Bel Canto - It's more like hitting the beats correctly
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For some bands you would travel the whole of the world just to see them live once. Bel Canto is one of those bands, for me at least. Anneli Drecker, Nils Johansen and Geir Jenssen (aka Bleep and Biosphere) have left us pearls of heavenly voices electropop that nowadays is very seldom, if not non-existent (See Bel Canto on iTunes). I remember that I missed their last Belgian concert back in 1996 because of an exam German which I did not want to screw up by going out the night before. Kinda like a catch 22 situation I'd find out later since Bel Canto would never visit Belgium again.
Years passed by and I followed the career of the three members, interviewed them when a new (solo) album got released but that was it. Bel Canto occasionally took breaks in order for Drecker to pursue a solo career and to perform with other bands and artists, as well as performing in films and theatre plays. Nils Johansen composed music for film and television as well as worked and performed with his other band, Vajas. Despite these hiatuses, Bel Canto continued to perform live, without Jenssen that is. Until June 2010 when I got word that Bel Canto was to reunite for a special performance at the Dognvill festival in their hometown Tromsö September 4th 2010. While I couldn't make that concert, it became clear that 2 more concerts would be added, Oslo and Trondheim. All in Norway.
We meet the band in a hotel in Oslo at noon, the day after their concert in the Rockefeller Music Hall venue in the centre of the city. They seem kinda knackered and will travel to Trondheim the same day to prepare for the 3rd concert. This has been the band's second show since their reunion show, 21 years after Geir Jenssen left the band to pursue a solo career. (By Bernard Van Isacker, Photos by Petra Rönnholm and JanRonald Stange)
SL: The why for the reunion stroke me as odd, it was announced out of the blue...
AD: The Dognvill festival you mean? They actually asked us 2 years ago if we could play there. It was their idea. They are old friends of ours, musicians. I was just moving up to Tromsö when one of the guys asked me as we were all the three of us living back in Tromsö, so he wondered whether they could arrange a reunion concert. So it was their idea from the very start.
We didn't actually want other people to come up with the idea and say it was their idea to think about it. We wanted to do it because we really wanted to work together. That's why it took us 2 years. We didn't want a festival just to pay us to get back together, the idea needed to mature and give us a reason.
SL: Why didn't you guys come up with that idea in the first place?
AD: I have been living in Oslo for the past 20 years and I haven't had any contact with Geir at all. Just through friends and his ex-wife. He was travelling so much and I have been living in Oslo. Of course Nils and I have been seeing each other quite a lot. And then I moved up to Tromsö and was asked to contribute to a compilation by Hommage Records, called "Maskindans – Norsk synth 1980-1988". And that's when Geir and I started to mail each other. Funny actually as he lived just 50 meters down the street, but ok we started to mail each other. We met while we were skiing there and were talking about the old demo's from the eighties. We discovered some jewellery that was lying there, it gave actually a kick to listen to the material.
SL: Was the track for the compilation, "Flowerbeds", originally meant to be on the "Birds of passage" album?
AD: Geir used it later on for his Bleep project. We weren't too happy about it back then. You know, there are a lot of songs that we haven't released. I've done so many concert and commission pieces, 3 of them, with 12 to 16 songs which never got released. I'm so used to thing not being released especially when you are on a major record label. That's really frustrating. Geir is the lucky one he can just release his stuff, but we have been kind of restricted.
SL: Are you still signed to EMI Norway?
AD: Vaguely... I am not happy with the contract and they are not happy with the contract and we just don't want to continue under that contract. So it has to be renegotiated. If they don't like the stuff I want to put out I'm free to go elsewhere.
SL: That is for you personal career, but Bel Canto is free yes?
AD: We got fired.
NJ: We have no more obligations towards EMI now. The contract ended. It's a license deal we have with them, we do all of the production and don't have an artist deal with them.
SL: Did you never think of self releasing?
NJ: That's the obvious thing to do now for known bands as the record industry is totally different now.
AD: But we are not business people so we need someone on board who can deal with all the phone calls and administration.
NJ: Right now we are just thinking about the creative part. There are different ways to handle things now though...
SL: But back to you and Geir.
AD: Well, then Geir and I worked on music for a theatre play, "Hamsun..s Fever" based on the poem "Feberdigte" from 1904 by the Norwegian author Knut Hamsun-s. (Editor's note: at this moment Geir Jenssen arrives and joins us)
SL: Hi Geir, Anneli just explained how you both got back into touch with each other. Why all this musical silence between you 2 during all this years?
GJ: We were just too busy with musical projects you know.
SL: The live material was really completely redone for this show, straight to the core of the songs with just you 3 on stage. It doesn't sound like you did this overnight.
GJ: Two nights you mean (laughs).
AD: We often use different musicians for the gigs as well so the sound always changes. But yesterday yes... our percussionist was there last night at the Rockefeller show and he has been playing with us for 20 years and now it was just us 3 (laughs).
GJ: We trashed all of the old sounds and used new ones, more or less. We just kept the midi-files.
AD: Geir actually even found his old synthesizer in his loft.
GJ: I found back my old Commodore computer from 1983 and it still worked. I inserted the floppies and found back all the midi-files and recorded them into a Mac.
AD: And you Nils, you had to find back all your Akai samples.
SL: Even in the first years when you performed the songs have never been that stripped down to be honest. Is that your influence Geir?
GJ: It was my idea yes. I just kicked out everything (laughs).
NJ: I was allowed to keep my guitar though (smiles).
SL: Approaching the stuff so radically, even the material that was released after you left Bel Canto after the 1989 album "Birds of passage". I guess you guys must be really trusting each other.
NJ: You have to trust each other. We tested out a few tracks from the more recent period and pretended like Geir was still in the band when those songs were made. That's how we were thinking.
AD: It did need some time to mature with Geir that we had to play a song like "Shimmering, warm and bright" as well though.
GJ: When they played the material to me I was like: 'what would happen if we would take away this, or that.' And we took it away and then more and more. In the end we just had the rhythm and the basic metal drums. It can easily be overproduced if you play all the elements plus my elements as well.
SL: But back to those ethnic elements, how did you reconcile both your coldness Geir and the warm ethnic elements that Nils and Anneli put into their material?
AD: Negotiations I'd say. We didn't play the ethnic songs yesterday but we were invited to do this.
SL: I noticed 4 new tracks in the set.
GJ: Yes, correct, we have been working on a few new tracks for which might hopefully be a new electronic album.
SL: Hopefully? Nils, are you ok with that?
NJ: Sure, it's always good to meet up together and get some mind twisting things done. It's a good synergy.
SL: Geir, when you left Bel Canto, what was the first impression you had when you heard the "“Shimmering, warm and bright album", the first produced without you?
GJ: I did like some of the tracks but I didn't like so much the ethnic elements. Like the percussionist. I'm not so into that.
SL: Your own solo material Geir is indeed very clean, clinical and Arctic as I would say. Nils and Anneli, you are both obviously the more ethnic influenced musicians in the band.
AD: I love to sing ethnic songs and have been travelling so much around the word and have been listening to Arabic rai music and Turkish folk music. As a singer it's much more interesting and a way to developing your vocal instrument. That's why I came a bit late because in the store they had some Indian music and I was listening. That's where all the techniques originate from. And personally I find it much easier to make songs in 7/8 beat than in 8/8 beat. It's much more difficult to sing simple and straight. When I was 14 years old I took singing lessons but my teacher refused to teach me because he thought I was an awful singer and could never become a singer. So in my head I made up I had to cheat and try and find a way. I had this crack in my voice, it was breaking, a voice change. I managed to find my own technique to sing but in my head I still was saying to myself: 'you're not a proper singer!' (laughs)
I cannot really sing straight like Christmas carols. But also I discovered then that I would start singing my own songs and not someone else's.
SL: Except in Idol.
AD: I didn't sing anyone else's song on there?
SL: Yes you did, I saw this cover which you sang together with Margeret Berger, the girl you were coaching in Idol. It was Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush' “Don't give up” for the the show 'Idol gir tilbake'. You literally sung her under the table. (See the video below)
AD: Ah yes... No, she is good you know, she was my favourite (laughs). I'm actually meeting her today. You know, people usually don't get impressed by a low voice, they get impressed by the femininity not by the voice. People were also impressed by the song I did with Röyksopp, “Wundering heights”. For me this is more an imitation, it's how I learned to sing from my big brother's record collection he bought in London. If it weren't for him I wouldn't be there now where I am because I had this terrible taste of music. He played like Joy Division, DAF, Psychic TV. No, Cocteau Twins came a bit later, but I started to listen to people who sing with soft voices and I noticed that you can actually sing like that.
Before I was listening to Whitney Houston, terrible stuff like that, and I was like (and she starts singing) 'Oh I want to dance with somebody', I couldn't sing that at all, it cracked up my voice. Other bands that I got to learn this way were Bryan Ferry, Roxy Music where the singing was very soft and smooth. Later on I got to learn Cocteau Twins. I was so impressed by the whole sound and I honestly thought this were two persons, I couldn't believe that one person had this kind of range.
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SL: When Geir left you guys in 1989, how did you feel Anneli?
AD: Well, I understood his decision from a logical point of view but emotionally it was like loosing your boyfriend, like splitting up. I was so young and the band had been everything for me. Also, the day after we had a radio concert in Paris so we didn't get a lot of sleep that night and had to program everything because we didn't have his programming. Actually that was total stress and panic.
If we had known it a few days in advance... (editor's note: at this point Anneli turns to Geir who says: "Actually, I can't remember that.").
I could understand it from an artistic point of view. Already on "Birds of passage" it became clear that we wanted different things. All 3 of us were making songs all the time and we just didn't get enough of our own songs on it because it varied so much in sound and style.
I didn't want to pressure Geir to re-consider. If he wanted to do something where he was 100% happy, than ok. I really wished that for him.
GJ: We also lived in different cities, I lived in Tromsö then while Nils and Anneli lived in Oslo. I was also more into techno music, I really liked that. I didn't want to force this on Bel Canto.
SL: It didn't stop you from having Anneli featured on your Bleep release.
AD: It was an old sample, not physically (laughs). It also helped to get Nils back more as an instrumentalist, to give him more space to play instruments.
NJ: We started to do a lot of live shows which moved us to record songs like we did on the “Shimmering, warm and bright” album. Some of the songs were developed on the road where we tested out things. Sometimes we were like with 5 people on stage so it was always nice. It's hard to play just with a machine. You don't affect what is coming back, that machine does exactly what it is told to. When you play with people you can interact and all the inaccuracies that appear when people are playing make it rich. When playing on top of a machine you need to be dead tight.
GJ: Well, it's more like hitting the beats correctly, not the length of the tracks. You have to be precise.
NJ: Yes, you have to count the bars. When you play with others you cannot do that all the time.
SL: Does the involvement of Geir takes away some of the pressure you had in the band for making music? It has been since 2002 that you actually released something new at all.
AD: I'm making so many songs, so for me it's not really a problem. I have just given up getting it released. I have had so many fights with the record company, sending them lots of demo's and tried to work with different producers but they don't want to release it. And then I had 2 kids in 2006 and 2007 and then I started to work in a theatre and toured with Röyksopp. So I haven't had really the time to sit down. Actually, I'm pretty used to have songs just stored on my hard disk and iTunes. I'm just listening to my own songs and I just can't be bothered if they get released or not. Yes, it has come to that point.
SL: It is rather weird then that the label did find time to release the Birthday remix of "My Emily" in 2009. “My Emily” is 5 years old...
AD: It was a guy who send me the tape as a birthday present and I really liked it. I don't know how he knew when it was my birthday, he just made it out of the blue, so I played it to EMI. It's indeed odd that this got released, but not the new material that is shelved.
GJ: That is what so super about working with a major label. The label is deciding so much.
AD: They really think I have a great voice and could become big. Big in Norway means that you have to make and sing on music that ordinary people buy. They suggested I'd sing songs in Norwegian, do duets with Norwegian singers...
GJ: Stupid label... (laughs)
AD: ... and that other singers made songs for me. They even suggested I'd do a Chet Baker cover album because I did one song with Chet Baker for a Chet Baker release and they thought it was brilliant. Really brilliant. So then I came up with a suggestion of a producer I wanted to work with. Half a year later he was working with another artist from EMI. So they stole my idea. No, not telling you who, it turned out to be a terrible album anyhow.
SL: I actually think that this is what killed the creative output of Bertine Zetlitz. I remember that EMI Norway send me the single of her when they were promoting your “Frolic” album saying that this might be interesting for us as well. I did like the early material she did but was less impressed with the later stuff.
AD: Actually I find it terrible when people compare her with me. The only stuff we have in common is the colour of our eyes. That's all. I like her style and music though. She is making unusual songs and deserving all the credits she can get. Of course she is ten years younger than me. Musically we don't have much in common though. We are friends though. It's the record company that makes us compete. It's just marketing and business.
SL: I heard you guys were working on some film music by Nathilde Overrein Rapp?
AD: Let's forget about that, it's an idea that she had but we never heard back from it. We don't know if they ever had any funding. To get funding she had to put our names in the application, and we agreed to that. Next question please (laughs).
GJ: Where the hell did you discover that?
SL: On the internet, Geir. Then again, it could have been cool having a mix of "Insomnia" which you composed Geir and "The nest" by Ketil Bjørnstad which is some great filmic music you sang on Anneli...
AD: I actually woke up this morning and realised I had forgotten inviting Ketil to the concert last night, which is a real drag... He's been my main singing teacher since I have been on tour with him for 10 years now. Just him and his piano and me on stage. You have to become quite confident and he thought me how to do that. It makes that I no longer have to hide behind lots of sounds and programming.
SL: In the past your voice on the Bel Canto album had quite a lot of re-verb, on the later material it was more dryly produced.
GJ: Pure fashion I think. No, just joking! It's getting dryer and dryer though. I didn't think I put that much reverb on your vocals on the first two albums though.
AD: You did Geir!
GJ: Oh did I? Ok... but I think that her voice doesn't need any reverb or delay.
SL: Hearing the 4 new songs from last night I'd say you are back to the airy stuff.
GJ: That's the sound engineer, dammit, we asked him to keep it dry. I don't like you telling me that, I wanted it dry without any effects. It's unnecessary to put re-verb on everything, it makes it sound cheap.
SL: Why haven't we had the chance to hear a live album or even an EP? There is the odd live song that appeared here and there but apart from bootlegs, there is nothing that officially has been released.
AD: Yes, well... I hate to hear myself singing live because I don't have the quietness in my voice like I usually have it in the studio. I never listen to live recordings. When I see something on YouTube I just skip it!
NJ: We have been thinking of it from time to time, but it's more a practical issue. You have to record several concerts and there is so much work with it.
AD: Plus we haven't been touring all that much these last years. And these past 2 concerts were not enough to make a recording, we just didn't feel good enough. It's always one concert here and there and so we don't feel prepared enough to do so.
SL: How do you feel after the 2 concerts you did now?
GJ: I would like to make some new tracks instead of playing the old. We played 2 new ones and 2 old ones yesterday which have not been released yet.
AD: No, they aren't 2 old ones. We played 3 new ones including "Lake Ice" and "Infinity". The old one we played is the track "Papillon" from a 1987/1988 demo.
SL: Geir, since the early start you have had this independent thinking which I found back in all your moves in your musical career. You don't really care what others think, you just do what you think fits. If I look at the first few albums you did solo, including the Bleep material, you just do what you want to. So has this reunion with Nils and Anneli become your main focus or just a project along the road?
GJ: Well, I'm quite lucky that I have a label like Touch that allows me to release almost everything I make. They just discuss the cover artwork and the order of the tracks but that is as far as their interference goes. For me I'm doing this because we got the invitation. I'm only been working on this for a few weeks now with Bel Canto. We can try to make an electronic album, that would be fun.
AD: I think it's good now, we are adults and have other projects on the side. When we moved to Brussels, Bel Canto was everything for us. It was also the main thing that killed the band. We were very independent individuals who wanted to do other things on the side. It was very consuming and everything. All the income depended on Bel canto and my artistic identity was through Bel Canto.
This is more a project than a band. For now that is. We will see if a new album and tour comes around so that we can be Bel Canto as well again. I think it's healthy to have other things on the side.
GJ: I don't want to go on tour like a major band.
SL: Did you guys put yourself a deadline?
AD: I think we should, but we can always postpone the deadline.
GJ: I have had so many deadlines recently where I have been working on 3 to 4 projects so I don't want to have any deadlines right now. This was the last deadline, tomorrow I want to finish another project.
NJ: For Geir the deadline is that the deadline will be gone by tomorrow (smiles).
AD: I'm going to be pretty busy too now as well. I work best when I have pressure and a lot of things to do. If we have new material and we send it each other I can work on it pretty fast in the night-time when the babies are sleeping and my husband can wake them up and take them to kindergarten then, yeah, it's ok and I can work in the daytime as well. (Laughs)
GJ: The new tracks are just one week old. I sent them from sketches that I had which I thought did have some potential and which could go well with her voice. I sent it to them and the day after the track was more or less finished.
SL: Btw, Nils, the instrument that you played last night, I have seen it before, but how is it actually called?
NJ: It's a tapping instrument, a Chapman stick which is a two-handed fretboard tapping instrument. It has 5 bass strings and 5 guitar strings. I have bought it in Paris some years ago and started playing it. It's quite a difficult and different instrument to the guitar.
AD: The song played last night with just him and me was made on the Chapman stick.
NJ: The "Rush" album was also partially made with that instrument, the title track "Rush" for example. You easily end up playing completely other things than on a guitar with that instrument.
SL: Nils, what happened to Vajas, the saami project you have with Ánde Somby and Kristin Mellem ?
NJ: Well, it's on hold, well, ...
AD: It's a Cocteau Twins situation there (laughs).
NJ: Ánde and Kristin were a couple. So when they split up, the band also kinda split up. We will see what happens, but it was a very interesting project. I'm happy with the one album "Sacred stone" we did. We did travel around the world, even in a dessert with my laptop on a camel. That's what you get when you do ethnic music, you get invited. (laughs) I played at a desert festival in the Sahara, played in Taiwan, the States... It has been bringing us to interesting places.
It was a time consuming project though because it was not all that streamlined. Kristin for example is a classical trained musician who things more in terms of metrical music while Ánde is more this nature child. And putting him into the framework of a studio with pitches, counting and bars was kind of a battle which also created a great energy. (Vajas on iTunes)
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