‘Often when I release music, I’m already very much into my next commission, score, or album.’
Following the release of new composition ‘Free’ ft Emilie Nicolas, and ahead of his concerts in the UK this week, I chatted with prolific Norwegian musician and composer Daniel Herskedal. Covering everything from award winning albums and dream collaborations to refreshing approach to brass playing, this is an interview you won’t want to ignore. [Read more at: Track Review: Daniel Herskedal: Free ft Emilie Nicolas]
Hi Daniel, thanks for taking time to chat. Please introduce yourself to your future listeners.
I grew up in Molde (Norway) where I was introduced to a wide range of high quality music and artists via Molde International Jazz Festival. I started off playing brass instruments in the school band and the festival arranged workshops for us to learn improvisation. Later, I studied both classical and jazz at the music conservatory in Trondheim, (where I am now based), and the Rhythmic Music Conservatory in Copenhagen. Since COVID I’ve mainly worked with scoring, composing and recording music, in addition to getting back on tour with my own bands, my solo project, and with Marja Mortensson.
My recent works include the 2020 Coca Cola commercial ‘Open Like Never Before’ (brass and arranger) – a track originally for the 2019 film ‘The Last Black Man In San Francisco’, 4 albums on Edition Records, and the solo record ‘Call For Winter’ which won a Norwegian Grammy last year. My score for the podcast ‘9/12’ (Pineapple Street and Amazon Music) also won ‘Best Score And Music Supervision’ at the Ambie Awards this year, and ‘Harbour’ (2021) was nominated for the German Music Prize a few weeks ago and awarded ‘Jazz Recording of the Year’ from Presto Music.
So when did you first know music would be such a big part of your life?
Me and my friends started our first band when we were 14 and we started playing concerts and touring shortly after. I was certain I wanted to become a professional musician when I was 15 though. At the time I was a quite fresh tuba player, but very eager to rehearse and improve. I had so much fun playing with my friends and learning from the pros. At one point it was a serious option for me to aim for a job in a symphony orchestra.
What five words best describe the music you create?
Melodic, honest, deep, peaceful, cinematic.
What would you cite as your biggest musical/non-musical influences?
I find a lot of inspiration in traditional music. Music that has survived by being passed through generations is, for me, the strongest musical quality. I would say my influences come equally from classical and jazz too. A lot of things could be non-musical influences as the musicians and composers I’ve met have come from different cultures and I’ve seen a lot of injustice. That certainly affects my music as well as using music to express what was missed in my early years. To find the peace to compose such music, I like to get away from daily life, travel somewhere like a cottage, and be there a few days just creating and enjoying the peaceful surroundings in the nature.
Your latest track – the stunning ‘Free’, is the second release with singer-songwriter Emilie Nicolas. How did this collaboration come about?
Emilie has one of the strongest artistic profiles in Norway and many were surprised by this collaboration. However, she did a version of my tune ‘The Mistral Noir’ a few years back, so I knew there was a chance of collaborating. When Trondheim Jazz Festival asked me to do a commission for last year’s festival, and at the same time encouraged me to invite musicians I hadn’t played with before, she and Eivind Aarset were top of my list.
Eivind is on guitar and electronics and is a legend, a master of soundscapes who brings his personality into the music to create rich worlds of sounds that you want to enter and be part of. Even though he’s been part of my band since 2015, I couldn’t resist asking Helge Norbakken too. He is the strongest ensemble musician I’ve worked with and he always gets the best out of his fellow musicians. There are so many layers in his approach to my compositions that he never stops surprising. His impact is very welcome and makes our music complete.
And what is the story behind the lyricism we hear on the track?
Emilie wrote all the lyrics and I gave her free rein after I made the compositions! It’s a story that develops throughout the album. I’ll leave her to explain it if she wants to, or maybe she wants the audience to think for themselves 🙂
‘For me, it’s not at all important to sound like a tuba player in the way you would expect.’
I love how the more gentle nature of Emilie’s vocals contrast with the compound cross-rhythms that underpin them. What is your approach to composing a track such as this?
I never intentionally compose cross-rhythmically, rather create compositions in a melodic way, or by building an ostinato, before analysing it to see what kind of time signature and rhythmic structures I’ve developed. Very much like traditional music around the world, the time signature is often uneven, but that’s not something you notice until you start analysing it or try to dance along. For all the compositions for ‘Out Of The Fog’ (October 2022) I made full arrangements where I played all the parts, including the melodies, and then Emilie, Eivind, and Helge developed them.
When played in succession with previous release ‘Out Here’, there is a real sense of cinematic soundtrack unfolding. What can we expect from the next chapter of the musical story you’re telling us?
Cinematic is a word I like and often use when describing my music. All the tracks have personality in them and only one track is without vocals. That will be the next single. You can expect more cinematic sounds, some calmer tracks, and some that have strong influences from the east.
Is there anything else you can tell us about your new album, which is scheduled for release this Autumn?
It will be available on vinyl!
What does a Daniel Herskedal recording session normally involve?
When recording with an ensemble, we usually do everything live. For this release, like most of my records, we spent three days in a studio at Ocean Sound Recordings and recorded everything there. I guess that’s the ‘jazz way’ of making an album. I also record a lot in my own studio in Trondheim, like when I’m scoring music, guest overdubbing other musician’s records, or making sketches for new compositions and projects. I always have my recording equipment ready to go, it’s a good way for me to improvise, record, and develop new music.
You’re currently in the UK ahead of performances later this week. How did these come about and what can people going to these expect to hear?
I’m in the UK this time with Marja Mortensson, a South Sami indigenous singer/yoiker and reindeer herder. She is one of around 800 South Sami speakers, and one of the very few who performs the traditional music professionally. She let’s me and drummer Jakop Janssønn bring our personalities into her music and I would say it’s a great match! Together we’ll perform some traditional yolks and newer compositions that she’s made. Marja’s won two Norwegian Grammys for her work, recently for her new album ‘Raajroe – The Reindeer Caravan’ with the Norwegian Radio Orchestra – which I co-composed and arranged for orchestra. She has a very rare and strong approach to music, and the stories she tells during the concerts makes the music very meaningful. Hopefully we’ll see some familiar (and some new) faces at Turner Sims 19th May and King’s Place 20th May!
Listening through your releases to date, there’s a real sense of you constantly pushing yourself as both a composer and brass player. How important is it to you that you do this?
When I compose and arrange, I often try to challenge everyone involved including myself. Sometimes I write unplayable parts just to make the musicians create a better version that I as a composer couldn’t come up with, or something the musicians would be unlikely to think of without this approach. Just ask Eyolf, the piano player in my band. This means it’s a development opportunity for everyone involved and we can all feel ownership of the music.
I guess my playing is developing because of my compositions, and the compositions are like this because my playing is developing. Composing and playing is equally important to me. It has to sound good! And yes I work a lot, and push myself to make more and hopefully better music, but that’s my inner urge to create and express. Often when I release music I’m already very much into my next commission, score or album. That’s not only a good thing, but keeps that inner urge going.
And linked with this, what led to you first exploring the capabilities of the tuba in a way different to the norm?
I think at some point during my studies I was very fed up with playing tuba. It wasn’t leading anywhere when playing in different bands, so I started exploring other styles like Arabic, Sami and music from Balkans. I started thinking more like a singer and less as a tuba player. I think that was the key to find my own sound and being able to express what I wanted the whole time. Now I see my brass instruments only as tools. It’s not at all important to me to sound like a tuba player in the way you expect. I also have no idea what mouthpiece I play on, it’s just the one they had in the store when the previous broke! Hopefully that means I’m thinking more like a musician and less like an instrumentalist with predetermined possibilities. That said, the reason I’m able to use the tools like I do is because I didn’t take any shortcuts. I learned my instruments properly first, listened to my teachers, and rehearsed a lot.
‘The time signatures within my music is often uneven, but that’s not something you notice until you try to dance along!’
Having worked on projects across contrasting settings – jazz, orchestral, film, and podcasts – what really draws you to getting involved with something musical?
I think it’s contrast and variation. Going from one project to another, very different one, keeps it fresh and inspiring. Before COVID I was touring around 250 days a year, but during COVID I learned that it’s not bad to be at home and go deeper into composing. In fact it’s inspiring. I love seeing my music blend with films, podcasts, dance, and theatre and I find huge inspiration in such collaborations. Sometimes it’s good to just make music for the sake of it, sometimes even alone. Next week I’m going on my first solo tour in a while, based on 2020s album ‘Call For Winter’ (Germany-Belgium-Spain). I guess I like to zoom in a little after having worked with larger projects and I’ll find huge inspiration playing live for audiences again.
And finally, with everything you’ve done, what are three things you wish you had known sooner?
How to play piano. How to play drums. How to dance.
Thanks Daniel Herskedal for chatting with Listen to Discover
Photography by Knut Åserud (Images 1 & 2) & Jørn Kristensen (Image 3)