Behind the Music: Interview with Lena Anderssen

Over the years, I’ve learnt to not dismiss a musical idea right away. Try stuff, sometimes the best one is right next to the bad one!’

With her latest single ‘The Airport’ being added to #FridayFinds last month, we chatted to Faroe Island-based Lena Anderssen to discover more about the track, what it was like creating her new album with Geoff Emerick, and why it’s important to not take yourself too seriously when it comes to songwriting.

Hi Lena, thanks for taking time to chat with us. For those who haven’t heard your music before, how would you describe it to them? Hey David, thanks for having me. I’d say my music could be described as classic pop with singer-songwriter elements. It’s always hard to fit your music into one heading, but I think pop in the good old-fashioned sense of the word is a good start.

What would you cite as your biggest musical or non-musical influences? Oddly enough, it’s the non-musical influences that have impacted me the most. I would say my childhood, life experiences, and state of emotion are all major creative triggers for me. Songwriting is sort of the suitcase I pack all my troubles and triumphs into, and a place to put the inner things when they’re too overwhelming to just keep inside.

Who are the core group of musicians you work with and what do they bring to the tracks? My songwriting partner/producer/guitarist, Niclas Johannesen, is a huge part of the foundation. He and I have built up a special dynamic over the years and also through performing live together. Since I’m a solo artist, I don’t have a set band that joins me in the studio every time, with it depending on the musicians’ availability and whose playing style would be best for each song. On my forthcoming album, I decided to have bassist Jóhannus á Rógvi Joensen come with Niclas and me to Los Angeles, where we recorded the basic tracks with Geoff Emerick. Jóhannus has played with us on tour a lot and we’ve built up a good synergy, with his groove feel being quite similar to mine. We wanted to bring that synergy with us into the studio since we were recording the album live with session musicians, Matt Chamberlain (drums), Matt Rollings (keys), and John Sosin (guitar), and of course, Geoff Emerick behind the console. When you bring in people who don’t tour with you regularly, it’s important to have a healthy foundation, which makes it easier for them to be creative too.

We also had drummer Jósva Debes join us on ‘Yes I Am’.  It’s a song that was very much shaped through live performances and as Jósva had played it with us at live shows, we wanted to get that same dynamic in the studio. Matt Chamberlain has played on three of my albums. I like his versatility and groove and he can come up with really cool, non–typical drumming patterns that can really help shape a track. James Olsen is another brilliant drummer we’ve often used too, as well as another great bassist – Danish Grammy-winning producer, Óli Poulsen, who has played on several of my tracks. When it comes to piano players, Finnur Hansen is one of the musicians who has recorded with us from day one. He’s an extremely multi-faceted player who also brings good vibes to the table. Jákup Zachariassen, a brilliant steel guitar player, has played a key part in our albums from the very beginning of my career and he will also be playing on this forthcoming one. Besides great musicianship, I think it’s so important that the people you work with bring positive, unintimidating energy to the studio, which puts you in a more open and creative mode.

‘Geoff Emerick was a real gentleman, a sensitive soul, and really dedicated to the music – I’m forever grateful that I had the privilege of working with him.’

You’ve currently released 3 tracks from your forthcoming album ‘State of the Land’. What is the story behind the album and your most recent single ‘The Airport’? The upcoming album began its journey in Autumn 2017. All the songs were there, some written that same year, others a little earlier, and two songs actually go way back to when I first started writing. After choosing which 11 songs I wanted on the album, Niclas and I decided we wanted to record the basic tracks live with a band so we could try to capture that special magic that happens in ‘real life’. Then we asked ourselves who the best engineer would be to have on board, and agreed that our dream scenario would be to have the legendary Beatles engineer, Geoff Emerick on the album. And sometimes dreams come true. Shortly after we had contacted Geoff’s management and sent a physical copy of our previous album over the Atlantic for Geoff to listen to, he said he’d love to engineer the new album. It was also Geoff’s preference to record in Los Angeles at LAFX Studio because it had a wonderful API console he really liked working on.

The third single from the album, ‘The Airport’, is a song that was written in Autumn 2017. Niclas Johannesen wrote the melody on the piano one evening and after hearing it I sat down and wrote the lyrics. It was the last song we wrote before deciding the repertoire for the album. It’s a song about saying goodbye, or rather, not saying goodbye. I’ve spent my entire life moving from city to city, country to country, always leaving something or someone that I love. Some of the most joyous and most tearful moments in my life have been in airports – where we meet the beginning of a new journey and the end of another. The only way I’ve ever been able to leave is to not say goodbye but say, ‘I’ll see you again’. Having grown up in Canada and now living in the Faroe Islands – where I was born – it’s like half of my heart is always on the other side of the world.

There’s a real playfulness to ‘The Airport’, not to mention some incredibly clever production. Was this always the intention and how were moments like the opening created? If we take the opening part first; it wasn’t part of the original song, but it felt like we needed a prelude – a constantly moving and easy-going rubato piece that was in another dimension than the rest of the song. The prelude modulates all the time, finishing half a key lower than the verse, and we found that it helped create a sense of excitement when the vocal kicks in half a key higher. Since this song is circular in terms of subject matter, it felt natural to incorporate the same piece as a postlude too – kind of like taking-off and landing. In terms of the production, we were very aware that we needed a good basic performance with drums, piano, bass, and my lead vocal recorded live at LAFX with Geoff Emerick. If the basic tracking is healthy and vibrant, then the job is more than halfway done.

Everything else was a matter of trial and error that Niclas and I tried mostly at home in our studio there. Niclas wrote the horn and string arrangements, and for recording the horns, a very good local trumpeter, Ólavur Olsen, came by with all his different horns and played all the parts. However, the strings were recorded by FAME in Macedonia. Our basic rule is that we like to try all kinds of stuff on our songs, but for any of it to survive Niclas and I have to agree that it actually serves the song. So on this one, a lot of guitar ideas, backing vocals, and different solo ideas for the third verse have been muted and erased because we didn’t feel it served the song. 

It also feels as though it could be part of a film soundtrack. Do you ever have a sense of imagery in mind when writing a track? Oooh, that would be great to have it featured in a film. In the case of ‘The Airport’, the chord progression spurred a sense of longing in me and that longing took me back to all kinds of places. However, one particular summer stood out in my memory, making it natural for me to paint a picture with a landscape of longing. When writing melodies, they often trigger certain emotions that make imagery and metaphors pop up in both the lyrics and production.

Like many of your releases, orchestral instruments have a key role in the sound. What makes these aspects so important to you? I’ve always loved strings and orchestral instrumentation, which can emphasise an emotion but also underplay it through nuance and depth. Producers like Niclas Johannesen and Óli Poulsen have great ears for that kind of thing and I’ve been lucky to work with them.

It’s so important to work with people who bring positive, unintimidating energy into the studio.

Turning to recording, if someone was watching one of your sessions what would they notice first? That I drink a lot of water. That the moment is intense. That I close my eyes and mentally leave the room when I’m recording vocals. That there are lots of sighs. Lots of laughter. And the nodding of heads.

And linked with this, how did it feel working with Geoff Emerick? I was so nervous the morning of our first session. I had never met him before and felt a little insecure having this legend sit behind the console, seeing me in my most vulnerable state. Creating music with others means you have to let your guard down, and that can be hard to do with someone you’ve never met before. But the minute I walked into the studio, he reached out his hand and gave me the warmest smile and made me feel at ease right away. He was a real gentleman and a sensitive soul, really dedicated to the music and the task at hand. I’m forever grateful that I had the privilege of working with such a great person and gentle spirit.

With it being recorded in 2018, have there been any changes made since then? The original plan was to record the album with Geoff in two parts – the basic tracking first, and then return to Los Angeles at a later date to do overdubs with him (strings, backing vocals, additional guitars etc.) Sadly, Geoff passed away suddenly in the fall of 2018. This meant that we had to record the overdubs without him. We’ve kept all of Geoff’s original tracking and we’ve built on that. We wanted to stay true to his vision and at the same time add the necessary instrumentation that best served the songs.

Having released 5 albums to date, what makes this forthcoming one extra special? I think the extra special element on this album is Geoff Emerick. It’s the last full album he worked on and that’s something. Also, the live factor makes it special. Band synergy is not something you can just recreate.

And on the theme of live music, how will you go about transferring the expanse of sound we hear on the album to venues? I’ve never regarded an album as something I have to reproduce on stage. Yes, there’s a lot going on musically in many of the songs, but that doesn’t change their essence, which is the melody and the story. So for me, it’s just really important to take the core of the song and do what works best live, whether it’s a duo with just two guitars, or a trio, with an added bass, or a full band. Sometimes we’ve had the luxury of having a string quartet and horns with us. I think once you’ve found your way to the centre of a song, then any other instruments you take with you on stage are adding colour to the motif. 

So which track on the album are you most looking forward to performing? The title track ‘State of the Land’ is a song I’ve already performed live quite a few times, in smaller gatherings during these restricted times. It’s a song that I always lock into right away emotionally so it’s one I’m looking forward to playing for larger audiences abroad. Also, ‘The Airport’ will be fun to play live with a full band and get that shuffle groove going. I do hope we’ll be using Airports more often than we did last year!

And finally, as someone with a wealth of industry experience, what would be your three key pieces of advice to those just starting out?

  • Shakespeare put it so eloquently when he wrote: ‘To thine own self be true and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.’
  • Whether it’s songwriting or studio work, try to be open and constructive. I’ve learnt over the years – when working with other people – not to be so defensive and to not dismiss an idea right away. Try stuff. Sometimes the best idea is right next to the bad one and how will you ever get there if you don’t try, right? Also, instead of saying what you don’t want, say what you do want. It’s far more constructive and inspiring, for both yourself and the team you’re working with.
  • Have fun. I think sometimes in the pursuit of creating art, we can often take ourselves too seriously. Sometimes great things happen when you let go a bit and let the joy of making music take the wheel.

Thanks Lena Anderssen for chatting with Listen to Discover

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