Spartan Profile #9: Christoffer Franzén, Composer / Musician 14 September 2020
We hope everyone is staying safe and healthy during these strange, strange times. How about some good news? We had the opportunity to catch up with Christoffer Franzén of Lights & Motion about sources of inspiration, isolation vs collaboration, life in Sweden during a global pandemic, and his brand new record The Great Wide Open - coming to vinyl this October on the one-and-only Spartan Records. Enjoy!
Can you tell us a bit about the journey that led you toward the Lights & Motion project?
Lights & Motion came out of a long period where I felt like I needed to get a lot of music out, but I wasn’t sure how to reach the point of being able to create what I could hear in my head. That threw me into a hard couple of months of severe insomnia, where instead of sleeping I would sit by myself in a studio all night long, learning all kinds of different instruments and trying to find the sound of what would eventually become my first album Reanimation. Looking back at that time now, it feels like a whirlwind. I used to leave the studio in the morning just before dawn and think to myself that no one was ever going to hear this music I was writing, and I questioned why I obsessed about it to such an extent. Today I am really grateful that I did all that.
When you began composing, was this the stylistic direction you intended to go?
I would have to say yes, although that is constantly changing in some ways for every album cycle. I am originally a guitarist, so I knew I wanted to incorporate that as a heavily featured instrument and blend it with ambient and orchestral elements because I also loved film music growing up. I initially had a very clear vision of what I wanted the music to sound like, and it was a matter of giving it enough time to develop it. It's been 7 years since I released the first Lights & Motion album, and throughout the following years I have experimented in different ways to keep the creative process fresh and inspiring.
Could you give some insight into your introduction to music and what steered you towards composing music?
My introduction to music was as a fan first and foremost. I got really obsessed with listening to music at a young age, and I could sit for hours just staring into a wall and listening intently on different albums. When I was 14 or 15, my next door neighbor got a guitar and all-of-the-sudden I realized that you could also play and create music yourself, not just listen to it. It may seem like a trivial observation, but it really opened up an entire world for me. I used to go in there everyday and borrow that guitar and slowly but surely learn how to play basic chords. I think in every musician's life the beginning is mostly about playing other peoples' songs. Then after a while you start to create stuff yourself, and that is the exciting bit. I never took lessons, and I didn’t grow up in a musical home at all, there were no instruments laying around the house, so in a way it came out of nowhere that I decided to do this. I played in bands as I grew older, and while it was always very fun it eventually fell apart like most bands do, and then I felt a bit lost in what to do next. I knew I wanted to continue writing, and even more so I fell in love with the process of production and mixing.
I used to hate relying on other people in order to do music because I wanted to do it 24/7. And somewhere around that time is when I began teaching myself how to do everything from initial idea to finalized song. It was a lot of trial and error along the way. It's easy to feel like you are getting left behind when every one of your friends is going away to get a proper education in preparation for having real jobs, whilst you are holed up by yourself in a studio, and I’m sure many musicians reading this will know what I’m talking about. I guess that is both the upside and the downside of having a passion in your life; you can’t really see yourself doing anything else.
Can you talk a bit about how your records have evolved over time? Are each of them completely distinct or are there any thematic throughlines that you've been revisiting across different recordings?
I would say that there are thematic throughlines running through the discography as a whole, but also for each and every release. They have pretty clear and distinct sonic trademarks for me personally as well. My first two albums were very crisp in terms of the mixing, with a lot of high-end clarity and a bit less bass-frequencies. For my third album Chronicle, I changed my mixing approach and the production on that album is much more ”full” and bass-heavy. Since I produce and mix the records myself, that part of the process is a very important one, and I don’t really separate it from the writing process; it's all part of creating the sound. Every time I start writing a new album, I will spend a substantial time thinking it over, trying to find something conceptually to tie it all down, and often there is a song or two that act as a foundation for the rest of the album to rest upon.
On The Great Wide Open, you introduce vocals for the first time on an album. What drove you towards making that decision and can you tell us a little bit about the two vocalists you collaborated with on the album? What were some of the exciting parts and challenges?
For The Great Wide Open, I took a long time to write and produce the album. I knew I didn’t want to rush the process, but rather let it bloom organically and see where it would take me. One thing people will notice right away is that there are two songs featuring lead vocals on the album, and the idea of doing this had percolated in my mind for quite some time. The first one written was ”Wolves," featuring the amazing Swedish singer and musician Johan Hasselblom. I was a big fan of his band The Animation, and I always thought he had a great voice. So one day I had written this instrumental piece and I sent it over to him by chance to see if it would inspire him to write something on top of it. I think he sent me a voice memo not long after and the entire first verse and chorus was there, and I was hooked straight away. He added something that I could never have thought of myself, and that is really what you are looking for in a collaborator. And then the last song we finished for the album was ”I See You," written with and featuring the Swedish singer Frida Sundemo. She has such a unique and ethereal quality to her singing, it's one of those voices that just takes you places. I had written her several months earlier and explained that I was a fan and asked her if she would ever be willing to write together. She was, and then it was just a matter of finding the right type of song for us to do together. Similarly to ”Wolves," I wrote an instrumental song, leaving space for the vocals, and sent it her way. She came back with this beautifully fragile lyrics and melody, and it was everything that I hoped it would be and more.
Other than that, the challenges in creating this album were similar to all the other albums I’ve made before it. It's always a huge undertaking, and you want to get your vision across in the best way possible, and getting the final 10% right takes months and months of tweaking. My biggest takeaway was that I wanted it to sound colorful, energetic, and fragile at the same time. It marked the start of a new decade for me, and the closing of the last one, and every album is like a time capsule of the time you spent making it.
What inspires you outside of music?
I am a huge cinephile and so films and tv shows inspire me a lot to create music. There are so many different vocations and art forms that collide when making a movie, and that fusion creates something that is bigger than the sum of its part. Inspiration can come from anywhere, and it can just be a little spark that ignites something much bigger. I guess that is the challenge and charm of creativity; you never know from where it's going to come.
How has living in Sweden influenced your art?
I have thought about this a lot during the past few years. Living in Sweden is amazing in a lot of ways; we have beautiful nature surrounding us, and in the summer we have days where it doesn’t really get dark until 1am, and then only for about 3 hours before the sun rises again. We also have the other half of the year where it gets really dark at around 4 in the afternoon, and the cold can be quite stifling. I think that is conducive to creating music though because there really isn’t a whole lot of other things to do but stay inside and work on your art. That might be one of the reasons why I have historically released new music early on in a year, because I have pretty much stayed inside and worked for 6 months straight. The cold, dark weather can be quite depressing though. I’m not sure if you can hear that in the music I make. I guess that is up for everyone else to interpret.
Typically are you working on your records in isolation?
Yes, my way of working is very isolating, and that is quite hard at times actually. I get up in the morning and head out to the studio immediately, and then I sit and write by myself for something like 10 hours. I try to be very disciplined and not really take any days off. I used to work all throughout the nights too, but I have tried to put a stop to that because it wasn’t really healthy or sustainable. But since I do all of the engineering and production myself, it's only me in the studio, with my instruments. I think people naturally need other people around them, so I have struggled quite a bit with that actually. At the same time I feel like I have to get all of this music out, so sometimes I describe it almost like a need and not a want to go and write. It's complicated.
Can you discuss your interests outside of music?
Well, like I said I really enjoy watching a lot of movies and quality tv shows. Some of my favorites these past couple of years have been The Handmaid's Tale, The Morning Show and Defending Jacob. More and more I like to get out to nature and just immerse myself in the forest and take long walks. I also play football, or soccer as you say in America, and that is something which I’ve done my entire life.
Does your approach or process differ when you are composing for film/TV versus Lights & Motion?
I would say yes and no. Writing for films and working with directors is such a different and extremely collaborative medium; you have to try and get inside their heads and understand what they are looking for, and then hopefully managing to produce that which serves the film. Compared to writing for Lights & Motion where I just do what I feel is right and go where inspiration takes me, film-scoring is much more of a structured craft. But that challenge is also what is rewarding about it; it's like solving a puzzle. I have written albums that I have released under my own name as well, Christoffer Franzén, and that is music that was never intended for a L&M release, but that I wanted to create regardless. Having my own name to put out stuff under is just another way to harness creativity and to not feel restricted in any way, musically or otherwise.
Any feelings that you'd like to share about the current state of the world?
It's a very strange time that we live in, with a lot of unrest in the midst of a global pandemic. I am not sure what to do to be honest. I find it hard to navigate. For myself, I just try to be decent and remember that we are all in it together. I think that is important not to forget.
Are there any upcoming projects that you are working on that you're particularly excited about?
Nothing in particular that I can really talk about right now. Covid has changed up a lot of things, so we´ll have to see how the rest of the year turns out. I have been locked inside my studio for many months now, social distancing being a natural part of a composer's life, and I have been writing a lot of new music, and it has definitely been affected by what’s going on in the world. When and where it will be released, not even I know. I’m just excited and grateful to be able to stay creative.
Lights & Motion's The Great Wide Open is available now for pre-order on vinyl here. This pressing is limited to 500 copies on two variants and includes an exclusive bonus track!