Canter Semper’s Sarah Adams discusses choir singing, ‘vintage gospel’ and favourite Manchester artists

Whether performing as a duo, quartet or full band with choral backing, Canter Semper’s grasp of harmony and heartfelt song-craft always shines through. Sarah Adams and Emma C began working together in 2012 and this month launch their new single, No one’s praise, with a live show at Band on the Wall on 18th January. Supported by Ellysse Mason and Chloe Jones, Canter Semper’s set sees the women of Chorlton Ladies and The NQ Singing Group joining them on stage, bringing warmth and grandeur to the style they’ve dubbed vintage gospel; a soul, roots music and pop hybrid steeped in the joys of communal creativity. Ahead of the show, we caught up with Sarah to discuss the formation of Canter Semper, he work with the aforementioned vocal groups and how the show will provide a platform for women in Greater Manchester music.

Prior to your formation in 2012, had you been involved in other musical projects, written songs or studied music, or was the point at which you formed your musical awakening?

Sarah Adams: ‘Emma and I both joined a choir together (Manchester inspirational voices) which is where we realised our shared love of music and singing. We had both always sung and Emma had a lot more experience than me, so I took part in the choir’s Vocal Development Programme to get myself started. After that we literally started at point zero; I began relearning the piano, we learned covers to perform at open mics and we worked our way up slowly but surely. It’s been a very organic process and has taken time for us to hone our sound.’

You tracked recently-released song The Light at SSR in Manchester, achieving a warm and natural-sounding recording. What did you have in mind in terms of sound, arrangement and inspiration when you went to record the track? Did anything change in the spur of the moment, with the resources you had available to you?

SA: ‘Our wonderful percussionist Luigi is studying at SSR and for part of his project had to record on an upright piano, so I jumped at the chance to be able to record on a real piano rather than my keyboard. We think it really adds to the vintage gospel sound that we strive for. Our guitarist and violinist (Jack March + Izzy Baker) also feature on the recording, they are fantastic to work with in their thoughtful and intuitive approach to our music. To be honest, Emma and I aren’t huge fans of recording, we much prefer performing live so each recording experience we try to try new things, experiment with our vocals and this time was no different; we recorded together (as we would live) in the booth which really helped us to create the vibe we wanted and read each other’s dynamics etc.’

You work with The NQ Singing Group, who’ll be joining you for the single launch at Band on the Wall. For those who aren’t aware, can you explain what they and Chorlton Ladies do, how you came to work with them and how it feels to perform your songs with a chorus of voices behind you?

SA: ‘I run Chorlton Ladies and The NQ Singing Group, I started working with them a few years after we had started the band. To begin with, I hadn’t really envisaged merging the two elements of my career, but it has worked fantastically. The choirs are all female singing groups, there is no audition to join and people are simply coming together to sing for pleasure. We usually work on new arrangements of current songs but I think they also really enjoy working on our original music. It has a different feel. Again, there’s something organic about this process too. When we have new song ideas, I’ll try them out with the ladies and it gives them a whole new sound sometimes or spurs a new direction to take a song in. It’s amazing performing with them; not just to have that soulful choir sound behind us but also to see women who come along to a weekly choir push themselves to perform in a professional space at venues such as Deaf Institute and Club Academy.’

In addition to collaborating with artists like cellist Phoebe Gabriella Pope, violin player Isabella Baker and poet Steph Lonsdale, you’ve also done acapella covers of songs by various women in music for your social media followers. How important is it for the group to emphasise women’s roles in music and to put together a show directed predominantly by female creatives?

SA: ‘Emma and I are both particularly inspired by certain female artists such as Florence Welch, Lianne La Havas, Joy Williams, Rioghnach Connolly and Wallis Bird. These strong, fierce songwriters/performers have definitely influenced our approach to our music. Having often been put on the bill with all male bands (who have sometimes not been appropriate to our style of music either!) it is important to us that we, as women in the music industry, are represented. I don’t want to sound disgruntled, there are a lot of male performers that we love too but it is sometimes rare in our experience to have a predominantly female line up at a gig. We really wanted this for our single launch hence involving the excellent Chloe Jones and Ellysse Mason.’

One of the hallmarks of the Canter Semper sound is your dynamic harmonies. What is the key to a strong harmony arrangement and are there any classic artists whose work opened the world of vocal harmony up to you in a lasting way?

SA: ‘With our harmonies, sometimes it’ll be simple and we’ll find it straight away and at other times we’ll try out various ideas for weeks until we’re happy with the dynamic. We’re very focussed in rehearsal, we’ll drill through things so that they are slick and tight before performance. I think both Emma and I’s experience of singing in a choir/me running one now, has definitely helped shape the way we work with harmony too. We’re both big fans of a huge gospel sound, so love working with our backing singers to create a smaller, acoustic version of that sound – if that makes sense?! We recently used vintage gospel in an interview to describe our sound and seem to have decided that’s the sound we want to hone!’

Manchester is a city brimful with talented artists, which local artists have you been enjoying during the past twelve months?

SA: ‘We have seen both Chloe and Ellysse live in the past year, hence wanting them to perform at our single launch. They both have a beautiful intimacy to their sound and performance style, we’re all about that! We are also massive fans of the Breath’s Rioghnach Connolly – we saw them in November at The Deaf Institute and it was phenomenal. Not only were her vocals flawless but her presence as a performer was fantastic to see.’