“My Voice Is My Safety Place”: A Conversation with Rebekka Karijord

“My Voice Is My Safety Place”: A Conversation with Rebekka Karijord by Andrew Darley

When I call Rebekka Karijord to talk about her latest record, Mother Tongue, she is playing in her garden with the person who had the biggest influence on the album: her daughter. After being born three months premature, Rebekka spent weeks in hospital by her side, terrified at the thought of losing her first child, she began singing as a way of helping her cope as well as soothing her new baby. As she recorded the melodies on her phone, it was not until months later that she discovered that she had captured some accomplished ideas for songs. Mother Tongue is a concept album partially inspired by the traumatic arrival of her daughter, as well as mortality, how people connect and saluting our heritage.

Mother Tongue is out now. Rebekka Karijord plays Dublin’s Unitarian Church on May 19th. Tickets can be found here.

Some of the songs were inspired by the premature birth of your first daughter but others were written beforehand. Were you gearing up for a new record regardless?

The moment I became pregnant, the emotional and physical changes were so profound that I wanted to try and write about them. I hadn’t heard that many albums about it either. It’s a theme a lot of female artists avoid because it’s easy to get pigeon-holed. It’s a little bit of a ‘woman topic’ or considered a bit boring. That made me curious, why is that? Those subjects are touched and looked at in other art-forms. There are certain female topics that are considered… you just don’t go there! I think it has something to with youth and pop music.

It’s interesting you think it’s down to youth because I would have thought the majority of your fans would be in their 20s, 30s or 40s and pregnancy would be quite topical.

I had a lot of prejudice or preconceived notions about male rock journalists who may have found this album hard to swallow. I was very honest in the press release because it’s biographical – it’s a concept album that really states it as it is. It’s been a positive surprise because most of the best reviews have been from guys around the age of 27. I think something has happened since my generation was that age. They’re more equal, feminist and open-minded.

Do you think comfort can be taken from songs that deal difficult issues head-on?  

I believe in the protection of poetry in songwriting: a protection of myself and the listener. If there is a poetic aspect in a song that is well-crafted in the meeting between the tonality and words, then the experience changes into something that isn’t just about me. Although it is about this birth, a lot of people hear something else. That is the poetic layer. It took a tremendous amount of time to craft – this album more than ever. The lyrics were so close to home. Sometimes it’s the things that feel too close to home are the ones that connect most because we all carry around the same feelings. Having a child is just as universal as falling in love. Mother Tongue isn’t just about motherhood; it’s about inheritance, an inner voice, my family and a sense of belonging.

There’s a sense that you’re also questioning something much bigger or how people connected in life. Did her birth make you question life or mortality in general?

Having a child is an experience in life that gives you both the privilege and the agony of getting close to mortality. There’s a lot of other things that can throw you into that too; the loss of someone you love, getting sick or even being dumped. We walk around forgetting about death because it’s impossible to think about it all the time. Then there’s this glimpse along our lifespan when we are forced to look at it. I haven’t had that many. As an artist, it’s turmoil and fuel for creativity. When my daughter came early, I needed to understand this fear and the way for me to do that was to write about it.

A lot of the melodies came from singing to her in the hospital while in care. In times of stress do you become more creative?

Usually I become creative after something, when everything is settled. I was singing to her a lot and recorded them on my phone but I didn’t think it would become a record. It was all about surviving and understanding my new role. You have such an obvious role when you have a baby, there’s not much time so I actually let go of my creativity for quite some time. Eight months later, I took up the sketches and realised there were some really nice melodies.

Did singing become a way of processing what was happening?

Yes, because my voice is my safety place. It made me feel safe and it calmed her. It was the only thing that I could actually do for her. They say that premature babies can have too much stimulation with sound and light and all these other things. When new nurses came in they told me that my singing was too much for her. The doctor could see it soothed her and ended up prescribing that I sing to her as part of her care. We got an email from the doctor at the neonatal department the other day to say they had bought Mother Tounge CDs, which is so touching and means a lot to me.

You do everything when making an album; writing, recording, producing, mixing. What’s the headspace like in those months?

This is the first time that I’ve fully steered it and didn’t hire a producer. It was a very enjoyable to make. It was very joyful and free of anxiety. I loved working with prepared piano (a piano which has its sound altered by placing objects on its strings) and the vocal recordings are mainly the first takes I did. We left it very raw but we spent a lot of time on the mixing. We were very particular in how we wanted it to sound.

How do the music arrangements reflect the songs’ themes?

I wanted to give myself a limited set of tools to work with: voice, piano, synthesizers and sparse drums. The stories in the songs are so strong that they don’t need a lot. The prepared piano is something I’ve explored in my film scores and it’s a very effective way to create a percussive instrument without using drums. We spent a lot a time trying to mic the piano so it sounded like an old synthesizer, heartbeats or being underwater. Lots of specific images! I’m going to do that in Dublin, we’re working with an acoustic piano and taping the strings and it’s so fun to work with!  I love playing live because it feels like you’re re-creating the song every time. It’s so much about the present tense.

Mother Tongue is out now. Rebekka Karijord plays Dublin’s Unitarian Church on May 19th. Tickets can be found here.



Categories: Gigs, Header, interview, Music

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