San Fermin Unpack the Ideas and Aesthetics of ’The Cormorant I & II’

San Fermin is the brainchild of Brooklyn-based composer and songwriter Ellis Ludwig-Leone. What began as a single composition project grew over time into an indie rock collective with a rotating cast of characters. The current lineup teams singer Allen Tate up with a trumpeter, saxophonist, violinist, percussionist, and more, in an ensemble that effectively makes use of Ludwig-Leone’s classical training. The group’s original sound, at once ambitious and accessible, intricate and infectious, has drawn critical acclaim since 2013’s self-titled debut album. Since then, the band has toured with the likes of the National, St. Vincent, and Arctic Monkeys, bringing their dynamic performances all over the world.

Last year saw the release of their fourth full-length studio release, “The Cormorant I.” Now, San Fermin has divulged the second installment, and released a double album, “The Cormorant I & II,” a record of unprecedented scope and scale. Taking the form of a loose narrative, the set of songs follows two characters, a male and female, in their journey from childhood to maturity. Tate portrays the male, while various vocalists take turns presenting the female perspective, imparting a new rich versatility to the San Fermin sound. The album follows a loose narrative that takes inspiration from real childhood stories and spaces, along with a tinge of the fantastical. Growth, reflection, romance, advance and retreat, shifts in mentality, and evolution of character are all explored in this consummately crafted one-of-a-kind work.   

Ludwig-Leone spoke with Entertainment Voice to explain the enigmatic new album and expand on the stories and sounds that made their way into the work.   

“The Cormorant I & II” takes its name from the long-romanticized snake-like seabird. The creature has represented the Christian cross in medieval times,  Satanic greed in Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” and good fortune in Scandinavian areas. What does it represent to you, and how does it factor into the album’s narrative?

It makes sense to me why it has so many associations because it’s a really strange and interesting animal. When I was writing this record, I was going for a walk every day, while I was writing. I was in Iceland, in the Westfjords area, and I would always end up at this one place where there was this weird sort of scaffold. It was this sort of abandoned dock, and there would always be these birds sitting up on it, these cormorants. Every day, I had a different experience looking at these birds (laughs).Some days it felt really ominous, and the scaffold looked kind of like a hangman or whatever, but other days, I felt like they were just sort of looking at you, just as a sort of constant presence. And I had this idea to, over the course of the record, have this bird show up a couple times, and each time it meant something different, but it’s like a line that kind of threads the story together.  

The album takes inspiration from the fantastical, as well as from real childhood experiences. You’ve described the listening experience as “creating fictions from your life as a way to deal with a more complicated reality.” In the midst of COVID-19, people are avoiding reality by self-quarantining, and creating fictions through virtual interactions. How relevant is your new album to this particular moment in time?

Yeah, It certainly is, in many ways, very relevant to my own mindspace. First of all, this record — a lot of it is about childhood and childhood spaces. There’s a song on there called “Berkley Bridge,” and I can look at Berkley Bridge from the room I’m sitting in right now. So it’s weird to have written this record that’s all about these childhood memories, and now I’m stuck in this house, (laughs) where all this stuff happened. So that’s kind of crazy, and then obviously, it feels weird to be putting music out right now, because it feels like there are more pressing issues happening, but at the same time, the mind needs escapism. You need places to go, or else, you just kind of go crazy. And I think it’s been a real exercise the last couple of weeks, for me, in finding that balance where I’m trying to live in the world, engage in reality, but at the same time, give myself some room for imagination, to experience things without just feeling this constant sense of dread (laughs). So hopefully this record gives people a place to go for a little while. 

“Berkley Bridge” is an evocative song that stands out for its expressive, intricate piano. As you overlook the titular bridge right now, tell us a little about the song. 

As the record goes on, it kind of starts to blend together. You have these singles and whatever at the beginning — individual songs — and then, towards the end, everything starts to smush together. That song starts with what sounds like a piano lesson, basically. There’s a metronome going and a piano playing this melody, and the melody is a melody that comes later in “Waterworld,” which is a song at the end of the record. And then it transitions into this memory of just driving in a car to piano lessons, and then seeing this bird out of the window of the car. So I thought of that song as a connecting piece, something that fills in the mythology a little bit. Even in these memories of your childhood, you’re still seeing this bird. And even from when you were young, there was a sort of foreboding sense that was there. 

You studied composition at Yale, and have worked with the likes of Nico Muhly. The new songs are full of intricate, expressive detail, without crying for attention. Tell us about the compositional process behind the album in general, and especially behind instrumental interludes like “Hickman Creek” and “Tunnel Mt.”

I think I’m a little bit old fashioned in what I try to do with my records. I want them to have a narrative, from beginning to end, and it’s one piece of music. In order for that to happen, I feel like you need moments of breathing, where something transitions into another place — interludes. On this one, I had the idea that the interludes would be inspired by places that had been important to me. So Hickman Creek is a creek in Kentucky, where my grandparents lived, and I used to go out and explore and play in the creek as a kid. Tunnel Mountain is the name of a mountain that I was living on when I wrote my first record. And Berkley Bridge is a bridge right near where I grew up. There’s just this sense of there being these places that are these anchors that transition you into the next song, and also give the album a sense of place. You feel like you’re exploring a world when you’re in this record, rather than just listening to a series of songs. 

The eight tracks comprising “The Cormorant I” survey a childhood for experiences that matter, tracing the evolution of an impressionable psyche. Expand on the key stages in this process that some particular songs explore.

While I was saying that I like a narrative over the course of a record, in terms of a literal narrative, it gets a little murky because it’s not a play or a musical. I try to follow more of an emotional arc. Early on, in the first part of the record, there’s “Cerulean Gardens” and “Summer By the Boid,” and these are songs about being young. There’s one that’s about being a kid and looking up to your dad, that’s “Cerulean Gardens.” “Summer By the Boid” is more about being a teenager, and all the sort of complicated and slightly silly emotional worlds that come with that. But then, as the record goes on, towards the end, for example, there’s a song called “Freedom” at the end of Part II. And that song is very much about being my age now, and looking at all these things that you’ve done, and the people that you’ve been and saying, basically, “Hey, this might not be everything I hoped it was, but it’s enough. I’m ok with who I’ve become.” That is definitely coming from a very different perspective than something at the beginning of the record, where it’s all about wanting more, and looking for something, and not getting it. There’s a song called “Living,” that’s just about looking for meaning, wherever you can find it, and at the end of the record, there’s a little bit more of this feeling of acceptance.

“Freedom (Yeah Yeah!)” has the lyrics “So give it up / Let it go,” leading up to the acknowledgment that “there’s freedom in it.” This brings to mind a scene from the 1999 film “The Matrix” in which the protagonist leaps off a building, “Losing all hope is freedom?”

Yeah, sure, that seems right. It’s about finding joy and releasing, because I’m someone who really holds on to things tightly, and there’s this constant feel in my music, as well as in my life, of trying to control everything, and if you hold on to things tightly enough, they won’t go away. They’ll stay with you forever — and that’s obviously not true, and “Freedom” is just about acknowledging that that is not actually the way forward. The way forward is to, kind of, just jump (laughs). As you said, with the Matrix, just jump, and let things happen as they’re going to happen because you are who you are.

You’ve described “The Cormorant II” as “an upside down response to Part I.” Do you mean a backwards regression toward earlier memories? How exactly does the structure of the album’s second half relate to that of the first?

I think the first half, there’s more logic to it, it’s trying to make sense of things. “The Hunger” is about the frustrations of looking for someone to love, and not finding someone, and “The Living” is the frustration about looking for something, and you aren’t quite sure what it is, and not finding it, whereas the second half of the record is taking a lot of these themes and kind of just mixing them up a little bit. The first song on the second half is called “Swamp Song,” and it has the same harmonic world and progression from “The Cormorant,” from the first one, but it’s kind of wilder. One of the things I was playing with on this record is the fact that the memories that you have, that make you who you are, are often not even totally real (laughs). So I wanted, on the second half, to revisit some of those childhood memories and just kind of fuck with them a little bit. So there’s that one, and there’s “Westfjords,” which is talking about — Ok, while you think you’re this person who’s off, literally in the Westfjords, thinking about what life is about and all these big issues, actually you’re just missing out on living. So I guess the “upside down response,” what I really mean by that is that it’s not trying to make as much sense from anything. It’s just swirling all these things together.

“The Hunger” deals with the experience of dating in the modern age. In the rather triumphant-sounding chorus, singer Samia Finnerty sings, “You’re a star, you’re a find / You’re a pretty little lie.” “A pretty little lie” is a charged phrase that could be interpreted on numerous levels. Tell us what it means to you.

It’s something I deal with a lot in my music. For me, the reason to write songs is if you feel, really strongly, two ways about something. It’s hard for me to write a song that I just feel one way about. This song is about both really wanting to find someone that you’re fit to love, and at the same time, being disgusted by them, and by you, and by the whole process of it. Even in her chorus, where she’s trying to tell herself to do this thing — you know, you’re a star, you’re a find, you’re someone great. You’re also, you know, full of shit. You’re a pretty little lie. I think there’s this sense in that song, as well as a lot of the songs that I’ve written, of feeling really excited by something and also feeling really repulsed by something. For me, that sort of push and pull is the friction that leads to emotion.

You’ve recorded some curious sounds on this album, for instance imitating cicadas with your mouth on “Cerulean Gardens” and sampling incidental studio sounds on “Little Star.” What are a couple especially unusual sounds that made their way into the recording?

(Laughs) Well, I wanted to have the sense of creating a world. That was so important to me, and I thought that even the nonmusical sounds on this record could be playing into this thing. So at the beginning of the record, the very, very first eight seconds of part one, you hear these weird children’s voices, and that’s a recording of these kids who were running around in the playground, outside the room where I was working, when I was in Iceland. And then, the first lyric of that song is, “Woken by the children playing on the playground.” There’s a little bit of holy work going on across the record, where, yeah, you’ll hear bird sounds, but that’s actually just me whistling the tune that the voices were singing at the end of “The Cormorant.” So there’s these tied-together things, and you get creative, especially if you’re writing the stuff in a space where you don’t have all your gear. ”Little Star,” there’s just a bunch of weird cord sounds that added this slightly off-kilter feeling to it. I was just trying to look for things that would fill out the sound world in a way that felt like it was adding to the storytelling aspect of this thing. 

“Little Star” seems to be a central song in the greater narrative, with each successive verse describing a less confident state in a character’s life. Where does the trend lead, and what is the implied message that you’d like the song to convey?

That song, to me, was largely inspired by my own experience being in a band. When we made our first record, I had nothing to lose. I was like, “Here’s me. Here’s my record. Here’s what I’m thinking,” and then, second record, I was a little bit more like, “Ok, how do I follow this up?” and then, the third record, I was really thinking in this more insecure way, and I just realized that despite the fact that I was having more success, I was feeling further removed from being my real self, or whatever. I felt like I was being kind of taken. I felt more self-conscious about who I was, because I was so exposed. I’d been exposing myself to the world over and over again in this way. So that song is just kind of about that experience, and I think this whole record has a little bit of that too, where it starts with this sort of childhood innocence, and then that kind of gets lost, and then by the end, it’s some sort of acceptance of who you actually are, and I think that’s a theme that comes up a lot in a lot of my music.

A striking couple of lines are “I would sing for my life / If I knew the words” from “The Myth.” How easily do words usually come to you?

Well, definitely the music comes a lot easier. When I first started writing for this band, I would write the music first, and then the lyrics would come as I was writing. But I really changed my process on this record, where I actually wrote all the lyrics first, and then I did the music. And the reason behind that was that I wanted the songs to have a reason to exist — like why is this song happening? It’s because I wanted to talk about this issue, this thing. And so, having lyrics first made it so that the music ended up being probably a little more tame than some of the music that I’ve written in the past. This is definitely a more beautiful and quieter record than “Jackrabbit” or even “Belong,” but it was because it was guided by the lyrics. I wanted the story that I wanted to tell to come through, and so that was a change for me. But yeah, lyrics have always been a little bit harder for me than the music. I’m definitely a music first person. 

“Waterworld” features vivid, but ambiguous lyrics that tap into feelings of estrangement, and describe an escape to “an underwater place / where we cannot see your face.” What is the nature of this cryptic “Waterworld?” What does it represent, and what is the significance of an underwater location?

This one is definitely more ambiguous. The water metaphor was just like — you know, water is this weird thing that can feel either freeing or drowning, You can feel either of those things, and I guess I wanted to have a song that was sort of about the relationship between the female voice and the male voice on this record, and I wanted the male voice recounting a more grown up version of the two of them. Maybe if these two people, who earlier on had been singing about trying to find love, maybe if they had found love, and it had only been part of what they wanted it to be. So it was almost like a song happening ten years later or something. But you know, I don’t know (laughs), with these things, there’s always a level of abstraction that I can explain, and then there’s a  level of abstraction that I can’t explain. That one just kind of felt right, and I knew that I wanted it to drive the record to some sort of climax, and that’s where the water metaphor came in towards the end, where they keep repeating that over and over again.

The album tells the story of two main characters, with the males played by vocalist Allen Tate and the female by a revolving cast of singers. Why did you choose to portray a single character in a number of different voices, and how have the numerous voices shaped the sound of the album?

Well, there’s the practical answer and then, there’s the sort of artistic answer. I think the practical answer is that Claire Wellin, who’s one of our singers now, helped me demo everything. Charline, who had been our lead singer for years, had left, so Claire stepped into this lead role, and she was demoing all these songs for me, and some songs sounded so perfect on her voice that I was like, “Wait, ok, maybe this record’s just going to be all Claire.” But if Claire was going to be singing lead, we had to have another voice there because our band has always been two singers and one male singer, and that’s the sort of sound that we go for, and I love working with the harmonies. So then, when I found Karlie Bruce, I was sort of over the moon because she’s got this amazing voice, and so she stepped in, and we sort of reimagined that role. Rather than there being one singer, there’s just these two voices that are kind of equals. But I sort of found that over the course of recording this record. It was something that we kind of stumbled into. And we brought in Samia, and it just felt right. 

It was a moment of transition for the band, and then it was also about trying to find the right voice for each song. With Allen, I’ve known him for fifteen years now, so I just know how to write for him, but with Claire, I’ve been working with her for three years. With Karlie, it was for like six months. With Samia, it was like one day. There was a little bit less continuity there, and so I wanted to make sure that each of those singers was given material that they felt really comfortable with, and was able to really own it. So it ended up being just a little bit more of a mixed group, but I’m really proud of the sound that we came up with because all three of those women, as well as Sarah Pedinotti, who also sang on the record, are really just amazing vocalists, so it gives a sort of three dimensional sound to that part, which I really like. 

The Cormorant I & II” is available March 27 on Apple Music.