INTERVIEW: Nathalie Stern | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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“There’s a particular sparse beauty to the Scandinavian folk songs which evoke the stillness of snowy forests and the midnight sun over lakes and mountains. They’re quite magical and distinctly different from folk songs from other parts of the world. I grew up with these songs, and they have a place in me that I don’t think will ever go away. I guess it’s a bit like how metal bands write songs about Dungeons & Dragons – I write songs about Norse trolls…”

Talking to Nathalie Stern about her work can involve some unusual tangents. But then, that shouldn’t be a surprise for someone whose music is so unusual. Existing outside of any one scene or sound, her minimal but distinctive set-up uses looped vocal and melodic lines alongside fragile electronics and synths to build up a mysterious, elusive web of sound that has enthralled anyone who has seen her live in recent years. It’s foreboding without sacrificing any beauty, experimental but with a sharp immediacy, rooted in folk tradition but largely electronic. Ahead of her headline performance at this year’s Northern Electric Festival on Saturday 22nd July, I caught up with Stern to find out more about the inspirations and ideas behind her songs.

Of course, many readers may remember her more directly folk-derived work from several years ago, as captured on her debut album Firetales. Discussing her previous work, she observes, “whilst my earlier work was still experimental, the songs had a fairly traditional structure with verse and chorus. I found myself trying to write more accessible songs, which in the end felt restrictive. I also used guitar as my backing instrument which over the years felt less and less conducive to my song writing.” Looking back on this period, Stern tells me: “I’m very proud of my earlier stuff and it’s not a million miles from what I do now, I guess it’s just more emotional. Looking back even further – back to my Lake Me days – you can pick out common themes of minimalism, simplicity and repetition.”

I allowed myself to be more sound focussed rather than song focussed

Those restrictions however would lead to her taking a hiatus from writing and performing to re-evaluate her practice, before returning with a markedly different set-up and style. “I took a two-year break from writing music to just let things simmer in my head and I came out of it wanting to remove those restrictions and go for looser song structures – or sometimes for no structures at all. I made a decision to just play what I like and see what would come of it. I guess I allowed myself to be more sound focussed rather than song focussed and that resulted in dronier and darker tunes that are more emotive. Interestingly, this new stuff seems to appeal to a wider – or at least a more eclectic – audience.”

Indeed, her recent material has seen her attract new listeners with performances with acts as diverse as Silver Apples, Grumbling Fur and Arcane, as well as a recent appearance at The Sage for BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking Festival in March. That was a really great night with a cracking bill as Swarm Front and Midnight Doctors played as well. The whole thing was pretty nerve-wracking actually: I got in early to do a sound check only to find that the PA wouldn’t be set up until just before the gig, and on the night itself, I was told that Verity Sharp would do a live interview with me in the middle of my set! But it’s fun to do gigs in different settings – you just have to go with it and accept that you’re at the mercy of the organisers of the event – and in the end, the gig and interview both went really well and I enjoyed it immensely.”

One key aspect of Stern’s sound that has remained consistent across this shift however is her use of loops and vocal layers. “I remember very clearly when I decided to use loop pedals: Rose Kemp played a gig in the record shop Alt Vinyl (RIP) in 2005 and I was blown away when I heard her record her own vocals live and then harmonise with them using a loop pedal. I had, at that point, for some time wanted to revisit the old folk and choral songs that I’d sung at school back in Sweden, and when I saw Rose’s gig, I had a complete epiphany. So I borrowed a similar pedal from a friend to try it out, and did my first solo gig a few months later.”

Another major influence on Stern that comes up is the soundtracks of John Carpenter. “I’m a product of my generation, growing up watching John Carpenter films in the eighties and nineties. The Carpenter influence is very clear in one of my tracks, which is essentially a homage to him, but it’s more subtle in the rest of my stuff by just reflecting similar sounds. In terms of film scores, the single most influential composer is Krzysztof Komeda, a Polish composer who wrote the soundtrack to Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby and The Fearless Vampire Killers. The Fearless Vampire Killers was my absolute favourite film when I was eight – I watched it pretty much every week for nearly a year!”

While her upcoming show at Northern Electric Festival is her main priority, she does broach the subject of a new album as well. “I’ve just been away procrastinating for two and a half months, drinking margaritas and eating tacos, but the idea is that I’ll start recording this year with the intent on releasing an album next year. But I say this every year, so you might want to check in on me again in a few months. Bring a bottle of tequila when you do.”

Nathalie Stern plays Cluny 2 as part of Northern Electric Festival on Saturday 22nd July.

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