Our in-depth interview with Bardi Johannsson

Our in-depth interview with Bardi Johannsson. The multifaceted artist talked with us about many of his projects

Bardi Johannsson is one of those artists who is in constant motion. From film scores to television commercials, theatrical productions to concerts with orchestras, his creative output is prodigious. Johannsson has worked with Keren Ann on their joint project Lady & Bird, and with Jean-Benoît Dunckel of Air on Starwalker. He wrote the score for the De toutes nos forces directed by Nils Tavernier, son of Bertrand. He wrote the score for the controversial re-release of Haxan, a Swedish film. He created music for three productions at National Theatre of Iceland and Centre Dramatique d’Orleans in France, and released a compilation album of his work for other media under the title Selected Film & Theater Works Of Bardi Johannsson. But his first band was Bang Gang. It’s been 7 years since the last album under that name, but he is finally ready to release the latest offering. With the evocative title of The Wolves Are Whispering, the album pulls you on a journey of moody intensity, alternately sad and happy. The music has the effect of sweeping you away into an unexpectedly emotional world. Impossible to listen to without feeling the wild and wide horizons of sound soak into your very being, The Wolves Are Whispering leaves the listener somewhat altered, the original mood dissolved in the careful plotting and construction of composition. Beautiful, cinematic, and yet weirdly poppy, Bardi Johannsson has created another atmospheric dreamscape.
Alice Severin was able to speak to the soft-spoken musician/composer/filmmaker/television personality/clothes designer about his latest project and music as a visual and physical experience.

NT: How are you? And where are you?

Bardi: Good. I’m in Iceland, in my home.

NT: How is the weather?

Bardi: It’s becoming summer. It was snowing maybe 10 days ago. And today we had a few snow
flurries. It’s like 7 degrees C.

NT: Is that usual for this time of year?

Bardi: It’s a little bit colder now than usual.

NT: The weather everywhere is going a bit crazy.

Bardi: I think there’s something called global warming, and it’s not very nice to us here.

NT: I wanted to ask you about the cover of your second album, Something Wrong. It’s such a beautiful, striking image. Where was it taken?

Bardi: Thank you. The picture was taken close to my grandmother’s house. The neighbors were a little bit disturbed during the shoot.

NT: Why?

Bardi: Because I think they had never seen a nude woman before.

NT: It looks so natural in the picture.

Bardi: Well, it is very natural. There’s nothing I think that they haven’t seen at the swimming pools.

NT: Did you used to go up there a lot?

Bardi: Yeah, I spent a lot of time there as a child, and also in this area of Iceland, it’s in the southwest, near Snæfellsjökull, which is the glacier Jules Verne used in the story Journey to the Center of the Earth.

NT: It’s been a very long break between Bang Gang records. What made you feel it was time to resume work on this particular project?

Bardi: Basically, when I finished the other album, I was planning to do another one quite quickly afterwards. I was playing – me and Keren Ann played a concert with the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra, where we played a few songs of mine, and a few songs of hers, and then Lady & Bird songs. And this concert was released on EMI, under the name of Lady & Bird, so suddenly we had that release. And we also performed a concert with an orchestra in Paris. And then I ended up producing other artists, did a few film scores. I started the project with JB from Air, the EP, and we have an album coming out.

NT: Great – a new album from Starwalker! When is that going to come out?

Bardi: In November.

NT: So you’ve been very busy.

Bardi: Each time I was going to sit down and finish the album, something else came up. I worked on it a few days here and there, and then it was a few months until I could sit down and listen to all the demos that I had made, and decide which songs I wanted to finish. Then in the last few months I worked on completing them.

NT: How did you pick which songs you wanted to finish?

Bardi: I picked the songs that I liked more (laughing), and I had a lot of unfinished ideas, also. And I went through all the demo ideas that I had, and I decided I was going to wake up in the morning and listen to some ideas, and if I didn’t feel like working on them on that day, it was not worth finishing. And then I ended up choosing songs that had some form of variety, but still made sense as an album. I finished about three more songs than are on the album. So basically, that’s how it was. I did a few days in between other projects.

NT: The title is very atmospheric – The Wolves Are Whispering. Why did you choose it?

Bardi: I think it describes the content very well of the record. It’s sort of my most dark album, but at the same time, there are the most happy lyrics that I’ve written. It brings probably the darkest and brightest lyrics, but in general it’s a little more dark than the others. And I thought it was a little bit more cinematic than the others. Even though there’s pop songs in between, there’s like – I didn’t want to be restricted with time limits, I wanted really long songs. And even the long songs are edited. (laughs) So the eight minute song is edited from ten minutes.

NT: Like “We Will Never Get Along”?

Bardi: Yeah. But that’s not an edit, that’s like the whole thing – everything in there. But for the song “Lonely Bird”, I removed two minutes.

NT: And you’re working with Keren Ann on that track, which has a beautiful, really haunting vocal. The two of you have collaborated a lot as Lady & Bird. How do you work together, and what do you think makes it such a good partnership?

Bardi: Well, we met in a bar in Paris, I think in 2000. And a friend of ours told us that we should meet. We met, and we swapped CDs, and we left – it was a very short meeting. (laughs) Then we got in touch by email and we met again. We ended up quite quickly as really close friends. And we’ve been like that ever since. And we always such a pleasure to see her, and most of the time when we meet for work, it’s like the first day is just catching up about life. And then we start working. We also wrote an opera – that’s what we did in between. We wrote it for opera houses in France, and this is now in development to become an animated film.

NT: That’s fantastic.

Bardi: A classic opera. So we’ve always been working. On this track, it’s like the foundation of the opera. I finished all the rest, and she came in with the vocals on top of mine. But I really like how our voices sound together. It sounds like one voice.

NT: It does have this special quality to it. It’s very clear, but layered at the same time.

Bardi: It’s very strange, because people sometimes listen to Lady & Bird songs, and they don’t realize that our voices are equally loud. (laughs) But there is, when we sing together, something like one voice. Something that we noticed, it’s like the voice of Lady & Bird, so I think this song is called the “Lonely Bird” and I think it is the song most like a Lady & Bird song that we’ve ever had on each other’s albums.

NT: Do you play all the instruments on the album?

Bardi: I don’t play drums, but I program drums. It depends on the song. Like on “We Will Never Get Along” I think I played everything. Then I have a French bass player on some of the songs, and some keyboard players. But I mixed it myself, and I think I played all the guitars.

NT: The guitar sound in “Silent Bite” is really striking.

Bardi: Yeah, I play all the guitars, and some keyboards and some bass.

NT: A lot of the album feels sad, with a certain solemn quality, but there are also songs like “Out of Horizon” has a kind of driving, poppy feel to it, even though the middle section is very dreamy. And then you’ve got the lyrics – “let’s take a ride into the unknown”. Did you consciously think about fitting lyrics and music and a certain landscape for the album?

Bardi: It’s sad, but there is hope in it. (laughs) I put a lot of myself of myself in it. Yes, basically, when I did this album, then I went further in thinking about lyrics, and what they meant. And also like describing – when I write the songs, I start imagining some situation or ambiance, almost like a short film or a movie scene. And then the lyrics are like describing what’s happening. And sometimes the scene is something that I’ve actually been in myself, like a real situation, a little bit like, three or four situations put in one song. Or something that I’ve seen or heard, or whatever. When I write music, it’s really visual in my head when I do it.

NT: You’ve done three short films yourself. How do you approach the visual side, for example the videos that accompany the songs?

Bardi: Basically, what I see visually is going to be too expensive to do. (laughing) Because like I think when I see something, when I write the song, I know exactly what everything looks like in the song, and what is going on. And I put myself, a lot, in the song. And I imagine myself in that situation, or maybe I was in that situation, and I see the surroundings and I see the lighting, and everything. Still, I haven’t made a video that’s exactly how I saw or how I thought about the song. Because when you get a film director involved, then they bring their touch to it. But maybe at some point I will do my videos myself, and then I will try to get as close to what I was seeing as I can.

NT: You’re involved in so many different types of creative output – you’ve done work for films, television. The film De Toutes Nos Forces (The Finishers) was hugely popular in France. And you’ve written music as well to accompany theatre, for plays. You worked on the sound for a play by Ibsen?

Bardi: Yes, the Ibsen piece. I did three plays, two in the National Theatre of Iceland, and one for the National Theatre of Orleans in France.

NT: Do you have different concerns when you’re scoring for live performance as compared to film?

Bardi: Yes. Because I can place speakers. I placed speakers under the seats, so you would feel like you were standing exactly inside the music. I wanted to make it ambient. But I wanted, especially for the Museum of the Sea piece, that I worked on with the National Theatre in Orleans – I was really thinking about making people be inside the music, because they were sitting in the hall. But when I work on music for theatre, I film the rehearsal, and then I work on it.

NT: So it’s a little similar in that respect to a film, except that it must be reproduced live. Have you ever released films of the theatre pieces, with the music?

Bardi: No. Well, one film that I did in France called De Toutes Nos Forces (The Finishers) used part of the Museum of the Sea. And the Museum of the Sea was released on the compilation CD of music from theatre and film.

NT: Do you spend a lot of time in France?

Bardi: Yes, I spent a lot of time there before. But I’ve been spending more and more time here in Iceland. But I spent a lot of time there last year. It depends on what I am doing. When I was recording with JB for the Starwalker album, we spent a lot of time there, because we recorded in his studio, Atlas Studio. And when we were mixing it, I was mixing it here, and he was mixing it in France. I work on the film scores in Iceland. It’s easy to score movies, it’s easier than to work on theatre in different countries. (laughing) Because it’s so easy to score movies with the director on Skype. With the technology, you can watch the movie with the director, like in real time, going over all the scenes and having discussions on the same files, and it’s really easy.

NT: Do you have a studio in your home? Where do you work here?

Bardi: I have a studio really close to my home.

NT: And The Wolves Are Whispering is now due to come out near the end of June.

Bardi: Yes, on the 23rd of June.

NT: Will you be touring? How do you think you’ll stage it? Will there be other musicians?

Bardi: Yeah, I think there will be four or five. I’m actually starting to work on it. I’ve started discussing it with the agent. So I’m looking into touring from September.

NT: Will you be coming over to North America, or will it be mostly in Europe?

Bardi: I’m still looking into the options. I hope. I’ve always liked playing New York and LA. There have always been amazing concerts, especially in New York. So I think I will aim to play there.

NT: That would be amazing.

Bardi: I hope I play in New York. I’m really excited to play the album live actually. I think it’s going to be really fun to play live.

NT: And five albums that inspire you, that you return to.


Master of Puppets – Metallica
Alina – Arvo Pärt – he’s a classical composer, and he made an amazing piece called “Alina”. It’s really ambient and minimalistic, a little bit like a modern Erik Satie.
Transformer – Lou Reed
The Photographer – Philip Glass
Spiritualized – Lazer Guided Melodies
And I want to add one more also –
Sonic Youth – Dirty

Alice Severin


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