Jens Lysdal interview, April 2008

By Georg Forchhammer, April 2008

Before driving off to interview Jens Lysdal, I tried to form a general view over this artist – a great singer / songwriter who has also written film music and had lots of other musical projects through the years. The headline for Jens Lysdal must be that he is driven by desire and love for music.´When you listen to his own albums as well as the other projects he has been involved in, it is obvious that he is a very versatile artist.

You had your debut with the album “A matter of time” in 1995, when you were 35 years old. The only thing I can find about your past is that you have graduated from the Royal Danish Music Academy. The songs on your debut album were fairly new written. Didn’t you write songs before that?

I have played in bands and written songs since I was 13 years old. We started playing songs by e.g. The Beatles and Creedence at school parties, and relatively soon, I started writing two or three songs for each set. And I have written songs ever since. In my 20’s, I had a band called “Fitstuff”, where I wrote all the music.

Later on, I had a fusion/world music band with percussionist Lisbeth Diers, pianist Niels Thybo, bass player Kasper Lindhardt and drummer Anders Pedersen, where we only played instrumental music. It worked really well and we had good respons from our audience. Before recording “A matter of time”, we had two songs, “Shadows” and “A matter of time”. I then scrapped all the instrumental music – I said to myself, “Hell, I’m a singer!” At first, the band was a bit resentful, because it had all been built up around the instrumental music.

But you had written both music and lyrics before that, hadn’t you?

Yes, but when there suddenly was an album-recording in sight, I started taking my lyrics more seriously. Before, I just liked singing great songs of e.g. Steely Dan and Doobie Brothers – I was actually just a “sound vocalist” or “instrumental vocalist”, if you can put it that way. From now on, it was important to find the essence of what I wanted to say.

There is also a lot of realization to be found in your lyrics.

Throughout my life, I have been existentially interested and I think that being a musician you have a fabulous chance to “mirror” your musical development with your personal and I think they can inspire and enhance each other if you are interested in making music that is personal. Some times I have written songs about topics that I wasn’t consciously aware of until years later.

It wasn’t until I made the songs for that album I felt I could express my views on life in music and lyrics. It’s also very important when I listen to other artists – do they only sing words that basically are just vocal sounds or do they actually have something to say. The fact that an artist has something on his mind is more important to me than him or her being a good or not so good singer technically.

What expectations did you have to your musical career after having released “A matter of time” which was highly acclaimed?

Well, the record company “Sundance” that released the album is a small company, and they didn’t have the economy to promote the album that much despite the great reviews. I arranged two small tours with about ten gigs each.

However, I found out that Denmark is a very small country for my kind of music. Furthermore, the economy of most concert places is very tight, so touring with a five piece band plus a soundengineer is not a thing that will make you fat if you are not a top-selling artist.

So one might say that it is more the creation of songs and albums that matter to you than being famous?

Apart from that it probably would make some things easier around my music, I don’t see any benefits at all by being famous. I like playing music with good musicians and singers in front of an audience who likes what we are doing – that’s it. Fame in the commercial media-sense, is something that often means restrictions artisticly and personally. I enjoy being able to play exactly what I want, with who I want, where I want and I see that as a very big privilige that lots of famous artists don’t have.

My Cd’s have been released in lots of contries – on the global niche-level you could say – and is played and used many places around the world in films e.g., and I constantly get mails from people who tell me that my music make a big difference to them.

A couple of years ago a woman came up to me after a concert and told me that my CD “Keep the light in your eyes” had “saved her life”. Her husband had died recently and she had had a big depression, but listening to the songs made her get through the days – that means a lot more to me than being famous.

Let’s just say that your albums “Keep the light in your eyes” and “It’s almost love” – recently  released in Korea and Thailand – became a great hit. What then?

Well, you still have to have people down there working on it on a local basis. That is probably one of the big differences between a small and a large record company. Even though I have a lot of contacts out there and people can hear my music on my home page and my Myspace site, you still need a lot of PR work to seriously enter the live market. But it would definitely be fun.

I toured China in 2000 and 2001 and it was a great experience to play in front of audiences and in surroundings that are so different from what you are used to.

Since your debut album got so great reviews, why did we have to wait 11 years until your next solo album “It’s almost love” was released?

In the meanwhile, I have written, played and recorded a lot of music. For instance the album I made together with bass player Hugo Rasmussen, “Keep the light in your eyes”(2001) and the album “Hjertekamre”(2004) together with Laura Illeborg and producing CD’s with Povl Dissing and Alberte with rhythmgroup and symphony orchestra – all very interesting and satisfying projects.

So I didn’t have the need or drive to make an album just after the first one. So even though I am a singer and a songwriter, I am also a musician and I enjoy being that just as much.

I’d like to talk a bit about your lyrics. In some of your songs, you seem to have a search for and a description of what one might call “the perfect human being”, for instance in the song “Ages” (from “Keep the light in your eyes”). You say that “…every age has its colours, but hers were always wrong”, and in some other songs you seem to talk about the importance of living “in the Now”.

There is no such thing as a “perfect human being”. But there are ways of seeing your life a little from the outside that can be quite helpful. Ways that make you able to see why and how you prevent yourself from having the life you actually long for deep inside.

A lot of the problems people make for themselves are due to the fact that they are never really satisfied with the present situation. And therefore they don’t accept life as it actually is right now but are focusing on how it should be. And therefore they are never present in the present. And it goes from the desire to have a bigger house to complain about that there is something in your shoe. Every time you are just a little dissatisfied with whatever little tiny thing, you should ask yourself the question: “why” – and then try to answer as honestly as possible. Because if you are not satisfied with life right now, you probably won’t will be satisfied ever – and that’s a personal tradegy and a waste of life.

I can strongly recommend the book “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle. In a very clear and un-dogmatic way, he describes what happens to the individual person, the society and the whole world when we are not present, when we act accordingly to old unconscious habits and fear for the future. The consequences of that behaviour you can see on the news every day and it doesn’t look nice.

He states that the majority of people on the Earth live in a kind of “normality” which is very inappropriate. For instance, the fact that we live in a religious dogma that might have been the right thing 2000 years ago.

In another of your songs, the message is something like, “Live your life the right way – and lose your fears – and forgive…”

Yes it’s the song “Say what you think is true” and it goes: ”Trying to see yourself As you really are Will make you forgive And heal your scar”

But again – there is no such thing as “the right life”, or at least it’s very individual. But I am convinced that everybody in the core of their soul has a voice that tells them who they really are and what is the right thing for them to do in every situation.

But to be able to hear that voice, the first thing you have to do – is to be still.

It’s very simple in fact. To learn to meditate is a nice thing, but just closing your eyes for 20 minutes two times a day and observe what’s going on inside yourself, will change your life in ways that will surprise you if you haven’t been there before.

Somewhere in my papers – as a comment to some of your songs – I have written, “Hell, you’ll never get to understand women..”

Well, I don’t know – basically, it’s a matter of accepting the fact, that men and women are different, and before you do that, things can’t work out. I also think it is really, really helpful for you to know who you are yourself, if you want to have a relationship with another person.

On your latest album, “It’s almost love”, you work together with drummer Danny Frankel (Lou Reed, Rickie Lee Jones, KD Lang, Marianne Faithfull) and lap steel guitarist Greg Leisz (Joni Mitchell, Robbie Williams, Sheryl Crow, Bill Frisell, Emmylou Harris). How did you meet these guys?

I was at a concert with Bill Frisell in Berlin with one of my old friends, Torben Steno. After the concert, I went up to the musicians and told them I liked the music. I gave two of my CD’s to Greg and he wrote me and said he really liked it. So we stayed in contact  and agreed on making something together someday. Later on, he and Danny were in Denmark playing with K.D. Lang, and they had a few days off, so we went to the studio and recorded 4 songs.

The songs they appear on, are different than the rest of the songs – the style is more towards country. Did you choose these songs especially for these two musicians?

Actually no. I just had these songs, gave them the chords and said, “Let’s just play and see what happens…” and they were a little surprised about that.

They were apparently used to be told more about what to play when in a recording session – and that surprised me a little. I think it’s obvious that you should let people on their level play as much from the heart as possible. Of course you try to communicate the vibe in the song to them, but as these guys are so good, the only thing you really have to do is to be as much into the song yourself as possible, then they instinctively will do something that fits in the track – it’s a big pleasure to work with people like that.

It gives you a great freedom because you can concentrate 100% on your own performance and you can feel that they are following your every move.

But that is actually something that has taken me years to learn – to let people play.

I used to be a “control freak” musically. Before, I arranged everything very thoroughly – and I was a great Steely Dan fan.

But it can also be too much arranged and planned?

Depends on what it is that you want, but I think you always lose something when you decide too much beforehand.

Steely Dan arrange every little detail and it sounds fantastic. Their album “Gaucho” might almost be considered as a bible in that sense, but now I enjoy it more as a nice piece of architecture – it doesn’t really go to my heart any more.

I’m more attracted to artists who have the courage and talent to let the “now” be a big factor when they perform. However, I think that their album “Royal Scam” is more wild or unrestrained. In “Kid Charlamagne”, Larry Carlton plays a historic guitar solo. I think he took a giant leap in combining jazz and rock right there.

In the recent years, I have learned that if you say “just play!” to great musicians, they play something that they both like and are good at – and that’s never bad.

I’d like to talk a bit about your inspirational sources. What if I say “jazz”?

Well, I’m not really a jazz-musician, but I like the attitude in jazz, meaning the freedom, the not scheduled, the presence. These things are qualities I really love in music. I don’t care much listening to musicians just reproducing what they have practiced at home.

Back in 1990, I played in a street band where we went through Europe. We ended up in Prague, where we among other places played on the old Charles Bridge. It was just after the fall of the old regime so they hadn’t really heard much live western music. One of the times we played there, I suddenly discovered a new way of playing on my guitar, with loose strings.

People were crazy about it and we got a lot of money in the hat. And I thought, “Great, now I know what people really like…”. In the evening, I practiced this new thing and played it again next day – even better, but there was no reaction from the audience. I realized that the thing people loved the day before, was that they watched me discover this new thing while performing – my enthusiasm and authencity was the main thing. This was a very important lesson for me to learn.

Today, I have another band called “Filmmusic for everyday life” together with keyboardist Nikolaj Busk and violinist Bjarke Falgren. We play at public places like libraries, exibitions, hospitals, supermarkets etc.  But it’s not concerts in the ordinary meaning of the word.

The audience don’t necessarily have to sit and listen. We regard ourselves more as an extra parameter to what is already going on in a room. The music is 100 % improvised. It isn’t a conventional concert – it is more like a kind of improvised film music to what happens around us while playing. We have about 6 or 7 instruments each. One of us starts and then the others follow, inspired by the room and the ambience.

If you are in a supermarket and you are suddenly met by one who plays a violin, you become aware that there aren’t two similar shopping situations in your life, in fact there aren’t two identical seconds in your life. Just that day in that supermarked, you might meet your future wife or a person that could change your life in another important way – but only if you are conscious and aware of the fact that this moment – as every moment – is unique. And that is a great thing to do as a musician – to have total freedom of expression and to inspire people around you to experience their own freedom.

Recently I used some of the music from “Filmmusic for everyday life”  for a scientific documentary on TV. It worked perfectly, because the music was initially created to underline and emphasize different moods without being in the foreground.

What about Randy Newman?

His lyrics – with his humour and his sharp tongue – are fantastic! Actually, he has musically only written about eight songs in his whole career, with different lyrics on top of them. If you have heard one of his albums, you can recognize his style on all the other ones. But it’s really not important – he’s a poet, and a great one.

Pat Metheny – especially his lyric moods.

I have listened a lot to him. He is great. Practically, he can do whatever he wants on a guitar.

Mark Knopfler – not just because he, just like you, doesn’t use a pick when playing the guitar. But especially the way you play on the song “This time” on your latest album.

I think Mark Knopfler is as great a singer as a guitarist. He is a person whose music has developed along with his personality, and that is always great.

In connection with the album “Hjertekamre” you made together with Laura Illeborg, you both mention your common love for Paul Simon.

Well, in my younger days I listened a lot to Paul Simon. It was his lyrical songs, his poetry and subtleness I fell for, and also the way the albums where arranged and produced – lots of slightly different solutions around.

What about Sting?

I know a lot of people think I sound a bit like him. But I’ve never really listened too much to his music.

I’d like to talk a little about the album “Keep the light in your eyes”, that you recorded together with double bass icon Hugo Rasmussen, who has played with artists like Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins and Dexter Gordon.

I was invited to perform in a Cornelis Wreesvijk cabaret by The Danish Theatre. Hugo and I played a few songs together and we both felt it worked really well. We have played together ever since. One of the things that is so great about Hugo is that he is always 100 % present. And in something as fragile and transparent as a duo, that’s very important. He is always right behind you, even if it’s only a subtle change in tempo or dynamic he responds immediately

You have also played in Sweden several times?

Yes we’ve played at Stockholm Jazzfestival and a lot of other festivals and we have often been invited to concerts that focuses on the Swedish/Dutch singer icon Cornelis Vreeswijk’s music. We played some years ago at his birthday -concert in Stockholm as the first non-swedes ever and last year we went there again to commemorate his 70 year birthday at the legendary “Mosebacke” where he played a lot of concerts.

It’s amazing to see how much Vreeswijk is a part of the Swedish legacy.

We played at the Västervik festival, where all artist were told to play two Vreeswijk songs. And a lot of the Swedish artists, who where great singers, actually didn’t perform these songs so well. I seemed like they had too much respect for the songs.

I moved from Sweden when I was 10 years old, and I listened a lot to him because my mother did back then. But a  lot of the Vreeswijk songs I have recorded, I sang from memory. Some of them I haven’t listened to since I was ten, so recording them was just like meeting an old friend again without being able to remember all the details about him.

Earlier, we talked about your live performances, and as mentioned you have performed in Denmark and Sweden but also in Portugal and as far away as in China. How is the audience in so different places?

When the audience is present, the atmosphere is almost the same anywhere – people are quiet and they feel like listening to my music, so in that sense it is very global. When we played in China, I was a bit anxious about their reaction. But all people – whether they understand your language or not – can understand authenticity.

For instance, if I listen to a singer from Thailand, Greece or Holland, it only takes me a few seconds to find out if he “fakes” or if he is real. It is the same thing when Rasmus Lyberth from Greenland performs in Denmark or in other countries. Practically no one understands his language, but everyone understands that he sings from his heart.

After having spent 3½ lovely hours with Jens Lysdal who in every aspect of the word is an amazing person, I went home and boiled our conversation into these words. I hope you have enjoyed reading them.

Read more about Jens Lysdal at his official website.