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Chosen One: Sam Amidon

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Interview with Sam Amidon.

“Any of the music that I really love myself comes from that; coming from the clashes and confusions that happen when people come together.”

— Sam Amidon

Words: Mark Carry, Artwork: Craig Carry


Born in 1981 and raised in Vermont by folk-musician parents, Sam Amidon sings and plays fiddle, banjo, and guitar. As a teenager, Amidon rose to acclaim as a fiddler, releasing five albums with his band Popcorn Behavior. A musician who glides through unlikely set of genres from traditional folk to free jazz, Amidon has released four solo albums, and also plays in the New York-based indie-rock bands Doveman and Stars Like Fleas. After a seven-year stint in New York City, Amidon has been fully itinerant since 2008 as he tours and collaborates with a roster of renowned musicians, including: Shahzad Ismaily, Nico Muhly, Thomas Bartlett, Ben Frost, and Valgeir Sigurðsson.

‘Lily-O’, a new album of reimagined folk songs by the gifted Vermont-multi-instrumentalist was released last year by Nonesuch Records. The album was produced by Valgeir Sigurðsson (Björk, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Feist) and features the innovative jazz guitarist and composer Bill Frisell, along with Amidon’s other frequent collaborators, bassist Shahzad Ismaily and drummer Chris Vatalaro.

‘Lily-O’ is out now on Nonesuch.

Interview with Sam Amidon.

You’re always so involved with collaborating with other people with the likes of the wonderful Bedroom Community artists and more recently, Bill Frisell on the new record, which is absolutely amazing. I’d love for you to discuss this whole idea of collaboration?

Sam Amidon: Well the thing is I grew up playing tunes. I grew up in New England playing the fiddle and I got really into Irish tunes and then I got into free jazz and more like free improvisation and all that kind of stuff. And in those worlds you don’t even use the word collaboration because everything is collaboration in that world. I mean traditional fiddle tunes consist of going into a pub and there’s someone playing in the corner and you play with them and you’re playing Irish tunes or French Canadian tunes or fiddle tunes and the idea of your solo music isn’t even a thing [laughs], you know what I mean. And same with free jazz and that spirit of just meeting people and getting to play. Any of the music that I really love myself comes from that; coming from the clashes and confusions that happen when people come together. Of course, I love The Beatles, I love Dylan and all that stuff but I’m not really into that idea of the lone singer-songwriter creating their music. I mean obviously art also comes from a deep internal space of course as well but the important thing is just playing with people, it’s a social form you know, it’s not like painting, it’s a social form.

I’d be curious too Sam, obviously you play so many instruments and it’s always amazing to witness the different instrumentation on your records themselves, I wonder which instruments came first?

SA: I really only played the fiddle until I was about twenty, I started the banjo when I was a teenager casually but not really until I was like nineteen or twenty. So really actually the multi-instrumentalist thing is much more the last fifteen years. From when I was three, I started the fiddle and that was the only thing that I played. So really my thing as a teenager was much more about just the whole idea of the mastery of an instrument and spending your whole life completely focused on that instrument. And my heroes were like Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, you know people who are not multi-instrumentalists; I was never really attracted to that idea, it was more about the idea of the mastery of the player who speaks through their instrument.

But I guess I changed from that in the last ten years because I just got curious about the guitar. I found that I went so deep on the fiddle in a specific direction – like the fiddle for me was fiddle tunes; Irish tunes and Kentucky tunes – and so when I started as a teenager there would have been a big difference in my listening and in my playing. As a listener, I listened to everything: indie rock, free jazz, new music, everything whereas as a player I really only played the tunes. So when I came to New York in my early twenties, I really wanted to break away from that and just get to play with different kinds of musicians and improvise. The problem with the fiddle was that I had such deep, specific attachments to it and so the banjo and the guitar I didn’t play as well and I still don’t play as well and I’m still really only learning to play the guitar, I’m not an expert guitarist, I’m a learner. But in a way it sometimes is easier to compose on an instrument you play badly because you can’t just flick your fingers all over it, you have limitations that cause you to write stuff. And still I wrote all my best stuff on the guitar when I was first figuring out what the deal was, what it was, you know what I mean. I’ve never written music on a violin because when I pick it up I can play any melody that I hear and I find that actually keeps you from being able to compose anything. But the banjo and the guitar, there is really strong limitations in terms of the instrument and my own abilities which cause me to write and compose.

As you say too Sam, a very special album – it was the album that introduced me to your music – was ‘All Is Well’ like all your albums, there are really gorgeous arrangements and your voice and everything about it is just so rich.

SA: Thank you. Well that album was very special for me too because it’s an album totally of discovery. I came to Iceland and I put the songs down solo first in a couple of hours late at night with Valgeir [Sigurðsson] and we barely knew each other at that time. As I said, I hadn’t really been singing for that long as a solo singer and I wasn’t that confident on the guitar. I mean the whole thing was just so new, you know and I feel like Valgeir’s strengths as a producer was to allow that to exist in the record. He didn’t cover that up, you can hear the tentativeness in the playing and you can hear the shyness in the vocals, he preserved those qualities and that maybe part of the reason why people connect especially deeply with that record I think of all my albums. ‘All Is Well’ is probably the one people connect most deeply with and I suppose part of that is because they can reach and connect to that vulnerability that was very real in that moment.

That’s the wonderful thing when you look across someone’s work is how each record tells its own unique story and something different from each one.

SA: Yeah I’ve tried to approach each one in a new way and because I was aware of the journey of those albums, you do have to create a space where you’re uncertain what’s going to happen. I’m very fearful of competence, you don’t want to come in and do it well, I mean nobody responds to that. There is a reason that it’s very compelling, you have to set up some situation where there’s going to be something you’re a little bit scared about or some element of real discovery which gets captured on tape.

On the new album ‘Lily-O’ it’s quite wonderful that it was all recorded live and very little overdubs?

SA: Yeah that was the fun thing about this one. All of the previous albums had been very much built up in a certain way like I put things down solo, people over-dub and that’s been a fun way to sculpt the albums because you can have someone really just focus on their own discovery in that moment and see what happens whether it’s Nico [Muhly]’s arrangements or Shahzad Ismaily playing electric guitar. But on this album that was the new thing for this album, it was us literally just playing together and the song structures were intact but basically everybody else was hearing them for the first time. I would teach the song to the musicians, I didn’t send anybody the music before walking into the studio and they hadn’t heard any of the songs. What the process was I would teach the songs to Bill [Frisell] and Shahzad [Ismaily], they would make some notes and would learn the structure and then we would just all start playing and once we had a moment Valgeir would press record and we’d put down two takes and then we would move on. The album that you hear is very, very close to that moment. Sometimes I re-did a vocal or just a couple of very subtle shifts after but basically what you are hearing is what those musicians discovered in that process.

I must say I love – and even the way it’s placed as well – the album’s title-track, it’s a really lovely space on the album too.

SA: Yes, to have that long story that you can kind of live in that world for a while.




I didn’t realize but you actually met Bill Frisell a long time ago?

SA: One thing about growing up in Vermont and playing traditional music as a kid was that many of my heroes were people that I got to play with, my heroes were people that were in my neighbourhood and they were my favourite musicians. One of my heroes was Tommy Peoples, the Irish fiddler who I then, when I was fifteen I came to Ireland and I went and I found him and played a session with him, I sat in a pub and played tunes with him. So, I had this idea of whoever your heroes are, just find them and for Bill it took longer [laughs] because it was a more distant thing but it was almost similar where I would just go up and say hi after a gig and I just listened to his music all of the time and he was very inspiring to me frequently.

Eventually I got to play with some musicians who were in his world, who play with him like Eyvind Kang and Shahzad Ismaily and Eyvind introduced us properly and I gave him one of my CDs and he wrote me what was almost like a fan email like ‘Hey I’m listening to your music, maybe we can jam sometime’ and that was like a hugely exciting moment just to see that email was amazing for me. But I didn’t record with him then –well I’m sure I could have hired him sooner – but we work together on different projects; I played on some things of his and we did some duo concerts that were much more like a little duo kind of thing. I waited to record with him until I wasn’t scared of him, you know, I didn’t want to come in feeling intimidated. I’m still in awe of him, he’s still one of my heroes but we’re friends enough so that when we go out to the studio I really felt like equals with him and Shahzad and Chris [Vatalaro] who did incredible work on the drums on that album. The thing about Bill which is cool is that he is this legend but at the same time he’s still very innocent in his love for music and so he was just as much getting turned on by what Chris and Shahzad was doing as we were by being in the room with him.

And to witness the chemistry between you and Bill, it’s like you’re in close dialogue with your instruments.

SA: He has so much experience with singers you know, playing around singers and working with that, it’s beautiful.

I wonder looking ahead, would you have ideas for other records and projects?

SA: Yeah, I’m definitely starting to work on something else but I’m not sure how it’s going to grow yet so I can’t say much about it because I don’t really know much about it. But I have a list of other musicians who I’m curious to get into a room with and see what happens and we’ll see where it goes.

I’m sure when you released that first album, ‘Solo Fiddle’, that must have been a very important album too because that was obviously all the music I presume you grew up with from a very young age?

SA: It was kind of a farewell album in a way because I made that album when I was eighteen or so and it was just solo traditional fiddle tunes and it really reflected on my teenage years of living in that world of those kind of tunes and those melodies and those styles. The thing is I knew at that point that I was going to start learning different kinds of music and learning to play different kinds of songs like on the guitar and violin and I had an awareness that that would affect my playing: my fiddle playing had a purity at that time because I really only did that until that point. So I wanted to capture my fiddle playing in that pure state where it didn’t have any influence on jazz or whatever. My listening was very broad but my playing at that time was so limited, I knew that I was going to start studying different things  and learning different techniques, I wanted to capture where it was in that state of purity.

A lot of them are Irish tunes which is lovely too in the sense that there is that connection to Ireland too.

SA: Yeah certainly, I mean it’s funny because you know I’m not Irish at all, ethnically or whatever but the New England fiddle style, the style of fiddle playing that is in Vermont which was the style that I was born into and then when I was around ten I realized that the New England fiddle style was just a mix of Irish, French Canadian and old-time tunes and I was just so drawn to the traditional Irish style because it’s so ornate and beautiful and developed and the repertoire is amazing. There are so many great players: Tommy Peoples springs to mind, Kathleen Collins, so many wonderful musicians and it’s just a whole world. And so I just got lost inside that world as a teenager for sure and I still am and so hopefully I’ll grab some tunes when I come visiting.

Are there certain albums that you’ve been hugely enjoying lately?

SA: There is a trumpet player Kenny Wheeler who played on ‘Bright Sunny South’ – he plays trumpet on the album ‘Bright Sunny South’- and he died last winter and he’d been on my album, he was very old when he played on it. He has a bunch of amazing records, he’s definitely a jazz trumpet player but he’s just an amazing composer and powerful musician. I listen to a lot of old jazz like a lot of Don Cherry and Sonny Rollins. I love all that improvised music you know, all that stuff.


Another thing I love is your collaboration with Thomas Bartlett, your longtime friend.

SA: Yeah it’ll be really fun when I come to Ireland this time, I’ll be doing two projects with Thomas. Thomas is curating an evening celebrating Yeats’s 150th birthday in the National Concert Hall and so we’re putting some of his poems to music, which I’m sure a lot of people have done but I’d like to do our own little crack of doing it and there will be some other musicians, Anna Calvi, Robert Forester from The Go Betweens. And then a week later we’ll be back in the National Concert Hall, I’m hosting a celebration of Pete Seeger. A lot of great Irish musicians will be there, Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh, Paul Noonan, Beth Orton from the UK, and the new band Lynched who are great and so that’s going to be really fun to have some adventures with Thomas, my old buddy.

One last thing, you’re obviously from a very musical family and stuff but would you have certain moments – when looking back – that were very important for you in order for you to pursue your own musical path?

SA: Well my parents were very influential, not just folk music but just because even though they were very specific in their thing – they only played folk music – both of them were very adventurous listeners. So when my brother and I started bringing back stuff like you know, Nirvana and Beck, I mean I remember Beck especially and you know bringing stuff back to the house, I started bringing back free jazz, Marc Ribot. They were really interested in the music, just like in an analytical way; they would have interesting comments about the music. So my Dad and I would listen to music on long car rides –we’d often have long car rides to gigs and stuff – I put on the band Morphine or Beck or whatever and we would talk about it and analyse it and debate things. He really loved ‘Bitches Brew’, the Miles Davis album, he gave me that album when I was fourteen and I didn’t really like it at first – you know I listened to it a lot and of course I love it now – it was an almost scary album but that whole thing of just being a very curious listener but still critical but curious.




‘Lily-O’ is out now on Nonesuch.

Written by markcarry

September 10, 2015 at 6:24 pm

Fractured Air 40: Music for Travel (A Mixtape by James McVinnie)

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James McVinnie is a highly prolific organist and keyboardist who released ‘Cycles’ – an album comprising organ pieces written by his Bedroom Community labelmate Nico Muhly – and also features Nadia Sirota, Chris Thompson and Simon Wall. McVinnie’s musical career to date has been a fascinating one; he was Assistant Organist of Westminster Abbey between 2008 and 2011 and he previously held Organ Scholarships at St Albans Cathedral, and at Clare College, Cambridge. McVinnie has also collaborated with many contemporary musicians – including Valgeir Sigurðsson, Bryce Dessner, Sufjan Stevens, Sam Amidon, Ben Frost, Oneohtrix Point Never and Beth Orton – demonstrating his immense musicianship and impressive versatility as a composer. ‘Cycles’ is available now on prestigious Icelandic independent label Bedroom Community.


Fractured Air 40: Music for Travel (A Mixtape by James McVinnie)

To listen on Mixcloud:



01. Oliver Coates ‘The Room is the Resonator’ [PRAH]
02. Sarah Neufeld ‘Dirt’ [Constellation]
03. Keith Jarrett ‘Spheres (1st Movement)’ [ECM]
04. Peter Phillips & The Tallis Scholars ‘Stabat mater’ (John Browne: Music from the Eton Choirbook) [Gimmel]
05. J.S. Bach ‘Vergnügte Ruh, Beliebte Seelenlust’ (Bernarda Fink, Petra Mullejan & Freiburger Barockorchester) [Harmonia Mundi]
06. Steve Reich ‘The Desert Music: V. Fast’ (Alarm Will Sound, Alan Pierson & Ossia) [Nonesuch]
07. Philip Glass ‘Trial 2 / Prison Ensemble’ [Nonesuch]
08. Pat Metheny ‘Last Train Home’ [Geffen]
09. Jónsi ‘Hengilás’ [Parlophone, XL]
10. John Tavener ‘Eternity’s Sunrise’ [Harmonia Mundi]
11. Clare Wilkinson and Fretwork ‘Michael Nyman: If’ [Bandcamp]

Compiled by James McVinnie. The copyright in these recordings is the property of the individual artists and/or their respective record labels. If you like the music, please support the artist by buying their records.




‘Cycles’ is available now on Bedroom Community.


Written by admin

August 13, 2015 at 6:43 pm

Step Right Up: Emily Hall

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Interview with Emily Hall.

Folie à Deux is a psychosis where a delusion is transmitted from one person to another, normally a partner or family member. It seemed to me like an exaggerated version of many relationships and a good basis for drama.”

— Emily Hall

Words: Mark Carry

emily hall

The prestigious Iceland-based label, Bedroom Community have recently unveiled a soaring artistic triumph in the form of ‘Folie à Deux’, a concept album by award-winning British composer Emily Hall, with lyrics by long-term Björk collaborator Sjón. The gifted composer represents the tenth artist to join the label since its inception in 2006, joining the formidable roster of talent that includes Nico Muhly, Valgeir Sigurðsson, James McVinnie, Sam Amidon, Nadia Sirota, Puzzle Muteson and others, who have forged some of the most deeply affecting and resolutely unique modern-classical works of recent times.

Folie à Deux’ was commissioned by Mahogany Opera Group. The remarkable full-length is an intense investigation into love and loneliness within a relationship. Hall’s minimal and intricately crafted songs in the modern folk tale are woven together for two singers, Sofia Jernberg (Swedish vocalist) and Allan Clayton (British tenor) and a specially created electro-magnetic harp. The album features electronics from Mira Calix, was mixed by Valgeir Sigurðsson in Reykjavík and co-produced by Sigurðsson and Hall herself.

Emily Hall studied composition at York University and the Royal College of Music, London. She has written for many different ensembles and orchestras including the London Sinfonietta, LSO, BBCNOW, the Brodsky Quartet, Opera North, LCO, Hungarian Radio Choir.

‘Folie à Deux’ is available now on Bedroom Community.

Interview with Emily Hall.

 Congratulations on your stunning Bedroom Community debut, ‘Folie à Deux’. One of the aspects I particularly love about the new record is the many spheres of sounds – choral, pop, folk, electronic, classical – that is masterfully embedded (and seamlessly layered) into these sonic creations. Please discuss ‘Folie à Deux’ both in terms of its conception as a concept album and as an opera? I would love to gain an insight into the creative world that brought ‘Folie à Deux’ into glimmering life?

Emily Hall: Thanks so much. I guess it’s been 3 years in the making – In 2012 an opera company in London called ‘Mahogany Opera Group’ asked me to write a small-scale opera and I put it to them I wanted this to be a concept album and an opera, which could co-exist and would be co-conceived. They were more than happy to go for this and interested in it as a slightly unusual hybrid form. Unlike conventional opera, I didn’t want any recitative, just songs and instrumentals, like a dramatic song cycle. And I liked the idea the audience might have heard the songs on the album before they saw the live staged version. And on the flip side, I was interested in the idea of a narrative in an album which may or may not be relevant to the listener.

I have a good friend who is a psychiatrist and she suggested the psychosis ‘Folie à Deux’ would make a great subject for an opera. ‘Folie à Deux’ is a psychosis where a delusion is transmitted from one person to another, normally a partner or family member. It seemed to me like an exaggerated version of many relationships and a good basis for drama.

I knew I wanted to write for the Swedish vocalist Sofia Jernberg, I first heard her sing a friends piece (Larry Goves) in Leeds in 2009 and fell in love with her voice. And I knew I wanted to write for harp in some way because I wanted to work with harpist Ruth Wall but I wasn’t yet sure how….

Please discuss the collaboration between you and Icelandic writer and long-term Bjork collaborator Sjón. Can you recount for me your memories of first crossing paths with Sjón and indeed the collaborative process that clearly works so well between you both?

EH: I asked Sjón really out to of the blue if he wanted to collaborate on this in an email and I was happily surprised he said ‘yes’ straight away. I approached him because not only had he written amazing lyrics but also a number of opera librettos. So we met for lunch soon after when he was passing through London and then later had a 3 day brain storming session in the depths of Suffolk countryside with the director Fredrick Wake-Walker. Because the psychosis ‘Folie à Deux’ has very defined stages we were able to hang different scenarios on each until we came up with ‘the one’. On the final day, when Sjón had the idea of an electricity pylon at the centre of the delusion, I was taken by it straight away because of the strong sonic characteristics. Sjón then sent me the finished libretto/lyrics a few months later and I was completely entranced as soon as I read them.


After many revisits, I feel a lovely parallel exists between ‘Folie à Deux’ and Julia Holter’s  ‘Loud City Song’ record from 2013. The characters, themes, emotions conjures up a similarly transformative world and beguiling soundscapes. Also, the master-work of ‘Ys’ by Joanna Newsom comes to mind. Can you discuss please the narrative to ‘Folie à Deux’, Emily? Also, the two singers, Sofia Jernberg and Allan Clayton add divine colours and textures to the record’s sprawling canvas. Can you discuss the input of these two gifted singers. A song such as ‘Wonderful Things’ epitomises the sheer beauty these enchanting voices create. 

EH: OK thanks – those are very nice parallels 😉

The story is a back-packing girl meets a young farmer high up on the hill and they fall in love and move in together. Everything is rosy until a pylon is built next to their little house. The man becomes completely obsessed by the pylon and its potential power and influence. She becomes very lonely as he spends hours staring out the window at the pylon and humming along with its drones. She realizes the only way to re-connect with him is to join him in his adoration for the pylon and they sing ‘it’s saying such wonderful things’ together. ‘Mantra’ is a song at the point when they are both delusional about the pylon and ‘Folie à Deux’ in happening. ‘The Scream’ is her exit from the delusion; she bursts his ear drums and externalizes all the pain and fear she has had to endure. ‘Embrace’ is his release, his journey up the pylon – to the summit of his delusion – walking towards the light – to his Nirvana. And in the final song ‘Ode to Nature’, she sings a nostalgic song for him but from a peaceful place, back close with nature and long free of the delusion.

I wrote for Sofia Jernberg right from the outset. We spent some time together in Stockholm in the middle of writing which informed things quite a lot. And then the scream was something I asked her to do in a rehearsal but she took it to a whole new level by doing this long electronic sounding scream by slowly breathing in air. I knew the kind of tenor voice I wanted but not a specific singer, but once Allan Clayton came on board, he informed some of the songs like ‘Embrace’ – that amount of control so high up in the voice is pretty rare. I love how Sofia and Allan sound together.

Please talk me through the specially created electromagnetic harp utilized on the new record? What sets this apart from the more traditional harp instrument? 

EH: As I said earlier, I had decided to write for harp already and when the idea of the pylon came up I was trying to figure out how to make a harp drone like the hum of a pylon. I looked at aeolian harps then came across some experiments by an Icelandic musician called Ulfur who had successfully used electro magnets on piano strings and make a beautiful drone instrument. My partner, David Sheppard, is a sound designer, and so he figured out how to make this work with a harp, along with an instrument builder called Jonathan Green. The strings are swapped for metal strings and then a specially made system of transducers is mounted to the strings. They are controlled form some bespoke software and MIDI devices. You hear a lot of 50Hz ‘G’ in the album which of course is the frequency of a mains hum in the UK.

Another gorgeous aspect is the presence of electronic beats, supplied by Mira Calix. I wonder at what stage in the music-making process did these beats come into the mix? The final third of ‘Mantra’ is a wonderful example of Mira’s input. Also, I am intrigued by the production of the album. Was this quite an intensive period?  What precisely did the production – in which you and Valgeir Sigurðsson collaborated – consist of?

EH: Mira Calix came up with the beats once I had demo versions of loneliness and Mantra. It was very nice to collaborate with Mira – because she gives the songs a whole new aspect, all her work is always so inventive. With Valgeir, I sent him the tracks once I had gone as far as I could with them. Then I went to Reykjavík in March and I spent 4 days at Greenhouse Studios with him working with him on the final mix. An amazing experience.

Lastly, please take me back to your earliest musical memories and indeed your life in music? How do you see you have developed as a composer and what projects and plans do you have in the pipeline?

EH: Probably trying to figure out Pachelbel’s Cannon on the violin as a kid in my parents dining room having heard it on the radio and then playing it over and over and realising I couldn’t play it alone. And the strange and characterful sound of my parents and their friends playing string quartets which I would drift off to sleep to.

I am a weird mix. I know I’ve absorbed many types of music and ways of making it. I am drawn to song and melody of folk but I have a training in avant grade contemporary classical and also a leaning towards technology and electronics. I love to write for people and collaborate.

I’m working on an opera installation right now for The Corinthia Hotel in London. I have written songs for Allan Clayton, Sofia Jernberg, Puzzle Muteson, Mara Carlyle and a boy treble all linked together with a chorus, organ (James Mcvinnie) and cello (Oliver Coates). And then later in the year I’m going up to Unst – the most northerly point of the UK to write a 15 minute piece for Radio 3’s Hear and Now – using field recordings and one or two instruments. So fun projects ahead.




‘Folie à Deux’ is available now on Bedroom Community.

Written by markcarry

July 23, 2015 at 11:07 am

Mixtape: A Safe Harbour

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A Safe Harbour [A Fractured Air Mix]

To listen on Mixcloud:



01. Amiina (ft. Lee Hazlewood) ‘Hilli (At the Top of the World)’ [Everrecords]
02. Sam Amidon ‘Saro’ [Bedroom Community]
03. Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh ‘big mammoth’ [Diatribe]
04. The Gloaming ‘Samradh Samradh’ [Real World]
05. Kate Ellis ‘Aisling Gheal’ (Trad. Irish. A Setting by D. Dennehy) [Diatribe]
06. Seán Mac Erlaine ‘Turaghlan’ [Ergodos]
07. This Is How We Fly ‘March For A Dark Day’ [Playing With Music]
08. Valgeir Sigurðsson ‘Big Reveal’ [Bedroom Community]
09. Julianna Barwick ‘Prizewinning’ [Asthmatic Kitty]
10. Mina Tindle ‘Plein nord’ [Believe Recordings]
11. Nadia Sirota ‘From The Invisible To The Visible’ [Bedroom Community]
12. My Brightest Diamond ‘This Is My Hand’ [Blue Sword (ASCAP)]
13. James McVinnie ‘Hudson Preludes: Follow Up’ [Bedroom Community]
14. So Percussion ‘Music for Wood and Strings: Section 3’ [Brassland]
15. This Is The Kit ‘Bashed Out’ [Brassland]
16. Amiina ‘Leather And Lace’ [Sound Of A Handshake]

Sounds From A Safe Harbour is a festival of music, art & conversation, curated by The National’s Bryce Dessner, taking place on 17—20 September 2015 across various venues in Cork, Ireland. Tickets are on sale now.

Chosen One: Bryce Dessner

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Interview with Bryce Dessner.

“I think that music is the great collaborative art that musicians exist in dialogue with each other and also in community with the audience.”

—Bryce Dessner

Words: Mark Carry


Sounds from a Safe Harbour is a brand new festival of music, art and conversation, curated by Bryce Dessner of The National. Two years since its inception by Bryce and Cork Opera House CEO, Mary Hickson, Sounds from a Safe Harbour will bring a huge international creative cast to Cork this September to celebrate the port city’s place on the world’s stage in a unique setting.

Alongside Cork’s spectacular harbour environs, themes of waves, water and movement have been the inspiration for the festival, and will be explored through many new commissions and collaborations specially programmed for Sounds from a Safe Harbour. The festival will activate the City through many art forms including visual arts, conversation, dance, film and music. Collaboration and shared experiences are strong themes in the festival, and audiences are encouraged to immerse themselves and form part of the conversation.

One of the festival’s centerpieces will be ‘Wave Movements’ – a new composition by Bryce Dessner and Richard Reed Parry (Arcade Fire) – performed at Cork Opera House by the RTE National Symphony Orchestra and accompanied with film by the celebrated Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto.

Also on the truly inspiring programme will be the award-winning seminal Irish ensemble The Gloaming; The National’s Aaron Dessner’s collaboration with universally-acclaimed Irish singer-songwriter Lisa Hannigan; Shara Worden’s My Brightest Diamond; celebrated English organist James McVinnie; New York So Percussion and Nadia Sirota; Icelandic producer and composer Valgeir Sigurðsson with Icelandic compatriots Amiina,Ragnar Kjartansson, Kjartan Sveinsson and Skúli Sverrisson; Swedish / Irish fusion outfit This Is How We Fly; Parisian new-wave multi-instrumentalist Mina Tindle; US choral-based sound sculptor Julianna Barwick; American songsmith Sam Amidon; Kate Stables’ endearing folk outfit This Is The Kit plus many more. 

Interview with Bryce Dessner.

The announcement of Sounds From A Safe Harbour was wonderful to see and a truly special lineup awaits us in September. It shows the spirit of collaboration and how over the last few years, there’s been so much fascinating and adventurous music. I’d love for you to discuss this whole aspect of collaboration as it’s something you’ve always been doing.

Bryce Dessner: I think that music is the great collaborative art that musicians exist in dialogue with each other and also in community with the audience. I think this is what pushes us forward, it opens new creative worlds for us as musicians. And also what’s interesting to me about doing this in Cork as a place is that in Ireland being a place of such tremendous music culture – for a small country it has such a huge global reach – of traditional music and the great bands and singers that come from there and all that. And then Cork being this gem of a city, this small city that feels like a village with so many beautiful venues and spaces, and the harbour and canals. The idea of bringing artists there is as much as about them bringing their music to Cork as it is Cork opening its doors and being a place for the musicians to discover, especially to interact with the Irish musicians who will be there. I mean that’s the stuff that makes me really excited and the driving force in my creative life is collaboration and community and embracing this more creative style of music.

I can’t wait to see your live performance of ‘St. Carolyn by the Sea’ because it’s such an amazing piece of music.

BD: Thanks. ‘St. Carolyn by the Sea’ is a significant piece for me that I wrote for my brother and I to play with orchestra and it’s very much about how we play music together but pushing it quite far structurally and formally and something quite ambitious with the orchestra. It’s going to be really fun and It’s not something we can do very often and to do it with such a great orchestra and conductor is a really amazing opportunity for us. The festival has a lot of these rarely heard before performances which I think is a big part of what’s exciting to all of us and hopefully part of the draw for people to come is for the stuff you’re not going to hear elsewhere.

I wonder Bryce in terms of the writing process for a composition like ‘St. Carolyn by the Sea’, I can imagine it evolved over quite a long period of time? It feels like it did as there are so many different aspects to it.

BD: I mean the actual writing of the piece which takes six months or so and then the music itself takes a lifetime in a way where the sounds and ideas that may have been somewhere in me or developing somewhere back then so once it’s time to write it down, it almost feels like it’s been there and you just have to figure it out. I always wonder how many of these pieces one has and how many more of them I can do but that piece has a lot of colours in it that I am proud of.

Another highlight will be the new piece you wrote with Richard Reed Parry, ‘Wave Movements’.

BD: Yeah that piece is a commission for the festival and there is quite a few commissions and new works that we’re doing. The Irish sisters from Cork, Linda and Irene Buckley are creating a new piece; there’s a more electronic group Eat My Noise who are doing a big collaborative work and there’s a couple of visual artists who are doing some new projects. I think that side of the festival is super important to us. Richard Reed Parry and I are really close friends and collaborators and we wanted Mary Hickson at the Cork Opera House who talked about the harbour and the theme of the water and sea is a big part of the Cork identity so we wanted a piece that would respond to that in some way. So, ‘Wave Movements’ is a string orchestra piece that all the rhythms are generated by the ocean. We actually spent time recording the ocean, I spent time in Cork on the sea there and spent time in the city thinking about the role of the sea there. It’s a sixty minute piece but what’s significant about it is in addition to co-composing it which is not a very traditional thing to do but incredibly fun and interesting process. The whole thing as a visual side of it, Hiroshi Sugimoto who is an amazing Japanese photographer did a film for it. It’s a really, really stunning piece of work and I think there’s a trailer up so you can see what it’s going to look like.


As you say too Bryce, it must be this fun element when you’re working with close friends and family obviously with your brother, that’s the beauty of it when you’re sharing ideas with each other and creating something from that.

BD: I always say that my brother and I were born to collaborate- we’re twins and we’re playing in a band and it extends beyond just collaborating with one another. Aaron is writing a new set of songs with Lisa Hannigan, the Irish singer for the Cork festival and we being brothers that have always worked together, it really helps us and something we’ve learned from an early age on how to be good collaborators. And ultimately when you think of creative people there’s always the creative ego and the desire to express oneself but actually the stronger part of the creative life is being open and learning from other people and that’s why I do it and it’s always so interesting to learn from other musicians and other artists.

Another beautiful thing with The National is all the wonderful collaborators that are involved, for example some of the Bedroom Community artists and guest musicians who work in the studio on your songs so you can feel that special spark in all the National recordings too.

BD: There’s the five of us but then there is this really broad community of people like Richard Parry or Sufjan Stevens or Sharon Van Etten. There’s many many different people who have been a huge part in our career. The music itself is a good vehicle for that. In a way, The National sound is singular, it sounds like nothing else but it’s the sound of many voices and it’s not just us. I think that collaborative power of music is definitely part of The National story.

In terms of scoring music, it must be a lovely feeling when you hear an orchestra such as the Copenhagen Philharmonic performing the music that you wrote?

BD: Especially in our current world that is so digital and so virtual and the experience of the internet and always being online, the actual performance of things and the live event and the communal aspect of coming together to hear something or to play something or to experience the notes that are written on the page and then there’s the notes that you hear in the theatre and the things that aren’t written or sung in our minds and that aura of performance and there’s nothing to replace that. I think something like Sounds From A Safe Harbour is very much about that and like I said it’s very much about the artists as much as it is for the audience. It’s important for artists to have that opportunity to come together into an intimate environment to really have the possibility to work together, to work with different musicians and to encounter a new culture in public. I think that’s what pushes the creative world forward and hopefully offers people something new and some kind of transporting experience.

It definitely will, there’s no question about that. I wonder are there certain records you’re listening a lot to lately in the last few months?

BD: As far as things I’m listening to recently is a record that I worked on by a friend of mine, Sufjan Stevens new record ‘Carrie & Lowell’ which has been my soundtrack when I drive upstate a lot in New York, I have a little house in the mountains and I always put that on. I just think he is one of the most interesting musicians of our generation and that’s a record that I love. Also a record by a young singer This Is The Kit who will be playing in Cork as well- that record my brother produced, it’s called ‘Bashed Out’ and it’s a really, really beautiful record.

The whole aspect of scoring music and this idea of collaborating, it’s great too because as you say with the current age of downloads and digital, there’s a lovely sense of being in the moment and taking risks as well in obviously the best possible way.

BD: I think so. I think it’s always interesting when you spend a lot of time working on something, it’s like tending your own garden and then it becomes like reading your own palm and something that’s so familiar that maybe you’re missing. It’s always interesting when someone comes to me from outside and says, ‘Oh did you notice that at all?’ that little corner over there and you haven’t seen it before. To me that’s the beauty of collaboration is hearing the way other people respond to your work and that’s also the role of an audience and how they respond to you. It happens so often with the National songs where you get people developing their whole own personal narratives to a song and tell you after and I’m like ‘I never thought of that before’. But it’s a really beautiful way to make work is to share.

For instance, working with classical musicians who spend their lives playing instruments and really have developed such a fine ear, the way they tune and that’s part of having strings on a National record is that you spend six months working on a track and then to bring in just for a day, a really good group of musicians and have them channel their musicality at it and even just the way they would interpret the pitch or tune against it really gives it this human element that’s been really important to our recordings.

I love too how witnessing The National’s live performance how you are struck by the energy and rawness of the performance.

BD: I think we never felt the need to duplicate the records like the experience of us live is different from the album and I like artists that feel that freedom to make something new for the live show.





‘Music For Wood & Strings’ is available now on Brassland.