Few things generate greater trepidation in the hearts of music lovers than the word ‘supergroup’. Get it right and you can have a musical entity greater than the sum of its parts. Get it wrong and you end up with something that diminishes everyone it touches.

The history of modern music is littered with examples of artists grouping together only to create a musical travesty. Mick Jagger must surely have sleepless nights over his dalliance with SuperHeavy and John and Andy Taylor’s involvement in eighties pop-rock outfit, Power Station, only served to make Duran Duran look good.

But for all the mistakes there have also been the gems; the occasions when a collection of disparate artists come together to create something wonderful. This Mortal Coil, 4AD’s very own supergroup was one such example. Emerging just over thirty years ago, this brainchild of 4AD’s owner, Ivo Watts-Russell, was responsible for some of the most memorable and enduring music to be produced by the label.

Despite being active for eight years, and responsible for three albums, according to Ivo, This Mortal Coil was initially only conceived as a short-term project.

“I’d seen Modern English, who were on 4AD, play two songs, ‘Sixteen Days’ and ‘Gathering Dust’ together in a medley as an encore at the end of a very successful tour in America. I thought it was brilliant, really, really powerful stuff. I approached them afterwards and said, ‘Why not get into the studio and meld those two songs together?’ To which I got a fairly luke-warm response. They had already recorded them separately for the ‘Mesh and Lace’ album and they felt that it was a backward step. Never one to be put off, I suggested they help me come up with an arrangement that I could then approach other people with. Mick and Gary from the band then agreed to do it with Elizabeth Fraser from the Cocteau Twins on vocals. At the time though, that’s all I had in mind.”

Initially it was envisaged that ‘Sixteen Days/Gathering Dust’ would be the primary release, with a remix of the track and another cover forming the remainder of the E.P. When casting around for a suitable song to fill this gap, Ivo opted for a cover of Tim Buckley’s 1970 release ‘Song to the Siren’, a track that he regarded as one of the greatest ever written.

“I’d always loved that song, and still do today. It’s such a beautiful piece of music. I had the idea of getting Elizabeth to sing it on her own, to the backing of the original version. But I changed my mind because I think it made more sense to do a new version, something that was more in keeping with the spirit of the E.P. Begrudgingly, Elizabeth’s partner and fellow Cocteau, Robin Guthrie offered to play some guitar to accompany her vocals. He wasn’t really that interested in doing it, and to me that reveals his genius, the fact that he could come up with something as beautiful as that when he wasn’t even bothered. I can picture him now, lounging with his back to the wall, while producing this wonderful sound. He did it just once through and it sounded so good that we decided to keep it.”

In a recent poll in the Observer, ‘Song to the Siren’ was voted the sixth best cover-version of all time, and it’s simple to see why. As good as Buckley’s original is, and it does come close to heart-wrenching perfection, Elizabeth Fraser’s rendition surpasses it, producing a song of rare beauty, one that washes over you like the waves of the sea alluded to throughout.

“It’s an exquisite version, absolutely mesmerising” says Ivo “I remember sneaking into the studio when Elizabeth was recording it (she wasn’t keen on having anyone there) and just being blown away. The final version was so good that we ended up making the 7’’ release a double ‘A-side’. In fact, I regard ‘Song to the Siren’ as significantly better than ‘Sixteen Days/Gathering Dust’ and arguably one of 4AD’s greatest moments. And I think that this is an impression shared by many of those who love This Mortal Coil. It’s the track that people seem to mention the most. It was also the reason why I turned what was originally just a one-off musical project into something more ambitious. ‘Song to the Siren’ revealed to me how magical this approach to music could be and it inspired me to take it further.”

And taking it further would mean using the template developed during the making of that debut E.P and applying it to other tracks chosen by Ivo for re-interpretation. These would then be allied to a limited number of original compositions, creating a unique meld of the old and the new, all infused with Ivo’s guiding vision for the album.

In the same way that the project’s debut EP raided the label’s roster, for This Mortal Coil’s first LP, ‘It’ll End in Tears’ much was made of the talent available at 4AD, with members of Dead Can Dance and the Cocteau Twins featuring prominently on the album. These were then completed by a limited number of outside artists brought in by Ivo, such as multi-instrumentalist and later member of the Cocteau Twins, Simon Raymonde.

“After the first single had been recorded, Ivo asked if I would do a cover of Alex Chilton's song ‘Kangaroo’. I didn’t hesitate to say yes. Back then my relationship with Ivo was very strong and he was a highly influential figure in my life, and a lot of other people too. He had great taste in everything; clothes, films, architecture, writers, and he introduced all of us to many new ideas and new art. Plus, from a personal perspective the covers concept of This Moral Coil was a great way of s learning about more cool music that I may otherwise not have learnt about so quickly. And subsequently, those influences have stayed with me all of my life, something that I’m very grateful for.”

Much of the music chosen to cover on that debut album was relatively obscure. It would be an approach to covers that would define This Mortal Coil throughout the project’s lifespan, with Ivo opting to choose tracks that appealed to him, regardless of how well they were known to a wider audience.

“My logic was ‘what is the point of covering songs when they are so popular, when they are so ingrained in people’s psyche?’ Still to this day, even in the obscure high desert of New Mexico where I live now, I encounter with people who want to thank me for introducing them to new music and who after listening to This Mortal Coil went on to get into Big Star or Rodney Crowell or any number of less well-known artists featured.”

There was also a deliberate effort, throughout the project’s lifespan, to ensure that the tracks chosen would receive something more than a faithful rendition. What This Mortal Coil provided was a re-interpretation, a process that arose from constant collaboration between Ivo, the production team and the artists involved in the recording.

“There was a lot of creative freedom” says Gordon Sharp of Cindytalk, who appeared on the debut album. “Ivo might have had an idea of what he wanted but he was happy for people like me to have the freedom to be intuitive, to put our own spin on the parts we were playing. The recording process could also be very spontaneous too. For example, something he did that I was very impressed with was that for my very first recording session of ‘Kangaroo’ at Blackwing Studios, he deliberately didn't send me a tape of the song I was to sing. He knew I wasn't familiar with the song or the artist and he presumably didn't want me familiarising myself with it. I heard the song for the very first time shortly before I recorded it, so pretty much what's on the record is my immediate response to hearing the track.”

This creative freedom was also applied to those charged with producing new work for the group. Although largely known as a covers project, This Mortal Coil were not averse to including original material on studio albums.

“I can only speak for myself but, I found the writing process to be very free and very spontaneous. For example, Ivo would get a drum sound and rhythm, and just say something like ‘do you want to try something out on the piano?’ or I would just be playing the piano while they were setting up sounds in the control room or whatever, then through the headphones I’d hear 'that sounds great, let me record some of that'. It was kind of like that. Considering it was Ivo’s project, there as very little in the way of interference from him and you got the sense that he really trusted your ability to create” says Simon Raymonde.

Despite being recorded largely without any commercial implications in mind, ‘It’ll End in Tears’ proved popular with punters and critics alike. Before the album had hit the shelves there was already a degree of anticipation regarding its release, largely due to the earlier success of ‘Song to the Siren’, which had spent months in the UK Indie Charts.

This degree of anticipation, combined with the wide-scale critical acclaim that the release enjoyed contributed to the fact that ‘It’ll End in Tears’ was ultimately a commercial success for 4AD, reaching number thirty-eight in the UK albums chart and number one in the Indie Charts. It was a response to the album that surprised the man whose idea it had been.

“A lot of artists and bands say that they are more interested in the creative process than the commercial aspect of a release and half the time you’re not sure if they really mean it. But in this instance that really was the case. ‘It’ll End in Tears’ was entirely about the music, without any need for it to sell that well. And so the fact that it found such a considerable audience was a really welcome surprise to me.”

The album also represented something of a seismic shift for 4AD. Prior to its release the label had largely been associated with the gothic-rock sound of bands such as The Birthday Party and Bauhaus. With its reverb soaked walls of sound combined with breathy, atmospheric vocals, ‘It’ll End in Tears’ drew a line in the sand, signalling a shift away from this earlier sound and towards a much softer, dreamier 4AD.

But although subsequent releases would continue to embrace this more ‘ethereal’ sound, the album’s that followed did not continue the debut’s approach of largely utilising 4AD personnel. What 1986’s ‘Filigree and Shadow’ and 1991’s ‘Blood’ provided was the 4AD ‘sound’ but primarily recorded by an array of non-label artists.

“I’d been a bit stung by Robin and Elizabeth’s criticism of the first album’ explains Ivo. “I think they’d been a bit annoyed about the fact that ‘Song to the Siren’ was getting us more exposure than the Cocteau Twins.  I was aware that it was starting to affect in our friendship and so with the next two albums I changed tack. I expanded what I’d begun with the first album and started to rope in more non-4AD people, such as David Sylvian and Scott Walker and Robert Wyatt to sing songs. It actually gave me more freedom and enabled me to pick people who I thought were perfect for the track”.

But it wasn’t just renowned artists that were chosen to be part of the project. This Mortal Coil was equally welcome to relative unknowns, as long as their voice or instrumental ability suited what was right for the music. Long before she became famous as a vocalist responsible for some of the biggest club tracks of the early nineties, Alison Limerick was a jobbing session singer whose most notable work had been to provide backing vocals for the likes of the Style Council and Pete Murphy (formally of Bauhaus).

“I think Ivo had come across what I’d done with Pete and just heard something he liked, so he approached me to be part of the second album ‘Filigree and Shadow’. I ultimately worked on three tracks and it was a really interesting experience. I came from a very different musical background, having worked mainly with Jazz and Funk bands, so This Mortal Coil was something of a challenge. But I liked the way that Ivo and the others involved in the recording process worked. They obviously had a rough idea what they wanted but they were happy to let the artist have some creative input too, giving their own take on how, in my case, a lyric could be vocalised. It was such a good experience that I said yes when Ivo asked me to feature on the final album, ‘Blood’ too.”

The shift in personnel during the later albums also ran parallel with a growing sophistication in the recording process and musical approach of This Mortal Coil. For all its charm and appeal, ‘It’ll End in Tears’ had an ad-hoc quality about, a sense that those behind its creation were almost making it up as they were going along.

“Which was largely true” laughs Ivo. “From a personal perspective, at the beginning I had little experience with production and none with writing; I couldn’t even play a single note of music. So, the first album was something of a learning curve. By ‘Blood’, I was much more confident in what I was doing. I was happy to become more involved in the writing and production process. As a result, I think I was able to really capture what I had in mind more, introduce new sounds and layers to the process and structure and organise the music differently. Also, as time went on the technology available improved, which opened up so much more to us, something that inevitably impacted upon the sound.”

Despite the growing sophistication on later albums, the response of critics was never as favourable as it was compared to the project’s debut.  Although there were many fine moments on ‘Blood’ and ‘Filigree and Shadow’, neither album ever seemed to create the same emotional response as did ‘It’ll End in Tears’.

“It was slightly disappointing, but regardless of that, I was still really happy with both of them” says Ivo. “Overall, I think all three albums captured what I wanted to do with This Mortal Coil. I think we did something different and produced a lot of great music. In fact, that’s part of the reason why I decided to call-it-a-day after the release of ‘Blood’. I’m very much a fan of people who come in and do something and go away. I am really not a big fan of people coming back to the same thing again and again. I was really happy with those records and I didn’t want to fuck it all up by continuing things to the point where the quality really began to diminish. And I’m glad that I stopped because people still look back on what we did so fondly. I think I ensured that its legacy was protected”.

On so many occasions, when disparate artists come together the results are far from impressive. But, with This Mortal Coil it seemed to work. Over the course of three albums, the project produced some mesmerising music and helped lay the foundations for the dreamier, more atmospheric sound that would come to be associated with the label for much of the eighties, embodied in the work of bands such as Dead Can Dance and the Cocteau Twins.

But why did This Mortal Coil succeed where so many others fall flat? How did this project manage to harness such a wide and varied group of talent and produce something beautiful and lasting? Louise Rutkowski, who provided vocals on ‘Blood’ and ‘Filigree and Shadow’, thinks she knows the reasons why.

“I think Ivo’s passion helped. It was infectious. And I think that was something which brought out the best in people, something that also created a sense of excitement about the recording process too. It was also a wonderfully enjoyable place to work in, which can be quite rare in this business. To my memory, the time that I spent with Ivo and the others was nothing but a great laugh. There was no tension, and again, this helps create an environment more conducive to creativity. And lastly, Ivo trusted the people around him to contribute. The temptation to be dictatorial must have been there, but he never succumbed to it. What you had with This Mortal Coil was a real collaboration between artists, writers and producers, all done within a happy and encouraging environment. These things are rare in music, which is probably why something like This Mortal Coil is also so rare too. To this day, I feel privileged to have been involved in such a unique musical project and one that produced music that all these years on people still come up to me and tell me how much they love.”  

Jim is @jimmykeo.