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Beirut's Zach Condon on drawing inspiration from the dark winters of Norway

(SOUNDBITE OF BEIRUT SONG, "SUDDEUTSCHES TON-BILD-STUDIO")

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Zach Condon, the creative force behind the band Beirut, toured hard in 2019 until his body said stop in the one way he couldn't ignore.

ZACH CONDON: Because it tried getting me sick. It tried getting me exhausted. And I think once it found the voice and it kind of pulled the plug on that, it realized that it could shut everything down.

SHAPIRO: A persistent case of laryngitis forced him to cancel a bunch of shows and take a break. So Zach Condon told me he went looking for a place to regroup. He wanted somewhere icy and dark.

CONDON: Because for some reason, that speaks to me, and that kind of gives me a sense of protection and shelter. And so I kind of went looking for the most extreme version of that in northern Norway.

SHAPIRO: Condon ended up in a cabin on an island called Hadsel, where he found a pump organ.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEIRUT SONG, "HADSEL")

CONDON: So the pump organ is the more piano-sized, for your own home - you actually - it's funny. When you're playing it, it's like riding a bicycle because you're pumping air into the bellows with your feet.

SHAPIRO: Usually when people say it's like riding a bicycle, they mean you never forget how to do it. You mean you're actually pedaling your feet like a bicycle.

CONDON: Yeah, yeah. You're literally pedaling your feet like a bicycle, yeah. And it - also, it gives you some kind of room for expression and other such things that you wouldn't have on a church organ, for example.

SHAPIRO: There's almost like an accordion-ish sound to it.

CONDON: Yeah, that's the closest other instrument to it. It's the same kind of reeds. It's just a different system of kind of bellows and air, I guess.

SHAPIRO: And so how much of you is thinking, oh, I've got the place to create my next album and make new music, as opposed to I just need to lick my wounds and recover and be away from people for a little while.

CONDON: Well, actually, originally it was more the latter. I mean, that was my entire purpose. But, yeah, once I saw the pictures of the pump organ and I found out that it was in tune and it worked, I kind of went into autopilot. Like, I wasn't really thinking anymore. I was just reacting. And I was packing five suitcases full of equipment and making these plans as if it was a studio visit.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEIRUT'S "MELBU")

SHAPIRO: We hear the pump organ throughout the album, but there's one instrumental track that I think is just that instrument on its own called "Melbu."

CONDON: Yeah. It was a very meditative track, and it was a very meditative night. I actually was writing that at Agvar's (ph) house. Agvar is the guy who let me play the church organ and collects and repairs pump organs from around northern Norway, actually.

SHAPIRO: You say it was a special night, but it was all night. You were there in the Arctic winter.

CONDON: Polar night. Yeah.

SHAPIRO: I mean, it was one month-long night, right? Or multi-month?

CONDON: Yeah, I was there for two months. The first month was mostly darkness. And I think my parents thought I might go there and lose my mind.

SHAPIRO: Did you?

CONDON: Yes and no. Yes and no.

SHAPIRO: Go on.

CONDON: I gravitate towards the night. I always have. Actually, since I was about 11 years old, I've suffered from really bad insomnia. It was like a switch went off in my head and I could no longer sleep during the night. I could only sleep during the day for some reason. So, like, as soon as the sun would rise, I would rest. And I started to get this kind of backwards feeling of, like, the night is when it's peace and solitude and focus, and the daytime is when all the noise and activity and stress is. And so when I was looking for a place to escape, that was very purposeful on my part, to find somewhere that was literally nighttime the whole time so that I could just focus.

SHAPIRO: This is a real part of you now. It's not just a place you did a thing once.

CONDON: Well, I actually bought a cabin up there 'cause I loved it...

SHAPIRO: Wait...

CONDON: ...So much.

SHAPIRO: Really?

CONDON: Yeah. Yeah. I really appreciated it there. You know, I didn't expect to be making so many friends up there. That was not - I really thought I would be super isolated. But I ended up getting really involved with the local kind of village that I was part of there.

SHAPIRO: You describe the persistent laryngitis that, in part, led you to this remote island. And there are places on the album where it sounds to me like having lost and regained your voice, you're now relishing what it can do in a different way. Like, taking more pleasure in some of the melodies and harmonies it can make.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ARCTIC FOREST")

BEIRUT: (Vocalizing).

SHAPIRO: Do you think of your voice differently now?

CONDON: You know, on this record, I really allowed myself a lot of vocal freedom. Because I was trying to enjoy it and really savor the moment, you know? 'Cause who knows? I still have kind of indigestion issues, and they can lead to, you know, voice degradation over time, for example. So I'm really trying to kind of take out the limitations. And so with the voice, I was very improvisatory, very just allowing whatever happened to happen. Almost every take on the record is first or second or third try...

SHAPIRO: Really?

CONDON: ...Somewhere in the very first few - yeah. Yeah. Because you get this kind of magical, deeper emotion out of it. And as cliche as that sounds, it's like as soon as you start retreading the same territory and trying to get it, quote-unquote "correct," you end up losing the magic, you know? So I made sure not to allow myself to critique myself out of first takes on this record.

SHAPIRO: One place I hear what you're describing is the track "Arctic Forest."

CONDON: Yeah. Exactly.

SHAPIRO: Is that an apt example?

CONDON: (Laughter) It's very apt because I hadn't even finished writing the story I was going to put into it before I started singing. And then what happened is when I went, and I went back to rewrite and correct the kind of improvisation I had done, I realized I could never do it as well again. And so there is actual gibberish in there, and I had to just allow myself to be OK with it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ARCTIC FOREST")

BEIRUT: (Vocalizing).

SHAPIRO: So you're planning your first live concerts in years for early 2024. How are you feeling about it?

CONDON: If I'm being honest, I'm terrified. I'm - you know, I'm already losing a little sleep over it. But I wanted to celebrate the record in a lot of ways. It's not so much that I ever hated performance. I'm not a performer naturally. It's - I'm much more of the tinkerer. Like, I'm in the bedroom kind of tinkering on songs all night, and that's my natural place. But there's something beautiful about live music, especially when you have a lot of acoustic instruments on stage. And I just really wanted to be able to do that at least once with this music. So I told myself, I won't go on tour, but I'm going to try this. I'm going to try to get on stage once again, and kind of fight through the stress and the struggle and see how this turns out. And maybe it's something I can do off and on from now on.

SHAPIRO: Do you feel like you now have a different relationship with your body than you did before the great rebellion of 2019?

CONDON: (Laughter) You know, you hear this a lot from people who have kind of suffered traumas and such things. It's not so much that you get past it or through it or anything, so much as you get better at carrying it with you. And I'm reaching that point where these issues that I have, I'm starting to be able to sit with them rather than run from them all the time. And I'm hoping that's the solution, because that might be the best I get, you know?

SHAPIRO: And now that you've got a cabin in remote Norway, you could always retreat to Hadsel again if you need to.

CONDON: That's my immediate plan after the February shows.

SHAPIRO: Really?

CONDON: So I can catch the really snowy month, which is March, which is my favorite.

SHAPIRO: Zach Condon performs as Beirut and his new album is "Hadsel." Thank you so much.

CONDON: Cheers. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SO MANY PLANS")

BEIRUT: (Vocalizing). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Kai McNamee
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.