No Stone Unturned: An Interview with Nils Bech
Andrew Darley spoke with Nils Bech about his new album, One Year, and the startling honesty it contains.
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For his third record, Nils Bech embarked on writing music about the first year together with his partner. Following the accomplishment of his Look Inside record and performance pieces, his new work delves further into his blend of house and classical music. One Year is written based on the emotional “highlights” of that first year, divided into two sections ‘Before’ and ‘After’. The record contains lyrics on both the elation a relationship can bring us and the deepest insecurities it makes us face up to; capturing the momentum and deep impact universal feelings, such as shame and jealousy, can toll on us.
Andrew Darley talks with Nils about the courage it took to make this new record and how he feels that he is at his best when he is most honest.
One Year describes the first year of a relationship in two parts, ‘Before’ and ‘After’. The former explores the excitement and self-consciousness of finding love and the second is about the anxieties that having an intimate relationship can trigger in us. Did you feel you were putting yourself and your relationship under a microscope for this album?
I wouldn’t say a microscope; but something pretty close. I drew out the big lines from the first year of the relationship, but only from my point of view. I think it’s okay for me to put myself out there, that’s what I do as a singer, writing songs from my own life. But my boyfriend never signed up for a public diary.
One of your most recent projects was your performance piece for Look Inside. It incorporated voice, movement, music and text and you held these in museums and galleries around the world. Did you learn anything from this piece that you wanted to bring forward or explore more with this album?
I realised that I am at my happiest as a performer when I am being completely honest – when I am open about who I am and what I feel. I feel so much stronger in doing that, than putting on an act.
Have you always seen music and dance sitting comfortably with contemporary art?
I never went to art school and ended up in the art scene partly because I have a lot of friends who are artists, who went to art school, and because I have my own conceptual thoughts about how to perform. So I don’t know that much about contemporary art, dance or even music actually.
The music on One Year is playful in its use of silence and space. There are moments of white noise, moments of stillness, sampling such as the sound of brushing your teeth, which are intertwined with your blend of electronic pop. In what way did you write, record and produce this album?
I have always been drawn to both house music and contemporary music, so on my previous album, Look Inside, I wanted to explore the combination of these two genres, but within a pop context. For that album, I ended up working with the house duo Ost & Kjex and the composers Ole-Henrik Moe and Julian Skar. After Look Inside, I still felt that there was more to explore in this mash-up, so I asked them to join me again for One Year.
When I realized that I wanted to make an album about the first year in my relationship I sat down and wrote down all the emotional ‘highlights’. I wanted to talk about all of the things that are difficult to address to other people, even to your partner. So I wrote ‘Shame’, ‘Jealousy’, ‘I Punish You’ and so on. Then I contacted the composers and the house duo asking them for a beat, a sound, a chain of chords and from that I started writing the songs. I met them in the studios and we played with different ideas and sounds; sometimes they worked with the instrumental parts without me and sent it to me. I also sent them examples of music I liked or found interesting.
The lyrics examine the ugly side of relationships in an honest way; anxiety, paranoia, jealousy, resentment. You don’t sugarcoat them and there’s a directness as though you’re talking to the person in mind. Was making this album an intense experience for you?
It has been extremely difficult, but not because of the emotions in the songs. Those emotions I had worked through already. What was intense and difficult was to work with so many different composers, producers and musicians, and to make it all come together. At the end of the recording I really wished I played in a band.
I’d like to ask you about particular songs on the album. ‘Shame’ questions and imagines how your partner thinks about your performances and creativity. I found it quite brave to be a musician and sing about your uncertainties, almost disbelief, about yourself as an artist. Are you generally concerned about how people respond to your work?
Thank you. For me singing has always been about believing in what I am singing. And I realised when I started my solo-project that for me that meant making songs about emotions that I found difficult to deal with. I find the part where I have to admit to myself what’s troubling me the most difficult part, then when I write the song I have already in a way moved on and accepted the emotion. I’m not that concerned about how people react to my albums, much more to how they respond to me as a performer. I found it extremely personal and then also emotional to sing, so I push myself as far as possible when it comes to going back to the emotion in the song, and it’s only until recently that I don’t feel ashamed about how I present myself on stage.
Photograph © Tove Sivertsen
‘That Girl’ stood out for me too as it exposes your feelings about your partner meeting an old female lover, especially the line “I’ve been through this before and it broke my heart”. Do you think this album may express certain feelings that we typically are afraid or refuse to admit?
Yes, my last album was about a break up, and heartache is in a way an easy emotion to put out there. On One Year, I definitely wanted to sing about emotions that aren’t that easy to talk about. For example, that your boyfriend is friends with his ex-female lover. I’ve dated someone who went back to his girlfriend when I was in my mid 20’s and it broke my heart as I sing in the song. I have never been sexually attracted to girls, and it was very difficult for him to come out – he had a Christian upbringing. So for me this ex lover represented a choice: If you can be turned on by women, why the hell do you want to be with me? And that says a lot about how strongly I felt about being gay.
Has the person that this album is about heard it? What was his reaction?
Yes he has, we are still together and it’s going really well! When I told him that I wanted to make an album about the first year in our relationship, we both agreed that it should only be told from my side. It would be terribly wrong if I made a lot of accusations towards him, such as “you said this and you did that and that why I ended up saying and doing this and that“. I also showed him all of the lyrics before I recorded them. I understand why I’ve made this album. He thinks the album is great and that’s extremely important to me.
Going back to your beginning, I read that you started performing at a very young age in a Salvation Army base and would put on shows for your grandmother and her friends. Have you always had a desire or need to perform?
Yes, as a kid constantly. My happiest childhood memory is when I played in Oliver Twist.
In your interview with Butt Magazine, you mentioned how the gay scene in Oslo was very small with only two bars. What was your experience of growing up gay? Did you feel like an outsider where you grew up?
Yes, I did. I didn’t even grow up in Oslo. I’m from a small village one and a half hours from Oslo. I got bullied a lot for being feminine.
Did you ever have any reservations about becoming an artist? Or ever contemplate getting a typical job or stay in education?
No, I feel that I never had a choice, I’ve always known that I have to sing. But when I realised in my early twenties that I didn’t want to make classical music it took me many years to figure out what kind of a singer and musician I wanted to be.
The album cover is an image of you with your face painted in blue, almost like a tribe-person or in an animalistic way. Can you expand on it’s significance, as I know it follows through into the video for ‘I Punish You’?
The mask is painted by one of my closest friends, the artist Ida Ekblad, and for me it represents how I often felt during the period the album is about. I thought I had to act in a certain way for him to love me, so I tried to put on a mask. Yet every time I got drunk the truth came out in anger.
Acknowledging the layers to your music and performances, would you say that you have a close eye to detail and need to be in control?
In a way, but I also like to be challenged, to step out of my comfort zone. That’s why I work with musicians and artist that are doing things I really like, but at the same time is challenging to me. For example I’ve worked with the house duo Ost & Kjex and the modern composers Julian Skar and Ole-Henrik Moe, but I don’t listen to house music or contemporary music.
With each album and project you’ve made, have you ever felt overwhelmed by a concept or as though a project has become something bigger than you?
Yes, this album started as a commissioned piece for the contemporary music festival Ultima. When I make an album the deadlines get changed all the time, but on this piece the date was set and I knew there where no way back. I found it very stressful to be creative under a deadline.
Photographs © Tove Sivertsen / Anne Valstad Erichsen
Since your approach is multi-faceted and diverse in combining art, music and dance; has there been any people you look to for assurance about following your own artistic path?
I look to my closest friends and my boyfriend.
There’s a theme running through the album of how we hurt the ones we love out of a fear of rejection or possible future pain. Have you thought about why we do that as people?
I think past experience turns into anger or defence when you are afraid of being hurt. For example, jealousy is an emotion that often is related to another emotion or a past experience, and that you often project without meaning to be unkind or speak unkindly of someone.
What’s the thing that excites you most about this album and its release?
That I feel stronger than I did before making the album. It’s strange maybe, but when I’m open about it, I always have been ashamed of being a feminine man – but I don’t feel that ashamed any more. I have always been attracted by all kinds of men, but because of the bullying in my childhood I never thought it was ok for me to be a feminine man, or it was like my intellect knew it, but my heart didn’t believe it.
One Year is out now through Fysisk Format. For more information and news about Nils Bech, visit his official website here.