Announces new album ‘Native Tongue’
Due 5th November via Sellout! Music
Despite a period of prolific and acclaimed output, Norwegian songwriter and producer Kenneth Ishak’s solo career lay dormant.
Now he returns by announcing Native Tongue, due 5th November via Sellout! Music, his first solo album in just over a decade that explores Ishak’s experience of growing up as multi-ethnic, with a Norwegian mother and Malaysian father in Norway, and finding a connection with the parts of his identity that were not always apparent.
Listen to the album’s title track, streaming below:
Native Tongue opens to these sweeping synth waves that simply dazzle amongst this volatile yet immersive atmosphere. The ambiance is built on these intricate elements and layers of intoxicating harmonies and intelligent hooks and tones. Throughout this arrangement, the layers offer a nod to jazz, country music and various other compelling genres, yet Ishak has mastered the art of creating something so unique.
Kenneth Ishak sculpts this memorable melody which adorns the entire arrangement, once the delicate yet distinguished vocal harmonies emerge they bring this emotional value to the composition. Bringing a personal feel to this experimental exploration. Ishak captures this vulnerability within the lyrics and fuses this with a mighty force of strident declamation captured by the plethora of textures within the soundscape.
This bright sliding guitar tone creeps in and brings this additional influence into the vast ensemble, Kenneth Ishak has produced this insatiable dark electronic pop masterpiece, embracing this cinematic and stylish attribute and consistently manipulating the aura which displays the complex nature of this musician.
Drawing influences from Arthur Russell, Elliott Smith and Joni Mitchell, opening single ‘Native Tongue‘ is also reflective of his father who moved to Norway in the 1970s, experiencing all the loss of the familiar and the prejudice that ultimately comes with being an immigrant. “Which is kind of a crazy thing to do,” explained Ishak.
He continues, “Just him coming here and all the stuff that he has had to go through and probably not, like, tell us about how hard it was. And, I would always see him every night, standing outside having a cigarette, talking to himself. And I have that line in the song talking, talking to yourself alone is a prayer.”
“He’s not a religious person, but we all have our rituals. So maybe that was like his little ritual to go outside and deal with all the stuff. Think about my mom. And yeah, so he’s always had like this side of him that’s pretty mysterious. And he’s not told us a whole bunch about his experiences.”
Trying to get a handle on his father’s experiences led to a profound moment on the subway in Paris. “We’re just sitting there and then this Asian man with a cane gets on. And he just sat down, struck his cane to the ground and started singing this insanely beautiful, traditional song. I’m not an overly emotional person, but I just broke up, into tears. And my girlfriend’s just looking at her map or whatever. It was a long time ago. And I was like, “Oh, shit, I have to keep it together”. But it was just so beautiful.”
“Him being so far away from his home. And I’m sort of thinking, what is that home? What are you thinking about? Who are these friends that you’re sort of reminiscing about when you’re alone? Yeah, who have you left behind?”, Ishak explained about the questions often at the emotional core of his new album.
First emerging in 1995 as a member of cult indie-rock favourites Beezewax, Ishak has lent his lyrical dexterity and multi-instrumental composing talents as the writer, arranger and producer of a fine catalogue of releases. Not least his four solo albums (2004’s Northern Exposure, 2005’s Everything Has Soul, 2007’s Silver Lightning From a Black Sky and Kenneth Ishak And The Freedom Machines in 2010) which started as simple home studio recordings out of an interest in “recording and layering instruments” and became lusher productions with strings and horns and “all that stuff”.
Its quality turned heads and soon everything became wrapped up in expectation from labels, booking agents, lawyers and management “pushing for me to become something more than what I was, better deals, more money,” explained Ishak.
Disillusioned with the expectation, he killed off his solo career for what he thought was for good, turning his attentions to his studio space and working on the creations of others, mainly female Norwegian artists, often as more than a producer but an additional member of the band, a muse and a composer. The results are consistently great.
Most resurrection stories come with defeating adversity or overcoming a struggle but in this case, Ishak sat in a state of contentment, fulfilling creative urges and contributing to great music. So, what was the catalyst for this new album?
“Arthur Russell was really important,” explains Ishak. Yeah, “His whole universe, his little bubble, but it’s a really big universe. He was like a really strong influence in just the fact that I wanted to make a record.”
And you can hear this influence on the finished album, with Russell’s ability to connect myriad ideas to a funky rhythm, his ability to let space do as much of the work of the music and his penchant for making the experimental accessible, all present.
Other influences in Elliot Smith and Joni Mitchell can be heard in the songwriting and melodic quirks, but Native Tongue is far from aping classics and is even a leap from Ishak’s usual sound. The new elements of the sound most likely come from the exceptional team of collaborators Ishak brought in for the recording.
He literally wished a band into existence, manifesting a dream group of musicians after naming them on a grant application to help fund the project, and on being successful went about bringing them on board. Thankfully, he delivered on the promise and brought together Erland Dahlen (drums – Madrugada, Pantha Du Prince and The Bell Laboratory), Lars Horntvedt (pedal steel, synths, bass clarinet, saxophone and co-production – Jaga Jazzist) and Ryan McPhun (bass – The Ruby Sons) who bought a fresh set of approaches. “Most of the time, they don’t make traditional pop rock like I do. They’re more used to working with experimental stuff in different categories. So I was just excited to hear what that sounded like when they were playing together,” said Ishak.
The music, built from original demos written, played and recorded by Ishak, stretches the framework of his sound into new places while retaining the soul of his previous work. While a solo record Native Tongue is the sound of an artist letting go of his songs and being liberated by having other talents finish them. Just singing and playing guitar on the sessions, where he usually writes, plays many instruments and producers, allowed for the freedom to enjoy the process, in awe of the band he had assembled.
As coherent as the end result sounds, Native Tongue is essentially the work of four “producers” shoved together in a “weird social experiment” with tiny creative infractions to the pop-rock standard making the album stand out. That and the humanity that can be heard in Ishak’s lyrics and voice throughout.
“ [The album] is, sort of, an apology to my Malaysian heritage, and I have just started to realise that part of me a lot more. I would hang out with my grandmother in Malaysia when I was a kid. And she would call me Ishmael. She was like, that’s your Malaysian name! And stuff like this that she used to say, I’m just starting to think “Oh, okay, I get it,” he said.
There are also questions about his own life coming into play. Being racialised as “white” by local kids and therefore accepted, experiencing different levels of racism and prejudice while living in Norway, the UK and Belgium, and also never feeling like he had a set identity to align with. Despite the obvious complex narratives about ethnicity, race and immigration Native Tongues eschews these to dwell in a more positive place.
“It’s not bitter at all,” explained Ishak. “It is coming from someone who grew up in a white country, but it’s not a political “fuck racism” record. Of course, “fuck racism”, but it’s not about that. It’s more like a little love letter to my Malaysian heritage. And bringing all that stuff to the surface again.”
‘Something’ gets philosophical about Ishak’s place in this story, describing being overcome by a feeling of being pulled towards a place “I do not really know”. “What my grandmother told me 30 years ago is starting to make sense and it might be the things she told me, maybe she even knew i would understand later- that I am not just a visitor in that country, that I also belong there,” he explained.
‘Noisy River’ collates bits and pieces of beloved memories from hanging around with and observing his “beautiful aunt”. “It’s about her calmness and how she was very free, anchorless and I am restless, like a noisy river,” said Ishak. “I would be in the corner waiting for her, watching her pray. When she was done she would rub my head and say, “here’s a little heaven for you too”.”
This positivity shines through as Native Tongue connects Ishak’s present state to his past (and something bigger) but what about the future for this newfound love of making “solo” music? “I think we’re going to play some shows, I’m hoping that I’m going to get the original band to come and do some of the shows. But they’re, of course, really busy. But I hope to travel and play the songs in different ways,” he said.
There’s talk of solo acoustic renditions, three-piece shows and full-band extravaganzas at festivals, all of which the songs on Native Tongue lend themselves to beautifully, such is the quality of depth of the writing and composition from Ishak and his collaborators.
“It’s a cool little world that we found and I hope to do more with those people. But yeah, I’m really excited about the record and how it turned out,” said Ishak.
Excitement, hope, realisation and rediscovery – these are the sentiments that come from Kenneth Ishak’s re-emergence as a solo artist and we can only hope there is more to come.
1. Native Tongue
3. Tropical Green
5. Noisy River
7. Sacred Days
8. United Nations