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Delicate as tissue paper and tender as a hymnal, Oslo duo Konradsen’s astonishing debut Saints And Sebastian Stories is shaping up to be one of 2019’s most unexpected releases. The Norwegian duo is composed of vocalist and pianist Jenny Marie Sabel and multi-instrumentalist Eirik Vildgren, who have been friends since high school, but initially became musically as collaborators in another artist’s band. When the pair began hanging around after rehearsals to jam their own material, and eventually meeting up purposefully on their own to freestyle together, they settled on Jenny’s maiden name as the moniker for their slow-blooming project.
Those loose sessions eventually became more cohesive, but that early freedom and tentative wonder inhabits all the songs that eventually became their finished record, a release that’s refined beyond belief but also purposefully unpolished. Incorporating a revolving cast of friends, acquaintances, and recommended collaborators, Konradsen are quick to emphasize the communal effort of their debut, and tend to bring in even more guest players during their rare, intentional live shows — a far cry from the exclusive, separatist style that American and British bands can tend toward.
Laced with uplifting synths and rolling brass, surprising spoken samples, and spiritual flourishes punctuated by Jenny’s ever-shifting vocal modulations, Saints And Sebastian Stories sits somewhere between the experimental psych-folk of Bon Iver and the golden era of early twee groups like Belle & Sebastian, or even the sweeping, stormy feel of collectives like Broken Social Scene. Striking a balance between whispery choral arrangements, spectral piano and squalls of boisterous brass, Konradsen’s sound is both steely and soft, individualistic and collective.
Vildgren has been handling the bulk of the interviews leading up to the release of the duo’s album due to the recent birth of Sabel’s first child. Over video chat earlier this month, battling technology and the added labor of translating his thoughts into English, Eirik spoke eloquently on the band’s unforeseen origins, expanding on their formation, how religious communities informed both of their artistic inclinations, and some of the early singles they’ve already shared. Read a condensed, edited version of our conversation below.
Vinyl Me, Please: I was reading in your interview with Stereogum that both you and Jenny were deeply involved in religious communities at a young age. How do you think that shows up in the music you make now, particularly when it comes to the influence of hymns?
Eirik Vildgren: The hymns are Jenny’s part of the music, but I think you can hear in our music the way Psalms influenced both of us. My grandfather was a priest and I’ve been working as an organ player in church — I still do — so church music is quite a big part of my life as well. When you grow up with that it becomes ingrained in your mind in a certain way. It definitely incorporates the way we want people to sing along, and like on our song “Baby Hallelujah,” it’s quite a choral experience.
As far as the origins of Konradsen, initially you guys were both playing in another artist’s band, and then later began making your own music together, right?
We were playing in the band of a friend, and then I was recording synthesizers and using a lot of bass. I was doing pretty much what I do now, in Konradsen, and we’d both been shy. She had some songs, and I liked her music, and we started rehearsing in the practice space after. It was a project where she was like ‘oh I have some songs…’ and we were like ‘oh let’s make it into a project.’ And the songs slowly came. We both spent our time tuning into each other, so after like a year or so maybe together I asked her, ‘do you think maybe we should try to record a song?’ I had an exam at school that I needed a song for. So we chose “Dice,” and that was the first song we recorded together.
Did you already know how to record at that time?
I borrowed some speakers and a microphone from my father. It was very simple. And I also had a piano in my room. I knew how to record... kind of, but I hadn’t really recorded anything proper. So I knew the theory of it, but I didn’t have the experience. So it was quite interesting.
After recording “Dice” did you immediately begin jumping into the rest of the album? Or was it still quite a while from the first song to a full collection of songs?
Everything took quite a long time. I think it was the fact that none of us had ever recorded or produced anything before, so we didn’t have one producer saying ‘let’s do this, and do it in two weeks.’ It was just me and her. And at the same time, we had to make it into a project. So it was a lot of time searching, and we had to figure out how we wanted to produce it, what kind of band we wanted to be, and all those things took time. We had a few options to record here and there, but we realized that we wanted to produce it ourselves, we wanted to release it when it was ready, and just take our time to find the way we wanted to express it. It was an on and off project where we wrote in periods.
A lot of people are really drawn to “Television Land” and the vocal sample of Big Bruce that precedes it. Why did you guys zero in on that sample and include it?
The sample stuff suddenly became an important part of the record. It all started with the way we used sounds in “Dice,” actually. The way we felt that it enriched the music and gave it some depth, and also the story. It wasn’t necessarily a clear narrative, but snippets of a narrative. We started using audio from Jenny’s father’s old films in another song, “Red To Rhyme,” that’s the first song we used clips from her father’s work in. And then it just became like a go-to thing when we felt like we needed something extra.
Jenny showed me this footage of Bruce, it was a really cool movie, which we used in the start of our music video. Her father is filming Canadian landscapes, and then he goes through a door and ends up in that dining room with Bruce sitting all by himself at this big table, and he just turns around and improvise this goodbye. I remember thinking that’ its such a strong and weird moment. So we thought ‘ok we should start a song with this.’ The first thing we did was put the sample at the beginning of the project, but then we thought we needed to make an actual song out of this.
I read that Bruce has passed now, but how do you think he’d feel about being included on your debut?
I didn’t know Bruce, I never met him, he was a friend of Jenny’s family. But the things I’ve heard about him, I think he would love it. He was a really great guy, he loved when things were happening, and he was a really warm person. If I’m going to guess, I’d think he’d love it.
The album definitely has a community feel. How do you think the communal feel sets you apart from other more contemporary bands?
A lot of people I know in Oslo… I feel like we have maybe a different approach to playing music. Because we don’t do a lot of concerts. Like some bands play 40 concerts in a few months, and in that sense, we have a very different approach. Instead of playing a lot of concerts, we just play a few and try to get the most out of them.
The vocal effects and vocal modulations used on the record are so fascinating. How did you guys land on using that technique?
I think it’s two different reasons. We were very influenced by Frank Ocean, he’s such an inspiration with the way he uses his vocals. It’s so rich and it fills the space and makes such a good atmosphere. So we found that inspiring. The other reason is that Jenny already does that with her voice without effects. She makes, when she sings, sometimes she gives it different kinds of qualities and different kinds of functions. It was those two approaches combined that we discovered this way that worked for us.
I’d love to hear a little bit about how you came up with the album title: Saints And Sebastian Stories — it’s such a beautiful phrase.
It was a phrase that popped into a sketch we made when we were improvising. Sometimes we’d just hit record with me on the piano and her singing, and it was a phrase that turned up there. When we were going to find the title for the album, which is always really difficult, this one came up. And we thought it’s a really nice line, it has three S’s in a row, which makes it sound good, and Sebastian is also a good friend of mine, so maybe we got some inspiration there.
What I really like about it is that it encompasses two very important aspects of our music: the tactile, very down to earth sounds, like the backyard, my brother taking dishes out the dishwasher, very mundane things and very earthly things, but also the church inspiration, the more spiritual but thoughtful elements. It’s like heaven and earth in one line, without necessarily being religious. But you know, it doesn’t even need to be. Life is quite mysterious in itself.