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15 Questions with Jordan Reyne

img  Tobias Fischer

Hi! How are you? Where are you?
Hi :) Doing well thanks. I'm in Hamburg for a couple of weeks for some shows and to pack up the rest of my flat.


What’s on your schedule right now?
I just got back to Hamburg after some shows in the Netherlands and four shows at Glastonbury. This week is bit of a rest but I have to paint my flat and pack everything into boxes to send to London. Next week will be excitement again, as we have a live show at Vertigo (Ahrensburg) that will be recorded and shot to video.


How would you describe and rate the music scene of the city you are currently living in?

I just moved to London and the music scene is very vibrant and alive. There is music for all kinds of tastes and on all nights of the week. The city hums with it, and it's an excitement that is contagious.


When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences?

I started playing music - well, I started banging bits of metal together and singing along - when I was a child. My parents got sick of that quite quickly so they sent me to guitar lessons at around eight years old, and I started writing songs. That was a little bit easier on their ears. In terms of producing music, my first studio recordings were done when I was around thirteen. I had a wonderfully inspiring guitar teacher then called Dieter Burmeister. He was from Lüneburg originally, but had moved to New Zealand because he married a kiwi woman.


What do you personally consider to be the incisive moments in your artistic work and/or career?
It's interesting how often one gets asked this. In terms of career, I think there is some generally held belief that moments of clarity come along to show you you are on the right path or bound for great things - something like the "lucky break" that allegedly comes along so that you just know things will work out, or something like that. In all honesty being a musician isn't like that for the majority of us. The career aspect is more like a long term relationship - after the period of falling in love - where you make a conscious decision and commitment to doing this. Being a musician would be very easy if you did get epiphanies in terms of your career path, but what I admire a lot more is those who commit themselves afresh to making music and being a musician every day, despite the ups and downs, and despite the fact that those moments of clarity, in career terms, can be rare or non existent.

Most music careers outside the pop world are far more cumulative things - they build slowly as you keep doing what you do. Eventually you get to a point where you have enough interest to sustain what you do or make a breakthrough.
In terms of the writing, the moments of clarity come a lot more often - for me anyway. When I am writing music I am in another place - often inside the heads of the characters I sing about. I like to try on their personalities like clothes and see how they fit and what I am likely to say whilst being them. The clarity is when I forget myself and just feel the music come. That is the part of music I live for.


What are currently your main compositional- and production-challenges?

Finding enough time to write is currently the main challenge. My music is fairly reflective so I need a lot of thinking time before I even sit down and start to write - I need a lot of time to make characters and stories in my head before I can give voice to them.
In terms of production challenges, the cost of production has been fantastically reduced in the last ten years thanks to affordable software sequencers and the price drop in computers with serious processing power, the production playing field there has levelled out significantly. It does mean that musicians need to know a lot more about engineering, production and arrangement than before, but I find it extremely liberating to be able to do all of my composition in a private space where I am not under time pressure.


What do you usually start with when working on a new piece?
It varies. Generally I have a framework for an album before I start working on it though. My albums tend to be stories, where I will try to tell a bit of the story with each song. The last two albums have had very definite characters because the people I was writing about actually existed in real life. That meant I had real time and place settings as well (for both albums this was around the time of the industrial revolution). When I have a setting like that, it influences the kind of found sounds I will let myself use. The sounds have to fit the time and place and what would have been heard at that time. For How the Dead Live , which was set in New Zealand in 1874, I used old sluices, farm machinery, steam ships, saws, and the things around the main characters environment. For the upcoming album, Children of a Factory Nation, which is set in Wales and London in 1880 - 1920, it was factory drones, hooves on cobbled streets, the sounds of market crowds, and the rhythms of steam, steel and iron.
When I have an idea of the character I am following and the sound setting they are in, I set up a conflict for them, which is really what makes me write. I will start to come up with music when I know about what issues they are facing and when I try to imagine what they would do inside those. The music comes before melody and lyrics almost always, for me, cos I experiment with the sounds I have decided to use, or with chords and tunings that seem to fit the mood my character is in. Lyrics are actually the hardest part as it is a real trick to try and get a character's personality, as well as the story itself, across in something as short as a song. That might be why I use the whole album to do it!


How strictly do you separate improvising and composing?
I don't at all. If I am messing around with new sounds, or on an instrument, and I do something that I really like, I will record it and see where it goes. That is part of the beauty of home studios being so cheap and easy to set up. You get to keep all your ideas - even if you don't end up using them in the end.


How do you see the relationship between sound, space and composition?

Space is incredibly important for setting up sounds to their best advantage. I guess it is analogous to visual arts in a gallery. If you cram all the paintings together, your eye has too much to deal with at once and tends to miss the finer detail, or will be unable to dwell happily on one image to digest it. You notice in galleries that there is far more space than there are paintings, and it allows you to see the painting more clearly because you have that clarity and separation and you can take your time with each work.

You can use both extremes in sound too - the leaving of space and the cluttering of it. In music I try and "build" spaces as well as leaving spaces. Leaving space is the more obvious one - leaving room for the instruments and sounds to breathe and be dwelled on by the ear. In certain songs though, where I am after a pressed sort of feeling, I will try to set up a space that deliberately stresses the ear a little - for example the inside of a factory. The inside of a factory is overly full - many noises going on at once, and it makes you feel rushed and slightly panicked, as the character would who I am singing about and who is working there. I don't like to go too far with that effect as it can really be too much, but it definitely has its uses. When I set up a space, like the drone inside a factory room, the instrumentation will tend to be sparse, and I will hang it on whatever tones are happening in the room drone so that there is some sort of synthesis. When I do go for "building" spaces, rather than leaving spaces, it is quite a trick to get the right sound - one that melds with any instruments I add, and is as simple as I can make it.  


Do you feel it important that an audience is able to deduct the processes and ideas behind a work purely on the basis of the music? If so, how do you make them transparent?
Not always, but then, you have to remember that a whole lot of listeners are, themselves, musicians. Musicians seem to get these things a lot of the time just from the music, yes. In the end though, it doesn't matter too much if people see the mechanisms as long as the effect works. Not everyone knows how a computer works on the inside, but they find them extremely fun to use. I also try and make as much of what goes into the album in terms of stories and characters transparent. Lots of it goes on my blog and into interviews. If people don't like the music, it won't make them like it, but if they do, it can add another layer of interest for sure.


There seem to be two fundamental tendencies in music today: On the one hand, a move towards complete virtualisation, where tracks and albums are merely released as digital files. And, on the other, an even closer union between music, artwork, packaging and physical presentation. Where do you stand between these poles?
I am definitely nearer the latter. I don't like the digital delivery very much because of the way I write. If you write an album that tells a story, and someone wants track 4 only, it is like you just wrote a book and someone telling you they only want to read chapter 4. For me, music is so related to its context that digital delivery stops that bare, and robs music of another level of richness it once had. That is even without the sonic considerations of downloading files that are compressed into mp3 format. It might be convenient and cheap, but so is McDonald's, and we all know how rich and experience-laden that isn't.


The role of an artist is always subject to change. What's your view on the (e.g. political/social/creative) tasks of artists today and how do you try to meet these goals in your work?
Again it comes down to context. We are all social creatures and bound up with the society of which we are a part. The forces / stresses / issues of our own society will always be part of who we are and what we do, because we can't extricate ourselves from our socio-political web. In that sense, social commentary becomes somewhat automatic instead of being a task as such. Even if you deliberately shut off your brain, and sing about something, like pizza parties and sex on the beach, you are saying something about the society of which you are a part - you are saying "I think people would rather shut off their brain too and hear about pizza parties and sex on the beach than anything that means more". That action is still, in itself, a social commentary - though a very upsetting one, because when it does well, it means we come from a society that values shutting off its brain and going for escapism instead of anything more rich / stimulating / challenging.


Music-sharing sites and -blogs as well as a flood of releases in general are presenting both listeners and artists with challenging questions. What's your view on the value of music today?
The advent of digital distro has been a catalyst for some great things and some damaging ones too, though I think inadvertently. Like any tool, it has been used to a good end and a bad end both at once. The good side is that the syndicated stranglehold major labels had on the music industry, and the ways we were able to hear music a few decades back is losing its strength massively. Indie musicians can produce and distribute their own music on a world stage. The problem is, that the volume of new indie music is huge and people are overwhelmed.
Previously people were told what to like by the mediums over which the majors had that stranglehold - television, radio. It was a passive experience. Today you have to go out and hunt through all the millions of music sites / artists and so on to find what you like. It is an active pursuit and people are too busy. What your average person tends to do is give up, tune back into the old mediums, i.e. radio and TV, or hunt for what they already know in YouTube, then decide there is no good new music, and no new ideas, so music isn't worth much these days.

In reality though, there is a wealth of stuff out there, and much of it is far more innovative than ever before. The problem is, innovation is the opposite of mainstream - it is really only intended for a certain, far more niche group than the "i love you baby" hits. Wading through fringe and experimental stuff, it will take most people longer to find what they like cos they aren't used to that kind of music. People see the wall of stuff they don't like, vs the wall of increasingly conservative and uninspired mainstream stuff presented by the old means (radio and TV) and really just don't want to pay for either. If they have the option to buy just the song they already know they like - the one dollar single - then they will. It's like training people to stick to what they know, and not value anything they don't already know.  


How, would you say, could non-mainstream forms of music reach wider audiences?

I think it is doing it's best. The problem is how mainstream audiences have learned to interact with music. A lot of people do still expect new music to be delivered while they relax on the couch or listen to the radio at work. Unfortunately very few non-mainstream musics ever makes it out through those mediums these days (or really ever did). The way non-mainstream stuff reaches wider audiences is when the mainstream gets active about seeking new music, instead of keeping the faith that the old means will deliver it.

Please recommend two artists to our readers which you feel deserve their attention.
Wovenhand (formerly known as 16 Horsepower).
Cocorosie.


Many artists dream of a “magnum opus”. Do you have a vision of what yours would sound like?
Hehe. I haven't thought about one, but if it happened, it would have lots of machine noises and dark folk tales in it.

Jordan Reyne Discography:
As Jordan Reyne:
Birds of Prey (Lost) 1997
Passenger (Jayrem/Mediatrix) 2004
How the Dead Live (Sounz) 2009

As Dr Kevorkian & the Suicide Machine:
The Ironman (Universal) 2000
The Loneliest of Creatures (DDV Laboratories/Mediatrix) 2002

Recommended Jordan Reyne Interviews & Articles on the Web:

Jordan Reyne Interview at lumiere about How the Dead Live
Jordan Reyne Interview at elsewhere about her move to Germany and questions of creativity
Jordan Reyne Videos on her own Youtube Channel

Homepage:
Jordan Reyne

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