»I can’t kill anybody with my profession«
I’m calling Hania Rani from Reykjavík, where I am staying for Nordic Music Days. Hania, or Hanna, as I got to know her when we studied together in Berlin some eight years ago, is in Amsterdam, where she works at the moment. Before getting into the interview, Hania tells me that she too is about to go to Iceland, for a quick recording session. We’ll be missing each other by a couple of days. After that, she goes on touring, which also will bring her to Denmark, for concerts at the new music festival Resonator in Odense and a sold out concert in Copenhagen. It’s been some years since we last saw each other. While I have stayed in classical music in the broadest sense, Hania has moved on towards pop music. I’m interested to hear how this came about.
I remember our lessons at Hochschule für Musik Hanns Eisler. We were playing »Dichterliebe«.
»Oh yeah, that’s true. That was very important, actually, because I got the piece into my repertoire. I went on to play it with another singer in a staged version. Through that I met a director, who opened up a lot in my head. I had forgotten about that.«
»It has always been very difficult for me to play somebody else’s music«
I’m glad I could play a little role in your development, haha.
I really enjoyed playing together, I have fond memories of that time.
The environment at Hanns Eisler was very »classical«, so to speak. When did it happen that you reoriented yourself?
»It took me many years to acknowledge that I actually feel much more comfortable in a different music than classical music. I still have a big love for all kinds of classical music, but as a performer, it was extremely stressful to be in that world. This is why I felt the urge to try out something else. Back in Warsaw, I started doing projects for other people, like arranging pop songs or playing in band rehearsals. I always said yes to these projects, because I felt that I was missing something.«
»I don’t come from a home where classical music played a big role, but there was always a lot of music around me. So I was curious about different possibilities. And the time in Berlin was really important. It wasn’t so much the music. I don’t know how you feel about Berlin, but coming from Warsaw, it felt like you could be whoever you wanted to be. You can have a family life, work for a corporation, be an artist, a bohemian. Everything exists parallelly, and that’s why it’s such an interesting place. It was in Berlin, that I realised, hm, maybe I can simply be myself.«
Play somebody else’s music
I had a similar experience.
»It’s funny to say that, but it was mostly just about being in that city. It was just about observing people and seeing how different they are. That there is not one pattern for how your life has to be. And then of course I met a couple of people who were very important figures for my music, like Alfheiður [Erla Guðmundsdóttir, red.], an opera singer. She took me to Iceland, where I started recording and met people from a different musical world, especially sound engineers. My first album is named after the mountain Esja, which you can see from downtown Reykjavík.«
»Once I felt this freedom on stage, I didn’t want to go back«
What was it about classical music that was stressful to you?
»It has always been very difficult for me to play somebody else’s music. To memorise it and interpret it in a way that would be accepted. Once I started performing my own music, which just comes straight from my head and doesn’t need a score, there was no stress. I discovered that there was music which I could perform quite easily, and at the same time push my artistic boundaries. I remember my first concert, and this realisation: there is no stress. There’s excitement and nervousness because I am presenting something new, but there isn’t this tension in my body that makes me loose all my skills. Once I felt this freedom on stage, I didn’t want to go back. By the way, I think this is also a feeling that all the great classical musicians have.«
I can relate to that so well. Wanting to feel free on stage. And also to the feeling of being stuck while performing.
»If you don’t find this sense of being free, you can work and be ambitious, but eventually you will probably give up.«
A heavy backpack
So how would you describe your approach to making music now?
»It has changed, now that I have been doing it for a couple of years. In the beginning, I tried to properly compose, which is funny in hindsight, but I just didn’t know any other way. After a couple of years, I discovered improvisation. This is a very important part now, also when I record and perform. I’m looking for precious moments. Those often come, when you don’t plan, when they can occur naturally. Even when I’m working on something with a stable structure and form, I’m trying to put myself in a state that can provide something unique, unique even to myself. This is quite rare.«
»Once I started to investigate popular music, I began to see how complex and genius pop music can be«
»After recording, there is processing of the sound. I am still mostly working with acoustic instruments, sometimes synthesisers, and spend a lot of the time processing, especially when I do soundtracks. And once again, the least planned, unique moments are the ones that are the most precious here. They give a sort of liveness – liveness is what I strive for, and what I admire a lot about other artists. By that I mean that the music doesn’t sound as planned as classical music does.«
But are you still influenced by classical music?
»My basic knowledge comes from the classical tradition. My education lasted twenty years, so it’s a heavy backpack and not easy to unlearn many things. For example, when I compose a pop song, I still can feel that the structure or even harmonies are very classical. I’m trying to unlearn these sometimes formalistic rhythmical and metrical patterns from classical music. Once I started to investigate popular music, I began to see how complex and genius pop music can be. It is based more on a sense of groove or pulsation that is lasting through the whole piece. A lot of electronic music that I love is based on more complex rhythms than those from classical music. So I’m trying to not be so strict, even though I’m not doing classical music.«
Is your classical background also useful?
»Of course it’s also useful, a lot! I couldn’t imagine working without my knowledge. And I’m very grateful for my pianistic skills, this is the most precious thing for me. Even when I play the synthesiser, they come in handy.«
Feedback from the audience
How do you divide your time between playing, recording and producing?
»Usually, I work with drafts. I used to be super prepared when going into the studio, but now it's more free. When I work with other musicians, I write scores. I’m interested in ambient and sonoric qualities of the music, not so much in, say, melodies. So I make conventional compositions, and then I am attentive to other sounds as well. Like improvisations or aleatoric structures which I propose. Then I take all these recordings and process them. Sometimes I make them extremely long or extremely slow. I love to do this with bass clarinet for example, or string instruments. I pitch them down or up and I put effects on the sound, or distort it a little. What's often needed for soundtracks are atmospheres that don’t fit in any categories of conventional structure. For this I am mixing recordings and combine them with electronic sounds, with synthesisers or keyboards, sometimes with my voice. But a lot happens after the recording. Sometimes I don’t know what the result will be when I record. But none of this is innovative, many people work like this.«
And how does a live show differ from the recording and producing process?
»It’s full of mistakes, haha. I’m trying to make it fun for myself and the team. My ideal is that every show is a little different. We’re playing the same show every night, so it needs to be like this, otherwise we would be bored to death. I prepare everything well, but I am always leaving space for improvisation and changes. Usually, the show is created fully during the tour. I play a couple of concerts, I record them, listen, analyse and then I insert new things, in order to achieve on stage what I had in mind, when creating the whole set. The first weeks are mostly about figuring out how things work. Sometimes my plan is crap, and then I use the feedback from the audience to change it. You can really feel if they are flowing with you, so it’s a good way to check in.«
What is pop?
You’ve talked about the differences between classical and pop music. Would you say that what you do is pop music?
»When I’m singing a song, I’d say it's pop. Even though I don’t know what pop is anymore. But in an old school way, it’s definitely pop, not classical music. When it’s instrumental music they call it neo-classical, or modern classical, minimalistic music. For soundtracks it’s sometimes ambient. But my songs are poppy.«
»She always says, you cannot kill anybody with your profession«
Are genres important to you?
»Not really. I’m happy to be able to do everything a little. Sometimes I write contemporary classical music. I love pop, in general. And electronic music. And I love the energy that comes from the audience. I love to play for big crowds.«
But you also said that classical music is very important to you, so it’s not like you decide against classical music, you just feel more at home in pop?
»No, I don’t decide against it, not at all. That’s why I’m happy that I still get commissions for soundtracks or theatre, which allow me to go back to my roots. Especially theatre I find fantastic, because I can really investigate different possibilities. Anything in between songs, contemporary classical music or electronics is possible. I will always try to be invested in theatre. Fortunately, there are a lot of opportunities for this. I hope that what I’m doing signals to people who want to work with me that I’m open-minded. That I’m just doing my personal research.«
Part of something bigger
We’re living through difficult times. What do you think could be the role of your music these days?
»I would love it if music could change the world. I’m quite idealistic. I would like to believe in this. What I really believe though, is that art can remind people that they are sensitive creatures. That it can allow them to see things differently. In theatre and films, this is maybe more obvious, because it can depict human relationships, violence, things that are wrong and so on. But music can convey that we are part of something bigger, especially at concerts. We can experience that we are very much the same, wherever we come from or whatever our cultural or religious background is. My mother is a doctor, an anaesthesiologist, and often the last person to take care of the dying. She always says, you cannot kill anybody with your profession. This is something that always stayed with me, that I can do good. I can make people forget about their everyday life, or their suffering. It’s not necessarily something big. But you can make them feel something again. And I feel that sensitive people are less prone to doing bad things. But maybe this is just me being idealistic.«
Hania Rani plays a sold-out concert at Bremen Theater on Monday 7 November and opens the Festival Resonator with a concert at the venue Posten in Odense on Tuesday 8 November.