Dark Folk artist Kati Rán talks about her new record SÁLA (out now): an interview

Author Askar Ibragimov - 25.5.2024

Hello Kati, thank you for the opportunity to ask questions on behalf of Chaoszine. Congratulations on your new album SÁLA!
I know that the album was in the works for nine years. So the songs originate from different periods of time, yet now they are united under one cover. What binds them together?

The songs are dedicated in name and themes after the elusive nine daughters of Rán & Ægir (In Norse mythology, the goddess Rán and the jötunn Ægir both personify the sea and together they have nine daughters who personify waves — Wikipedia). Nine waves, nine songs, and then some. Each song, or ‘wave’, explores a different state of mind, from conscious to subconscious or liminal phases, a different state of weather (at sea), and the range of emotions of how we can relate to each other and to nature, as seen from various mythological perspectives of the woman of the Sagas of North; their various roles and sacrifices set in the middle of a Nordic Cosmos.

Listen to SÁLA on Spotify!

During the time it took to write the lyrics, gather research, and compose songs, each song is also connected to things we encounter in life, emotional setbacks, mental health or physical issues, moments of personal victory, love, anger, sex, and so on… I approach each song as a process of personal alchemy, to turn something difficult, vulnerable, or taboo, into art. Even with the many historical and mythological elements that I crafted into these songs, we can easily relate them to real life, real emotions and can find them relevant for the present time with topics we see in old times but also still today, like ongoing warfare, the destruction of nature, or that what is sacred, a growing sense of isolation and the rising need for finding connection; the album is essentially a story of finding wholeness or strength after or in the midst of the dark. It’s all in all, a lot to unpack – yes.

Since we are a Finnish publication, it is particularly interesting that the album is produced together with Jaani Peuhu, a musician, producer, and songwriter from Helsinki. How did you end up working with him?
Jaani and I got in contact with each other in early 2022. Initially, it was as simple as “single boy meets single girl” with a lot of uncommon topics or interests in common. We had an instantaneous deeper connection to each other, as well as both being occupied with audio production work. We collaborated on my ‘Hefring’ single in 2022. I asked him to check it out and mix it for me and add some magical audio touch ups which was a great success for us, and then we grew to have a very special and also creative bond where I recorded and co-wrote for some months almost daily for his IANAI (https://ianai.bandcamp.com/) project’s next album (to be announced). I remember this being a creative time of feeling everything was on fire, with a high energy of co-creation and wild ideas and sharing of our networks too; with the idea to grow together. Jaani helped set up a talk with the Finnish Svart Records label too, he believed in me and my capacities for the album. It was a natural conclusion to also create this record together, so Jaani was added as producer. We ended up working daily together for a year and traveled to various recording locations. I believe having had that personal foundation or deep relation with each other at the time we made this record has made it become what it was meant to be; it was easy to be vulnerable and completely myself during all vocal recordings and the additional songwriting we did. We made a good creative pair. Call it luck, faith, serendipity, or whatever you like, but it all had its spiritual reasons. Currently, IANAI is out and about on its new adventures abroad, I focus on my own recordings and music career for now and we see from there. It was pretty damn good to co-create this album, but definitely also heavy and intense, because we are artists you know, so we feel all the feelings a few times more deeply and I very much am an all-or-nothing sort of artist or woman.

You also have a very impressive list of collaborators. While it is understandable that you know your colleagues in the Nordic Folk genre, how come you came across “non-adjacent” musicians –  Mitch Harris, Karl Seglem, Borgar Magnason? 
Mitch Harris (Napalm Death) came to me, to ask if I wanted to do something creative and new with him, we are still exploring that and he is just the best of guys. Me and Jaani were so impressed with the vocal ideas he sent in for Stone Pillars so we had to keep it on the track and expand on it, building it up to a full man-choir group of sorts. I truly love that song. Karl Seglem has been a personal hero of sort for me; as the man who is known for bringing the bukkehorn (a traditional folkloric goat-horn instrument from Norway) sound back in contemporary music we listen to today he was on the top of my bucket list to work with someday. For this album I asked him to open and close my album with his beautiful bukkehorn “callings & send-outs”, he was very glad I asked him to join us on the record and so the rest is history. I cried in the studio when I first heard what Karl recorded for me. When we were in the final mixing stage, I remember I kept saying ‘ more goat horn, yes even more, I NEED more of that sound.” it is just a sound that fulfills me a lot personally. Borgar Magnason is also just the best of guys, and musicians for that matter, and oh man, his contrabass and the way he plays it, is simply unmatched and I think its why he has worked with the best of the best in Iceland already (Björk, Sígur Rós). I got in contact with him during the preproduction for Unnr | Mindbeach through my creative ‘mastermind’ friend Palli Banine; local artists in Iceland all are connected to each other somehow and it was a perfect musical fit to record him for this song and others. We also can talk deeply. To have Borgar Magnason’s presence and his musical energy on my album, adds to that ‘trve Icelandic cvlt” sound, yeah. In general, it is impressive how many musicians were collaborating on the album, it is rare to see such a scale of geography and amount of people on a single album.

How did you arrive at the idea of involving that many people? Was it easy to coordinate the work?
As a producer as well as the lead artist I have a certain creative vision for things and I love curating or weaving things and people together like this and inviting certain vocalists or musicians where I think this really ‘adds’ to an album. Not necessarily name-wise, but for the aim of giving specific tribute to deeply Nordic and Icelandic soundscapes or specific instruments and to fit the narrative on this album, masters such as Karl Seglem, and Borgar Magnason or going to the countryside myself to record with a lava stone marimba in Iceland with Páll Guðmundsson, or Icelandic ensemble singers, it brings more to an album than just their instrument or voice; it’s a token of respect to the culture of the North, their heritage and that what shapes it in the past and today. I am bold enough to always try to work with the ‘Masters’ of them to complete my creative vision and I find it is especially important as a non-native to build a bridge there too, to connect it back to the land or origin. And with Gaahl it just goes a long way back, since the days of doing guest performances with Wardruna, and we are good friends so it’s natural to work creatively together too.

Having album collaborators like these, I also see it as a token of ‘doing the work’, of actually traveling there, to record with and build the network, and of cutting no corners for the vision you carry; this album is essentially nourished by the root sounds of Nordic music culture and by having such contributions on board, original performers that want to join me to tell a story that implements these historical and ancestral ideas and Nordic mythology, so they clearly see something in what I’m doing here. Practically a solo artist you will need people if you want to not have to play all 40 instruments yourself. Even with the many historical instruments and vocal takes and vocal harmonies, I record myself on all the songs, I still desire to expand the soundscape and the vocal ranges by adding real musicians to play their instruments or join me in a chorus, then go for any synthetic plug-ins. I prefer to ask them to play the melody or chords we pre-wrote on the computer on their real instruments and have that real sound to my productions, rather than keep the synthetic ones in place. There is power in community, especially when the music community comes together to add their magic to the project; and that is in part as well what a core message of all my music productions and movement in the industry is based upon, is that even besides this album in particular; we are all connected, that you can do anything you have envisioned, and ” ‘my, my’, how beautiful things become when we bundle forces together”.

Many musicians, including Heilung and Gealdyr, are not focusing just on Nordic Folk but touching other cultures, such as Celtic. What draws you personally specifically to the Nordic roots?
The last years were dedicated to the North, it’s been like that from the start of making music, even in my choice of which instruments I picked up to learn to play; it’s been my musical identity since the beginning of my first bands up until now. For me, it is similar to asking why the sky is blue. I am exploring some new corners, from other cultures for very specific aims or tutoring. In my spare time, I listen to all kinds of music, from all kinds of cultures, I love historic original instrumentation from many places in the world and ethnomusicology. I listen to music from other genres too, some might be surprised as to what else I like when I am not producing or recording. I grew up in a very eclectic household too.

How did you arrive at which languages you’d use in songs – are these because of some historical material these are based on, or other reasons? 
There were many, mainly creative reasons for using different languages. l find that sometimes this, sometimes that language best conveys or captures the song’s essence. It’s for sure, the most challenging aspect of this album to do right by them. For me, listening to songs in a language that I do not understand usually switches attention a bit from what is spelled to how is spelled.

How did you approach creating the impression for a listener, knowing that not everyone will read the translation?
If we look at music as a form of communication where sounds are frequency, and frequency contains information, then the listeners will be able to sense some deeper thoughts behind a song.

I love to do some additional soundscaping in my songs and play with special sounds or record foley, use panning and volume automation to more ‘physically’ embody the movement or meaning of a sound, or play with a volume that is perhaps just on the border of the human hearing, to elevate to the narrative or essence of that song. Some producers may smirk at that, but I think it adds value, it makes my songs more complex than having a body of standard instrumentation mixed together in a more traditional concert stereo set-up.
And with these dark folk ambient songs, I hope — or believe — that without understanding the words, you will probably still get a good sense of what a song is conveying. We see this type of use of sound as well in cinema and it just works.

What does the album’s cover artwork symbolize?
Well, my artwork for the album is handmade; this means the fonts are real ink work by hand made by Halfdan Tattoo ‘JJ’ from Belgium, a wonderful friend and tattoo artist, and then scanned and formatted for computers. The magical paintings of the hanged woman, the lovers, the Norns, the trees with faces, and more are handmade by the artist Marzena Ablewska-Lech from the UK. This is an artist who creates after specific visions, tarot, and other occult-infused imagery and dreams, with her hands wet in paint and her soul on paper. We understand each other as artist to artist deeply and will always look for ways to work with her visual artistry together whenever I can. I think that it is illustrative for my song work for not going a short route, so naturally, I expand that philosophy to my visual team. I love to
collaborate with other artists as a community of crafters and co-creators. People who let spirit work with and through their hands and that is probably essential to my work too.

Order beautiful vinyl exclusives, digipack CDs & stream “SÁLA”: https://orcd.co/katiransala