The making of Vora
A special appearance at the Union Chapel back in July as part of the excellent Daylight Music series programmed and presented by Ben Eshmade, with Crawford Blair on sound duties, proved to be the right occasion to discuss the making of Vora with the charming Rauelsson…
Your latest album signals is a departure from previous vocal based works. It also came about after you moved back to Spain from Portland. Could you chronicle its genesis?
It basically started with coming back to Spain, and moving to this place by the sea. I had been dealing with this Tinnitus condition, a continuous ringing in the ears, since 2007, that actually started happening while doing some recording back then. When I moved back to Spain, on the East coast, close to the region where I grew up, I thought, “Well, maybe living by the sea it’s going to help” because some doctors really recommend having sounds to mask the ringing. Thankfully, the Tinnitus is pretty centred in my head, and not located in one ear or the other.
Living by the sea is beautiful for many reasons and after some years in Portland, which is gorgeous, but where it rains a lot during the year, it was nice to experience mild weather once again. During the nights, though, I could not really sleep because of the loud sound of the waves. It can get pretty windy in the winter. It sounds beautiful and almost romantic, but when you cannot turn the sound off it drives you a little crazy, and you need some time to get used to it. So I started walking along the beach at night with a tape recorder, taking field recordings, not only of the water, but also of rocks, gravel, and of me walking and messing around with things I would find on the beach. I would then listen back to those recordings on my headphones at home while improvising on the piano. That is how it started. I would also try to record the piano in a way that brought out a lot of the sound of the actual machinery of the piano, which is something that I like. The piano is a gorgeous instrument, but the most standard way of recording it focuses mainly on the tone of the notes, whilst there is much more of the sound of the piano that can be featured. Anyway, I started compiling these piano improvisations over the field recordings and got kind of engaged and amused by the way they sounded, especially after taking out the actual sounds of the sea and just leaving the piano. What I found interesting was that there were a lot of moments on those field recordings that had a very steady tempo, which I used as a pattern to play the piano parts, and when I muted the sound of the sea, I ended up with just the piano with an underlying aquatic feel to it.
Then, I went back to Portland and started working on some strings arrangements and some analog synth sounds on top of that. The project eventually got a little out of control so I sent an email to a dear friend, Nils Frahm, asking him, “Hey, would you like to help me with this little monster I am fighting against?” and he said, “Sure”, so I went to his studio and we sorted out the sounds and worked pretty hard through three different sessions. Nils has been crazily busy lately, and I am really thankful that he found time to actually do this. It was in his studio that we really decided how to piece things together. He was of enormous help and I am very grateful to him.
Nils Frahm is reportedly very much on the analog side of things when it comes to production values and yet Vora has a certain electronic quality to it…
Yeah, even though all the electronic feel of the album comes from sounds of either the beach, the water, or the piano. So there is nothing really electronic, even when something sounds like a kickdrum, it’s me banging a rock on a piece of wood and then processing that sound. Nils is really good at this. He is really into the performance and the “humanity” in sound, I think, but he also enjoys big sound. The sound you get out of his studio can be really cinematic or filmic, but I think it is very organic. He works with equipment that is 40, 50 or 60 years old and yes, he uses old analog equipment, like lots of magnetic tape, tape echo, and all this technology that in a way has been used for decades, but he does so to create music that a lot of people nowadays make with computers. That is really unique, I think. Also, the way he treats sound is really detailed and very focused. You can spend hours with him just processing sounds, but all this never gets in the way of the essence of a song, and that is what I like the most. Nils is also an incredible piano player, and working with someone who has such a unique and super sophisticated understanding of what one can technically achieve with the piano can really help you go from A to B if you are making a record that features the piano quite prominently. It can be hard sometimes knowing where you would like to end up going and realising that you don’t totally know how to get to that point. He was the best partner in crime in terms of getting to that place and achieving what I was hoping to do on this record. Also, I believe his studio should be in photography books because it is gorgeous. It is a beautiful place with all that equipment and really well designed.
Speaking of people you have worked with, after collaborating with Peter Broderick on previous occasions, you also seem to have developed a closer interest in the actual texture of sound.
Working with Peter was a dream come true. He is one of my all time favourite artists. It sounds weird to say that about someone you know and is a friend of yours, but, to me, Peter is up there with the best artists of many music genres. For me he is pure magic and working with him was absolutely great. With Peter I was able to develop a bit more my interest in sound as much as that for songs and melody. It was also very relaxing and fun. I realized that the way music is recorded sometimes focuses only on one aspect of the sound of an instrument. If one pays attention to the different features of the sound of an instrument, it opens up a lot of possibilities to achieve different sounds. Something that comes from the hammers of the piano, for instance, or the fingers on the frets while playing guitar can become a percussive sound, and you might need no other source of rhythm.
Vora feels very organic even though the tracks are quite different from each other. At what stage did you get an overall idea of what the album would end up like?
I have to admit, both Nils, and especially Monique at Sonic Pieces, were really good at having more perspective on it than I did at the time, in terms of helping shape the final version of the record, because I had recorded hours of piano improvisations which I did not want to edit, I didn’t want to cut and paste. I was essentially listening back to the recordings and deciding which ones were the best moments, like from here to there, and I wanted to work around those moments. I didn’t want to edit, I just wanted those parts to be played as they were. The problem was that I ended up with so much material that it wouldn’t have been possible to fit it on a single vinyl, for instance. When you are the writer you are somehow attached to every single part of your work and sometimes is hard to take things out. Monique was especially good at suggesting a more focused collection of songs. At the final stage of recording and mixing, we finally realised that it really risked becoming a double album, which was probably a little too much, so we took three songs out. At first I was resistant but now I can clearly see that it has made it a better collection of tracks, even if it might sound to some people a little too diverse.
Could you tell me something about the orchestration of the tracks?
I didn’t want to do a piano and strings record, that was not my intention, but there were some songs where I could hear strings and I do really like orchestration and the sound of strings.
I am not classically trained, so I am not able to write arrangements for a small chamber orchestra or a quartet. I just have these melodies in my mind that I try to translate into something that a string player can play. Ideally, I prefer not writing down the notes, but communicating with other musicians by playing the melody a little bit, or by just singing and talking about the melody. Sometimes I might have a score of sorts but to me the process is more about communication. I like musicians to be able to have a say and add their own thing. So far, I have been lucky enough to work with people who don’t just read from a score, play and go. In the States, for instance, I have played with Amanda Lawrence, who is an excellent viola player, and who played with artists such as M Ward, and in the past also with Heather Broderick on cello, and of course Peter. Here in Europe I have been playing with Anne Müller who is a sweetheart and absolutely incredible.
The album has a strong narrative thread running through it, which is circular. Where does it come from?
I tried to sequence the songs on the album in the order that they were recorded. The first track, Wave In, was one of the first experiments I did which got me interested in those sounds, and the last song Wave Out was one of the last ones, if not the last. So the sequence tells a story, but as a “time story”, that doesn’t necessarily need to translate to the listener. Although, I hope it does. To me, it was important that the album documented a journey. Getting to a place, getting used to the sounds of that place, trying to be creative with them, using that to go somewhere and, finally, kind of leaving the place, or rather, leaving the project, in the sense of completing it, of saying, “this little collection is over”, we are going somewhere else now. The project was about coming and going and having a very spontaneous reaction to a place, that was my goal, I didn’t want to think too much about it. It was more about just saying, I am here, and I am going to see how I respond to this place.
The obvious question now… What made you decide to produce Vora as a predominantly instrumental album and avoid singing?
It was not something I actually thought about. I like singing, especially with other people, but I really need to have no doubts about it or about the lyrics. If they come naturally that’s great. With Vora, that didn’t happen. I didn’t even try. Even though some people might get a little confused, this is a direction I would like to carry on exploring for a while. After all, confusion is not a bad thing.
You have always sang in Spanish, rather than English, which, commercially speaking, is not the most obvious choice…
When I moved to Portland, I had some home recordings I’d made, which Chad from Hush surprisingly liked and wanted to release. Those songs were already in Spanish, as it comes more natural to me to sing in Spanish. I really like the English language, but when I moved to the United States, I had this clear vision that I was not “one of them” even if Portland felt and feels like home. Some people in the States did appreciate that I didn’t and do not try to sound like some guy who grew up in Nebraska or something, because I didn’t. They may loose the connection with the lyrics, but having said that, when I played in the States or I toured Japan, that didn’t seem to be a problem. I have done some singing in English too, which is a great language to sing in, for sure, but in general I feel more comfortable singing in Spanish. Who knows what I’ll do next though.
Even though this is indeed a mostly instrumental album, the tracks Hourglass I and Hourglass II, which in a way represent the core of the album, do contain vocals by Laurel Simmons, could you tell me something about the lyrics?
I wrote this text about some dreams I was having at the time. One of them was a dream that I used to have when I was about eight years old. I was really surprised to have the same dream again once I went back to live in the same region of Spain. At first, I didn’t know what to do with this text. Initially, I was just going to include it in the booklet with the album, but then I felt that it could be nice to have those words spoken or even sang. I did write the text in English even if I was in Spain because I had been spending so much time in Oregon that it takes a few weeks for my brain to switch between languages. When I went back to Portland, I thought it would be nice to have my friend Laurel Simmons singing it. I do use my own voice in a couple of moments on the album, but I use it more like an instrument. For this particular text I thought of Laurel, though, she has such a beautiful voice, really airy, and it really fits in well with the album, I think.
What were the dreams about?
When I was about 8 or 10 I used to go to a rocky beach with my parents, which was beautiful and not too crowded. Back then I had this dream in which the beach would turn upside down at night like an hourglass with the sand vanishing by the morning, just as my family and I were about to go to the beach. It wasn’t really a nightmare as such, but it wasn’t pleasant either. It was more of an anxiety dream. Everyone was sleeping in the dream except for me. I would see what was happening at night and didn’t really want to be there because I had this fear of the sand and the water coming down on top of me.
When I moved back from Portland, I had a very similar dream that left me a bit disturbed, which was also related. It was about a fictional world where water was the only means left to write, so one had to freeze water in order to be able to write, which is a bizarre dream to have.
I didn’t know why that was happening and I wrote something down as I woke up so I did not forget my dream. So that text reflects my reaction to those two different dreams. I was impressed by how powerfully my subconscious brain was being affected by being by the sea. So I wrote that pretty much without caring about the poetry, I just wanted to capture the impression of the dreams. I then changed the words a little and Hourglass I and II are based on those dreams.
Has making Vora helped you reconnect with the place?
I think so. I really like to focus on capturing how I first react to a place without having too much time to think about things. Over time, I realised that I always use music to connect to a place, so I guess this record has a lot to do with trying to find my place in a new environment since, even if this was the region I grew up in, I still felt quite detached. It was a weird feeling. I should’ve felt comfortable, but as I’d been away for so long it still felt strange. Music was my way of reconnecting to that place, I guess.
The album is very layered, how do you translate its complexity in terms of a live setting?
I honestly had no idea. I knew I could not do solo piano shows, that was not what I wanted to do. I am not a classically trained piano player. I use the piano more as a source of sound and melody, even though it might be my favourite instrument. At the same time, travelling with many other musicians, it makes things complicated on a logistical level.
At the time, I also started listening to a lot of electronic music, some of it very different from what I do. I am very attracted by its language, sometimes more so than by some of its outcome, so I began experimenting with sequencers that allowed me to take the looping idea a little further. So, what I am now doing basically is, I am recording myself live playing different parts with different sounds – like I have a couple of analog synths, and an old apparate sample piano – and all the sounds I use are either analog synths sounds or samples from real instruments that I sampled myself. I am not using any commercially available library sounds for instance. I also use a tape cassette recorder with one-minute loop tapes. As a result the set is maybe a little more rhythmic and has a more electronic feel than the record, even though it still has some quiet moments.
You are a neuroscientist by trade?
Yes. I am now teaching part of the year in a university in Spain and I practiced in Portland for a while as well. I did research at college and then got a PhD in behavioural neuroscience. It is a pretty fascinating world, and I like to do something else apart from music. It helps me to balance my life and it helps paying the bills as well.
What are you currently working on?
A couple of different things. One is a project that has to do with photography. When I went on tour in Japan last year I took some photographs with disposable cameras, so I am trying to do a little book with some of those photos and with music as well, basically music for photography. I am also doing music for an audio book which is something I am very much enjoying. A friend of mine is writing a book of short stories, and each story is being scored by a different musician. Also, I am now very slowly working on a new album. It seems like playing live quite often helps your creativity so I have been writing some new songs using piano and getting a bit playful with rhythm. But mostly, though, I am focusing on translating Vora to a live act. I want to have a whole year of touring with this and see how it develops. I really hope I can maybe play some shows with a small orchestra in the near future, and more of course solo, like the ones I have been playing. I have already played about 20 shows with this album, which I am pretty happy with.
Are you planning any shows in the UK?
Probably at some point next year, yes, I hope so. I would love for instance to take part in one of those Fluid Radio gigs in Bristol!