Daydreamer: An Interview With Anja Lauvdal

Ahead of playing at Semibreve in Portugal next month, Anja Lauvdal explains the stories behind her two solo albums to date, from the influence Ursula K. Le Guin to buying a tiger-painted Wurlitzer from an American preacher

Photo by Signe Luksengard

“There’s a deer!” exclaims Anja Lauvdal excitedly from her home just outside Oslo, midway through our conversation over Zoom. She hastily turns her laptop towards the window so I can get a glimpse of the animal as it tentatively sneaks around outside her house. A little auspiciously, this interruption comes as Lauvdal is talking about the benefits of taking time to let the mind wander instead of being consumed by a need to be productive. To allow yourself to sink into a time and a place rather than rushing through it. It’s a headspace which imbues her two solo albums, 2022’s From A Story Now Lost and this year’s Farewell to Faraway Friends.

“One of the things I was curious about was this dreamy feeling you get when you’re travelling. Looking out the window and allowing yourself to daydream for real, not stopping yourself from it,” she explains. “You need space on both ends of your day where you don’t need to have a purpose and you don’t need to work. It’s a big thing, without it you can’t be creative. To get to Oslo, I need to take a 30 minute boat ride. There’s an etiquette on the boat, that if you see someone you know, you always ask whether they want to talk or would they rather be themselves. People are using this space – some are using it to be efficient, and some want to stare out the window and be by themselves.”

Pianist and synth player Lauvdal is a prolific collaborator. Her roots are in jazz, playing in countless ensembles in Oslo’s scene. She is one third of the shape-shifting improvisation trio Moskus, and also played on Jenny Hval’s 2018 EP, The Long Sleep. It’s only recently that she ventured into recording solo. From A Story Now Lost, produced with Laurel Halo, is a suite of woozy electronics and keys. Intricately layered, the tracks unfurl in gauzy webs and ebbs rather than marching out of the speakers.

Farewell To Faraway Friends is less layered, more hand-crafted, recorded at home with nothing more than two mics and a Wurlitzer keyboard. It’s an album that feels simultaneously itinerant and domestic, exploratory and private. Lacking the augmentation of her debut, it retains the knack of tumbling out the speakers like leaves twirling through the wind, with trickles of notes dancing through their own sustains. A sense of intimacy, that you’re listening in on a private ritual, is only amplified as you hear the creaks and soft clunks of the Wurlitzer as Lauvdal’s fingers move across its keyboard.

This feeling of being both homely and placeless, settled and roaming, makes sense when Lauvdal speaks about her life over the last decade or so. Years of touring internationally also meant years of travelling alone. Thanks to the generous parental leave available in Norway, after she had her first child, she opted to bring her family with her.

“When you’re away for longer periods, it’s strange, you change. At least I did,” she admits. “You get into this different way of being in the world, of travelling and seeing a lot of things. When you get home there’s a friction with that – who am I in this place? You need to adjust. When I was travelling with my daughter and partner we were more adventurous. We wanted to stay longer in each place and see more. We didn’t need that readjustment when we got back.”

When we speak, Lauvdal is pregnant with her second child. She’s recently moved out of Oslo to a more rural location with her partner, on the banks of a fjord. Her family are temporarily staying in a loft (where ‘Farewell To Faraway Friends’ was recorded) while building their new house close by. She has a new collaborative record with William Parker and Hamid Drake in the pipeline, and is also preparing to play solo at Semibreve Festival in Braga, Portugal. She reveals that her set there will mix samples with live improvisation on an acoustic piano, bridging the approaches across her two albums.

Lauvdal’s switch to working solo coincided with shifts in her life and perspective. She was restless in her twenties. Studying journalism as well as music, it was a time marked by a hunger to learn new things and engage in new conversations. While that appetite remains, it’s now channelled in different ways. “I felt like I’d been suppressing some of my intuitive feelings,” she explains. “Some of it came from studying music. I’d lost that spiritual part, I think. There were a lot of guys where I was studying, and not many women. I felt like I stepped on my feminine sides. Maybe embracing this day-dreaming mood was partly a reaction.

“When I decided to make a solo album, I wanted this feeling of my own world. Part of it came from that travelling mentality, being on a bus doing nothing. Being romantic, passionate, these feelings. When I say it out loud, I get embarrassed. I think, ‘Oh my god can I talk about these things?’ I’m not saying it was macho, but there were a lot of guys in the jazz community, and I felt like I had to fit in. I wanted my solo work to be distinct from that.”

She tracked most of ‘Farewell to Faraway Friends’, named after a Bas Jan Ader photograph, in the space of a week. “I had a lot of time. My kid was in kindergarten. I’d just get up, drink coffee, play a little bit and then do nothing. Just really small pieces, every day.”

Photo by Anne Valeur

Lauvdal talks as much about influences from books as from other musicians. She finds resonance between her lyric-less compositions and Gertrude Stein’s exploration of language. “She has a lecture on the English language, which was translated to Norwegian. I was struck by the way her language is just associations. There’s rarely complete sentences. Everything’s jumping but it makes so much sense. You understand everything that’s in between,” Lauvdal explains.

“I have this obsession with the word unfolding. To let something blossom, to let it grow instead of making a form and fitting into it. It’s abstract, but the way Stein uses language is similar. She leaves breadcrumbs, here’s this small thing, here’s this other thing. Initially, you feel that it doesn’t make sense, but then you read a whole paragraph or chapter, or even an hour after you read it, and it does.”

“The record wasn’t inspired by Stein directly, but it feels connected. The album works in small cycles. Getting into something, being patient with it. Not trying to make it go somewhere. I was asking myself, how can something be more organic, to go where it wants? It’s really interesting to try and do that alone.”

Ursula K. Le Guin’s writing is also influential, especially her ‘carrier bag theory’ of fiction. “Her idea of the container, it’s amazing. Her writing, it’s unfolding. She gets into something and then lets it just flow. She’s being in her own world. The first thing I read by her was the Earthsea series, when I was in my late twenties. Her writing is so playful, so fun. In a way, it’s everything I missed in The Lord Of The Rings. It’s super organic, no fighting, none of this unnecessary stuff.”

I suggest that with Tolkien, there’s something authoritarian both in the worlds he builds, and the way he builds them. A trait that perhaps only becomes clear when you read someone like Le Guin. Lauvdal agrees. “With Le Guin, everything comes from the inside. It’s not dictated. You feel like you’re in it. You’re discovering it at the same time as her.”

Does she see parallels between Le Guin’s way of writing and improvisation and jazz? “I was in opposition to jazz at the same time I loved it and was studying it. When jazz is taught right and played in a good way, there’s nothing authoritarian. But it can also be done in a completely different way. It can be either Earthsea or The Lord Of The Rings. It depends so much on who’s teaching and the person who’s playing.”

When I ask if stepping into working under her own name was daunting, Lauvdal says it came completely naturally. When playing alone, she often finds herself in an imaginary conversation, whether with a fictional character, an author, or a friend. “It’s not all about this person, it’s a starting point, an idea, a thought or a mood that comes from imagining the world of this person or character,” she explains. “Sometimes it comes from a pattern of notes. Some tones, how I see them visually. It makes sense to connect them to a person, or a colour. Visually I’m very connected to the piano. I can see it all the time. I almost always play with my eyes closed, but I can always see it. Even when I’m not by the piano. When I play at Semibreve, I’ll be imagining conversations with these people and characters as well.”

Lauvdal’s approach to technology is a different kind of conversation. “In a way it’s weird I got into synthesisers. I love trying to poke the machine, to make it not a machine. Expanding its limits into being more natural.” The Wurlitzer she played on ‘Farewell To Faraway Friends’ is one of the first instruments she owned herself, buying it so she could play at venues that didn’t have a piano on site. “I fell in love with the Wurlitzer when I heard it, because it sounds like wood. It’s wood and felt hammers banging on metal pieces. It’s a strange and different sound. I saved money and found one on eBay. I bought it from a preacher in the US, who used it with his congregation.”

The instrument still sits in her home studio, in a case with a tiger print paint job from one of her friends, the tuba and electronics player Heida Mobeck. As a live instrument, it proves somewhat challenging. “To tune it you need to melt metal on the strings and then scrape it off,” she explains. “And it would go out of tune all the time, often in the middle of a concert. There’s nothing you can do. You just have to adapt to it and avoid the worst notes.”

I ask if she’s attracted to precarious, volatile instruments in particular. “Yes! And things with limitations. I don’t like instruments that can do a lot. Even the synths I have that can, I use them simply. Just a few things. I don’t spend hours getting to know them through YouTube tutorials. It’s a common misunderstanding that you need to know everything about an instrument to do something cool. Sometimes exploring a small part is enough,” she argues.

“I always take a playful approach. If you learn everything, it almost becomes authoritarian. You’re controlled by the machine if you spend too long trying to get to know it. I want it to get to know me.”

Anja Laudval performs as part of Semibreve Festival in Braga, Portugal, which takes place from 26 to 29 October. For the full line-up, tickets and more information, click here

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