suggestioni musicali a cura di raffaello russo
“Without The World” has been, to me, an astonishing debut because of its extraordinary expressive power: has it been the result of a short time work or is it kind of a collection of songs you wrote over the years?
A few of the songs were written and recorded over the period of a few years, like “Scarlet Monkeys” and “Fantastic Frown”: I had very rough demos of these, but once I decided I wanted to record an album I recorded it quite quickly; maybe three months, more or less.
But all of the songs are based on poetry I’ve written over the years, and I’ve been writing poetry since my teens, so in that sense all of the songs were written over quite a long period of time, but most of the music, in regards to the drones, field recordings, guitars etc was recorded over the period of a few months.
So to answer your question precisely: it was the result of both, a concentrated effort, and a long time of writing poetry.
How did you start making music? Is there any relation between your musical “education” and the music you create now?
Well, I have no formal musical education, but I come from a very musical family; you know, the sort of family that puts on recitals for the neighbours. So I started making music from a very young age, but the kind of music I make now – I started making about six or seven years ago, when I was about 19. I started to make some of the poetry I’d been writing in to songs, and then recording them on a cell phone. Then I would record demos with equipment i’d hire.
Nowadays, it’s quite frequent to see solo (and somehow solitary) artists making their music all on their own: do you think it depends on a personal choice or only on the fact that from a technical point of view it’s easier to make music all alone?
When I first started making music I thought I needed a studio and a band, but I quickly learnt that I could not afford studio time, and I don’t work well in a band.
I love the creative freedom of making music myself; I get to write, record, and mix without any interference.
So for myself, it is a choice and it’s easier. I’m not one of those musicians who works well with others; my entire process is a solitary one. Unless of course I am collaborating with a producer; singing on someone else’s music… but in my experience, that is much more enjoyable than trying to conceive music with a group of people. If I collaborate, at all, I prefer it if my collaborator does what he or she does, and he or she lets me do what I do, rather than developing a song together, from scratch.
“Bedroom music” has been exalted for a long time, while now many people do criticise it; regardless to how it is perceived, do you feel that this way of expressing yourself fits better your artistic goal?
I don’t think so. My only artistic goal, if I have one at all, is to express myself honestly; this has nothing to do with where I record; it’s all to do with the authenticity of the emotions conveyed through the music. If I had the time and the money I would probably record my music in a studio. Aesthetically, recording at home works with my music, but you can achieve almost the same sound in a studio.
What kind of equipment did you use for “Without The World”? Could you imagine the same tracks released in a different way, maybe with an external production or wider arrangements?
Umm… I’m hesitant about talking about that sort of thing, I mean, I’d rather leave it open for interpretation. I use a lot of effects; experiments with found sounds and field recordings, and I mostly record with just a room mic, you know, I really like that sound.
I’m also a little hesitant about imagining what my music might sound like if I did it different: it is what it is, and I’m happy with that. But I have always wanted to record with an orchestra, or you know, just a string section.
From its title, “Without The World” could seem a lonely and mysterious record, while the whole of it resulted fully able to communicate feelings and emotions. Is this the goal you wanted to reach or did you write your songs mainly for yourself?
Well, I did write them for myself, but I did think that maybe a few people would be able to relate to the record, or you know, escape in to its world; like a sort of refuge. I try to write my lyrics so they can be interpreted in many different ways.
“Without The World” lyrics are often written in first person; are they somehow autobiographic or what else are they meant to communicate?
Yes, they are autobiographical. I wasn’t trying to express anything other than my own experiences. But as the lyrics are mostly metaphorical, I hope that people can relate to the lyrics in their own way.
Your songs often talk about ghosts and lost memories (for instance, “Skeletons” or “The Patterns On Your Face”): putting these things in music helps you to keep memories alive or to exorcise them?
It’s all catharsis. I think it might be the only way I know how to express certain things and exorcise my demons.
Which is your ideal mood for composing? Does it depend on your feelings at the moment or are your songs born in a gradual and more rational way?
Umm, depression! That is usually when I write, when I’m depressed. But it’s not all doom; there are a few love songs on that record. But mostly, for that record, at least in regards to the lyrics, my emotions dictated the outcome. But maybe the compositions are conceived in a more rational way.
You write both songs and poetry: is your approach to writing different depending on what you’re writing? And when do you decide whether to leave the words on paper or adding some music to them?
It depends. Sometimes, and especially lately, I write the poetry to specifically be lyrics; and I usually write the whole song at once. I’m not sure how to explain why I leave a poem as a poem, or turn them into a song, but I just know. Some poems I’ve written I know are just meant to be songs, the others, I want to leave as poems.
The lovely book of drawings and poems that is together with one of the record’s editions is divided according to the four seasons, while your music sounds mostly wintery (even if I found much warm and human emotions into it). How do you relate to the different seasons? Do they affect your moods and your music?
The seasons are often a great inspiration for me. Often the feeling of the day’s weather puts me in a mood, envelops me, and then the writing just comes out. That’s what I appreciate a lot about New Zealand. Here you can live a lifestyle that lets you just be consumed by the atmosphere of the day.
To identify “Without The World”‘s “genre” I used the expression “drone-writer”: do you think it can describe your music? And, generally speaking, do you think that experimental music could coexist with songwriting?
Yes I like that, but I’d rather leave that sort of thing to the audience.
I guess it does coexist, to a degree. I’ve tried to figure out why people who are into experimental music, like my music. I think it’s something to do with the structure of the songs. For some people, I think they like the tone of my voice, and the way I use it – in an experimental way, like vocal drones and stuff like that. So there are elements of my music that are experimental.
The acoustic guitar played by your brother Bruno on the absolutely wonderful “Fantastic Frown” made my mind go back to an old Flying Saucer Attack album (“Further”), whose subtitle was “home taping is reinventing music”. What do you think about this sentence today?
I think the traditional model is rapidly crumbling; the “traditional” studio is rendered redundant for a lot of artists nowadays. I think eventually the big labels won’t be able to compete with the proliferation of the underground. After all, one can record an album at home with cheap gear that is just as good as an album that’s recorded in an expensive studio. We live in an interesting era where you can release an album on a small label, and it can get the same sort of attention as an album released on a major label.
It’s not the tools, but the creativity in which you use the tools that interests me.
I read many comparisons about your music, both with experimental artists and female singers/songwriters, for instance Hope Sandoval, while in my review I mentioned Jessica Bailiff and Liz Harris: which female artists and singers do you like the most?
I think my favorites are Nina Simone, Stina Nordenstam and Hope Sandoval. Having said that, i don’t listen to a lot of music with lyrics, or the lyrics might be irrelevant; like Sigur Rós. I listen to a lot of classical music: Arvo Part, Satie, Tchaikovsky, Mahler and Gorecki are some of my favorites.
And is the music you listen to similar to the one you play?
Well, I don’t really listen to music much anymore. I used to listen to a lot, four or five years ago, but now I mostly just have Gregorian chants on a lot; it creates an atmosphere I love, but doesn’t get in the way. Some of my music lately has a similar atmosphere, sound and mood to Gregorian chant. Some of it’s influence can be heard in the pronunciation of my vocals, others in the mood. A few songs on Winter Lady have a cathedral-esque quality.
Even if your music seems very personal, you also run some collaborative projects. What’s the difference between making everything on your own and working together with other artists?
There’s a great difference in sound. There’s a great difference in the process for me. I need to use my head much more when I collaborate. It’s harder in a way because of that, but also it is fun, challenging and exciting because the finished product is always so different to what I make on my own.
In particular, how’s been working with Leonardo Rosado for “Dear And Unfamiliar” and how did you get in touch with him?
We met through Myspace a few years ago and he asked me to contribute a song to an album he was putting together for his label Feedback Loop. Later we decided to start a project together, making songs based on a film. In the end we chose Casablanca, and it went from there. It was a great experience working with Leonardo. I love what we produced and I hope to work with him again sometime.
The new Birds of Passage album, “Winter Lady”, is similar in the mood to “Without The World”, but its songs are generally longer and (apparently) more focused on the texture of sounds: is there something different in your approach to music from the first album?
I guess the difference would be that “Without The World” was more of an experiment. With “Without The World” I was developing a style in terms of composition, structure, sound and mood, but ultimately it was all experimentation; an attempt to find my musical voice.
With “Winter Lady” I feel like I have found my voice, not just in a vocal sense, but in an all encompassing musical sense. “Winter Lady” is much more focussed in terms of its theme also. The concept was built around the song “Highwaymen in Midnight Masks” and as an album, it tells a story which is both personal, but also metaphorical.
So I guess “Without The World” is more a collection of individual pieces that hopefully works as an album but also as individual pieces. Whereas” Winter Lady” as an album is much more conceptual and refined, but I think still has a spirit of experimentation. But the albums are very similar in that they both express my emotions, lyrically and musically in an authentic and truthful way.
Two and a half albums in only one year, plus many more ideas and collaborative projects. You appear to be a very prolific artist: has it been only a coincidence of release or writing music is just something so natural for you?
Often it is very natural for me, but you are right, it is a coincidence that all of the music is coming out at once. Most of the music coming out this year was recorded over a period of two years. It just appears that I’m prolific because everything is being released now. The truth is, I go through periods where I make music every day, but sometimes I don’t make music for months. It all depends on when I can cut myself off from the world.
Last, what else can we expect from you in the near future, and what do you expect from music?
Well, there are more collaborative projects on the way, and another solo album.
I have a collaborative project called Brother Sun, Sister Moon with Gareth Munday aka Roof Light. It is an experimental project which delves into all things psychedelic; including acid-folk, shoegaze, dream-pop ambient and drone.
I also have a project I’m working on with Listening Mirror, which is straight ambient drone with ethereal vocals.
And I also have plans to record an album with Aidan Baker. We collaborated on a song which is the b-side to my new single “Highwaymen in Midnight Masks”, and I thoroughly enjoyed the process. I’m really looking forward to recording an album with him.
Somewhere in amongst all this I want to record another solo album and return to Europe for another tour. Hopefully I’ll be able to visit Italy this time.
I don’t expect anything from music really. I hope that my music can continue to stir emotion in people and be something they can relate to, and I hope I can keep making music for many years to come.
(originally published on ondarock.it – Italian version)