Jazz interview with jazz fluteist Elsa Nilsson. An interview by email in writing.
JazzBluesNews.com: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?
Elsa Nilsson: – I grew up in Sweden, but spent every other summer in California with my mother’s family. My first exposure to music was my dad putting me on a stage with a microphone in front of my face and telling me to sing at age 2. One of my favorite memories from holidays in Sweden was all the music we would make. I was always in choir and had lots of concerts every year, but we also had a family tradition of going to hospitals and singing for the people who were too sick to be home for the holiday. I got to understand that music is healing from a very early age. I started playing piano at age 5 and flute when I was 14. I liked music a lot, but wasn’t particularly committed to it until my dad was in a bicycle accident when I was 14 and broke his neck. Music became my outlet and life line in the chaos that ensued after the accident. It was how I survived.
JBN: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?
EN: – My sound started evolving the day I picked up the flute. I started playing flute instead of piano because I had become addicted to practicing but spent my summers in the back country of the Trinity Alps in California, where there was no piano. I learned how to play flute by improvising on mountaintops in the wilderness. I’ve always been very resistant to fitting into others definition if me. It makes me uncomfortable when people make assumptions about who I am based on my instrument or culture or any other external factors. Or, when they try to shape me into something I’m not for the sake of their comfort. With my sound, I feel like descriptions of sculptors I’ve read. I always knew what I wanted, and it took a lot of time and searching to find it. I sought out the music I loved and learned that. Rather than learning the music that was expected for my instrument I learned the music I loved and explored ways to get the flute to sound like that. I spend a lot of time transcribing trumpet players and saxophone players, not memorizing their licks but rather listening for their phrasing and articulation. How they produced sound and what part of the sonic quality it was that had an emotional impact on me. I never tried to be a certain kind of player, but rather followed the music and the sounds that I loved. I still do. I think of it as following the approach of my musical heroes rather than trying to replicate what they played.
JBN: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?
EN: – I make sure that musicality and expression are at the center of everything I practice. I begin my practice time in the same way every day, focusing on sound and signaling to myself that practice time is sacred and setting aside everything else for these moments. Depending on how much time I have for the practice session I will approach it differently, spending time on the aspect that I feel I need to deepen my connection with that day. I think a lot about my relationship to my instrument and our (my instrument and me) relationship to the music. Some days are for reconnecting and upkeep, others for exploration.
I love using the ‘big metronome,’ where it only clicks once every four bars or less. I will put this slow metronome on when I’m learning new music and practicing chord changes or scales as a benchmark for staying grounded in a larger sense of the pulse. Whenever I come across rhythms that I don’t feel at home in I will take them apart and analyze them mathematically, programming metronomes to create exercises to address specific issues. My goal in doing this is not to be able to play complicated things perfectly, but rather to have an understanding of what I am doing so that I can relax into it and turn it into a meditation. There are so many ways to use a metronome for this, and to me rhythm is the part of the music that communicates emotional information. I like to understand what I’m doing on a technical level to a point where it becomes internalized and I don’t have to think about it any more. This just takes time, and is one of the things I spend my practice time on. Working on small ideas and concepts until they no longer feel like intellectual exercises, but rather phrases and colors.
JBN: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?
EN: – I believe everything we work on makes us better. None of us exist in a vacuum, so we are going to be influenced by what has happened before us and around us. There’s a huge difference between being influenced by something and trying to recreate something. I like being influenced by things that inspires me, it can be music, art, people I love, nature, movement, moments, a feeling. The more disparate the better. I think creating something means that you draw from many sources. I have no illusion that what I create only comes from me, it can’t. I’m creating improvised music with other people, already that is a huge external influence that will color what I’m doing. If I’m only creating from me that limits the potential creativity to my capacity. I have a few different projects that I make music in and I am not going to make the same choices in any two of them, because I’m being influenced by what the music needs in that moment. What makes it mine is the fact that it is me. I am the filter that these disparate influences are all colored though, and that is why it matters. I collect the inspiration and then I get out of the way and let it express itself through me and my instrument.
JBN: – How do you prepare before your performances to help you maintain both spiritual and musical stamina?
EN: – I set my life up so that music is at the center. I feel like everything I do, every day, is to serve music. So, to answer this, I prepare for performances the same way I live my life in general. When I’m practicing music I’m not only practicing the notes I’m playing, I’m also practicing what I am feeling when I’m playing them. I’m practicing the act of generating a feeling through sound. Because I play an instrument that directly translates breath I work on breathing. I do yoga a few times a week, both for the mental space it puts me in and for the isolating of breathing as a practice. I go running because I enjoy it, it makes me feel alive and connected to my body, and it helps with lung capacity for sustaining longer notes. These are also the things that help me maintain and generate physical and mental stamina in everything I do. I continuously work on being a better person, a better teacher and a better friend. I am who I am, and being the truest version of myself both in my life and in my music is the daily work. I don’t think about stamina, I think about process. Performance is an aspect of all of this, it’s not separate. When I get the privilege of playing in front of an audience I feel it is the deepest honor. I am my truest self on my instrument, particularly in moments of performance. The rest of the process is to keep the pathway of creativity and communication clear.
JBN: – Ism is culled from a variety of lives dates with various performers over the course of a few years. Did your sound evolve during that time? And how did you select the musicians who play on the album?
EN: – I feel like my sound is constantly evolving. I love making records because they are just that – a record of a moment in time. The sound of this band will continue to evolve, that’s how I like it, both in my own work and in the artists I like to listen to. The musicians in this band have been my band for 7 years. It goes beyond being a band – I consider them family. I play with them because I love who they are and what they do. We have developed this sound together over time, learning from each other and growing together. Cody Rahn (the drummer) and I have been playing together for 13 years. Alex Minier (bassist) and I met in grad school at NYU and he and Cody are in many bands together. Alex introduced me to Jeff, and the subtlety and intensity in his playing makes me supremely happy. When I bring in music for us to play together I leave a lot open, because I don’t want to tell them what to do. I want to give them a framework to be themselves within. That can, and often does, mean breaking the framework and coloring outside the lines. This trust is one of the reasons I love this band. I know they’ve got my back, and they know I have theirs. And we are all there to make the music what it wants to be.
JBN: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?
EN: – Same as it is in life. For me the goal of making music, particularly instrumental music, is to express who you are through your instrument. If you have balance in who you are as a human it will translate onto your instrument. This is why I love process, that is where balance lies. If you try to balance in a vacuum you stagnate, but with motion you can adjust. Improvised music to me is all about process. It’s really all there is too it. There’s information you need to know to execute it effectively, and that is the intellectual part. This information is not the point, it is a tool. If you get too stuck on the information the danger is that you can forget to feel. On the other hand if you only feel but cannot execute then there is a limit to what you can express. Some of my favorite music is created by musicians who don’t have any “intellectual understanding” of what they are playing, but they can feel it. I think the balance is to realize what you need to know in order to create the music that is true for you. Gaining that knowledge through practice and study, but making sure that it doesn’t become the focus. That we don’t stray away from keeping expression at the center.
JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?
EN: – I give everything in my music. I have no control over how people hear it. Changing who I am for a perception of who someone else wants me to be feels disingenuous as well as disrespectful to the listener. If I believe that I have to change something in order for people to like it, that implies that I think I am more educated, or smarter or more sophisticated than the listener. None of this is ever true. I am what I am, I create what I create, to the fullest and most genuine extent that I can. Not everyone will like what I do and that has to be ok. I feel that in not holding back or pandering I am showing respect to the audience, both those for whom my work speaks to and those for whom it doesn’t. I’m respecting their integrity and right to listen to whatever they connect with.
JBN: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?
EN: – My favorite thing that happens at gigs is when someone comes up to me after and tells me how the music affected them. How it made them feel. I often have people say that what I played made them feel at home, or that don’t usually get jazz, but liked what my fellow musicians and I did. This happens a lot. I had a moment like this just a few weeks ago. Bam Rodríguez, the bassist from South By North East, and I played a women’s homeless shelter. We were told going in that the 50 or so women who would be there were going through a tough time and not to say or play anything triggering. We played free. Before we started I said to them that we were going to make something up for them, and that it would be different because they were in the room. I said I was glad to be there with them. We played, and after a few minutes I heard something that completely blew my mind. Someone was singing along. One or more of the women in the room were humming the phrase we were improvising, anticipating where we were going and following/leading us there. I felt an intensely deep connection to everyone in the room, and it reaffirmed my belief that music is a spiritual language that we can all tap into.
For me its not about the size of the room. Its about the effect I am having on the people who are there, and if the world is a little bit better for them when they leave.
JBN: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?
EN: – Defining jazz as the standard tunes is problematic to me as there are so there are so many sub genres within it. When we speak about jazz we’re not really speaking about one thing. To me jazz is a mindset, an attitude and an art form, not a collection of tunes. Look at history – if Coltrane were alive today I doubt he’d be playing only the standards or trying to sound like anyone but himself. I feel like a lot of current jazz musicians understand that the relevance of the old tunes are what we can learn from them, utilizing what we learned in the music that we are creating here and now. We can play the standards or not, but the art form of Jazz extends far beyond the standard tunes. I think plenty of young people are interested in that. Look at the amount of students attending college for jazz as proof!
JBN: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?
EN: – This is what I mean with music as the center. My experience with this is that I am not the generating force when I’m writing or playing. If I try to be, if I try to control or convince something to happen musically, it comes out anemic. My job is to show up, be ready, and get out of the way so that the music can flow through me. When I’m in this state, a state that I like to live in as much as possible, it feels like a trance. I’m existing inside the music, and the music is existing inside of me. It goes way beyond my knowledge, and I like that. I experience this daily, playing things that I don’t know where they came from. When I practice I’m trying to understand what it is I’m hearing so that in a moment of inspiration it can come out without the filter of analysis. When I practice rhythm, or yoga, or tone, I’m really practicing entering this state. That part is not hard work at all. It’s just remembering the path to get out of my own way. What comes out is music, and it is my spirit at its core and also no longer me at all.
JBN: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
EN: – I would shift the societal focus on the image of musicians as a persona, entity or star toward a focus on music as a healing force and the musician as its conduit.
JBN: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?
EN: – Right now I am deep into Sons of Kemet, Chris Morrissey, Antonio Sanchez Migration, Tigran Hamasyan, Soundgarden, Ron Miles, Soul Gnawa, Paris Monster, Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Jamie Baum, Jane Ira Bloom, Guinga, Critters Buggin, Bjork, Medeski Martin and Wood, Pat Metheney’s solo records, Pink Floyd, Tom Waits, Eric Dolphy, Yuseff Lateef, Tool, Clifford Brown, The Meters and the list goes on. Sometimes I get stuck on a specific record for months, sometimes I jump around a lot. Right now, I’m listening to a lot of different things.
JBN: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?
EN: – My godfather told me this story when I was 13 about what he thought the role of the artist was. He said to me “We all have a soul, right? And our soul, it hides because it’s afraid of getting hurt. But sometimes, when we don’t expect it, it looks out through our eyes and at the exact same moment someone else’s soul looks out through theirs and we get these instant connections. We see each other like we’ve known each other forever. It happens with strangers on the street. That is the work of the artist. Your job is to take your soul and put it out into the world. That way other people can feel safe to let their souls out for a minute too.” He knew what I was when I was 13. It took me many more years to see it. I want my music to allow the listener to feel this. To feel seen, understood and safe to be exactly who they need to be in that moment. In order to do that I have to be entirely myself.
JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?
EN: – The obvious answer is just past November 2020. I really would love for this election season to go a certain way, and I’d much rather know now than have to wait and suffer all the rhetoric.
JBN: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…
EN: – In what way does music enrich your experience of the world?
JBN: – … for the better of course.
JBN: – So putting that all together, how are you able to harness that now?
EN: – All of this is bigger than me. I’m not wanting to harness anything. I’m wanting to let it overtake me and bring something into the world that goes beyond what I can currently see, so I will keep creating and keep exploring and keep pushing my own boundaries.
Interview by Simon Sargsyan