Feature/Interview

Mikael Máni (New Album ‘Nostalgia Machine’)

Icelandic guitarist Mikael Máni’s second album Nostalgia Machine is a crossover work of confidently understated melodic refinement. Feature/ Interview by AJ Dehany:

Mikael Máni. Publicity photo

The text accompanying Mikael Máni’s new album says that in his music the young guitarist “aims to portray how the emotions felt while listening become imprinted within what is heard and later conjure up memories of that specific moment when discovered once again.” I mentioned that to me this called to mind the Proustian notion of “involuntary memory”, a powerful part of the mind that can suddenly overwhelm us. I asked him, “Do you find that with some things you don’t wish to repeat them? For you, is music a torture or an exorcism?”

“I wish it were that poetic but it’s more plain than that,” he replied. “My favourite feeling after watching a movie or while listening to a song is bittersweet. Something that is hopeful and even joyous but you know for certain that moment will never come again. Or you’re heading in a direction which is exciting but you know you’re leaving something you love behind. These are subjects that I have in mind while finishing rewriting songs.”

He continues, “One song on the album My Day With Pierre is about remembering when I got to know my best friend. It’s a happy, up-beat, quirky tune (just like Pierre is). However for me there is a bit of sadness in my personal connection to the song because I can never relive that moment and also I live in Iceland and he in Switzerland. That makes my connection to the song bittersweet but I don’t think other people will necessarily experience it the same way, which I don’t think really matters.”

The thoughtful universalising quality of the music reflects an attempt to capture these sentiments through melody and form: “I’m trying to translate my experiences and often nuanced emotion through music with a storyline in mind. This is something you’ll experience in Debussy’s music strongly and also through the lyrics in Joni Mitchell’s songs.”

The influence of the widescreen emotional language of Sigur Rós is crucial. “The way I listen and digest music would be best described as ‘listening a lot to little’ rather than ‘listening a little to a lot’. Especially in my teens I would listen to one artist or one album for up to 9 months. Sigur Rós was probably the longest period I took listening only to one band.”

The music is broadly crossover jazz but he prefers to call it “jarm” which reflects jazz, rock and impressionism; a blend intended to stimulate both intellectually and emotionally. I particularly love the melodic grace of the emotive penultimate final track Be Still, Sinking Heart, seeming at once familiar and strange. The album title Nostalgia Machine somewhat reflects that balance between feeling and technique that characterises the greatest music from Bach to Ellington. Máni’s “meticulous style” has been compared to Jim Hall and Lage Lund, but his journey to clear and luminous playing has taken him through considerably louder and showier influences:

“When I was 6, I started studying classical piano. Until I was 12 my joy of playing the piano came a lot from playing some challenging pieces and I loved playing fast. Then I got my guitar and continued on the same path learning challenging, burning rock solos by Led Zeppelin. Then when I was 15 I loved Dream Theatre and their thing is technically difficult guitar solos and odd meters and that was what I spent my days doing. There is something extremely satisfying about nailing a ridiculously hard phrase.”

Listening to metal and prog led him naturally into the visceral listening music that is jazz: “I remember the exact moment when jazz started to intrigue me. I was listening to the Miles record Someday My Prince Will Come which I still love and think is very cool and moving. Wynton Kelly has a really cool solo. He plays two times in a row a line in his right hand and answers with his left hand rhythmically like “Baff-Baff!” Since then I have taken a period where the Miles’ solo was my favourite with its nuanced colours, the Coltrane solo which is so melodic and virtuosic, and then the super cool chilled Hank Mobley solo. What a take!”

Despite his technical facility and fascinations, the emotional character of his music began to assert itself at a relatively early stage. “When I was 17 I think I realised intuitively “OK, I have spent a lot of time on technical things now it’s time to move on to something else”. It wasn’t about dismissing speed, odd meters and extended harmonies – I still love virtuosic solos. It was more about there being other things in music that are more important to me and have a bigger emotional impact on me so I want to use that as my compass.”

Nostalgia Machine is an impressively seamless synthesis of his personal experience, both personally and musically, with a distinctively Icelandic ethos; he explains: “In Iceland the general principle is ‘do your own thing’ which is number 1, 2 and 3, which I think is just super positive!”

Nostalgia Machine is released on the Smekkleysa label and was funded by Karolina Fund 

AJ Dehany writes independently about music, art and stuff: ajdehany.co.uk 

Personnel / Credits:
Mikael Máni Ásmundsson – Guitar and composition
Magnús Trygvason Elíassen – Drums
Lilja María Ásmundsdóttir – Piano, celeste, metallophone and electronics
Ingibjörg Elsa Turchi – Electric Bass
Sölvi Kolbeinsson – Clarinet and Saxophone
Marína Ósk Þórólfsdóttir – Vocals
Matt Pierson – Producer
Chris Allen – Mixing and Mastering
Birgir Jón Birgisson – Recording engineer
Brynja Baldursdóttir – Artwork

LINKS: Mikael Máni’s website
The album launch concert is on 13 August 2021 at Reykjavik’s magnificent Harpa concert hall

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