“I definitely think there are many layers in the world & many worlds within the world”
Eivør Pálsdóttir in conversation with Annie Strange
Night & Day Cafe Manchester, November 2017
“There is something freeing about listening to music where the words just become sounds & feelings & it can trigger some really deep emotions”
AS: You’ve said in interviews that when you listen to music in a language you don’t know you find that really refreshing – that you can almost make your own narrative?
E: I like to listen to music where I don’t understand the words because then you listen differently; and you’re free to interpret the meaning. Of course, I like to listen to songs where I understand the words too, but there is something freeing about listening to music where the words just become sounds and feelings and it can really trigger some very deep emotions I think.
AS: Do you mean you’re not distracted because you don’t know the meaning, or something deeper?
E: Yeah, kind of…you can make up your own interpretation, landscapes in your mind…I like that. I like both.
AS: The best art is open to interpretation, isn’t it?
AS: I’ve heard you talk about when you use a different language, it’s like picking up a different instrument, like going from guitar to piano. Tell me a bit more about that.
E: I have always been fascinated with languages. I speak Faroese, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish and Icelandic and I have recorded songs in all those languages. I’ve always just found it interesting to work with sounds and shapes. Also in my curiosity of the human voice and studying it and what it can do. Somehow language comes into the picture there I guess, how you create a sound. That’s why I’ve been playing around with languages a lot.
“Sometimes it starts off in English & sometimes in Faroese
– I just go with my instinct”
AS: Each language has a different approach and connotation. Do you think, say when you’re writing in English, more in that language?
E: I love to sing in English. It’s a beautiful language I think. It has a sound that I really like. When I write my songs, it’s as though some of them just sound better in English and others sound better in my native language of Faroese. Usually, it naturally starts off in English and sometimes in Faroese and I usually just go with my instinct. Coming from the music that I listened to when I was a teenager, it’s all stuff in English.
AS: Did you learn English from an early stage?
E: We learn English in second or third grade. When I perform live I usually mix it up – I sing in either language depending on what mood I’m in.
I love to communicate with people through songs in Faroese when I’m here in England as well and feel their reaction. Somehow music is so universal and it’s a language of its own without the words. To communicate with people in Faroese with people who don’t understand the words, it’s just a very interesting situation when you sing. I don’t feel that they don’t understand it.
E: I did some slight changes because when you change the language you also kind of change the spice – if you know what I mean. And you have to adjust the balance of the new spice. They’re quite similar but I took some freedom in interpreting the lyrics a bit so that it wasn’t a direct translation but rather rewritten.
AS: Did it change any of the meaning, or is it just little touches?
E: It’s the same meaning, but in some cases I have used different metaphors.
AS: What was the main drive behind recording Slør in English? Did you want to bring it to a wider audience or because you wanted to play with the language?
E: It was actually a mix of curiosity and to see if this album maybe could enter the English market. In the beginning it was just a playful thing where I just tried to play a song called Surrender on this album, which is the first one we translated. I kept thinking that that song would sound really good in English, too. I played with the thought of that. That triggered me to want to do more in English and see what would happen.
“It was a challenge to translate some of the songs, some came more naturally; where others were more tricky because of the metaphors”
AS: Was the process problematic at all? What was it like working with Randi Ward? Did you find there were many Faroese expressions that didn’t lend too well to translation, were there many compromises made?
E: It was lovely working with Randi. She’s a great poet and so good at what she does. She also knows my language very well as she lived in Faroes for years. There were both good experiences and not so good experiences working with this album. It was a challenge to translate some of the songs, yes. For me, some of the songs – Surrender and In My Shoes – came more naturally when translating them where others were more tricky because of the metaphors. But I’m quite manic sometimes and I couldn’t stop until it all added up.
AS: Like when you write one album but actually write two in separate languages.
E: I couldn’t let go of it, so I had to translate all of it in the end. In the beginning I just wanted to try a few songs.
AS: Just a little playing around and then it turned into something bigger.
E: Exactly! Then it was like: ‘F**k, let’s do one more, let’s do it all’.
AS: Did the label get involved in that? ‘You’ve done three, let’s do the rest’ or was it all your idea?
E: It was actually a mix of both. The label was very keen that I’d make this album in English as well. They thought it worked so well so they encouraged me to go on translating. I did. It was very interesting to work on the songs like that, to dig deeper into them somehow.
AS: When you originally released Slør and Bridges at the same time, you wrote the songs in pairs?
E: Yes, that was the idea at the start. I wrote them in pairs. I asked myself what I was doing so I just had to let time show me what I was doing. I was writing a song in Faroese then write one in English. It was like an answer for the other song.
AS: They correlate in different ways?
E: Yeah, kind of. They are brothers and sisters. There’s a dialogue going on.
AS: Is it clear which ones are in pairs or do we have to guess?
E: [laughing] No, it’s more a thread through both albums. They work on some of the same themes, but seen from different angles.
“It was an experience to revisit the work with Randi beside me. I’ve been a fan of hers for a long time”
AS: it can be difficult to revisit work – once you’ve put your seal on something and finished it, it’s hard. I imagine it was quite refreshing to reinterpret Slør through language.
E: Yes. The good thing for me was inviting Randi into the universe of the songs. It was very interesting because we had so many great conversations like: ‘Okay, when you say this, I feel it as you saying this’. It was an experience to revisit the work with her beside me. I’ve been a fan of her for a long time – I used her poems before so that’s why I asked her to help me out.
E: Of course it always hurts to read bad reviews but after I’ve made albums for ten years or more now, I’m at ten albums. I made my first album when I was 16. I’ve had good reviews and otherwise, so bad reviews don’t really get to me in the same way that they used to when I was younger.
AS: Do you think that as a Scandinavian entering the UK market The Guardian might have had the wrong expectations of you, thinking: ‘She’s like Björk but not so far out’?
E: It’s difficult to visualise what people expect. I was certainly prepared that some people would not think it was a good idea to translate an album. I have personally never been a fan of translated things. It was a thing I just decided to give a go because I felt that the songs worked like that. I wanted to try it out out of my own curiosity. I was prepared.
E: Tides is actually a poem by Randi Ward. That’s the first poem by her that I saw. I thought ‘Wow, I have to create a melody for that poem’ because it’s so beautiful. I always loved the myth of the selkie which is a very famous story in the Faroes and all the Nordic countries. Probably here, also?
AS: I’m not sure we have seals in England so much – more in the North and Scotland – they take off their seal skin and lose their tails and get forced into marriage? And when they find their seal skins they emancipate themselves and leave their families?
E: That’s what one seal did. It´s said that when the seals come up on land, take off their seal skin and dance when the moon is full…
AS: There’s many?
E: No…well there’s a story about this one seal woman who stands under the full moon. It was just a coincidence that happened to one of the seals. That story is famous for that. When they take off their skins, they’re supposed to leave again but a man fell in love with this one woman who was dancing and he steals her sealskin, so she won’t leave him. She lives with him for years, always longing for the sea, until one day she finds the key to the box where the man hides her sealskin and leaves. The sailor never sees her again.
AS: That feels like an appropriate metaphor for what’s been happening in the news, about women taking it back, right? Sif Gunnarsdóttir [Former director of Nordic House in the Faroes] said Kópakonan the seal woman would have had the biggest “Me Too!” moment.
AS: Your first band was Clickhaze.
E: One of the first bands I played in was Clickhaze and before that I played in a few garage bands with my friends. Clickhaze was the band that I started touring with and we made a record. In that band I met Jens [of Orka, who helped arrange this interview] and both the guys in my band on this tour Høgni [Lisberg] and Mikael [Blak] were also in Clickhaze.
AS: There’s some existential religious talk in Notes from the Underground, were those your lyrics?
E: No, those were Petur [Pólson], the other singer in Clickhaze who’s unfortunately not here.
AS: It’s very psychedelic, like the Madchester scene. You had some great tunes, some big concerts as well.
E: Yeah we did. We could have probably gone a long way but there were too many people in the band to agree on anything. We have separate careers and we’re all best friends by it was just too strong a mix of personalities. All these people have inspired me so much and still mean so much to me in my life.
AS: When you’re working with Høgni and Mikael now, are they playing stuff you have written mostly?
E: Yes, this is my solo project; so it’s a bit different to how we worked in Clickhaze; but we do have that band vibe going on and I ask for their opinions and advice when I need it.
AS: You’ve been friends for a long time so you trust their opinion.
E: Absolutely. In Clickhaze, there were seven people. When it went well and we were in the right place, we were way up there. We could go way down. It was a very interesting band in that way, in that dynamic.
E: I’ve guested with them a lot. That was maybe my earlier years when I was 18. I’m sure Mikael would like to talk about that.
AS: Have you drawn much inspiration from folk stories and the sagas in your own work?
E: Yes, definitely. I grew up listening to stories from my granddad and my mum and dad. They’d tell me bedtime stories and it would always be something from the sagas. Some of them are quite frightening, actually.
AS: They told you stories from the sagas at bedtime? Wasn’t that a bit strong before lights out?
E: I always liked those stories because they were so dramatic. It’s in the culture very much. It’s the way also the Faroese language has survived.
AS: I heard the language only survived as an oral tradition, and you didn’t get instruments to go with the dances until the 1800s. Do you think there was a religious catharsis to the dances?
AS: Let’s say spiritual.
E: There are the two types of music in the culture – There is the religious part like hymns all sung a capella. I have always loved the sound of that. There is almost a Hildegard von Bingen vibe to it only a bit more edgy. Then there’s the Viking stuff, the chain dancing, the story tellings of great battles and so on. The opposite of religious stuff you could say. It’s more like a belief in the old gods, Odin and Thor and all. Somehow these are the elements that make up Faroese folk music. Some of these chain dances have over 300 verses and it can take hours to dance the one song. People who join these dance circles usually know a lot of the words and they jump in on the verses that they know. There’s always one guy who leads the dance and knows all the words. That’s a thing. And you wait for him to start each verse and then you join in. There is a certain respect for the leader of the chain dance and you don’t wanna fxck up the story or the rhythm of the dance so you better follow him!
I always felt inspired by these things. A proper chain dance sounds so amazing and powerful.. On my first album I used a lot of references to the chain dance because it’s always been a big part of my family life. My great grandfather was a very good leader. He actually sang on my first album. I recorded him singing and he got really excited.
“It doesn’t matter what your background is; everyone can be in the dance & that’s something you do together”
AS: Apart from the great idea of passing on cultural, vocal histories, do you think there is a spiritual side to that?
E: I think it’s more of a connection thing between people gathering and connecting with one another. Singing together can be very powerful and yes maybe it can be a spiritual experience for some. But the core of this chain dance thing is more that the community gathers, and you dance and you sing. It doesn’t matter what your background is and whether you’re religious or not; everyone can be in this ring and that’s something you do together. You share. It’s a sharing thing. In every wedding or big occasion, there’s always this dance and it does something amazing to the crowd because it connects everyone in the room in a beautiful way. And it sounds awesome and wild!
“I just love the sound of it – this heavy beat that almost sounds like an underground heavy metal techno beat in my head”
AS: I’m interested in looking into the deeper aspect of that, because when you’re all going towards the same goal and you’re sharing the energy of that unity in dance, it feels like there really is something spiritual to that.
E: Yes you are right. That’s what I think is the most beautiful thing about this chain dancing thing, that shared energy. Then I just love the sound of it – this heavy beat that almost sounds like an underground heavy metal techno beat in my head.
AS: Did that inspire folktronica?
E: Absolutely. I’m always, again and again, inspired by the sound of that thing, where people dance in this chain dance, stomp on the floor.
AS: That kind of culture of what you feel you get the same from dance music. You were inspired to bring those two ideas together?
E: Yeah, absolutely. Songs on this album like Salt, for instance, is very inspired by that rhythm and the feel of it.
AS: That’s the one with samples of old men singing in church?
AS: What was the connection between that sound and the song?
E: It’s a sample that I always loved. It’s an old recording that I’ve had for ages. I didn’t record it myself but it’s recorded in Tjørnuvík which is a little village in the Faroes where people from different islands gathered and sang. Everyone was singing the same song but because they were from different villages they had their own version of the song and they’re all singing it at the same time.
AS: Different words?
E: No, same words but variations on the melody. It sounds so crazy, I love it. I just thought that sound-wise it was perfect for that song. It’s a love song to the ocean and a goodbye song in many ways. I just thought it was beautiful.
AS: Working with the kvæði form [traditional Faroese folk dance music], would you say you’re celebrating your cultural heritage or are you modernising it?
E: I’m not trying to be all cultural, I feel that it comes naturally – it’s a part of what I do somehow. So when I think of music, it’s just a part of the way I think about it I guess. It’s like it’s a part of the instrument, something like that. I get inspired by that.
AS: The magical transformation we talk about in the folk stories – is that something we interpret or could you say it’s almost like the difference between having a good time in unity or something spiritual? Do you think these transformations could have actually taken place in some cases or are they just funny stories?
E: I absolutely think it’s an interpretation of real situations. I’m just imagining. There’s definitely lots of imagination in it as well. Maybe it’s a mix of both. There are many stories, for instance, the kvæðir, some of those stories are real stories about the Vikings and the battles and how they happened. Then there are other kvæðir that are more crazy and you see someone has almost written a supernatural story.
“I definitely think there are many layers in the world & many worlds within the world –
There are many states of mind & many places you can visit”
AS: Do you think there’s real truth to it? There was a lot of shamanic practice in the North.
E: It’s interesting to think about – there’s always magic in the world, right? Many people still believe in this kind of magic and elves and stuff, both in Iceland and Faroes. I don’t think it’s impossible. I’m sure there is much more between..
AS: What’s your interpretation of shamanic rituals where they say you’ll be transported?
E: I definitely think there are many layers in the world and many worlds within the world. There are many states of mind and many places you can visit.
AS: Do you practice that at all?
E: Not literally, but through my music I guess I do. I like to go to this place I go to when I’m performing live. That for me is a place that’s similar to what we’ve spoken about before, where you unite with the people. You go somewhere together. You share something and are all one heartbeat. I like that.
AS: Tell me about the drum – did you have a channelling experience where Trøllabundin almost wrote itself?
E: Oh yeah. That song is interesting for me to sing because it’s so naked. It’s just the drum and the vocals; it’s something I’m trying to keep up with because it’s changing itself all the time.
AS: And you reinterpret it in different ways.
E: Yeah! It’s very alive for me. I recorded it several times because the shape of it keeps changing. I have two drums – this one I bought out in the country in Denmark that a shaman built for me; and one I bought in Norway from another shaman.
“Somehow when I play it, I feel like it gathers the energy that’s floating around to one point – It’s spiritual for me to play music, definitely”
AS: Did you visit the shaman to buy a drum or were you interested in the culture?
E: I actually visited him to buy a drum. I felt so connected to the first drum I had. It somehow just felt like the heartbeat of the Earth or something when I played it. I loved the pulse of it. Somehow when I play it, I just feel like it gathers the energy that’s floating around to one point. I don’t practice shamanism in that sense, not literally and not knowingly but I can see that I do it in a different way through my music. It’s spiritual for me to play music, definitely.
(L-R: Høgni Lisberg, Eivør Pálsdóttir, Mikael Blak)
Photos from G! Festival 2018
With thanks to Jens Thomsen, Sandra Könitz, Regin Í Dali, Magnus Høgenni, Fróði Stenberg, Danielle Partis, Alex Calvin, Night & Day Manchester, G! Festival, & Eivør for making this happen