Musical Discoveries interviewed Tirill Mohn in her delightful country home in Asker, Norway outside of Oslo on a snowy afternoon in early February. This indepth interview reveals much illustrative detail about the recording of her debut solo album A Dance with the Shadows, and also delves candidly into the spiritual quest that underpins her music. Tirill is a delightful woman with a clear mission, that is, to provide deep, yet accessible music with surprising and challenging instrumentation.
Musical Discoveries: To start things off, tell us a little about your musical influences, and how you came to make your first solo album.
Tirill Mohn: I think they came from my family. My parents didn't actually play any instruments, but we loved to listen to records, and we did that all my childhood, and we listened to The Beatles, Pink Floyd, things like that, so music was a natural thing in my home. Then I went to the Rudolf Schteiner school, which taught music, theatre and art, so I had to start to play violin in second grade, and another instrument in third grade, I had to play the flute.
Is violin your main instrument?
I don't have any main instrument anymore. I use it for my arrangements and recording, but for a while the guitar was my main instrument, and this is the instrument I make my songs on, though sometimes I use the keyboard.
So what other artists have influenced you?
Many. At the age of thirteen, my brother introduced me to Progressive Rock, and I heard Jethro Tull, Genesis, Gentle Giant and it became my favourite type of music. Later I listened to medieval music and folk music. And this has been as important to the style I play now, as well as classical music. I played classical guitar and classical violin for many years, and I think you can also hear that in the recordings.
Most people who read this are most likely to have heard of you through your membership of White Willow. How did that come about?
It was coincidence. My boyfriend at the time was the keyboardist in the band, they wanted a violinist and he suggested me. I started pretty early in '92 or '93 and joined for many years. I quit because I didn't feel that my violin playing could contribute to the band's style anymore, as I'm not a "fast" violinist, and I also wished to do my own things.
So on to your album, A Dance with the Shadows, then. It's obviously taken a long time to write and record-–the first song was written in 1996-–why has it happened that way?
It's to do with my way of working when I write songs, because when I start something I always finish it, and that sometimes takes a long time, sometimes a month or a year, but I don't have a lot of songs that never became anything at all.
Was it, as it turned out, your original intention to play as many of the instruments as possible?
Yes. When I did the original demos, I played all the instruments myself because I knew what I wanted. When I did the actual recordings for the album, I did as much as I could myself, then I asked others to join.
All the songs sound like they could be played just on nylon-stringed guitar and still sound great.
Well, most started out with me on the sofa singing and playing, but I always felt they were missing something, strings here, percussion there, they were always complete in my head. I don't think I would like to hear them played with just guitar. But I could be wrong!
You sing ten out of the eleven songs on the album, was that always your intention?
Yes. I found during the recording that I could do certain types of singing. I could do the low parts and the screaming, but in the middle, where Sylvia [Erichsen, lead singer with White Willow, who sings of the song "Vendela"] is doing the job, I am not so good – yet!
Ah, so you have ambitions!
Yes, I am working on the voice.
Well, I think in the context of the album it is great. Tell me a little about some of the other musicians on the album. Some will be familiar to White Willow fans, some won't.
Ketil Vestrum Enarsen is on flute. He delivers a very strong performance, but very different from his work on White Willow's Sacrament album, for instance.
I think he is a musician who will try to fit in with the style of the artist he is playing with. He does that in White Willow, and he did that with me – and it's always perfect.
Were his parts heavily arranged or did he play what he felt?
We had a couple of songs where it was arranged what he should play, but mainly he was just improvising. Sometimes he had the melody which he developed by improvising.
Sylvia, of course, is very effective on the song she performs, but tell me a bit about some of the other musicians that will be less familiar. Like Odd Hakon Solbakken, who sings on two songs?
He was in my class at the music school I went to. I thought he could use his voice in my style in a very good way. I just chose the musicians that I felt could join the atmosphere of the album.
And the accordion player, Espen Leite, is very impressive.
Yes, he is a very good musician. I found him, like a number of musicians through my cello player, Sigrun Eng.
And a bouzouki player!
Yes, I wanted a bouzouki player and I knew that there was a great one in a Greek restaurant across the street from the studio we were recording in, in central Oslo, so I went and asked him, and he came and he played and he left again. But that's the way I work; I use what I have around me.
Tell me about your producer Oystein Vesaas, what influence did he have on the recording?
He is interested in helping the artist go in his or her own direction. He is great in understanding what people want to do. We produced it together; it was a real team effort.
The one thing that stands out, though, is the quality of the sound. You must be pleased with that.
Yes I am. We spent about 400 hours in the studio getting it like that! But I'm very pleased now.
There's a very consistent mood on the album. Was that something you were specifically looking for?
That was the mood inside me. It was very clear as a feeling, but not as music until it is created, so I was always trying to translate that feeling into music. I knew what I wanted to achieve, but not always what I needed to get there in the arrangements.
Would you be able to describe that mood?
I think if I could describe it in words, I wouldn't need to write the song, so I think the song has become the mood in the best kind of way. You could say it's a longing for something you can't touch or feel with your hands, or see, but just feel in side you. I find that feeling a lot when I am out in nature by myself, and I think that's why so many of my songs have imagery from nature.
So much music from the Scandinavian Countries, and particularly from Norway, has a melancholic feel to it. Why do you think that is?
I think the Norwegians may be a melancholic people. They are longing for something, I don't know why, but they are a quiet people. Maybe it's something to do with the long winters, but they look inwards rather than out. My boyfriend is Greek, and they are totally different, they go out, they are more social. Norwegians are longing, but they don't know what for. They just sit at home and write songs about it instead! Musicians in Norway seem to like Nick Drake, who has inspired me a lot, and he also has that same air of melancholy. Norwegians also like Black Metal, of course.
Getting back to the album specifically, I was fascinated by the arrangements. Though there is a very consistent mood on the album, the arrangements are incredibly varied. Was that intentional, or did you just do whatever suited the song?
Whatever suited the song. Some of the songs, like the ones at the end of the record did not need so much arranging, they were walking by themselves, and I knew that when I was writing them, but other songs like "Vendela", which is the longest and most complex song, would always need a lot of arrangement.
The songs at the end of the album do sound lighter, more playful, whereas the songs up to "Vendela" are much denser and darker, did you place those songs at the end deliberately?
Yes I did. And these were also the songs I wrote most recently, whereas "Vendela" and "Nights are Colder" are darker songs that I wrote at a time when I had more darkness in my mind.
"Vendela" sounds like the centrepiece of the album.
Yes, the album builds up to that point then "falls down" after it, so in a sense it is the centre of the album.
There is a lot of tension in that song. The male vocal almost sounds strangulated, whereas when Sylvia sings in there is a kind of release. Have I got that right?
It's true; it's the result of the feeling behind the song, because it's the story of a love that is difficult. The woman in the song is the one that has the pain, but she is relieving that pain by going into the forest and singing it out, whereas the man feels her pain but doesn't know what to do about it.
Tell me a bit more about the lyrical content. Do you find it easy to write in English?
It was natural to. I would like to write in Norwegian, but I find it very hard. My Oslo dialect isn't old, it doesn't have any history, and even when I talk I don't feel it has roots, and Norwegian used to be connected to the Old Icelandic language. Now we have a strong Danish influence in our language. The lyrics themselves describe an inner atmosphere, one that is also described by the percussion, say. Everything comes together. I never have a finished lyric and then write the song, they develop together, until the song is finished.
What things, lyrically, are you particularly interested in exploring?
I write about things that I am wondering about, and when I have finished the song I sometimes find that the wondering has also ended. Some of the things are quite religious, particularly the difference between living a material life and trying to live a spiritual life, and where I can fit between them. For me this is where nature comes in, because it is where I can get to the spiritual place I am longing for.
What do you mean by a spiritual life, in your context?
This is what I am trying to find out. It may be a place where you can live in balance between a material life and a longing for God. Then, perhaps the longing is less. It's not about organised religion; it's more to do with questions about the world.
Do you think being in White Willow has had a particular influence on you?
Yes. Because it taught me how to be in a band, and also how different instruments should be arranged. Regardless of whether my music sounds like White Willow, I learned a lot about "sound" by being there.
What have you been doing since you left White Willow, just before the recording of their Sacrament album?
I went to music school for two years, learning drums and also guitar and vocals, and at that time I started to develop the songs to a point where I could start to make a record. I was also working to earn money, because I paid for the cost of the recording myself. That's why it took a long time, because I had to earn the money first!
The song "Gold of morning" has a lovely folk tune at the end of the piece. Is it traditional, or is it yours?
It sounds very traditional, but it's my tune. When I hear it, though, I can feel that it comes from somewhere else, and it came very easily to me. It sounds like a folk song from Ireland. I didn't steal it!
Is there one song, which, you feel sums up the whole album?
It's difficult to choose one song because all of them are so compact within themselves. I think a CD should have two or three really strong pieces and then other songs to frame them, and I haven't done that, which I think is a weakness.
Yes, but it's also a good thing, isn't it. As it's obviously a labour of love, you have eleven strong songs. There's no filler. I also think it's an album that sets a mood, so I think you have to listen to the whole thing. Tell me though, why did you put the song "Nights are Colder" first on the album?
It's dark, but it's not the darkest one. "Heavy Heaves" and "Vendela" are the darkest, but I thought it was partway between the really dark songs and he lighter ones. Also, it's an easy melody; it's easy to get into. It's an easy start for the listener.
The songs are very melodic, but with the exception of a few songs, like "Winter Roses" they don't have a traditional chorus. Was that intentional?
Yes. I think you can do a lot with music both with the sound and the way you build up the song, that wouldn't be seen as traditional, but which you would recognise as natural. I'm not using a traditional drum set, but I am using percussion, and I'm also using instruments that people would recognise but which are not so usual. So I will always try to produce music that people will recognise with their hearts, but which they wont have heard before.
The use of percussion interests me. There's something keeping time throughout the album, but no kit drums. Are kit drums something you would use on future albums?
Yes, and I would have on this album if I had had the courage to continue rather than decide it was finished. I think a song like "Vendela" could have kit drums and the percussion, and it would be better.
Would you prefer listeners to listen very intently to the album, or would you prefer them to let the mood wash over them?
I think people will listen very differently to it, and I hope anyone could find something in it. A musician might think, "Here are some arrangements done in an unusual way", and someone else might think, "That's an easy melody". People who are interested in strange instruments or are tired of traditional rock and roll will also find something there. There are so many more things to do with music than use the traditional band set up, you don't need to take it so far that you scare people.
What do you feel the market for the album is?
I always felt that I was writing for somebody else, but not for a specific group of people, but who they are I don't know. I think it will appeal to anyone that feels comfortable with these kinds of moods, perhaps they will recognise some of the feeling, but that could be anyone. I don't mean everyone, of course.
Have you listened to the album much?
I had a long break. It was actually mastered last May (2003), and then I took dome time to find a record company, wondering if I should release it myself, and then I couldn't listen to it. But as soon as it was ready for release I put it on, and now I can listen to it with new ears, like a product that is finished, so now I can relax and enjoy it more.
Would you change it much if you could do it again?
A few small things, but I wouldn't change it much. But my next record will be a little different I think. I think it will be lighter, and written over a shorter period of time. I have songs written for almost another two records. But the biggest part is to arrange them, and they are arranged in my head but I need to write it all down.
So what's next?
I would like to spend this year in planning the new CD, and I have bought myself a home recording studio, so I will do a lot of it myself, and those things I can't do, I will do in the studio with Oystein Vesaas again. I would also like to play live with a band. I have played two concerts now.
Would you like to tour?
I'd love to, but it's an economic question, and also my musicians are very busy. I need to have something very specific for them to say "yes" to. They are dedicated, but they have so many other things to do.
So, who are your other live musicians?
There's Sigrun, my cello player, who also plays on the CD, Ketil on flute, whom I know will always want to join. I have a percussionist that I met in a medieval orchestra. I have a guitarist and a double bass player. I mainly sing, and when there is a need for a second guitar, I play that. Finally, there is a second vocalist, Line.
How did you come to chose The Wild Places to release it?
I sent it to the major record companies. Of course, I didn't expect anything as it is not mainstream music, but I sent it to Michael Piper at The Wild Places, as Jacob (Holm Lupo) suggested it, and as soon as I spoke to him and realised how much he liked the CD, I knew it was better to be with someone like that that loved the music, than just a business man. If you look at the cover he designed, which has exactly the right atmosphere, you realise that he was exactly right.
Do you think that this will damage the chances of having the CD heard? Did you try any of the progressive rock labels?
I sent it to Ken Golden at Lasers Edge, but I knew it wasn't the right sound for him. It's not progressive rock!
No but it has a distinct link.
Yes, and I like to keep a foot in the progressive rock camp. I think that fans of it will find something in my music.
How involved were you in the cover design? It has a subtle eroticism that I wasn't expecting!
It was an idea I had with Teresa Aslanian, Jacob's wife, who took the photos. I wanted to express closeness with nature. It's not about humans, it's about being not sexual, but sensual with nature. It has to do with being naked with your feelings, and for me nature is about expressing feelings, and I use that a lot in my songs.
Tell me about the video for "It was blue".
We did a lot of test filmings, and we were going to do "Winter Roses", but "It was blue" became the only choice because time moved on and it was summer, and I also wanted to do something extra, so we went to Greece to record it, and it's also about Greece. The video was made on Crete, though the song is about the island of Chios. The special light is something you wont find in Norway.
Good luck with the video and the album!