"What does it sound like? What does it smell like? What does it look like? How does it feel? I always ask myself these questions when I'm writing," says singer and producer Nanna Øland Fabricius. "I think that Oh Land has a unique landscape all on its own. I strive to make the possibilities endless and to have all the senses collide in to a language on their own."
Her multi-sensory approach to songwriting has been present from the beginning. Before Oh Land had a name, or even songs, she was a restless child on the outskirts of Copenhagen, where she wove together imaginary languages, characters, and magazines. Though she didn’t know it then, this sense of play would develop naturally into the skewed and rich aesthetic of Oh Land’s music and performance style.
She is the product of extremes. A disciplined ballet dancer who was educated with the Royal Danish and Royal Swedish Ballet schools coupled with a “circus-like” upbringing courtesy of a family of creative souls. Their unique and individual talents have left deep imprints on how Oh Land experiences and interprets the world around her.
Performance has always been a part of her personal expression as nurtured by the performances of those closest to her. Whether she was learning to see from a sister who designs clothing, to hear from her opera singer mother, or to touch from her church organist father; the mixture of this unique upbringing has contributed to the multi-faceted layers of an ever evolving Oh Land.
Oh Land’s music bears the fruit of this incredibly stimulating childhood. She has created a soundscape that dreams as hard as it dances. Her performance style confronts the audience with elements as sonically and visually diverse as drum pads, an omnichord, and a front projector system that broadcasts homemade visuals across balloons.
"I want my music to feel like 2050 meets something really classic, like meeting a stranger that feels as familiar as an old friend." says Oh Land.
Her approach to songwriting reaches beyond melody to touch on shared experience; her music simultaneously incorporates the whirrs, tics, and thumps of machinery and the soft, human tug of strings and delicately layered vocals. It was this dual quality of her music – human, yet otherworldly -- that landed this peculiar, talented, and determined artist on the radar of Epic Records during a 2009 showcase at SXSW at the end of a brief US tour that Oh Land booked herself.
Used to pushing the boundaries of her talent, Oh Land relocated to Brooklyn at the beginning of 2010 to write the latest chapters of her whirlwind story: an ever-evolving album that features speaker-panning samples, honeyed hooks, and the knob-twiddling skills of Dan Carey (The Kills, Franz Ferdinand, Hot Chip) and Dave McCracken (Depeche Mode, Beyoncé, AFI).
The jungle drumming and layered vocals of “White Nights” evokes a quest to find peace and a sense of home in the chaos of a city that never sleeps. She sings, “There’s a restlessness in me/Keeps me up ’till the dawn/There is no silence/I will keep following the sirens,” alluding to both the noise and throb of the city and the mythological seducers that call to lonely sailors.
“I wanted my new album to strike a balance between the big city and nature,” she explains, “because they’re both pulling me in different directions all the time. I live and grow in the eye of the storm.”
That duality is also at play in the steady pulse and lavish loops of “Sun of a Gun,” which layers literal references to the sun (“a symbol of the divine that we’re now afraid of”) over unflinching comparisons to the twilight of an ill-fated relationship.
Oh Land’s lyrics evoke storybook imagery that is both rich and moving, inviting the listener to step to the edge of the rabbit hole and plummet. For instance, “Wolf & I” works as both a trippy, heart-stirring ballad as well as a “modern fable about doubt and fear” that tells the tale of a love triangle between a wolf, the sun, and the moon.
If her music contains an allegorical element, her connection to performance is almost spiritual. “Even when I was really little and feeling angry about something,” she says, “I knew to shut up the second I went backstage. There’s this magic about performing that’s very holy to me.”
That spell was broken ever so briefly when a major back injury caused her ballet career to come to an abrupt halt after being told by a doctor that she would never dance again.
“I was like a black hole during that period,” admits Oh Land. “The only thing that got me through it was music, because I felt like I could still dance through it; like I could lie down, close my eyes, and figure out melodies without moving.” This dark period led her to discover that the entire reason she danced in the first place was because of music and that was the creative medium she wanted to mold as her own.
This discovery manifested itself in Oh Land’s self-produced debut album, Fauna. Released in 2008 by Scandinavian tastemaker/producer/DJ, Kasper Bjorke, the album featured Oh Land’s first 10 tracks as an artist - lush otherworldly soundscapes that wouldn’t sound out of place alongside the Bjork LPs and trip-hop tracks that she obsessed over while growing up.
Her recovery and seamless transition to songwriting is revisited in the new track “Break the Chain,” a heady but hopeful reflection on Oh Land’s journey to reclaim her self-expression and bring to light the ideas that have flooded her subconscious from the start.
To try to wrap your head around her disparate influences and patchwork influences might sound complicated, but if you ask Oh Land, what she’s doing now isn’t all that different than the years she spent “styling” clothes her mother made, or teaching younger dance students new routines behind the backs of their teacher. She has always taken the raw materials of expression and used them her way.
“When I was younger,” says Oh Land, “We didn’t think, ‘Let’s play with our Barbie dolls or a board game today.’ We were building our own universes. And nothing’s changed, except now I have an audience beyond my parents.”