Name: Christian Winther
Occupation: Songwriter, guitarist
Recent release: Christian Winther's Urfuglen is out via Fysisk Format on May 10th 2022.
If you enjoyed this interview with Christian Winther and would like to find out more, visit his official website. He is also on Instagram, and Facebook.
Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?
The mystery right there. I’ve always had the urge, one of my earliest memories of this is the joy of painting trees at the age of 5 (of only using dots!). It still feels the same. The exploration of diving into the unknown, to dream up something. It's an intuitive thing. I'm interested in the imagination, the stuff you cannot explain easily.
A big impact is the strong Oslo scene, my friends and musical colleagues surrounding me. They inform my aesthetics, but I often inspire to do completely different things (mimesis and similarities creating opposites?). A big part of it is wanting to make something after hearing something great live or checking out a new record that brings up new ideas.
And just to dream, looking for inspiration in scenes far away from my own life, could be Japanese noise rock or some American songwriter, it's a form of escapism I'm happy to indulge in.
For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a 'visualisation' of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
To begin creating something, that needs to happen quick and easy for me. And to improvise is the quickest route from idea to result. So I struggle with hundreds of recording-ideas that will never make it because I cut the string of intuition. I have a studio but I create most of my songs at home just picking up the guitar in some tuning and a capo on a random fret.
So it begins as an unplanned thing most of the time, a triggering of something inside that makes me shift focus from improvising to begin organizing some chords or a musical landscape I’m suddenly finding myself in. But after that, there certainly needs to be some discipline to finish it.
It's a strange time to answer this question though, my routines have changed so much due to the pandemic but also from personal changes and moving etc. So right now I’m trying out new ways and new places to work.
Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating? What role do certain foods or stimulants like coffee, lighting, scents, exercise or reading poetry play?
I often bring out a book and lay it on my studio desk or at home in front of my guitar. I don’t even need to pick it up but a book sets a certain vibe for me. A book is the most exciting object, and what I read usually informs my work in some way. Right now I’m carrying around City Slang by Søren Ulrik Thomsen, a reading tip by Susanne Christensen. The vibe or physical landscape in a book could function as a place to bring out the music from.
My song «Urfuglen» for example was very clearly spun out from the Norwegian poet Tor Ulven’s universe and his book «Skyggen av Urfuglen» (translates into something like The shadow of the Primordial Bird)
What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?
I'm confident as a guitarist but writing can be a struggle. So I try to use my musical approach in writing: Starting blanc and with an uncritical mind and just go from there. Could be a word or a sentence. Often inspired by something I’ve been reading or learning.
Such an approach can be rewarding in that it can open up something I didn’t know I had in me or kept hidden. it's great thing to carv out something. It’s already there.
When do the lyrics enter the picture? Where do they come from? Do lyrics need to grow together with the music or can they emerge from a place of their own?
The song «Moon» was created based on the atmosphere of a place called Alnes. There is something magical and dreamy about it. It's about looking for something. Something about imagination, that such a place can trigger. I was reading a book by William Carlos Williams when I wrote it, a book about imagination called Spring and all.
"Cast one's line and wait for miracles" – what emerges exists somewhere already. A place between daydreams and reality.
Earlier I always made a song instrumentally first, and then added lyrics to the melodic ideas. Listen to Girl records was like that. These days I’m trying the opposite, wanting the lyrical content to dictate the musical forms. I like that the lyrics are on their own, floating on top, and that could make room for more unconventional musical forms surrounding them. A goal with my new ideas is to have more instrumental parts and space for improvisation embedded. Also for connecting my too worlds, the improviser and the songwriter.
Being more flexible as a musician than a writer, this method also makes it easier for me I think, making the music somehow fit a weird line. But the written words being a thing of their own also makes it a challenge to sing them, since they’re made for paper.
A Talking Heads documentary comes to mind, where David Byrne is intuitively making up the words directly on his tape recorder, bypassing the paper delay and that way creating a more musical language. Should try that!
What makes lyrics good in your opinion? What are your own ambitions and challenges in this regard?
I like lyrics that make more imaginative connections. Lyrics that don't preach. More abstract writing, surrealist poetry for example, can create new connections, and for me that triggers more than someone singing about heartache.
I want to make my own discoveries, to get along for the dive. I never wrote for anyone else but me, which sometimes when I sing them live can feel a bit weird, I admit. But how can you make anything while thinking about an audience? And I do very navel gazing and abstract moves on the guitar and it feels very communicative. Shouldn’t words be the same?
Once you've started, how does the work gradually emerge?
Working on the lyrics can, unlike the music surrounding them, be a lengthy process. The most important thing for me is just to put in the hours. That the framework is only time to write. Things will come! But they often change or I discover a new way looking at them that makes me rewrite them.
Often, while writing, new ideas and alternative roads will open themselves up, pulling and pushing the creator in a different direction. Does this happen to you, too, and how do you deal with it? What do you do with these ideas?
Yes, the only way for me to work is to follow these new directions that occur and let myself be pushed into whatever kind of territory.
There are many descriptions of the creative state. How would you describe it for you personally? Is there an element of spirituality to what you do?
The creative state feels like a continuation of daydreaming.
Not being religious I suspect spirituality is finding new ways to move through us. I was listening to Alice Coltrane yesterday and I can envy the functional spirituality of her music, but not having that, following the spirituality in the music itself is also rewarding.
Especially in the digital age, the writing and production process tends towards the infinite. What marks the end of the process? How do you finish a work?
It's a feeling and if I listen to something again and again and feel really good about it, then I’m done. I try not to linger, and I don’t, because there are always more ideas to think about. I also lean on the people around me, listen to what my bandmates thinks, what my girlfriend thinks.
I make a lot of demos at first, and I fall in love with them for a while, and I think that’s important then and there. Naturally, the narcissus luckily fades away, but then I’m hopefully finished working with it, and I'm down to earth and back at it again with other songs and new ideas. On that note, I’m rarely happy with things I’ve done in the past, but who am I to judge. I think moving on and develop is what it’s all about.
Once a piece is finished, how important is it for you to let it lie and evaluate it later on? How much improvement and refinement do you personally allow until you're satisfied with a piece? What does this process look like in practise?
A recording sort of seals the deal. If a piece of music has come as far as the studio, that often means it's already pretty old news, what’s being recorded will be “it”, except certain tweaks and adjustments in the mixing process. But a remix or retake of a vocal for example have occurred.
At a demo stage or when writing lyrics I can refine more. These days I’m planning on looking into some demos I made 3 months ago. I’ve given them enough space to hopefully get a better overview.
What's your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering for you personally? How involved do you get in this?
On «The Clearing» I was very involved with the production. It's a self produced album, co-produced by the musicians playing, especially Magnus Nergaard and Anja Lauvdal, who for example forced me into picking up the electric guitar too on it! After recording I did a sort of pre-mix, adjusting the music into what I pictured it to sound like, and then me and Anja went to Trondheim and worked together with Kyrre Laastad for the final mix.
I really admire Laastad for his thoughts on music and creative flow, so this was a very pleasing process. I think the fact that I presented the music roughly mixed to him made the process instantly creative, not having to spend too much time carving out the songs and problem-solving, just diving in and spending time on what could take the music to the next level. For example we had a good time using guitar pedals as outboard effects.
I think my background as an improviser and experimental musician made me not think about production so much when I first started out, because I had such strong attitudes about collective playing and intuitive processes, not wanting to compromise that way of working while making records. But in recent years I've been getting into recording more and more, creating my own studio, and as I worked more with songwriting I’m seeing the potentials of a proper studio production!
And the album format and playing live are so different. For example, a loud band with exaggerated energy on stage is awesome, but sounds horrible on a record. I’d like to quiet things down for an album.
Mastering is interesting and it really depends. On a noise album or for club music it's probably cool to push it, but most of the time I like that the mastering keeps the dynamics of the music and doesn’t interfere too much with the mix. Karl Klaseie from Øra who mastered The Clearing is really good. And I also worked several times with Helge Sten. Both are not contributing to the loudness war that’s making everybody dizzy.
These days I'm excited about recording a new album in May, and for the first time with a proper producer – one I know is gonna push the focus on the musical imagery and take it to the next level.
After finishing a piece or album and releasing something into the world, there can be a sense of emptiness. Can you relate to this – and how do you return to the state of creativity after experiencing it?
Yes. I wish I could take a moment and appreciate a piece of work being released into the world, before I’m moving on to the next, and the next, and the next! But it’s a one way mind flow! Always trying to keep up with new ideas keeps me busy and looking ahead. Perhaps to quickly move on is a mechanism to deal with this sense of emptiness.
But also, it’s taking such a long time to release an album today (6 months waiting for the LPs after you spent a year making the music?) that it sort of loses the emotional momentum. And while waiting it's only normal to begin something new.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you personally feel as though writing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
I love a great cup of coffee, and to create, or to be sensible to something is a mundane thing, too. People express themselves differently and that’s cool.
I'm not every verbal, and having a more abstract-leaning mind makes it easier for me to express myself in music. I think the intuitive approach to creating, that I’m using improvisation and not being so calculated, is making things more in touch with everyday life. The connections happen, without forcing them or analyzing them. I feel it's an organic thing.
At the same time, the zone I’m in when playing or composing is a different one than making coffee. I think I need it to be, to take a mild trip beyond the physical boundaries. Into The Clearing! The place to daydream. It's like swimming in the ocean - you couldn’t live there but I want to be in it a lot.