First impressions are a bitch—especially for pop musicians, and even more especially for acclaimed songwriters who etch a distinct imprint on the critical and public consciousness. Just ask singer-songwriter Jannis Noya Makrigiannis, a native of Copenhagen, Denmark who’d already found massive success in his home country by the time his 2008 full-length debut, This is For the White in Your Eyes, started blowing away fans and critics internationally with its gushing, romantic orchestral folk—Makrigiannis’ warm, haunting tenor gluing the whole sound together. Though the album (which he wrote and arranged all by himself, aided after the fact by his band in the studio) remained a slightly obscure treasure in the U.S., those who heard it fell in love: NPR jumped on the album immediately, and Rolling Stone’s David Fricke, after catching a live show, declared, “It was like hearing Radiohead’s Thom Yorke in the middle of a Sixties Roy Orbison single.”
Sounds pretty great all-around—except that, when it came time to follow-up his unexpected international masterstroke, Makrigiannis felt unexpected pressure to deliver another emotional epic, to follow the elegant blueprint he’d established (semi-accidentally) on White in Your Eyes.
“I think I wanted Choir of Young Believers to be a very broad thing,” Makrigiannis sighs, frustration dripping off his chirpy, childlike voice. He and his six bandmates have just finished up a tour, peaking with a marathon run at the SXSW Festival, and they’re currently enjoying a couple days off.
“I enjoy listening and enjoy playing so many different genres of music, and I wanted to incorporate this in the band,” he continues. “Although with the first record…Now, it feels very much like a one-track record, very much the same feeling or the same way of approaching music throughout the whole record. And I think maybe that’s also why a lot of people understood and enjoyed that record, because it was really simple and easy to approach. But as a songwriter, you sometimes write a song—and as I said before, when I’m writing, I don’t think about it. If it feels good, it feels good. But sometimes, you sit with a song and think, ‘Oh, this is not a Choir of Young Believers song. I can’t play this song with this band!’ But it’s like…’Who is this speaking?!’ It’s so weird you’re telling yourself this when you wrote the song! I’m the one who wrote the song, so anything I write or want to put in Choir of Young Believers is Choir of Young Believers!”
The new Choir of Young Believers album, Rhine Gold, often sounds like the work of a completely different songwriter. Makrigiannis’ radiant voice remains consistent, but the musical backdrops have blossomed into far-reaching, cinematic expanses: The blissfully sculpted pop of “Sedated” is spotted with new headphone-worthy details (storm sound effects, glossy piano strokes and beefy bass), and the bright, bold ‘80s-styled synth-pop of “Patricia’s Thirst” is miles away from the meditative chamber-folk of yore. But the most radical departure on Rhine Gold is “Paralyse,” a droning, 10-minute kraut-rock epic that morphs from motorik bass-and-drum kit pulses to weird tape noise and wandering acoustics before heading back again. Simply put, it’s the least Choir of Young Believers have ever sounded like Choir of Young Believers—or, at least, what people expect them to sound like. But then again, shouldn’t it be up to the songwriter what the freaking music sounds like?
“Sometimes you limit yourself,” Makrigiannis admits, “because, ‘Oh, no, this recording…People think you’re this kind of band, and people wouldn’t understand if you did a kraut-rock experiment. Maybe some people would get lost, and maybe some people wouldn’t understand if it’s not the fragile, folky tunes.’”
It’s a scary position to be in as a songwriter, especially if you’re trying to build and maintain a fanbase.
“That’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about. On this record, maybe we’ll reduce some of our listeners, but I wanted to represent all of the things that I like. I don’t want to limit myself in my own project, so for me, ‘Paralyse’ is an example of one of the corners of what we want to do in Choir of Young Believers. We still want to do pop songs, like ‘Paint New Horrors,’ with really pop melodies and pretty straightforward arrangements. I enjoy that just as much as ‘Paralyse,’ but I just needed that part of me represented on the record as well, and I’m really glad we did that and took it all the way.”
Maybe the key there is “we took it all the way.” While White in Your Eyes was essentially a one-man project aided by outside studio musicians, Choir of Young Believers officially became a legitimate seven-piece band on Rhine Gold, with each player allowed the creative freedom to write (or at least enhance) their individual parts in the studio. And with the added perspectives bouncing around, with all the extra hands on deck, Makrigiannis was finally able to achieve the sounds swimming in his head—all of them.
“Now it’s very much a collaborative thing,” he says. Now that the band’s on the road, they’ve already begun re-interpreting the material in front of mesmerized audiences, and these new songs were constructed in a way that allows for that flexibility.
“I still wrote the songs and did as much as I could,” he continues, “and of course, I also had some ideas of how to arrange it, but the difference is that instead of just going into the studio alone and starting to put things on it, I met up with the band when I finished the songs, and everything was really open, so it changed a lot. What I came with to the band was just drafts, and we kind of took it from there. I think you can also hear it in the arrangements—there are longer parts in the songs with just instrumental parts and just the way that people are playing is how they grasped the songs themselves and not how I tell them to. With the first record, I myself or somebody did a bassline, and the guy actually playing bass in the live band had to play not his own way but the way it is on the record. So I finished off the songs, introduced them to the band, and everything was very open. The songs changed when we rehearsed them for the recording, and then we went into the studio, and they changed again because all these weird things always happen when you’re in the studio and you get to record and dub and produce it.”
Makrigiannis now has a proper unit to help him realize his artistic visions, but equally important is his personal philosophy and approach to art—one which might sound a little spacey at first but actually makes a hell of a lot of sense.
“I once read this music theory that there are two very different kinds of musicians. There is the gardener, who just takes what comes [inspiration], give it water and nurses it so it keeps coming. And then there’s the architect—he’s very conscious of every single brick in the building that he’s making. He has a vision, then he creates that vision very thoroughly, you know?”
While Makrigiannis isn’t turned off by modern indie culture (he’s a huge fan of the latest Cass McCombs album), his songs feel positively out of place in an often show-offy scene that sometimes puts style before substance. Where everybody seems to be trying so hard to fit in, Makrigiannis…is, umm, a gardener—and that, quite frankly, bodes well for this incredible talent’s musical future.
“I think there’s a lot of architects out there now, and I think a lot of the music that I like…people can say, ‘Oh, this reminds me of that, or this is a reference to that,’ but I never give it any thought. What I work from is my gut feeling. If it feels good, then it feels good. And I don’t need to explain myself why it feels good. It just feels good, so I do it. Where the architect may say, ‘This song is interesting because it’s new, or it’s interesting because it’s a reference to this,’ I think sometimes the magic disappears from music if you twist and turn every single little thing you do and think about, ‘What is this compared to that?’”
“I may be a little bit naïve,” he continues, “but that’s what I like about music, working with music, as a music fan. The feeling of something personal, although you’re standing on the shoulders of all the people who have been before you. You’re actually creating something that wasn’t there before and comes from you as a person.
“I always felt that if music was timeless,” Makrigiannis reflects, pausing. “If you couldn’t really point it down to a certain era, that’s a good quality in my ear. I think it’s really beautiful if a piece of music could have been done in the ‘50s or ‘60s or ‘90s or now. If you don’t hear any of what’s going on in the music business now, that’s very satisfying to me.”