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Conversations with Jamie: Artist-To-Artist Series
Hailing from Toronto, Canada, guitarist/composer Jamie Bonk has graciously agreed to become a contributing editor to NewAgeReporter.com. Jamie will be conducting a series of interviews entitled Conversations with Jamie: Artist-To-Artist Series. We look forward to his contributions for they are both insightful and offer a unique artist-to-artist perspective over the typical interview. We hope you enjoy them.
Other Conversations with Jamie: Artist-To-Artist Series:
A Conversation With Stephen Hill, Jul. 2005
A Conversation with Jeff Bjorck, Jun. 2005
A Conversation With Patrick O'Hearn, Jun. 2005
<<-later interviews | earlier interviews->>   <<- all interviews ->>
Jamie Bonk
A Conversation with Oystein Ramfjord of Amethystium
April 2004
Based in Norway, and recording under the Amethystium name, Oystein Ramfjord has released two superb and highly successful albums, and a third much-anticipated record is on its way.

Odonata (Neurodisc Records), Oystein's debut album, was a huge hit reaching #5 on the Billboard New Age charts. Odonata also did extremely well on MP3.com, with music from the Amethystium page having over one million plays/downloads! Oystein's last record, Aphelion, carried on from his debut release, garnering a number of impressive achievements. Besides spending seven weeks in the #7 position on the Billboard New Age charts, Aphelion was chosen by Echoes listeners as the seventh best release of 2003 and picked by Amazon.com editors as one of the top ten New Age albums of 2003. And last but certainly not least, Aphelion was New Age Reporter's #1 radio album of 2003. Wow!

What makes this all the more impressive is that as the twenty-three year old Oystein says in our conversation: "I consider myself still in a starting phase, still learning new things and developing my skills." Humble and talented -- my favourite combination! The fact that Oystein has remained as a person open and unaffected, even after all of his considerable success, has only solidified my belief that this is an artist we will be listening to for years to come.

If you'd like to learn more about Oystein and Amethystium, please visit his web site.
"Amethystium, for me, is still about creating and exploring some kind of 'musical fantasy world'..." - Oystein Ramfjord
Jamie: I think why I enjoy Aphelion so much isn't the deeply complex textures, although they're certainly present, or the overall sense of stellar musicianship, but it's the emotional effect it has on me. The first track, "Shadow to Light" is a great example of what I'm talking about. Your production and arranging are first rate -- they support the emotion of the piece. And this isn't an easy thing to do. How do you keep a sense of the emotional when working with such complex and evolving textures?
Oystein: Most often the textures are melodic and form parts of the composition as a whole, in which case it's done while I'm engaged in composing, where the emotion just comes naturally. It's kind of hard to put down in words how it's done, cause when it comes to the composing part of making and recording music, it's usually not a process where I consciously try to keep a sense of anything really. I tend to just play around and let the songs unfold, and although I soon get an idea about the feel or "story" of a song and where I want it to go, whatever impulse jumps down in my mind tends to override that direction. Like in "Gates of Morpheus", where the song turns from being somewhat gloomy to a lighter piece towards the end, it's not something I had planned or thought about, it's just how I felt at the moment when working on it. I tend to think of a song in a sort of linear way, like a journey from a to b - where I'm not quite sure where b is when starting out. Then I usually work on it part by part, completing each part with arrangements and all before moving on to the next. So the textures and arrangements for each part are pretty much created at the same time as everything else, it's not something that I go back afterwards to add on top. I think maybe that explains it. "I tend to think of a song in a sort of linear way, like a journey from a to b - where I'm not quite sure where b is when starting out." - Oystein Ramfjord
Jamie: That explains it perfectly! One of my composition teachers talked a lot about letting the piece develop on its own. That it's o.k. not to know how every last element in a piece is gong to unfold. To get out of the way of the music.

Are all of your pieces based around "the feel or 'story' of a song"? Do you have a specific mental picture for each piece that helps to inspire you?
Oystein: Not as a starting point, but as soon as a piece is starting to take shape, I almost always form mental visuals and ideas around it that gives it a unique "identity" to me, and that influences the further creation.

The thing about getting out of the way of the music sounds right to me, at least the way I work on Amethystium. My experience is that if I end up trying to consciously control things too much, I either get completely stuck, or things go very slow and I'm less happy with the end result. I've also noticed that when composing a melodic part, it's usually the first improvised attempt that works best, and that if I go back later to try to make it better, it's very hard to improve on it by conscious effort.

I'm curious how this process works for you when writing your guitar-based music, how much of it is planned and how much is spontaneous?
"The thing about getting out of the way of the music sounds right to me..." - Oystein Ramfjord
Jamie: Well, I'd say my music is about half planned and half spontaneous. Generally, my pieces follow a jazz-based structure of A-B-A or head-solo-head. And I almost always have a lead sheet (melody and chords) of the tune before I start arranging. Most of my arrangements come from me experimenting with different sounds and loops etc. in Logic, but the basic melody and harmony are written away from the computer. I know.... that's very old fashioned : )

Your comment regarding first takes on improvs rings true for me as well. Although often, because I do my own engineering, my first takes (particularly on solos) don't work out due to a "bad" mic placement or the gain structure not being set up correctly. After five or so times through a track if I can't nail it, I call it a day and just move on to something else. That's one of the joys of having your own studio -- you can work at your own pace!

And talking about studios, could you tell me a bit about your own studio and gear?
Oystein: It's a pretty straightforward project studio, where the most important gear so far has been my Korg synths. The 01/W is probably the most-used keyboard on Amethystium, but I'm also using the Triton, Z1 and Wavestation. When recording I use an Allen & Heath mixing desk and two dual-monitor Pentium 4's, custom built for audio use. I currently do both sequencing and recording with Sonar 3 Producer -- having grown up with the PC, I feel more comfortable in that environment than with the Mac applications. The amp and monitors are from Alesis, and also worth mentioning is an old collection of "cheap stuff that sound crap but look nice in a rack"...haha. When it comes to other instruments, I have two electric guitars, two djembes, some other percussion instruments, and some more or less usable flutes.

The thing about being able to work at your own pace in your own studio has really been critical in the realization of the Amethystium project. Usually what takes a lot of time for me in the creation process is the more technical aspects, putting it all together and making it sound good basically. It's a very time consuming and often somewhat frustrating process for me, and there's no way I could have afforded to rent a commercial studio to do all that.
Jamie: Texture, and sound design in general, has become so important for a lot of today's music. I can definitely see how recording Amethystium albums in a commercial studio would have cost a bundle!

Do you start with a pre-defined sound palette for each piece or do you do the sound design as the piece emerges? And a second somewhat related question: is there any particular sound or keyboard/plugin that you feel is integral in creating the Amethystium "sound"?
Oystein: I do the sound design as the piece emerges, although sometimes a particular sound can also be the starting point. As for the second question I think I should mention the Korg 01/W again. On the initial 11-track demo of the Odonata album, which was completed just before I turned 19, it was actually the only keyboard used. So since it was almost all I had to work with back then, I had to learn to use it properly to get all I possibly could from it. I think all the Amethystium songs released so far have featured one of several pads which I programmed on the 01, and there's also a few other re-occurring sounds from it on both albums, like the synth flutes. On the 14-track commercial release of "Odonata", the 01 still stands for almost all of the electronic sounds. Although I'm happy with the sound on the album and have gotten lots of positive comments on it from both audio professionals as well as listeners, the fact is that it was a very low-budget project, with things like mixing desk and cables pretty much being the cheapest of cheap. I remember thinking how easy things would be if only I could afford this or that synth or equipment, but looking back I think the limitations were really a good thing. Now I sometimes find myself almost wishing I had less options, to simplify things. "Now I sometimes find myself almost wishing I had less options, to simplify things." - Oystein Ramfjord
Jamie: I think I know exactly what you mean. Just to throw on my soothsayer hat for a moment, I think technology will eventually force musicians to simplify -- to be more specific in their choices. There will be (maybe there already is) far too many sonic choices. At what point do you stop auditioning bass drum samples? How many compressors, eq's and delays are too many? If your computer will be able to play back eight million audio tracks will it matter? Technology can be as much of a hindrance as a help if it overwhelms the artist. Whew.... glad I got that off my chest!

One thing in your last answer that I didn't know was that you're so young! Now I'm really depressed.... Could you tell me a bit about your musical background? Have you always had an interest in "electronic" music?
Oystein: I wouldn't say I've had more interest in electronic music than in other music, but I grew up loving synthesizers and keyboards as instruments, creating little tunes on organs, keyboards, and piano before I learned to play from notes. Still though, I didn't really listen to any music that could be considered electronic until I discovered Jean Michel Jarre, Deep Forest, and Vangelis when I was 14 years old. That was a big change in my musical taste at the time, and obviously influenced me.

As for my musical background, I don't have much formal education in music. I started playing early though, having good access to instruments, and received lessons in keyboards, church organ, and drums/percussion over a few years as a kid. I also taught myself to play guitar, and did a lot of bedroom recording of my own songs. I have several hours worth of cassette tape recordings from when I was between 13 and 15, which is quite fun to listen to now. I also played in a couple of bands, and eventually started Amethystium as a solo-project in 1998.

Your thoughts about technology being a hindrance if it overwhelms the artist is how I often feel it as well, not because I think having a wide array of sonic options is a bad thing in itself, but because it's impossible to really familiarize yourself with it all. What was so nice about working with a simpler setup was that I knew exactly what I had to work with, and had a good overview over the tools at hand. Now when the options are virtually unlimited, it's so easy to get lost and not know when you have in fact arrived - cause who knows what is out there, right?

Your own music is, I think I can say, less dependent on technology than mine, but do you also experience these aspects of technology as potentially negative in your own work?
"Now when the options are virtually unlimited, it's so easy to get lost and not know when you have in fact arrived..." - Oystein Ramfjord
Jamie: Definitely. Part of the problem is techno-lust. Musicians often believe that a new piece of gear will re-invent them as an artist. That it will bring them closer to what they're hearing in their head. And sometimes that's true, but from my personal experience, I find that too many options can take me further away from what I want to express emotionally. In many ways, I want the guitar and the computer to disappear -- to be completely transparent. And I can't do that if I don't know where the A string is or if I have to have my head stuck in a manual every two minutes! It's tough though.... there's always a new plugin waiting around the corner.... my wife says I need therapy.... she's probably right....

I've been asking people about the music scene in their part of the world lately. I know this is a very open-ended question, but what's it like for an artist living in Norway?
Oystein: It depends on how you look at it I guess. Norway isn't exactly the center of the world obviously, so it's not a very strategic location in an international sense. But I think the environment for music and arts in general is pretty strong and diverse here, especially for such a small country. I've heard it said that no other country have as many musicians compared to the population, which may or may not be true, but there's quite a lot of government-funded activities and programs available that makes it very easy for kids to get started at an early age - and so many do. The music scene here has become quite interesting during the last few years, with really good acts in several different genres.

A downside with this country, not least for musicians with techno-lust, is the high prices on pretty much everything. Having to usually add from 30% to even 100% on top of the US/UK retail prices when buying studio equipment for instance, is a bit frustrating. Financially speaking, Norway is overall a pretty "stupid" place to live when having your income elsewhere, but artistically it's a nice environment in my opinion. The nature can also be inspiring, and I even for the most part like the climate, believe it or not, so I probably won't be moving anytime soon.
"...so I wouldn't say that my music overall is defined by living in Norway. But I do think it represents an important element of it." - Oystein Ramfjord
Jamie: I have a second question along the same lines and I know this is a tough one to answer. But, do you feel that your music is in any way defined by living in Norway? The reason I ask this is, specifically with the Internet's growing influence, music of all types is available throughout the world. And in many cases easily and readily available. Musicians today have such a wide range of possible influences -- I know my own listening habits are all over the board. But still, I feel being a Canadian artist is at least a somewhat different experience than being a Mexican artist.... can't really quantify it though!
Oystein: In terms of instrumentation, harmonies, etc., there's nothing particularly Norwegian about my music. But there is, at least for me, an underlying sense of "fantasy" that I feel is quite connected to the nature and folklore here. It's hard to say exactly how much influence that has on the music though, and much of the non-electronic instrumentation is Asian rather than Scandinavian, so I wouldn't say that my music overall is defined by living in Norway. But I do think it represents an important element of it. I'm sure most people don't know much, if anything, about Norway anyway though.

How do you feel about this yourself? Do you for instance feel that there is a strong distinction between being a Canadian and a US artist?
Jamie: I thought about this question all weekend -- especially considering how close I live to the US. I know I feel like a Canadian, but I'm not sure if that translates, in any tangible way, to the music I make. Like you, I don't think there's anything in terms melody, harmony, rhythm or texture that is definable, in my case, as Canadian. Many of my musical influences come from the US and US artists, but many more come from all around the world. So even after thinking about this question all weekend, I still don't have a clear answer!

I know you're currently working on a new record. Can you tell a bit about the direction you're taking on the new album? Any changes to the Amethystium "sound"?
Oystein: I'm still exploring essentially the same style of music as on the first two albums, so there won't be any dramatic changes in the sound. Things are still a bit in the air though, as the album isn't done yet, but one difference is that guitars are going to be used quite a bit. I'm also running around sampling lots of silly things, from toy-like instruments to environmental sounds and sounds that I remember from my childhood. Like, sounds from the houses where my grandparents used to live - a squeaky old attic door, an old piano, a ticking clock on the wall, things like that. A dash of personal nostalgia thrown in... Not sure how much of it that will eventually end up on the record though.

Anyway, I would say that the differences in sound are developments rather than changes. I consider myself still in a starting phase, still learning new things and developing my skills. Those who didn't hear much difference between Odonata and Aphelion will probably say the same about this one, while those who found Aphelion to be very different from Odonata might find this one even more so, I don't know. It depends on the perspective I guess, it's not like it's going to be gangsta rap or anything, so if anyone expects a change like that they will obviously be disappointed. When it comes to changing sound, I guess it's a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" kind of thing - someone is always going to be displeased. Amethystium, for me, is still about creating and exploring some kind of "musical fantasy world", and I feel that is best done within the boundaries of the few genres I'm already working with. That said, I do think this album is more experimental than the first two, with more unique moments, but I don't think I want to say too much about it yet.

What about you, can you say anything about your next project?
"When it comes to changing sound, I guess it's a 'damned if you do, damned if you don't' kind of thing - someone is always going to be displeased." - Oystein Ramfjord
Jamie: HaHa -- you took my answer! Like you, I'd say my new record is really an evolution from my previous albums. The biggest change is the addition of a few tracks with vocals and the fact that I didn't write every piece on the record, like I have in the past. Sonicly, I'd say this record has the best sound quality I've ever had -- I worked extremely hard on the engineering and production. I like to think my new album is "better" than my first two (everybody likes to improve!) and shows a certain degree of artistic and technical growth, but obviously I'm biased!

Thanks for taking the time to do this conversation Řystein and good luck with your new record!
Oystein: Thanks, and the same to you! I'd also like to say thanks to NewAgeReporter, and everyone at Neurodisc Records.
 
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