“I feel homesick a lot,” says Danish indie-pop artist Oh Land. “I moved away from home when I was fifteen and have traveled ever since. I’ve struggled a lot with homesickness, because I’m away so much from people I love.”
The Brooklyn-based former ballet dancer, born Nanna Øland Fabricius, translated her intense longing for the environment she grew up in into songs for her fourth album, Earth Sick, which turned into a metaphorical umbilical cord stretching from her adoptive home across the Atlantic back to Scandinavia. “I wanted to involve all my family on this album,” says Fabricius. “All my family are classical musicians, so I had my mom sing opera on the album; I made string arrangements with my dad, and I had my cousins play string quartet and brass. A lot of my friends who are musicians are singing backup. So it’s very much involving my whole environment.”
North Brooklyn itself didn’t escape inclusion on the record, either. “I carried around a recorder and recorded sounds from my neighborhood,” she says. Just what are the sounds of Williamsburg? “For the last five years they have been construction work,” she laughs. “What I recorded a lot was machine sounds, like drills and cranes. I literally walked up to men drilling into the concrete and asked them not to stop working. They thought I was insane.”
Her inventiveness didn’t stop there. She recorded the audiences at some special New York City gigs, too, at Rockwood Music Hall and the Knitting Factory. “I asked them to clap and then stop, and do things together. So there are my fans on the album, and I owe my album to them anyway, because they funded the whole thing!”
The result is an organic, electronic album, pop at its core yet symphonic in its overall execution. “My goal was to make something that would meld opera and classical with electronic music and make it sound natural. Often, I feel that when classical instruments are used with rhythmic music, people play very simple chords, just because they decide strings are the instruments of emotions. I spent a lot of time doing interesting string arrangements that would evolve over the whole piece. It was an old-fashioned way of approaching it, something like film composers would do. It was a fun way to do it, rather than go in the studio and say, ‘Yeah, let’s jam over this.’ It was actually something written out as a score.”
Fabricius recorded most of the tracks for Earth Sick in her apartment, but her family’s parts were recorded in Denmark, and her vocals were recorded in Lisbon, for no other reason than she loves the Portuguese capital.
“I love Portugal,” she says with great relish. “I played a show there and had a few days off and I thought I might as well stay there and record, because I feel vocals need to be recorded in a place where you feel comfortable and you feel good.”
As for the title, Fabricius says it nods to environmental concerns that Earth is getting sick — “I am very concerned for the environment,” she says — but it was directly inspired by reading about astronauts spending long periods of time in outer space, then returning to Earth and having to get used to gravity again.
“That can be a painful process, and they get Earth-sick,” she says. “I found it interesting that you can become allergic to the environment you are created for. It’s kind of like when cats are allergic to fleas. Don’t the two go together?” She laughs. “That made me think about a lot of things. Can you unlearn things that are natural? Do you forget certain things you’re supposed to be able to do and things you’re supposed to feel?”
After six years of living in New York, Oh Land wonders about returning to Denmark to work in the thriving Scandinavian pop scene. “I definitely want to return at some point, I just haven’t figured out how and when. I see myself ending up on a farm with lots of nature and animals — which is the opposite of New York. Reading about those astronauts looking back at Earth, and looking forward to getting back, and then they get back and don’t know how to be here, that longing for home becomes a part of your personality. I spend a lot of time wondering about people back in Denmark and a lot of time missing them, but I’m not sure I could live there right now. It’s like an unnecessary punishment on myself. I miss them so much, but still I choose to have that feeling and not be there.”
Oh Land performs May 8 at the Music Hall of Williamsburg.