The Art and Halved Darkness of Tor Lundvall
In 2009, ambient pop artist Tor Lundvall announced he said all he really needed to say. Following that year’s Sleeping and Hiding, Lundvall’s trademark, soft falsetto had completely disappeared from his music. This fits with the texture painter’s persona — much like his quiet, unassuming music, Lundvall prefers the quietude and modesty of silence. Why say anything if you feel it is unnecessary?
Thirteen years later, Tor Lundvall unexpectedly felt the desideratum of vocal music. A lot has happened in the interim, along with the wider underground awareness he has achieved under the Dais Records roster, he has (very recently) felt the immense weight of loss. The death of his father and loss of long-distance collaborator John B. McLemore carried great weights which, to Lundvall, deserved a break in his vow of silence.
As such, A Dark Place certainly, if perhaps uncharacteristically, reflects the obscurity and despondence of loss and inner darkness, both in sound and visual representation. In this interview conducted over hundreds of miles, weeks of silence (due to my own loss), and many strands of e-mail conversation, Lundvall reflects on his recently public darkness through sound and visual art.
The artwork which graced your previous albums, though lonely and isolated in their own right, still carried a soft impression of warmth and comfort which fit the delicate and tender music held within. A Dark Place, however, features darker, more tense art which stands alone in your public oeuvre. In discussions regarding this new album, you spoke of pain and personal loss, which is, for all intents and purposes, new territory for your eponymous project. What was it like shifting your works from greater impressions of emotion to something more personal and directly inward?
Those are a great observations, and a tough question to answer. Everything I’ve recorded is deeply personal. I’ve certainly delved inwards on previous albums, perhaps more so on Ice, The Mist, and Last Light, but experiencing profound personal loss certainly pushed the music further into this territory. I’ve been fortunate in the sense that I haven’t experienced the death of a parent until my late 40s, but the additional time doesn’t make coping with the loss any easier. Losing my Dad three years ago affected me deeply, as I imagine it would for most people. His passing amplified other issues, forcing me to face old wounds and fears deep within; unresolved relationships, lost love, unfulfilled yearnings, emotional neglect, sadness and so on. All of these things sort of funneled into the new album. The artwork was adapted from an extensive series of self-portraits I made in 2016, many of which were given away with the art edition of the Nature Laughs box set. Stark, but fitting imagery for an album like this one.
Those fears have certainly become a more visible element in the way you’ve portrayed yourself in more recent portraits and photographs — somewhat of an uncomfortable duality between Impressionism and (maybe neo-gothic given the eye shapes) Expressionism. Do you feel there is a “halved” essence in the way you express yourself musically now as opposed to the more consistently “soft” aesthetic in the past?
Funny you mention this because, in recent years, I’ve been wanting to throw a wrench in the spokes of my recording process by adding harsher elements, cutting back on the reverb, etc., but somehow, the music still retains a soft character, no matter what my intentions are. Even my recent paintings, which are more interior-based and somewhat starker still can’t escape that aura of softness. It’s just part of my nature, I suppose. The “halved” portraits are curious because even I don’t fully understand my intent here. The imagery makes sense on an instinctive level, as it always does, but these faces have become more prominent in recent paintings, as you’ve observed. Perhaps the split face signifies an internal struggle between lingering hope and encroaching darkness. Maybe obviously so. A fear that the one side is slowly extinguishing the other.
I’m curious since I don’t really sense the darkness as much in the music, though the starkness (definitely due to the lack of reverb you cited) definitely sharpens the edges somewhat. Do you think your music would ever “catch up” to this visual darkness?
Interesting that you didn’t pick up on the darkness in there. I’d certainly argue that I’ve made my fair share of dark recordings over the years, but I suppose my approach has always been subtle, never obvious or in your face. It’s all a matter of perception, I suppose. I should also clarify that I didn’t necessarily change my recording methods on this particular album. There’s still a healthy dose of reverb in there this time around, although the music is definitely starker as you’ve observed. As to whether or not my music will ever “catch up” to the visual darkness in some of my paintings, truth be told, I’m not concerned about it really. Both pursuits continue to evolve side by side, in their own ways, at their own pace.
I guess the way I view darkness in music lacks the serenity which I associate with what you’ve released, but it does come down to that element of perception you cited. Given how you view your music, and aside from the superficial elements of effect (as I am sure we could discuss the nuances of reverb, delay, envelopes, et cetera for an unnecessarily lengthy period of time), how do you feel this album differs from the rest of your output? I feel like I’ve been stuck on how you’ve represented it visually.
I suppose this album has a more shadowy atmosphere than previous releases and the lyrics are perhaps heavier and more direct. Then again, I could say the same thing about some previous albums. Therefore, I wouldn’t say that this album differs tremendously, it’s more of a slow evolution and continuation of a larger story. As a side note, I also view A Dark Place as the vocal companion to my instrumental album The Violet-Blue House. Returning to the topic of perception, I don’t think an artist or musician can ever truly know how their work is being perceived by others. I don’t consider myself a dark person… well, not entirely. In fact, a friend of mine didn’t want to see me lumped into that whole “dark” category, since he didn’t view me (or my music) in this way. I suppose there’s always a glimmer of hope, or a yearning for peace that shines through my work, even when my intent is the opposite.
Between the references to your father’s passing and the story behind the Witness Marks remix album, the air of loss certainly something very alien for “Tor Lundvall in 2018″, especially for fans like your friend who feel it is something so inherently separate for your music, which leads me to ask: as an artist experiencing this, do you feel intent and execution can be a duality in art?
Absolutely. The process and the final product never completely mirror my initial intentions. An extreme example would be the painting “Through The Woods #1″. I started working on this canvas a few days after 9/11. I was determined to portray the evil and horror of that day. The painting started off with two demonic figures made of black smoke with orange, flaming eyes. As the weeks progressed, the painting changed drastically, ultimately becoming a rather peaceful view of figures passing through the woods in the backyard. So the creative process is always mysterious and really kind of magical. Makes you feel like there are greater forces at work. Something else guiding your hand.
Is it ever frustrating when trying to deal with that “mystery” and finding you’ve created something else entirely?
Not in the end, but often in the early stages. Fortunately, in most cases, the final product is much more interesting than what I originally set out to do. My first album, Passing Through Alone, was fairly complex from a technical standpoint, but Under The Shadows Of Trees was by far the most difficult and challenging album I’ve recorded to date. The equipment I used on Shadows was also more sophisticated, so my intentions were hindered further due to technical hurdles. The album was somewhat of a departure from what I set out to do, but the end result was far more interesting, richer and mysterious. I’ve experienced similar frustrations with painting. I’ll drive past a landscape or see a shift in the light I want to capture, but then everything changes the moment the paint hits the canvas. Many of those “lost landscapes” are still floating in my head.
As someone who isn’t fully aware of the technical aspect of creating ambient music, how would you describe your approach to a lay person like myself?
My friend is laughing because I just said “by hooking a mic up to an echo box and recording the tea kettle.” Someone has probably done that and I’ve fallen for it! Seriously, I usually start a recording by shouting or whispering into the mic, or banging objects around the bedroom. The only way the music heads into really interesting places is when I record every sound from scratch, and then mutate these sounds with echo and reverb. The after-effects or “trailing off” of the reverb are the elements that interest me the most. Once I have a few sounds I like, they usually evolve into a drone, riff or looping pattern. I know the moment when the music feels right. I slowly build on the piece, adding overdubs and taking other elements away. The process is very similar to painting in this respect. I also need to be hypnotized by the recording, as strange as that may sound, or the music has to evoke a sense of place, the time of day, the weather, images, memories, etc. Otherwise it goes nowhere.
When it comes to this very textural approach, integrating the pop-like elements on your vocal albums seems daunting — like you’re bridging two very distant ends of the music spectrum. You had mentioned in your artist statement regarding A Dark Place that this was the first instance in a great while where lyrics formed alongside the music, but how does the creative element of melody and phrasing composition fit in (especially on your sparser songs)?
I can definitely see how adding pop or song-based elements might seem like a daunting task, but oddly enough, they flow very naturally into the overall ambience. The reason could be because my ambient and pop material sort of developed together, side by side, from the very beginning. The two were much more distinctive years ago, but they have merged closer together over the years. Lyrics are the daunting part. Finding the right words and phrases is extremely tough, especially for a visually-oriented person like me. My aim with words is always simplicity, so the lyrics usually go through several revisions before I whittle things down to the basics. Somehow, the sparser the song, the more natural the melody and phrasing becomes. A good example would be several songs on the Last Light album, especially ‘Still’, or one of my personal favorites, ‘Sunday Evening’.
Do your lyrics end up transforming in surface meaning like you see in your paintings? That is to say, does a song’s content shift into something entirely else upon completion?
Very rarely. In most cases, the music and lyrics evolve together, so they kind of feed off of each other as the song progresses. I think the only time the meaning and content of a song shifted entirely from start to finish was the last track on the new album, ‘The Next World’. This song started off with more optimistic lyrics, and I envisioned a lighter melody, chiming guitars, and a more blissful atmosphere. I wanted the music to evoke memories of driving through Vermont in late October, or swimming alone in a pool on a perfectly clear October day. Some of those lyrics remained, but as time went on, the song took on a much more mournful and reflective character. I think it’s much easier to detect shifts in direction or read into meanings beneath the surface with painting. Maybe the effect is just more immediate with visual mediums.
Looking back, what initially drew you to minimal, textured ambient music?
I first discovered this type of music back in 1984-85. I still remember where I was when I first heard On Land by Brian Eno, listening to the cassette on a walkman in the back of the family car on a rainy spring day. From the moment I heard ‘Lizard Point’, I was in another world, or rather, in my own world. I was transported back to memories from my childhood, sitting in my parent’s backyard, listening to strange, distant sounds echoing through the woods, or the blurred sounds coming from the nature preserve across the street. Around the same time, I saw the film “Birdy” and was captivated by Peter Gabriel’s soundtrack, which I picked up on vinyl the next day. The Private Music label had just launched and I fell in love with Patrick O’Hearn’s Ancient Dreams. Harold Budd and Brian Eno’s The Pearl was another huge discovery, perhaps the most important one. I could go on and on. I think the common thread that lured me to this music was, frankly, that it spoke to my soul. These musicians were creating worlds I wished I could live in forever. The music offered a window of escape to a better place, gave me moments of inner peace, spoke to my desire for romantic love (The Pearl), evoked the mystery of childhood, solitude, nature and so on. I suppose this line of thinking might come across as New Age-y on the surface, but who cares. I’m glad that even New Age seems to have found some reverence in recent years. Not quite the albatross it used to be.
Is there any other style which evokes this sort of nostalgic, transportative reaction when you listen to it?
My musical tastes are pretty varied… or so I’d like to think. Some of the other things I listen to, even the pop stuff, evokes heavy nostalgia and triggers a variety of feelings, but there’s something unique about the quiet nature, openness, and ambiguity of ambient and other types of experimental music that affects me on a much deeper, intuitive level. The music doesn’t force itself on the listener as much I suppose, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be soft or beautiful either. The releases I mentioned earlier were my first introductions to this kind of music. Everything has become so complex and varied since then, in a good way. I often bring up Kevin Drumm in interviews because I just love his work so much. I wouldn’t even call what he does ambient. His music pretty much defies category. He’s made some very quiet albums that I usually listen to while I paint. On the other hand, he’s also made some very loud, grating and discordant pieces that I enjoy as well. Listening to his music is stimulating and nostalgic in a different way. I’m transported to a different place entirely.
Is that how you want your music to embrace the listener — without force?
That really depends on the album and the definition of force. If force means an assault on the senses, then I certainly don’t want to club people over the head with my music, although that has its merits too. I don’t like quoting people, but I think Eno’s definition of ambient was that it could be listened to as well as ignored, like “sonic wallpaper”. I hope that my instrumental work doesn’t fall into the later category too often, but if some of what I do acts in a passive way, and helps people unwind or tune-out from the madness of everyday life, then that’s not an entirely bad thing either. Ultimately, I hope that my music engages my listeners intuitively, allowing them to crawl into their own worlds, triggering their imaginations, evoking memories, and a sense of time and place. That’s where I’d often like to be.