An Education in ‘Colourfield’

Dan Michaelson tells CUB all about his incredible new instrumental album.

On the 24th of July Dan Michaelson’s Colourfield will be released, with Village Green Recordings. Michaelson originally produced indie music but has since divulged into the glorious world of instrumental music, and I’m here for it. Colourfield definitely is the cherry on the cake of Michealson’s work so far. 


I had the pleasure to listen to Colourfield in its entirety which is as beautiful as I expected. Michaelson has truly created auditory magic, each piece a spellbinding example of east-coast minimalism, unfurling into glorious sections of strings and piano. Michaelson’s ‘Prelude’ was just the tip of the iceberg, and Colourfield in its entirety is all the more wonderful. I also had the honour of interviewing Michaelson himself and learning more about his new release. 



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Izzi: Colourfield is a great album, congrats on its release! How are you feeling about its release during a pandemic? 

Dan: I’m very happy about it. Just when we went into the lockdown the label was saying “Ok I think we probably need to wait until 2021 or something”, but I said, “No, this is for me!” I make quite a lot of records, and they’re always quite specific to the time that I’ve made them, so the idea of this record coming out next year just seemed completely alien. So I actively pushed to have it out in the summer, which I’m really happy about. 


I: I have to ask, what inspired the title of the album, Colourfield?

D: I was trying to get to grips with it, I’m quite familiar with talking about my previous records which were all-vocal records, and I kind of learnt the language to discuss them, but with instrumental music, I find it harder to really talk about it because I’m not used to it. Colourfield seemed to relate something about the idea of the monochrome painters of that era, who were very obsessed with minimalism and focusing deeply on one thing seemed to make sense, So I went with it as the title. 


I: What do you find minimalism adds to your music? 

D: Well in a musical sense, it’s just rhythm. But also, there is strange reliability to it in that I find it comforting. I find the repetition of it comforting […] Your mind starts to drift, and then I start to hear other melodies which are kind of there, but not accentuated. So then it’s like a starting point to write more on top of it. A good example would be the third track which has a very very repetitive middle section, and then a kind of melodic, ‘unminimal’ section which comes out of it. That music’s kind of always in there somewhere, but I couldn’t hear it properly, so I wrote it in.


I: It’s an extremely meditative album, and I found myself feeling that the idea is to get lost and not know where you started from.

D: Yeah, I mean that’s definitely how it feels to make it. However long those tracks take to make, there’s no clear endpoint, I just follow my nose and see what happens next (which happens every time). So I feel like I was definitely getting ‘lost’ and not really understanding quite how I get the music to make sense when I look back at it. 


I: So it was meditative to create as well, then? 

D: Yeah, yeah most of the time, sometimes it was fairly stressful. It’s the frustration of making anything, some days it seems like the easiest thing in the world, and sometimes it’s really stressful. 


I: After watching ‘The Luthier’, the short film which you provided the instrumental music for, I was wondering, are there any film genres or even films already existing which you feel your music, specifically Colourfield, would suit? 

D: Interesting. I hadn’t thought that far ahead! I would pitch it somewhere where it maybe shouldn’t obviously go, like maybe a western of some sort, like an ‘existential western’. ‘Cause it’s not classical music, like proper classical music, it was still coming from my more indie background, so I recorded it much in that way. I think I’d like to imagine if you put it against that kind of picture it would suddenly make more sense than it would with me just yabbering on about it. 


I: You have quite an American influence in your music, how do you think that came about?

D: Hmm. Good question, Izzi, good question. I think probably the biggest breakthrough was the east coast minimalists, you know, Steve Reich, John Adams, they’re like the McDonalds or the Amazon Prime. You start with the obvious, and then there’s so much to discover underneath. My biggest American music discovery was two people; Caroline Shaw because she’s amazing, and then a guy called John Luther-Adams. Both of them won the Pulitzer Prize. The depth of what they think is possible is really inspiring. John Luther Adams is someone you can just disappear into and completely lose time, perspective and geography which are things we hold onto quite dearly. […] There are just so many incredible people doing insane things I could probably just spend the rest of my life listening to and never making another record. 


I: “Everyone gets tired of their own voice sometimes” has become a really prevalent problem during the lockdown. How have you dealt with loneliness and isolation?

D: I’ve felt that I was really lucky, in that, I was really creative in the first month or so, and I wrote another record […] So I’d say that was a reasonably creative moment, and then after that, I got bogged down in other stuff, which I think is quite normal. You do, you know, with anything work hard on something quite excitedly and then leave it to rest for a while. So it kind of felt quite natural, that for a month I would be quite creative in the head, then nothing, not really making any music, just more organising, more life-based boring things. 


I: This lockdown composition of yours, can we expect to hear any of that or will you keep it under wraps? 

D: I’d like to [release it], yeah. Something amazing that happened during the lockdown was that people were forced to kind of figure out ways to make music together or do any kind of collaboration over the internet remotely. So, the people that I always work with, Galya Bisengalieva, and Robert Ames, they have their own recording house so I’m able to send them stuff and then they record it in their own space and send it back to me. So we’re in that process at the moment. I’d like to hope that it will definitely surface at the end of the year. It’s very different, a very different piece of music. 

I: And will that be instrumental? 

D: Yeah, now I’m kind of sticking with this instrumental business for a while. I don’t know if you know, but I did an American documentary a few years ago and did the score for it, and that was when I finished that I had this gaping hole of being able to think about sounds and instruments rather than vocals and words you know? That’s why I kind of ended up at this point that I’m at now, I missed everything that that world offers me in a way.  


I: Without the lyrics which you made the decision to step away from, do you feel the emotion of your pieces is conveyed more or less? 

D: I haven’t really formed a language to be able to really talk about it in a way that makes ‘super sense’ if you know what I mean. I think it’s just concerned with really different emotions, for me, which is what’s so interesting. 10 or 11 albums of tragic loss songs were one language and everything was very much about describing that kind of emotion, whilst this is really obsessed with the sound that people make when they’re not actually playing the instrument. There’s a lot of breathing, taps, textures and stuff that comes from the players and I didn’t hide any of that. I think in a lot of classical music or instrumental music that stuff would always get cut out in the editing process, whereas I kind of turned it up. So, you’re always aware the humans were there. There’s something simple about the human impression that is on everything, it’s a very simple idea and maybe not one that conjures up the same kind of emotions as before. 



You can listen to ‘Colourfield II’ from Dan Michaelson’s new album below: 


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