An intimate and kaleidoscopic musical journey full of warm color and wondrous sound, Kenneth Ishak’s solo album ‘Native Tongue’ is as dazzling as it is sentimental: A worthy return after a decade away from the spotlight.
for fans of Volcano Choir, Sufjan Stevens, Bon Iver, Arthur Russell
Stream: “Native Tongue” – Kenneth Ishak
I hope it can be a bubble to step into, a positive space with some mystery to it.
An intimate and kaleidoscopic musical journey full of warm color and wondrous sound, Kenneth Ishak’s new solo album is as dazzling as it is sentimental: A record teeming with vibrant, vivid sonics, seeking a deeper understanding of oneself and one’s surroundings. An expressive and cathartic alt-folk experience, Native Tongue radiates warmth as Ishak brings to life a world of wonder built on unbridled vulnerability and hopeful, heart-on-sleeve passion. It’s as much an escape as it is a means of leaning deeper into life as we know it.
Will there ever be a day
born out of a sunset?
Gold and silver woods in your hometown
Dry red gravel underneath your feet and
I follow you to your old house
I remember morning prayers in the distance
Were they sung for everyone?
Your mother was always in the kitchen
She kissed me with both her hands
– “Spider,” Kenneth Ishak
Released November 5, 2021 via Sellout! Music, Native Tongue is a long, long-awaited return. Ishak’s third solo album, Kenneth Ishak and the Freedom Machines, released in late 2010, after which time the Norwegian songwriter and producer (and member of indie rock cult favorite Beezewax) focused his time and energy on other endeavors – writing, recording, and producing with other up-and-coming artists.
“The story behind this record is basically that I hadn’t done anything on my own for a long time, over ten years in fact,” he tells Atwood Magazine. “But while not making music under my own name, I have produced and been a musician as a day job, done many albums in band projects I have been very involved in. After a while I wanted to use a lot of what I had learned and discovered for my own music, and write it without a context at all – well, only within the context of wanting to make something and just focus on that little bubble.”
Ishak went into this process without any expectations, letting ideas flow through him and seeing where the music went on its own. What he found was a world full of possibility, brought to life through intimate lyrics and an incredible array of instrumental work.
“My vision was to buy a guitar I had never played before, a Rhodes I had never played before, and write music that was very cut off from everything else in my life,” he explains. “I wanted it to be intimate like Arthur Russell is intimate, if that makes any sense? I made the whole album in three different stages: First, I was just looking for music and a theme, you know – just fiddling around and trying to enjoy the time alone.”
“Then once I had a bunch of music and themes, I really had to work hard at filling out all the blank spots. I was supposed to go to Italy, to Florence to this artist residency, but Covid wanted otherwise and sent me to a Hotel in Bergen where I wrote most of the lyrics on my own in a hotel room for five days. Then, once all the songs were done, without any intrusions, I made a complete 180 and recorded all of it with a bunch of musicians and artists that I have admired for years and didn’t know too well, but gave them 100% trust and we recorded the whole thing live in three days, and then I just added the vocals a few days later. First fishing, then hard work, and then just inviting all of these people into that little world and letting them play what they felt like without giving too much direction. I think that was the plan and I stuck with it.”
Joining Ishak on Native Tongue are 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).
“We were in a big studio where we recorded everything live except the vocals,” Ishak recalls, “so Erland had his drums and all his ships bells, metal food treys in the middle surrounded by Ådne playing my beloved Moog Opus 3 and a bunch of other synths, Ryan playing the bass, Mattias playing the Rhodes, piano and guitar, Lars the producer in the control room with his synths and pedal-steel with the engineer Fridtjof by the big Neve console. I was in a glass room in between the big room and the control room singing and playing guitar.”
It’s a smorgasbord of artistry, and the resulting eight tracks deliver an unapologetically vast and stunning range of sound, color, style, and substance. Native Tongue can probably best be interpreted as an alternative or indie folk album, yet within its thirty-five minutes are moments showcasing jazz, R&B, blues, rock, pop, and more.
Ishak, for his part, is the kind of artist who doesn’t think in terms of those sorts of boxes.
“I have made a lot of different music but I think what I try to make is the kind of music you listen to alone or with a good friend, and that it can be some sort of companion,” he says. “I have always fiddled with music and I see many, many songs of mine as failed attempts, but some as lucky finds. I am not very conscious about what I do, but still I know exactly how I want to do it when I am in the moment playing or writing. One reviewer once wrote that listening to me sing is like being at the back of a bar with a really good friend over a drink, and I liked that. I do like a two-people party.”
That intimacy comes to life throughout Native Tongue, whose poetic lyrics are personal to Ishak – exploring his heritage and identity, hopes and dreams, existential wanderings and wonderings – while nevertheless feeling incredibly accessible to listeners from all over. The album’s title is a particularly strong nod to Ishak’s exploration of his heritage; as he explains, “It just popped out as we were in the studio! People had a hard time remembering all the other weird working titles, but this one they seemed to like. The whole album is about my father’s family in Malaysia, him moving here to Norway in the early ’70s, my fragmented memories of my own experiences there, and my relationship with my grandmother.”
I think it is a very true testament of what I have been wanting to make for quite some time and I think it’s the most positive piece of music I have ever made.
Ishak set out to make something special, and by all accounts, he succeeded: Native Tongue proves an endlessly enthralling, immersive album. From the radiant drama and prog rock-esque moods of the opening title track, to the buoyant, introspective “Shrines,” to the hypnotic beats and pulse of “Something,” the pacified beauty of “Sacred Days” and the calm avalanche of “United Nations,” Native Tongue keeps its audience on our toes.
“I really love the strange synth solo at the end of ‘United Nations,’ Ishak says. “That’s just Lars going for it, and if he got lucky or if he had planned it I don’t know. Also the ending of ‘Native Tongue’ the song; I remember just all of these sounds popping into my headphones while we were recording it live, and I had no clue where it all was coming from, who was doing what, but it sounded kind of like a finished record while playing. We kept it just as it was recorded.”
As a lyricist, Ishak highlights a few of his favorite lines on the album: “’Urine on summer walls” in ‘United Nations’ I like a lot,” he smiles. “’Urine’ is a very, very pretty word. ‘Over a thousand mopeds engines cry’, and ‘If you look down you’ll see, the Himalayas’ from ‘Tropical Green’ and ‘Spider’ are when taken out of context, maybe a bit odd or random, but with the music and the melody they make perfect sense, again, to me.”
Kaleidoscopic in the very best of ways, Native Tongue is a welcome return from a singer/songwriter we can’t wait to hear more from – possibly in the very near future. Ishak is the first to question himself, but making this album – and seeing its impact on others – has inspired him to keep going.
“[I hope listeners can take away] their own experience and interpretation of all the imagery in the lyrics and the sounds,” Ishak shares. “I hope it can be a bubble to step into, a positive space with some mystery to it. To be honest, I am not the most confident person in thinking other people like what I like. I know I can have a specific taste or aesthetic so I am just really, really happy so many people have gotten in touch about how much they like Native Tongue, [and] the great reviews it has gotten so far. I really just want to start writing new stuff now, to be honest.”
Experience the full record via our below stream, and peek inside Kenneth Ishak’s Native Tongue with Atwood Magazine as the singer/songwriter goes track-by-track through the music and lyrics of his latest album!
Stream: ‘Native Tongue’ – Kenneth Ishak
:: Inside Native Tongue ::
This was the hardest song to finish because it has a lot of different parts and is in some ways too long but we kind of figured it out. It was really fun to record as I think the arrangement is pretty spot on, especially at the end but that was all luck as everyone were improvising.
This song reminds me of the talking heads, tears for fears and even Porno for pyros in the choruses, but Tim Smith era Midlake mixed with beach boys in the verses. It is very positive musically but lyrically it is about an old man praying in the subway outside Paris, a shrine in Kyoto where I had a little epiphany one morning while everyone else we’re sleeping among other things.
This is one of the first songs I wrote for this record and It was at the beginning of the pandemic when I was dead sick. I don’t know if I had covid, but I had a really bad flu that lasted weeks. I remember playing this chorus and just singing so much weird feverish stuff over it, it was nice. Some of the lyrics stayed.
I don’t know why but I really love to put a George Harrison sounding guitar lead on things and it happened again here. This song has the line, “At night everyone fell to the floor, slept anywhere,” in it and more than one person has pointed out they like that line.
We, or well I called this one Arthur in the studio as it is very inspired by Arthur Russell. The song was just this little folk ditty in the beginning with all the chords happening and it was hard to find a melody to go over all the moving harmonics but I kept at it but it tok a good long while.
The line about the Himalayas is something the captain of a plane once said over the speakers on route to Malaysia. I did indeed see the mountain range out of the left side of the plane when the sun had just got up and most people on the plane were sleeping.
This was the first song I wrote for this album and is very much the reason for me deciding to follow through with a whole record. The second song on the album where I sing about a certain colour green.
We used to live in Antwerp when I was younger and I this song has a lot of imagery from the city. It was a much more multicultural place compared to the little town I am from in Norway so it was a great experience for a kid like me. Also, I got heavily into the band dEUS who were locals there and I would always look for them in the music stores or peek into the cool bars to see if they were there.
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📸 © Julia Naglestad
:: Stream Kenneth Ishak ::