We spoke to Iona members Dave Bainbridge and Frank van Essen about the celebratory releases of their entire catalogue.

Nominating the best UK Christian band of the last 40 years is clearly a subjective matter. U2 almost qualify, but are Irish, so don’t quite count. Delirious? also had chart success, but largely on the back of keen churchgoing fans. I would nominate Iona for that honour.

Iona had so much going for them: musically, they could perform remarkably complex pieces that are beyond the ability of many others; their music could reach spiritually stirring heights; they combined genres in a tremendously creative manner; and they took brazenly Christian music into secular venues, like musical missionaries.  

Although the band has now finished, this year the co-founder, multi-instrumentalist and producer Dave Bainbridge masterminded a celebratory box set of all their studio material to mark their thirtieth anniversary.

I asked both him and drummer/violinist Fran van Essen for their highlights of the band’s achievements.

“Most definitely that the band’s music actually saved at least one, and possibly more lives,” asserted Bainbridge. “At a festival we played at in the mid-1990s, a guy came up to [singer] Joanne and I with deep gratitude in his eyes. He said that he had been planning to commit suicide by jumping off the cliffs at Beachy Head, when he heard the Iona song ‘Beachy Head’. It caused him to reconsider and as a result, his life was now on a new path of hope and faith. For me that alone makes the whole time with Iona worthwhile.

“But there is so, so much more and I have to say I’m so thankful to God for the many amazing ways he literally changed lives through Iona’s music, especially by bringing hope to people. There are many stories I could relate: how ‘Beyond These Shores’ led many people to have the courage to follow their hearts into often dangerous and uncharted waters of their own; how one song triggered angelic visitations for months amongst groups of young Christians in the USA; how many people have had Iona’s music playing at their weddings, and at the funerals of loved ones, becoming the soundtrack to their lives; how the music inspired many people to begin their own journeys of faith and spirituality; how the music brought people from so many diverse backgrounds together, uniting them in spite of their inherent differences, showing how life can be when we focus on what we have in common.”

Van Essen was with the band for less time, his base in the Netherlands causing logistical difficulties in the early years. For him, the highlights were more personal: “Actually going to Iona, the island, and spending some time with the band writing, coming up with ideas and growing into the whole concept of the band.”
He needed to understand the impact of Celtic spirituality on his fellow band members. As someone more familiar with Calvin, Luther and “lots of American modern day preachers /pastors,” names like Aiden and Columba were completely new. As part of Iona, he learned an approach to faith that had “earthedness – it was right there with both feet on the ground, but still very spiritual, with room for supernatural experiences as well. I really loved that.”

When listening to solo material from the various band members since Iona finished, you can easily spot where the different influences on the music came from. Jo Hogg often produces the tunes and initial songs; Bainbridge has a prog rock heart that expands those ideas; Van Essen has a meditative, cinematic quality to his music, while a succession of talented musicians have brought their Celtic pipes, saxophones and Chapman Stick to the table.              

That mix could have made writing a factious process, with everyone fighting their corners – or it could have been a healthy operation, with the various members holding each other’s excesses in check.

For van Essen, the latter is closer to the mark. “That’s the beauty of the interaction, because Jo’s very much about songs, keeping it simple – although she has a tendency to write things in odd time signatures as well, so that’s quite nice. But sometimes Dave would write pretty proggy epic stuff and Jo would say, ‘Dave, this is getting too complicated; keep it a little more simple!’ I guess that’s also the good thing about working together, that it stays accessible for a lot of people.

“That’s where the uniqueness of the Iona sound comes from: it’s complex in places, but also there are places where is very accessible, very heartfelt, very easy to understand. It’s always rooted in Celtic spirituality. Also music-wise, prog, folk, rock has always been the trademark of the band. So the combination of these things is very powerful.”    

The drummer also noted that Bainbridge “literally records everything we do. That’s why he had tons of stuff to go through, like cassette tapes from 30 year ago and DAT tapes, CDs and the whole plethora of things you can record on.”

He is referring to the process of sifting through everything that Iona laid to tape for their studio recordings. The result was a companion disc for every album they released, which have all now been re-released by Gonzo, available either as double-disc albums, or as a box set The Book of Iona. The latter also includes The Sound of Iona, a collection of re-worked material that is often a past member of the band working with Bainbridge.    

For Bainbridge, these companion discs are not a marketing tool for the project; they are telling a musical story. For him, the excitement is when, “A song or idea was transformed from a basic demo into something truly magical, by the melding together of everyone’s talents. That is something that I hope The Book of Iona conveys. I hope it gives listeners a glimpse of the journey that we shared for so many years, a behind the scenes look at how the music and message was shaped.”

Developing that set of companion discs was a highly exhaustive process involving hundreds of hours of tapes to assess, over six months of work and – even whittled down after this – over nine hours of bonus material. But there must still have been music that he had no room for?

“There were two things I hoped to include, but wasn’t able to,” he replied. “The first were around twelve of Jo’s songs that I had in demo form when we were working on the various albums and which were all considered for various Iona albums at different times. Some of these we used to play live, including one called ‘That You Love Me’ which Jo, David and I played on our very first live performance together at Greenbelt. Being the completist, forensic person I am, I wanted the companion disks to reflect the whole story of the studio albums as far as possible, but Joanne didn’t want these songs included, so I had to respect that, and they were left off.

“However, this led to the idea of doing the ‘Sound of Iona’ disk of newly recorded versions of Iona tunes, to fill the space. There were also a few great DAT band recordings of ‘Open Sky’ album tracks in their gestation period. I managed to get a great version of ‘Woven Cord’ off one tape, but the tapes had white mould on them that had set like concrete and sadly weren’t salvageable.”

There is also a theology underpinning Iona’s music. Eschewing the one-size-fits-all approach of much worship music, Bainbridge says, “I worry that there are not the outlets for truly creative people who share the Christian faith to have a voice within the wider church. When large churches and labels who promote ‘Christian’ artists concentrate on one style and expression of worship, then that denies the inherent character of the God who created diversity and who seeks to challenge our perceptions at every turn. When worship becomes merely the opening act for the preacher, or when music is only seen as a tool to get people singing together so that they feel ready to accept whatever message the preacher has for them, we are undervaluing art and it’s innate ability to allow us to experience the transcendent and the mysterious.
 “Christians worship the ultimate creative being, the instigator of life itself, of sound, beauty, colour, diversity and selfless love. Made in His image, we have the potential to reflect that creativity, to celebrate it and to make art that will challenge, inspire and move people to see beyond what is visible just with the human eye. I think sometimes we achieved that with Iona’s music and am always thrilled when others in whatever sphere of art they’re working in, create extraordinary works that enrich our lives and pierce the thin veil between earth and heaven.”