Probably the most detailed Interview we've done yet. Rory Winston exclusively takes us on a trip into the Lyrics of Indica's English Album.
Indica-fans.net: Would you like to introduce yourself to our readers?
Rory: It’s interesting that you use the term ‘readers’ rather than ‘listeners’. While I realize you’re referring to the German forum, your question, nevertheless, reminds me of why I was attracted to this project: Indica’s fans are ‘readers’ as much as they are ‘listeners’ – they value lyrics (meaning: concepts, images, multiple layers of associations) as highly as they do music.
Though I’ve been asked to write for numerous recording artists, I can’t say that lyrics have always been my primary goal. Actually, it took me a while to feel as artistically inspired about writing lyrics as about writing a play or a poem. The idea of a song becoming timeless is harder to imagine than it is with a novel.
From early on, writing has always been my way to make sense of things. It may sound peculiar, but I knew that the things I wrote were way more interesting and intelligent than I am. I had a talent for playing with words; and I knew that if I play with words long enough, and edit out all the unnecessary crap, I’d end up with concepts that could surprise me and even teach me something.
Still, I was torn between a need to entertain and an urge to provoke more profound emotions. My mood swings made me go from writing dark and dense poetry one day to doing stand-up comedy the next. In the end I was in a schizophrenic position whereby I was working on a poetry collection while simultaneously ghost-writing for comedians. By the time my first play was produced in New York, I knew I was way better creating material than performing it. I also realized that all the forms of writing I chose had one essential component in common: rhythm. Whether poetry, comedy, or dialogue, what they all shared in common is a sense of musicality, a sense of rhythms and sounds that inform the very content of each work.
To be honest, writing lyrics felt like an exciting change. It felt similar to what I felt the first time I was asked to turn a theater play into a screenplay. In writing for film, I suddenly realized, it wasn’t purely about the dialogue; rather it was the interaction between the dialogue and the parallel visual story. The final work of art depended on the relationship between the art of the screenwriter and the art of the director. Similarly, in a song, it was the interaction between the composer and the lyricist that created the final work.
Lyrics can’t be fully appraised outside the context of the music they appear in. Even in the case of a classical poet/playwright like Bertold Brecht, it is the odd juxtaposition of his darkly cynical social commentary coupled with Kurt Weill’s cabaret motifs that create the overall macabre tone of a play such as the 3 Penny Opera. And this was what drew me to lyrics: the idea that words could as easily work against the mood of the music (and in so doing, create a third mood) as they could work to highlight the music. It depends what you’re looking for.
I guess my background must have something to do with the fact that I was never satisfied writing in just one form. The background I refer to is: one of ‘benign alienation’. Having been born in Montreal and resettling later in New York, I understood the difference between French and Anglo Saxon literary traditions early on. Since my parents were Hungarian Jews, I also grew fond of many Hungarian poets, Hebrew pre-Renaissance mystics, as well as contemporary minority comedians. Mostly, I have always felt at home in the company of those who, like me, do not feel at home in any one particular place or culture.
No doubt, many artists today feel the same lack of identity. They are in equal parts drawn to ‘alien traditions’ while feeling alienated from their own point of origin. Nevertheless, our heritage does influence how we see things. Likewise, even when I allow myself to completely escape into the world of someone else's music, I still bring all the baggage from theater and poetry into the lyrics.
In the end, I’m not quite sure whether it helps your readers to know details about my life or not. I mean, the identity of the artist is always shaped by the work as much as the work is shaped by the artist. If he or she is any good, he or she is bound to lose themselves in the process to the point that they become a fictionalized version of themselves. In a sense, every new piece creates a new identity. As for the “real” guy or girl behind it, well, they’re pretty much as ordinary or petty as everyone else.
Indica-fans.net:When did you first take notice/see/hear about Indica?
Rory: Like a bad version of a Paul Auster novel, it was a 'usual set of unusual circumstances’. I heard Indica way before I ever went to Finland – in fact way before I even knew they were from Finland.
We were in London in rehearsal for a short play I had written that was slated to go to the Fringe Festival and our soundtrack was missing. A young English actress in the production suggested some music to get the actors in the mood. She said it was some tribal rock band maybe from Iceland or Norway since her friend burnt the CD - her friend’s boyfriend came from “somewhere up there in the north”. As I recall, Finland was the only country that didn’t occur to us.
A year later, I was in Budapest doing pre-production work for a Canadian Hungarian film and I was invited to a party by a renowned and older local author. We had met at an international poetry festival, years earlier. As the party continued, we got into a long debate about Finno-Ugric languages. His daughter who had been listening to our conversation said that Finnish really sounds like Hungarian from a distance but there are only a very few words in common. To illustrate her point she put on a CD. Again, I was listening to the same opening I had earlier heard in London. This time I was told it was Indica.
A year and a half after that, I found myself in – of all places – Finland. A book I had written had been translated and was being published there. During my stay, I was given the position of editor-in-chief at a new magazine devoted to contemporary literature. For one issue, we were running a series of articles on the literary merits of local export bands. Someone enthusiastically suggested that next time we should also find space for bands with interesting Finnish lyrics. The reviewer working for me had already gathered details on Indica – complete with photographs and interview material. Since I was no longer in the country by the time the following issue came out, I’m not certain whether the magazine ever published the article on them or not but what I do remember thinking is ‘cool band - it would be fun to write for them if they ever sang in English’. Since I didn’t know more about them than what their photos and press material told me, I quickly rid myself of the notion and prepared to go home.
As fate would have it, one night before I left the country, a girl I became involved with took me to see an Indica concert. Though I really didn’t understand what they were singing about, I found the band remarkably entertaining. Unfortunately, I had no time to stay and meet the singer since I had to pack for my flight the next day.
Indica-fans.net:How did you become involved with creating the lyrics for the A Way Away Album?
Rory: Several months after I returned to New York from Finland, a Finnish composer I had stayed in contact with called me asking if it was alright to give my contact number to a composer from a Finnish band. I agreed, not knowing what to expect. At the time, I still thought it had something to do with the Scandinavian literary magazine I had been in charge of months earlier.
The phone call was as absurd as something from a Seth Rogen film:
Jonsu: Jonsu here. Is this Rory? Me: Rory’s a pen name – yes, it’s he.... me. Jonsu: Rory Winston? Me: The name sounds stupid, huh? (pause) Are you the Jonsu from Indica? Jonsu: Yes, I am The Jonsu, Johanna – Jonsu’s my... Me: Pen name? Jonsu: Nickname. (beat) You know our band? Me: I saw you guys perform. Jonsu: when were we guys? Me: I mean I saw your band before I left Finland. Jonsu: You’ve been to Finland? Me: Yes. I liked your show. But I no longer decide what goes into the magazine. Jonsu: what magazine? Me: the literature magazine. Jonsu: In New York? Me: in Finland. Jonsu: I don’t understand. Aren’t you a poet? Me: Why? Jonsu: Why are you a poet…? Me: I meant – sorry. I mean, you were calling because…? Jonsu: I thought I could use your help. Me: OK. Jonsu: So you’re interested? Me: In what? Jonsu: In writing for us. Me: What? Jonsu: Lyrics Me: Oh, I thought you were talking about an article. Jonsu: what article? Me: Never mind. But don’t you sing in Finnish? Jonsu: Yes. (long pause) Me: I only write in English. Jonsu: I like your poetry. Me: In Finnish? Jonsu: No, I read them in English. I liked them in English. The point is we’re putting out an album in English. Me: Oh. New material, you mean. Jonsu: No. Same old melodies. Me: I don’t understand. Jonsu: Same old melodies but new lyrics. In English. For a foreign audience... Me: I’m in. Yes. I’m very interested. I mean, yes.
And, of course, I was interested. I knew Indica’s international audience expected a high level of literacy - a level that was even beyond what their first Finnish fans expected when the band still sang solely in Finnish. The reason I thought so is because when people unfamiliar with a language hear something being said, they often imagine the words are more profound than they are. If you hear an exotic and rhythmic language like Finnish being sung, your own imagination starts to build stories and visions in your head that are likely to be stronger and more personal than anything that can be there. You bring your own creativity into it as a listener. So the longer the international audience waited for the English version to come out, the more I realized that their expectations had grown.
As a poet, this made it very challenging for me to work on the lyrics. I knew that it was not enough to replicate the concepts, the alliterations, and the rhymes of the original. To satisfy intelligent fans whose imaginations had been guessing at the content for months if not years, I knew my task was to reinvent things in a way that would match their audience’s level of anticipation while still remaining faithful to their world. It would have to be as profound, mysterious, and evocative as that which I myself had imagined before knowing anything.
Also, I was interested because it gave me an excuse to head back over to Finland and meet up with the girl with whom I began a relationship. The thing I didn’t yet know at that time, was that the girl I had become involved with was a childhood friend of Jonsu’s. Well, small countries are bound to have big stories. Or at least, long ones. Sorry.
Indica-fans.net:Did you and Jonsu have a certain "technique" to write the lyrics? Like She or you pitch an idea for the lyrical story and see what the other had in mind for it? Or how did the "Stories" behind the lyrics get created?
Rory: Writing for a given artist is like writing a monologue for a specific character in a play or, in some cases, like writing for a stand-up comic. You have to consider the image and the persona of the one delivering the words. It must sound like it is coming directly from their inner psyche even at instances when it is not. So no matter how much of your own thoughts you put into something, it must all be stylistically filtered through the personality of the singer. In a sense, I could never have come up with the same lines if it were not for a very strong image of Indica in my head. It must sound organic. It’s a different sort of challenge than poetry.
Besides that, each song already made certain demands on the text. There was a mood that had to be taken into account. Also, I had to spend lots of time finding out the most essential stories and emotions that were close to Jonsu’s heart. The idea was to be loyal not to the original lyrics but to the persona singing them.
After all, the whole band had matured a great deal from the first time the songs came out in their own native language. Each member of the band had witnessed great occasions of joy and had undergone tragic moments since those songs had first been released. And still, the music itself remained close to their hearts. So, I felt that it was my job to interpret that music through the context of all that had changed in each band member’s life.
In addition, I didn’t want to lose the enchanting consonants and rhythms of the original. So I set myself the goal of transposing the Finnish world of sound into organic English patterns. So in this case, the alliterations and scansion became more essential to keep in tact than the actual content. Images would be reinvented, cultural references would be made more universal, idioms would be twisted in accordance with the demands of the new language, and still, the pristine icy but ancient dark warm sounds of the original would have to be present in the text. The ghost of a people had to be hidden between the lines.
I set myself the task of familiarizing myself with Finland’s vast repository of poets. I tried – admittedly, in a time too brief to do justice to a national heritage – to assimilate all the nuances that the literary tradition of Finland had to offer. In a sense, it is a treasure trove of odd sounds and often cryptic symbolism. So the idea was to bend my own language and manipulate images so that for a brief moment in musical time they would be able to transport the listener into the unique heritage of the country while, nevertheless, maintaining a solid sense of contemporary relevance.
Even if this sounds a bit daft, I think certain kinds of lyrics are best written in a kind of feverish shamanistic reverie. This doesn’t mean that you can just blindly let go and forget all about the mathematically precise work involved in properly placing syllables, shifts of emphasis, groove, vowel stretches and hard-hitting crisp consonants. But it does mean, that once you have the mechanisms and science down pat, you are able to forget all of that and fall head first into a trance-like state in order to make discoveries. Like with anything else, the more solidly you know your stuff, the more you can let go. And in this way, I think both Jonsu and I were equipped to let go.
In a sense, I subscribe to the idea of an oracle. No, that doesn’t mean I actually think God speaks through the vessel of an artist. But what I do think is that allowing yourself to get lost in the world of another creative artist’s sounds, let’s ideas you wouldn’t ordinarily think of speak through you. So, in this way, I sincerely think the lyrics were written in symbiosis with the songs themselves. The music and what I knew about Jonsu and the rest of the band was able to catalyze stories and words that I never would have been able to write in isolation. Likewise, Jonsu would also not have been able to tap her own mind in the same way without the history that I brought into it. As in all good processes, we played off one another’s hidden worlds and the result was… well, it’s for the listeners to decide whether they are of value or not.
Indica-fans.net:Did you know the Songs even before becoming involved with writing the new lyrics?
Rory: Not intimately. I mean we flirted, later we dated, and then we had glorious… I’m only partly joking. Because ‘knowing a song’ is a lot like knowing a person. There are many ways to know a song. First, I was acquainted with them. Later, I got to know them more intimately. Okay, yes, I admit me and the songs screwed around a lot.
Honestly, to do justice to a song, I think is like balancing true love with heated sex. You want to be able to empathize and feel their world completely, but there are also moments where it’s necessary to objectify it and hold back, saving the moment of rapture.
Yeah, I was trying to stay away from words like ‘foreplay’, ‘tease’ and ‘orgasm’ but I think anyone who’s ever written a song and anyone who’s ever really enjoyed a song knows it has a lot to do with that.
Indica-fans.net:What Song/Lyrics from the A Way Away Album, do you consider as the best in your opinion?
Rory: I don’t want to give you the pretentious “there are no bests” answer because I am not a relativist when it comes to quality. But, in truth, it’s hard to answer without separating the question into different variables.
As a writer, I’m not impartial. Of course, I like instances wherein I feel I did my job in an inspired manner. However, songs where lyrics excel are not necessarily the ones with the best music. In some instances, I felt that the music was phenomenal while the lyrics were just adequate and sometimes it was vice versa. I’ve heard people complement certain lyrics where I felt ‘yes, true, they work but they, nevertheless, lagged behind what my ambitions were’. Then there are those magic moments when both the music and the lyrics create a third entity (a whole) that is better than the sum of their parts. And still, favorite songs don’t have to be any of these instances. I mean, some songs simply work best because they suit the performer best. Arrangement, orchestration… so many factors go into what makes a best song that it is hard to disassociate when you are directly involved.
If I have to think of a song where everything coalesced into a solid whole while each part also did what it was supposed to in a maximal way, I’d have to choose Children of Frost. The anthem-like procession musically coupled with the twisted nursery rhyme and the images, along with the excellent orchestrations brought a new level of competency to the whole. In Passing, Eerie Eden, As If… well, there were many I liked.
From the faster tempo songs, I think Straight and Arrow works on a lyrical level – I’m proud of the incantation-like quality that alters subtly each time around - but it isn’t necessarily my favorite song. Islands of Light is very hard to judge because it is one of those songs I had to rewrite so many times that I’ve lost perspective entirely. I think it will take me approximately another six months to make a more objective assessment. They are still too close. Also, I have a bad habit that after I finish working totally on a set of songs, I rarely go back to listen to them because there’s always some minor thing you feel you could have altered or done better.
Indica-fans.net: Do you have a musical background? Like do you play any instrument or have been (are) part of a band?
Rory: I’ve played the piano into my teens but never seriously enough for it to matter. I suppose I consciously avoided playing because my dad is a classically trained pianist and a composer who graduated from the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest. Later my dad abandoned music to work as a director in television but he made certain that both my brother and I were exposed extensively. It was hard to grow up in my home and not hear operas, symphonies, and Jazz blaring from the speakers on a regular basis. And since my mom had formerly been a ballerina, I guess I got a pretty well-rounded perspective for how music is used in different mediums. I myself did dance professionally for several years and the result is that I still see words and sentences in primarily two ways: I see them in terms of rhythm and sound, and in terms of gestures and motion.
Indica-fans.net:The lyrics of which Song would you consider to be the most "you" ?
Rory: I think it would be a mistake to weigh down the interpretation of any specific song with a specific instance from my own life. While I admit that songs like A Way Away, In Passing and Lilja’s Lament have elements from my personal history, they don’t exclusively stay true to the reality of any one given event. They are impressions that include stories I’ve lived through, stories that members of the band lived through, stories we’ve heard… They each conform to the world of the given song and, hopefully, when and if they work at all, it is because they are capable of transcending the confines of reality and present instead our subjective perception of it.
Indica-fans.net:Did the whole creative process take place via mail contact or did you and Jonsu (or the band) get together to work on it?
Rory: While I did spend a limited time getting to know each member of the band, I spent most of my time either with Jonsu or alone. Certainly, we met many times in person because things had to be tested, altered… rearranged. I needed to know what she felt like talking about; she needed to know impressions I got from the music directly, prior to knowing any of what possible meaning they had to her. Ironically, a big part of my process was the direct impression I got from words in Finnish that I didn’t understand. Sometimes mishearing a word can trigger a word in your own language that in turn triggers a whole sentence and eventually a whole story. We also emailed but her presence was equally important to me. Whenever she sang something or acted out something, I always got new ideas based on the emotions of her movements and her way of singing.
Indica-fans.net:Will you eventually collaborate with Indica for a new album if you'd be asked by them?
Rory: To be honest, at this moment, I feel: probably not. But then I’m not sure Indica would even ask or that they wouldn’t benefit more from experimenting with others. This is not to say that anything went wrong. Quite the contrary. Everything went right. It’s just that at the moment I feel that both of us would probably get something new from working with other people.
I am sure I would work with Jonsu as a composer for some project unrelated to her own band. We’ve even discussed it. That’s an entirely different matter. To me, this album was a bit like a film. As a screenwriter, you may feel an urge to work with the same director; but it is rare that you feel like working with the same director on a sequel.
Of course, if there is something I felt that I could whole heartedly do for them – with full conviction and the same level of enthusiasm as I did for this one - in an upcoming album then, of course, I’d change my mind. Maybe it is too early to be asking that question.
Indica-fans.net: Have you been involved on writing lyrics for other bands before and if so would you like to name some?
Rory: I’d love to name them but I’m also convinced you wouldn’t know most of them since many work in a very different genre (varying from Indie to industrial). Since I’ve been in Finland, I’ve also worked with several local bands and singers but I assume this is not the right venue for promoting them.
In addition, I’ve recently been working with some very talented composers from Finland, Sweden and the UK in creating songs for different artists – some of the performers and bands are relatively renowned but since it is not me who makes the deals, I am not at liberty to discuss them. In addition, one very successful upcoming band is paying our team for the privilege of hiring us as ghost writers so I assume it would defeat the purpose if we mentioned their names. Besides this, I’m slowly working on a libretto for a contemporary rock opera/musical.
Indica-fans.net: What would you like to say to all Indica Fans?
Rory: You mean aside from “dress warm, I heard it’s going to be a cold winter… and white wine goes very well with red lobsters?” In truth, I’m not sure if what I have to say to the Indica fans is all that different from what I’d say to any non-Indica fan: Happy holidays, hope you enjoy the songs, and only buy the album for your friends if you actually like it yourself.
Indica-fans.net: Thank you very much for this exciting journey through the creative process and this amazing insight into your work, Rory!
Interview done by © Indica-Fans.net, 2010