Högni Egilsson on singing, sailing and the making of Grapevine’s album of 2012, Hjaltalín’s ‘Enter IV’
Högni Egilsson on singing, sailing and the making of Grapevine’s album of 2012, Hjaltalín’s ‘Enter IV’
Högni Egilsson is in Norilsk, Siberia—the world’s northernmost city of more than 100.000 inhabitants— where he along with the band Gusgus and the Icelandic Dance Company are to perform the cabaret Journey (“Á vit”), which they premiered in Iceland a couple of years ago.
Internet is sparse, so we speak over the hotel phone. He talks about his surroundings.
“No roads lie to here, you can only travel via air or rail. The city is surrounded by tundra. The outside temperature is minus ten degrees Celsius. It feels like the most polluted city in the world. Everything is covered in a brown pastel haze. Everything is sort of run down. It is a mining town from the Soviet era. It used to be a Gulag. There is no tourism, just industry. And I guess they’re making a lot of money. They are apparently putting a bunch of it into promoting cultural events, so that’s how we got here.
The ambiance is apocalyptic. Death is in the air. It’s 3:30 AM. I just ate a reindeer tongue that had been boiled for thirty hours. I’m experiencing one of the biggest cultural shocks of my lifetime.”
SAILING TOWARDS FREEDOM
Our conversation eventually shifts to music, and the Hjaltalín founder starts telling me how he got involved with the Gusgus crew:
“In late 2010 I was making music for a staging of Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ and had reached a dead end. I was searching for a new tone, a new feeling. Fortuitously, I wound up meeting Stebbi [Stephan Stephensen, aka President Bongo of Gusgus] in the bathroom at some bar and we somehow got to talking about sailing. He invited me to join him on a sailing trip he was embarking upon, in the Caribbean. Before that trip happened, I went with him to the Faeroe Islands, where we recorded some of the songs for [Gusgus last album] ‘Arabian Horse’. And then we sailed the Caribbean.
Is there a difference between working with Gusgus and Hjaltalín?
No, not really. The Gusgus thing happened really quickly and was rather impulsive, all in the heat of the moment. It was a short period of time, a few months where we made the Gusgus songs, the theatre songs, some solo stuff of mine. We created furiously for three or four months, and then we sort of kept going for a while after that.
The creative process itself wasn’t that different from what I was used to. Well, there are other people involved, other directions to go in…
I noticed you were a little wilder in your initial appearances with Gusgus than what you had been doing with Hjaltalín up until then, as if you were exploring the performance aspect. Was it maybe liberating to get to step out there as a singer?
That’s right, there’s a certain freedom in not being responsible for everything, in not being in the frontlines regarding the musical and production aspects of a concert. I could allow myself to assume a bit of a ‘star role’ when my duties were limited to being a singer and frontman. It’s vitalizing, being able to take the stage wearing nice clothes, placing your entire focus on the audience, singing directly to them. I could assume a character; I could concentrate my energies on the audience and connecting with it.
Performing with Gusgus allowed me to open up as a person and create a bit of a character, a stage identity. That persona is definitely part of who I am, but still different, detached, emphasizing certain aspects. Playing with Hjaltalín, that was more a part of my personal history and continued focus, an inseparable part of me. With Gusgus, I was able to step into a phenomenon that I had long been observing from afar. I could fictionalize, tailor-make an image to work with and express myself through.
THE BIG REVEAL
This is interesting since Hjaltalín’s most recent album, ‘Enter IV’, which you made after having worked with Gusgus, is ultra personal, your most sincere and revealing work to date. Did assuming a character and working with fiction enable you to open up more?
Yes. I think that when you’ve removed yourself from yourself in such a way, and entered a period of transition towards a fabricated life, a life of fiction or one that is unconnected to the one you’ve lead thus far, then that perhaps affects you so that you feel the need to reach back home, to touch your core. Approaching your life creatively, as a work of art, in the Nietzschean sense, also invites a certain loneliness—it creates a distance between the being and self. Between what I aspired to do, my actions and the life that I live. I reached a junction. A void was born, a loneliness, which then drove me to open up entirely. Like I said, I don’t know if that resulted from working with Gusgus or my life in general at that time, which slowly started entailing more work and more travel, that in turn brought in rootlessness, a disconnect and an urge to wander off and get lost.
And this in turn perhaps creates a loneliness and emptiness of the kind that I write about on ‘Enter IV’. It is a lonely record. As you soar further and explore the world, you discover that you are alone.
What is it like, releasing such a personal record?
Well, it’s… opening oneself up in a very revealing way somehow… sometimes you feel like you’re vomiting yourself all over someone else’s plate. It’s an odd feeling. It can be vain to shout yourself loud and clear over everyone, to attempt to make them feel you. The accompanying sensation can be a little… wrong, for lack of better word. But then that’s the domain of fiction, the domain of art. When art becomes so overtly personal and confessional, it must also involve fiction. If there is not an element of fiction, if you’re not creating a world to work within, then that’s not art, I believe. ‘Enter IV’ melds these two things, the structure and the reveal. It is very personal and intimate, but it is amplified and exaggerated to an extent. It is its own world; it exists in its own sphere.
That album is certainly very personal. It relays a tragic story, of tribulations and natural beauty and enlightenment. It is a tale of moving into other worlds, of flying too high like an Icaros figure. Your wings melt and you enter the water.
What I am saying is: it’s all on a very mystical and mythical plane, but at the same time, yes, it is personal, it is the story of my tragedy. As an artist, you must amplify, you must exaggerate. A diary entry about how bad you’re feeling, about what you’re going through, that will never be magical or enchanting. It will never be art. Not until you obfuscate it, make it more subtle and mysterious.
This is true, for people to relate to a work of art, it has to be personal and genuine, yet amplified and detached enough to touch upon common human themes. It must provide a space for the audience to project their own selves upon.
Exactly. In this sense, ‘Enter IV’ seems personal because it is personal; it details some very personal ordeals of mine. Yet, that story is realized in a very carefully created, structured environment, written and sketched out by the band Hjaltalín. It is a very precise tale of genesis, as it relates to a single human being. A fictional work about the creation of one man.
And it is this abstract divinity, this is the space we as humans share, that is our world, it is what’s sacred. It’s what all theology is based upon, all cosmology, touching that abstract plane where all our human fables exist; attempting to tap into that to connect with others or relay them a thought or message. This is the primal nature of art for humans, its higher purpose.
Were you nervous before releasing such a revealing record?
No, no, not at all. I wasn’t really thinking about it. I was in Hveragerði, enjoying massages and mudbaths, talking to old people and playing pool with sailors, eating healthy foods, taking walks and listening to stories. The month the album was released I was elsewhere, in Hveragerði, winding down, getting rehabilitated.
That album drove me insane. That’s a fact.
[Shortly after ‘Enter IV’ was released, Högni opened up about his mental breakdown in a sincere front-page interview with local weekly Fréttatíminn, which bore the headline “My name is Högni and I suffer from manic depression.” The interview was conducted at the rehabilitation centre in Hveragerði where he went to recover after an intense period that, among other things, saw him write and record ‘Enter IV’].
Was it making the album that had that effect? Or was the album more your attempt to work through your mental problems?
I guess both? Or I don’t know. It’s really hard to say. It’s really hard to relay what happened or describe it in an accurate or realistic manner, and it really isn’t my place to do so [hesitates]. The topics addressed… I was both exploring my state and driving it further in writing that album. If you start thinking about some things with a certain intensity, then you eventually find yourself on a diving board. You start flying higher and higher and the more you search, the more you’re sculpting an idea and a world of your own where you function and which you explore. Think of it as a pool of lava that’s bubbling under your core, one that you’re seeking out and drawing from… eventually it takes shape, something comes loose, an explosion happens, the tension loosens.
Talking to you right now about the album and that period of time, I’m not especially interested in discussing the insanity that came with it. Still, it was and is an inseparable part of that album and what it was about, the music was written during my period of mental illness, some of it in the psych ward, and that colours it. But at the same time, it’s not one of those ‘insanity albums’—you know what I’m talking about. It’s just music and songs that are created around a certain way of life, certain situations. By associating the music with mental illness, the value of the art itself is perhaps defused and diminished. I’ve sensed that as soon as the idea of insanity is connotated with a work of art, it’s as if that work of art gains its own existence, it ceases being merely a work of art and becomes ‘a work of art created by insanity’. And this is a big misunderstanding and condemnation of insanity, that it is a specific condition removed from humanity, separate from our existence, rather than part of the spectrum of human life.
I chose to speak up about my problems in Fréttatíminn because I wanted to raise awareness of mental illness, which in many ways remains a taboo subject in Iceland. I was happy with the discourse that followed, but it also came with a price and maybe placed the album in a new context.
This is an interesting point. I must admit, I became rather obsessed with ‘Enter IV’ when I first heard it, it’s the first Hjaltalín album that I really connected with. I was all excited to tell everyone how great it was, but when you addressed your mental problems on the front page of Fréttatíminn I was somehow discouraged. Especially as a new fan, I felt that my interest could be written off as fascination with a spectacle, rather than genuine appreciation of some mind-blowing music.
Exactly. Yet, ‘Enter IV’ in a way is a spectacle, a tragedy. It is my tragedy, made into an event, by a band, for an album. It’s the story of a phenomenon, but it is accompanied by a specific worldview, which gives a greater perspective.
As you say, it wasn’t your choice that the album you liked so such all of the sudden had these implications But that is perhaps in its nature, it follows from being an earnest and tragic story. That in itself is powerful and special, and maybe that’s not so bad. It was to be expected, if nothing else.
Have you entirely put your troubles behind you at this point?
With regards to my health? I think so, absolutely. But I don’t… I don’t know how to talk about this. I have a hard time of figuring this stuff out, what exactly happened and what followed. It was a period in my life where I was searching for something and… it was exciting.
How did you feel the album was received?
I don’t really know? I find that hard to tell. Wasn’t it generally well received? People did come to me and tell me how they were touched by it, I think that’s beautiful. Otherwise I don’t think a lot about receptions.
Hjaltalín just released an album of film music. Is it a ‘proper’ Hjaltalín album?
Yes it’s proper. Well that’s a good question. What constitutes a ‘proper album’? Albums are meant to be a set of songs, an ideal representation of the band or artist at a given time, one that exists independently and ideally. Speaking in those terms, it’s not that kind of album, it is a different kind of work. It is mostly instrumental, three of the songs have vocals. It is a film score, yet it isn’t an album of moods and ambiances. It is music, melodies, harmonies and sounds that are meant to reflect upon a film. The film has no dialogue, so it’s not exactly a background, it is part of the narrative. It was a good project to participate in, and I am proud of it.
And you have a solo album on the way, which you’ve been working on with President Bongo?
Yes, I’m still working on it. We’re releasing it next year. I felt it wasn’t entirely ready for release, and this year has been busy enough. We’ve been working on it for the last year and a half. It has a men’s choir and a string band and slow acid beats.