Like every musician, Markus Sieber is used to going the extra mile to make the music he hears in his head and feels in his heart. There aren’t many, however, who would – or indeed, could – get to work in the mornings by strolling across a frozen lake before settling in a small cabin high up in the mountains. Unlike the small cottage in which he wrote his first, self-titled album as Aukai, this small wooden hut – located close to the Old Spanish Trail in Colorado – offered electricity, so he could at least set up a home studio. But there was no internet or phone, and the noise of traffic – or of any human life – was absent. The only sound that disturbed him was if the wind blew too hard, when he’d wait till it died before continuing recording. Sometimes he stayed overnight; other times, he walked back through the brittle cold, beneath a starry winter sky, to rejoin his family. For most of an entire month, though, he’d begin his day by pressing “Record’, and end it by pressing ‘Stop’. The world outside barely existed.
Sieber’s no stranger to solitude and frugal living. Born near Lepzig, East Germany, 15 years before the Wall fell, his parents moved to a village outside Dresden when he was six. Fast forward to today and he finally returned to Germany to mix the new album with Martyn Heyne (7K!, Nils Frahm, The National, Dustin O’Halloran) at Berlin’s Lichte Studio. Branches of Sun is set for a March 9th release date.
The finished album finds Sieber further exploring the possibilities of the ronroco, the instrument he calls “the bigger brother of the charango” and which took centre stage on his debut. “It has an otherworldly, mesmerizing, dreamy sound I love,” he explains. “It comes from the Andes, and its sound literally provides the feel of the mountains, a sensation of space and freedom.” This time he uses it in a more textural fashion to enrich the overall sound, rather than as the leading melodic instrument. “Most of the pieces are less thematic than the first album,” he adds. “They’re more atmospheric spaces that develop in a spiral structure. Some are almost only fragmentary impulses.”
If its predecessor drew comparisons with Penguin Café Orchestra, Ludovico Einaudi and Gustavo Santaolalla – the latter largely thanks to that ronroco – ‘Branches Of Sun’ will likely invite further references to Durutti Column, The Album Leaf and Snow Palms, plus, inevitably, Brian Eno and Ryuichi Sakamoto (if only for its quietly refined moods). None, however, quite capture the magic – at once meditative and instinctive – that flickers within its heart.
While Sieber argues the new record is darker and more experimental, these are relative values: its richly produced, acoustic pieces belie the cold surrounding their composition with a warmth of sound and spirit, whether the elegant ‘Colorado’ or the shimmering ‘Nightfall’, the airy ‘Iztac’ or the fragile ‘Turning Days’. ‘Become’, meanwhile, conjures up the mysticism of Arvo Pärt’s tintinnabuli compositions, while the comparatively upbeat ‘Fragmentary Blue’’s character can be explained by the fact that, unlike the rest of the album, it was recorded during summer in the south of France. As for ‘Branches Of Sun’, it’s designed to evoke what Sieber calls “a dream state, a sense of hovering on the brink of timelessness”, something which, arguably, the entire album induces.
“Branches Of Sun” was recorded with what he calls the Aukai Ensemble, including his wife, Angelika Baumbach (piano, harp), and brother, Alex Nickmann, a Berlin based composer for dance performances, on synth, piano, beats, vibraphone, Fender Rhodes and Mellotron. Also present are Anne Müller, a collaborator with Nils Frahm and Agnes Obel, on cello; Jamshied Sharifi – who’s worked with, among others, Laurie Anderson, Sting and Jacob Collier – on accordion, piano, synth, Prophet 5, Wurlitzer and tack piano; Bogdan Djukic, of award-winning Canadian folk act Beyond The Pale, on violin; and Spain’s Miguel Hiroshi on drums and percussion.