If you know Manu Delago’s work, you know that the Tyrol-born percussionist and composer doesn’t tend to repeat himself. His new album, Snow From Yesterday, features the vocal ensemble Mad About Lemon – and, to no one’s surprise, it begins yet another chapter in his musical journey. mica – music austria‘s Michael Ternai spoke to Delago about getting back to the music, working without a concept, and the effect of his many musical collaborations on his work.
Listening to your new album Snow From Yesterday, I’m mostly surprised at how many of the songs have vocals. Is it your most personal album to date?
Manu Delago: I don’t know if it’s my most personal album. Generally, I can only write lyrics about things that are important to me. With Snow From Yesterday, I wanted to create an album I’d enjoy listening to – and I like listening to voices. The lyrics are mine, but I wrote seven of the 11 pieces with Mad About Lemon; the songs really came out of our collaboration. It also wasn’t important to me this time how much my instruments were in the spotlight or showing everyone how well I can play. I just tried to make the best album that I could.
“By the time we got into the studio, we knew what we wanted to do.”
The sound is very homogenous; the musical elements really dovetail beautifully with one another. Everything seems carefully planned, down to the last detail.
Manu Delago: That’s a good observation. I was caught in kind of an album cycle until 2013: it started with the studio work, and as soon as the album was done, I’d go on tour. Then came the next album, and I’d go on tour again. I missed dealing more intensively with music, so for this album, I decided to try out almost all of it live first. In fall of 2022, I got invited to play a concert at the Festspielhaus in St. Pölten, and they wanted the program to be as exclusive as possible – that was a key moment. I wrote a lot of music for the evening, some vocal and some instrumental – it was a really diverse program – and performed with 12 musicians, including Mad About Lemon. We also recorded the concert, and from that point on, the album started to take shape. We also played a warm-up concert and had an artist residency in the mountains of Tyrol before we went into the studio; we really took time to develop the music and play it live now and then. That’s probably part of the reason that it sounds so homogenous – by the time we got into the studio, we had a pretty clear idea of what we wanted to do.
It also seems to me that you’ve gradually reduced the electronic component of the music over your last few albums – on Snow From Yesterday, it’s only present in very small doses.
Manu Delago: I think the real turning point in that respect was the album Parasol Peak, in 2018. Up to that point, I had mostly produced my albums in isolation in the studio – maybe that’s the reason they sound so electronic. Even when other musicians were involved, they were never in the same studio at the same time; we mostly sent files back and forth, and in the end I built them into complete songs. But with Parasol Peak, I wanted to do something different. I invited musicians to come to a cabin in the mountains, and we worked on the album together; that was when I realized that music doesn’t necessarily have to be electronic in order to sound new.
With my next album, Circadian, I kept the same approach, staying more acoustic and working with other musicians. With Snow From Yesterday, I tried to take everything less seriously, to start without a concept. I just figured, whatever the music needs, it needs. So there are still electronics and synthesizers, but this time they’re strictly in service to the music. The sound has moved into a calmer, warmer place.
“It just made sense.”
How did you and Mad About Lemon start working together?
Manu Delago: I’ve known Anna Widauer, Mimi Schmid, and Heidi Erler personally and professionally for a while. When I heard three years ago that they had formed a trio, I made a point of checking out their music right away, and I really liked it. At the same time, I heard a space where I could contribute something, that we could create something even more interesting together. There’s so much music that interests me and appeals to me, but I don’t know what I could change to make it better – it’s perfect the way it is. With Mad About Lemon, I felt like they were already great, but that there was still room to grow.
It didn’t happen instantly, of course – it was a long time before we started to think about making an album together. At the beginning, we just met, improvised and jammed a little, and wrote a couple songs. And then my stepfather died, and I wrote the song “Paintings On The Wall” for him, and we played it at his funeral. It was really beautiful. After that, I invited them to play at the concert in St. Pölten and to the artist residency, and we kept writing songs. It wasn’t until the album was already done that I realized Mad About Lemon was prominently featured on seven of the songs, and I decided that they should be named on the album as well – it just made sense.
You also deal with serious issues, particularly climate change. Your Recycling Tour, for instance, showed that environmentally friendly touring is possible. The issue also shows up on the new album…
Manu Delago: I always try to remain positive and optimistic, even when the serious issues seem so prevalent. The Recycling Tour is a perfect example: I can tell everyone how sustainable it was and how great it is for the environment – but we also had a really great time doing it. Several weeks biking with great people…we jumped into lakes and rivers, and we were happy every day when we finished a leg of the journey. Yes, it was a climate project; it was meant to inspire people – but it also brought all of us a lot of joy. I’m really glad that I can do projects like that.
You travel a lot, and you’ve worked with a great many different artists. Do some of those other projects influence your own?
Manu Delago: I’d be lying if I said they don’t. I think everyone is influenced by what surrounds them – and I’m surrounded by great artists. I’m lucky in that the collaborations have been very diverse. Anoushka Shankar’s music is more Indian, Björk is avant-garde electronic pop music, with Ólafur Arnalds it’s sort of minimalist classical music, and with the Cinematic Orchestra more hip-hop and jazz. You learn from everything, you’re influenced by everything; you also see things that you wouldn’t do the same way. I know I’ve gotten a lot out of those projects, and I have no problem with it if someone can hear something of them in my music. I’ve been working with Björk for over 13 years now, and it’s influenced me in a lot of ways – for instance, to start using electronics in my music. I always have my own lighting with me on tour now, too, and I include visual elements in the concerts. I’ve seen a lot, and I’ve learned a lot.
“I live in a really cool place.”
What role do your origins play in your work? Looking at your recent albums and projects, mountains seem to be present a lot of the time. The album and film Parasol Peak were made on a snowy mountain, and you biked through the mountains on the Recycling Tour. Parts of your new album were made at a high altitude as well.
Manu Delago: I think that fascination and love actually began in London. In my 25 years in Tyrol, I was never really actively aware of the mountains; I didn’t see them as beautiful or unusual – they were just there. But the longer I lived in London, the more I realized how special they are. Now I look out the window every morning in Innsbruck and think, “wow, I live in a really cool place.” It’s amazing how my awareness has developed. With Parasol Peak and the video “Freeze” in 2017, I started giving the mountains more space in my music…but they’re more important to me privately than I share with the public: I spend a lot of time in the mountains, and they definitely have an effect on me. They balance out the touring, which takes place mostly in cities. They’re great for slowing down.
You’ve got an extensive tour planned after the album release – 40 dates are confirmed, and there will definitely be more. What does being on tour actually mean to you? Has it become routine, or do you still have the same joy in traveling?
Manu Delago: I’m really looking forward to the upcoming tour; it’s been a while since I was on tour with a new project of my own. My last album came out in fall of 2021, and I played it about 80 times live – it was a solo tour, and I wasn’t used to being on stage by myself. I grew up playing live music, and I love it. I’m looking forward to playing the new music live for people – that’s still my favorite way to bring my music to the audience. I’m happy when people listen to my records, of course, but I really like being on tour.
It’s also really great that the quality of the venues I play in has been continually improving over the last few years. It’s no comparison to 15 years ago, when I was playing in little pubs in London, for audiences that weren’t really interested in my music. Now I get to play in great locations, and people come to the concerts because they want to hear my music. I really value that. It’s a privilege to be able to play our compositions in places like that.
Michael Ternai, translated from the German original by Philip Yaeger.