Nikolaj Vonsild, Musician
(When Saints Go Machine and Cancer)
Words by Nikolaj Hansson. Illustration by Sine Jensen.
He opened Orange Stage at Roskilde Festival with When Saints Go Machine. He won the P3 Award (Main award given by the Danish Broadcasting Corporation). He just released a mini-album from his latest project, Cancer, made in collaboration with Kristian Finne of Chorus Grant. Needless to say, he's a busy guy. But if you ask him, he hasn't had his breakthrough yet. We met with the Danish singer for a chat about misery, the responsibilities that comes with being an artist and his opinion on Copenhagen.
What goes through your mind when you’re on stage performing?
It depends both on the song but also how long it’s been since I wrote it. When you’re writing and producing something, every song ends in its own circular structure. All songs have something unique to them that you appreciate. If it weren’t for that, they wouldn’t have been released. But some are really important. From there on out, it evolves into a dynamic motion; from the concert’s beginning to its end, there are discharges of energy in different volumes, which constitutes the entire concert at its length. To me, it’s important to look at how music at some points can be highly energetic and, at others, at a vey low speed. It’s a curve that you also follow physically.
Your father passed a few years ago. Has that changed your perspective and approach to life?
It leaves a void that’ll always be there. At that time when it happened, I had to handle something that was so much bigger and serious than anything else. You’re filled with an extreme, absurd energy when people pass away. You can go through anything, even though you’re completely broken. But that energy also disappears at some point.
You need to figure out how to deal with people passing away and that, even though sorrow can seem irrelevant, something has to happen.
I wouldn’t say that losing someone is a learning process but you go through things that’ll change you. Your work becomes more important. I also think it became easier for me to share the experience in some way rather than just being happy and forthcoming all the time.
What does Copenhagen mean to you?
I had a feeling that Copenhagen was the most conform place of all; everything was nice and structured while people became absurdly happy during the summer. It seemed like a facade to me. Now, I love the city. It might be because I’ve gotten older, though. I would’ve wished that I had been out of the city for longer periods of time. There’s something exotic and foreign about it when people go home to the place they come from for holidays and such. You have a space somewhere, where you feel at home home as well. Copenhagen is that place to me, but the space never presents itself here. But I like that the city isn’t bigger and all the people you meet here. I don’t think I’d ever be able to live in a place where you couldn’t ride your bike around the city and arrive at the waterfront within ten minutes.
Can the predominant gender roles of society be broken through music?
I guess so but people will always have their idea on whether something is masculine or feminine. It’s sort of indoctrination. I’ve been raised in a family, where those patterns were broken and I think they’re meant to be just that. They don’t bear any significance. Music shouldn’t be based off of your gender. Whether or not you get booked for a concert shouldn’t depend on which sex you are.
Are you ever afraid that you will fade out?
I think I’ve always been in one way or another. It’s about being scared that too much time will pass without releasing any music and then not knowing how to make music. Even though you’re not fully aware of what you’re doing, you start with an idea and become surprised a bunch of times along the way. You follow a path from the defining idea to its completion, where it starts to appear meaningful. If too much time has passed, I’m afraid that I’ll backslide. I’ve always preferred to move forward. There’s nothing exciting about standing still. Things should always be in motion. It’s also because music is what I do for a living, so I feel lazy, if I’m not working in one way or another. If I grew tired from making music, I’d panic on what to do. I’m not afraid of running out of ideas. You don’t need ideas to make music. Just start something and ideas will evolve from that.
Do you find that you have a responsibility to yourself with regards to making music?
I’ve never looked at it that way. I think I have a responsible to be honest in my work. I value that now more than ever.
That being said, music doesn’t have to be honest. But I find it to be essential when it comes to my own work, that there’s certain honesty to it, whether it’s the sound, the lyrics or whatever. Not that it’s in the back of my mind all the time, but I think of something along those lines when it comes to what the strengths of my work may be. I’m not good at making simple dance hits. I’ve never been. But for that reason, it might be exciting to do. That’s just not the direction I’m headed these days.
Do you refer to elements outside of music when working?
I get a lot from my own experiences and situations that I’ve been in, different pictures that are given to you along the way. I might be working on something and out of the blue, something occurs that means something particular to you. It might be something that happens, it might just be a feeling you have. You’re working on something and something occurs that brings with it a metaphor or just the given feeling that you’re waiting to depict. I try to see some things that don’t reflect my current state of mind. If I’m in a good mood, I can comprehend to see or read something quite dark. It’s hard for me to do that if I’m in a bad mood. I think it’s an annoying element to dwell by misery. It might help some, but to me, it doesn’t make sense going from solely thinking about it to then also reading about it and staring at it. It’s too much. It’s easier to see beauty eroding from something dark and misfortuned rather than reading the tourist booklet on why you should go to Greece on holiday, where everything is depicted in an exotic terminology.
Your most recent project, made in collaboration with Kristian Finne, is entitled Cancer. Do you find it important to talk about death with others?
It’s important to share, not only death, but also misery with others, as you would do with happiness. We have troubles doing so, especially in our part of the world. We’ve distanced ourselves so much from death and misery that we’ve become afraid to talk about it and don’t have anyone to do that with either. You see people living on the street who are sick and unwell, but people find it difficult to interfere, unless it’s someone who falls off of their bike. I’m not saying that I’m better than anyone else; I have a hard time interfering as well. We just haven’t learned how to cope with misery. When horrible things happen, a vacuum appears where people are open, kind and helpful. But it disappears again. That’s why I find it important to be able to communicate it. If not, people drift apart. I don’t want to upset anyone; I just believe that just as we seek happiness in joy, we have to seek happiness in sorrow. A life is good if it’s equal parts joy and sorrow. If not, we become distraught. In the case of my family and I, that thing was cancer. It’s something that you have to deal with and talk about. In some way, that has been positive so far.
When Saints Go Machine became a well-established name in Denmark relatively fast. Was it important for that to happen in an early stage of your life?
I think you’ll always feel late. It’s hard to be early at things in your life. You can be early for an appointment but not for the things happening to you. It’s hard to go back and analyse the things that happened to us (When Saints Go Machine). They just happened. We don’t see ourselves as a band with major breakthrough, I’ve never thought about it that way. We’re just making music. But when you can feel that it means something to others, that’s what’s spectacular. Before that, it was only important to us. It’s important not to forget that. It’s a gift that you’ve made something, which people can use in their lives.
Are there any similarities between writing songs and writing a diary?
Sometimes, yes. But it’s not like I write what I’ve been doing all day. But if it’s something that takes time to describe and must be observed from a wide range of viewpoints, the textual universe can appear abstract to others, while, to me, it’s pretty linear. It’s the way I see things. Then there are other times where I’ve wanted to remember the exact time that I started to write the song or where we ended the production of that song. At this point, where inputs have appeared which are irrelevant to the lyrics but, to me, are important. It might be a sound from the street that I recorded or something that I experienced at that given moment, which takes my thoughts back to that time. It’s not the recipe for a pop single but it’s the recipe to offer the song a life that you can use for something ten years into the future. You don’t want to listen to it just as you’ve finished the song but it should bear importance after longer periods of time have passed.
How important is the visual aspect of music to you?
It’s very important. However, the visual aspect also consists of depictions and portrayals. My lyrics have a lot of pictures in them from where I can get the idea for a cover or a video based off of the stills I get from music. It could be a little weird film or something along those lines. But since you have the music as a tool of storytelling, you’re not limited to a linear depiction, something that I’m quite poor at as well. But that’s what music can do.
What’s most important in the life of Nikolaj Vonsild these days?
The only thing that’s always there is music. No matter whom I’m with, the music is always present in some way or another. It’s what I always return to. It’s what I’ve known for the longest time. I’m in a place now, trying to figure out if I can create some other routines for myself. Thinking about music all the time might be fun now, but it’s hard to sustain a single daily rhythm throughout your life. It might be a life project for me to find a hobby. But making music and trying to be a decent person. I think that’s what’s most important to me.