Assembling an international all-star cast for his October 18 concert Jherek Bischoff: Composed, Bischoff tapped musicians at the top of their form, from Icelandic vocalist Ólöf Arnalds to Bay Area drummer Greg Saunier (Deerhoof), Norwegian singer-songwriter Sondre Lerche to the Twin Cities’ own Channy Leaneagh. Performing with Bischoff just days before her own nationally acclaimed band, Poliça, releases its sophomore album, Leanagh agreed to lead an email conversation with Bischoff. Their casual exchange hit topics from the nature of collaboration to musical inspirations, nervous nail-biting to bedtime music.
Channy Leaneagh: I’ll start.
Jherek Bischoff: Oh good! Starting is always the hardest part! Thank you.
Leaneagh: Hello, Jherek,
Bischoff: Ahoy, Channy!
Leaneagh: I’m biting my nails at the thought of interviewing another musician because it’s my least favorite part of this line of work.
Bischoff: I feel you! I every once in awhile say yes to a thing and then realize it’s pretty far out of my comfort zone, and then I freak out a little bit. Funny about biting your nails. Do you really do that? I do. It’s a disgusting habit. I have quit several times and then something really intense happens, like a big show or something, and I go back to it. Yuck! Darn!
Leaneagh: Ha, yes I do bite my nails. Thought I’d quit, but this relaxed interview seems to have brought it out in me again! My hands were well washed and my nails will grow back, so no harm done really. Now, let’s get on with this. You did a beautiful piece for the Kronos Quartet this past July called A Semiperfect Number. Did you have any specific imagery or story behind the composition?
Bischoff: Were you there!? Man, if you were I wish we would have hung!
Leaneagh: I wasn’t there, but thanks to the Internet I have been able to watch and listen to it a bunch.
Bischoff: Well, thanks for the nice words. A Semiperfect Number is another one of these tunes that has been kind of floating around my head for a long time. The song is sort of like two songs with a little connecty bit. The first half of the tune is the part that has been stewing. I wrote it, like a lot of my tunes, on ukulele! The second part came to me a couple days before my deadline. I wrote that part on violin and cello.
The name of the tune refers to the number 40. We played the piece at Lincoln Center in celebration of their 40th anniversary. I was truly hoping people were not going to think I was referring to my own piece… I thought that could sound pretty egotistical! No one said anything…
It’s funny that you mention imagery. This, like most of my music, sounds pretty cinematic, but I rarely have a connection to anything visual until long after I write a piece. I’m not a visual person at all. I am just a feel or mood kind of music maker. My orchestral writing is certainly informed by soundtracks more than classical music so a lot of people mention getting pictures in their heads when listening to my music.
Leaneagh: I’ve been enjoying your collaboration with David Byrne on “Eyes” and Soko and Zac Pennington on “Young & Lovely.” When you are entering into collaboration do you usually work with people you know or have met before, starting the collaboration out of friendship, or do you seek people out from afar and then get to know them through the collaboration?
Bischoff: I love to do a lot of both! Zac and Soko are both friends of mine, and we have a long history of collaborating with each other, but in the case of David Byrne, I had never met him. My big influences as a collaborator are Björk, Duke Ellington, and Mingus. These people could put together these monster bands and utilize people with extremely different backgrounds and musical vocabularies, yet at the end of the day it still sounded like a Mingus composition or a Björk song. So when I set out to collaborate, I do it in basically two ways.
1. I write some material, and then I try to imagine the absolute perfect person to sing the song. Then I reach out to them and cross my fingers that they’ll give me the time of day. This has worked really well for me, and I think it is the fact that I am asking these people to do what they are great at. I’m not asking David Byrne to sing in a strange octave or to bust out an oboe solo or something. I am asking him to do something that I know that he is totally awesome at. So, when people have listened to the tunes and heard what I have to say, I think it feels natural for them to say yes.
2. Sometimes I play a show at a festival or something and I have an opportunity to have a guest vocalist that has a voice that I am not entirely familiar with, but they seem like rad folks, or they are friends or friends of friends. In this case, I will listen to some of their recordings and really try to think of things in my repertoire where I think they could really feel natural. I also, most of the time, will arrange a tune or two for the ensemble so that they can get in their comfort zone and have fun with it. That way they can sing some of their own music in a new way and sing a new tune!
So I do both in hopes that it will lead to longer relationships and friendships. I just try to be around awesome people and I try to make it really easy and fun for them!
We haven’t met yet! But I’m listening to your music and getting a feel for your range and the sound of your voice so I can try to have an informed idea of what is going to work best for us. I am excited about it. I like your voice!
Leaneagh: I agree with that sentiment: “Try to be around awesome people and make it really easy and fun for them.” It’s a beautiful way to go about most things.
How will you go about the Liquid Music Series collaboration? Are you building pieces around specific musicians in the group or will each piece involve all the musicians?
Bischoff: Well, most of the ensemble members I don’t know and will probably not get the chance to become familiar with, besides Greg Saunier, who will be playing drums. I am extremely familiar with that wild man! He is one of my favorite musicians on the planet, and he always just makes stuff sound like real music.
Most of the pieces will involve all of the musicians and one singer at a time. I try to write my arrangements to leave a lot of room for individuals to express themselves if they want to. We usually discuss at rehearsal and decide who is excited about playing a certain solo and stuff. It’s just like how I work with the singers. I would never ask a person to shred an atonal, disgusting-sounding solo if they were not excited about doing it, because then it’s just going to sound stupid. So, I try to identify who in the group is the goofball, who’s the improviser, who’s the shy one, etc. Then we decide together to make everyone comfortable and excited! It’s a lot of little decisions, but when you try to stay on your toes and use your knowledge and experience, all of those decisions can really result in an ecstatic music love fest.
I am really excited about the vocalists for this show! I feel like they each bring something totally different to the table and everyone is a total one of a kind voice and personality. That is always super exciting to me! I will be doing some arrangements of the singers own tunes and they will sing a tune of mine. It’s super fun to get my hands on other peoples songs and arrange for them. Even though each singers project is vastly different, because I am doing the arranging for a specific ensemble, it all becomes very cohesive and it works really well together.
Leaneagh: So glad we did this interview, in fact, because now I am less nervous and way more excited for the show. Are there questions you wish interviewers would ask you, but never do, in relation to your music?
Leaneagh: There isn’t really a question I wish for but I am always happy to hear a new question.
Last question: Do you listen to music when you are going to sleep? What is the most soothing music to you these days?
Bischoff: I used to all the time. Do you?
Leaneagh: The producer of Poliça, Ryan Olson, turned me on to listening to [NASA's] The Symphonies of the Planets while going to sleep. It’s really helpful on the road to make any place feel like home.
Bischoff: I honestly don’t listen to a ton of music. I work on music all day and all night, so lately I just like silence. On tour I listen to a lot more music and a lot when I go to bed. That is because it’s really hard for me to write or get work done on tour, so I use that as my time to soak in new. I am pretty into ambient music in general. I like Colleen, William Basinski, Eno, all that type of stuff.
Jherek Bischoff: Composed – copresented with the SPCO’s Liquid Music series and in association with the American Swedish Institute and Minnesota Public Radio – takes place Friday, October 18, 2013, at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul.