Contemporary composer, Nils Frahms has produced one of the most beautiful and stunning albums of the year. Hidden inside Felt is an unparalleled intimacy and warmth. We first covered Nils last month and described the album as a thing of beauty. We weren’t wrong. Recording the album in the dead of night, using felt to muffle the sound of the piano and placing microphones deep inside the body of his piano, the process is the polar opposite of his last release, The Bells, which was recorded in the huge, reverberant environment of a church. We spoke to him about the new album, Felt – out now on Erased Tapes.
Did you prefer recording in such a quiet and personal environment compared to recording in a church for The Bells?
I think I couldn’t decide if I had to choose. By the time I worked on The Bells it was just the right sound for the music I wanted to play and I think for the pieces on my new album, my piano was just the right choice. Although the sound of the instrument you are performing on really influences the pieces I am playing since often they are based on improvisations.
For me, I prefer to listen to Felt through headphones, sat in the dark, to fully appreciate it. Did you have an idea in mind of how people should listen to it?
I think when people listen to it on headphones in the dark, fully focused and open for all the details, then that makes me very, very happy.
I found the recording process fascinating, it feels so intimate, almost like you’re inside the piano. Why did you take the approach you did?
First of all, I liked the dampened piano sound, and I am usually more inspired in the night time, but this is also when my neighbours want to sleep, so I dampen the piano strings with felt in order to soften the sound and to make the instrument quieter. Then I discovered that when I play very quiet, that the music/noise ratio becomes a really interesting part of the compositions. I just loved what I heard and decided to go down that road.
Why did you decide to leave in all the ambient noise, breathing, creaking etc.?
I think like I said before, the noise and ambience sounds are important parts of the atmosphere, and music is for me not too much about virtous playing or skills like that, it all boils down to me to a certain feeling. and all these alien sounds added to the atmosphere, so I highly welcomed them. they are my co musicians.
There’s a definite analogue warmth on the album, was it recorded and mastered with analogue equipment? Do you prefer analogue recording to digital?
Yes, I definitely think that analogue recording is more exciting than digital but I am also mastering and mixing music a lot, so I really get a special Nils sound with all my old boxes and tape machines and so on. These tools have character and a life on their own. Plug ins all sound exactly the same and they never change when they get older, so there is a lack of character and unpredictability in today’s recording world.
Are there any improvised parts on the record or is it all written and structured beforehand?
I think it might be 50/50 here. Usually I would come home at night and start just playing into nothing with my piano miced and headphones on. Then, out of improvising I would condense a theme or melody. Then I would just hit record on my tape machine and give it a try. Some pieces like “Less” or “Kind” are fully improvised. First takes usually leave me most excited.
The record feels introspective and gives the impression of solitude. Is this a reflection on how you felt when writing or simply the space in which you wrote and recorded?
I don’t know really, but I guess, that I have managed to give a little inside of myself, a very personal little notebook of thoughts and feelings and they became a collection of silent once. I love silence, it gives the listener the space to fill the room with his own feelings thoughts or emotions.
How do you plan to transfer the intimacy on the record to a live setting?
I think I will just keep playing a typical Nils Frahm show. I also like to be exhausted after each set so it wont be always as quiet as on my new record. I also never felt the need to perform my new record like a pop band would do it as part of a big promotion campaign. My live shows will always differ from my albums, but that is because I think that music works different live than on a record. So I try to use the advantages of each situation for my music.
Where do you find inspiration? In traditional classical composers, or your contemporaries, Max Richter, Peter Broderick, Ólafur Arnalds, Anne Müller etc.?
I follow closely what my friends are recording and it gives me great new ideas, but inspiration comes mostly from what I experience in general in my life but musical ideas came mostly from ECM recordings and old jazz recordings. When I was a teenager I started listening to a fair deal of electronic and abstract music but in general there is no genre in music I am not open to. In some genres it is just easier to pick the good ones, right?
You’ve collaborated with many of the names mentioned above, do you think this has been essential to your growth as a writer and performer?
Absolutely, I learn so much from collaborating and I hope that works the other way around too. I love to see music as something social, so it is very important to me to work with like-minded souls on music together. That is also the main intention behind my work as a producer and engineer. I wanted a place where I could help my friends record the music I love and be a part of it while it happens.
What are your plans for the rest of the year?
I will see my friend Ólafur Arnalds in iceland to work on some music and then I will play many shows all over Europe. I have work in my studio lined up and Christmas gifts to make and buy.
Head over to Erased Tapes’ amazingtunes.com profile for more from Nils and the entire label.