Carmen Villain – born Carmen Hillestad – has made what will unquestionably stand up as one of the top albums of 2022 in Only Love From Now On. It’s somehow both rarefied and luscious, a contented dream of being lifted up on clouds of sound. Deep dub bass and intimately detailed percussion sounds form a framework around which the most extraordinary airy sounds circle – both real (the flutes of Johanna Scheie Orellana and the trumpet of Arve Henriksen) and synthetic.
It’s been a roundabout route to get here for the US-born Norwegian-Mexican musician. This is only her fifth album in nine years, in which time she’s evolved from raw and jagged alt-rock singer-songwriter towards pure ambience, into which she’s now folded more complex percussive and textural elements. But this pushing against expectation has clearly worked for her: on Only Love, the totality of her craft and vision are evident: composition, production and soundmaking all feel like part of the same process. We spoke to her at home to find out more about the headspace she was in making it, and what has led her to this point.
How are you feeling about the album as a piece of work?
I still feel really good about it, actually. With previous releases, there’s at least a couple of tracks I sort of lose interest in after a while. But this, I'm still pretty happy with, which feels good.
It feels like a real creative step up – was there a point where you felt like you were onto something new?
Yeah. I think the second track that I made was “Gestures”, the first track on the album. And I do remember listening to it and going, “Oh my God, this is so good. I genuinely really like this.” Then all the pieces just fell together around that one and the title track. With those two, it felt like they kind of created this coherent space, and then everything else was just quite easy to form around that, I think. So yeah, the process felt really good and very kind of laid-back, if that's a way to describe it. Natural.
Did your collaborators have much influence on the shape of the record, or was it down to your vision?
First, it was the “Only Love From Now On” track with Johanna playing flutes, and that was just done by us. I created the basis for it then put it on in the studio, and we did two takes with Johanna while she freestyled on the bansuri flute and then again on another flute. That was the first time she'd ever played the bansuri flute, at least to record or perform properly, which I think is what made it work so nicely in the take. It's not perfect playing. It's just wild, and that's what I love about it. It was only two takes: one with one flute and one with the other one. And that's all just Johanna freestyling. Then I took those recordings and sort of arranged them slightly, but that's pretty much just us two meeting in the studio and jamming out track. So, that was done.
And then the other track which has a collaborator on it, “Gestures” with Arve. With that, I had the whole track more or less done, or at least the basic structure for it. And then I was like, “I'd really like to have some trumpet on this,” and he was the number one choice. So, I reached out to him, sent him the track and the stems, and was like, “Would you be up to playing something on this?” I didn't tell him what to do. I was just like, “Here,” because I trust him. He's amazing. And he really liked it, and then after a day or two...like, I've never received files back so fast. He sent me back his stems of his trumpet melody and some additional little synth wobbly things here and there. And that was it.
Did that early jam with Johanna influence the sound of the album?
Yeah, possibly. But that track is the most sort of open, rhythmless track, I guess. And actually, I knew I always wanted to try to work a little more and bring in more elements of rhythm, with inspiration from dubby beats. I wanted to bring that in even more to this album, because that's what I always get drawn towards. So that was an influence, but then I also had in mind that I wanted to do something with more rhythm in it.
Are there any specific things like soundsystem, club or electronic music that influenced that rhythmic approach?
I'm not sure if I could pinpoint it to one specific thing. But I've always been drawn, since I was a teenager, towards dubby beats. I love dub because it creates this kind of solid groove that enables total freedom to happen on top of it. I really like the combination of those two elements. With other, later electronic music like Biosphere, I always find I prefer when someone like him goes into more dubby elements. It's just what I've always been drawn to, and it's not a specific thing, more like a tendency.
It feels like there’s a Nordic approach, particularly this century, that really dissolves boundaries between jazz, electronica, super noisy music, even pop...do you feel part of that?
No, when I make music, I don't think about genre at all. I didn't know that that was a specific Nordic thing – I'm quite ignorant when it comes to these things! But yes, I think talking genre becomes more and more difficult, which I think can only be a good thing. Why should we pigeonhole something into one specific thing, unless it lends itself really strongly towards that? That's the sort of question I hate answering the most, like, “Oh, so what kind of music do you make?” or, “What's the genre?” I'm like, I don't know. You tell me.
Often genre is tied up with where the sound is consumed – the rock gig, the concert hall, the dancefloor. Do you ever think about where a listener might be when they hear your music?
No, not at all. For me, when it's been released and it's out there, I think it just lives its own life and whoever listens to it will have their own subjective experience. And I am in no place to decide or imagine what that is going to be. In terms of live performances, obviously I have more ideas of how I would like it to be presented or in what sort of spaces or how it could be shared together. But yeah, I certainly don't have a specific place in mind.
What about mood? This record really feels like there’s a sense of comfort and freedom to it: do you intentionally try and communicate any kind of feeling?
I think for me, it was probably just to do with where my head space was at while making it. Because I don't necessarily have an intention before I start making something; it's very intuitive. The process and the sound go hand in hand with what's going on in the mind, but without really thinking about it too much. That's what I found sort of exhausting about having to write lyrics back in the day. Having to really think about what I'm trying to say and put into words, and it has to ring true, but it's like, ugh, I'm not really good with words. So yeah, I think while working on this record and then listening back to it a little bit while coming up with the titles and stuff like that, I was conscious of the mood I’d created. And I do think it's true – I was in quite a calm wellbeing kind of state.
Not all the time, obviously. But it’s definitely there. I think, number one, it's getting older. It's having more experience. And then it's also about perspectives, you know? When the pandemic breaks out, as an example, things can feel completely out of control, which they are a lot of the time in life. The world is a chaotic place. And we spend quite a lot of time looking in a little bit, spending a lot of time by yourself, or by yourself with your family, and it's just learning to really appreciate how privileged we are...trying to focus on the smaller aspects of life and what you can do in your immediate society rather than thinking massive scale the whole time, because then everything can feel super hopeless. We all do that doom scrolling thing, I still do it all the time – but I did become very much aware of the privilege of being able to say, okay, I'm just going to turn off my mind from that focus and try to work more specifically towards something. (Laughs) this is a very long answer to your question.
No, this is something we’ve looked into a lot on Sound of Life: it really does seem that since the pandemic, a lot of people have given themselves permission to really allow music to be pleasurable, healing, comfortable and not look down on the idea of it being comforting.
Yeah, I agree. I think it's opened up something. Trying to ignore the whole influencer easy wellness world of, “Oh, just love yourself” because that's also toxic, I think. A lot of people have really realized that you can focus on the love that you have or what you can give, or have some sort of kindness and focus on that – rather than on all the polarizing, exhausting dialogue. I mean, it's not even a dialogue. What's happening in the world, which we're bombarded with all the time and all take part in…it's just so much.
It's not easy to work on shifting the mind towards the more appreciative, smaller framework. But that was definitely where I was when I was making this album. Like you say, it was a fairly peaceful mindset, even though the world feels like it's pretty terrible. It's like an exercise for me that I've had to work on my whole life, but it's gotten easier the last few years, ironically, even though things seem to be getting worse and worse. But there are so many amazing things. There's so much joy and love and amazing art that's been made, so it's just like, okay, let's try to focus on these things, and how can we make a difference on a smaller scale? That's much more sane, for me anyway.
And do you know where you go from here? Do you feel like this is a stepping stone to the next project, or do you not think that far ahead?
I haven't really gotten that far yet, because I don't usually lay out a plan for what I want to do on the next project until I'm in it, just working on it and throwing stuff through production processes and stuff. That's how I start discovering the potential or what can happen with that next recording. I have quite a few projects coming up, but it's still very, very early days. And it's always been like that. I just follow the intuition for whatever I'm doing next, and that's why I guess it may be developing in ways that are unexpected to some people. Things might sound quite different, but to me, there are many similarities just because of how I approached the making of the different things or albums. So yeah, that's all I can do. I don't think I'm capable of going, “Oh, the next one, I think I'm going to do this,” and then I'll lay out a process. It doesn't work like that for me, because it happens while recording and mixing all at the same time. So, who knows?
What I do know is that I feel much more confident and comfortable with what I'm making, and also more confident in my own abilities in production and so on. But I'm still learning so it's always a learning process, which is what I find interesting about making music. There's so much more to learn and so much more to discover while doing it. That’s probably another driver for me, just continuous learning. Because if curiosity disappears, then I don't really know what there is…I mean, for me, it would just be impossible, because that's the whole point of trying to drag ideas out of sound – curiosity of what it can give you back.
Cover Credit: Signe Luksengaad
Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs.