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Songwriting Interview With Jorn Viggo Lofstad
Ryan Buckner: Hi, this is Ryan Buckner of SongwritingLessonsOnline.com and I'm speaking with highly respected metal guitarist and songwriter Jorn Viggo Lofstad of Pagan's Mind. Welcome Jorn, it's great to have you here in this interview and I'm looking forward to hearing your insights on songwriting.
Jorn Viggo Lofstad: Thank you Ryan, thank you very much for having me.
RB: So why don't we start off with a little bit of background, when did you first begin writing music and what inspired you to do so?
JVL: I guess I little by little started to write music when I started to play. I started to play bass guitar and guitar when I was 13, 14 years old... and you know, right away started to play a little bit. I tried to come up with some of my own stuff and it's kind of something I did from the beginning. And a couple of the first bands I played in when I was in highscool and stuff... that was only material we wrote ourselves. When I was 18, 19 until I was 24 I played in cover bands and we played Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, Deep Purple that kind of stuff. Then had a 5-6 year break from songwriting until I started to work with Pagan's Mind and that's when I could start to write musically.
RB: How exactly did you get involved at a professional level writing music?
JVL: How Pagan's Mind came to be was kind of a merging between two bands. The drummer Stian, Nils the singer and our second guitar player which played with us earlier who unfortunately passed away in 2007... the three of them were in a kind of heavy metal 80's hair metal kind of thing, glam that kind of stuff. Stian and Nils wanted to start a more heavy or progressive band. Me, Steinar (the bass player) and Ronny the keyboard player had a Toto cover band at that time and it was kind of a merging between those two bands. Nils and Stian got in a record deal with a Norwegian label called FaceFront and they wanted to record some of the songs that they had written. So we got together and within one month we started recording of what was going to be the debut album of Pagan's Mind called Infinity Divine. As for me, I didn't write that much of the music on the album, it was mostly written by Nils and Stian in the band. Me, Ronny and Steinar came in last minute and tried to find our place in the songs. The first time I really got to come up with my ideas and we write music together as a band was Celestial Entrance, our second album.
RB: What would you say was the most difficult part of songwriting for you when you first got started? And what approach did you use to figure it out?
JVL: It's an interesting question. I remember when I was 18 or 19 and I played in a cover band. It became a cover band because we were not able to finish songs and do our own stuff and I always wanted to. I brought a lot of ideas to the rehearsal room but that group of people we never took that stuff seriously they just wanted to have fun, do the easy way and play Van Halen or Black Sabbath songs... you know, we don't need to do our own stuff let's just play and have fun. When Pagan's Mind came together it was pretty awesome, we were like a melting pot. Everyone had all of these great ideas that they wanted to put in and was very into it. We didn't put up any rules like we should be that or we should be heavy metal or progressive... let's just get together and write the best music we can... so that's what we did. For Celestial Entrance, it only took us 6 or 7 months writing that album... so it went very quickly. If I pick it up now and listen to it, it sounds pretty fresh. For me that is kind of the debut album of Pagan's Mind because it is the first album we really did together. So a lot of good memories from that process. It is important to work with people that really want to write their own music. So you go from just being a talented guitar player in the city doing 10 gigs a year and playing cover songs to deciding to write your own music and have people recognize you for the music write yourself... to start that journey. I hope that people reading this or listening to this who are wondering if they should write their own music or just do cover stuff take the chance to write their own music because I am extremely happy that I made that choice... all the places it took me, the fantastic tours I've been on, cool festivals, been able to travel around the world and play my own music... It's not something that everyone gets to do. I'm very happy that things came together.
RB: How do you think writing in a band affects your songwriting compared to writing on your own?
JVL: With Pagan's Mind the way we've been successful writing together is that we've changed the approach over the years. The two first albums we did were only in the rehearsing room jamming and mixing ideas. That absolutely worked for us on the two first albums. You can also hear it in a way on those albums because a lot of songs are 6, 7, 8, 9 minutes long. Not that kind of singer songwriter approach to the music. Which for example I did a lot when I worked with Jorn Lande. So it was a lot of jamming and the music was in focus. We were always thoughtful of having a lot of good melodies. I think with Pagan's Mind on the first album, we thought the music came first and we added the vocals and melodies later, but that changed on the last two albums where we worked the other way. Having two albums that we just wrote in the rehearsing studio, it was cool to start working in another way. Especially on Heavenly Ecstasy, we wrote the most very differently than we did on the first albums. On that album I brought 70 - 80% of the material of the album and presented it to the guys. Then we did the wrapping of the songs together if you know what I mean. Laid the last touches of the album together. At that time it was the right thing to do. That was what sounded most fresh and good. At the moment now, we've been working a while on the new album and now we are in a more home studio environment and jamming a lot again but also people bringing stuff... half songs or a song or something and we try to finish up everything. It's not one particular formula. Songwriting can be done in lot of different ways. The most important things is that you have a good song and something that keeps it fresh, not just recycling the old stuff all the time.
RB: You also brought up earlier how you guys have different styles. I notice the progression too from your early stuff, it was more progressive/power. It still has that feel but on your previous album it's got more of a hard rock/bluesy...
JVL: Yeah that is absolutely correct. I guess it's my heart and soul in music. I've always loved hard rock or more straight forward heavy metal styles. In the years from 2002 – 2008 when I played with Jorn Lande I got to express that part of myself through that band. Me and Jorn loved writing all that stuff. With Pagan's Mind, the last album is kind of the most perfectly produced album in a way. It' very tightly played, nice songwriting and everything. It's a more mature album but also very fresh. I think the songwriting itself is very good on the previous Pagan's Mind album. ...a little bit more of a singer songwriter approach on a lot of the songs. Your right, as a band we started off very experimental and just wanted to figure out what our limits were and try to do a lot of different stuff. Lately it's been more like building a bridge between the progressive world and more straightforward melodic heavy metal stuff. But who knows what we'll do next time, what we'll come up with. The stuff we're working with now sounds like stuff from the old days. Very epic and heavy stuff and stuff that's more similar to what we did lately. We have an album with 10 – 12 good songs that we're going to release, but not sure when that is going be yet.
RB: Oh cool, I'll be looking forward to it whenever you guys do release it.
JVL: Thank you very much. We're looking forward to it as well ourselves. The thing is it normally doesn't take that long for us to write an album. It just takes us a long time to get started. When we are done with one album, touring and stuff we have a really long break before we start over again. During late 2013 or early 2014 there's going to be a new album. Within the next year for sure.
RB: Do you have any favorite songs that you've written?
JVL: Yeah, there's a lot of cool songs... Through Osiris' Eyes for Pagan's Mind has become a classic for us... did a lot of writing for that song. I love Eyes of Fire... Intermission from the previous album... Walk Away In Silence... a lot of really cool rock songs. Also, I have to say a lot of the stuff I did with Jorn Lande that I'm really thrilled about. The Out To Every Nation song I think is one of the best songs I wrote with Jorn. A lot of cool, heavy metal classic songs like We Brought The Angels Down, Stormcrow, Blacksong... It's a lot of the stuff that's been done over the years... maybe it's been two years since I've listened to that song and suddenly it comes on the stereo for some reason and it sounds pretty cool. There's been a lot of stuff that has happened over the past over the last 10 – 12 years. I've been part of writing 10, 12 albums with people. I've been fortunate to do a lot of stuff that turned out really good.
RB: Do you spend more time planning out your songs ahead of time or more time improvising in the moment?
JVL: Right now when I write songs it's pretty spontaneous. I never decide that now I'm going to sit down and write a song. I start to play guitar and come up with some kind of melody in my head. When I write music alone, it's a lot of the singer songwriter kind of approach. It's not like I make a few cool riffs and say I wonder what the vocals are going to be on this part? I have a revelation. I sit down and I hear the vocal line and the bass and the drums and the keyboards... how everything is going to be. When it happens it just happens. Then you kind of have an audition of how the song is going to be. A lot of times I can just sit with acoustic guitar or electric guitar and jam and play... I record the ideas that I come up with. I just use my Iphone and record the ideas then go through them later go down to my studio and make some pre-production or something it's normally that way.
RB: Do you ever use any instruments besides guitar?
JVL: I can play a little drums and I can play a pretty decent bass and stuff like that. I can also play a little keyboards but that's more limited. I'm absolutely not a virtuoso on piano or keyboard. It's very basic with chords and stuff like that. If I need to do something hard on keyboards and I want to show Ronny or something... you know the stuff you can do with Logic or ProTools, there are a lot of ways to get the ideas down you know. It's mainly guitar and bass. I play bass also pretty much because when I sit in my own studio making pre-productions I make everything ready with drums, bass and guitars and everything normally. So I play everything.
RB: Do you have any favorite topics to write about?
JVL: Personally for me I think I don't have a favorite topic. I like listening to people writing about stuff that they care about, something they stand for, what you think or something difficult you've been through. I don't like if everything is just a cliché. If it comes from the heart and delivered with good quality. That's what I like the most. Personally, I was never a big fan of dinosaurs and swords metal. I mean we are a little bit in the genre ourselves, Pagan's Mind has a bit of a sci-fi image to the music and I think it's cool... but I know the way Nils writes his lyrics, it's a lot of things that are very personal to him. That's what I like about it if you know what I mean. Not just, party, party or swords and big wars... or whatever you're singing about. Better to hear people sing about something that maybe they experienced themselves.
RB: Right, something that is really genuine.
JVL: Yeah it doesn't matter what it is. If it is delivered in a good way that is something I normally like.
RB: Do you ever have times when you have writer's block and how do you deal with that?
JVL: I haven't experienced it that much to be honest. I've been kind of lucky, but I see periods with Pagan's Mind when as a group we have trouble making the magic happen. It happens with most bands... when the 5 of us get together we have a sound and that's good but also it's like doing 5 or 6 studio albums... all the material we ditched over the years that didn't get used... it's hard to come up with something fresh and something good. Sometimes you just have a bad day. If the mood is not there, if people do not have their shoulders down and think it's cool to come to a session and write together... if they are thinking about other stuff then maybe we are not that productive. Everyone who starts as 14 or 15 years old, that magic of standing in the middle of the room with your music... it's that vibe we are looking for all the time. When we manage to just be kids, have fun and improvise that's always when the good stuff comes.
Now I guess it was in 2008 that I stopped playing with Jorn. I have a lot of stuff I have written that has not been released also. In Pagan's Mind we have our style, we can play a little heavy metal but it should be within the genre of the stuff we've done over the years... epic, progressive and little heavy metal. A big part of what I also like is that kind of mix between 70's hard rock and really good rock songs. I love for example, Foo Fighters. I think they are an awesome band. A lot of the stuff they did is really cool. Also I love bands like Led Zeppelin, early Deep Purple, Van Halen... cool songs. So I've been writing a lot of the time. Within a year or two I am going to start up a new project. I'm not going to leave Pagan's Mind or anything like that. But since I was 14 or 15 years old I always loved that melodic hard rock feel. Now I'm 38 and I still love it. So there's a pretty good chance that when I'm 60 or whatever I'm still going to love that kind of music. So I'm planning to have a new seed in the ground and let it start growing a little bit. Pagan's Mind is not going to last forever so when that stops someday I'll want to have something else that I can continue with and do. I have a lot of really good stuff, 15, 16, 17 songs that are completely done. So it's just looking for the right singer for it and when I after the next Pagan's Mind album is released we'll have a little break. Then I will use that period of time to record this stuff with a band and release it like a debut album. I really look forward to that and I have a lot of confidence in the quality of the songs. I feel it is maybe some of the best stuff I've ever done. I'm very excited to bring it on the table and let people hear it.
RB: Cool, I'll look forward to that too. I really like that hard rock sound, especially when you played with Jorn. If it's anything like that I'll definitely check it out.
JVL: Yeah I have a kind of style when I play guitar that you can recognize. With Jorn, especially on the Duke album and Out To Every Nation, I like those two albums because they were a mixture of rock and roll and heavy metal. I don't like it when it's too... I like Jorn when it's a mix of Black Sabbath, Whitesnake kind of thing... a little bit of rock and roll but it's also [voices guitar riff] those kind of riffs you know? That band I felt maybe that band when in the wrong direction because they only wanted to play really dark, heavy riffs and some of the magic disappeared a little bit. A lot of the riffs that you will hear on my new project is stuff that used to could be put into Jorn but it's a little more light in a way. It's not more technical or something like that. Instead of being like a very slow heavy band like... When Black Sabbath played their slowest songs, you have that on one side and you have very experimental Van Halen on the other side... it's more leaning toward the Van Halen mentality of playing. You know, having fun, smile on your face music to put on the stereo Friday night and have a beer.
RB: I like that. Talking about writing technical music like you do in Pagan's Mind, how important would you say it is to understand music theory for songwriting?
JVL: To know it theoretically is not really important at all I think. I guess the reason I say this is that I really can't write or you know read music... I always only played by ear. I always just learned everything by ear. On the other side, Ronny and Steinar in Pagan's Mind both went to music schools and teach music. They know everything about music. I do something and they explain to me like you did this and that and I say ok. But I don't pay much attention to what they do. It's like Ronny says to me, you know a lot of the things there are to know about music... chords, scales and combinations and stuff... I just don't know the name of it. So it's like I show them - do this, this is cool... and they understand. But when Steinar and Ronny are together they did the more correct way.
RB: So you're more of the feel it kind of guy and they are more of the talk about chords, progressions and stuff...
JVL: Yeah absolutely. I come up with ideas and sing the melody and I say yeah put the drums like this and play the bass like this... then you've got a rock and roll vibe. That's the way I show what I write. I guess other people think it's nice to bring a piece of paper where you can see and that's also fine. As long as you are able to carry forward your message for what you want it doesn't matter if you went to school to learn it or picked it up other ways.
RB: Ok, here is my final question for today: If you could give the people listening to this interview just one piece of advice on to become a great songwriter, what would it be and why?
JVL: First, it would be if you really want to write songs, just start doing it. Everyone has to do it. Take that chance and don't get scared if the first song doesn't... people need to develop and get mature and learn stuff. It's like other stuff in life, you get better every time you try. Jump into it and do it. That's all I can say. Do it the way you think will be the best way for you to work. If you want to just write riffs and bring it to a band and do the vocals later or maybe if you are the kind of guy that sits down with a piano, violin, bass guitar or guitar and you hear a melody in your head and do some chords... it doesn't matter how you do it. That feeling you get inside in your heart and stomach when you feel that you have something good going on... Follow that fire. That's what it's all about. Don't do what everyone else wants you to do or what you think everyone else wants you to do. Just develop your own thing. Follow that fire.
RB: Thank you Jorn for taking the time to share your insights today.
JVL: Yeah, thank you very much.