Name: Nanna Barslev
Occupation: Composer, singer, songwriter
Current release: Nanna Barslev's Lysbaerer is available via ByNorse (Wardruna).
Recommendations: I like gothic metal from the nineties, two albums that I can listen to over and over again are: The Dutch band The Gathering with their album Mandylion and the Norwegian band Third and the mortal with the album Tears laid on earth. These two albums are timeless and take the listener on a journey through landscapes and energies.
If you enjoyed this interview with Nanna Barslev and would like to know more about her work, visit her on Instagram, and Facebook.
When did you start writing/producing/playing music and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
That’s a good question. As I used to say I almost sang before I could talk. (laughs) I was a quiet and shy child. But found out that I could express myself through music.
I’ve been told that as a very young child I started playing psalms on the old wooden church organ in the living room. Later I sang in the local church choir. In the early 90s I started singing and composing medieval / Viking / folk / metal music. I've always wanted to express past time, energies and feelings and an interpretation of them.
As a child I was inspired by Norwegian Sissel Kyrkjebø, later, as a youth, by Bjørk and Skunk Anansie, The gathering and more. All different styles that made me practice different song techniques and developing from my church choir voice into metal growl and joik.
Some people experience intense emotion when listening to music, others see colours or shapes. What is your own listening experience like and how does it influence your approach to music?
I mostly feel energy and landscapes and emotions when listening to music. Of course it’s always good if I get that feeling in the body, too.
When I play music myself, I sing in landscapes and in images like a kind of movie frame. I need to have my heart with and reach the right emotions to express the songs. It's like passing on the images to others and they understand the meaning without knowing the words.
How would you describe your development as an artist in terms of interests and challenges, searching for a personal voice, as well as breakthroughs?
I actually think I walked in a straight line in the genre I still work with. My vocal style, expression and personality emerges from the pious girl to a more wild woman. (laughs)
I started as a young person singing Danish folk ballads and psalms and through the years it turned into rock and metal, more rough, but always in a cross over style between folk-electronic and metal. Always using a wide range from folk voice to growling.
I wanted to express the emotions and characters in the old stories and symbolic lyrics and the crossover genres were an amazing platform for that. Composing music and performing with my groups Asynje and Gny. Later, the folk metal band Huldre got more intense during the years.
The interactive stage performance and communication with the audience through dance and singing, was a huge part of my development as a musician, but also a development as a private person. When I started to sing these Nordic folky cross over styles in my native language Danish, the style was not common and it surprised many but now the styles are more common.
With all these experiences and thanks to contributing melodies and ideas in all these bands it was a natural step to challenge myself to make a solo album. For the first time I dared playing instruments myself and composing all the melodies myself without boundaries.
Tell me a bit about your sense of identity and how it influences both your preferences as a listener and your creativity as an artist, please.
I’m a very sensitive person with many different expressions, from
melancholic to wild. Sometimes I have tons of philosophies and get inspired by so many topics. I make music when I am in different emotions, anger, sorrow, connecting with energies a vision or a story I just have to express.
I prefer listening to music where I can feel the listener's spirit and often melancholic souls. Upbeat tempos and happy music seldom affect me emotionally. (laughs)
What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to music and art?
It’s like a transition of energy and emotions. Making music is like writing a book or a movie. It's a pattern of stories coming together in images and feelings through a soundscape.
How would you describe your views on topics like originality and innovation versus perfection and timelessness in music? Are you interested in a “music of the future” or “continuing a tradition”?
All my bands and projects have been a playground with the experiment of combining traditional folk music with modern sounds in metal and electronica. It’s a combination of past and present and I realise that we actually have been pioneers in the genres. I started to sing these Nordic folky crossover styles in my native language Danish, the style was not common and it surprised many but now it has become a modern style. I never tried to reach a certain style or time.
On Lysbærer you can hear traces from my previous projects, but I composed new kinds of melodies with new structures, a different sound and style. Working with the skilled producer Fieke Van den Hurk was an amazing process, adding different layers of distortion and beats. I think the result is a unique sound.
Over the course of your development, what have been your most important instruments and tools - and what are the most promising strategies for working with them?
I started working on my solo project when I bought a replica of an islandsk langspil, a long bowed string instrument, later on tagelharpa and moraharpa. I’ve been playing drums for many years. I've always been playing with skilled musicians and didn’t have the courage to play instruments myself. In this solo album process I found out how wonderful it is to play bowed string instruments. Composing riffs and melodies opened up a whole new world for me as a musician.
Another important tool is a loop pedal, which I'm using as a track recorder. All the sketches are made from loops with different instruments, layer of voices and drums
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please.
I live on a farm with the forest in my backyard.
I start the day taking care of the animals walking in the forest. My mind already begins to process themes when I sit with my morning coffee. I am both working as a cultural heritage manager and musician and I'm always working on creating new events, workshops, video scenes, photos and of course new ideas for songs. I record melodies on my phone or write down notes about different subjects. My bookshelf is full of books about folklore themes.
I take care of booking and promotion too. My day is full of variations in tasks and I find inspiration every day and I never feel bored.
Listening can be both a solitary and a communal activity. Likewise, creating music can be private or collaborative. Can you talk about your preferences in this regard and how these constellations influence creative results?
In my other projects, it has been a combination of a collective composing process. It happens that I or one of my band members come up with a song. There is always a lot of compromising and the songs can have very different energies.
Working alone is very different cause you have only yourself you should compromise with. Both composing in a group and composing alone is an interesting process and outcome.
How do your work and your creativity relate to the world and what is the role of music in society?
As I am working with history, folkloristic themes and historical music, I feel it is important to introduce others about cultural heritage. To inspire both kids and adults to feel the connection with old cultures and nature.
You should see how percussion made from deer bones, antlers and simple nut rattles can inspire both children and adults. Sometimes people tell me that a piece of my music has opened up a hidden place in their soul. These reactions shows me that the hard work of making music is all worth it.
Art can be a way of dealing with the big topics in life: Life, loss, death, love, pain, and many more. In which way and on which occasions has music – both your own or that of others - contributed to your understanding of these questions?
Sometimes I compose music when I feel frustration and sadness. Through the writing process These feelings are transmitted into some kind of hope, strength and healing.
There seems to be increasing interest in a functional, “rational” and scientific approach to music. How do you see the connection between music and science and what can these two fields reveal about each other?
If you mean how music touches the listener, music has many benefits both in mental health, therapy, the feeling of belonging to this world.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you feel as though writing or performing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
Making a cup of coffee can be art for some. Making music for me is a constant development of different energies and different feelings I want to express. I can never stop and say, now I can’t develop anymore. It’s a constant search for reaching that kind of melody and expression that really can be felt in the roots of your core.
Music is vibration in the air, captured by our ear drums. From your perspective as a creator and listener, do you have an explanation how it able to transmit such diverse and potentially deep messages?
Music is a language that can be understood across cultures and borders. Maybe a special vibration frequency.
As a musician you have to feel the feelings, imagine the pictures of the themes and tell the story with your heart then it can be transmitted like a kind of a mirror. When performing folk songs, people from other countries often understand the atmosphere and themes even if they don’t understand the language.