For Document's Fall/Winter 2013 issue, the Danish singer-songwriter speaks on writing in gibberish and the welcome freedom of making music for no one but herself.
Nanna Øland Fabricius, as Oh Land, makes music that bridges the bedroom, the dance floor and the concert hall. The 27-year-old Danish singer-songwriter’s highly personal, imaginative songs are as catchy as they are delicate, employing an army of synthesizers to make confessional moments fill and sometimes shake a venue. Often lumped with fellow Scandi-pop songstresses Robyn and Lykke Li, Oh Land owes more to artists like Joanna Newsom and St. Vincent, for whom careful composition takes precedence over radio appeal. Born to an organist and an operatic soprano, her musicianship is palpable; most tracks could be stripped of electricity and still maintain their power. But it was the sugar-sweet electro-pop sound of Oh Land’s self-titled major-label debut that helped land her appearances on Letterman, Girls, and a Katy Perry tour.
Oh Land, an upbeat, blue-haired Brooklynite with Copenhagen cheekbones, has since quit Sony flagship Epic Records and created Tusk or Tooth, an independent label all her own. On her upcoming album Wish Bone, she teamed with TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek to produce a record truer to her indie roots: more frank, more grown-up, and a little more sinister. Lead single “Renaissance Girls” is both a jab at sexist, unrealistic expectations (“having three kids and still remain a virgin,” she sings) and a subtle boast: if she wanted to, she probably could do it all. Gregory Rubin sat down with Oh Land on the Williamsburg waterfront to talk about writing songs in gibberish, recording off the “grid,” and why she might not be re-living that Teenage Dream anytime soon.
Gregory Rubin: I know you were traveling for a while. What were you up to, and when did you get back to Brooklyn?
Oh Land: I got back a few days ago. I was shooting a movie in South Africa. It’s called The Salvation, and it will be out in 2014. I’m the main character’s wife.
Gregory: Have you appeared in movies before?
Oh Land: I’ve only done one before, when I was 19 and didn’t know what I wanted to do in life. It was a really fun experience. But quickly after, I started getting serious about music, and I stopped. I’ve gotten a couple of opportunities in the past few years to go into TV or movies, and I turned them down because I wanted to make sure that I was putting everything I could into my music and that people perceived me as a musician, that it wasn’t a gray area. But now I feel I’ve established myself as a musician in such a way that I can do something else if I want to.
“When I think of a hit, I think about something that can’t be predicted, something that suddenly surprises you with an emotion, something you didn’t expect, and that you need to hear again.”
Gregory: For a while, you didn’t want to feel like you were dabbling in different things.
Oh Land: Yeah. Particularly when you’re a girl–you get very easily judged or like, put into boxes. Like, if I do one photo shoot for a promo, which is just part of what I do, then I’ll be a model. That’s kind of how it is. So it’s hard–you really have to protect yourself. But you also have to work.
Gregory: It’s been two years since your international debut, Oh Land. Your first album, Fauna, was a much smaller, indie affair. But the production values are still quite good. It didn’t sound like you went from a garage to a recording studio.
Oh Land: That’s pretty much what I did. I produced the whole album myself, and I did like, 80% of it in my bedroom. And then I went to a big, fancy studio in Times Square. I’m glad you didn’t hear such a big difference.
Gregory: I’m very impressed. What was it like to go from making music in your bedroom to touring with Katy Perry?
Oh Land: It was crazy, and fun, and totally mind-blowing. I don’t think I really knew where my mind was. It was certainly nothing I’d ever dreamt of. But I learned so much. I also felt like, some people believe in me and think that I can pull this off; should I say no to the opportunity because Pitchfork won’t touch me with a fireknife? [Indeed, influential internet publication Pitchfork.com has yet to review any of Oh Land’s music.] Or should I just do it because I know that I’m a real musician, and I know that people who care about real music will listen? You get exposed to such a big audience that if 10 percent catches on, that’s a lot of people. And I don’t want to be the kind of artist who performs for people in bars the rest of my life. But I also felt while making Wish Bone that I wanted to take things back a little bit, back to the bedroom, back to where I started, and not feel pressured to deliver a huge hit. I love great pop songs, but I don’t want anyone to confuse my motives. I’m pretty sure that Katy Perry won’t pick me as an opener this time.
“When you write with somebody else…it’s like falling in love–you don’t really know how it happens. Suddenly you are just in love. You can’t really explain what the other person did or didn’t do.”
Gregory: On “Renaissance Girls” you sound more comfortable, more direct than you have in the past. The music itself might be “back to the bedroom,” but you sound like you’ve developed as a performer.
Oh Land: That’s actually exactly how I explain it when people ask me what’s different about my next album. I say, I think it’s more direct. “Mature” is such an unsexy word, but I think it applies as well. I’ve made some decisions for myself about what I want in the long term and not just the here and now, on next week’s charts. Instead of thinking, “This is who I want to become,” it’s more like, “This is who I am, and this is how I feel right now, and I’m going to write it down, and these are the lyrics.” I haven’t been editing myself; I’ve said a lot of things exactly how they are. So I’m probably going to offend some people.
Gregory: I think you’ve earned the right to offend some people. For those who came to know you through [Oh Land single] “White Nights” alone, I don’t think it was hard to call your music “cute.” “Renaissance Girls” sounds like you’re playing with that idea a little, like it’s a taunt.
Oh Land: I guess what I’ve become very, very bored of is pleasing. I feel like on this album I’m not trying to give anyone what they want. In the music business, it’s easy to feel like you have to live up to other people’s expectations all the time. In the last two years, making this album and touring a lot, I’ve come to know a little bit more about what really makes me happy, and to think, “If you don’t like it, then go work with another band.” I’m more scared about this album than I’ve been with any of the others, but I’m also more proud of it, and I really think it’s something special.
Gregory: What made you decide to leave your label and start your own?
Oh Land: I’m still friendly with [Epic Records]. I just came to a point where our goals were just not the same anymore. I think their idea of a hit is very much different from mine. When I think of a hit, I think about something that can’t be predicted, something that suddenly surprises you with an emotion, something you didn’t expect, and that you need to hear again. But for major labels, a hit is something that you can completely predict because it sounds a certain way; it has certain chords, a certain tempo, a certain length. They predict hits. And I don’t ever want to do anything predictable.
“I can’t really not think about the whole performance. My life would definitely be easier if I weren’t so concerned about everything.”
Gregory: How do you go about writing a song?
Oh Land: It’s a simple process for me. It can start very ugly. If you listen through my iPhone, to my sketches, you would be like, “Wow, this girl…can she sing?” Because it’s just like, stomps and claps, and it sounds like I have no language. And then there will be one tiny little phrase, because usually I’ll be improvising just with words, and suddenly I’ll say a sentence and be like, “Oh, that was it.” And then that sentence will determine the rest of the song.
Gregory: So you’re waiting for a lyrical direction.
Oh Land: On this last album, yes. But it hasn’t always been like that. It has been more about melody and rhythm, I think. This time around I’ve been very lyrically focused. I’ve squeezed a lot of words into a tiny space.
Gregory: And what was it like to collaborate with Dave Sitek? How did you write the songs you worked on together?
Oh Land: Most of the songs I’d written in New York, at home, but a couple of the songs I wrote with him in his house in Glendale. How did we do it? I actually don’t really know. Because it’s something different when you write alone and when you write with somebody else. When it’s with somebody else, it’s like falling in love–you don’t really know how it happens. Suddenly you are just in love. You can’t really explain what the other person did or didn’t do.
Gregory: Ha! So you worked well together.
Oh Land: Yeah! Suddenly we just had a bunch of songs. He has all these instruments patched up together, so we don’t sit and look at the computer screen; it’s not programmed beats. Dave Sitek is a genius in that way. A song will be produced in one and a half hours because we play everything live. It’s very true to how you would record things back in the day except that it’s completely different instruments, electronic instruments. But the live feeling’s there. It’s pitchy in some places, it isn’t always tight…it’s never snap-to-grid.
“I guess what I’ve become very, very bored of is pleasing. I feel like on this album I’m not trying to give anyone what they want.”
Gregory: In performances, it’s clear that you have your ear and your eye on everything that’s going on musically. Have you always had such a strong sense of orchestration? Did you ever dream of just being a solo performer?
Oh Land: I’ve always been very concerned with the whole: the performance, the show. I go very much into detail, but it all plays a role: the costumes, the scenography, the sound, the light…everything affects the experience you have in the audience. And I think because I’ve been in the theater since I was born, in the opera house with my mom, being babysat by the dressers backstage and watching the performances from the side every night, that it’s in my blood. I can’t really not think about the whole performance. My life would definitely be easier if I weren’t so concerned about everything.
Gregory: Your knack for orchestration doesn’t stop with music: your videos have amazing scenography and costumes. Is there a visual element that develops as you write a particular song, or does that come after?
Oh Land: It’s pretty immediate. I have at least four videos in my head for every song I’ve written. I have to pick sometime afterward. Or I make a video like “White Nights” and put all of them into one. There are basically five good videos in “White Nights”. I’m also quite obsessed with old horror movies and thrillers, and I’d love to do things that were scarier. I’m definitely developing in that direction, and I think at some point I’ll probably do something really scary. But I’m not quite there yet. There are only little hints. A lot of people think that happy people who joke a lot and have a lot of fun are lighthearted, but it often comes out of a seriousness, or an anxiety, where you have to find fun ways to look at things to escape the darkness. The two things go hand in hand. When people look at “White Nights”, they probably get the idea that I’m a happy, fun person, but there’s definitely an evil twin.
Gregory: I guess that’s what your new album is for.
Oh Land: Yeah. It’s the evil twin.