"Playing music, writing music and lyrics is not the same, but it all goes hand in hand"

The Faroese singer Teitur has proven to be a lasting, unique voice on the Western music scene.

In this interview, we talked with Teitur about life on the road, good sound and creating the perfect song.

Part I: On the road
Teitur has been travelling in North America for six weeks, with two more to go. Yet, he's found time to talk with us in detail about his music, travelling, sound quality and a 'perfect day':

Lou Reed once wrote a song called Perfect Day about a couple doing nothing special, just happy having spent it together. What's a perfect day for you?

"I think Lou Reed was onto something. Personally, I'm not so sure that he meant to be ironic when he wrote it, although everyone thinks so, because of his delivery. It's usually the unexpected day that sticks around longer. When you have Sangria in the park and that kind of thing. Or when you are with someone special to you. Going to feed animals in the zoo may be just what the doctor ordered. For a moment it could perhaps make perfect sense of the complex world we live in," Teitur explains and continues about his own perfect day:

"I had a perfect day in Chicago recently. In the afternoon, I attended a contemporary music concert spiced with wonderful Aaron Copland music and in the evening I went to hear bluesman Kelly Joe Phelps in a recording studio. On the way there, a taxi driver called Muhammad Ali brought me up to speed with the political situation in Somalia like a talented journalist would."

Life on the road
As mentioned, Teitur's life currently entails a lot of travelling. He's been to 24 different North American cities during the last six weeks playing shows. So how does he spend his perfect days when travelling?

"I am working on a 30-minute song for the Netherland Wind Ensemble, so I spend a lot of time and energy on that, and I am also writing songs for my next album. It's good to have recurring things to do when you travel, there is a lot of free time and it gives you something to look forward to and something to focus on.

I try to write every day, which doesn't always happen. My main priority is to play a good show in the evening. Usually, I'll be at a venue around 4 pm and do a sound check and all that," Teitur explains.

"It's hard work but it's also new adventures every day. When I am not on tour, I am usually on the Faroe Islands, which is a very different experience. There is a lot of stillness and lots of time, which is a luxury when you are a writer. I have a house and a dog there. I like the contrast between the places."

There is only good music
What music inspires you, and what inspires your music?

"I listen to music because it makes me feel good and I understand it very well, but on a daily basis I am more inspired to create by matters that aren't music. Everyday things, conversations, realisations, truth, books, works of art, weather, things like that – music is my output, but my input comes from everywhere. I'm inspired by music and art when I feel that it has something to tell me.

I'm inspired by what other artists are able to express with their music in relation to where they are in their lives. It could be a non-musician standing up in a restaurant singing a birthday song for their mom – that's great music too. I'm mostly interested in where the music is coming from if it comes from a good place. Like ingredients in food determine whether it's good or not. And as with food, there's really only one genre at the bottom line – good music. I don't understand people who say they only like guitar rock music or whatever. That's like someone who only likes fruit or sugary things. That's someone who doesn't know food and doesn't understand food in its full scope."

Part II: Good sound
We're obviously onto something that matters a lot to Teitur, who has spent most of his adult years in the music business – creating, reflecting and executing music. What is great sound and great music production to you?

"There are technical aspects and human aspects. It all depends on what you want to achieve, musically, artistically and aesthetically. There's a big difference between making a record with a rock band and recording a piano concerto. I think the most important thing is to know what you want and you must be aware of what is possible with the means that you have access to," Teitur explains.

"You may not have the budget to use hi-tech gear, or perhaps you are after something that does not require dozens of expensive old microphones, string orchestras and Steinway grand pianos. Music production is a lot about preparation, planning and organisation. You've got to set up and plan well, so that you know what you're gonna get, and you also wanna anticipate and make room for that magic which happens when people play amazingly and great music is born.

In the end, you want the music to play well and this is always going to be the most important factor. If a song or a composition is average it's never going to sound anything but average no matter how you record it."

What you really need for sound recordings
Teitur explains the importance of first preparing the musical material and exploring several different options before you record. This way, the recording session will become an execution, not a rehearsal or discovery of the arranging process.

"Again, you gotta know what you want and you gotta be aware of what you're dealing with. I look at sound recording as a pretty basic technical process. And it's also a highly psychological process, where you want people as well as music to be in tune. You need a great room, great musicians, great quality gear and also a great purpose. Technically, you are capturing the sound of an instrument with the help of electric signals, and you want to get the best possible sound information and feel.

It's like you want your camera to have as many pixels as possible so that it can absorb your scenery with the most details. Then afterwards you are free to manipulate, shape and form individual sounds of whatever frequency you need them to be in your picture. You can also choose to let a specific character in a microphone or a musician be part of the timbre you want," Teitur says.

"Sometimes it's better to use one distinct microphone on, say, a clarinet, as opposed to four different ones. You may only have one day to mix the whole track and if you are sitting there with 127 channels at the mixing session, you're gonna need more time and money to make the best of it.

Again, it depends on what kind of music you are producing. You need good gear, so that it sounds excellent, and great electrical equipment that allows data to flow most effectively. There is no way around it. You can also make it sound cheap and shitty if that's what makes you feel good about yourself artistically."

Teitur is known to be an audiophile and a vinyl lover. I draw his attention to the cover of his album Let the Dog Drive Home (2010), which carries an illustration of the CD's gravestone, b. 1982.

How do you see the conflict between these various sound formats?

"The short version is that CDs are 16-bit. And they're digital. It's always funny, that end process when you have been listening to your recording session in the highest resolution and then you dumb it down to almost nothing and let other people hear it in a much worse format."

The love for vinyl
"Vinyl is a classic format. I like the idea of a needle absorbing the deep grooves of a perfect pressing, spinning on a gramophone wheel going through a beautifully simple circuit in my '70s Revox amp. It has a lot more soul than a CD."

"But it's also a fetish. I just wish that CDs had higher resolution so that there could be better sound on them. The CD is just not big enough for the highest-quality sound. I have two really great stereo set-ups at home, and they sound lovely."

"I have a friend who is an expert at tracking down classic model amps, turntables and speakers, and matching them until magic clicks in. I also try to avoid using the headphone outputs in my computers and iPods, so you get better digital distribution. There are ways to get around bad sound."

Part III: Creating music
Speaking of new formats: Historically, music always altered, moved and renewed due to changing times, new possibilities and great, innovative musical minds. Which future musical turns do you see in this context?

"This whole century is a new era for music. On a larger scale, humans are coming to terms with the fact that music is no longer restricted to one geographical place or a single event.

Imagine music before recorded music – historically recorded music is a very new event. Recorded music has changed music's role in society a lot because it is now possible for millions of individuals to express themselves and to listen to everything. This is beautiful! However, a lot of new musical innovation is being obscured by this social phenomenon of sharing and today's music business is rigged to a business model that assumes pop stars are making music of value, just because the music gets the most people's immediate attention."

Music is not recording yourself on the laptop
"I believe the whole concept of value will change in most businesses over the next hundreds of years, and the music business and the Internet are still babies crawling. I believe that in 500 years, John Coltrane's music catalogue and publishing property will be worth more in the music industry than today's no. 1 songs because his musical output has more quality, originality, and sustainability.

Behind the curtain today, new music and work are being written, which takes music and art to a whole different level. It's up to today's composers and artists to embrace this new world and to get there individually. Music history is not what's happening with the population of 50 million guitar players who can record themselves on their laptops. The way I see it, almost everything created today is a kind of folk music that is simply a document of where we are as a people. That's mostly technology and sociology speaking, not so much the foundations of innovative music of the future."

Focus, please
We're approaching the end of our interview with Teitur. Still, good sound needs good music, despite or with help from new emerging formats. And we're not going to let him have a lucky escape before learning a bit about his own creative process and his own document of where we are as a people. I remember once in a portrait film made on his home islands, the Faroe Islands, he stated that he listens to music differently than most 'ordinary' listeners do. To him, it's never background sound. When he listens, he truly listens.

"Yes, if you want to know what's going on in the music and what it's doing to you, you should have your senses open and you should give your full attention to the music. Closing your eyes is a great idea when listening to music. I think that music is the most abstract art form there is, and the perception is individual from person to person. There are basic things you can do to get deeper into music. This is also why good sound equipment and surroundings are essential for listening."

Composing and listening to music
"When it comes to composition, it's of utmost importance that you are present and focused on what you are going into. You need to open up your ears, instincts and the intuitions of your body so that nothing stands in the way. Usually, what stands mostly in the way of listening is people's social prejudice against other people's style or genre, because 95% of the music they listen to has to be in a particular style that helps define them personally. It takes a lot of listening to understand something that is unfamiliar. And there is a big difference between listening to music and simply enjoying music."

Yet your expression is often melancholic, fragile, deeply personal and perhaps even has a certain Nordic tone. Did you ever think of trying to challenge this expression deliberately in order to explore new ground?

"Ideally, every time you play and perform you should explore new grounds. And no, I would never fight against my own expression, which by nature sounds like where I am from and the baggage that I carry. Playing music is about both flow and being in control at the same time. Sure, it's good to challenge oneself and throw yourself out there creatively, but I see my own tone and sound as my greatest strength. And it's in fact the very instrument I use to express myself - it's not an obstacle or something to be afraid of.

My main priority as an artist and composer is to make the music that only I can make – so the more it sounds like my music, the better. It would be a weakness and a creative problem if I sounded like somebody else. In fact, when artists are 'exploring new grounds' and making music solely on the basis of creating what no one has heard before, it can be seen just as much as an identity crisis or a weakness, if you ask me."

The song is what comes first
Your lyrics are often about close, universal, inner subjects. Love, relationships, your heroes, everyday stories, often with a philosophical and sometimes in fact humorous edge. Why is that?

"As I mentioned earlier, I have chosen to make the music that only I can make. I have come to the conclusion that it's the most meaningful thing to do. My aim is to be generous and to be myself.

I've also learned that singing is not voice gymnastics – singing is about sharing. My starting point is songwriting and the song itself, which by nature is all about lyrics and form. I tell the stories that I know, and deep inside I want to communicate what I feel and know to others. I can't relate to songs being born out of coincidence – someone just making riffs and noise with band members and a singer coming up with random words that sound good and hey, let's just give the song the title of whatever word or sentence that shines the brightest. For me, that's fumbling in the dark."

The perfect song
"I wanna write a song from scratch with full control. With a purpose, a beginning, an end, morale, information and meaning. The song is what comes first. Not a melody, a cool sentence or a sound I've never thought I could make. Most people are scared to death to articulate in a song what they really feel and think, but I don't think you are really contributing to great songwriting unless you are willing to wrestle, fight and win over that fear.

"Playing music, writing music and lyrics is not the same, but it all goes hand in hand," Teitur concludes.

Follow Teitur on: www.teitur.com.

- Rune H. Jensen, rhj@dali.dk.


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