The Lighthouse, Scandi-Style: Hjalte Ross Takes A Trip Under Northern Skies
Back in February one of the odder films of recent years arrived on UK screens: The Lighthouse, in which Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe pitch up to run a remote island lighthouse, in New England, get trapped by a vicious storm, and go berserk.
A year earlier, Hjalte Ross also journeyed to a remote island lighthouse, in Norway, to conjure concepts for his second album, ‘Waves of Haste’; which was also a mission wrought by climactic conditions, albeit rather less cataclysmically.
The deeply not-berserk Ross is a sort of Danish Drake; Nick, that is, not the Canadian one (although that would be amazing). This Aalborg-based troubadour even got Nick’s old producer, John Wood, to oversee his 2018 debut album, ‘Embody’, and Wood returned for the new one, with a mix from Daniel Goodwin (Kevin Morby, Whitney). The result is a branch of pastoral folk that you could easily envisage calming fevered souls back in the tumultuous early 70s, too.
Our Zoom chat happened just before Christmas, as the world braced for another wave.
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Nice to see a bit of Denmark through your window, Hjalte. How’s it going there?
Actually just yesterday they closed down everything, most shops. So you can't buy any Christmas presents.
It’s a good excuse, at least. Was the album supposed to be out earlier? It sounds quite Autumnal.
There is the autumn vibe, yeah, plus a bit more spring/summer than before, more upbeat. We talked about if we should even release it yet, but I’m happy. The meaning of this album was to do something more outside Denmark, record in different places, tour.... suddenly, that's not the goal anymore.
I saw the movie The Lighthouse just before hearing your album, and your experience sounds a lot more tranquil.
It was really nice, nothing like that film. The first album, I wrote it over a long period, after finishing high school. I told my parents, “I'm done with high school, I'm going to make a record!” It was like a job, living at home, writing songs. This time, I started by going to New York…
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I see a picture of Bob Dylan on your wall there...
I’d never been before, we were staying in Chelsea and I was sure I was going to feel like a Danish hillbilly. But I didn’t, it was really inspirational. Then I went to London for arrangements, strings, and in September/October I went to the lighthouse, to work on lyrics, and bring it all together.
I wanted to isolate myself. At that time, not every person on the planet was doing that.
You were very ahead of the curve.
Exactly. There were two locals in the house next door, Frank and Reidar. Reidar was an actor, he'd been in several movies, Norwegian stuff. And Frank was a musician. He played with Laid Back, played drums on ‘Sunshine Reggae’.
That’s pretty random!
They were childhood friends and they decided that they wanted to live on an island, so now they take care of the lighthouse. It’s a fantastic place to be. I was really productive there.
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What did you take with you?
Just my guitar. It’s hard to really isolate yourself now – there’s wifi - but just physically, the surroundings, the distance; you’d see the mountains on other islands. I feel like travelling sets creative paths in motion. And it also puts you in a different perspective to your own life.
The night I arrived it was dark, I had to fly to this tiny airport. Then a small boat to another island, a small fishing town, I was picked up, then had to get on this small rubber boat, with my guitar and suitcases.
No crazy storms though, causing breakdowns?
No, but cold. On the last night, we were laying outside, covered in blankets, drinking a lot of wine: Frank and Reidar had an app to see when there’s a chance of the Northern Lights. And it happened, it was extreme, a whole blanket of lights covering this area.
That sounds like a drug-free version of a 60s/70 rock-band acid trip. Did it inspire you to write anything?
Actually, after that I went inside, big window, little desk, and I wrote a song, ‘Passes By’. It's kind of a cliché, I saw the Northern Sky and wrote a song, but that happened. And that song, when I got back, we didn't rehearse, just played, and got it in three takes. A magic song.
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So when did you start getting into those 70s folky guys?
At a pretty young age, my father listened to The Who, British stuff. My uncle also plays guitar, he introduced me to Bert Jansch, John Martyn, Nick Drake. I still love that 70s feel, real instruments, so that’s why I really wanted to work with Daniel Goodwin, because he’s mixing analogue, but still has this modern sound.
And John Wood producing – lots of us probably don’t know the difference, who does what?
John, he’s a genius when it comes to choosing the microphones, and where to put them, for the ambience. He’s doing a lot of pre-production, getting everything prepared beforehand. - A lot of producers now just place a microphone in front of a guitar, fast, then start editing on the computer. John, he's taking his time. The thing I like, during a take, he can listen over and over to the vocals, sitting with his eyes closed, listening carefully, comparing the tapes to each other, it's really fascinating. A lot of producers wouldn't have the patience.
It must be worth it, just to watch him work.
It’s interesting, and it makes musicians perform better, knowing that these things are taken seriously. With Daniel too, I was supposed to go to New York but then Corona happened, so it had to be this ping-pong back and forth.
I wasn’t really very happy about doing it that way. But it turned out really great. I was really impressed how he got what I wanted, because I'm really bad at describing music. I mean, how do you describe how you want drums to sound?
So is there a perfect place to listen to your stuff?
I was on Danish radio a few days ago, eight/nine a.m., and they had lots of texts saying it was perfect for that time. So I would say go for a walk, listen to it then. I think it's a Corona-friendly album
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‘Waves Of Haste’ is out now.
Words: Si Hawkins
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