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· One Tree Planted: Based in Vermont, One Tree Planted is on a global reforestation mission. Their goal is to make it easy for people to understand the importance of trees and give them the ability to easily plant a tree in an area that needs support.
Starting over isn’t always easy, yet resisting change is almost always fruitless. Nanna Hilmarsdóttir knew this intuitively when she began to write the songs for her first solo album, How to Start a Garden. In these ethereal yet grounded songs, she sings of being lost and hopeful, remaining calm through apocalypses large and small, with orchestration that feels as organic as a forest while also sculpted and modern.
Few debuts arrive, however, with experience as extensive as Nanna’s. After a childhood in a tiny town in rural Iceland, she spent most of her twenties in recording studios and global tours with her band, Of Monsters and Men, which arrived in 2011 to almost immediate ubiquity as their first album, My Head Is An Animal, topped charts worldwide. Their live prowess landed them headlining festival spots around the world. With three impressive and globally successful albums under their belt, Nanna found herself writing an album she felt needed to be delivered in her very own way. Like most of us, the years since 2020 have necessitated changes both mundane and enormous; like few of us, Nanna, as at home on a festivalstage as in a rural cabin, is fluent in polarity.
In her cabin outside of Reykjavik, in the company of her dog named Vofa - the Icelandic word for ghost- Nanna reveled in the quiet, a liminal period between lives. The result is an absolute snowstorm of an album—chilling and crystalline, almost terrifying in moments, while achingly calm in others.
These are songs about slanted grief and finding your balance in the vertigo. “You say we’ll start a garden, after the snow,” she sings on the title track, alluding to a partner, but later, in “Disaster Master”, a song she worked on with producer and multi-instrumentalistJosh Kaufman (Bonny Light Horseman, War on Drugs, Hiss Golden Messenger) at Dreamland in upstate New York, she’s ready to go it alone: “Start with nothing/ start a garden/ the ghost and me.”
As Nanna wrote these songs, she spent a lot of time considering her neighbor’s lush garden, watching him tend it, watching it grow. A garden is a conversation with the seasons—everything constantly in a state of ending and beginning. It seemed the perfect image for where she was then, and for the shape this album was taking.
“A lot of things had to end for this album to become what it is” She explains “A long term relationship, my prior sense of home and belonging and security. But it’s also an ode to the joy of new beginnings:new relationships, a new home, new friendships, a new sense of self. The album takes place in this in-between state. I wrote it in Iceland and recorded it between Iceland and upstate New York. It captures a very specific time in my life of curiosity and reflection, when I felt very much in the middle of a surreal new reality and didn’t have a clear path in my direction—like how a snowstorm is somehow chaotic but calm at the same time.”
“Godzilla”, the first single which was written and produced by Nanna, is a graceful introduction to a project that is introspective and personal, but flush with universal themes. Nanna divulged to NPR’s Bob Boilen upon its release, “Lyrically it has a few different pockets to me. I was inspired by the Godzilla movies. I connected to this villain and the idea of waking up one day, like how Godzilla rises out of the water and the world is a totally different place that you don’t feel you belong to; This feeling of being out of place, but also being okay with that.”
“Crybaby”, the second single, co-produced with multi-GRAMMY winning songwriter, producer and musician Aaron Dessner (The National, Taylor Swift) at Long Pond in upstate New York, speaks to the kind of maturity you can only reach by returning to humility: “Well I / don’t have a problem / with crawling on fours”, a kind of wink at the moments when Nanna took her own sadness too seriously. She wrote itin her cabin, and describes “lying on my floor playing the guitar and feeling sorry for myself….it felt dramatic and a bit funny.”
Dessner’s knack for taking something seemingly fragile and elegantly turning into something truly epic fits perfectly with Nanna’s inherent skill at crafting songs that build into dizzying bursts of emotion. The soaring melancholy with a lyrical hook - "Can’t keep it up/ Can’t give you up.." - flirts with disco’s sad banger oeuvre. The corresponding video echoes the lonely dance floor energy, with Nanna dancing on her own under a static mirror ball at a sparsely attended party; however clumsy the moves, at least no one is paying attention. The freedom to express without the burden of an audience.
“Something isn’t right / Someone pass the wine” Nanna sings on “Milk”, another song she brought to Long Pond, with lyrics that evoke Joni Mitchell’s emotional pointillism. “You come back every month of May/ rose-colored in the disarray/ But something isn’t right/ perhaps another time.”
Throughout the album we can hear Nanna developing a nascent language of delicate distortions, a layered underpainting of whispers and crackles, friends’ laughter, and the patter of dog’s feet. The pianos seem to breathe, the woodwinds waver as if played by ghosts, while horns circle like a lighthouse beam.
After much writingand producing in her apartment in Reykjavik and her cabin in the wilderness, Nanna turned to her close friends and collaborators. Ragnar Þórhallsson, for songwriting, piano score and additional instrumentals, and Bjarni Þór Jensson as a musician and engineer.
The full arc of How to Start a Garden will stun its listeners—a gorgeous transition from purity into heaviness and back into an earned innocence, a ballad to the joys of being lost:“Well I fell in a black hole/ and I’m learning to make it a home/ and I want to stay stoic/ but there’s somewhere I need to go.”
“To be at the edge, at the precipice of anything, requires deep surrender. It’s like dying over and over again. In the tidal throes of life at its fullest and most intense is the space where grace and strength is fortified and cultivated, is what I am learning” Indigo Sparke ruminates on her magnetic second full-length album Hysteria, a huge and beautiful sweeping work, one that possesses a rare, reflective power. From the first few notes, in the first song, Blue, something chilling and captivating pierces straight into the listener’s chest. With harmonies reminiscent of the voices in our heads, she examines love, loss, grief, a newly realized rage, her history, dreams, and the emotional weather patterns surrounding those sensations: her words tell the stories, and the sounds act them out. It’s a diary built for big stages. ‘Hysteria’ arrives just a year after her striking, minimalist debut, Echo. Here though, Sparke offers an expansive body of work—it’s a simultaneously nostalgic yet clear and complex collection that expands her sound and outlook.
Work on the record began at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic while Sparke was stranded in quarantine in her native Australia waiting for her visa to be renewed so she could return to the States. Echo was being prepared for release, but Sparke was already experiencing a flow of creative thought as a result of shifts in her own life. “I was going through an intense separation and processing all of that in the deep flux of the world collapsing,” she recalls. “I was moving through huge waves of grief and trying to reconcile what was going on, internally and externally. The grief opened a doorway to the past I thought I had made peace with. But there were days where I just couldn’t get off the floor. It felt like everything was falling through this hole in my chest. It felt stark and nauseating to feel such immense groundlessness whilst also looking at all the different versions of myself I had been. All the varied different chapters I had experienced, from heavy drug use, to sexual abuse, love in all its forms, complex trauma and mental health, time spent living in India and Bali seeking something deeper to make sense of it all. It was almost like my life was flashing before my eyes. I realized I was in a profound altered state, as everything simultaneously stood still around me yet was flashing violently inside of me.”
After moving back to New York in the spring of 2021, Sparke finished writing the album’s 14 songs and decamped upstate with producer Aaron Dessner (The National, Taylor Swift). “I just had a really strong intuitive gut feeling that I would do this album with Aaron. We had met once years before in Eau Claire so I asked my manager to reach out to him. When we first talked, we talked about co-writing from scratch, I did have a big folder of demos but was nervous to share them, but after he heard them he said, ‘There’s so much to work with in here already,’” Sparke recalls on how Dessner, who also contributes instrumentation along with multi-instrumentalist and long time collaborator Shahzad Ismaily and drummer Matt Barrick (The Walkmen, Muzz), got involved in bringing Hysteria to life. “Aaron is such an incredible person, to feel his generosity and to feel him in my corner is a true gift. It definitely took a moment for me to get used to a different way of working and hand my trust and heart over to him and his vision but it also felt so natural and we became close friends in the process.”
The connection felt intuitive for both Sparke and Dessner who recalls “I started hearing ideas listening to her voice almost immediately. We connected by phone and had a long talk. She was incredibly open and gracious and really it was creatively inspiring from the moment we started working. It always feels like some weird miracle when songs emerge that you want to listen to all the time — and this was definitely the case with her record. It feels cohesive and timeless and inspired to me in a way that I know I will keep coming back to. I think the chemistry is right.” Centering Sparke’s powerful vocals throughout, Hysteria is packed with big guitars and layered instrumentation that practically acts as the album’s lungs, giving every note breath. If Echo bore the mark of producer Adrianne Lenker’s intimate, spectral approach, then Hysteria is comparatively full-bodied and warm like a raging fire, as Dessner’s ornate instrumentation perfectly compliment Sparke’s songwriting. The result is music that sounds timeless.
This is music that sounds huge even as it zooms in on the trials and turmoils of one’s inner life, from the pulsing immediacy of “Infinity Honey” to the soaring “God Is a Woman’s Name” or the towering chorus on “Hold On.” You can hear Sparke reflecting on reconciliation, grief, hope, and the passage of time on the perpetually building “Pressure in My Chest” and the airy, Joni Mitchell-esque title track, which finds her embracing a gorgeous upper register over gently strummed guitar. “Set Your Fire on Me” builds and bursts not unlike Angel Olsen’s own raw folk-rock expressionism—and then there’s the stark opener and first single “Blue,” which acts as a cosmic road map for Sparke’s own journey in life. “It was very stream-of-consciousness—it just came out in one go,” she says while discussing how the song came together. “It’s almost like a biopic, or my own version of The Odyssey, charting what I’d been going through while traveling through the realms of time. Being in the movement of grief, memory, and love was intense and beautiful for me, because I didn’t feel stagnant—so the song has a galloping sense of expression as a result. It doesn’t let up.” While reflecting on the album’s thematic bent Sparke observes “My mum pointed out how often I use the word ‘blue,’ which is kind of ironic because that’s what my name means.” There’s all the shades of what blue could be, emotionally, and tonally throughout the record.
To Sparke, Hysteria is reflective of the growth she’s experienced over the last many years—to the point where, in her words, it almost presents a different artistic perspective entirely. “I feel like I matured a lot in this epoch of expression,” she explains. “When you are alone in the dark, you see yourself more clearly. I realized a lot of my behavior and patterns living at edge states. The edge of hope, sorrow, joy, etc. I was at the axis point inside of love right at the edge of a place that had been a home of hysteria for me in the past. Since this reckoning I’ve been determined to find a sense of surrender in the chaos. An unwavering trust and faith. And a will to remain kind and calm and patient with myself so that I can move towards embodying grace more and more. It’s the only way to survive for me now. So there’s a deeper acceptance of who I am and what’s made me, me. I think in the process of all of this somewhere along the road I quietly became a woman and now I don’t feel as fragile as I once did, or now, I accept the wild inner landscape of myself and my history and it gives me a different kind of strength to work from.”
While the world that Sparke inhabits is a rich tapestry of sound that pulls the listener into circular spaces of seemingly never ending minimalistic textures and harmonic suspensions, what’s most clearly on display is her voice and her song forms. Deceptively simple structures wind like labyrinths in a whirlwind of lyrical expression and vocal pageantry calling to mind the early works of PJ Harvey, Meredith Monk, and the like. These compositions are a warm invitation into her world.