…For me it’s only important whether the music is honest and authentic and I’m only interested in the story which lies behind each song…
Singer, pianist & composer Adina Friis leads the Swiss trio “Luumu” which released its third album – Elephant Love Song – this month.
Described as blending spherical jazz with dark indie folk and contemporary Scandinavian soundscapes, we caught up with her to dive deeper into the inspirations behind her music and the record.
Can you tell us about the inspiration behind the album, “Elephant Love Song”?
Oh wow.. the main inspiration is life, I guess. Like most songwriters I write about things I observe and experience in my own life and surroundings. See for me, the story always comes first.
Some songs like „Tell you a Story“ and „The Hope of Fools“ are about climate change and our time as a ticking clock. When I wrote „Tell you a Story“ I imagined a picture of taking a child to the window to explain the world out there. It starts quite sweet and innocent and sound like a fairytale in the beginning but then gets darker and more serious.
„Circle of Existence“ was a contemporary document about the first day of the covid lockdown, a day, which we all probably will never forget. It’s a time document about a world, that doesn’t recognize itself anymore. „Crossfades“ is a tune I wrote about (mis)communication.
There was a time when I tried to explain myself to certain people over and over again but no matter how hard I tried, they never seemed to understand, what I said and it felt, like we were talking in two different languages. „Fragments“ I wrote many years ago and it’s about a new love and compromise and a certain search for meaning.
I didn’t play the tune for a couple of years but then, when I started to decide which songs should be on the album, I found it again and the lyrics, especially in the end, suddenly had gotten an astonishingly current meaning and seemed to fit the time perfectly, as though I had just written it but actually I wrote it 10 years ago. „Verdens Sange“ is a danish song for and about a danish musician and songwriter. It’s about the fact, that some songs live forever and the same song can have a totally different meaning for each person.
„Hazy Wintersun“ is a naturalistic picture but also about a relationship. „All That’s Left“ is about the end of this relationship, where we understood, that even if a relationship ends as such, some things will remain connected forever and can not be forgotten or disconnected.
But I really like the title of the tune because I wrote it specially for a concert I had to play at a theatre in Bern and I had broken my right wrist. So I only had my left hand to play with: all that’s left. And on top of this, the evening was dedicated to a left wing politician from Germany. So the title has a triple meaning and there’s also something humorous about it, which I like al lot.
„The Castle“ and „The Persistent“ are very personal songs which I wrote around a time when I knew, that my life is at a turning point and something will change drastically, I just didn’t know, into which direction yet.
Musically I was inspired by all kinds of styles. Of course I come from a jazzy background but I was also inspired by Songwriters like Nick Drake, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Kate Bush, Björk, Patrick Watson, The Doors, the piano playing of Jan Johansson, The Moody Blues, Pink Floyd and many more.
But again, I think my main inspiration is life and the observation of life, people and society. Another inspiration is nature. I need a lot of time in nature to be able to write music.
What was the process of working with an 8-piece string & brass ensemble like for this album?
It was a dream I’ve had since I was a child.
To have my music be played by an orchestra is still a dream I have and this was the first step in this direction. The process was like this: I wrote the songs. Some of them many many years ago, like „Fragments“.
The idea of creating something that resembles Nick Drake in a way has been lingering in my brain for a long time. So I re-arranged it from two guitars to piano and string quartet. Other tunes like „Crossfades“, The Castle“, „The Persistent“ were written a few years before the recording and have been played by my trio with Simon Iten on bass and Andy Schelker on drums (which essentially is the trio „Luumu“) for a while and for this album I arranged horns kind of on top of the trio.
„The Castle“ was especially interesting to arrange. I used a lot of bass clarinet, which brings a nice flavor to the mystical side of my music. I also listened to some of Pink Floyd’s horn arrangements as an inspiration for this arrangement.
„Crossfades“ is more of a jazzy arrangement where I doubled parts of the bass with a baritone saxophone and on „The Persistent“, there was simply no space for any additional instruments, since the story longs for some kind of fulfilling emptiness. So I recorded it on a Fender Rhodes instead of grand piano and we used some electronics on the more chaotic part of the song.
Both „Tell Me A Story“, „Hazy Wintersun“ and „Circle of Existence“ were played by the trio at concerts for a while and I arranged the strings on top of it. The instrumental part in the end of „Hazy Wintersun“ was intended to have strings on it since the beginning.
„All That’s Left“ simply had no space for the trio or a big orchestra, since it’s meant to be as intimate as it can be. So I arranged a flute around my vocals, which made the tune sound even more lonely and longing. On 8 of the 10 tunes I wrote several vocal harmonies, which is something very important to me.
Also the creative act gets even more creative when I start to record layers of vocal parts and the music becomes richer and richer since the possibilities are endless with harmony singing. I recorded demo versions of each tune where I tried out the harmony vocals in combination with strings and horns and I ended up doubling some of the harmony parts with a bass clarinet or flute, which also creates a very nice mood.
The most important fact was to bring the exact instrumentation to each tune, which the song deserves. I didn’t write for a specific line-up just because I wanted to have it on the record but I always listen to the song and it’s story to figure out, which instruments can contribute something which makes the tune more colorful and creates the exact mood, I want the song to have.
The whole process of recording was quite demanding since we recorded the album during Covid. First we recorded the trio (piano, bass, drums) in a studio in Fribourg (Switzerland) and overdubbed the strings in a theatre some months later and even later the horns in another studio.
The vocals I recorded myself at home because I like to take my time recording vocals and I like to experiment with the sound colors of my voice a lot. The whole thing was then mixed in Galway, Ireland by Florian Pittet, who also had many nice inputs on the arrangements.
Your music has been described as a blend of jazz and folk music with electronic elements. How did you develop this rather unique sound?
I think it’s a mixture of the music, which I was influenced by. I grew up listening to mostly classical music as a child, then I discovered the Beatles and the music from the sixties/seventies which was a huge influence on me and my live.
That’s when I decided to become a musician when I was about 13 years old. So I started to play Rockmusik. I discovered Jazz a few years later and decided to study jazz piano. After that I began to write film music. The music which I write and record now is probably the sum of all those phases I went through and all the musical styles, I adore so much.
You’ve played over a hundred concerts across Europe with this project. How has your music and approach to performing evolved over that time?
I think I learned a lot on stage. I started quite young and I was quite self assure when I started but then during the time I studied at the jazz school, I started to be pretty insecure on stage because of all the expectations and the judgements of my fellow students and teachers and because I was one of very few women.
But at some point I realized, it’s about not being afraid of making mistakes. Of course I was frightened of that but I’m also an exceptionally stubborn person and I always look ahead. So I just kept going and kept practicing and slowly observed, how I developed both my piano playing and my vocals from gig to gig over the years.
I started to figure out, where my strengths and weaknesses lie and during my studies in Copenhagen I was encouraged to rather develop my strengths than keep trying to get rid of weakness. I always had a clear vision of how my music should sound like and it’s always been a blend of different styles.
I was lucky to find my two bandmates after playing my „Luumu“ music only for two years and we’ve been playing together for 10 years now and developed a nice band sound, which is something you only can gain over time, I think. I kept recording concerts and listen to them afterwards to hear, what I still should work on.
It took me a while to find my old place on stage again, which had come so naturally to me when I played concerts as a teenager and even as a child.
But after many years and many concerts I started to feel at home again on stage. When I’m on stage now, there’s no other place I’d rather be.
My music has become a little less complicated over the years, I think. The structures are clearer now, in the beginning my tunes had many different parts, different tempos and keys. But actually I’m now thinking about going back to that in a way.
There were also more improvised parts in the beginning and over the years I started to write rather „songs“ than „compositions”. But in the near future I’d like to have more instrumental and improvised parts in my music again and perhaps go back to my even more diverse structures again, just in a different way now, of course. Who knows. It’s always evolving.
You’ve placed a lot of focus on music videos and animations. How important is visual storytelling to your creative process?
I like the idea, that „Luumu“ isn’t just a musical project but a conceptional piece of art. Lyrics are equally important as music for me as well. As is the artwork of our CDs and the band pictures. I was lucky to meet Joana Locher a few years back and found her style of animation movies to fit my music perfectly.
So we started to work together and soon I realized, that she understands the thoughts and feelings in my songs without any need to talk about it very much. She’s able to say the things with her pictures, which I can’t say with words.
The first animated video by Joana „In My Head“ has been shown at film festivals all over the world and after she created the second video „Projection“ , an not long ago the third one called „Fragments“, we started to play live to the projected videos at some concert venues and it’s always a unique experience for both the audience but also for us musicians on stage.
Since I write music for film and theatre as well, the animations build a nice bridge between my two „jobs“ as a performing musician and a composer for film.
The project has been described as “compositionally complex yet accessible”. Was that intentional and how are the challenges and rewards of creating music that is both intricate and listener-friendly?
Well funnily enough I find it not very intricate and mostly listener-friendly. Coming from a jazzy point of view, I’d say, this album is almost simple in it’s complexity since it’s very song-oriented. But that’s probably not true, since so many people tell me otherwise.
In that case I would say, the answer is, it wasn’t intentional. I just write my music and I don’t usually think about, what people will think about it and if it’s accessible or complicated or both at the same time.
For me it’s only important whether it is honest and authentic and I’m only interested in the story, which lies behind each song and the music, which is necessary to tell this story the right way for me at that specific time when I write it.
You wrote the album around the time that a friend passed away. How did this influence the songwriting process and the overall direction of the album?
It was the other way around, actually. I wrote many of the songs for my friend and after we recorded them, he passed away, which gave a completely new meaning to them.
You are based in Switzerland but with roots in Scandinavia. How has your heritage influenced your music?
A lot, I think. But how is a good question. It wasn’t intentional. I think, heritage says it all. It’s not a conscious thing, it’s probably inherited. But maybe it also has something to do with interests.
Nordic music, both Scandinavian and English/Irish folk music with its archaic undertone has always had my attention. When I started to write the music for my future project which became „Luumu“, I was traveling through Scandinavia and Lapland several times during the summer holidays where the midnight sun would never set.
I started to write the first couple of songs in the middle of the night somewhere in the middle of nowhere in the north. Just me and a guitar, a piece of paper and a pen in the absolut silence. Some years later I did the same thing in Iceland. Maybe this environment just somehow made my music sound more „nordic“. But I certainly also feel very much at home in the north, so maybe that’s why.
The album features a range of instrumentation, from minimalist piano and vocals to full orchestral soundscapes. Can you talk about the decision-making process when it comes to arranging and scoring your songs?
I listen to the song and figure out, which line-up is the most suitable and gives the song what it deserves to flourish in it’s essence. That’s actually all there is to it.
Thanks to Luumu for taking part in this interview!