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Lau Nau on Listening to Small Accidents and Hand-Crafting Her Unique Sound

Welcome back to Soundfly’s weekly interview series, Incorrect Music, curated by guitarist, singer, and composer Lora-Faye Åshuvud (of the band Arthur Moon). In this series, we present intimate conversations with artists who are striving to push the boundaries of their process and craft.

The Finnish singer/songwriter, composer and improviser, Laura Naukkarinen has been steadily releasing spectral, lush music under the moniker Lau Nau since the mid-2000s. Coming out of a period of composing for film, theatre and dance, her most recent release, Poseidon, (which dropped this November) moves away from traditional song-form and further toward rich, cinematic abstraction. The base tracks were recorded live without a metronome, and the rest of the record was tracked remotely, which imbues Poseidon with this particularly compelling tension between the breath of the live performances and the tallied intentionality of the overdubs. “I think because the first recordings were made without a metronome… in a natural rhythm, it feels like it would not be such a remotely recorded album,” says Naukkarinen, “In some tracks you can hear how I count the rhythm before we start playing or how the pedals and the stool of the piano and celesta are making noises. I think cleaning off those sounds would clean some life out of the album too, so we decided to leave them as they are, as breath of life.”

I love how Naukkarinen articulates the way this approach permeates her composing process as well,

“I listen to small accidents and crossings of the sound waves,” she says, “and build the compositions around them.”

Lau Nau’s latest album, Poseidon, is out now via Fonal Records (Europe/World), Beacon Sound (North America), and Impartmaint (Japan).

– Lora-Faye Åshuvud

Interview by Jeremy Young

Why did you choose the name Poseidon? What was the genesis of this theme and how does it permeate through the lyrics? (I, surprisingly, don’t speak Finnish.)

The title track of the album is a story of two lovers who meet in a city veiled in fog. The fog is Poseidon’s greeting for these two, they can explore all the beautiful spots without being exposed to the crowd. I like the idea of a deity that wants to interfere in an individual’s life. “Poseidon” is also the name of a rather old bar in Helsinki, I always come out of that bar feeling a bit foggy.

The presence of both the sea and a narrator that has a deity kind of a view started expanding throughout the whole album both in lyrics and sonically, too. “Tunti” (which in Finnish means: “An Hour”) was originally called “An Hour Before the Boat Leaves.” You have to use that time well if you’re saying goodbye to someone. You can hear the sirens in some songs. “Elina” and “Lydia” both have a narrator that knows more than the one who is receiving the message. The whole album has a feeling that someone is watching over a created world that crumbles at its edges.

This group of musicians represents an excellent cross-section of some of the most internationally renowned Scandinavian experimentalists, some of whom you’ve been playing with for years: Samuli Kosminen (múm, Hauschka, Kimmo Pohjonen) who mixed the album and played, too, Helena Espvall (the great cellist from Espers, and many other groups), multi-instrumentalist Antti Tolvi, the experimental jouhikko-ist Pekko Käppi, Swedish composer Matti Bye and not to mention, gorgeous mastering by Sami Sänpäkkilä (whose makes incredible music under the moniker Es). How did this group come together?

Yes, they are all amazing people. I’m so happy to have this band on the album with me. I have known most of them for a very long time, for different reasons, so our histories together would make a long story…

When I had composed the songs, it was clear to me that I had to start recording the album with Matti Bye, whose music I adore so much. We have been playing silent film concerts together lately. So we did the first sessions in his studio with different keyboard instruments. That gave the first pulse for the record. Pekko Käppi has been playing on all of my albums so I really needed his touch on this album, too, and I have long dreamt of playing with Helena Espvall so this was a good opportunity to have her wonderful cello on the album. We had known each other for a decade but played only one improvised show together in Philadelphia as a trio with Fursaxa as the third member.

I had been dreaming of working with Samuli Kosminen too, and after doing some live performances together for silent films I finally had the guts to ask him to mix the album. He ended up having a bigger role on the album as he plays on it, mixed it, and also co-produced it with me in a post-production manner. And, well, both Antti Tolvi and Sami Sänpäkkilä are my relied, go-to collaborators, so of course they are involved, too.

Did everyone perform together, or did some musicians record remotely?

Except for the first sessions by me and Matti, where we played together simultaneously, everything else was recorded remotely. I think because the first recordings were made without a metronome together with him, in a natural rhythm, it doesn’t feels like it is such a remotely recorded album. In some tracks you can hear how I count the rhythm before we start playing, or how the pedals and the stool of the piano and celesta are making noises. I think cleaning off those sounds would clean some life out of the album, too, so we decided to leave them as they are, as a breath of life.

Your music has seemed to shift over time from “freak folk,” made with detuned instruments, noise and toys, and dissonance, to a more “modern classical” approach featuring tighter, more consonant and emotive instrumentals, and lush string textures and orchestrations, etc. Was this shift gradual, or a result of an intentional stylistic change?

It’s been a shift that started before my fourth album, “Hem. Någonstans,” which is actually a soundtrack album to Lotta Petronella’s film “Home. Somewhere.” You can definitely hear Lotta’s vision on that album, as she guided me gently in a new direction. I have been listening to a lot of contemporary art music, both classical and not so classical, electroacoustic performances and both historical and contemporary electronic art music. I’m sure all I listen to gets reflected in whatever I compose.

I have also been making more abstract music for theatre and film lately, and there my approaches are leaning more and more away from the “pop song” form. So in a way the songs I make to be performed by Lau Nau have been still resisting this change a bit. My first albums feel very distant to me already and I want to keep growing as a composer and an artist, so you can expect new shifts before the upcoming Lau Nau albums and performances, too!

Just now I am working a lot with analog synthesizers, both with my own modular synth and with a grand Buchla synth at EMS Stockholm. My solo project Subatlantti studies the union of a violin and analog synth, and my trio IAX is a synth band that you will soon hear…

How does your music change when you take it to the stage to perform live? What happens to songs when they leave the studio?

Financially, I don’t have yet the opportunity to bring the whole band to play my concerts so I have to strip the songs bare when I perform them solo or duo. It’s a process of finding the core of the song and then transferring it to whatever instrument and voice.

I started playing the songs from this album live with electric guitar, but now I’m doing more and more arrangements for my modular synth and other synths, as well as with piano, and probably finally ditching the guitar for a while. Sometimes I’m lucky to play trio shows with Helena and Matti, then my songs get all these wonderful micro-universe arrangements with piano and cello. I love those moments so much it makes me want to stop playing and just listen to their playing!

“My sound is hand crafted and homemade. It’s of course in a state of constant change as I learn new techniques for doing things, but still it’s very DIY. I want to know how things work and craft music by myself.”

Your vocal melodies have always read as unique and beautiful, and unlike anything I hear in most modern pop music. I guess I have two questions, firstly, are your melodies inspired by anyone’s music in particular? And secondly, you’ve managed to do some very new, special things with the very old art form of the “pop song,” how do you think you’re able to insert so much personal voice into that form to create your sound?

Linda Perhacs was a strong inspiration for me when I started doing my solo work in 2004, especially her song “Parallelograms.” Vashti Bunyan was a huge inspiration, too. Folk songs around the world bear melodies that are close to my way of making a song melody and accompanying harmonies. I like to repeat sentences or melodies the way a lot of folk songs do. There’s something magical in the simplicity.

My sound is hand-crafted and homemade. It’s of course in a state of constant change as I learn new techniques for doing things, but still it’s very DIY. I want to know how things work and craft music by myself. I’m such a nerd. Having Samuli to co-produce my newest album was a really big change for me and I liked it. It feels exciting to have someone with different skills work with my music. But I couldn’t put it all completely in somebody else’s hands because a big part of my compositional work is happening when I record and edit the recorded sounds.

I listen to small accidents and crossings of the sound waves and build the compositions around them. It’s a very organic process where I’m ready to change plans all the time depending how the recordings sound. The sound is guiding me. I have a studio full of instruments, objects, and electronics, and run through different options quite randomly before finding sounds I like.

I’m also going out recording field recordings, but I haven’t included them so much in my Lau Nau albums, just occasionally. I’m preparing something else with them right now, but hoping also to include them more integrally in my albums in the future.

Just thinking about the above question, at Soundfly, we love to use the term “Incorrect Music” to describe the things an artist does that go against people’s assumptions, or even their own instincts, but which yield exciting and unique results. What about your music might you consider to be “incorrect”?

Well first of all, I don’t have a formal music education, except piano lessons and singing in choir when I was a kiddo. So when I started making my own music, my skills were quite limited, nobody was there to show me how to choose my technique, I just started doing things my way, taking inspiration from other artists and the way they do it, etc.

I work with cheap equipment. I have only latelystarted buying proper microphones or more expensive instruments, but my studio is still far from a commercial studio, even though I regard myself as a pro of some kind. I love vintage sounds. Warm sounds. Lo-fi and hi-fi mixed together. On Poseidon, most of my vocals are recorded with a vintage microphone for harmonica players. It lacks some deep tones but has a beautiful treble side.

My way of making music is also an anarchistic statement, not wanting to nod to all the authorities in the music making business. I’m quite stubborn and want to make things my way, even though I realize I can’t do this alone, I want to have other people with interesting artistic views working with me. I want to keep things small, honest, and close to my heart, not forgetting to keep alive some ambitious artistic goals either.

Do you write lyrics or chords first?

Music comes first. Sometimes even a fully recorded instrumental track that then starts to find lyrics around it. I do write down lyrics all the time and then pick some when I’m composing a song, but usually the words just come to me after I have the melody or some rhythm and structure ready for the song.

You’ve been with Fonal Records for many years, how has this relationship grown and changed? And how did you first get connected with the American label, Locust Music, all those years ago?

Fonal Records is one of my dearest families in music. Me and Sami (Sänpäkkilä, who runs the label) have been friends since my college times and Fonal gathered a lot of us friends who were making music under its wings. Nowadays, Sami is more concentrated on making films and he’s really good at it, so I don’t wonder why he has wanted to change his focus from managing a label to making films. Anyway, I’m so happy that the label still exists and he wanted to release Poseidon, so now the album can be a part of this amazing Fonal catalogue. Poseidon was also released as an LP in the U.S. by Beacon Sound and as a CD in Japan by Inpartmaint.

Back in the early days, I was listening a lot to the music that Locust released and re-released. When the demos for my first album were ready in 2004/2005, I sent them to Dawson Prater who ran the label, and he wanted to release them. Back then, everything was so easy… He worked hard and got a really good coverage in media for my two first albums, and people in the U.S. still remember me for those particular records rather than the newer ones. Dawson closed down Locust a while after that. I still miss working with him.

Who are some current artists that inspire you?

I will forget too many, but let’s give it a try: Marja Ahti, Kevin Drumm, Byron Westbrook, Olimpia Splendid, Matti Bye, Tomoko Sauvage, Delphine Dora, Islaja, Pekko Käppi, Angel Olsen, Circuit Des Yeux, Tanja Tiekso, Antti Tolvi, Grouper, Sarah Davachi, Weyes Blood, Ellen Arkbro, Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, Niko Karlsson, Olli Aarni, Alexander Rishaug, Asuna, the Medium Necks, etc.

How has your family life changed your music-making?

In a practical way, it means of course that I have less time for music… but I wouldn’t change a thing. I just have to be efficient with my time in order to get anything done. But with art you can’t be too efficient either or you will just produce tons of garbage. So I really need to seek a balance and have time for thinking and daydreaming, too. I also tend to keep my travels short. Now the kids are starting to be at the age where I can do tours that are a bit longer, like over a week.

Artistically it’s hard for me to analyze how family life affects me. Living surrounded by love doesn’t hurt, whether you have kids or not. But a family makes my life feel very full in a nice crazy way. Maybe I don’t take things as seriously anymore, now that I have kids? I can be sometimes a total goofball also about my music, it’s not sacred. Or then, perhaps it’s just me getting older. Hard to say.

Do you have any advice for young, amateur artists? 

Do your thing, compose your own music, make releases, and gather good people around you so you don’t need to do it alone. Have fun! Say “yes” to things that you want to do and “no” to things you don’t, because the things you actually do will multiply and bring you more opportunities of the same kind.

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Jeremy Young

Jeremy is a Montreal-based musician, sound artist and improviser who loves giving advice to emerging artists on how to make their tours more effective. He writes, records and performs electroacoustic "concrète" music for tape, oscillators and amplified objects and surfaces, as well as solo guitar. He has performed and released material throughout Europe and the UK, Asia, the US and Canada, mostly with his trio Sontag Shogun.