Damon Albarn Creates Music from Mountains

Damon Albarn Creates Music from Mountains

Ahead of the release of his new album, The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows, Damon Albarn speaks with Atmos about writing music at the intersection of art and politics.

Eighteen months ago, Damon Albarn traveled to Iceland with one goal: to make music on his own terms. Once there, he sought solace in his music studio, which is located on the eastern part of the island and is surrounded by glaciers, mountains and coastline. And so Albarn, alongside a group of orchestral musicians, began playing their instruments, improvising beats, riffs and melodies inspired by their ever changing surroundings. Almost two years later, the music they created has amounted to The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows, Albarn’s latest studio album characterized by a mix of classical and pop sounds.

 

Albarn has never separated his art from his politics. Throughout his career, the musician—who  has fronted Blur and Gorillaz among others—has been vocal on issues close to his heart, ranging from the senselessness of modern warfare to plastic waste pollution. This is no different in The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows, which takes its name from a poem by John Clare titled Memory and Loss that reflects on the insignificance of human loss in the face of nature. Throughout the album, Albarn reflects on themes of fragility, loss and renewal by drawing on themes of climate change and transformation.

 

Read on for a conversation between Atmos and Albarn about The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows, which is out on November 12, 2021.

Damon Albarn Creates Music from Mountains

Daphne

Before I start asking you questions about your new album, The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows, I want to hear from you about your relationship to Iceland. I know you’ve been going there for a long time.

Damon

A long time. Nearly 25 years.

Daphne

Wow.

Damon

I know, it’s shocking. It’s shocking to feel I’ve been around for so long because you don’t start off thinking in those terms, it’s impossible. You can only evaluate life in what you’ve lived.

Daphne

So, why Iceland? What attracted you to the landscapes and the country?

Damon

What drove me there in the beginning was a recurring dream I had as a kid of flying over black sand or black expanses. It was an abstract thing that just kept happening. And then I was watching National Geographic somewhere in America, in some Holiday Inn or something like that, and I made that connection [with Iceland]. That’s what I’ve been dreaming about. It could have easily been Gran Canaria or New Zealand. But, it wasn’t, it was Iceland, so that’s where I went. I just felt like I had to go there to put geography to my dreams.

Daphne

And then am I right in thinking that you went back at the beginning of the pandemic, around February or March of 2020?

Damon

Yes, I was. I’d been doing workshops for this project after receiving an offer to make a piece of music wherever I wanted. And I said to myself, Well, the view from my window in Iceland is so mesmeric, so magnificent and somehow encapsulates everything that we’re talking about as far as climate change is concerned. In the sense that there’s the sea there, there’s mountains, there’s a glacier in the distance, there’s migrating birds. Everything. All of these things that are affected were all there just outside my window. So, initially that’s what I was doing. I had a group of orchestral musicians out there with me and we’d just sit for days, playing the landscape and the changes in the weather, which on occasions were so dramatic that it’s kind of impossible not to make music out of it. Some days were more subtle.

“I had a group of orchestral musicians out there with me and we’d just sit for days, playing the landscape and the changes in the weather.”

Damon Albarn

Daphne

I can imagine. So, when did you start creating the music that’s now being released as part of your album?

Damon

2019. But then everything ground to an absolute halt during the pandemic. I came back to England and I went down to Devon to a not dissimilar outlook and space: near to the sea, dramatic cliffs. I suppose it became even more acute because nothing else was going on. I really noticed every kind of change on the beach, which I’ve been going to since 1995. That was the inspiration for the Plastic Beach album. One day it can be this pristine, shingle beach, and then after a storm all the shingle goes and it’s sand as well as this devastating reality of the plastic that’s in the ocean. And then it’ll get washed away again and it’s gone.

 

I feel like if you allow yourself to make music and be sensitive to all of that, inevitably you’re making music that somehow expresses the environment. It’s not even a particularly conscious decision. It’s just so different from making music in a city. That’s why this record feels the way it does—because all the components of it come from being near the sea.

Daphne

In Iceland, especially, that must be particularly poignant, considering how much and how quickly the landscape is changing.

Damon

Glaciers are disappearing. And they’re disappearing rapidly. Even in the 25 years I’ve been going, the top of Snæfell, which is the glacier I can see from my window in the distance, has receded massively. And then in Iceland you have the additional Tectonic activity. There’s a volcano that’s active at the moment not that far—probably 25 miles outside of Reykjavík. It brings you so close to that reality that underneath the earth it’s just fire. Iceland’s brilliant in that sense. It’s an unfinished work of nature, it’s still being created. It’s like you’re there, but you’re a guest, you’re not necessarily a resident.

Damon Albarn Creates Music from Mountains
Damon Albarn Creates Music from Mountains
Damon Albarn Creates Music from Mountains
Damon Albarn Creates Music from Mountains
Damon Albarn Creates Music from Mountains
Damon Albarn Creates Music from Mountains

Daphne

What you’re saying makes me think of the album’s title—The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows—and the John Clare poem—Love and Memory—it references. At one point it reads, Suns leave us tonight. And their light none may borrow. So joy retreats from us. Overtaken by sorrow. They are such striking lines that capture this sense of scale, of feeling small in the face of grief and the grandness of the natural world by comparison. I wonder whether that emotion informed the creation of the album?

Damon

Completely, completely. I mean, in the song The Cormorant I sing, I’m a pathetic intruder into the abyss, and that’s how I feel every time I enter the sea. Just utterly helpless. But I like that feeling. For years, I was terrified to swim too far out and now I’ve become braver but I still sometimes have that moment of panic of like, Oh my God, I’m not in control. But you never are in control. None of us are.

Daphne

And how did your surroundings inform the direction of the album and those particular themes you were exploring?

Damon

I started by playing an orchestral interpretation of the outline of the mountains outside my window. From there, we did loads of improvisations. For example: the trombones would be given the cloud that was just about to come over the mountain, and the strings would be given the waders that were down by the shoreline when the tide went out. And then someone else would be designated the golf cart that had just come into view. They are weird, abstract things to play but after you’ve been through the process and divorce the music from that moment, it becomes something completely different. It’s a weird audio memory of what’s just happened.

 

And then some days it would turn into words. I’d actually write phrases down like, When rain turns into snow, which is just the most extraordinary experience because you’ve got this horizontal sheet of rain that’s just coming in and suddenly the temperature drops and it starts to slow down. It’s just beautiful. I was just trying to find simple ways to allude to the climate and the way it changes all the time.

“I don’t want to take the joy out of pop music at all. I just think it could really benefit from being a bit more helpful to people.”

Damon Albarn

Daphne

You’ve been doing that for a long time as well—you referenced Plastic Beach earlier. You’ve always been reflective and intentional with what you produce.

Damon

I want to make emotional/political music all the time. It’s what I’ve always aspired to: emotional songs that deal with awkward subjects and not necessarily inhabit the standard tropes of popular culture. When we put out Plastic Beach, I think people couldn’t even really get their heads round the fact that it was actually the subject matter of the record.

 

And now, well… you can’t move for everyone talking about the environment. Do you know what I mean? Those are the things we’re concerned with at the moment. But you can’t help feeling sometimes that a lot of people just engage with these things because they’re fashionable and they’re not going to be able to do what they want to do unless they do engage with them. It’s always slightly disheartening, but part of human nature I suppose.

Daphne

It’s interesting because, like you say, both Plastic Beach and The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows exist in this intersection of art and politics. How do you see the relationship between the two?

Damon

I think that’s the responsibility of everything, from all social media platforms to what’s left of radio. I don’t want to take the joy out of pop music at all. I just think it could really benefit from being a bit more helpful to people. Telling people endlessly what they’re missing out on—how great your libido is, how much money and how much jewelry and how much designer clothes you have—is really not helping anybody. It’s not liberating, it’s the opposite of that. It is disempowering.

Daphne

I can definitely relate to that. Thank you, Damon, for taking the time to speak with me today. It’s been a pleasure.

Damon

I’ve really enjoyed talking to you. Thank you for letting me vent.

Damon Albarn Creates Music from Mountains

Editor’s note: This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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