The music that Amy Macdonald puts out into the world as Nennen is a study of many things: tension, intentionality, weirdness, and mountainous space. But don’t take my word for it, just listen to the artist:
“Internal space and sonic space and emotional space: that’s pretty much the big, boring secret about Nennen is that it’s all about space.”
It’s nice to listen to an artist being so truthful — especially when that ‘big, boring secret’ sounds so damn good. I’ve reviewed Two Mountains already, so I won’t rattle on, but there is something intangibly special about the record: it grabbed my imagination, and I had to know more about the artist and the process of putting such a unique album together. The guitars on the recordings clatter with Sterling Morrison-like grace, there are virtual flocks of vocals stacked together, and the textures carry on like an ocean’s rise. It’s unlike any ambient or experimental recordings I’ve heard before. Enough said.
That’s why, at an indecently early hour of a Sunday morning, I called Amy up and prodded her with questions. Sometimes, you just have to know what makes someone’s music tick, and comfortable sleeping in be damned.
If you hadn’t guessed it from the delicate construction of the Nennen material, Amy is no stranger to music. She participates in the collective spree of Montreal mix and match projects, namely Mands and Five Eyes, and has shot chill wave straight in the face in an earlier incarnation as part of Edmonton’s excellent Gyre Spire and Spindle. So, there’s a deep breath being taken, full of knowledge and decision, before each lyric on the album comes out.
The sound of Nennen seems so deliberate and highly artful. I found it surprising that Amy feels an intense freedom built into the process of creating a release like Two Mountains.
“I’m always afraid that recording and releasing music is a horribly self-centred thing to do; but part of the thing that allows me to temporarily believe it’s not a self-centred thing to do is that I’m only part of the process and at a certain point, this music has to live and breathe with other people, and it has to serve them, and I don’t have any control over how it does that.”
But while the product might not be hers and hers alone, the process of creation was a tightly wound engine of her own control. The song writing took about five years, involving a combination of both conventionally-minded structures and long, sweeping, maximalist tracks. But just because the composition took time doesn’t mean the pieces came together slowly in the studio. Tim Keen, of established Canadian sound dragoons Ought, was the one to help put all the pieces together.
“The recording scenario was fairly compact. It was recorded relatively close. I had spoken to Tim Keen a bunch about recording something with Nennen. He was home for a stretch so I nailed him down for some recording time. We recorded it in Nearer World which is the jam space that I and a lot of our friends and collaborators use.”
It’s startling to think of this album being assembled in a crowded jam space, just another pile of instruments, dust, and (presumably) beer cans, like any other. There is so much that is otherworldly about Two Mountains. But Amy clarified where some of that depth of sound originated from.
“Tim would often plant a microphone off in the room. We wanted to have that play between close up, close-miced vocals and other elements.”
And of course, why not throw in another member of Ought? Matt May helped Amy implant some more light-demonic tones on the recordings. The more the merrier.
“I collaborated with Matt for those two songs (“Cove” and “Villeray”) to get that atmosphere. He’s really good at spreading sounds over the backdrop of a song that creates really interesting tensions and waves and pushing and pulling, so that’s what we were working towards.”
Add in a few tracks of full band arrangement, and there is starling variety available to the listener in Nennen’s new release. But through all the shifts in delivery and sound, a theme remains. The journey, from one peak to the next, lies at the heart of it all, as Amy explains.
“Being unresolved, being in transit, or being unsettled with a certain event or relationship or headspace is definitely there. Even miniature journeys I find to be helpful for writing. Being in motion, being in transition. A lot of the problem solving part of writing I do while I’m in motion.”
A shifting voice and a sound that favours motion — it’s all there. I have praised “4.5” to no mean length, and I will do so again here, as it stands as the ultimate testament to this sense of transition present on the album. The track stretches over ten minutes, and left the artist “weirded out” that she’d written it in the first place. Don’t tell me that doesn’t pique your interest.
If you’re looking out your window, and you imagine you see a mountain, is that soulful body created by the peak or by the sky that fills up around its jagged edges? I’d like to think that Amy MacDonald refuses to answer; because, despite all of her articulate thoughts about the writing and recording of Two Mountains, she never truly touched upon what it is that makes the album so ethereal and unique. I guess that’d be our shared ownership coming into play. But Two Mountains serves me now, just as much as it has served its creators. Cool.