By BRUCE DENNILL
South African singer-songwriter Arno Carstens released two singles, Don’t Let It Be and Out Of The Blue simultaneously towards the end of last year. These were the third and fourth singles from his forthcoming seventh solo album.
In August 2019, Arno began work with Charlie Hamilton (Backstage Studios) and the fruits of their labour resulted in the emotive ballad Don’t Let it Be, “an honest reflection and yearning for a positive outcome against the harsh nature of reality.”
The singer-songwriter melodies of Don’t Let It Be (produced by Backyard Studios) and the uptempo, feel-good vibes of Out Of The Blue (produced by The Nothing Club), “a beautiful, feel-good love song that takes a very dramatic and fatal turn; a closing reflection on the wild unpredictability of our existence,” sit on opposite yet complimentary ends of the music spectrum.
He first teamed up with the visionaries behind The Nothing Club – Fred den Hartog (Die Heuwels Fantasties) and Dane Taylor (Taylor Soundworks) – in 2016 and since then, they’ve maintained creative connectivity through their combined passion for artistry in music. Their relationship is a long and diverse one, spanning Arno’s English and Afrikaans releases. Dane won ‘Best Engineer’ at the 2017 SAMA awards for his work on Arno’s debut Afrikaans album, Die Aandblom 13.
The music videos were directed by Lionel Smit, a South African artist who pursues his craft in all manner of media, including sculpture, painting and printmaking.
“Influence” is a loaded, often misunderstood concept. An artist may sound similar to another but have no knowledge of them, or be a super-fan of someone whose output is completely different to their own. Who or what was the artist, album, song, era or scene that initially mapped out the road to you becoming a musician?
Being the youngest of four brothers, I was aware of Pink Floyd , Black Sabbath, AC/DC – bands like that. But the Eighties really grabbed me with Culture Club – that was maybe more their image – Bronski Beat, Tears for Fears and Depeche Mode. Then I discovered The The and I think it consolidated my taste, which only got more focused with bands later like Pixies, The Smiths and Nick Cave, eventually giving me the power of word, energy and melody. The pool from where I pull might be bigger now, but my respect for kick-ass music, beautiful melodies and gripping lyrics still remains my bedrock .
Name one song you wish you’d written. What makes that song so important?
There are so many songs I wish that I’d written, but The Waterboys’ Whole Of The Moon is a song I never get sick of. Or Let’s Dance, by David Bowie. Defining what makes a song great sometimes depends on the smell and taste and colour of a time gone by. It’s like taking a photo of the moon with your phone; it’s something you can’t really capture. I think the energy of Debaser by the Pixies defined my formative pre-Nude Girls years. But then the Nick Cave darkness soothed my inner slacker.
Which aspects of your music do you prioritise? For you, would you rather have that your lyrics, your melodies, or your vocals or instrumental work are the are the most memorable parts of your songs?
I write mostly on acoustic and the first strum always sums up my mood, which is most of the time casually relaxed. So I put all my energy into lyrics and melody – to the detriment of beats.
The music industry is no longer a single-narrative operation. For you, what is the best way to get your music from your head to potential listeners? Please comment on digital means (from social media to full streaming and download distribution), playing live (how often; where; to whom), being a cottage industry (eg selling CDs from a box in your car) and any other creative channels you’ve explored.
For me, as an artist, nothing has changed. I write the songs just as I always have, and once they’re done, I let them go. I perform regularly and with the same energy as the day I first stepped on stage. And I am passionate about my brand and the things that I present to the public, from social media to music videos. I try hard to keep my focus on the creative, and not to let the business side of things affect the decisions I make. I’m lucky to have had the same management for almost 20 years now, and that frees me up and keeps me on track.
Whether as a single narrative back in the day, or as the current alternative – ploughing your time into the massive energy-sucking machine that is the digital universe – artistry still takes an enormous amount of commitment and work, and at the end of the day, it’s what tells the story. Or at least that’s so for me. It’s not about the one-dimensional press release of days gone by, or about the scattered stories flickering on my Facebook or Instagram feeds. I’ve never been able to write or tour music for the masses or to be accepted by everyone on social media. I make music that I love and that I want to listen to and if something catches fire and spreads, then I’m grateful for it.
That said, I do struggle with how things were and with wrapping my head around the way things are now, specifically when it comes to the creativity of what I do. I’m old-school. I like holding a record or a tape or a CD in my hands. I enjoy the artwork and respect the effort the artist has put into creating a complete body of work. So I would be lying if I said it doesn’t bother me that music is both fleeting and practically free now.
It bothers me that I have to break down what I create into bits and pieces. But it’s also all about how we think about the process: whether to embrace, get left behind or lead the way. You can get so caught up in the thinking, rather than the doing, and ultimately thoughts don’t always translate into a sustainable income. For me, as a consumer and as an artist, the digital world is incredible, but it’s still in the real world where I make my living, performing live on stage. And I believe that therein lies the chasm that needs to be filled in order for a true sustainable musical movement. I suppose sometimes, these days, it’s a case of too many cooks spoil the broth.
If we’re going to uplift both the artist and the audience, then maybe what we need is to find somewhere in the middle of the void; somewhere between the lasting lure of old school campaigns, where the process is stretched over months and is often about bringing people together and the isolation of detached instant gratification that we’re all addicted to nowadays.
What I’m trying to say is that for all the brilliance of technology, we can’t forget that we still have to survive in the real world, and how do we do that when 15 minutes has been reduced to just 15 seconds?