November 15, 2022

Interview: Ragnar Zolberg on Forest Lovesongs

Ragnar Zolberg, one of the greatest songwriters of our time, made his name in his native Iceland as the frontman of Sign, then reached a wider audience via a seven-year stint in Pain of Salvation. Daniel Gildenlöw of PoS co-wrote the gorgeous, put-it-on-endless-repeat-and-proceed-to-bliss-out title track of 2014's Falling Home with Ragnar: the two of them took one of Ragnar's old, unrecorded songs and reworked it. For 2017's In the Passing Light of Day (probably my favorite PoS album), Daniel and Ragnar tinkered lightly with the Sign song Rockers Don't Bathe, recalibrating it into lead single Meaningless; they took the chorus of a very old Ragnar song called I Lost the Way (nowadays, the closer of a beautiful acoustic album called ROG) and interpolated it (whole) into album opener On a Tuesday; and together they co-wrote the music for another seven songs besides. So if 2022 was the year I finally fell head over heels for the post-2002 Pain of Salvation, it was also the year I fell—a lot harder, as I can now recognize—for the solo discography of Ragnar Zolberg...

...a discography now joined by his newest full-length album, an eight-song slab of glory named Forest Lovesongs. I listened to it so many times on release day alone that I couldn't help sending Ragnar a message and asking whether he'd be interested in doing a Q&A by email. Graciously, he agreed!

I present Ragnar's responses just as he sent them to me, down to the emojis that recall, though they cannot stand in for, his luminous smile.

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Sigismund Ashlay Sludig: First off, dear Ragnar: how are you?

Ragnar Zolberg: I am very well thank you, it’s been a busy time lately with 3 different projects seeing the light of day after a couple of years in the works, it’s been a lot of fun. Thank you for taking the time to write these elaborate observations and questions.

SAS: In December, Forest Lovesongs will be followed by Isafjørd’s Hjartastjaki, which I gather you and Aðalbjörn recorded about three years ago; but you’ve also mentioned two further records forthcoming in 2023. Have you been working on all three albums at once? Did you begin with a huge pool of songs-in-progress, out of which the eight Forest Lovesongs eventually suggested they were meant to be together, or was their affinity clear from an early stage in the songwriting process?

Ragnar: Addi and I finished the Ísafjørd album pretty much in one week and I had already mixed that before the pandemic hit, so it never overlapped with my solo album.

To begin with I set out to do one album, it was supposed to be a crescendo album, starting off softly and then increase in intensity with each song, ending in a full blown metal song. As usual, once I’m in the zone I just keep on writing songs, and although many of them will never see the light of day, I ended up having a lot of songs that I wanted to finish and release. So instead of 1 album it became 2 and not with a crescendo. Forest Lovesongs was not even a part of that, that only came about because I had the Cure cover already recorded and wanted to release it, initially only as a single. Then I thought that it would be a bit cheap to just release the one song, so I started going through some songs I had lying around and found all these other ones that had a similar vibe to them. 

SAS: Like the album cover, Forest Lovesongs is mostly dark, but with some light shining through. While it may not be a lot of light, it’s bright and strong. Could you talk about your choice of front cover? How far along in the process was the image joined to this batch of songs?

Ragnar: The front cover is a picture I had taken accidentally on my phone without knowing it while I was staying at my family’s summerhouse a couple of years ago. That’s where I spent my summers as a kid and the area is called “the forest”.  I saw that picture one day when scrolling through old photos and knew immediately that I wanted to use it.

But yeah usually the artwork comes last for me, I never know how the albums are gonna turn out until they are finished and I like for the artwork to have some kind of connection to the music.

SAS: Your albums have always flowed well, but on this one, the sequencing feels more fluid than ever, more commanding and irresistible. It’s hard to imagine any of the songs appearing anywhere other than exactly where they are. It’s especially true for the four in the second half. Did you go through different drafts of the tracklist before you settled on this one?

Ragnar: Sequencing is one of the things that keeps me up at night and it has only gotten worse over the years. Making my first albums I would decide on it in a heartbeat but now I just can’t stop thinking about it and I try out all possible variations in my head. Luckily some songs scream for a specific place, like “To Learn”, I knew from the moment I wrote it that it should be the first song on a record.

SAS: Moments like the riff barrage that opens Ekkert Allsstaðar, and the chaos that closes Mountain Roots/Underworld, have gotten me to think of Forest Lovesongs as the sonic successor not so much to ROG II or Sonr Ravns as to 2017’s In the Passing Light of Day. You’ve said that Sonr Ravns was a more traditional sort of metal album before a friend gave you the idea of reconfiguring it as metal without guitars, so perhaps you can see the continuity more clearly, but from the listener’s side, it’s been a while since an album of yours was this classically heavy, and anyway nothing was ever quite as heavy throughout as this. What brought you to the Forest Lovesongs sound? What did the road leading to it look like?

Ragnar: I do see what you mean by that, what happened was after the release of Sonr Ravns I played a couple of shows both in Iceland and Norway with my friends Hálfdán and Skúli and we made some of the songs a bit heavier than they were before. We also played the song “Rockers Don’t Bathe” and I think that song in particular inspired me to follow that soundscape on more songs, especially the two that you mentioned. It’s this kind of slow, sludgy, heavy doom. For whatever reason, I mostly write slow music, even though I like to listen to fast music.

SAS: There are patterns and textures in Rise Above, My Symbol Sól, and Celestía that, with hindsight, point to what I would call the unprecedented fullness and power of the electric guitar playing on this album. The rhythm parts have such presence, and the solos in Underworld and especially Svartskog are insane: integral parts of the emotional arc of the songs they appear in, beautiful, soulful, hummable, heavy. Would you agree that your electric guitar playing has leveled up? If so, are you aware of how and when it happened?

Ragnar: Thank you for that, however, I’m sure that I was technically better as a late teenager as opposed to now because back then I would practice new techniques all the time. During lockdown I started really geeking out on the guitar and I played way more than I had done for years, but it’s more feeling based now, possibly more bluesey to an extent. I have learned in my later years that (in my opinion) good guitar playing has everything to do with the feeling and not so much with the technique involved.

SAS: There is a heavy presence throughout the album of what, to my acolyte’s ears, I think are synths? They push the sound image out wider and higher. They insinuate ghosts into the title track, make Release and Mountain Roots/Underworld soar, and clothe Foraging in folds of darkness. Did their prominence here grow out of the experiments with arrangement in Sonr Ravens? Had you long felt yourself drawn in their direction? They feel like both a new thing in your music’s landscape, and a natural outgrowth of what was there already.

Ragnar: I guess that coming from a more rock and metal upbringing, I perhaps used to think synthesizers were kind of lame, although I have used them a lot in the past but they have always been well hidden.

Now they are not and I don’t mind using them as the main ingredient in a song if that is what the song calls for. I think that comes from my adoration of The Cure, and from songs like “Plainsong” which has a huge soundscape and it’s mostly just synths.

SAS: The opening seconds of To Learn are a brilliant way to start the album. They blew me away on first listen: unusual, striking, instantly absorbing. Aggressive, too, as if you were saying, “Here, listen, this is what I do. If you’re not ready for it, there’s no need to stick around.”

Ragnar: That’s pretty much my take on all the music I make :) I do it for myself first and foremost. But on the other hand, knowing that people might be listening to it sort of forces you to do it properly, with arrangements, mixing and mastering to make sure that there is nothing unfinished that might stand in the way of your listeners connecting to it.

You might also have noticed that I use these reversed loops quite a lot and I often listen to hours and hours of reversed music just looking for those 2-3 magical seconds which I then loop and build a song around.

SAS: In the verses of To Learn, you’re pushing your voice in an entirely new direction. I’m not sure I would have recognized you if, the first time I heard them, I didn’t know what I was listening to.

Ragnar: It’s weird, without thinking or planning on it, this album turned out to have a lot of falsetto singing, way more than I have ever done before… and I have no explanation for it.

SAS: A few songs feature Skúli Gíslason on drums and Hálfdán Árnason on bass: “one of my favorite drum and bass duos,” in your words. Were they part of the magnificent band that performed the Sonr Ravns material with you live, in April 2019 in Iceland? I love the videos on YouTube of that group, the two drummers facing each other and blasting out that album’s precise, spare beats.

Ragnar: They were there yes, but obviously some more people were involved in that particular gig. That album is really beat driven and I was so happy to be able to have those two sledgehammers with me on that show. Hálfdán and Skúli also played with me live as a trio as I mentioned earlier and on top of that they are both in the Sign live band so we have a rich history and a great musical chemistry. 

SAS: How did The Cure’s two songs, A Forest and Lovesong, become a single entity—the title track, no less? Other than obvious thematic links, what drew you to these two Cure songs in particular, and how did things develop from there? It must have taken some sewing, but the seams don’t show.

Ragnar: It was Hálfdáns request that I would do a cover of “A Forest”, but I didn’t really see how I could possibly add anything new to it so I just sort of blew him off on that but he kept insisting so I started thinking of different ways to make it worth the while. I realized that if it had like a big, emotional chorus I could make it work and one of The Cure’s most melodic chorus is in “Lovesong” and to my surprise I found that the tempo was similar and the key is the same. So it’s like you said those two songs work very well together. 

SAS: The screams at the end are stunning. Once, as I listened, the long scream gave me chills three distinct times before your voice finally faded away. Were you yourself surprised by the intensity? Given the moment at 6:02, when a new riff starts up partway into the long scream, I imagine the vocals were a pre-written part of the arrangement, but there was improvisation involved too, wasn’t there? Those two short, final, scarily desperate screams don’t sound like they were planned. It would be a fearsome thing if you could summon emotion as fierce as what’s on display here at command. And is that riff (the one which begins at the six-minute mark) your own composition? I don’t hear an equivalent in either source song.

Ragnar: Well thank you, that’s a very nice compliment. You are right, it’s all improvised, the length of the end, the vocal adlibs and the guitar line that comes in the end. I don’t really think about stuff like that, it sometimes just comes so naturally when you are really into a song that you’re performing. It’s one of the many magical elements of music I guess :)

SAS: “I will always have the cure” and “still obsessed over the cure”—lines in To Learn and Foraging, the album bookends—are thematically on-point, in context. But... on an album named after a song covering The Cure... are these lines also puns?! As in, “I will always have The Cure” and “still obsessed over The Cure” ? If so, they make for a loving tribute to how the music that we love, and that we clear room for inside ourselves, can remain with us there, and support us, and help us move forward or at least, as you sing in ROG II’s most dismal song, carry on.

Ragnar: It is somewhat supposed to underline the fact that on those songs I really was under the influence from The Cure. But it also has a deeper meaning, the way I see it, we are all looking for the cure. The cure then being a remedy to our overwhelming human experience, we search for it all the time: through money, new things, attention, recognition, love, acceptance, food or whatever, the list goes on and on… All for a brief moment of happiness. I have my own set of tools (cures) to deal with my life, which I have accumulated over the years and they can never be taken away from me. One of those tools is listening to The Cure, bringing the topic to a full circle :)

SAS: You made the switch to predominantly English lyrics way back when Sign was still your main act. But you never stopped writing or singing in Icelandic. At what point, when you’re working on a song, does the decision about language—if it’s a decision at all—usually happen? In Ekkert Allsstaðar, did the words come first, or the music?

Ragnar: The music always comes first for me, and I can’t really say what dictates which language it’s gonna be in. It’s usually based on the first word that comes out of my mouth when I start recording the song. I don’t write any lyrics down beforehand, it’s almost always improvised or thought up on the spot while I’m recording.

SAS: Are the beautiful lyrics in Release addressed to something that is literally inside of you (“a part of me”)—some segment of your character, of your spirit?

Ragnar: Yes that song is about my ego, or the defensive aspects of it at least. I have learned that my life is much easier when I let go of a certain part of the ego trip. The song was written as I was starting to experiment with this idea that I don’t control much in this life and a key element for me is accepting things for what they are and not to take it personally when things don’t go “my way”. That’s the release of this unwanted part of myself that I was singing about. I have a couple of more songs on the same topic, but for different albums.

SAS: Is the “you” in Mountain Roots/Underworld Iceland? I know next to nothing about your private life, and as the lyrics point out, “I’m always hard to find,” but I think I’ve gleaned that you’ve been living, for years now, not in Iceland but in Norway or Sweden—which would make this a song, to some extent, about voluntary exile?

Ragnar: You are absolutely right on that one, I am singing about Iceland. I love the country deeply and I do have a lot of family and releatives there, but my relationship to it is complicated and I prefer to be out here in Norway, close to the woods in a semi isolation.

SAS: Mountain Roots shares a drum pattern with Sonr Ravns’ Mountain Top, and since the two songs also share half a title, I don’t think it’s an accident, or meant to be a secret. Was it a case of the drumbeat lingering in your head after Mountain Top was complete, and insisting, “Come on, Ragnar! There’s more to me than just that one song!”

Ragnar: Well yes, sort of… When playing Mountain Top live I added a heavy outro bit to it (which is now Underworld) and we recorded it that way once when we were rehearsing for a gig. I really wanted to use that outro on an album but didn’t want to release yet another version of Mountain Top so I just wrote a new song on top of the drums we had from the recorded rehearsal and kept the outro as it was.

SAS: Appearing after Mountain Roots/Underworld, The Well feels like a channel connecting the world beneath the ground with the world above it. The next song, Svartskog, is very much about the above-ground world. “Something is emerging from the other side...” 

Ragnar: Svartskog is about a journey that gets pretty dark and overwhelming, but there is always a way through!

SAS: There is no shortage of vulnerability in your songs, but Svartskog must be among the most vulnerable you’ve written. 

“So many songs we sang and then forgot.” I love this line. I’ve been writing songs for over a decade, have amassed more than a hundred at this point, and many of them I haven’t played since they were recorded. You, for your part, have released a lot of songs, and if I’m not mistaken, there are at least as many that remain unreleased. I wonder, then: alongside, potentially, a metaphorical meaning where the songs might stand in for the days and/or the details of days shared by lovers, are you also making a literal reference to the countless songs you’ve written, and sung, and forgotten?

Ragnar: There’s a little bit of both I think, I kinda like when things can have more than one meaning, or even when lyrics are so out there that you sort of have to apply your own meaning to them, which is great because then they can mean whatever you want them to and possibly help you deal with different things in different times in your life. Just like on my favorite album of all time “Pornography” by The Cure, the lyrics on there have never made any actual sense to me but they have different meanings in my head, depending on where my head is at at the given time.

SAS: Comparing the guitar tones at the end of Foraging and—to pick just two examples—The Well or Ekkert Allsstaðar, I wonder how many different guitars were used on the record. How much of the variety in guitar sound is thanks to the instruments themselves, and how much is a matter of tone?

Ragnar: I probably used around 4 guitars on the album, an 8-string, a 7-string and two 6-string guitars and they all sound very different but my set-up also sounds different from day to day. My studio is very small and DIY and to safe up space I keep my guitar amp underneath my desk. Of course I keep hitting the microphone with my foot all the time so its position keeps changing, which makes a huge difference in the recorded sound. But to be honest I kinda like the challenge of it and not always know what I’m gonna get when I start working on a song.

SAS: Is the piano at the end the same beautiful, soulful creature that’s all over ROG II?

Ragnar: The piano is the same yes, and it’s the same thing there, I have to mic it up everytime I record it so it never sounds the same, and during winter it’s way more out of tune than it is in the summer :)

SAS: My interpretation of Foraging has it telling of a songwriter’s search for songs to write that will be beautiful, healing, and true. As I hear it, the song’s narrator finds “the fruit”—the songs—and seeks to trace the line from the pure and nourishing fruit to the still deeper “roots.” And those deeper things, the roots, speak the chorus line to him: “Now that you’re here / We’ll expose all your darkest feelings”—via the songs he is yet to write. “Anxiety is a waste of your joyous being,” they continue. It reminds me of what you wrote about how creating and recording the songs on ROG II effectively purged you of the anxiety from which they had stemmed.

My (current) three favorite musical segments on the album are the last two minutes of A Forest Lovesong; the drumbeat that comes in at 0:45 and 1:42 in Mountain Roots/Underworld, so deeply muffled that it sounds like it’s been buried under mountains of packed snow; and the final two minutes of Foraging, which also close out the album as a whole. Can you tell me about how this last, extraordinary section came to be?

Ragnar: That is pretty cool! Foraging was actually “done” for a long time and it did not have the outro until the day before I submited the album to distribution. I was quite happy with it without the outro for the longest time but once I had put the songs in the final order and listened back to it for a couple of times I kept hearing a piano driven outro in my head as if the song was saying that it wasn’t complete. This was after I had mixed and mastered the album but I knew that it had to be done so I went out to the studio one night and put the outro together, I didn’t really have to do the work as it was sort of floating in the air just waiting to come out. I only had to press rec and touch the piano and the part just sort of wrote itself. It felt great, like getting rid of an annoying itch :)

SAS: The lyrics in Foraging remind me of something that another of my favorite songwriters, Al Joshua, has written about the craft we share: “ is, de profundis, from the depths, that we sing. For me this means to create. And to keep on creating until my time runs out. If I stop to dally or rest, I am wasting time and wasting the best part of myself.” Do his words resonate, to some extent, with your own dedication and practice?

Ragnar: They do and they don’t. I do not necessarily believe that the composer in me is the best part of myself and if I would only do that then I would surely be wasting a whole lot of other things and missing all kinds of joy and opportunities. Plus I need inspiration every now and then, smelling the flowers and getting challenged by my surroundings. However, I wouldn’t mind spending a bit more time making music, but I am grateful for what I have accomplished so far and I still have a lot of music in me biding its time.

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