Portland: Where Young People Go to Make Music

Laurent Fintoni is a DJ, label owner, writer for FACT magazine, and likes music from Portland (among many other places).

Portland, Oregon photo by Ian RansleyPhoto by Ian Ransley

“This town is a great place to move at a slow pace and let your creative ideas germinate and stretch out. Aside from being very much a rock town, there has always been a thriving scene of makers and lovers of experimental music, and there continues to be a willing group of folks excited to hear something different.”— Jesse Munro Johnson, Boomarm Nation Records

Even if you’ve never been to Portland, you’ve probably got an idea of what this northwestern American city has to offer. With a unique mix of urban living and abundant nature, Portland has, in recent years, been stereotyped as a haven for the hip and creative. While nobody likes to have their city reduced to the amusing vignettes that the TV series Portlandia peddles, it’s brought Portland the sort of worldwide attention that any tourist board would die for. In one Portlandia sketch, a character declares Portland to be “where young people go to retire,” and a recent New York Times article, looking at just how long the city can maintain this aura, quotes a resident as saying that while people move to New York for finance, or L.A. for show business, “people move to Portland to move to Portland.” Beyond the jokes, people move to Portland because it affords opportunities to those who want to follow their creative ambitions, in ways that bigger cities like New York or London are increasingly unable to do.

Portland has a thriving music community that stretches across scenes, genres, and styles. Bubbles of nerdy obsession and interest coexist, collaborate and, in certain cases, thrive. For David Greenwald, music critic for The Oregonian and a transplant from Los Angeles, “Portland is known for its indie rock but it’s also an excellent home to folk and roots music, metal and hard rock, jazz, blues, electronic, hip-hop, and all types of musicians.” The city’s creatives have embraced the digital revolution that has engulfed the music industry in the past decade. They create and often manufacture locally and use the internet to broadcast their music and sell their goods from the comfort of their hometown. For Aaron Meola, who looks after the local Dropping Gems label, the city’s “mix of abundant nature and technology” is what keeps things interesting.

In a 2013 feature for the New York Times, Dan Kois explored Portland as the American capital of karaoke. As Kois realized that the city was, in fact, “the capital of America’s small ponds,” he also recognized that a DIY, entrepreneurial ethos has driven a lot of the local music scene and created ripples that can be felt from afar: “It’s a city devoted to chasing that feeling — the feeling of doing something you love, just for a moment, and being recognized for it, no matter how obscure or unnecessary or ludicrous it might seem to the straight world.”

Portland offers plenty of venues for artists, traditional or cutting edge, to hone their craft, and for fans to put their money where their mouth is. The decade-old Holocene, for example, is a hub for electronic music. The hip-hop scene caught the headlines in the past year after tension arose between artists and city officials at live shows. The latter have claimed security concerns, while artists and fans point to bias in a city that’s not known for racial diversity, and where hip-hop has remained, in the words of Kipp Kruger, aka the artist Northern Draw, “small and unable to foster a fluid community.” While hip-hop artists may bemoan the lack of opportunities others are afforded, Greenwald points out that “rock-focused venues, such as Mississippi Studios and the Crystal Ballroom, have been making an effort to book more hip-hop, so maybe the tide will turn.” He added, “the cool thing about Portland is that the community is really small and really close. Everyone knows each other — they probably played basketball together in the yearly Rigsketball tournament. They all play the same local venues and festivals. People here do this because they love it, and it really shows in the music.”

Here is just a quick taste of some of the amazing labels, artists, and releases emanating from Portland (and if you’re wondering why we didn’t feature the Portland stalwarts Kill Rock Stars, it’s because we already did so here)…

Tender Loving Empire

Tender Loving Empire

The versatile Tender Loving Empire label was created in 2006 by husband-and-wife team Jared and Brianne Mees. They had relocated to Portland from Los Angeles the year before and set up TLE as a way to release Jared’s Mees & The Grown Children project, as well as music from friends. From the very beginning, TLE also focused on more than just music, with comics and fiction thrown into the mix. “We had no business model,” Jared explains. “Our ethos was to save all our friends’ creative endeavours from disappearing. We wanted the world to know about us and to know about them.” Taking inspiration from other local collectives like Kill Rock Stars and the late Boy Gorilla, the pair used their small home space to screen print and manufacture. In 2007 they opened their first shop and it’s been holding strong since, selling a selection of their own wares and that of friends — everything from music to paintings, jewelry to t-shirts.

This year will see the opening of a second store and their 50th release. They have collaborated with a long list of local collectives, businesses, and labels, and their fondest joint project was a tasty one. “Our greatest hit has been the beer collaboration with Fort George Brewing in 2013, which yielded 55,000 cans of the delicious TLE NWPA (North West Pale Ale). Our connection with them came through their live-music booker having booked pretty much every TLE band to play their brewpub. We were able to make some really cool videos to support that series, too.”

The Mees’ move to Portland was driven by the affordable space and an attraction to the city’s mix of old and new that they witnessed in the Pearl District at the time. “The music scene was super vibrant and accessible and we just dove in headfirst. Portland has an amazingly inclusive vibe and a ton of really excited people throwing shows, festivals, events, etc. And not just music, but also fine art, design, tech, and fashion. There’s all sorts of stuff going on in Portland and that’s what’s kept us here.”

Dropping Gems

Aaron Meola

Dropping Gems was born in 2009 up the coast from Portland in Olympia, Washington. “Core members met while DJing parties, hanging at our college radio station and going to shows,” recalls Aaron Meola. “We began Dropping Gems because we felt there was no platform to showcase anyone’s work or a scene to fit in.” Meola migrated down the coast to Portland in 2010, taking the label with him and expanding to include a promotion company. Dropping Gems picked up more artists, including Seattle’s DJAO and local acts Philip Grass and Natasha Kmeto, and began the Gem Drops compilation series.

“It’s been gratifying to see the scene in Portland foster a solid community around experimental electronic music over the past several years,” Meola explains. “When Dropping Gems first took up operations in Portland, the dubstep label Lo Dubs, now defunct Anthem Records store, and associated club nights were a big inspiration. Fast-forward four years, and there are at least a dozen active collectives or labels. Most of the artists know each other and often play shows together and collaborate. Things like the Magnetic open deck and cassette DJ night are very much community-building events that cross-pollinate the scene.”

Beyond location and affordability, Meola points to “a supportive network of independent record stores, gear shops, material supplies stores, rental houses, warehouse spaces and venues” as enablers of the scenes. Add to that network the city’s creative population and liberal arts school and Meola reckons Portland to be “pretty special.”

Sahel Sounds

Sahel Sounds is the natural result of our information age, a bridge between the Western world and the musical wonders of the Sahel region of West Africa — the area south of the Sahara and above the tropics. It began life as a blog in the 2000s, documenting music that its founder, Christopher Kirkley, encountered and recorded while traveling the region. By 2009 it evolved to include commercial recordings of new music and lost gems on vinyl and digital formats. “Portland is my hometown, and after years of traveling I put down roots,” Kirkley tells me when I ask how Sahel Sounds came to be. “It’s far from the Sahel, but the city is very supportive of the music, and I think it’s created some interesting connections.”

The label is driven by Kirkley’s own curiosity, his desire to seek out and unravel musical mystery. One of the label’s most fascinating releases is the Music From Saharan Cellphones compilation series, a collection of “music from memory cards of cellular phones in the Saharan desert.” The first volume was remixed by a selection of local Portland and West Coast artists, including Leaving Record’s Matthewdavid, and released via another local label, Boomarm Nation. “When I look back at how I heard Mdou Moctar’s track “Tahoultine” playing on cellphone and had no idea who he was, it’s surreal to think that four years later we’ve made a movie and are traveling around Europe together.” Kirkley credits local label Mississippi Records as being responsible for putting him on the path to releasing records and turning it into a viable, morally sustainable adventure. He still co-releases with them on occasion, as well as with Little Axe Records, with whom he produced Harafin So.

Kirkley points to Oregon’s pioneer heritage as a potential reason for the city’s left-leaning and independent vibe. “I think that’s what has attracted all the young kids over the past 15 years to come out here, live cheaply, form bands and make art. It’s a city that’s easy to live in, and people have lots of time on their hands. So if you have something you want to share with people, it’s ideal. There are lots of savvy listeners.”

Ewe Of Now / Montgomery Word

Montgomery Word

A few years back, Jon Simon dropped out of college, bought a tape duplicator, and started the Ewe Of Now cassette label, which has focused on hip-hop and its modern evolutions, with releases from Simon (as Montgomery Word) and a handful of local acts like Tough Fuzz, Northern Draw and Ehouie. This year’s Cassette Store Day will mark the label’s 21st and 22nd cassette release. “The community in Portland has been a wonderful thing. I’ve met an insane amount of creative people from all over the world just by putting out some tapes.”

One local label in particular has been fundamental to Simon in his endeavors: Oligopolist Records. “Those guys run shit. We’ve done so many things together. Everyone I’ve met through them has become a friend and they’re inspiring and hilarious. Dropping Gems have also been very supportive, and they’ve brought a lot of hype to the table here in Portland.” Purr Tapes was another cassette-focused label that was supportive of Simon’s endeavours, and even though they’re now on a hiatus, one of its founders will appear on a forthcoming Ewe Of Now release alongside other local acts.

“Portland’s a funny little town with a really supportive scene that’s pretty tight-knit, yet not too cliquey.” Originally from Minnesota, where he was involved with the local hip-hop and electronic scenes, Simon sees Portland’s hip-hop potential as substantial. “It’s grown of late; artists like Grape God, Snitches and Maze Koroma are popping up and doing it. It’s a breath of fresh air.”

Northern Draw

Northern Draw

Kipp Kruger was born and bred in Portland. Five years ago he began releasing music under the Northern Draw alias, painting vivid pictures of life through instrumental hip-hop. Kruger has collaborated with several local labels, including Dropping Gems, Ewe Of Now, and Ausland, “mainly because they are my friends and I dig what they’re doing.” His interest lies in bringing out the local in music in an attempt to recapture the personal and nostalgic aspects that art affords — “the most important vibe” — which he sees as sometimes lost in the larger, international, digital sphere.

“I love Portland and the Northwest,” Kruger explains, referring to his family’s roots in the area, which stretch back generations. “I grew up really attracted to hip-hop culture, and the scene here has always been small, though I feel it’s growing and I’m optimistic about future artists. In the past decade the population of Portland has grown tremendously allowing for smaller subcultures of art and music to survive. Musically, Portland has something to offer everyone; there are so many creative people out here it’s almost overwhelming at times. From Skweee to noise, you can head out every night and have a unique experience of whatever style you’re into.”

Fresh Selects

Fresh Selects was born in 2008 from the same simple proposition that drove most of the music blogosphere throughout that decade: covering the artists that founder Kenny Fresh felt were being overlooked. Last year he retired the blog and relaunched Fresh Selects as a label. With a taste for classic and new-breed hip-hop and soul, Fresh Selects has released music from artists often tied to the emergence of the beat scene in the late 2000s. Among these were Knxwledge and Mndsgn, two L.A. residents that are now signed to Stones Throw. Most recently, Fresh Selects released the fourth album from Low Leaf, a female singer, harpist and producer whose unique take on beats, folk and electronic music has won her plaudits around the world.

“I really appreciate Dropping Gems and what Aaron Meola is doing with that,” Kenny explains, when asked about local connections and collaborations. “We’ve had some good conversations exchanging stories and mutual advice over the last few years. I also really look up to Tender Loving Empire and their whole business model — how they’ve been able to expand their label into a brick-and-mortar store and now an online charitable platform.”

As for what keeps him in Portland, it’s “the people, the creative culture, and to be real, the cost of living.” He’s realistic about the city’s infatuation with indie rock and how that affects the prospects of labels like his. He sees Fresh Selects as based in Portland, but catering to the world. “It allows for the work to exist on its own in a way that’s not bound to any one region.”

Sun Hammer

Sun Hammer is the alias of Jay Bodley, a Michigan-born musician who now resides in Portland. Bodley has been writing and producing electronic music since 1999, with his first official releases coming via the Moodgadget label under the name A Setting Sun. He created the Sun Hammer alias in the late 2000s as a way to “combine all the styles that had been informing what I’ve done since I started. It’s a way to take my music in whatever direction it wants to go.” His releases on the Futuresequence and Inam labels have covered drone, noise and more experimental takes on instrumental, electronic music and hip-hop, while the self-released Repurpose series collects remixes from the past four years for artists such as Laurel Halo, Shigeto, Sepalcure, Lakker and Ben Frost. Most recently, Bodley formed Yung100 with Andrew Weathers; it’s a project that explores the ever-shifting grounds between hip-hop and electronic music.

“The Lifelike Collective have been supportive of my work here in Portland,” Bodley tells me. “I’ve had a couple positive experiences performing beat-driven music too, but I’ve found it hard to fit what I do into existing contexts.” With his work seemingly stuck between the experimental and club scenes — “my music is more ‘experimental’ than typical club music but more ‘club’ than the stuff the experimental shows showcase” — Bodley has found that at least Bandcamp affords him the most artistic freedom, even if it can be hard to pierce through the online noise.

“I was attracted to the natural beauty, progressive mindset, and size of the city,” Bodley explains when discussing his move. “I can have a life in which I’m free to pursue my interests in a way that’s sustainable.” He is, however, a little skeptical of how much Portland can really foster what he calls compelling creative expression. “It seems that often, struggle and difficulty bring about some of the best works of art, and there’s not a lot of struggle and difficulty here. I should point out that this has been my personal experience, and that it doesn’t impact on how great this city can be for artists. I love it here.”

Lefse Records

The Lefse Records label was born of a chance encounter on MySpace, back when the website was the default social media experience for music fans. Matt Halverson, founder of Lefse, was working in artist management when one day he came across the band Neon Indian. “I was blown away by this sound that would later come to be called chill wave.” Halverson created Lefse Records to put out their music. Neon Indian’s first album, Psychic Chasms, was released in 2009 and earned accolades from Pitchfork and Spin. “We had no idea he would be so well received and, in turn, make Lefse a real label.” Since then the label has grown its roster in a similar fashion, notably picking up How To Dress Well for an early release in 2010, and in 2012 the label relocated from its New York City home to Portland.

Since their move to Portland, Halverson points out that Lefse has been slow to immerse themselves in the scene, though they’ve fruitfully connected with the Kill Rock Stars label. “Before Portland, we had a small office in Brooklyn and it just felt completely claustrophobic. I love traveling to NYC for shows, but operating a label there was disenchanting. Portland is a great place to live if you want the city feel, but also have access to nature. You can escape the city in five minutes. Portland’s music scene does not seem to follow any trends, and folks here seem to just make music that makes them feel good.”

Audio Dregs

Eric Mast, Audio Dregs

“Learning was a big part of the process,” says Eric Mast, aka E*Rock, founder of Audio Dregs. The label was born in the early 1990s as a way for the music Mast and friends were making to be put into the hands of other friends via cassette. “I was just duplicating limited runs at home and making covers so that friends could have the music, selling some here and there.” Eventually, Mast made his record label official and moved to producing records and CDs, hoping to provide musicians a platform to develop their styles, grow their audience, and achieve a sustainable lifestyle. Today, Audio Dregs defines itself as a purveyor of “experimental music made by people equally in love with melody and invention,” which Mast admits is simply the music he and others were making and interested in hearing. “It was very hands-on when we started,” Mast remembers. “Setting up shows before there were any venues for it in town, releasing, creating a dialogue. Sadly, some labels have come and gone, like Collective Jyrk or Slender Means Society, and then you have venues like Holocene that are still putting on great shows and evolving.”

Boomarm Nation

Boomarm Nation was born in 2009 as a way for its founder, Jesse Munro Johnson, to release the music he was making as Gulls. Since then, the label has grown into “an open-ended spectrum of international music with sound system pressure and experimentation always at the core.” Their roster of 10 artists spreads from Istanbul back to Portland. “We started on a shoestring budget, and have been able to maintain for five years. I’m very grateful for that. This is the job I come home to after all the other jobs are done and the family is fed.”

Johnson is keen to underline the “family affair” vibe he feels with other Portland labels, such as Sahel Sounds, Zam Zam Sounds, Community Library and PDXINDUB, with whom he works in various ways. “We push each other forward and have a lot of mutual respect for our distinct styles and visions. Chris from Sahel Sounds and I have collaborated on several releases and remixes, and I’m currently doing some mixing for the forthcoming Mdou Moctar feature film.” For Johnson, the local access to such talent, from artwork to mixing and providing feedback, is instrumental in what he’s achieved with the label. The rest is, of course, thanks to all the listeners and buyers who brave the sometimes insane shipping fees.

Portland has been home for Johnson his whole life, and he wouldn’t change it for the world. “This town is a great place to move at a slow pace and let your creative ideas germinate and stretch out. Aside from being very much a rock town, there has always been a thriving scene of makers and lovers of experimental music, and there continues to be a willing group of folks excited to hear something different. I feel strongly that music is a way of life, and there are a lot of amazing artists in Portland that share this value as well. This yields a very open-minded and collaborative environment.”

Circle Into Square

Tom Filepp, Circle Into Square

Circle Into Square was born in 2006 in Boston out of an interesting premise. Founder Tom Filepp set it up as a “fake label” to fool vendors into picking up his project, Cars & Trains. The subterfuge worked as doors opened once Filepp had a small website running and a label name on his CDs. Filepp eventually teamed up with Ceschi Ramos and the Fake Four label, at which point he says Circle Into Square “became a real label.” Since moving to Portland, Filepp has slowly been getting involved with the local scenes, acts and other labels, though admittedly “not as much as we would like to be.” There was a joint showcase with Apes Tapes, now defunct, but Filepp is keen to work collaboratively. “We would love to work with great labels like Audio Dregs or Dropping Gems. There are so many excellent outfits in town.”

As with others, Filepp notes that proximity to nature and cheap rents were the biggest reasons he switched coasts. “On the music front, there is always something going on in town. It’s kind of difficult to establish yourself as an artist, though, because there’s so much to contend with. Unfortunately quite a few of the medium- to small-sized clubs have closed in recent years as well, so it’s gotten harder to set up gigs. We lost one of the only all-ages venues recently, which was a huge blow. It’ll be interesting to see where Portland moves going forward.”

Blankstairs

Blankstairs

The relatively young Blankstairs label was set up by locals Nathaniel Young and Warren Mattox in 2013 as a direct result of their bonding over “adventurous music and challenging modes of creativity.” Seeking ways to promote what they saw as “disparate forms of individuality,” they created Blankstairs as an art-focused party in late 2012, held in alternative spaces due to their young age and licensing laws. This subsequently grew into a label with a focus on ambient, and gritty house and techno, from both local and international artists. Beyond the music, the pair oversee the visual aesthetic of the label. Blankstairs launched in July 2013 with a compilation featuring over 20 artists, including local acts like Philip Grass and Montgomery Word. Today the label is split between the two coasts, with Young relocated to NYC.

Dropping Gems provided the pair with a “large influence on how we operate and function as a label. Aaron helped us tremendously with getting on our feet and learning how to put out a proper release.” The majority of Blankstairs’ collaborations, however, have been with the spaces in which they held their events. “Our interest in DIY party culture and the initial limitations imposed upon us by the drinking laws pushed us more toward these alternative spaces.” In 2013 the pair put together a month-long, pop-up club at the Recess gallery with musical and visual acts, and followed that with a show in the basement of a shopping complex. “Every space has operated differently and it’s been interesting to see the varying levels of involvement in the process.”

As for what Portland brings to the mix, Young points to the city’s well-known open attitude as “essential for developing artists to have an unrestricted forum to present their work in, and I think that the free and open space that Portland offers its inhabitants is what draws people to the city.”

Oligopolist

Inspired by the ecosystem of small labels putting out a consistent stream of “quality lo-fi and experimental music” that sprung up in the 2000s, local kids Quinn, Parker, Garren and Zakee decided to do the same by setting up the Oligopolist collective. At the core of their approach is a desire to cut out middlemen in order to bring as much of the money back to the artists as possible. “Despite sometimes seeing limitations,” Quinn explains, “it’s exciting to find more and more people joining the collective and pushing the mission forward. We all take our crafts seriously and give each other feedback, but we also just hang out when we can.”

As with Blankstairs, the majority of those involved in Oligopolist are under 21, making it difficult to integrate into the local music scene, thanks to the liquor laws. However this hasn’t stopped them from finding willing spaces, like the defunct backspace or Laughing Horse Books. Quinn met Dropping Gems early on in the life of Oligopolist and, through them, connected with Jon Simon of Ewe Of Now. “Seeing someone older doing things the way you are, but better, is really encouraging. Jon has a pretty similar methodology to ours, keeping everything DIY.” Quinn also points to Blankstairs’ beatogether events in 2013 as a catalyst for “pulling together people from all different crews to play a regular, all-ages, beat/electronic night.”

A Portland native, Quinn has also spent time in England, affording him a different view on the city. “I think Portland has enough culture and European sensibility for me to not move for a while. It’s got tons of music, especially outside of the electronic sphere, and a healthy all-ages/DIY undercurrent, while being small enough to bike from one side of town to the other.”

Omega Supreme

Representing the funky side of the musical spectrum in Portland is Omega Supreme, a label dedicated to modern funk. Founder James Vance moved from San Francisco to Portland in 2001, and the label has received healthy support from the DJ community. He has a roster of worldwide artists, but Vance is keen to keep things simple “so we can be sustainable and continue to put up music regularly.”

Despite having spent more than 10 years in the city, Vance has kept the label out of the local mix. He is, however, quick to extol the virtues of Portland when it comes to quality of life and physical pursuits. “What attracted me the most was all of the record stores. There are so many here in Portland, and there’s no tax so whatever the dollar amount is, that’s what you really pay, which is a nice incentive to buy more music.”

Future Folkloric

Pedro Canale, Chancha Via Circuito

Argentinian producer Pedro Canale, better known to your Bandcamp collection as Chancha Via Circuito, is currently touring the U.S. with a brand-new album in hand. Amansara is his third, and his first for the New York-based Wonderwheel label, which is spearheaded by globe-trotting DJ Nickodemus.

Cutting his teeth with the ZZK crew of Buenos Aires’ digital cumbia scene, Chancha’s blending of traditional folkloric music with futuristic sounds has forged ties with fans of electronic music around the world. On Amansara he reaches beyond the boundaries of his motherland to incorporate styles and influences from neighboring South American countries, too.

Bandcamp: It’s been 3 years since your last release. What have you been up to?

Pedro Canale: I’ve been composing new material and touring around Europe, Russia, Mexico and Nordic countries. I’ve also been teaching Ableton Live here in Buenos Aires and traveling for pleasure. This year I visited the jungle of Belize, and I went to the jungle of Peru for the third time.

BC: How would you describe the difference between Amansara and Rio Arriba?

PC: The spirit of the music is the same, with many different influences that start a dialogue in each song. The main difference between Rio Arriba and Amansara is that for this new album I didn’t use samples. I used to sample a lot before and sometimes I still do, but now if I use samples in a song, I just put the song up for a free download. This is why I dropped a free EP called Semillas after Rio Arriba.

BC: Is it important to you to preserve traditional sounds, instruments, songs, and rhythms of your motherland?

PC: It’s important to me to play with traditional sounds, to reinterpret and mix them in a new way. I consider this the best way to preserve the traditional—the best way of keeping these ancient rhythms alive.

BC: Where did you grow up and what kind of music did you listen to there?

PC: I grew up in José Mármol, a quiet and beautiful city on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. My parents played a lot of different music in our home—folklore, jazz, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Violeta Parra, Urubamba, the Beatles, classical, etc. I think it was very important for my musical education to have had this background.

BC: The collaborative track with Mariam Garcia is a great example of how your music marries traditional and future sounds in a really organic way. Garcia is a unique singer and her vocal style seems to fit your music perfectly. How/when did you start to work together and what is the process like?

PC: When I heard Miriam’s voice for the first time in the track “Pintar El Sol,” I felt something very deep and special. I didn’t know she was alive and living in Buenos Aires, so it was kind of a miracle to find this out. She had already heard my remix of “Pintar El Sol” through a student of hers and liked it a lot, so I didn’t hesitate to invite her to my studio. We have been working together ever since. The process is that I show her some beats and she simply starts singing and trying some melodies.

Chancha Via Circuito and Miriam GarciaPedro Canale and Mariam Garcia

BC: How is the digital cumbia scene doing in Argentina? Are you pleased with its reception around the world?

PC: The scene of digital cumbia was related to Zizek parties, and this is how this movement got stronger. Nowadays, Zizek doesn’t exist anymore; a lot of new cumbia parties took its place (with a bunch of new producers also). So I don’t really know if we are still talking about a scene, but this is something that has gotten bigger as an influence here in Buenos Aires and all over the world. I’m very happy to see that cumbia, including digital cumbia, has won a deserved place everywhere.

BC: What can you tell us about “Sueño en Paraguay?”

PC: It’s a song that’s inspired by the harp music from Paraguay. I haven’t been there, but I really want to—maybe some day. A curious thing in this song is that I used, as a percussive element, some loops that I made by colliding stones in Sun Island, Bolivia. It’s a meeting between countries.

BC: In addition to “Sueño en Paraguay,” there are other references on the album to South American countries outside of Argentina. What was the aim of reaching beyond your home country?

PC: The curiosity and the desire to know new places and music pushes me in my search. There are many magical places in South America.

BC: Your remix of José Larralde’s “Quimey Neuquén” played a big role in the final series of Breaking Bad—Walter White buries his millions in the desert to the soundtrack of your mix. Were you a fan of the show and did this license open the door for more interest in your music?

PC: I’m not a fan of the series; I only watched the first season, but I know I should watch it entirely. Yes, this license opened the door, as you say. Many people reached my music through it. It was a big step in my career and I’m pleased.

BC: Can you talk to us about the artwork—who did it and what’s the story behind the image? What are you hoping to convey?

PC: The artwork is a painting from Paula Duró; she is responsible for the art of my last three releases. This image evokes some magical and spiritual situation, something very typical in her art. I don’t know if it has a story behind it, but it really inspired me. Maybe this question is more for her. We should ask her! It’s a mystery!

BC: What is the significance of the title, Amansara?

PC: It has no translation, really. Amansar is a verb more related to calming animals through love when they are a bit nervous or anxious. The meaning of the title for this album is the same, but for people.

Pedro Canale, Chancha Via Circuito

 

Shedding Light on the Darkness of Myrkur

Wyatt Marshall is a writer in New York City.

Myrkur, Rasmus Malmstrom

“I never planned on playing this music for anyone, let alone releasing it. So it was not without complications for me to unleash this project into the world.”

Two months ago, “Nattens Barn,” the debut song from Myrkur—Icelandic for “darkness”—appeared on Pitchfork. It’s a really good track, a dose of early ’90s second-wave black metal that’s a compelling take on the original thing, with twists. Led by an ethereal female chorus, “Nattens Barn” soon dives into a rich, mid-tempo plod, then goes into full-on, furious and melancholic blasting. Barely contained, gorgeous chaos reigns as Myrkur simultaneously embodies Enya and (2014) Ulver.

Press materials state Myrkur is a Danish, one-woman, black metal band from the “darkness of Scandinavia,” and her debut, self-titled EP “burst onto the scene like a Valkyrie into battle.” The second single, “Latvian Fergurö,” followed a similar script to “Nattens Barn” and added fuel to the fire. The whole self-titled album, now available, is a compelling ride—raw like black metal of yore, yet stylish, confident and mature.

Captivating mystery surrounds the release of Myrkur’s debut. Could Relapse, the influential American metal label that signed her, really have snagged this artist after hearing her sing in a forest? It is a sad testament to the insular nature of the genre that there aren’t many women in black metal—let alone one-woman bands. People began to wonder how such an act could fly by all radars, skip the demo phase, and leap onto a high-profile stage.

Almost immediately, music journalists and enthusiasts began to chip away at the mystery. It turns out, Myrkur is the work of Amalie Bruun, a Danish artist and longtime black metal fan. Bruun says she writes and records all of her music in Denmark, where the history of Scandinavia and Scandinavian nature—forest, mountains, cold, and Nordic magic—inspire her. She references second-wave Norwegian black metal bands like Darkthrone and Ulver as influences, as well as Edvard Grieg, the 19th-century Norwegian composer known for his romantic works and occupier of a special place in the Norwegian collective conscience. She’s also in another band, the indie-pop duo Ex Cops, and she’s a model who has been featured in fashion publications like Refinery 29 and an ad for Chanel, directed by Martin Scorsese.

It is fascinating that an artist can compellingly coexist in such different worlds, and interesting to think how one might inform the other. Can one simultaneously be a successful indie-pop artist and a mysterious, black metal musician from the Scandinavian hinterlands? Darkthrone’s Fenriz, an elder statesman of black metal if there is one, is a professed fan of techno and house (watch this video around 1:02:20 for proof), and says a lot of his colleagues in Norway feel the same way— even Euronymous of Mayhem, before his passing, was a fan. They look at the limited purview of a strict black metal doctrine as both unnecessarily blinded and foolish.

In a statement from Relapse, label manager Reynold Jaffe said that Myrkur was signed based on the strength of her debut record and, “we are well aware that context is necessary for many people to formulate an opinion, for better or for worse.” He continued, “Myrkur is categorically controversial and challenging. She’s not someone who discovered Ulver and Burzum 18 months ago; she grew up on it and channeled her passion into a very authentic-sounding Scandinavian black metal record. It’s unfortunate for anyone to dismiss a great record simply because it came from an unusual source that contests the typical narrative.“

Nevertheless, it’s inevitable that Bruun will run into detractors. As Jaffe indicates, among the most severe are those that say Bruun might be deliberately misleading potential fans while dabbling in a genre where listeners are drawn to the music for its perceived authenticity—the Michael Moynihan book Lords of Chaos serves as a good guide to the craziness from which black metal as we know it was born. Being a dilettante is a grave charge in a genre that has traditionally followed an unwritten doctrine of obscurity and has shown resistance to change, challenging credos and outsiders who step into its world. Black metal is, however, experiencing unprecedented coolness in the wider music criticism sphere, and time will tell if sounding authentic, or the perception of being authentic, will affect the success of Myrkur.

Regardless of whether Bruun’s other work colors the way fans see Myrkur, it’s an impressive debut EP from a promising artist. Her new album, which she is currently writing, is one to look forward to—she has set the musical bar and level of intrigue very high.

Bruun declined to talk about her work outside Myrkur, but she did answer the questions below. Her responses have been edited for brevity.

Myrkur, Rasmus Malmstrom

Bandcamp: You’ve got a unique vocal approach on your self-titled album. Instead of rasps, you go for a multilayered chorus and the occasionally heavily distorted, caustic shriek. The result straddles more traditional black metal and haunted beauty. Why’d you choose to avoid the genre-standard shriek?
Myrkur: I would not say I avoided the standard screams. I do quite a lot of these metal/primal screams on this EP [and even more so on my upcoming full-length record that I am now writing]. Screaming is one of the rewarding parts about black metal, both to listen to and to do myself. It releases a fraction of the anger and hatred I have inside me. I have, since I was a child, listened to and sung in girls choir, therefore these choral vocals and arrangements come quite natural to me.

BC: Your music has an early ’90s second-wave quality—I agree with some other writers who have likened it to Ulver’s Bergtatt. Can you elaborate on the influence that period’s output has on your music? I’m also interested to hear about the influence of the 19th-century Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg, whom you called the “godfather of black metal.”
Myrkur: Edvard Grieg to me is the supreme being of Nordic composers. His works reflect the nature of Scandinavia itself—dark brutality, but also pure and frozen beauty. He moves within the eerie and tension-filled Nordic folk music universe that echoes so deep in my heart. Some of his music paints a picture of the conversion from our pagan Asetro to Christianity that was violently forced upon us.

Yes, Ulver and these bands of this period I have listened to and hold dear to my heart. I feel they echoed Edvard Grieg in the sense that they captured the essence of Scandinavia and Nordic history, nature, culture, and mind. As a child I was fascinated with Norse Mythology and our Aseguder. This is often an inspiration in black metal, as well. I can’t very well put words to what it does to me when I listen to this era of black metal, other than it feels like my home.

BC: In press materials and an interview with the blog Halifax Collect, you’ve said, like a lot of black metal bands, the nature and beauty of your native Denmark inspires you. Can you elaborate?
Myrkur: Only when I find myself on, for example, the top of a mountain or in a big forest, can I feel that odd silence that is not empty and makes me feel fulfilled. A lot of people have told me they feel the same way. Maybe it goes back to when I was born. The night of my birth [the northern lights were shining] and [it was] one of the coldest winters of several decades. My mother tells me I was not allowed to come outside until I was around 2 months old because the cold could kill a newborn baby. I feel at home in cold and darkness because of this. But I love Denmark all year long. We have midnight sun in the summer. The author Hans Christian Andersen poetically captures Denmark in a beautifully melancholy and dark way. My mother used to sing to me his song “Min pige er så lys som rav.” The lyrics roughly translate to “My maiden is as fair as amber and the golden wheat of Denmark. Her eyes are as blue as the sea, when the sky is down there.” I identify with this song musically and as a woman.

BC: Do you play all the instruments on the recordings?
Myrkur: I play all the guitars, some bass and the vocals. My friend from Sweden, Rex Myrnur, did all the drums. I recorded and mixed the EP in my house and a mastering engineer [did] the mastering.

BC: Any possibility Myrkur will play live?
Myrkur: Yes, I would very much like to play live concerts. I don’t have any desire to go on tour somewhere with venues that would force me to compromise my sound. I dream of setting up a show at Grieg Hallen, for example, with the Norwegian girls choir.

BC: Why’d you choose to present yourself anonymously when you first came out—was it your idea? Were you worried about how your other work might color the reception of Myrkur?
Myrkur: Yes, it was my idea. I don’t think any record label prefers an artist who doesn’t want to do any press, face-to-face interviews, band photos or portraits, and [provides] no background information or bio. But it was my requirement or I didn’t wish to release the EP at all. I never planned on playing this music for anyone, let alone releasing it. So it was not without complications for me to unleash this project into the world.

Today, some people don’t trust their own ears and their own inner beings. They need others to tell them what to like. They need to know everything about an artist to decide if they like the music. Their ears have somehow gone deaf to just taking in music by just hearing it.

If you write and release a classical music record, does it matter what color your hair is, what you did last year, what you like to eat for breakfast? This should not matter for my record and it must be up to the listener to decide if they like what they hear, instead of waiting for some kind of PR company-written bio that isn’t truthful anyway, and writers to tell them what to like. I believe people are strong and brave enough to trust their own ears and hearts.

BC: Some might say the way you presented yourself was disingenuous. Whether it’s fair, many black metal fans crave “authenticity.” What would you say to those who might not take Myrkur seriously in light of your other work and how Myrkur was unveiled?
Myrkur: I was born and raised on the northern coast of Denmark. I have written this music for years by myself in my house in Denmark. Black metal comes from my part of the world, Scandinavia, and has its roots in the Nordic nature that I hold so dear and also our ancient pagan religion of Norse Mythology and our folk music.

So I don’t know why a person coming from an entirely different part of the world with an entirely different culture would ask me if I’m really Scandinavian enough to write music that [has run] in my bloodstream from the day I was born. Luckily, most people don’t ask me these questions and they aren’t fixated on genre etiquette.

Another thing is that the black metal musicians I play with in Scandinavia all like and play different genres of music, as well. So this type of concern is only something I’ve met with recently. Luckily, most people just listen to the music and let their ears be the judge.

Myrkur, Rasmus Malmstrom

BC: What should fans expect from Myrkur going forward?
Myrkur: I would like to play live concerts. I am working on a full-length record that most likely will be recorded in Bergen. The rest I don’t really know. This whole time of releasing Myrkur on Relapse has been completely spontaneous and unpredictable. So it is hard to say.

The Lover and the Killer

Shara Worden, My Brightest Diamond

“How is it that every human being has the capacity to be both the lover and the killer?”

“This is my hand, this is my wrist, this is my arm, this is my fist,” chants Shara Worden, unadorned and unrelenting. A bassline quickly ascends a five-note scale and promptly begins again, ad infinitum. “This is my face, this is my mouth, this is my eye, this is my brow.” Worden continues to proclaim her presence, as My Brightest Diamond—her ever-shifting band, here in its fourth major iteration since 2006—builds around her.

The repetition of each mantra, the simple act of naming, accrues into a kind of manifesto. “‘This Is My Hand’ was literally this ritual of me taking back my body, for myself,” Worden told me in a phone interview. The song is the titular track of a new album that brings My Brightest Diamond back to basics, emphasizing rhythm above all else.

Underlying that stripped-down approach is a personal vision. “Here was this record where I was trying to make dance music, and I realized that I really can’t,” she said, somewhat in jest. It wasn’t that Worden didn’t know how to dance; it was that she had been pulled away from it for most of her career. Entering the music scene in her late teens, Worden immediately encountered gendered limitations. “I figured out that people were not going to take me seriously as a woman, and so I stopped dancing,” she said. “There was a lot of baggage, so I became more and more intellectual, even though I’m a really intuitive and emotional person—and I also really love to dance. But in my own mind, I really wasn’t able to, because I wasn’t going to be taken seriously.”

Shara Worden, My Brightest Diamond

“I’m coming to terms with the fact that I want to be a whole person, and that includes that I have a body,” Worden said. Her insistence in “This Is My Hand” reclaims that space; the rest of the album explores similar territory. “By now, if I’m not going to be taken seriously there’s no hope,” she added, laughing. “There’s no hope of me ever being taken seriously. So then in that case, screw it.”

Following My Brightest Diamond’s 2011 All Things Will Unwind, Worden immersed herself in a series of compelling projects, from singing David Lang’s death speaks to writing her own Baroque-style opera to acting in a Matthew Barney film. When returning to the studio for the next MBD album, Worden confronted the basic existential issue for any musician today: “I’m about to make a record and people don’t buy records anymore, so what does that mean?” Worden found an answer in her fascination with three books that all deal with myth, music, and human evolution: Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee, Daniel Levitin’s The World in Six Songs, and Robert Graves’ The White Goddess.

“What does the modern tribe look like?” she wondered. “We’re such a fragmented culture. I thought, ‘Okay, what if the concert becomes the tribe, and we’re only a tribe for a single night?’” The tribal rituals of the concert experience might involve clapping hands, waving lighters, dancing; This Is My Hand draws those out, emphasizing the collective along with the rhythmic, fueled by the elemental themes of the books.

This approach is crystallized in “Pressure,” the album’s opening track. It begins with the staples of the marching band—drumrolls, percussive filigree, and taut winds—a tradition that balances raucousness with tight coordination. For the past several years, Worden has integrated the Detroit Party Marching Band into her live shows, making the experience at once expansive and participatory. “For me,” she said, “the marching band became the symbol of the place in American culture where folk, the idea of music being available and accessible to everybody, meets shared music-making. It’s a communal experience.” In “Pressure,” Worden’s varied musical persona is also on display with her ability to turn on a dime from a propulsive, jazzy vocal sound to quintessential, My Brightest Diamond moments of stop-time ethereality. Toward the end of the song, the music suddenly moves into a fluttering sonic plane as Worden sings softly of “Pink, purple, green, red, yellow, blue.”

Worden initially wrote and recorded a larger body of songs for the album, but found herself dissatisfied. She decided to pare down and rewrite, transforming broader themes into intimate ones. The brooding and bluesy “I Am Not the Bad Guy” began as a narrative about an innocent man wrongly jailed, which Worden wrote for a Buster Keaton film. Its political implications, though, didn’t quite hold up as a song; she adjusted the point of view, and put herself in prison. “By changing the perspective of who the ‘I’ was, it took it to a different place,” Worden said.

“Lover Killer” is based on a bit of verse analyzed by Graves in The White Goddess—a kind of poetry game played by Welsh bards, in which consonants remain the same while vowels change (“Billet spied, bolt sped”). Worden sets the poem, a description of a quick and bloody death, in an intricate seven, articulated with handclaps and close-fitting percussion. But she also places herself at the center of the tale. “I wanted to somehow humanize the killer, to make it myself again—instead of ‘Those bad people, I would never do that,’” she said. “How is it that every human being has the capacity to be both the lover and the killer?”

This Is My Hand dwells on such questions, but not in a ponderous way. It’s really quite danceable.

Shara Worden, My Brightest Diamond

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