Danish singer-songwriter Oh Land has gathered a dedicated international following, and her story is as unique as her sound is original. With a family background in everything from opera to zoology, Oh Land’s music is indicative of her own eclectic history. Her entire career as a musician is a twist of fate, largely the result of a dancing injury. “I had all of this time and built-up energy and I just started writing little melodies and snippets of lyrics,” she recalls. “It wasn’t with the purpose of writing a song, it just happened accidentally as a kind of therapy.” The singer began posting her musical experimentations on her Myspace music page and, after having written only a handful of songs, was contacted and immediately signed by Danish indie label Fake Diamond Records.
Since then, the Danish ex-ballerina has released three full-length albums: Fauna (2008), Oh Land (2011), Wish Bone (2013). In June, she announced plans for a new album that she recorded in her Williamsburg apartment. Suitably titled Earth Sick, part of the proceeds for the album will go towards Greenpeace’s Save the Arctic. On October 8th, 2014, Oh Land released “Head Up High,” the first single to come off of Earth Sick. Earth Sick will be out on November 11th, 2014, so be sure to keep an eye out for the album and any forthcoming singles!
Indira Cesarine: You’re from Denmark, what made you make the move to New York City?
Oh Land: It was a pretty easy decision, because I was at SXSW, the festival in Texas. There I got discovered by Sony, and they wanted to sign me to the label. I was so new as a musician (I had just released my debut album a few months before) and having a big American company come up to you and say ‘We really believe in you, here’s a contract,’ I was just like ‘Okay, I’ve got to move to New York!’
IC: So you were discovered at SXSW, how did you end up there? Were you performing on the official line-up?
OL: I was on the official line-up but I was completely unknown in the States. I had kind of booked my own show myself, pretending that I was my own booker. I had no manager, I had no booking agent, I had nothing. I got some money together from funds in Denmark, and paid my own money as well. Then two girlfriends and I went over to the US and played in New York, L.A., San Francisco, and then SXSW, without knowing anyone or anything. We slept on some random people’s floors, and then there was like five people at my show, and Sony happened to be there. It was just this completely unpredictable thing.
IC: How did you get started in the music industry before you made your U.S. move?
OL: I used to be a ballet dancer for ten years, and then I got a back injury that forced me to stop dancing. For a while I didn’t know really what to do or how to express myself, because I was so used to expressing myself physically through dance, my whole life. I had all of this built up energy and then in my apartment I started writing little melodies and snippets of lyrics. It wasn’t with the purpose of writing a song, it just happened accidentally as a kind of therapy in a way. Then one day I put together a song and I played it to a friend. She was like ‘You should put this up on the internet,’ so I put it up on MySpace, which was big at the time. It was literally like a month later a Danish Indie label contacted me and wanted to do a contract. So then there I was, having written like three songs in my entire life, and was going to release a whole album. I just started recording everything in my bedroom. I got introduced to a few people in Denmark who helped me out–a few really great producers–but I mostly produced the album myself in my apartment.
IC: This was your album Fauna? What is the meaning behind Fauna, how did you come up with that particular name?
OL: Fauna means ‘animal life’ and I watched a lot of David Attenborogh, like Planet Earth. I read a lot of books about nature and animals, because I found a lot of confidence in the way things work in nature, where there’s always a logic to every action. It’s not like as a human, where everything is super complicated and there’s no black and white, it’s always grey. With all of my emotions with losing dance and everything, it was really hard for me to know right and wrong, and it just got all blurry. Reading about animals, and their instincts, and their natural behavior, it gave me a perspective on my own life, and I got a lot of inspiration from that. It’s kind of like a lot of songs on that album are written with an animal metaphor, although it’s clearly self-portraits.
IC: And the name, Oh Land, does that also come from a reference to nature? How did you come up with that?
OL: It’s actually just my middle name spelled slightly different. My middle name in Denmark is Øland, (so it’s like land, but with an “O” with a slash-through in the front), so I just kind of changed it a little bit.
IC: How would you describe in your own words your sound?
OL: I think I’ll describe it as kind of dreamy, electronic-pop – electronic, left-field pop.
IC: What musical influences did you have that led you to evolve this way?
OL: I had different things impacting me. It was mostly classical music and then super electronic music, which are polar opposites. But I think both of those two genres really interested me and you can hear both of those genres in my music. You can hear the classical influence with all of my string arrangements and choir arrangements, and the lush orchestration of my songs. But then I also really love beats and electronic sounds, and the more clubby environment, and that also definitely has a big influence on the beats.
IC: Do you think the classical element comes from your background studying to be a ballerina?
OL: Yeah, absolutely. Because I grew up doing Swan Lake and all of that. Like, in a very classical environment. I was used to that really romantic, lush world from ballet, which is just all about romance. I think I definitely have influence from there–you can definitely see the tulle and smell the pointe shoes.
IC: Do you remember the first time you performed your work in front of an audience as a musician?
OL: I absolutely remember it. I had no clue how people performed as rock musicians or pop musicians because I’d never come from that part of the world. I’d always just been training thirty-two hours a week, going to dance rehearsals, and performances at night. I’d never really been to a real concert at that point. Only classical concerts. I didn’t really know the rules, so I just followed my own logic and my own instinct. I painted myself blue with glitter all over my face, and I wore this huge blue dress. I had two choir singers that I choreographed through the whole set and they were also painted blue. I covered the whole stage—and when I say the whole stage you can’t even really call it a stage, it was just a tiny bar completely overdone– I covered the whole stage in flowers. I was just a support band for another band in this tiny little pub, basically. So everyone was just like ‘Who is this girl?! This is crazy!’ I didn’t even think of that, because to me I thought I was quite under produced since I was used to these big ballet productions. And everyone was just like ‘This girl is nuts!’
IC: Do you have a favorite song that you have performed or produced?
OL: One of my favorites is probably “Wolf and I” and a song called “Love You Better” from the new album, and a song called “Frostbite” from Fauna. So, there’s like one from each album. I guess “Frostbite” was one of the very first songs I ever wrote, and it describes very well, me coming out of ballet, and suddenly not being able to feel anything; I just felt numb at the time. I lost my passion and I was just trying to go somewhere new. It’s a very emotional song for me, but it also symbolizes a lot of strength for me, because it was a song that manifested me into being a musician. “Wolf and I,” I think is one of those songs that I don’t quite know how I wrote that song or why. It’s just its own little world and in a way I feel like I had nothing to do with it. It just sort of happened, and I feel really lucky that I was able to write that song. I haven’t been able to do anything like that since, so it’s like its own little fairytale. And “Love You Better” I just think is a real song. There’s no fanciness, there’s no particular genre, it’s just like a classic; it’s a song you can play in fifty years and it will still resonate.
IC: These days there’s this massive trend of musicians collaborating with other established musicians. Is that something that you like to do?
OL: I’ve never been so interested in doing that from a commercial stand-point. I guess because my motivation always comes from somewhere else, but there’s definitely some really amazing people out there that I would love to work with. Like James Blake or David Bowie. I definitely have my heroes out there.
IC: Who are your favorite contemporary musicians?
OL: James Blake is one of them. I really respect Lorde–I think she is a breath of fresh air.
IC: This is our ‘legendary’ issue. How would you define the word ‘legendary’?
OL: When I think legendary, I think of someone who represents something original. Like someone who believes in something so much that they don’t get affected too much by the surrounding world, but stay strong with their mission.
IC: Do you have any favorite legendary artists?
OL: Yes, definitely. I think Michael Jackson is one of my favorite legendary artists. Sometimes I listen to his music, and I think ‘Wow, that way of singing–that’s actually pretty weird!’ It’s not actually particularly pretty, and I guess when he came up with that sound, like the weird little things he does–the clicks and the things he does with his tongue–you hadn’t really heard that before. In a way it sounds kind of disturbed…in a way he made it really his thing and people have been copying it ever since. He turns the mistakes into masterpieces in a way.
IC: You made your big U.S. TV debut on David Letterman. How did it feel to do that? When you did that did you realize how huge it was?
OL: No, I definitely didn’t realize how huge it was. I kind of wish I could do it again, just to enjoy it a bit more. I was so overwhelmed that I could barely take it in, you know? It was one of those things where you just see yourself from outside, and you’re like ‘God, I should really stay in the moment right now, because it’s gone in a second.’ But it’s so overwhelming that it’s hard to really take in.
IC: That’s a huge introduction to the U.S. market.
OL: I still feel like I don’t quite get it. But, in a way, my life has been so unlikely the whole way through that it kind of makes sense in a way.
IC: Yeah, sometimes it’s better to not even think about it. You don’t have to have that self-awareness of who is watching; you can just do your own thing. So you’ve done a lot of touring recently, can you tell me any performances that stood out?
OL: About a year ago, when I had just finished recording this album, Wish Bone, I wanted to test it out on a very, very small audience in a super intimate surrounding. I played four nights at Rockwood Music Hall on the Lower East Side. It was super tiny, but they have a beautiful grand piano, and I was just able to play the songs in the most stripped-down forms, and that was really amazing. To play this material to people who had never heard it before…and it was never released anywhere..it just felt really unique to be able to share that. Also, I can’t ignore the times I played in both Carnegie Hall and Sydney Opera House. Those are both mind-blowing. I definitely had the feeling that I had a glimpse into something very unique and felt very privileged to be able to do that.
IC: So your album, Wish Bone, how did you come up with that particular name?
OL: The name, I thought, was a fun contrast within the two words it consists of: wishes and bones. They are two so very different things. Wishes are something not physical, something you can’t measure; you wish and then you don’t know where it goes…you can just hope. And bones are something very physical, something very real, something that keeps you grounded. I really like that word because it was this word that comes from two very polar opposites. I think I struggle all the time to find the balance between the ‘fly away with the wishes’ and ‘stay grounded with the bones.’
IC: That’s beautiful. You know in english what a ‘wishbone’ is–I’m sure people have mentioned to you about how you pull the chicken bone apart–you make it sound so much more romantic and exciting the way you describe it.
OL: Well, I like to pick words out. I love words in general and I like to pick them out and kind of give them my own meaning.
IC: Do you have any words of wisdom that you live by? Things that keep you going as an artist?
OL: Yeah. I guess something that keeps me going is kind of like, I often tell myself when I’m really caught-up, or when I feel like every little thing has major consequences, that ‘It’s just life.’ It’s nothing more than life. In those words, I tell myself it’s just life. Then it’s kind of like ‘Oh, yeah, it’s just life!’ and I won’t live forever, so I better just take it as a little thing and not give so much meaning to every little thing that I do.
IC: If you could give advice to an aspiring musician, what would you tell them?
OL: I would tell them to figure out what it is they really want to say, and then insist on that. And to keep insisting even when they meet resistance or people’s opinions. Just keep insisting on what it is you believe in, and eventually people will know you’re for real.
IC: That’s a good point. What are your current projects that you’re working on right now? I can imagine you’re constantly being proposed different projects and it’s like, how do you make it all fit with your schedule without going crazy?
OL: Yeah and I’m the kind of person who can’t say no. Not because I can’t say ‘no’ but because everything sounds exciting to me. You know? I just want to play. I just want to find playmates who want to have fun with me. I’m always writing. I write at least a song every three days so eventually I will have enough to release something new. I try not to make too many rules for myself because then I can’t do anything. But when something pops up, I just embrace it. I try to at least.
IC: Where do you see yourself ten years from now?
OL: Oh, that’s a good question. I ask myself that question every day, but I try to push it away because I would like to not know, I guess.
IC: It’s good to have some mystery, right?
OL: Yeah, I like the fact that I don’t know. I literally feel like I could be anywhere and I don’t know where that is, and that’s just exciting.
Make sure to pick up a copy of Oh Land’s cover and 8 page feature in The Untitled Magazine‘s “Legendary” Issue 7 here!
Watch behind the scenes from The Untitled Magazine shoot with Oh Land:
Photography and Video Direction by Indira Cesarine
Fashion Editor: Indira Cesarine
Hair: Adam Markarian
Makeup: Mayia Alleaume
Fashion Assistant: Chris Kim
Photo Assistants: Patrick Brassard, Robert Stachowicz, Shane Miller
Behind The Scenes Video Footage: Marko Sovilj
Video Edit: Marko Sovilj
Music: “Renaissance Girl” – Oh Land
Photographed at The Dream Hotel
Fashion Credits – Styling by Indira Cesarine
Cover & opening spread:
Oh Land’s dress and boots by Saint Laurent
Dress by Just Cavalli, Jacket by Roberto Cavalli
Full look by Louis Vuitton
Shirt and jeans by McQ Alexander McQueen
Bralette by Jason Wu
Listen to “Head Up High” from Oh Land’s upcoming album, Earth Sick, which comes out on November 11th, 2014 below!