A couple of years ago Norman Palm created a wee book. Two hundred little square pages of drawings, photography and typographically fun song lyrics accompanied by a CD of twelve softly acoustic songs, one for each chapter.
Before that he’d made a pair of videos for his covers of “Boys Don’t Cry” and “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”, which combined advertising images, YouTube footage and classical imagery to explore and question ideas of gender stereotyping.
He’s a rather fascinating fella, this Norman Palm.
His new album “Shore to Shore”, released on March 14 by City Slang (Arcade Fire, Caribou, Broken Social Scene) is more conventional in format and content, but is no less eclectic, sweet and experimental than his previous ventures. Now on tour in Europe, he plays London’s Old Blue Last on March 30.
Glasswerk asked him a few questions about his music, and where he’s off to next.
The fact you’re German and have lived in Mexico often gets mentioned, as if that somehow helps to define you – do you think it does? Do you think it defines your music in any way?
I think it helps defining who I am personally, what kind of life I live, where I come from. Somebody seems to have decided that it is very important to know where an artist lives, where he comes from and how old he is. Sometimes those factors influence his work, but sometimes it is also completely irrelevant to relate the work to the biography. I have been living in Berlin and Mexico City back and forth, my girlfriend does the same and that is what many of my songs are about. Since I am a bit on the move I have never built a studio for myself and become an electronic musician with a big collection of heavy synthesisers. I like to keep things simple and work with a practical mobile setup such as a laptop and an acoustic guitar, so maybe in the end you can hear my biography in the songs.
How do you go about making your music? What processes do you follow, or instruments and techniques do you use? Please feel free to give us the geeky details…
Not too many geeky details to reveal. Ideally I’d come up with a good melody all by myself, humming it on the street, possibly recording it into my mobile phone, not to forget. Next I pick it up on the guitar, making a song out of it. Then I record it in the computer as a demo version. I was never ambitious enough to compete with real studio engineers, I try to catch a certain mood or atmosphere when I record, mainly to get a feeling for the song. It can be very noisy, very lo-fi. Later I’d go to a real studio to re-record. For the new album I worked with Janne Lounatvuori as a producer, who is also part of my band. We used many instruments, from toy piano to analogue synthesisers; Janne has a great collection.
You say that when producing “Shore to shore” with Janne Lounatvuori your motto was “nothing may stay as it was”. Was it hard to relinquish some aspects of the songs? Do you feel like they’re still yours? Is there anything from the sketched versions of the songs that you miss, or might use again somehow?
It was not that hard really. I try to see a song mainly as a basic idea; a good song can work in many shapes. It can be electronic or acoustic, orchestrated or stripped down. Also, a previous version does not just disappear when you record a new one. I still play many of the new songs on the acoustic guitar; it is still valid I think. “Easy” for example, which is almost clubby and electronic on the albums, works great as folky ballad played with guitar only.
We gather you’ve put together a band, with Lounatvuori and Obi Blanche, and that you try to put “a little more rave” into your shows. How does that sound? Are your songs becoming big club anthems, or are the electronics a bit more experimental than that?
Yes, Janne has been part of my band for a while. Obi Blanche is new, he has a few exciting projects on his own also. We found it a little too boring to just replicate the album recordings on stage. Also, we’re three people, while on the album there are often many instruments played in one song. So we had to cut down on the quantity without losing the quality. Obi is a great guitar player who also knows how to use effects in the right way. Janne is great on keys, brings in his collection of analogue synthesisers and a few other gimmicks, while I can concentrate on singing and strumming along on the guitar. We ended up playing a few techno jams on the last tour, I guess that got us the ravey reputation. We’re trying to bridge the gap between a very intimate singer-songwriter atmosphere and upbeat electronics. That can only be experimental. It works differently each time, often people are surprised by the genre crossover, but mostly happy I think!
So far you’ve produced your design work, videos, a book, and now two albums – are there any other creative fields you feel like exploring?! What’s next?
Ha! Good question. Probably I will write a novel, then an opera and later some watercolour paintings, or has Paul McCartney done exactly that already? Frankly I am not sure what comes next. I have another project going on, which will hopefully come out later this year, exploring experimental electronic music combined with my vocals. This is exciting, very computer-based work, very different from how I usually work. At the moment I’m focusing on music, but who knows what’s next! I’ve always tried not to think of fields that I should or could work in, rather, if it’s a good idea I’ll learn whatever I need to master it technically.