With literally thousands of black metal bands recording it takes something special to stand out. The Swedish act Turdus Merula defintietly stands out; not so much because Dísa—the mastermind behind Turdus Merula—is radically transforming the black metal formula, but rather because she is preforming black metal with an uncommon amount of candor. While many black metal artists hide behind the persona and ideologies of black metal, Turdus Merula has an emotional openess to it. At the same time, there is a mystical quality to Turdus Merula that remains esoteric and obscure. This combination makes Turdus Merula’s music easy to connect with but also highly intriguing. Recently I spoke with Dísa to try and get a better understanding of the music, art and ideology that makes up Turdus Merula
DS: When did you originally create Turdus Merula?
The idea of creating Turdus Merula was actually born a long time before I started to write music for the project, but the first songs I wrote started to take form during the autumn of 2006 and early winter 2007. I was studying at the university back then and as a poor student, I could not afford to buy my own guitar until 2006; otherwise I would probably have started to write more music much earlier. The only instrument I had access to before I got my own guitar, was the piano at my parents house and a keyboard that I bought at the same time as I left home. Since I prefer to play on a real piano and my parents did not live far away from my apartment, I often visited them to compose classical music or just to improvise music on the piano. Although, it was not just the absence of a guitar that did obstruct my writing, particularly for Turdus Merula pre 2006; during this year I reached some kind of turning point in my life and I opened my eyes for the first time in many years and started to see more clearly. Turdus Merula kind of became my tool to handle both my past and my present.
DS: Was this your first metal project?
Yes, Turdus Merula was my first metal project. As a teenager I was the only one among my friends that did listen to any kind of metal at all. Most of my friends only listened to Swedish or British punk-music, grunge, Swedish progressive music and psychedelic tunes from the 1960-70´s. So, when I started to play in a band when I was about 12-13 years old, it was as the guitarist in a Swedish punk band that mostly played covers, but we also wrote some songs of our own. It was during this time I learned how to handle the guitar, and since we played punk music, there were not such high demands on what skills I had as a guitarist or how it actually sounded hehe, so I was really free to experiment a lot and was given time to truly get to know the guitar for real! It was ok to make a mistake, if you know what I mean, and the whole creative process was more about having fun and expressing different emotions (mostly aggression and discontent) than anything else! This liberty was very important for me during this time, since I had excessively and morbidly high demands on myself in everything else in life. I’m totally self-taught as a guitarist and I think my time in the punk-scene really helped me to relax and to know my limitations as well as my possibilities when it comes to creating music.
DS: Why did you decide to name your band after the black bird? Does the black bird have a special significance for you?
The name came to me very naturally. I have been enchanted by the blackbirds singing for as long as I can remember. I also enjoy walking in the forests, especially when no one else is awake (i.e. in early mornings or during sunset) and when Turdus Merula was born me and my precious dog Embla spent hours and hours walking in the woods, often accompanied by nothing else but the singing blackbird, and I guess that had a great impact in my choice of name for the band. The Latin name itself was very suitably as well, since “Merula” means “alone”. I have difficulties with having people too close to me and I prefer to be by myself. During the years before I started the band I was really, really lonely and I truly and consciously isolated myself from people in the surrounding world. Still today, I only have a few friends and that’s just my way of living.
The blackbird also plays a role in the Swedish folklore that I can identify with in many, but private, ways.
DS: How long has black metal been a part of your life? What bands have had the greatest influence on Turdus Merula?
I have been listening to all kinds of music all my life. My father has a great collection of vinyls, CD’s and tapes and he really has a broad taste of music; from classical music to 1970’s heavy metal, psychedelic music, grunge, Swedish progressive music, 1980’s synth-music, Swedish folk music and so on. It was never quiet in our house! This has of course influenced me a lot. Although, my father did not introduce me to black metal and he has never really understood the “screaming” or the whole image that comes along with the scene, but he can actually find the music itself quite ok sometimes he says. It is my older brother that I have to thank for introducing me to the darker scene of metal. When I was about 9-10 he recorded mixed tapes with Sepultura, Slayer, Metallica and so on that he gave to me, and then, when I was about 12-13 he introduced me to Burzum, Darkthrone, Emperor, Summoning and Dissection and many more black metal bands from the early and mid 90’s and I got totally hooked at once!
I guess I have been influenced by many of these bands, but I have never tried to sound like any of them. I often read in reviews and so on that my music might have some Burzum-influences though, and that might be true, even if it’s not my intention, since Burzum is one of the bands that I have been listening to since the very beginning and that has got a really, really special place in my musical history and mind. I canalways listen to Burzum!
DS: Was music a big part of your upbringing? Did you start playing at a young age? What instruments?
Yes, it was a great part of my upbringing. My parents love music and took me and my siblings to concerts to introduced us to different kinds of music, as written above, at a really young age. My father plays the piano and guitar, so me and my brother as well as my little sister were put in to piano-classes pretty early and had the possibility to play on his guitar as long as we were careful. I must have been 7 years old when I started to take piano-lessons, but I did not like to be “forced” into playing, the way you are while taking lessons like that; learning to play scales and playing children-songs and so on. Therefore I unfortunately never did my homework properly and actually, I did not start to play the piano for real until I was put out of my piano-classes and could improvise and play whatever I wanted!
My parents have always been very encouraging, and they never forced me into anything. When I wanted to quit the piano-classes, they let me quit. If I would have wanted to play something else, they would have let me do so. I was really interested in different instruments as a child. I bought myself a mouth harp during a trip with the school-class to a medieval museum when I was about 8 years old and when I turned 10 my grandparents gave me a beautiful zither. I never took any classes or lessons to learn how to handle either of these instruments though, but I learned quite a lot just by experimenting and playing with them.
When I was 12-13 I started to play guitar in the punk-band mentioned earlier. I had just been plunking on my fathers guitar before that, so I could actually not play any chords or anything. I did not start to play bass, horns, drums etc until a few years ago and I’m self-taught regarding these instruments as well. I have to say that the piano is my primary instrument though.
DS: Turdus Merula tends to have a very ritualistic feeling to it. What influence does mysticism, shamanism etc. have on your music?
The mysticism and shamanistic feeling in Turdus Merula, and all of my other projects, are pure reflections of me and my spirituality, both in the past and in my daily life. Since music often is a part of my rites and since Turdus Merula is a very personal creation, the ritualistic essence just comes naturally.
DS: Mentem Recipere seems to be a concept album. Can you speak about the story or themes behind it?
Mentem Recipere is a concept album that tells the story about a travel to The Underworld, visiting The Underworld itself and the journey back again. The story behind this concept and why I chose to write about it is a bit too personal to tell the world about, but to give you a small hint I can tell you that I have had some troublesome years in my past. Turdus Merula as a project has been a tool on my way back. The demo and the releases so far have all been dealing with different happenings during my time among the shadows, but also my way of looking at these happenings at the specific moment, always influenced by the state of mind I have been in during the creative process while I’m putting a release together as well.
The Underworld can be frightening, but it can also teach you a lot. I chose to go down there myself, with no plans to return…but obviously I did. The return was probably more troublesome than the travel down and the visit itself.
DS: Though both your albums appear to be conceptual in nature, you have published none of the lyrics. Is this intentional? If so, what is the motivation behind keeping the lyrics hidden? While you have not provided lyrics for your albums, you have created an image to go along with each of the songs for Mentem Recipere, which collectively tell a story. Do you feel that the essence of the album is better communicated through image than word?
Nature is a big part of both my daily life and Turdus Merula, and it’s impossible to write music for Turdus Merula without involving nature. Although, the presence of nature is not always that obvious in the lyrics themselves, it’s rather more woven into the musical harmonies.
In the beginning it was intended to hide the lyrics since I wrote the lyrics mostly for me personally and not for anyone else. I wasn’t sure if anyone else would understand my lyrics and I kind of wanted to keep them for myself. Now I think differently and even if my lyrics still wouldn’t make sense to anyone else, they are no secrets. When it comes to Mentem Recipere, I just didn't have enough space in the booklet for all my texts and therefore I decided to do paintings instead, reflecting the lyrical themes. I also think the pictures in both Herbarium and in Mentem Recipere give the listener some space for their own imagination. It also gives the music and the atmospheres in the tunes an opportunity to speak for themselves.
DS: You created all the artwork for Mentem Recipere. What medium did you use? How do you see the relation between your visual and auditory creations?
Actually, all the artwork for Mentem Recipere is just sketches made with a simple ink reservoir. I usually use lead or charcoal pencil while drawing or sketching, but this time I started up with the ink and it suited the drawings quite well and fulfilled my visions with the booklet. Otherwise I prefer to paint with acrylic paint or oil paints as well as aquarelle.
I think the visual aspects are very important! My music often tells a story and the music as well as the artwork complement each other. I have been working with different kinds of visual art as long as I can remember, and just as the visual art is an extension to my music, the music is an extension of my visual art.
When I listen to music, I really want to sit down and study the related booklet; the artwork, the lyrics/poems (which may sound a bit contradictive since I’m not very good in sharing my own lyrics) and the overall layout. By doing that, I think I can go much deeper in to the story that’s being told, the feelings being released by the composer.
DS: Snakes and trees are prominent images throughout the artwork of Turdus Merula. What is the importance of these symbols for you? The image of the ouroborus is present both in the Turdus Merula logo and the Mentem Recipere artwork. Is the concept of the eternal return important for Turdus Merula?
The tree symbolizes a lot to me, but I would not like to go deeper into why or in what way, but I can say that much that the tree, among many things, symbolize my connection to nature and my roots. The snake (the ouroboros, or Jörmungadr) and the reptiles also have a spiritual meaning to me that I would prefer to keep to myself.
DS: While Herbarium was a fairly raw recording, the sound of Mentem Recipere is much cleaner. What inspired the change in sound?
As written earlier in this interview, the music composed for Turdus Merula reflects both my past and the ongoing present. When I wrote Herbarium I was dealing with a certain part of my past that was very destructive and shambolic, at the same time as I was going through a very chaotic and shivering chapter of the present as well. This combination created a raw and unpolished sound that was enhanced by Draug’s mix and master of the songs. When I wrote the music for Mentem Recipere I was still dealing with chaos from the past, but at the same time I was more focused at the calmness that came out of it in the end, rather than the chaos itself. I was also in a completely other state of mind while writing and I knew that my friend Árni Bergur Zoega would be able to give me a mix and master that entirely would fulfill my vision – and he did!
DS: One of the difficulties of having a one woman band is that you cannot play the songs with a group of musicians before recording them. Yet, many Turdus Merula songs have a lot layers and intricacies to them. How do you go about interweaving these different parts? Do you already have the compositions mapped out before entering the studio or do you create them as you move through the recording process?
When I create music for Turdus Merula I have to be in a certain state of mind. I often compose a riff in which I interlace a feeling that is created from this particularly state of mind, combined with the theme the song is going to deal with. This riff and this feeling then become the body or ground for the rest of the song. While composing, I often record this specific riff and then I start to play with other harmonies and elements with guitar and bass, piano and so on. When it comes to Turdus Merula it’s not unusual that I start writing the songs for piano as well. But it’s the same procedure; I record a body or a strand with the piano, and then I keep on building it up with other instruments.
DS: “Reditus” is a track that I find especially interesting. It’s like black metal chamber music. Can you speak to what inspired this piece (either musically or otherwise)? Do you intend to do songs in a similar vein in the future?
Since I quite easily get bored myself, I don’t want to record a release where all the songs have the exactly same sound. I also like to experiment and I really wanted to interweave some more doom-influences to Turdus Merula on Mentem Recipere, both since I really like doom and since I found it very suitable for this release over all. I will probably have more songs in this vein in the future, yes.
“Reditus” means “return” in Latin and this song is about the return back from The Underworld.
DS: I love the piano tone on both Turdus Merula albums. It’s one of the aspects that really make the band stand out. What sort of piano do you play? Do you do anything special to give it such an eerie tone?
When I moved out from my parents’ house one of the first things I bought was a keyboard, just to be able to play some kind of piano while living in an apartment. Since I was a student I did not have plenty of space in my little flat either, so a keyboard suited me quite well back then. As soon as I graduated and started to work, I had the ability to move to a larger apartment and at the same time the neighbours next to my parents wanted to get rid off their old piano from the 1950-60´s. This time I did not care about the fact that I was living in an apartment, my neighbours just have to deal with me playing sometimes, hehe. In Sweden pianos are just given away nowadays – people think it’s ungainly and ugly furniture that only takes up space. So I did not even have to pay for this beautiful piece! The piano had a very nice tone itself, but I often put on some extra reverb and so on while mixing the music.
DS: Would you consider performing Turdus Merula pieces live or will Turdus Merula always remain a studio project?
Turdus Merula will most likely remain a studio project. I will do an exclusive performance with my dark ambient-project, Draugurinn, though this upcoming fall at Arosian Black Mass in Västerås, Sweden.
DS: You collaborate with Ulf Nylin in both Korpblod and Murmurs. He also performed the drums onMentem Recipere. What makes Ulf your preferred collaborator?
Ulf and I speak the exactly same musical language. When we rehearse, everything just comes naturally. I can start playing a new riff, for either Korpblod or Murmurs, and he knows exactly what to play at once. We truly complement each other and when it comes to record drums for Turdus Merula, he can understand my vision immediately and without any doubt.
DS: Speaking of your other groups, tell us a little about Murmurs. This is a band most know very little about. What is the style of Murmurs and what is the idea behind the “Mother Quadrilogy”?
Murmurs was actually Ulf's and mine first collaboration. We started up the band back in 2008 and recorded our first demo (Darklore) in just a couple of months. Back then Ulf, who mostly was singing in different bands at the time, wanted to go back to his role as a drummer and have a more creative part in a band, and I was looking for someone who had the same musically visions as me and I really felt that I needed to collaborate with someone to develop as a musician. We wanted to do something occult, old school and dark. Thus, Murmurs was born.
During the writing of Darklore and the sequel demo Invocations, we were still kind of looking for where we were going with this band. We felt a bit lost after the recording of Invocations to be honest, and mainly focused on Korpblod for a while. After some discussion we decided to do a great reformation of the band and started to work, both spiritually and musically, on the Mother Quadrilogy. The music is now much more aggressive, obscure, well-written and focused. We started the Quadrilogy by re-studying and digging deeper down in to our thematic Mothers to find new inspiration and began with writing the lyrics before we started to put the songs together, so that we could get inspired by the lyrics and lyrical themes and build the music around them instead of vice versa. We decided to release the Quadrilogy on tape since it enhances the raw feeling and suits the sound better, but when the Australian label Parchbench Records (http://www.parkbenchrecords.com/) wanted to release the second chapter, Jaya Mahakali Ma, on CD, we said yes at once. We will do tape-releases with all the chapters in the Quadrilogy, but Parchbench Records will release the third chapter, Fædd úr Eldi, on CD as well later this year.
I’m not sure about why Murmurs is as unknown as it still is, but we have so far mostly done self-released tape-demos and maybe we have not really promoted the band as much as we have done with our other bands?
DS: What has your experience been as a woman in a predominately male black metal scene? Have you experienced much prejudice or scepticism based on your gender or has the black metal scene shown itself to be accepting of women artists?
Since I never promote my bands or my music through the fact that I’m a woman, I think the most notable difference I do experience is that I often receive this specific question. I truly hope that people listens to my music because they appreciate my art, not because of my gender.
DS: Are you planning another Turdus Merula album for the near future? What’s next for your other projects?
Yes, I will probably start to write and record some new material for both Turdus Merula and Draugurinn as soon as I get some time off from work this summer. I have a more than fulltime job and I do work a lot, so as soon as I have some time off during weekends or during holidays, I spend it on music. This summer I will also start working on new material for the Fourth chapter of the Mother Quadrilogy (Hecate) and I have some bass to record on Korpblod-material, the sequel to Vardens Färd, that we actually recorded in January-Februay 2011! So, there’s a lot going in this summer.
DS: How is the current Swedish black metal scene? Are there any under the radar Swedish black metal bands that we should know about?
The scene is alive, so to speak, but personally, I listens to a lot of different kinds of music and right now I’m more in to dark ambient (especially from Finland, I love all the Helixes-band) or Contemporary Classical music than to black metal. When it comes to the Swedish scene I have some favourites though, and I for those who have not heard Panphage, Wulkanaz or Tomhet, they should really look these bands up.
DS: Any last words?
Thank you showing your interest in my music and art and I would also like to thank my label, Le Crépuscule du Soir, for their support.
Interview by Jael Reboh