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Blue Lake's Jason Dungan Reflects on His Musical Journey So Far

I first came across Blue Lake last summer, shortly after the release of 2023’s Sun Arcs, a sublime exploration of ambient and Americana music. I vividly remember floating in my hammock at the beach, soaking in the warm rays of Jason Dungan’s zither and guitar musings as they washed over the soft waves crashing in the distance. His music inspires a tranquil, almost meditative state, and I was eager to experience the magic live when he announced his first New York show last month, a collaboration with Music for Broken Violins (Marija Kovačević).

Dungan started his solo set with an unaccompanied clarinet piece, guiding the audience through a delicate balance of sound and silence. He played the rest with his newly made travel zither and acoustic guitar. On both, Dungan masterfully wove flurries of harmonies together, releasing colorful clouds that would quickly dissipate until the next passage. It was absolutely mesmerizing. After this portion of the show, he took the stage with Music for Broken Violins and performed a dual improvisational set that blended the zither with an array of experimental textures. It was distinct from his solo workings and captivating in a completely different way. The show left me all the more intrigued by Blue Lake’s minimal yet enveloping tapestries. I was lucky enough to catch him after the show and set up a conversation to further explore his musical projects. You can read the full interview below and to his newest record Sun Arcs right here.

Jason Dungan, photo by Bradford Bailey

David Feigelson: It's great to see you again. Thanks for agreeing to chat. I was thinking we could start by talking about your background, how you've evolved as a musician, and the different projects that you’ve worked on. Then we can move on to the music you're making now, both performing and recording, and then some of the other communal projects you're involved with. 

Jason Dungan: Sure. 

DF: Before I ask more specific questions, do you want to give readers a brief background on your path thus far? What inspires you? How’d you get here?

JD: Yeah sure. I think it's a little unusual, at least in terms of releasing music. I've been writing and recording things since I was a teenager. I went to college in Vermont, and when I was there I played in bands and booked bands for the radio station. I was making music all the time, but I was really invested in live music and local scenes. So I was recording a lot, but kind of privately.

When I moved to London about twenty years ago, I was making visual art and films. At the same time, I was starting to spend some time at a place in Sweden in the summers. I started making music up there with a group of four or five other artists from London in a band called Squares and Triangles. We recorded a lot. For a while it was almost the opposite of a normal band—we would just get together and record once or twice a week. I think we did that for two years before we ever played a show. I don't think we really released the music either. We were just getting together and recording all the time. That was really exciting and expanded my perspective as a musician because it was just about exploring and thinking about how one could make music. 

As a teenager, I was interested in a lot of guitar music and punk. I was really into bands like Fugazi and Yo La Tengo and those scenes. Then when I was living in London, nobody I knew was interested in that. I started hanging out with people who were into all kinds of different things like electronic music, reggae, or free jazz. My interests started to change a lot, and I got really into jazz. I was going to places like Cafe OTO and seeing jazz.

So I was playing with Squares and Triangles for many years. We eventually put out a couple records online. In the midst of that, I had a teaching job in England, but I had summers free so I spent them up in Sweden. This was maybe ten years ago; I was recording a ton of music every summer when I was up there. I started calling it Blue Lake around then, but again, I didn't really release it. I would just go and record loads of music using guitar, an organ that’s in the house up there, and also rocks and wood and weird stuff I would find in the forest. For a few years that was the main place I made solo music, and then I would come back to London where I had my day job and was trying to make films. The music existed in this place that was really precious to me, but I wasn't releasing it or putting it online. 

Then, five or six years ago, I stumbled upon what kind of became the origin story of the project. Shows me a gorgeous black zither decorated with white floral patterns. I found that instrument up in Sweden at a flea market and it definitely triggered something in me. I was fascinated, both because it's so old and doesn't hold tune very well, and because on those kinds of zithers the strings are super close together. I started building some instruments with fewer strings that you could play more individually and I felt that there was something really exciting about that.

That process of building stringed instruments led me to decide that I wasn't going to make visual art anymore, I was just going to focus on music. By then I’d also moved to Copenhagen, and I had a studio here that I was recording at a lot. I was getting to know the local scene, where a lot of people were putting out self released records. There were bands I really liked that had individual members putting out solo saxophone records. Being immersed in that scene made me feel like it was time to start seeing what would happen if I took the music—which was often quite sprawling and long—and put it on records. As a natural result of that I started compressing the compositions.

I started trying to condense interesting ideas to be three or four minutes long instead of twenty. The idea of putting things on record really pushed me to think about the ultimate form of what I was working on. Alongside that, I was building a lot of these different stringed instruments. They opened up a lot of possibilities, because they have aspects that sound a bit like a banjo or a harp, but because you play them with two hands they play very differently than a guitar.

Through that time, I was invested in the local scene in Copenhagen. I was seeing a lot of experimental music, which was drawing equally from classical, jazz, noise and electronic music. On the flipside, I'm American, but I live here. I’m like many expats that are obsessed with their home country even though they don't live there, and I'm quite obsessed with a lot of American music. The project gets its name from a Don Cherry record. There's a lot of American jazz and folk music that I think about a lot and it isn't present here in Denmark. Like playing slide guitar, nobody really does that here. They associate it with country music or something. And it's like, I don't really ever see anyone doing it. There’s something interesting about taking sounds like those, which are quite normal in Texas and a lot of places in the US, and using them here. You can hear and work with them in a different way.

DF: That's so cool. I feel like recently slide guitar and pedal steel have gotten quite popular in indie music in the US. Some bands are embracing them as main instruments and using them differently than how they have in the past. Do you know Wednesday?

JD: Yeah.

DF: They have pedal steel in a lot of their music. I saw them in June in Brooklyn and they have that thing going through the RAT and other stuff, playing lead guitar and soloing. It’s crazy.

JD: Yeah it’s cool when instruments suddenly crop up like that. Like there were a lot of art rock bands in the 80s that had bass clarinet. It became a really popular instrument in certain pockets. That was also an instrument that is often used in classical or jazz contexts, but when you put it somewhere new, it opens up a lot of possibilities and spaces for sound. Like if you bring a pedal steel into a rock band.

DF: I think you said you started building and modifying zithers when you found that one? Did you have experience building guitars or anything beforehand?

JD: No, that was the first. The only experience I had was because I'd been making visual art and I was used to the idea that if you wanted to do something, you could learn about it and figure it out in a way that could be useful to your ideas. From that I had confidence about just throwing myself into it. But I definitely had never done it before. But there's something about building stringed instruments that's really rewarding. Even some of the first ones I built very crudely sounded interesting. The second record, Moving, is the first one where I started using zithers. A lot of those ones were really basic, rough instruments, but they made interesting sounds. If you just get some kind of box and stretch strings over it, it'll make some sound which can actually be usable. It was encouraging to start by doing that.

Then I started thinking about how to actually build it. I would go over to Oregon, where my parents live now, and go to bookstores and find books about instrument building. And there aren’t that many, because it's a kind of small world, so there's a handful of really canonical books that just have simple tips and ideas. So I started to learn the basics. I wasn't reinventing the wheel, but I could find out what I needed to do. I think with building them I was most interested in the ways that you could play the instruments. The zither has bridges in the middle that you can adjust, so you can tune and play with both hands on either side of the bridges, and play two different patterns at the same time. That was the big thing I was working on with the design. After I started establishing that, it became questions of, what's a good size? How many strings? Do you sometimes group more strings together to make mini chords?

The one I'm using now to play live I actually had built by a guitar maker, because I'd worked out the design and reached a wall in terms of what I could do; guitar makers have all these weird special tools. And they have a real understanding of how to work with those materials in a really specific way. It was a little weird for me, because I always liked that I had built the instruments, and there was something meaningful about that. But I also got to the point where if I wanted to have something that could perform in a certain way, I needed to have someone else do it. But I think building them also teaches you to think about the guitar in a different way. I kind of reinvented my relationship to what the guitar is.

DF: Yeah, I'd be curious to hear more about that. I noticed at the show that you don't strum in the same place, you'll play along the neck. Can you talk about how building and playing zithers has influenced your guitar playing, and maybe vice versa?

JD: Yeah, they kind of fit into each other. I made the spacing for the strings on the zither the same as the guitar, because I wanted to be able to do that kind of finger picking on the zither. And then the zither has so many strings and makes you think about tuning a lot. I messed around with non standard tunings before that, but when I started using the zither I really started investigating different tunings. I researched historical tunings and just started working with things that I thought were interesting. I started using a lot of essentially open tunings. Also, in some parts of the zither, there might be two or three strings that are all tuned at the same note, so I started bringing that back to the guitar. For the last record and the stuff I'm working on now, I've been playing with a tuning where the bottom two strings are both tuned to F. I really like what it does.

The thing I always didn't like about the guitar is everyone plays the guitar. I used to go to guitar lessons in the early 90s and there'd be all these guys shredding in the guitar store, playing Metallica and Guns and Roses. I think from quite an early point I started making my own music to figure out how I could find other sounds on the guitar. So the zither also made me not see it as a guitar, but just an instrument that has six strings that you could fret. It was like meeting it for the first time again and feeling like you could play it in different places—you could strum on the neck, you could strum on the body. In the end, I don't feel like I'm doing anything revolutionary, but it definitely gave me a key to open up how I approached the guitar, and gave me a freedom about it. It also felt like coming full circle, seeing things like the banjo and the guitar, really brilliant instruments, and looking at them with new eyes.

When I played guitar in this band, I was often playing more of a supporting role, so I'd play things that would support the wider improvisation or composition. I think building zithers inspired me to sit down and really get to grips with what it would mean to play the guitar as a solo instrument. Both instruments also kind of feed off each other. The last couple records particularly are half guitar and half zither as the main composition instrument for each track. Now when I'm composing or working on new things, I think a lot about finding a balance. Playing live is a kind of shimmy between the two because they can talk to each other but also obviously do different things.

DF: Cool, that's really interesting. I also write in a number of open tunings and it can be so freeing, you can be guided by your ear more. Also the open resonance can be so expressive.

JD: Yeah, I think you start responding to it. I also played cello when I was in school, and some  aspects of classical instruction were hard for me. I always just really wanted to play. I always really liked making sounds and playing music. But I was always drawn to finding my own sounds and my own ways of making things. Standard tuning on the guitar is made so that you can play a lot of different scales and chords. It's to create this setup where there's a lot available to you, which some people use in a really interesting way. But it's also kind of predicated on this idea about mastery and learning scales. I was always doing things like taking random strings off of my guitar or tuning the whole guitar to one note just to see what it would do. I remember discovering artists like Sonic Youth and John Fahey when I was a teenager and realizing that none of that music was played in standard tuning. I had no idea why they did that or what that meant. I really liked Sonic Youth, but I always thought they were just out of tune. Then I found this website with catalogs of all of their guitars, where they would write the tune in on the back of the head. So like for whatever song they were going to play, he would just write the tuning on a piece of duct tape. I saw that and suddenly realized, oh, they're all tuned to actual notes. It blew my mind as an early guitar player. I've been using the same tuning now, the one with the two Fs, for over a year and mostly playing everything in that one tuning. It's exciting to think that I could change the tuning and write a whole new batch of stuff.

DF: For sure. How often when you are writing and recording music does one process influence the other? Do you have an order of operations? I'm sure some of your recordings are born out of improvisation. Do you also compose things and play with how to articulate them?

JD: I think it's different record to record. I made that record Moving as I was building up the zithers, and that was also the time I upgraded my recording setup and I could layer more than I used to be able to. I had always liked making things on a four track because it was quite crude, but then I started getting into this Hi-Fi layering possibility which kind of blew my mind. On Moving I would often start with an improvisation and then see if I could add things to it. Usually something would either come together quickly or I could see it wasn't going anywhere and I would just drop it. For that record I probably made five or six tracks for every song that's on it. I made a lot of things that didn't quite get to the place I wanted.

Then for the record after that, Stikling, I did a bunch of improv recordings in a church up in Sweden with an organ. I ended up dropping almost all of that material except for an organ drone. I recorded a piece on top of that with these waves of clarinet, took almost everything out except the clarinet, and then added some other things like a rhythm track and a bass track. Those pieces on Stikling were very much working into something, taking things away, and putting things back in. But there are also pieces on that record that came out of trying to play live more. I was developing things to play live and little melodies and patterns would come out, and I would go into the studio and try to record them.

Then for Sun Arcs, I think I knew my process a bit better. There was a period where we had to move out of the place where we live and I didn't have a studio most of the time. So I just had an acoustic guitar for a few weeks, living in a temporary place and playing an acoustic guitar on the couch. I was writing stuff on the guitar, sometimes very simple patterns, and then trying to blow it up in the recording process. With the guitar based pieces, I often have something that I've written and learned to flow with on the guitar, and then I take it into the studio and think about how I can expand or grow it out. But also on Sun Arcs there are a few tracks that are straight up live. I would get up in the morning when I was recording and start the day by recording two or three improv solo things on the zither. There are definitely a couple tracks on the record that are just that. Then another track, the last one on the record, is something I played live and knew well. It's often the case with the zither that I come up with some other part like on the cello or a drone or something else. There's an openness in the zither that I like to exploit. And it tends to work best if I can lose myself in it. I’m starting some new recordings now for stuff for next year and I’m really excited about them. I think every time I go into a new record, the process is more known to me, so I feel like I can get to the heart of the piece a little more quickly. Especially this time because I've been working with this band more and we've been playing together live. I think it's also forced me to externalize my process a bit. I'm not a trained musician. so I don't know how to notate and I've had to find a language for describing what I'm thinking about to them. It's been helpful to me too because I can better communicate with myself.

DF: That's really interesting. A lot of your recordings have a very natural feeling and are also quite intricate. I'm curious how those things come together.

JD: Even for the ones that are quite layered, I try to do each layer as a live take. So even though there's this layering, I want to keep the spontaneity and the warmth of performance. And not trying to make a perfectly manicured performance. I'm just interested in the ways you can use layering to mold and shape a performance in a way that is slightly different from what you could do in a live setting. There are definitely points where there's a funny emphasis on something. They're definitely not perfect, because I'm looking more for the feeling.

DF: That makes sense. You said you've been performing with Squares and Triangles more. How does performing by yourself in a solo setting like the one I saw you at differ from performing with a bigger group of musicians where the whole sound is fuller? I'm also curious how performing with other people has affected your songwriting.

JD: Yeah. In 2021 I started putting together a band here in Copenhagen to play the music from that Stikling record. I was interested in playing live more. I’d been making these compositions that were sort of turning into band music, but I was making them by myself. I wanted to try to see how I could play it live. I was fortunate enough that I'd done a lot of organizing here in Copenhagen. For the last five years I've gotten a lot of funding that you can get in Denmark and Scandinavia to do projects. I've done a lot of fundraising to organize concerts and residencies and different projects. I met a ton of musicians through doing that so I had a pretty extended network of people to kind of talk to. When I got a little bit of funding to do a concert in 2021, I just invited a group of four or five people that I thought were really great and we played some of the music and did a show together. It was really eye opening and kind of mind blowing for me, because I'd been making the music solo. Even though I had these compositions, I'd never heard them in the room, as a live piece of music. And the people I invited are super inventive, capable musicians, so they brought a lot of their own personality to it. It was a huge inspiration, and then I also realized I had to learn how to take on the role of being a sort of leader, in the sense that I needed to direct the band while letting people express themselves and come with their own ideas. 

In some of the Blue Lake tracks, sometimes there'll be a moment where I've layered a zither like eight times to create a big wall of sound. We obviously can't do that live—I’m playing with a cellist who can do all kinds of stuff, but she can't imitate eight cellos. So we have to talk and find a way to play it. Sometimes the shows are more improvisational, but the last few shows we did we just used the last couple of records as a setlist. We worked for a while to figure out how we could play them. They came up with their own kind of spin but it still felt like the music. We're gonna be doing some more band shows in the new year and I'm really excited to develop that. I'm definitely interested for the next record to still work with the solo process that I have, but also working with the band to harness some of the things that come out of playing with those guys.

It's very different from when I played with Squares and Triangles, because it was always a very non hierarchical band. It's five of us, and when we get together to play, everybody just plays, and we don't really talk about it. We’re five very different personalities and we're all interested in different sorts of music. It's almost like the music comes out of a meeting of our five personalities. When it works well, a lot of really surprising things come out. Sometimes in the beginning, somebody's playing something that sounds really awkward or ugly, but then someone joins in and this spark can happen. It’s really exciting. I learned a lot about playing in the moment and about what improvising means, playing with that band. But it was always just this merging of the five of us. Whereas with Blue Lake, I'm occupying this role that I've had to learn and grow into about how to direct and point it towards a destination, but also be open to what people can bring to it. I think the people in the band come up with really interesting ideas and ways of thinking about the compositions that are different from what I would do. 

When I'm recording I'm really open. For instance, I bought a saxophone this year and I've never had a saxophone lesson in my life. I've taught myself to play the clarinet reasonably well, but that’s the closest experience I have. I was doing some recording today and I was experimenting with trying to put some saxophone over it, and I might end up using it on the recording even though there were lots of points where my playing was really all over the place and not successful. I quite like that about the recording process. I can make mistakes. I can chase down things that are awkward or strange and they can teach me something. Whereas when we're all playing together I want to be sharp and rise to where the rest of the band is. So there are two quite different sensibilities, but I think they're both really healthy and productive.

There's also a logistical side. For some shows it's not possible for the whole band to come, either due to money or scheduling stuff. But I also really like playing solo shows. I think there's something meaningful about having some shows that are just me, focused more on the instrument. At the same time, there are a lot of pieces on the record that we can only play as a band. So I'm kind of just insisting that both of those things are Blue Lake. They're different sides of the project. I think there's something exciting about that.

DF: I think that makes sense. There are definitely other acts that started out more solo and evolved to incorporate different lineups of musicians at different times. Bon Iver comes to mind.

JD: Yeah I think it's a good way to keep it fresh. Working solo is exciting because you have all this control. I found a way of doing it that I find really interesting; I love to sit down and work on recordings. But collaborating can be a healthy way to open up new possibilities. If you're working with other people you naturally go to some new places. That's definitely important when you're making records, to be developing new ideas every time.

DF: Yeah I agree. When I’m alone I definitely feel uniquely liberated to explore and go down those rabbit holes. But the ideas you can get from playing with other musicians are so special. You mentioned solo stuff is an important part of the Blue Lake identity. One thing that really struck me about your performance was how sparse parts of it were, and the space that you use. You create these atmospheres where it doesn’t feel like notes have to play at given times; Sometimes things would just hang in space in a really interesting way. I'm curious, given that, why you don’t use effects pedals or processing on the sounds that you're producing. I noticed you had a freeze pedal and you would make drones which added a lot of texture, but that I think was pretty much it.

JD: Yeah that was the only one. I used to loop the guitar sometimes and I did it at one show in Copenhagen last year. It was fine, but I realized that part of why I made the zither was to get that kind of layering. I've done a lot of recordings where I've layered the guitar to create many overlapping like patterns, and part of making that instrument was so that I could do that live. So I felt like that was the feature that was interesting to explore. If you started looping or layering or using effects on the zither, then you could almost just be playing a guitar and stacking it. I felt like what was cool about that instrument is that I can play a lot of notes at once and create a big cloud of sound that can very quickly go down to almost nothing. It creates a dynamic that is really interesting and really useful. And then I decided that I was gonna play solo just to double down on being alone and use that as a strength.

That also means using silence and thinking about when you're filling it. I had crummy guitar amplifiers for forever and then a couple of years ago I bought a decent fender so that if I just wanted to play one note it would sound really good. I've also, not to criticize how anyone else makes things, but I've seen a lot of shows with people using sequencers and loopers. And I've seen really good shows that are made that way, but I thought it could be exciting to not have those things and live and die by the instrument.

I think it's also because I hang out in the scene in Copenhagen where a lot of the people are trained musicians. They'll take the stage with a saxophone or guitar and nothing else. I'm interested in very human and intimate performances. It’s what I like seeing in other people and I've been drawn to do that in my own thing. I think it's the strongest thing I can do, and if I started looping or layering things I would fear that the looping would dominate the situation. I also really love the dynamics when I'm playing with the band—we can play super quiet and super loud and reach all these different places dynamically. That's really fun for us to play with and it feels like it's fun for the audience.

An important part of things is also that the music is fun to play. I have a friend who was in quite a big band in Denmark when he was younger. They made an intricate studio record and played some gigs with a few thousand seats, and he said that he started to hate playing because he had to sit there and hit all these triggers and marks all the time. He'd really loved the studio process, but the live thing became almost a mechanical reproduction of what they'd done in the studio. Traveling and playing is a crazy process, and I like to hold on to the feeling that I'm doing something that I can really get into and appreciate in the moment. Then the process still has meaning.

DF: I feel like that can also lead to more spontaneity and make the moment that you're performing and the space you're in feel more special, because it's never going to be exactly that way again.

JD: I think so. When I lived in London, I saw a lot of people like Roscoe Mitchell, Ken Vandermark and Marisa Anderson, people who have amazing performances and very different sets from night to night. It's pretty exciting to look at music that way, and also to see someone like Roscoe Mitchell, who’s in his eighties, still really interested in his own music. I really love the recording process and making records, but I definitely think that playing live connects you to something else that only comes from playing. Like I was saying, the starting point for making the records is often sitting around playing the guitar at night. It's a kind of writing process, but it might be something like sitting with my kids on the couch and playing guitar, and ideas form through it. It's important for me to get really direct and enjoy playing the guitar. Ideas come out of it and I take them to the studio and shape and record them. But I just find it really fascinating to play the guitar and the zither. I feel like I could keep playing them forever and never run out of ideas or possibilities.

DF: That's great. You mentioned using silence which conjures to me the idea of negative space in visual art. I'm curious how your interest in the visual fields influences your approach and perspective on music.

JD: I think it does a lot. I made a lot of films and I was interested in a lot of North American filmmakers. People like Joyce Wheatland, Hollis Frampton and Michael Snow. Michael Snow is really interested in music, and made films that were full of ideas, but were also quite intense experiences, visually and sonically. There's a painter called Agnes Martin that I've always been interested in, who uses minimalism in a way, but it's also very handmade and has this really beautiful texture and poetry. One of the things that I found so appealing about fully switching to music was actually the nonverbal aspect of it. A lot of my favorite artworks are things that communicate through other means than text.

My wife is a sculptor, and a poet, and she also weaves. She started weaving seven or eight years ago, and she started making dyes for the threads she was using from plants. She was making her own dyes and weaving her own fabrics. I realized afterwards that that spirit of digging down into your own materials and inventing your own way of working was definitely an inspiration to me in terms of making the instruments. We live in a house and she has a studio where she weaves, and I see her studio and her making things a lot. I think because it's a very visual process, it's very apparent what she's making and what she's working on. That ambient feeling of being around that process definitely rubs off on me in some kind of way, which is probably quite important, although it's not something I usually think about consciously.

When I made a lot of visual art, sometimes I made things that had text or were a bit more conceptual. Then I realized that I was drawn to things that were more visceral and bodily. There are a lot of painters that I love that are more about color and shape and form. I think I was feeling like I was missing that in the visual art I was making, and that music was a way to access it. So art was both a big inspiration, but also something I had to take a break from to fully explore the music. But it's still inside me, because I approach thinking about projects in a way which still comes from that time as a visual artist. When I'm working with musicians and hanging out with them I can definitely tell that they had a different kind of training than I've had. They've learned composition, and when I'm playing the zither and the guitar they can tell by ear what key it's in. I never know what key anything is in, but I can figure it out with a tuner. So I feel like I'm coming from a different place and I've also tried to dig into that and use it as a strength. It can be a positive thing in the music.

DF: That makes sense. I know you studied philosophy and film; I also studied philosophy. I’m wondering if you still engage with that stuff and how it has affected you as an artist.

JD: It made a big impression on me. I think just grappling with those texts, learning to question how you think, and learning to see the world through different frames or philosophies was very important to me. My thesis was about phantom limbs, and I did research about the experience of the body and consciousness. I was very interested in what it meant to experience things. I think that was something I shared with a lot of those filmmakers I was interested in, thinking about film as an extended metaphor for being in the world.

That’s also why a big inspiration to me has always been kind of bad movies. I was ill last week and I spent some time indulging in some trashy eighties horror movies that I really love. They're a very strong experience, but I feel like the filmmakers don't even quite know what they're about. They're not necessarily well made, but at the same time, they can be quite beautiful and powerful. I used to love to go to the cinema and watch whatever was on, because I liked having that image there and being in that environment. I've often been more interested in trashy movies than super well made period dramas because I think there's something in those films that tells you something important that I can't really put into words.

I had a funny relationship with philosophy, because when I finished studying I kind of thought, why did I just study philosophy? It seemed like a weird thing to study if you weren't going to become an academic philosopher. But I think I just really like things about theory of knowledge and consciousness and perception, things that make you question what’s around you. I wasn’t trained to make music, and I often find myself grappling with the question of what even is music? How do you make it? Where does it come from? I can play open C on the piano, but it's not really music. It's a sound I'm making on an instrument. But what is music? I'm still, in a way, trying to figure that out for myself when I make things. There's things that I make that I don't put on records, even though I probably liked them in some way, but I feel like they don't fit into what needs to be on them. But yeah I think about those things a lot, how music can act as an expression of consciousness.

DF: That’s great. What varies between writing music in rural Sweden, as compared to Texas, or to Vermont or Copenhagen? Have you noticed that being in different spaces brings out different inclinations, sensibilities, or ways that you write music?

JD: Yeah. I’ve realized that all of the records have had a significant amount of music recorded up at that space in Sweden. I've tried to think about what it is, and I think partly it’s just that it's a place that I can go that’s not in a city. There's really nothing else there. All the other regular parts of my life aren't there either. So though it is nice, like you're in a forest, it's a bit like being in rural Michigan, it's not spectacular or anything. It's more just that it’s a place that's distinct from the normal day to day situation.

I also like to use the environment in the recordings. On that Moving record, I recorded some of the music outside where there's actually a lot of sound. I recorded the clarinet out in the forest where there were tons of birds chirping. I went around with the field recorder to get a recording of a woodpecker and used it as a kind of rhythm track. In a way that wasn't so much about nature, but more tuning into how much sound there was inside and outside. But it isn’t structured sound in the way that we all have in our day to day lives. I do freelance work and other things, so I can often go there for a week and just immerse myself in the music. I often get up early and just work all day and into the night because you can just be sitting in the music and kind of come and go. I think part of what that space does is provide this opportunity to be immersed. Also, up in Sweden, apart from the record collection in the house, there's not really much other music around. As a result, when I’m there I'm open to things like rubbing two sticks together or dragging a piece of metal through the forest—those semi non musical ideas pop up a bit more in that space.

But at the same time, the other half of the music has been made in Copenhagen, and that has also influenced things a lot in the sense that it's where I'm playing and seeing shows. Maybe also on the flip side, when I was making Sun Arcs in Copenhagen, I had to get the record finished to a deadline for the press stuff. There was a day where there was this brutal jackhammering sound outside, so I just recorded some DI electric piano because I didn't need a microphone and I had to get something done. I ended up using it. But those things are also important. Sometimes when I'm in Copenhagen, it's more like, “Okay, you have a week to kind of finish off this track.” It's a different mindset, but it's also kind of useful, because I'm not really looking to get lost in some utopian dream; I'm just trying to make spaces where the music becomes possible. I think it's also meaningful that the records have been made half and half between those two spaces. In a way they need both of those spaces to happen.

DF: That makes sense. What do you mean you're not trying to get lost in some musical utopia?

JD: I mean, that place in Sweden is really important to me, but I feel like when I talk about it to other people it can sound like I'm just sitting under a tree, staring at clouds and playing the guitar. Not that I think that’s a bad thing. And in any way I am just getting lost in the music like that. But there are also things on the record that are equally pastoral but were actually made in a little room in my house in Copenhagen. What I'm trying to disappear into more than anything are the instruments.

Being up in Sweden has taught me how to have relationships to things. When I was making the second and third records, I had a lot of stuff set up in the barn. It’s a very atmospheric space that gives you a lot of feeling around what you’re playing, and in a way helped me connect with the instrument. I think it's the kind of thing that after learning it, I could start to connect with it anywhere. What's exciting to me about the zither is it's quite enveloping—when I'm playing it, it's under me, and I'm using my whole body to play it. It creates this strong connection that for me is really powerful.

DF: That’s really cool. Can you talk a little bit about different festivals that you've organized?

I know you said you had an interest in live music at college back in the States, but I'm curious how it's manifested more recently. I know a bit about Andersabo and Polychrome and I'm curious how they came to be and how they fit into your musical identity.

JD: Yeah, the one in Andersabo is at the house in Sweden. I just started that with the idea that we could get funding to do some projects. I was new to living in Copenhagen and wanted to meet people. I didn't have big ambitions for it. The first year was 2016. I just got a little money and invited a bunch of people to play solo sets. It was a one day mini festival up in the barn. The barn is really beautiful, and I was able to bring together some really interesting people to play. I was also blown away that in Scandinavia I could get this funding. It meant that I could write to people whose music I was really excited about but I didn't really know.

Polychrome was a space that I'm actually in now, but I'm using it as my studio. We moved into a house which had a shop space and right before Covid got a large grant to do residencies, where I basically gave people a little bit of money to develop a project. Those are mostly Copenhagen based people because it was around the pandemic. But people would come and do a performance or record a record. Sometimes they would do stuff out in our garden. The project became a lot more about the audience; It was in Copenhagen, so we could easily get fifty or sixty people to turn up. At the place up in Sweden, we've done many great events there, and there are always some people who turn up, but it's kind of out in the middle of nowhere. We've definitely had good turnout, but it's hard to access a really big audience.

Regardless, the part I really like is to work with the artists. I really like to hang out with other artists and see how they work and see what they make. I like to be shown things that are different from what I would make. It teaches me a lot when I get exposed to stuff that I maybe wouldn't if I was just seeking things out as an audience member. When I'm organizing, I feel it's important to represent things that are outside my little world. So I've worked with stuff that's been challenging to me as well, and it was really rewarding and opened up my head a lot to different things.

DF: At those meetings, do you ever have time to actually write or record anything with the other artists? Or is it just a point of inspiration to carry with you?

JD: Usually when I’m doing the projects I try to just put on the hat of being the organizer and do what I can to support the other artists. But there are definitely cases where like six months later I've ended up playing a show with someone who performed at one of the events. Through doing those kinds of things you get to know each other, and sometimes it sparks ideas. For example, there's a duo, Sofie Birch and Johan Carøe, that did an album up in Andersabo. I didn't know them at all, but I really liked their music so I invited them to do a residency. They made a great record up there called Repair Techniques. Maybe a year later, they asked me to open for one of their concerts. I asked them to rework one of the tracks from Sun Arcs, which they're doing now. Those things are really cool, because I just invited Sofie and Johan because I thought they were doing something really interesting. I wasn't thinking beyond that. Then of course you get to know people and where they’re coming from, and you end up making connections and relationships through those things. I think they often work best when they happen on their own. When you work in this field, which really isn’t that big, it’s easy to get to know a lot of people after a few years, which can be very rewarding.

DF: That’s great. Last couple of questions. Looking to the future, the next chapter of Blue Lake.

What do you think the next few years will hold? I think you said you’re working on new material?

JD: Yeah. Next year I'm going to play a bit more internationally. Not a ton of stuff, but definitely more than I have previously. There'll be a decent amount of shows in Europe, then I'm going to play at South by Southwest. I'm going to try to book some southwest dates around that, and I'm interested in coming to the US maybe once or twice a year, to play in some different parts of the country. It was nice to come to New York and play in Philadelphia, because I got to meet a bunch of people that I've known from a distance, but hadn't actually met in person. So going forward I just want to meet people and play with people.

I'm also working on some different things for release, but everything's still coming together; I don't quite know when they're going to be done. I'm trying to lean into some of the writing and recording now. I always feel like when I'm gonna make a record, there's unfinished business from the last record that I want to keep working on. At the same time, there are always new ideas. I finished recording Sun Arcs a year ago, and since then I've been playing a lot and I developed a new instrument. There's been loads of input coming in. Making a record is always like having one foot in things that I've done before and one foot in things that feel really new and unknown. I'm definitely interested in that model of making records where the next one will have a relationship to the last one, but it'll also have some new elements. I'm just gonna try to enjoy that process and see what comes out.

DF: That’s exciting. You said you're going to try to come to the US more often. What does it feel like to grow up here, spend most of your time developing as a musician elsewhere, and now come home, in a sense, and play shows?

JD: In a funny way, it feels really familiar. I grew up in Dallas until I was a teenager and then I moved and went to high school in Europe. Then I moved back to Vermont for college. That was the last time I lived in the US. But during that time in Vermont, I was playing in bands, organizing shows, and I was really steeped in music. So in some ways coming back doesn’t feel so foreign. But I'm also aware that I've lived outside the US for a long time; I feel like a very American person culturally, but I haven't really had an adult life in America. So I have this dual relationship to things that I can definitely feel.

At the same time, I pay attention to a lot of American music. When I played in New York and Philadelphia, it was great seeing the other people play and hanging out with them. It meant a lot to me because I'd been connecting with those people from a distance for a while. It just made sense to be in that setting, so it feels like a priority to come play in the US. I feel connected to things there and I’m really curious about what's going on. There are a few little scenes sprinkled around Denmark, but it is a pretty small country. Whereas in the US, even just going from New York to Philadelphia felt like a big change in terms of what people were doing and paying attention to. And those two cities are pretty close to each other.

I also spent a lot of time when I was a kid out in the San Juan Mountains in New Mexico, and I would really love to revisit that landscape and play some music out there. I realize now that some of those vast landscapes had a big impact on me and how I think about things. We used to listen to music a lot in the car, and there's an experience of hearing the music in relation to those big landscapes. I guess a lot of people have that experience, but it was a big thing for me. So I'm definitely interested to go back and connect to some things there.

DF: That's great. I'm glad you'll be able to do that. Do you want to leave readers with any recommendations, be it music, film, or anything that you've been into recently that you think people should check out?

JD: Yeah, I’m thinking about what records I've absorbed this year that I keep coming back to. There are two, one is this record by Maxine Funke, a New Zealand singer songwriter. It’s called River Said and it’s a great record. It's sort of split—on the A side is more voice and guitar and the B side is more reverbed out, it's just one of those records you can play over and over again.

I also really responded to the Natural Information Society album. It's a big band led by Josh Abrams. The album is called Since Time Is Gravity. He plays this African instrument that’s a bit like a bass, but has a different percussive element. There's also percussion, reeds, horns and all kinds of stuff. It utilizes repetition and change and some things that are a bit like jazz and some things that are not like jazz. That record has been in my head a lot.

I've been rereading some of Ursula Le Guin’s Hain Novels, a series of speculative anthropological science fiction novels that I read a while ago. They're really fascinating

stories to use to sift through crisis and change and all these things that are going on in the world. I find her books are very creative, useful and productive.

DF: That’s great, excited to check it out. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this.

JD: No problem. Thanks, David.

Jason Dungan, photo by Alex Kozobolis.


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