INTERVIEW: Ajimal

Ajimal dark mirrors 2 by Dee Chaneva

The brainchild of Newcastle-born Fran O’Hanlon, Ajimal has become a shifting, malleable project made up of some of northern England’s brightest stars. The debut LP CHILDHOOD, originally intended to be an EP before becoming something more gargantuan, contains a lot of on-location recording, found sounds, luscious baroque piano, strings and brass, as well as the voices of O’Hanlon and more. Here, I talked to him about using unusual locations and the 50-strong cast.

Congratulations on the upcoming release of CHILDHOOD! How has this album developed since the initial plans to release an EP expanded?

Thanks! The idea started to come together a few years ago and was the product of conversations and things I was thinking about a lot at that time. It actually started life as an EP but then we added to it and it grew into an album proper. It’s taken a lot of time to put everything together and we’ve worked hard to release it – so it feels good that it’s finally coming out.

The album has been recorded in different churches, theatres and hospitals as well as in the studio. What made you decide to record in these more unusual locations?

When Mick Ross and I were planning how to put the album together, we wanted to record in a way where we used actual spaces as much as possible to create the sound we were after, rather than just relying on toys in the studio – if you want something to sound huge and reverberant then go record it in a big church.

What effect were you aiming to achieve by recording in such diverse locations?

It means that players react to the sound in that space and perform differently – and that’s important in creating an atmosphere, but it also meant that we occasionally caught little extra noises and textures of things around us. While I was recording piano for Footnote to Love [Part Two], right at the end we heard some kids outside shout, ‘It’s finished!’ as they ran past. It just fit really nicely together so we kept it. Then Goudougoudou was recorded live with a string section in a theatre in Gosforth where I used to go to drama group as a kid – I hadn’t been there in 15 years but remembered they had this rickety old piano and I wanted something that sounded a bit battered on that track. There are different pianos on every track in fact – each one has a slightly different character.

The album contains some field recordings. Why did you want to use field recordings in CHILDHOOD?

We built up a library of sounds from places we had recorded – things we captured incidentally, and also some additional textures – noises at the coast in Tynemouth, close to where I grew up, fairground noises, traffic, the playground… I had my palm read at a fair and recorded it. The woman who read it told me these beautiful, hopeful things but delivered it with this monotone, almost lifeless feel – it had been a pretty shitty year for them, and I ended up cutting it up into a narrative about the potential of youth. At the end of one of the days when we were mixing, I recorded these simple piano chords over the top and it forms an untitled bridge between the last two tracks.

The album features a cast of 50 musicians – how did you collect so many different people together?

Ajimal has always been reliant upon creative people being generous with their time and asking favours. The whole point of what I want to create is not a solo project, but a big shifting collaborative thing which people come in and out of, depending on what we want to make. I think there are 51 different players across CHILDHOOD and lots of friends; Mart from The Lake Poets, Rob Coles from Little Comets, the Tessera Skies boys, quite a number of the Minotaurs guys including Mick obviously, Laura from Shift Static, Natasha Haws – people were just willing to come and explore the idea and help out. That doesn’t even include the team of engineers – of which there were about 7 who contributed!

Was it ever difficult to co-ordinate such a large amount of people working on different parts of the album?

Yeah, it’s a lot of work but there are so many brilliant people on this album and I’m really proud of that. When we recorded in that old theatre with a 14-piece string section – that was amazing… They were all friends or friends of friends who were cobbled together and it was such a beautiful thing. There were lots of those little moments while we were making it.

To me at least, the album feels very roomy and uncluttered, almost minimalist in places – was breathing space within the LP something you wanted to achieve, despite the amount of people working on it?

I wanted it to have a flow and to work as a whole, and that idea of breathing space is really important. Again, Mick was such a good sounding board and almost brutal at de-cluttering my ideas – cutting the fat off. He’s been a huge part of the project. There are lots of ideas across the 7 tracks, and it goes through them in a semi-chronological way, from the arrival of the child and the effect of that on two people in Footnote to Love, then going through youth, naivety and play until Goudougoudou which is the most important track to me – it’s about that change at the end of childhood, and then finally looking back at how youth is connected to beauty on Where We Were Children. We actually finished the album by getting lots of the people who were important in making it to sing along with those last lines.

You’ve said that you wanted to look at what it means to be a child and also what it means to be an adult. How have you tried to capture that within the album?

I was fascinated by the process of going from childhood into adulthood and that experience is different for each person depending on so many factors – where or when you happen to be born – but even at the same moment: wealth, ‘social class’, gender, access to healthcare, education, movements in cultural and social trends… there are so many things which influence how we experience that transition. I wrote these songs at a time where I felt like I was going through that process and it was really violent. I had studied and done things and lived with different types of people but I just felt increasingly aware of the sheer amount of things I knew absolutely nothing about. And that’s weird… You feel lost!

You’ve noted that each generation has to deal with the pressures of their era and that those pressures shape experiences. What pressures in particular were you thinking of when you were constructing CHILDHOOD?

Well, I think expectations of people as either children or adults change over time and as with many things it’s probably changed more radically in the last half-century or so than ever before that. Everyone will have their own take on this, but on the one hand today we have an extended period of ‘childhood’ on the one hand we live in a Western, liberal ‘democracy’ we’re free to study for longer, we can travel more easily, we can communicate instantly with almost anyone – we mostly don’t have to take over the family business, or work in the fields, or support large families and get jobs straight away. But on the other hand, there are a lot of pressures which are pushed on us much earlier – there’s lots of pressures that come from advertising and connectivity, pressure to grow up, pressures to consume, to become sexualised much earlier. All of these things contribute to how we experience growing up. So it depends on lots of things.

How are you looking to transfer this very ambitious project into the live arena?

Ha! Good question. Well, again the whole thing is that Ajimal changes depending on the sound we want to make, who’s around and what we want to create – I’m planning to tour with other people just now. I like making being able to make a bigger sound. We’re planning quite a grand Newcastle launch show on the 13th November, so come to that and you’ll see!

What will you be doing after CHILDHOOD is released?

Working on the next one! It’s already underway. And it won’t take as long, I promise.

CHILDHOOD is out now.

A shorter version of this piece appeared in the November 2015 issue of NARC. Magazine.

Image: Dee Chaneva

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