By Carl Begai
Talking to musicians / artists about the creative process is what this journalist tour-of-duty is all about. Actually being part of the creative process offers a new and valuable perspective of the time and energy spent on bringing the music from vision to the studio. Since 2004 I’ve played a small role in helping to shape the lyrics for the German / Norwegian folk metal band, Midnattsol, an ongoing collaboration that forces me to dig deeper each time vocalist Carmen Elise Espenæs asks for my feedback.
For the record, I couldn’t write a song to save my or anybody else’s life. When I was first approached by ex-Midnattsol guitarist / co-founder Christian Hector about proof-reading lyrics for their debut, Where Twilight Dwells, I took on the task not really expecting to do anything more than offer suggestions on using correct tenses and how to improve grammatical structure. In actual fact it became an interesting exchange of ideas with Carmen who, at that point, was very much in a learning-by-doing phase as a singer / songwriter.
Three albums in and Carmen has found her stride. In truth she doesn’t need my help anymore, but I was happy to offer it when she was finalizing the lyrics for the new album, The Metamorphosis Melody. I was pleasantly surprised – and more than a bit impressed – to find myself challenged by Carmen’s ideas rather than being met with grammatical errors, resulting in a full week of chaos and comedy as we bashed her lyrics into shape.
Following is our behind-the-scenes look at Carmen’s work on The Metamorphosis Melody, with me playing her soundboard and the voice of sporadic reason.
(And if any of this seems self-serving or narcissistic, it is. If you can’t be proud of your own accomplishments there’s no reason why anyone else should treat them seriously :-)…)
CB: When you were writing lyrics and melodies for The Metamorphosis Melody, did you find it easier to compose compared to the previous albums now that you have more experience working in music and speaking English?
Carmen: “I don’t have any problems coming up with ideas for songs. I have lots of them, and there are always parts of lyrics lying around because I’ll be doing something and an idea will often just come to me, so I have to write it down. This time I had new requirements for myself as a songwriter, and I had the eagerness to improve. I thought the music was great, so the lyrics had to be the best Midnattsol has ever had. The ideas were there, but I think it was such a great learning process having you to help me and inspire me to bring the language to a higher level. You contributed to that in a big way.”
CB: The thing about your lyrics this time was that you didn’t really need me anymore. I found that kind of funny, and I remember saying that a few times. They were almost perfect in most cases.
Carmen: “Thanks, but it was a motivational thing to hear what you thought about them. I know that you’ll tell me honestly what you think, so I didn’t have to wonder if something was okay or not, or maybe too cliché. I’m very scared of clichés, I hate them, and I know a lot of metal fans do, too (laughs).”
CB: I remember having a few conversations where you suggested saying certain lines or verses a number of different ways, ‘…but I need a word for this…,’ and I’d be sitting there thinking ‘Jesus Christ, this Norwegian chick is challenging me in my own language (laughs).’ We’d talk at night, you’d give me the idea or theme and I had to come up with a word or phrase, so it was ‘Call me in the morning, I’ll have something for you. I hope.’”
Carmen: “(Laughs) I think one of the coolest ideas was ‘A Poet’s Prayer’ (inspired by Christina Rossetti’s poem ‘Hurt No Living Thing’) as the song title. Trying to find the right title for the song was so difficult, and that just fit the moment you said it.”
CB: It’s kind of weird listening to the album and hearing some of the things we worked on. It’s strange to be associated with the songs on that level, but very cool as well.
Carmen: “I was looking forward to hearing what you thought of the album, because I think everyone has a certain impression – maybe like a film in your head – when you hear song lyrics or read a poem. I’m wondering if some of the songs came out the way you expected them to, or what your expectations were. ”
CB: The vocal melodies on the album – on ‘A Poet’s Prayer’ and ‘The Tide’, for example – were a surprise since I didn’t have them when we were working on the lyrics. There are several time where I’m thinking ‘Holy shit, that’s awesome!’ because I didn’t expect the end result. And ‘Kong Valemons Kamp’, the melodies in that song are amazing. The whole song is outstanding. I think it’s my favourite track on the album.
Carmen: “And we had to struggle a bit with the lyrics for that one. I knew what I wanted to write about, I had the basic idea and the direction, but the problem was how to bring it up to a very high level. The music limited us a bit because we had to put the whole fairytale into these short lines. That was a great collaboration. Every time I hear the line ‘golden wreath’ I think of that because I originally had it written ‘golden reth’ and was singing it that way (laughs).”
CB: There’s also the line ‘A sense of you on the bed’ in the same song, and you originally had ‘A scent of you…’ which brought up a whole different mental image.”
Carmen: “(Laughs) I remember coming up with the lines ‘When I wake up…’ because I’d been at the gym for two hours, and I had been listening to the music for the song the entire time. When I got home I still had enough energy to go for a jog in the forest near my place, and by the time I got back I had the melodies and lyrics in my head. That’s when I reached for the phone and called to ask ‘What do you think of this?’ (laughs).”
CB: The one thing that stands out is when you called one morning telling me you were going in to record the vocals for a song – I can’t remember which one – and you wanted to make sure a certain line worked. Then you called back at noon saying ‘It worked out great! Now, I’ve got this new idea for the other song we talked about earlier…’”
Carmen: “Yeah… you have six minutes before I go in to record! (laughs).”
CB: Do you think that pressure to get things done within a limited time affected your performance? From where I was sitting it was a pretty intense exercise for you, and that’s the sort of thing that makes or breaks a singer when you put him or her in the booth to record.
Carmen: “That’s a good question. I don’t really know. I was having a really bad time before I came down to record, so there was some pressure there. One of my family members was ill and we thought she was going to die, so I didn’t have the full concentration I needed to finish the writing. All of us in the band were under pressure to get finished in time, and then this happened. I didn’t know how I was going to get through it, but there was nothing else I could do. I decided I had to think positive and do the best that I could, that maybe it would help rather than just sitting around waiting and wondering what would happen.”
“I tried to keep thinking positive, and between that and the pressure it did help. On the song ‘Forvandlingen’, for example, I wasn’t quite sure how I should sing it. I didn’t know if I should sing it with a powerful voice or pull back because I didn’t have a clear idea; I hadn’t rehearsed it very much. When I was in the studio with Markus (Stock / producer) I just sang what came to mind and he thought it was beautiful. I was very surprised. It was like, ‘Where did that come from?’ because there wasn’t months of rehearsing behind it. It was either going to go to hell or be fantastic (laughs). I think maybe it was that eagerness to make things the best I could plus that pressure that brought it out.”
“Even if the pressure did have an influence on my performance – and I remember saying this to my friends shortly before I left Norway to record – something has happened to my voice. There’s a development there that I can’t explain.”
CB: Your voice on Nordlys was very operatic. It sounds much more natural now, like it did on the first album, only much stronger.
Carmen: “I think my voice sounds different now compared to the previous albums, but there are some of the basic qualities that still exist. So, I think there’s a red line connecting all three even though my voice is different.”
CB: And I have to ask, has your sister (Leaves’ Eyes vocalist Liv Kristine) told you what she thinks of the album yet, and do you believe her?
Carmen: “(Laughs) She thinks it’s great, but we don’t talk that much about music. It’s not out #1 topic of conversation because I don’t see her that much, so when we do get together we talk about Norway and our family more than anything else.”
– all photos of Carmen by Rune Stensøy
– Midnat-Troll self-portrait by Carl Begai
For information on Midnattsol and The Metamorphosis Melody go to their official website here.