By BRUCE DENNILL
Husband and wife duo Mark Olson and Ingunn Ringvold released their third album, Magdalen Accepts The Invitation, earlier this year. The album is a walk through both the pair’s overlapping musical influences and a number of experiences they’ve shared while travelling together over the years.
Working together as a married couple on something as amorphous as original music. Potentially, it’s perfect – you know each other well; each other’s psyches and perspectives; and you can connect on a profound level. Also potentially, though, it’s incredibly tough – you can’t punch the drummer and walk out of rehearsal when you live in the same home… Where does music fit into your and Ingunn’s relationship? And how does songwriting (and/or playing live) with her differ from other collaborations in your career – emotionally and/or practically?
To write, record and tour albums takes a full-time approach. It’s possible to go camping and visiting relatives and normal weekend type activities, but in order to have an organised touring and recording situation, you have to exercise some type of nine-to-five, Monday-to-Friday music schedule in your life. Ingunn and I have a lot of activities we enjoy doing together that fall a bit outside of our music programme, like travel, hiking, and visiting interesting people and places. We enjoy many things, really, and have a lot in common, though we are from two different countries. The music biz now is a lot of different tasks that used to be done by many people, but now it’s just more varied tasks for the group – we are the group here. For instance, we are our own engineers. I do all of the analogue set-up and recording, the getting of sounds and mic placement and so on; and Ingunn does most of the Pro Tools digital engineering, computer set-up and transfers. This is the way our music programme works – we divide up the various tasks that need to be accomplished. With the writing, we talk about initial ideas and make notes and each take a part or piece of a song and work it and then come together again. Even in the writing, there is a difference. I’ll focus on lyrics and Ingunn will try out passing chords when we are adding various verse or bridge parts to a song. By doing this, we have discovered the best, most creative way to cover ground – and that goes for recording and touring alike. Only by going out and doing shows and by making records and writing songs did we sort out how the two of us could get our music in motion. I am a great believer in the husband and wife approach. I think it is a special, cool way of doing things and I am glad Ingunn and I are on this journey together. As far as how emotions enter into music and songwriting, I think that’s a very broad topic. In general, though, I think it’s good to have as stable of a living and health situation in your life as possible. It’s good to get your rest. It’s like any activity where calm, healthy mental activity is required. Too many emotions can stir up the water and make writing and performing more difficult.
You’ve mentioned that the album’s title refers to Mary Magdalene “accepting the invitation to change”. It’s a notion that resonates in a world where stubbornness and aggression characterise so much communication and leadership. But this is not an album of protest music. Would you say there is an aspect to presenting a perspective as a songwriter that encourages – pushes for, even – a response? And in that sense, are you satisfied with the questions this collection is asking?
I am trying to write and present impressions of life as I have experienced things and how I imagine them being or how they might have been or could be. I am not so much looking for a response as I am interested in atmosphere, and that’s something you really can’t change or control so much. History, too, is a type of mystery – and how people lived and how much we are like people in the past or different from them helps to make a cloud cover we live in. An invitation to change is a personal way of dealing with conflict and trials in a life. I really think at some point you have to turn and try new ways in your personal, professional and educational life.
Dual lead vocals coupled with beautiful harmonies have typified your music throughout your career. Most traditional approaches have single lead vocal, and that’s accepted as “normal” – in the same way that having to guitars playing exactly the same line in the same arrangement might seem odd. What about the dual lead vocal approach works for you – what effect do you feel it has on the sound of a song?
It’s the Beatles when they sang together; Simon and Garfunkel; The Everlys; Gram and Emmylou; George and Tammy; Dolly and Porter; Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell; The Mamas & The Papas; Peter, Paul and Mary; The Byrds; and Richard and Mimi Farina – it’s all these and many more. It’s a way of chasing the harmony rainbow. It really is fun and interesting to find parts that sound unique and work well together. It’s something I have been doing a long time and I really enjoy the process and results.
The bulk of the songs on the album are built around positive, quirky experiences you and Ingunn have had. Is it easier or more difficult to write from a place where angst is not involved (heartbreak and yearning are so often drivers for songwriters)? And how did you develop the details around the themes that inspired each track – there’s a sense that you have an eye for unusual minutia, rather than just what is presented in front of you…
I am trying to create an atmosphere with the topics and sounds. I started doing this because I noticed, when I was outside in the desert working on a house for a year, how many different impressions came about from the various times of day, seasonal changes and nature events that took place. Prior to that, I had been living in a city with a go-go-run-run-do-do kind of agenda, and having things slow down in the desert helped me to start to imagine a new topic agenda for lyrics, but still have them be in a format that reflects a point of view. So you are taking a story somewhere and seeing how it has something to do with your past, present and future circumstances. Also, I just enjoy things that I can imagine. This might come from my grandmother, who memorised poems and always had something to offer and say about any event.
31 Patience Games recalls your time in South Africa, which you say in your release notes was maybe the best of your life. What made it so special, so memorable? How did it affect the way you thought or felt about the US? What are we as South Africans possibly overlooking in terms of how we appreciate our homeland?
This was on account of where we stayed, which was unbelievably cool and beautiful. We rented a small cabin with a family that farmed and grew grapes for wine in the mountains of the Western Cape. They were growing hops too, with this incredible trellis system, and there was so much wildlife and so many interesting plants to see and discover. Also, we were married in South Africa, so that was an important day. We were able to drive to the ocean and swim and then head out into the little Karoo. I had never really been to the ocean so much or done as much hiking as we did when we were there. Also, we always went to and shopped at the same farmers’ market and basically just had many incredible, once-in-a-lifetime experiences. We knew people nearby and visited them and their family, so we were not out there all alone – this was helpful as far as friendship, logistics and health connections was concerned. I also bought a strange Farfisa organ and we practised music a lot, which is what musicians like to do!
You’ve referred to one of your musical starting points as “Death Valley isolation chamber folk-pop”, which sounds somehow both bleak and warm or intimate – like something David Lynch might hum if he’s in a good mood. You also live out of the way in Joshua Tree, where isolation is also a factor. What role do you think being relatively disconnected (physically, anyway – the internet keeps us in touch in other ways) has in the way you write – in terms of both topics and style? As an observation – many of these songs are about experiences while travelling; while not at home: is that noteworthy, or just a coincidence?
We have a glorified cabin in the desert that actually needs some upgrading soon. I did some work when I first bought this place and have been using it as a living, studio and writing place for about 10 years. I think if I write more now about things that are not going on in Joshua Tree, it’s just that I have an enormous chore list that means setting down my guitar and getting to it, so there is some conflict there. I know I have to do it soon. Covid has changed all of the timetables and put a uneasiness into life and out here we have a lot of elderly people, so in a way, everything is on hold until they get a grip on this outbreak, because here it has been getting worse and worse, so we are hoping for first things first – that health officials deal with Covid and get the virus down to a very low transmission state.
From your notes on the song Christina Hi: “I was thinking about how easy it is to get involved with the wrong friends that are into derelict ideas and how that can affect a person’s life.” It is easy, certainly, but aren’t such relationships also, for an artist, a rich source of potential inspiration? That shouldn’t be a cynical reason to seek out such scenarios, but if they do happen, it’s possible they could provoke profound emotions; something writing about…
I think that after seeing the music and arts scenes in various locations and times and in different states of creative, financial and social wellbeing or distress, I feel that people can easily err on the side of scenarios that have a negative impact on their health and the ability to find a solid existence. They take a lot of risks chasing inspiration rainbows that evaporate. But who am I to talk? I’m still chasing duo two-part harmony rainbows. So I get the goal. Music.