything you’d like to add or say to our readers?
Zankoku na tenshi no you ni, shounen yo shinwa ni nare!
Thank you so much for joining us, I wish you all the best for the future.
Check out Arianna’s work with Stonebearer and Countless Skies here: