Marjana Semkina

Prognosis, London

22 April 2023

I have a confession to make, and Marjana might not thank me for it: it wasn't Marjana Semkina's voice that first attracted me to Iamthemorning. I read a magazine article about them that said duo of female singer and classical pianist, and I thought: classical piano as the lead instrument? How cool is that? It was enough to make me buy an album on spec. And when I got it, I liked the vocals, but I didn't even pay attention to what she was singing, I just liked the sound of the voice for the way it blended with the instruments. The voice as an instrument rather than as a voice, I guess.

Then one day—I can still quite clearly remember the day and the circumstances—after multiple listens to Iamthemorning's albums, I suddenly listened, really listened, to the words of Reprise of Light/No Light, and understood what they were saying, and I was emotionally crushed. The way I looked at the song changed completely. And the way I thought of Marjana changed completely. She has a beautiful voice that could sing literally anything and I would still listen, but suddenly what she sings became the over-riding factor. How can somebody so apparently nice and funny and lively and friendly write lyrics from such a dark place? Lyrics that can crush your heart even while you're entranced by the beauty of the voice that's singing them?

And Iamthemorning went from "good band" to... one of those bands I'd buy a weekend festival ticket for even when they're the only band on the bill that I know and they're probably only going to play 30 minutes.

And then, after a few weeks of confusion and schedule changes, the Prognosis people announced that in addition to Iamthemorning being promoted to second stage headliners, Marjana would also be playing a solo acoustic set to open the festival. She's only played solo twice in her life as far as I know, and she's barely played live at all in the last three years, and she probably hasn't rehearsed because she's had to rehearse with her main band, and the songs from her one solo album all have big ochestral arrangments and today it's just her and a guitar, and she can't put any of the obvious Iamthemorning songs in the set because she'll be singing them in six hours with Iamthemorning. These all seem to be quite significant obstacles. But if you know Marjana, you know she can accomplish miracles. And I know she's going to play the best set I've ever seen.

So, no pressure then, Marjana...

I have to start by saying the festival organization is terrible, both before the event (with all the schedule uncertainty) and on the day itself. The doors are late opening and the effort needed to get through security seems excessive, so I'm convinced that I will miss her completely. Inside the venue, there's nothing to tell you where you actually need to go; the second stage must exist, but how to get there is a mystery. When I finally find it, Marjana is nowhere to be seen, and another band is setting up their equipment. No kind of announcement to let us know what's going on—has she been cancelled?—but it's soon obvious that they have delayed the start time for the stage. But with no slack beetween bands, that means Marjana will run in parallel with the opening band on the main stage, so that's going to poach half her audience. Marjana herself seems convinced she will be playing to only six people.

Well, it's a lot more than six. The space around the stage is packed, when she eventually comes on, and people go back as far as I can see. But let's be clear, what Prognosis calls a "stage" is really just the floor in the corner of the upstairs bar, specifically designed so that nobody beyond the first rows can see anything. And even in the front rows (I'm actually one person back), the non-existent stage lighting makes seeing anything a challenge. Luckily I already know what Marjana looks like. And if I didn't, I'd know her unique voice anywhere. The sound mix also isn't great at the front. I suspect it's fine at the back, due to the speaker placement. But some gigs you just have to be at the front.

So, I seem to be talking about everything except the music, which, of course, is all that matters.

She's allocated 30 minutes, which is time for six songs and some in-between angry rants at the state of the world (she has the friendliest angry rants you could imagine). She has an acoustic guitar player, with her, and I'm embarrassed that I can't remember his name just now because he's excellent. But Marjana also plays on, I think, four of the songs, so it's a fuller sound than I was perhaps expecting.

Three songs come from her solo album (Dark Matter, Turn Back Time, and, er, the other one). And they should have orchestral strings and/or rock band accompaniment, but they don't need it here. The words and melodies are strong enough to support a stripped-back arrangement with just one or two guitars. One song is poached from the Iamthemorning set (Blue Sea, which I already knew works perfectly in a guitar arrangement). And one song is brand new, and obviously I've forgotten the title already. It's a sad song, of course. Specifically, she tells us, it's more sad than the others. Which is going some.

And then there's Mermaid Song. It's in the set specifically for me, and it's just perfect.

Marjana sounds beautiful (duh), her guitar playing is confident, and her easy-flowing banter shows no sign that she's been away from the stage for three years. She plays the best set I've ever seen.

I had never doubted it for a minute.