Martin Hall interview made by Daniel Jahn for Medienkonverter on September 26, 2008
Q. Last year you released ‘Catalogue’, a compilation featuring your previous work on five records and a DVD. Now you’re releasing ‘Catalyst’, a record that portrays a collection of your most important works containing 20 personally selected singles. Both records prove your versatility ranging from post-punk over pop to classic and avant-garde. Although this wide spectrum, at the beginning, is hardly within anyone’s reach, after a few listens to your music a central theme and an unmistakeable personal style seems to crystallize. Is there a connecting link between all your pieces of work?
When I started making music, I was fascinated and very moved by the way music was able to transmit feelings – from the person making the music to the listener receiving it. This is what art is to me: A matter of transmitting energy. Not just from one person to another, but also from one age to another. Music conveys an inner world, gives you access to places in yourself you might never have been before. I’m saying this to stress the fact, that to me this is the great gift of music: Its ability to lift you up, to allow a new sensation, to give entry into a world otherwise clouded and obscured by daily routines.
By this token I’ve never been too concerned with labelling what I’m doing. Some emotional lifts take place in the vast fields of romanticism, other depend on the acid drops of rock music. I don’t, however, listen very much to pop or rock music anymore, but I’ve got no problems whatsoever with a Phil Spector-like arrangement overflowing with violins and horns. I love the greatness of popular music. I make music according to need. You make use of forms in order to translate an essence. I think people who listen to the music I’m making, appreciate this kind of journeying into the unknown, the fact that most of my records are different. They tune into the principle behind the various expressions.
To me music is alchemy, something that’s in a constant state of becoming, something that never ends. In this context the ‘Catalogue’ box represents five doors into the same thing – the pop music, the signature songs, the instrumental works, my collaboration with other electronically inclined musicians and an entirely classical section – whereas the new compilation ‘Catalyst’ focuses on the singles I’ve made during the years … the more easily accessible songs you could say. In Denmark a new generation is beginning to listen to my music, and the singles collection might be an easy first step into an increasingly deepening musical experience. A box consisting of five records and a DVD is a bit too much to begin with for the general listener.
Q. Your last record ‘Facsmile’ is one of my favourites. It sounds like coming to a destination after a long journey, being mature, expressive and yet fragile. For me personally, what’s especially impressing is your vocal interpretation, how your voice seems to be like an instrument fitting perfectly in the songs. How is your relation to your own voice?
First of all, thank you very much for your comments concerning ‘Facsimile’. It’s definitely also one of my own favourite records. I’m very pleased with this record, in the sense that it seemed to capture the essence of my person, at least at the time when I was recording it. In many ways it’s a concentrate of what I’ve been working with ever since the beginning … or at least working towards. It is, as you said, a sort of arrival – or homecoming, all depending on your point of view – after a long journey. “From one to zero in a circle of ten” so to speak. It’s a destilate of a musical journey, the concentrate of a long process.
In this manner of speaking my voice is an integral part of the process. It’s the media I work with, my given tool. I’ve had a lot of trouble relating to my own voice during the years, but on this record it simply went into the process as one of its natural ingredients. It’s like poetry, you try to express ideas or states of feelings through the words – the same goes with music. Perfection can be terrible. A lot of my records from the mid-80’s suffered from an almost pathological sense of perfection, but as the American writer Sylvia Plath once said: “Perfection is terrible. It cannot have children”. I really like this phrase. Things have to be genuine rather than perfect. I think that’s one of the things that happened on the ‘Facsimile’ album … that I surrendered to the process rather than constantly being subject to the idea of a perfect product.
Q. As well as records with songs you have published instrumental records, soundtracks and collages. Are there any specific criteria to decide if you work with or without vocals or are those decisions intuitive?
It depends. Sometimes you are approached with a specific request. When I recorded ‘Camille’ (the music I wrote for a Danish theatre production of Alexandre Dumas’ “The Lady of the Camellias”), it was obvious to me that this body of music had to be instrumental. The parts where vocals were needed were performed by the phenomenal mezzo-soprano Andrea Pellegrini, a fantastic singer. In this case, with the theatre play, I embraced someone else’s work, and by that token it had to be voiceless. “Faceless” you could say. Transparent.
In comparison ‘Facsimile’ was a completely different process. This was a personal expression, a poetic display. A soul diary – a set of intimate journals. ‘Facsimile’ was a tale, something that needed to be told … a poetic expression that needed a voice. The writer’s voice. My voice.
Q. You describe yourself as a romantic artist. Your songs are always expressive, but nevertheless they are no kitschy love songs. They posses a special form of melancholy that is more hopeful than lamenting, a kind of optimistic melancholia. Longing is a repeating constant factor in your lyrics. What does melancholia, what does yearning mean to you? How much do your songs reveal of the person Martin Hall?
Well, longing reflects a search for completion – the need to be fulfilled. You yearn for that which you have not yet obtained. Longing is what drives all sensible humans. As living beings, we all want to be fulfilled, in one way or another. I think this is quite a beautiful process, not at all a hopeless project. Personally, I’m quite melancholic by nature, but at the same time I’m very defiant: I’m not going to put up with it. I want to see change, I want to see progress.
The reference to the romantic tradition is also a hint to the zeitgeist of the start-80’s, the period in which I made my artistic debut. In recent years there’s been a lot of talk about the 80’s, but sometimes I get confused about which 80’s we’re referring to – the 1980’ or the 1880’s. There are quite a few parallels: The poetic nerve, the metaphors, the savage seriousness. The romantic tradition wants everything or nothing at all. It places the heart at the centre of existence and demands conviction. It doesn’t want to settle to any kind of mediocrity.
Anyway, when I refer to the romantic, I refer to this kind of fierce longing – to the marriage between tender longing and bold demand. Personally, I think you’ll find the most fitting image of Martin Hall on records such as ‘Facsimile’ or ‘Camille’. Where the motive somehow stays elusive, where the real agenda seems kind of hidden in the details.
Q. Your lyrics do not only mediate emotionality, but also a particular set of aesthetics. For example, in one of your songs it is said “Ash and lemon water shining on your lips” which is a quite fascinating metaphor that despite tenderness conveys coolness. Do you draw such literary images deliberately or do such lyrics rise from spontaneous moods?
I don’t think you can distinguish what you’ve become with what you do. I love literature. You’ll probably find reminiscences of a lot of things I read in my lyrics … senses of Marcel Proust, Rainer Maria Rilke and Scott Fitzgerald. Of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Marguerite Duras. These names have inspired me during the years, elevated me, and obviously the shadows of some of these people’s works linger in my writings.
I used to write very personal, very confronting lyrics, but in this regard I have definitely changed direction over the years. One of the greatest compliments you can get as an artist, I think, is when people find sanctuary in your works – when they find room, space to linger for a while. Imagery creates space and space allows growth. Combined with music you’re able to produce a haven, a sanctuary.
When art acts as a catalyst – as something that enables other processes to get activated without losing its own momentum – it’s a magnificent thing. From the ‘Catalogue’ display to the ‘Catalyst’ function so to speak … from the external references to the personal experience.
Q. I once read that you have a tense relation to the music business. I can imagine that your intense way of working and your multifarious output is hardly to combine with all those absurdities of the today’s music market. How do you succeed in doing these splits?
The music industry is a grocery shop, everyone knows that, something that depends on wages and profits. Sometimes the machinery of a major company can be helpful, at other times completely destructive – you have to stay focussed on the project you’re working with. I’m not really into the “labelling thing”, the idea of the mainstream versus the alternative. I think a lot of the distinction being made between the mainstream and the independent scene is an illusion, something necessary to give people a sense of individual identity. So-called “rebellion” is the market economy’s biggest driving factor, so in many ways the term “alternative” has become just another label for selling people new goods. Being in opposition becomes a design-identity that gives the average consumer the feeling of being hip and trendy etc. The show goes on.
However, if your musical aim is strong, pure, then this will shine though no matter what circumstances you’re operating in. In the end it’s all about control – about personal focus. I want things to work. You do one thing here, another thing there. As an example, during the 90’s I was as an active songwriter for several major artists which enabled me to finance some of my own, much more difficult and non-commercial works later. I financed the writing of my two-volume novel ‘The Last Romantic’, a process that took me almost five years to complete, with the money I had made on writing songs for other people.
As I’ve already said a few times, it all comes down to staying focused. In the mid-90’s Sony “couldn’t hear the single” when I presented them to the first sketches of one on my most critically acclaimed records ever, ‘Random Hold’ (released in Denmark in 1996, in Germany 1997). I then raised the funds myself and recorded one of my best albums ever.
Q. In your home country, Denmark, you already seem to be some kind of icon who is accepted and respected by mass media as well as by the independent scene. Do you feel honoured in this position, or is this of no importance to you?
I appreciate the recognition of integrity, but it’s nothing to be thankful about. I do what I do, and the consequences are what they are.
Q. The end of your collection ‘Catalyst’ is the current single ‘Delirious’, a twisting and euphoric pop song. Is this pop-appeal the beginning of a new artistic chapter?
No, not really. As a matter of fact it might be the end to that particular chapter in my career, the one called “pop music”. I don’t know. The song is a couple of years old, but it just seemed to fit the singles collection. The collaboration with Danish newcomers Marybell Katastrophy also worked out incredibly well, so there it was, a new single – something that my coming album (scheduled for release in February 2009) is completely devoid of.