January 13, 2009 § 2 Comments
Published: The Age, A2, January 10, 2009.
On the eve of legendary Romanian group Fanfare Ciocarlia’s Melbourne appearance, Dan Rule looks at the motivations behind our fascination with Gypsy music.
THE story behind Fanfare Ciocarlia’s rise to prominence is the stuff of myth. Hailing from a line of Roma farming families in the tiny north-eastern Romanian village of Zece Prajini, until 1996 the 12-piece ensemble had played no stage larger than a local wedding, baptism or funeral. Twelve years on, their frenetic brass sound – born from traditional Roma melodies and the brass bands of the Turkish military, which had occupied the region at the start of the 19th century – is one of the drawcards of the world music circuit.
“They were unlike anything we had ever come across, just letting the music flow out from themselves, completely different to trained musicians in Western music,” says Helmut Neumann, one of the group’s label managers at German imprint Asphalt Tango Records.
“It’s very human and very emotional – so honest that you can’t leave it. You are automatically attracted by it.”
But according to Neumann, who discovered the group with business partner Henry Ernst in 1996, there was no great fable to Fanfare Ciocarlia’s unearthing. It was pure chance.
“We were both living in Leipzig, which is a city of about half a million in East Germany, so until the ’90s the East was our only possibility for travel,” he says, talking on behalf of the group (who don’t speak English) on the eve of its Australian tour, which will take in next week’s Gypsy Queens and Kings concert at Hamer Hall as part of the Arts Centre’s Mix It Up series.
“We had gotten to know Romania very well,” he continues. “But it was just good luck that Henry entered the village where Fanfare Ciocarlia were living. Very quickly Henry made the decision to bring them to Germany and France to do a tour. We thought of it as a one-off because we were so fascinated by the music – it was not thought of in a professional way. Financially it was a disaster.”
The archetypal image of the Gypsy – boundless, anchorless and free – is instilled with romanticism and mystique. But the Roma’s signifiers are still the source of both reverence and derision in the West. While their cultural product, from the great Django Reinhardt to the pop chart-ready sound of the Gipsy Kings, has been happily consumed, as a people they have been held at arm’s length by a Europe still fixating typecasts of the thief and the mystic.
According to Neumann, this “heavy” lineage engenders the music of Fanfare Ciocarlia and other Gypsy artists. He frames their sound in the context of a kind of activism and adaptation. “They’ve dealt with long travels, persecution and racism all the time, because they have basically been considered as outlaws, not involved in any society,” he says.
“But somehow they’ve adapted to each society in which they arrive, so the question then becomes: what is their own culture? What is their way to express their own culture? Because they have been adapting so many of the local things wherever they settle, there aren’t many things of their own left. I think one of the last ways they have to live their own culture is through music, and there’s a real pride in that.”
Billed as “an epic celebration of Gypsy life”, the Queens and Kings project seems to embody these ideas of both expression and fusion of culture. Along with Fanfare Ciocarlia, the concert features Gypsy vocalists and musicians from throughout Europe, including twice Nobel Peace Prize nominee and Macedonian Gypsy Queen Esma Redzepova, Hungarian master-vocalist Mitsou, 21-year-old Romanian star Florentina Sandu, Bulgarian songwriter Jony Iliev and Perpignan guitar trio Kaloome, and blends several disparate Gypsy styles and stories.
“It’s the common way of performing music, but it’s not common music,” says Neumann.
“The Gypsy music is very human and not about reading music from a page. It’s more about feel and emotion and the stories of life, and I think that’s why audiences relate so much.”
Indeed, Roma music has survived longer than most in a world music market constantly on the prowl for something new. But is our fascination really connected to the tales of the Roma, or is their visage simply more exploitable?
World music observers, such as veteran Melbourne broadcaster, journalist and DJ Kate Welsman, tend to the latter. It’s the exotic and the quixotic, rather than our sense of empathy, that draws us to Gypsy music, she says.
“Meanwhile, the reality is that these people are still persecuted and hated throughout Europe.”
But Welsman, who also curated Africa (the first concert in the Mix It Up series) and will be DJing under her Systa BB moniker in support of Gypsy Queens and Kings, also sees the music’s appeal in terms of it’s sonic relationship to rock.
“Some of the tones that are used in Gypsy or Balkan music and the timings are very, very different, and there’s a shrillness and a big bass that comes through, so much so that people relate to it almost as punk,” she says.
“Anything is possible with this music. You don’t have to do a particular style and there’s constant dancing and there’s an energy to it.”
It’s what Neumann hopes the audience will take away from what promises to be a typically frenzied set from Fanfare Ciocarlia and their guests at Hamer Hall. “With this music, it’s definitely about experiencing it firsthand,” he says. “There’s a magic to it.”
And according to Neumann, the songs will ring on for years to come. “You know, the world music community, they just want new, new, new exotic things all the time. It’s something we’ve really had to fight against.
“We took Fanfare Ciocarlia from a far-flung corner of Eastern Europe and brought them to the rest of the world because we loved their music. And it is our responsibility to help them travel the world and play their music for as long as they want.”
Mix It Up: The Gypsy Queens and Kings is at Hamer Hall, the Arts Centre, Sunday, January 18, at 5pm (free pre-show activities from 3pm). Tickets $79 premium/$63 adult/$34 concession: theartscentre.com.au, 1300 136 166 and ticketmaster outlets.
January 13, 2009 § Leave a comment
Published: The Vine, January 9, 2009.
Kevin Martin turned the UK’s urban underground on it’s head late last year. Having worked and collaborated with everyone from My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields and Napalm Death’s Justin Broadrick to US experimental hip-hop legends Antipop Consortium and El-P, his long-awaited second solo record as The Bug – the hellish urban melange that was London Zoo – rewrote the rules of dubstep, grime, dancehall and brutal noise in one earth-shattering swoop. It was unanimously acclaimed as one of 2008’s best releases in the process.
With the help of vocal provocateurs like Ricky Ranking, Killa P, Warrior Queen and Flow Dan, the record conjured a vision one of a London on the edge. A place where the rich rule and poor fight for the scraps. Put simply, it was remarkable. We spoke to The Bug on the eve of his Australian tour with Warrior Queen.
Hi Kevin, how are you going?
Hey man, I’m well. My girl’s unwell, so I’m just hanging out at home with her.
Hey, congratulations on the record mate.
Thank you very, very much man.
It was a bit of a revelation out here, I think. It felt like it came out of nowhere. I knew of your work and I knew of Pressure, but London Zoo felt really complete by comparison.
Yeah, um, during the last stages of making the record, I kind of went back to Pressure and thought about what was wrong with it, and primarily it was the fact that there weren’t really completed songs. I wasn’t really experienced in working with vocalists when I was working on Pressure and directing them and collaborating with them, whereas this whole album was far more in that direction. I had to be working more closely with the vocalists to get the results I needed.
And also, for me, it was just a challenge. My background, musically, is anti-music really. I’d always been pretty disdainful of songs (laughs), if that makes sense. But with this album I wanted to hook people literally. I wanted to give them melodies that they would remember and just push myself, and that’s exactly what happened. It took three years to make this album and it was a nightmare – it was a challenging record to make in every way and it was a real relief when it was finally finished.
I’d love to hear a bit about how you approached the vocal contributions, especially the tracks with Flow Dan and Warrior Queen, which were the real standouts. It feels as if they were really collaborative, rather than you just handing someone a beat to rap over.
Pressure was a bit more of a rent-a-rapper situation. I just didn’t have the contacts to do it any differently. Whereas on this album I had been working with Warrior and Flow Dan and Ricky Ranking for some time, so it really happened on a friendship basis. You can just be so much more open with people in your communication when you’ve known them for longer, and that boded well for the record.
Also, I did a session for that Mary Anne Hobbs show on BBC a couple of years ago now, and they said I should get my dream line-up of MCs. So I brought in about 11 MCs and recorded a version of the show…it was like this incredible party and there was just so much variation in tone and theme from each MC. Prior to that session, I was more or less thinking that the album would just feature Warrior Queen and a live MC I was working a lot with called Ras B. But after that session it was like ‘No, I really want to try and do justice to what London’s myriad of vocalists have to offer’. I wanted that culture clash and that thematic clash and that sort of mad range of contrasts that the session had, which London throws at you day in, day out really.
Yeah, it’s a real eye-opener to people outside of London in a sense. People have really flipped out over it. I was on Metacritic the other day and it’s like the second best critically received record out of everything this year…
Yeah, the reception’s been a total shocker to me. Like, The Wire just voted it their album of the year and stuff, and to be honest with you, the day I finished the album, I came home from the mastering and listened to it and wept. I thought I’d fucked it up and made this unlistenable, self-centred piece of shit, while still hearing every mistake. It took me a couple of weeks to be able to go back and actually listen to it, and that’s when I realised, well you know, it’s okay (laughs). So you know, the reception to it has been pretty blinding really. The audience have just made the step too, which is just great.
When Pressure came out there wasn’t really an audience for that kind of sound, and low and behold, dubstep appeared a couple of years later. As much as I don’t consider myself a dubstep producer, I think its audience was open to my sound. But yeah, I don’t see myself as dubstep – I just make Bug music.
I guess it touches on a bunch of styles that don’t really get a run outside of their particular scene. You know, there’s those echoes of dubstep frequency-wise and dancehall and that much noisier sort of aesthetic…
Yeah, yeah, well for me it was sort of a reaction to dubstep as well. I remember when ‘Poison Dart’ and ‘Skeng’ started going off at dubstep clubs and I was witnessing people going nuts to the tracks, I was shocked and proud, but it almost twisted me. For about a month I started trying to write tracks along those lines and almost rethinking my album, and that was a mistake and I realised that pretty soon. Then I just thought about it a little harder and thought, ‘Actually, you know, I don’t want a collection of dancehall or dubstep tunes – I want a whole album’.
It was just about realising that most dance music fans and clubbers don’t really want an album; they just want an accessory to their drug trip. I wanted to make an album that stood the test of time and had some sense of longevity, which summed up my environment and summed up my thoughts about London and living in this cosmopolitan kaleidoscope really. And I guess what really helped me was coming up with the title London Zoo…when I came up with the title it focussed me with what I wanted, with the artwork and everything really.”
That’s exactly what I was going to ask you – when this thematic direction came about. Was it something you’d articulated to yourself beforehand or after working with all the rappers?
I think the whole London-centric side of it was more an afterthought, like two-and-a-half years down the line. But it definitely helped me, because I was going through a really tough time. I was living in my studio for two years, which is one room, which had no kitchen, no shower and you know, just a rough existence. It was grinding me to the ground and I was pretty depressed around the time of the two-and-a-half year mark, thinking that I was never going to be able to finish this record.”
It was really the first time since I’ve lived in London that I thought that maybe I’m not going to be here much longer. I thought I would have to move away because I couldn’t afford it anymore – it’s insanely expensive – and I’m still not sure if I can afford to carry on here. But the title being about London and the fact that everything I’ve ever really done musically is ode to London.
The city engendered on London Zoo seems part of a much wider narrative coming out of the London at the moment. The outside world, that has grown up with this romanticised vision of London is finally getting this gritty, minority outlook – people saying ‘Look, it’s not actually that kinder place’…
London’s a fucked up city. It’s not what it promises to be. It isn’t a 24-hour city. It’s an amazing place if you can afford to take advantage of it, but if you can’t it tortures you mercilessly day in, day out. It has a lot to offer and I love the cultural make-up of the city, but it’s still riddled with racism and, really, is at the mercy of the rich. It’s an absolute love-hate relationship that I have with this city – total extremes. I mean, I’m worried about leaving it, because it’s given me so much and I’m worried how anywhere else would impact on me in terms of where I’d go musically. But at the same time it’s a really hard place to live. In the last couple of years particularly, it’s become really blatantly apparent to me how all my friends are just struggling to exist.
Going back to the record, in terms of the vocalists, was there anyone you really wanted to get for the record but couldn’t?
Yeah, Roots Manuva and Dizzee Rascal were two who I really wanted by I couldn’t get. But I sort of had ambiguous feelings because I didn’t want this record to be sold on names, and also, I’d never worked with them before. Both of them are just so amazing and such quintessentially London MCs and from different eras, and I tried for a long time, but I just basically never managed to hook up with them one way or the other.
How did the collab with Flow Dan come about? It seems like such a good fit…
Well he and I sort of laugh about now, because for Mary Anne Hobbs’ show I’d tried to get hold of Riko from Roll Deep, and Roll Deep’s manager said that I should get Flow Dan too. I’d been aware of Flow Dan and liked him, but I really hadn’t heard enough of his versus at that point. So when it finally came to the session, Riko didn’t show up and Flow Dan did and Flow Dan absolutely massacred the tune. From that point it just seemed obvious that he was the perfect MC for me to work with, and he was up for the challenge. He’s a total professional.
I didn’t even know whether or not I liked ‘Skeng’ at first. It was kind of like ‘What’s going on here? What’s with this guy’s voice?’ It was almost like a caricature – it was so deep and brooding.
Yeah, totally, well the irony with that tune is that it was done at the end of a very long session and it almost didn’t happen, and Killa P had to convince Flow Dan to do it. Then Flow Dan started with his normal style and I was like ‘Just do it half-tempo’ and that’s where he got the idea to chant the way he did on it.
Lyrically, Killa P and Flow came up with the lyrics totally off the top of their heads and we were howling at the end of it. Now there’s been all this controversy over the lyrics, stupidly, because they’re just straight-up Manga lyrics, like a caricature of violence. And so yeah, it’s an intense piece and for some people who are unaware of the idea of tackling violence in lyrics, they will find it monstrous, I’m sure. But for me it’s an incredible piece of work and they came up with incredible lines. The contrast between the two MCs was amazing.”
“Shot in the face like dart in a board” would have to be my favourite line…
(Laughs) Yeah, I get a lot of that. Says it all really. But yeah, yeah, I was really happy with how that one turned out.
The Bug and Warrior Queen – National Tour
Friday, January 23 – Perth
The Bakery, http://www.artrage.com.au
Saturday, January 24 – Sydney
Becks Festival Bar, http://www.sydneyfestival.org.au
Sunday, January 25 – Melbourne
The Laundry, http://www.thelaundrybar.com.au
Monday, January 26 (4pm) – Brisbane
Step Inn, Fortitude Valley, http://www.stepinn.com.au
London Zoo is out through Ninja Tune/Inertia
January 13, 2009 § 1 Comment
Published: The Vine, January 7, 2009.
Parisian songstress Camille has never approached music from anywhere even near a conventional angle. Best known as the lead vocalist of Nouvelle Vague, her skewed, feisty and theatrical take on pop has made her one of the drawcards of contemporary French music.
Released in mid 2008, her elastic third record Music Hole pushes the boundaries of popular music even further. Drawing on abstract, layered vocals, beat boxing, sub-bass rumbles and bizarre, bodily percussion, it sees Camille bouncing, grunting and squealing her way along the track list like a Bjork on uppers.
On the eve of her Australian tour, we spoke with the uber-diva about her peculiar take on instrumentation, the shape of pop music and negotiating the French-English divide.
Hey Camille, how are you?
Oh hello! I’m at home in Paris so I’m good, I’m good.
What’s been happening? You’ve been on tour yeah?
Well, I’ve been resting for only one day, but otherwise yeah, I’m on tour with my band. We’re on tour in France right now, but we’ve been to Japan for part of the autumn – it’s winter here you know – and we’re going to Belgium in the next little while.
I guess it’s probably a question you’ve been asked a lot in the last year, but how do you feel Music Hole has been received in France, considering the amount of English content on the record? Has that been an issue at all?
Oh yeah! I think it’s been an issue, yeah. Most critics would ask me ‘Why English?’ but wouldn’t ask me about the meaning of my words. The whole English thing is a big issue, because I think French people are still quite touchy on that. English is still the language of the invader, if you know what I mean. It’s not like Spanish – Spanish is cool, it’s Latin, you know. But English is kind of like commercial or something. The French are fascinated by Anglo Saxon culture and music, but at the same time they’re still reluctant. But to me, I’m fine with that because I feel that I’m very European. I share lots of different cultures and languages.
Do you feel like it has affected your audience?
In terms of the fans, I think those who don’t really understand English, some understood that I was working on sounds and it’s like a new sound-scape in continuity with my work. Others thought it was just foreign and they couldn’t understand and felt left out a bit. But now I’ve toured for a year and they’ve seen me onstage, I think they feel fine about it.
So what was the impetus behind the shift towards singing in English? Was it more about exploring your voice and the kind of aesthetic of different kinds of vowel sounds or something?
Yes, yes! I feel like the more languages you speak the more musical you are. Your ears and your spirit and you mind opens in a different way. For me it was also an exploration of my subconscious through words, of course, but yes, the sounds were very important. It’s just starting in a way. There’s a lot more to do, with English and with other languages.
There seems to be a really performative aspect, even to your records. Like, there’s a real physicality and expressiveness to the actual performance. Would you say that’s a really planned thing, or does it just happen that way?
I think it’s everything together. I like to do some research – I like the laboratory thing, I like to conceptualise – but at the same time, what pushes me is to express myself and my deep needs. After I’ve done that, then I can intellectualise it, like, ‘Okay, I want to do this, I want to explore this’. I think art is really about that – it’s about relating research and expression and feelings.
At the same time, you don’t seem to take yourself too seriously, if you know what I mean. You seem to inject a lot of humour into your music…
For sure. Often, people seem to separate the normal vocal tone from humour, so immediately, if something’s in a certain tone, they won’t think of it that way. Humour is a position, a form of distance. It’s kind of a balance and at anytime you can fall. I think it’s a lot deeper than making jokes.
Sometimes things are put in niches when they shouldn’t really need to. I’m a mixture of things; I like theatre, I like to say things, I like music. So it’s a mixture of all that. I think it means something as a whole, and I don’t really care about what form it takes or how people are going to define it.
Tell me about the idea behind your instrumentation – the looped vocals and beat boxing and body percussion and so on.
Well, I think pop music has become a standard. It has become industrialised. Like most things man has continuously created, it’s sold, then it becomes a recipe, then it becomes a brand, then it becomes a chain and then it loses all spirit. And I think a lot of pop music has lost its spirit. Now pop music is just linked to sex and being sexy and all that, and it doesn’t have to.
The best pop music has kept things that are genuinely musical and expressive and working on sounds in a way that most artists don’t, and this is what I feel I am trying to do. When you go back to Elvis or the Beatles, their pop music was a revolution, you know. People were just discovering that sound and to them it sounded very modern and new and that’s what it should be about. It should be about surprise; to surprise the people and stimulate them.
Do you feel like you achieved that with Music Hole? I ask that because it’s so different to your earlier work.
What I had in mind, I still haven’t reached. To me, it was more of a stage project and a band project. But the band was not ready at the time, so I recorded it at as a kind of laboratory, as a starting point for that project to emerge. I had very clear things in mind, like I wanted to work on sub-bass and hyper-trebly vocals, and the mixture of French and English, and the sound of body language. So it was a start. I worked on these things on the record but not so much onstage. But now I’ve been working with my band for a year, it’s starting to get there, but there’s still a lot more work.
Tell me about ‘Money Note’ where you sing about Mariah and all these other divas. I haven’t been quite sure how to take it, whether as an outward critique or a kind of homage.
Well it’s both (laughs)! We were talking about distance and irony and humour before, and I think when you’re French and you’re singing a disco tune, it’s hard to do it without humour. You can’t help but sort of mock something that isn’t quite your musical culture. I am not American and I cannot do a disco tune with a straight face.
It was actually a friend of mine who introduced me to the term. We were doing some recording and she said ‘It’s just like Whitney Houston, when she hit that money note’. And I was just like ‘What did you just say? Money note?’ (laughs), and then she explained to me that it was an American expression for the big note in a song that was going to sell it.
So the song is kind of looking at the way Americans have this drive to be the best talent and the best record seller and all these things, and have no complexes about it. In France it’s very hard for us to say ‘I want to make money, I want to be the best’ – you would just laugh at yourself. Like, I was reading some of Madonna’s early interviews and she was just like ‘I want to conquer the world’, and it’s just amazing! It just wouldn’t work in France. People would be so shocked.
Camille – Australian Tour
Melbourne – Wednesday, January 21
Sydney – Thursday, January 22
Recital Hall, http://www.sydneyfestival.org.au
Sydney – Friday, January 23
Recital Hall, http://www.sydneyfestival.org.au
Brisbane – Saturday, January 24
Brisbane Powerhouse, http://www.brisbanepowerhouse.org
Brisbane – Sunday, January 25
Brisbane Powerhouse, http://www.brisbanepowerhouse.org
Sydney – Tuesday, January 27
Becks Festivla Bar, http://www.sydneyfestival.org.au
Music Hole is out through EMI
January 13, 2009 § Leave a comment
Published: The Vine, January 5, 2009.
Madlib Remixes 2: Saturday Morning Edition
(Le Smoke Disque/Creative Vibes)
It’s hard to relate to an artist as prolific and idiosyncratic as Madlib. His intense work ethic and singular, loping, funk-buried aesthetic are nothing short of extraordinary. Just a couple months after WLIB AM: King of the Wigflip – the latest in his Beat Konducta series – Madlib re-emerges with Saturday Morning Edition, a remarkably solid collection of remixes released though French imprint Le Smoke Disque.
It pushes all the right buttons. Madlib re-imagines a clutch of underground hip-hop classics from artists like Nas, AG, The Alkaholiks, MF Doom, Pete Rock and Wu-Tang’s Raekwon and Inspectah Deck. But more than anything, this compile takes us on a trip through Otis Jackson Jr’s musical lineage. Growing up with a father who was a celebrated session musician and bandleader for the likes of Tina Turner, Bobby Bland and Johnnie Taylor, Otis Jr and little brother Michael (aka OhNo) hail from from a pedigree of 70s and 80s soul, funk and jazz. It’s written all over Saturday Morning Edition.
The record comprises 27 cuts scored entirely by funk and disco samples from 1978 to 1983. And while the idea of blending the rugged, NY-styled gangsterisms of an AG or Raekwon with disco-ball dynamics may sound a little unlikely, Madlib pulls it off with ease. In two of the record’s finest moments, he pits Alkaholiks classic ‘Likwidation’ against a popping, synth-stabbed break and Jadakiss’s ‘Put Yr Hands Up’ against a dense, layered rhythm and swooning, brass hook. Elsewhere, Elite Terrorists’ ‘Waiting to Blow’ is twisted into an 80s electro funk beat and Tash’s ‘Rap Life’ melts into a buttery bass line and glittering top end, while Inspectah Deck’s ‘The Movement’ and ‘The Grind’, and Nas’s ‘Nasty N.’ burn over syrupy hooks.
The further it plays out, the more this record extends beyond a mere series of reworkings. Rather, it brims and bubbles with a sense of discovery. Early hip-hop may have been reactive to disco, but a generation later, Madlib eschews the split, searching out and joining the dots. In the process, he hints at a whole new range of dense, funk-heavy possibilities.
That’s not to say that this feels deconstructive. Madlib’s loose, easy, smoke-drowned signature is plastered all over Saturday Morning Edition. It feels right, like these verses and beats are meant to be. Madlib doesn’t even break a sweat.
January 13, 2009 § Leave a comment
Published: The Vine, January 4, 2009.
The work of Christian Fennesz is very much an amalgam; it is the sum of its apparently disparate parts. In a career spanning over 10 years, countless collaborations and four solo albums, the Austrian guitarist and laptop artist has melded affronting static with gentle melodics in the most unlikely, but somehow natural of ways. In the process, he has touched on everything from ambience to noise to classical to pop.
Fifth solo offering Black Sea – his first solo album-proper since 2004’s Venice – not only solidifies the Fennesz aesthetic, it journeys in some of the artist’s most developed, refined and downright affecting directions yet. Over eight extended tracks, Black Sea unwinds amid buzzing, tonal resonance, layers of electronic texture and clear, glinting guitar dynamics. It’s nothing short of beautiful.
Where it was easy to lose yourself in the more abstracted and noise-based tropes of Fennesz’s earlier material, this record tempers its power exploits with a spine of guiding guitar passages and clarity of vision. Even the most earth-shattering of noise assaults – such as on the title track opener – dissipate into gentle, spacious motifs and melodies. The bowing gestures of ‘Perfume for Winter’, glacial guitar melody of ‘Grey Scale’ and the hazed-shrouded ‘Glass Ceiling’ all make for fine moments.
But it’s perhaps the wondrous, droning texture-tone of ‘Glide’ – a collaboration with New Zealand sound artist Rosy Parlane – that proves the album’s centrepiece. All static, fuzz and digital grain, it gradually unfurls to reveal an entwinement of swooping strings guitars – dense and dynamic, authoritative and delicate, all at the same time.
Over its nine minutes, we are treated to all that is brilliant about Christian Fennesz. His musical language rejects the notion of electronic music as unnatural or synthetic. Rather, it uses electronics as a means to dig deeper into itself.
Black Sea’s sound world is one where all of music’s unnecessary embellishments have been discarded – the tweaks, the stylisations, the technicalities. A raw, evocative essence is all that remains.
January 13, 2009 § Leave a comment
Published: Rhythms, January 2009.
Bon Iver’s remarkable debut is the stuff of myth and beauty. By Dan Rule.
Three ice-bound months alone in his father’s remote, northwestern Wisconsin hunting cabin, just a guitar, a tattered bass drum, a laptop and a diesel generator for company. The story behind Justin Vernon’s shimmering debut record as Bon Iver has been a story well told.
The stunningly bleak For Emma, Forever Ago – the result of the winter in the woods – has since etched itself, and the young man who crafted it, into indie music folklore. The collection’s nine poignant, skeletal and unabashedly honest sketches are some of the most remarkable and moving of recent years.
But Vernon, speaking over the phone from his parents’ home in the small northern Wisconsin city of Eau Claire, is more than aware of the myth-making potential of his story. “It’s funny, one could sort of blow the whole situation out of proportion,” chuckles the 27-year-old. “Like, ‘Man goes to cabin, man makes record’.”
“In reality, it was more like, ‘Man went to cabin, man got really cold, man became pretty bored most of the time, man went crazy for a couple of months until he broke out of and actually recorded some songs,” he laughs.
That’s not to trivialise the work, nor the circumstances behind its creation. For Emma, Forever Ago emanated from a difficult, heart-torn period for the singer-songwriter. It all started miles from home in North Carolina, where he’d been been living since college. Severed relationships, a faltering band and homesickness left him on the edge. The cabin was a chance for a clean start.
“It was an absolute personal necessity,” he admits. “The cabin is isolated enough to know that nobody would find me. I knew I would be busy, you know. I would actually have to cut wood or whatever just to stay warm… It was kind of the only place I felt I could go at that point and feel safe as a person.”
Vernon spent much of his childhood at the cabin, which his father built in 1979 on their family’s 80 acres. “It wasn’t a place we’d go for holidays if you know what I mean,” he laughs. “It’s a place he’d bring us if he needed help doing some woodwork or hauling trees or deer-hunting in the fall.”
“Over the years it’s just sort of been a place for my dad to tinker,” he continues. “It’s very bare and it’s very simple; it only recently got running water and the only electricity is from a generator.”
With only a few belongings and a skeletal recording rig, Vernon set about retracing his painful recent past. He spent his days collecting wood for the fire and clearing snow from the perimeter of the cabin, his nights on the guitar. The songs that spilled out echoed with both intimacy and vast, glacial atmosphere, Vernon’s weather-worn falsetto revealing a string of stories as personally harrowingly as they were soulful and evocative.
“It was all just memory,” he says, pausing. “The record was a dedication to a person, but also to an era of time that’s sort of been lost. A lot of the record speaks of that – of era and of ‘forever ago’.”
“The memories became so rigid and cold over time that I just realised, instead of running away from them or like longing for them, I just had to write about them in a very honest, very brutal kind of way. And by kind of breathing that last breath of life into those emotions, I was sort of finally able to release them and finally move on from them, and it’s really been a kind of transformative year in a lot of ways because of that.”
But while tracks like Skinny Love, the austere The Wolves and stunning re: stacks peal with such introspective qualities, they inhabit a space that transcends the internal. A pulse of subtle drones and layered ambience entwines Vernon’s vocal and naturally reverbed guitar, resonating with distance and cold and landscape.
“I feel like I’ve always sort of been hyper-aware of my geography and it’s always sort of seeped into my songs over the course of my life as a songwriter,” he muses. “Because I’ve always written songs.”
“You’ve got realise that it’s totally beautiful up there too,” he says smilingly. “It’s just gorgeous up there and it was really special to be able to really just take it all in by yourself. It kind of gives you a really honest way to look at things. So I just needed to get up there and it just kind of happened like that.”
“In that kind of place and in that kind of situation, it’s very sad and very hard, but you tend to figure a lot of shit out really quickly.”
For Emma, Forever Ago is out through Jagjaguwar/Inertia
Bon Iver tours Australia in January. See gig guide for details