The G-Man Interview: Silje Nes

Silje Nes
"The way from amazing to confusing and back is very short"

The blog [at least I hope it] has come a long way since I first posted about Norwegian multi-instrumentalist Silje Nes (click here to see just how far), who had earlier that week gifted the world with shimmering glacial diamond Opticks, which would go on to appear in the end of year top 10 albums of 2010. No new recordings have raised their heads since but that's not to say the Leikanger-raised creator of sound-sculptures has not been busy. The G-Man caught up with Silje for a chat about what it's like for a Norwegian alien wandering about the orient.

Where in the world are you at this very moment?
I'm in Berlin, where I live at the moment, back home after a trip through the snow.

Be it personally, creatively or whatever, do you feel you are in a good place at this present moment in time? Why so?
I do. If anything, I feel like I have a bit too many projects going on, and I'm hoping to see some of them finished soon. I'm diving into some new kinds of projects that are bringing me lots of inspiration, working with sound in other ways than before, so I'm curious to see where it'll take me. Anyway, having your creative output as a living is a challenge since you have to rely on yourself so much, and the way from amazing to confusing and back is very short, but I'm happy to be able to live this way.

Am I right in saying you completed a one month residency in China earlier in the year?
Yes, I did a residency at a little gallery in Kunming, China, something I decided to do just to put myself in a completely unknown situation and mess with the way I'm thinking and working a little bit. It was a self initiated thing, I just wanted to go far away to somewhere I've never been before. Actually I'm doing something similar again in not too long, going to Senegal for a month in February!

Norway to China is a pretty big culture change. What experiences stick with you from the trip?
It is very different, and the whole culture feels a little inaccessible when you don't know the language at all, with very few English-speaking people around. But being there was interesting on a very personal level, seeing how people live so differently from what I'm used to, and not always understanding what was going on at all. I also was very interesting to see with my own eyes how the political situation in China affected people, and especially artists and different-thinking people. China and Norway were not exactly best friends after the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Peace price to an opponent of the Chinese government, it's made it harder to get a Chinese visa in Norway for example, and I think these kinds of problems make it even more important to go and talk to real people. Also I think there's a lot of arrogance in our western culture, that our way is the only right way, so I tried to rid myself of some of that too. On a less serious note, I also learned how it feels to look exotic, being stopped by random people and dragged into their family photos.

What kind of music did you listen to in the far east?
I met some musicians over there who were into a lot of experimental stuff. They introduced me to anything from "the Chinese Sonic Youth" Carsick Cars to some old traditional instrumental music by Li Xiangting. Also i enjoyed listening in while a girl working at the gallery was practising the guqing.

In what way do you feel your songwriting has been altered/influenced by your stay?
I don't know if it's been altered specifically, it's more that my general approach to music has been developing, and this trip was a part of that. I did notice some Chinese sounding harmonies turning up here and there for a moment, but I don't know if that will stick. My music seems to be evolving organically on it's own, I just need to do as it tells me.

The first time I heard of Silje Nes was when Albert from my local record store [Plugd] stuck one of your albums in my hand and said: “You will love this”. And indeed I did! How relevant do you feel independent record stores are these days?
That's amazing to hear, and I really like it when music is spread that way. I really hope that independent record stores will find ways of staying relevant, even if it surely won't be as easy as before. I think people will always seek community around music, and record stores could still have a role to play there. A friend of mine runs a really nice one in Norway called Robot, and he's combining the records with selling books and running lots of other projects there. It's a very personal place, and people love to come and hang out.

How do you find new music?
Sometimes through friends, sometimes online, through blogs or magazines, or through festivals or shows that I see. I never really started going much to record stores in Berlin, so I'll do that part when I'm back in Norway.

What was your local record store and what memories do you have of the place?
When I grew up there was actually a real record store in the neighbouring town, in it's own building and before the chains took over Norway. I was really shy so I remember asking for a record to listen to was something you did in awe.

In Ireland lot's of bands have come together to form collectives, mini-record labels etc. in order to help each other progress. How much importance do you place on "community"?
I never felt part of a community like that myself, in the sense that I've never been part of a "scene". But I do feel a community with musicians back in Norway, even if they play very different music than me, as well as musicians I've met the last few years touring lots of different places. I find pleasure in doing stuff on my own, but if you meet like-minded people it does help to back each other up, and it just makes things more fun.

What do you make of the “music world” in general these days?
The "music world" is much more confusing to me now than it used to be. I don't know if it's just my perspective or if it's really happening, but I feel that the structural changes that are going on make people scream for attention in crazier ways every year, and in the end there's so much stuff flying around and it's losing it's value. I think the process of releasing records and touring has made me a little bit tired of the business part of the music world, so I try not to think too much about that part of things, and rather focus on the stuff that really intrigues me about music, the basic phenomena of the sound and everything, which is still a mystery to me.

Am I right in saying spontaneity is a key to your songwriting and recording process?
At least it started out that way. Basically my skills playing instruments and producing were very minimal in the beginning, and you just have to rely on your intuition to put it together well. But, for what it's worth,I've learned a lot the last few years about how to make music, which opens up to more options and also makes the process more complicated because it means you have to make more conscious decisions. I just try to keep a balance, where there are focused thought and spontaneous moments combined. It's an intuitive process, so maybe that's a better word than spontaneous. In the end it's about diving into this sound world, for an extensive amount of time, and for whatever reason, if something keeps you there, it means you should keep going.

Does this make approaching the creation of a cohesive record more difficult?
I do think the idea of making a cohesive record is difficult, but I don't know if it's got to do with spontaneity, because a fully improvised record could easily sound coherent. Ames Room was never developed as a cohesive record, it was material that I made during several years, and somehow it fit together as a whole. Opticks was made over a shorter amount of time, and it was also mixed with another guy, so to me it belongs together as a whole from start to finish. I guess you need some kind of a limiting framework and it will sound coherent, but I would never think about it that way consciously.

What happens to pieces of music, songs that do not make the final album?
Some tracks have appeared on bonus CD's and that kind of stuff, but it's really just a small percentage of what I do that ever reach other people's ears. Most of the stuff I do just ends it's life as early sketches, and is left behind on old hard drives and unreadable cd-r's - for good reason I'm sure!

Would you consider yourself a perfectionist when recording?
I'm not a perfectionist. I really wish I was more of a perfectionist when recording, that would be really helpful for the mixing phase and whatever happens afterwards, and save me millions of hours of fixing and redoing things. But still, at some level I guess I have the discipline to work with material until it feels like it's a whole, I can't really tell what I'm aiming for and it's certainly not perfection, but it's this feeling that what you've made has become an independent thing that takes on a life of it's own.

As a multi-instrumentalist how do you deal with delegating instrumentation to other musicians?
I started working with musicians in order to be able to play my music live, which was not an easy task at all. Actually I had no idea how to go about it, I just knew I didn't want to press play and sing karaoke, that's not what my music was about. I wanted to build up something that made sense musically on it's own conditions on stage, and it took a few years of experimenting before I felt that it really worked. Ironically, in the beginning, I needed the musicians to play exactly what I told them to, because it was all so new and inflexible and based around live looping, so it didn't leave much room for their input really. That got easier along the way though, and so it got more fun too. The last year I've started playing solo when I play live, with more electronics in different forms, I guess once you know how to do something well, it's refreshing to have to rethink everything and start in a different place.

How is life on FatCat Records?
FatCat's been great, they really care about the stuff that they do and it feels like their work is based on a musical curiosity, which is something that is important to me.

What made you sign with FatCat in the first place?
It feels like an old story now: I sent them a demo and they responded, and gradually it turned into a collaboration which turned into a record. It was a very gradual process, intuitive like everything else Ii guess.

It is known that you like to collect all kinds of instruments. What new instruments have you acquired lately and what is the strangest instrument you have ever played?
My newest instrument was something I made last month, a so called "acoustic laptop" in a workshop by the Norwegian musician Tore Honoré Bøe. It's a box with a contact mic and lots of stuff making sounds. We'll see if I can put it to use.

Can we expect a follow up to Opticks soon or what projects are next for Silje Nes?
As i mentioned earlier, there are projects but i'm not exactly sure what shape they'll take yet, but something should happen in 2013 for sure!

[During the interview Silje Nes has been listening to Galwegian experimental folk artists Yawning Chasm.] So what do you think?
Sounds lovely! Very different from the kind of music I'm surrounded by these days, but could easily be a companion on a Wintry day.

For more on Silje Nes visit:

- Opticks by Silje Nes is available from Plugd and all other good record stores

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