“Strangeness has seeped into the music”: How the midnight sun in Iceland inspired Heather Shannon of Jezabels | Music

AIn early 2016, Jezabels’ Heather Shannon felt like “someone had pumped cement into [my] veins. ”Her ovarian cancer – diagnosed in 2013 while the Jezabels were recording their second album, The Brink – was back just as the band’s third album, Synthia, was due to be released. Her chemotherapy treatment undermined their six-month international tour.

“It was basically the worst day of our lives when we couldn’t do this tour,” says Shannon, from her home studio in Coogee, Sydney. But the break with the Jezabels gave the classically trained pianist time to reconnect with her instrument and took her from bedridden “cabin fever” to the Icelandic fjords.

The result is Midnight Sun: a shredded, painful and transporting album of compositions for solo piano, started during an ArtIceland residency in 2017 in the town of Ísafjörður. It is an album of contrasts and contradictions: a tranquility punctuated by dissonance, oscillating between “resolution and uncertainty”.

Heather Shannon: “I’ve talked to a lot of musicians who are classically trained and then give it up and do something else, and they just can’t stand looking at their instrument.” Photography: Saskia Wilson

“I don’t think it’s ever been completely dark,” Shannon says of summer in the Northern Hemisphere. “If it was, it was only for an hour or something. The birds don’t even stop. It’s really weird… it’s dark, the sun is shining, but it’s so calm… I think that weirdness has definitely crept into the music.

The album was composed with a computer, a few small keyboards and synthesizers, and Shannon meticulously transcribed it into sheet music upon her return to Australia.

But some passages turned out to be technically impossible to play live. Wanting a back to basics approach, after years of tinkering in the studio with the Jezebels, Shannon restructured the compositions, recording them unadulterated on a Fazioli concert grand piano at the Verbrugghen Hall of the Sydney Conservatory of Music, where she studies. a master’s degree in composition. On the title track, you can hear the instrument’s famous brightness and clarity echoing from its soundboard, constructed from red spruce felled in the same Italian alpine forests that Stradivarius once harvested wood for his violins.

Midnight Sun feels timeless, written on computers but driven by an age-old musical tradition and a human touch – a collision of punk and perfection that Shannon says manifests itself on the track Fossavatn, which has the instability of pebbles. slamming along a cliff before a landslide.

“I’ve talked to a lot of musicians who are classically trained and then I give up and do something else, and they just can’t stand looking at their instrument… because there is all this guilt associated with it. “Shannon says. “You are supposed to work a certain number of hours a day and you always strive for that idea of ​​perfection in your creative practice. For me, I had to try to throw this out the window with the band.

“So I kind of wanted to bring that to my classical piano playing. For me, it was like getting it back… in an honest way that I felt connected to.

View of Heather Shannon from her workspace during her residency in Iceland
View of Shannon from her workspace during her residency in Iceland

For a month in Iceland, Shannon made a bunker at Engi, a small yellow house overlooking Naustahvilft, a depression in the flat-topped mountains surrounding the town’s fjord. Known as the ‘seat of the troll’ in Icelandic mythology, Naustahvilft is said to have been created by a tired troll relieving his aching feet in the fjord – a fitting place for Shannon’s recovery and creative rejuvenation. She lived with an American graphic designer and an Icelandic poet, the latter of whom had limited English but took Shannon to fetch rhubarb and visited relatives in a nearby cemetery.

Although Iceland is rich in inspiring myths and astounding natural beauty, Shannon strives to make it clear that Midnight Sun is not an attempt to translate these things into sound; that it has never been able to adequately represent the importance of the Icelandic landscape to its culture and spirituality. Rather, it’s a reflection of her experience as a foreigner in awe of the majesty of the landscape – and awkwardly traversing it while being bombarded by Arctic swifts nesting on hiking trails that she suspects locals might have avoided.

“This is such an important issue in Australia because we are all on stolen land,” she said. “I come from a colonizing culture. Is it problematic that I represent this place? Does the type of musical language I use matter? If I use a classical musical language of this European tradition, does that only promote this kind of colonial progress? “

Shannon discovered a new side of herself in isolation. She remembers an arduous hike to a hydroelectric dam and a lake in the mountains. Looking at the vast landscape and rolling clouds, she found herself alone. There were no fans and roadies, no band mates to contend with, no doctors and nurses, no family members fidgeting with love.

“It was so quiet, silent. This total feeling of just being completely alone that I don’t think I’ve ever experienced before. I was sort of surprised to like this feeling. I felt I needed it. “

The midnight sun comes out on Friday

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