Lins Honeyman spoke to Michael and Steph Dickinson, otherwise known as MAS
When it comes to recording, some emerging acts get it right first time. And that's precisely what Margate-based married couple mas have done with their debut, the EP 'Songs Of The Silent Years'. The duo - lyricist and vocalist Steph Dickinson and her multi-instrumentalist husband Michael - have forged a niche for themselves by offering up theologically thought-provoking lyrics and stirring performances that speak of God's steadfast faithfulness during times in the valley set to an inventive and innovative musical backdrop masterminded by Bright City producer Jonny Bird.
As it turns out, these valley times proved integral to the making of the EP with Steph having suffered a nervous breakdown in 2010 which lead to nearly a decade of writing and working away from the public gaze. With music playing a major part of the healing process, 'Songs Of The Silent Years' marks something of a milestone in terms of stepping back into the fold and allowing these supremely honest but ultimately uplifting songs to minister to others who have been through similar situations.
Although 'Songs Of The Silent Years' is the Dickinsons' maiden voyage in a recording sense, both Michael and Steph have a long involvement with music with the pair helping to lead worship at their local New Family Life Church for many years. In addition, Michael's day job as a piano teacher and Steph's role within Pie Factory Music - a charity set up to help disadvantaged young people - means that they have a collective wealth of experience which explains why 'Songs Of The Silent Years' has been so well received since a successful Kickstarter campaign (with a special endorsement from Tim Hughes of Worship Central) allowed recording to begin in Martin Smith's Brighton studio earlier this year.
I caught up with Steph and Michael on a Skype call just moments after they had put their two year-old daughter to bed to ask if they were pleased with the reaction to the EP so far. "We've been really pleased," confirmed Steph as she finally had a chance to sit on what looked like a very comfy family sofa. "It's always a bit scary when you're releasing new stuff because you think it might just be your mum who will like it! However, we've been really chuffed with the breadth of people who have got into it - friends of ours who aren't from a Christian background but have been able to access it and that's been exciting for us."
"Essentially, we wanted to release our own music and share our hearts with other people," added Michael as he explained the ethos behind the EP. "We've been married for eight years and, for pretty much all of that time, we've wanted to release stuff together but somehow there had never been the right time to release them. It got to the point where we realised there was never going to be a right time so we decided just to go for it and get it done. We were amazed by the support we received from people - not just friends but people we didn't know who supported us financially and helped us through Kickstarter."
With the EP's title pointing towards an overarching theme, I wondered if the pair set out to write all six songs on the release with a common thread in mind. "Actually, the final bit you hear on the EP - where it references the 'Songs Of The Silent Years' title - was only written about a month before we launched our Kickstarter campaign," advised Steph. "Sometimes in life, you take a moment to reflect back and the songs on the EP detail what I'd call the most recent chapter of our lives. Part of that was intentional - having a season of being a bit hidden and of stepping back and just waiting. There are those seasons where nothing major is happening and you're just getting on with things and, once we'd written that bit, we realised that it sort of punctuated the part of our lives that we'd just been through."
That season began with Steph going through a nervous breakdown in 2010 and I asked how this period in her life shaped her as a writer and an artist. "To start with, it was a season of losing confidence in myself to be able to do anything artistic and thinking that I could never write music ever again," admitted Steph. "But the funny thing about songwriting is that, even though you might not be putting it out there, the songs still come. I feel that the writing part was actually very healing and it was almost as if it was my journal through that time of my life. A lot of the songs I wrote throughout that period will never be shared - they're far too depressing - but writing them helped me work through and process things. It was only in the latter stages of recovering from my breakdown that I started to feel more confident. It was a different sort of confidence because, when you've been through real darkness, it's only then that you feel real hope. I feel like I had to go to those depths to really understand the love and grace of God again and fall into that instead of constantly striving to use my own strength. Also, the Kickstarter campaign really helped - just knowing that people were saying that they were behind us and wanted to hear what we had to say in our songs was just as important as the financial resource. It was a huge boost for us."
I wondered what both Steph and Michael think the other brings to the musical partnership and Michael was the first to dive in. "As much as it is a duo, it's very much driven by Steph. Without her drive and desire to want to share her heart with people, it might take me a few decades to finally get a song out there. She's the lyricist out of the two of us and, without the lyrics, it would just be compositions but she offers up an open heart and honesty with her words. What you hear is what you get with Steph, basically. What I get from people's reactions to our songs is that this is what they want to hear - they love what Steph has to say and I think that's great."
Steph added, "It's interesting because, in many ways, Michael and I are the complete opposite to each other. I'm a starter of things and Michael is all about the detail and he's a finisher. In the studio, that dynamic really works because I'm like 'that'll do - that's fine' and, with Michael's ear for detail that goes way beyond average human capacity, he's always looking for ways to improve what we've just done. Even though Michael might see the lyrics as being the deep part of our music, the beauty of his music transcends words and I think, perhaps because he has dyslexia, he has to push into the music more and there's a depth and beauty in his music that I really respect."
Whilst that's all very mutually respectful and nice, I suggested that there must be moments when working together as spouses has its challenges. "At times, it's the best and the worst idea to be a married couple that makes music together - or does anything creative together for that matter," confirmed Steph. "You get this sense of depth from just knowing each other so well and there's a level of honesty that you perhaps wouldn't get with anyone else. With that you can dig really deep and you don't settle for mediocrity but then the challenge is where the boundary lies. It's fine if it's just the two of us thrashing stuff about but, when you work with a producer, you then realise that maybe not everyone is comfortable being that honest with each other."
"It can get difficult when it's just us writing at home," added Michael. "Home is home - it's not a studio - and you're not always in the right frame of mind. Or one of us might be and the other isn't and one of us winds the other one up. Suddenly, the songwriting session is finished after just 10 minutes. Having that other head in the game like Jonny's suddenly changes things and you get lots of other ideas thrown in."
Known for collaborating with worship big time players such as Matt Redman, Martin Smith, Worship Central and Bright City, Brighton-based producer and multi-instrumentalist Jonny Bird obviously brought a lot to the 'Songs Of The Silent Years' project. "We listened to some of the more recent albums and singles that had been released by Christian artists and we especially loved the sound on the Bright City album," stated Michael. "We thought it would be really interesting to find out what would come out of working with a producer like Jonny because most of the stuff we do when it's just the two of us is vocal with piano or acoustic guitar. What Jonny brought was a completely different dimension to at least a couple of tracks. 'Take Me Back', for instance, really benefitted from Jonny's influence."
Mention of the EP's epic closing track prompted Steph to give a bit more background to the song. "When we took 'Take Me Back' to Jonny, we only had the piano line at the start and the vocal melody. We had the other tracks down so that one was a bit of a wild card. We wanted to do one more and said 'how about this?' We played Jonny this tiny little scrap of a thing and he told us to leave it with him and the next thing we had this amazing closing track for our EP."
Refreshingly, 'Songs Of The Silent Years' seems to defy categorisation thanks to the innovation and skill of all involved and I asked if it was a deliberate ploy to come up with a release that attempts to straddle both mainstream and worship markets. "We didn't have a goal as such to pitch it to a certain crowd of people," stated Michael. "We just wanted to see what happened with the songs and having a producer like Jonny meant that we were able to bounce ideas off each other. We just wanted to write the songs that we felt we needed to write - no hidden agenda. It's great to find out that people really like the sound we've come up with but that's not to say we'll stick to that approach on the next release. We're open to more ideas and sounds as they come along."
Honing in on Steph's role as chief lyricist, I asked how the songs on the EP came about. "At the point of writing, all the songs came out of an overflow of what was going on in my heart," she confirmed. "I think one of the key pieces of learning for me following my breakdown was around vulnerability and actually realising that one of the main reasons for me getting as far as having a breakdown was not being vulnerable enough and trying to hold things together myself. I now realise that it's vulnerability that connects me to people - not strength - and, in songs, it's great to have strong, powerful and hopeful lyrics but it's also just as powerful and worshipful to have pain and intimacy. It was all weaved together - me learning all of that and then writing really honest songs which might then go on to help other people going through similar things."
One song that typifies the vulnerability found within the EP is the prayer of submission "Soften My Heart". Said Steph, "I did wonder how 'Soften My Heart' would be received but, interestingly, a lot of people have said that that one is their favourite song from the EP. There was a little bit of trepidation about putting such honest songs out there but we felt it was the right thing to do. I remember saying to Henry - the guy who does our publishing - that 'Soften My Heart' feels like the one song that sums up this whole season and it's interesting that people have been able to connect with it."
"For me, 'Soften My Heart' is the stand out track on the EP," enthused Michael. "As Steph has already explained, I have dyslexia and, when I listen to a song, I don't jump into the lyrics - I often don't remember any of the words I've just heard because I've been paying more attention to the music and the arrangement. The title of that song is enough to know what the heart of the song is all about and I think musically it has everything in there from the subtleness at the beginning, the space where you can listen to the lyrics with just the piano for accompaniment, the instrumental in the middle where you can reflect on what you've just heard and then that big sound in the choruses that hits you and challenges you to do something with the message you've just heard. It's got a bit of everything for me and I love that."
In closing, I asked what the immediate future holds for mas. Responded Steph, "In the new year, our plan is to have a launch party for the EP in our home town. In Margate, there is this uprising of creativity and music and there are some lovely local venues and we're hoping to do a couple of shows locally. We did Creation Fest in the summer because we wanted to try out all the songs on the EP as one set and we were really blessed to play there. We're also on the hustle for collaborations and we're approaching other people with the aim of writing together. I feel that's a whole other area to explore and it would be exciting."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.