As Complete Mountain Almanac, Rebekka Karijord and Jessica Dessner have written a song for every month of the year – with the aid of the latter’s notable siblings in our FEBRUARY 2023 issue of Uncut, available to buy here.
Jessica Dessner may be due some of the credit for the success of The National. “There’s a long tradition, from the time we were teenagers, of me playing music for my brothers that I think they should like,” says the poet, dancer, visual artist and sister to that band’s twin guitarists Bryce and Aaron. “I remember in early interviews they used to give credit to their punky older sister playing stuff, and my punky boyfriends coming around
to teach them to play drums.”
When Dessner began collaborating with Stockholm-based Norwegian singer and composer Rebekka Karijord, it was time for her to call in a return favour. “In 2018 we were all together at Aaron’s house for Christmas, and I said, ‘Listen, there’s this project I want to tell you about.’ I played a couple of demos and they both got ‘the look’. I know the look! In the end I said, ‘Would you guys want to be a part of it?’ It just happened organically. Also, there’s an element of big sister telling little brothers what to do! It’s rare nowadays that I do that, but if I can use it, I will…”
It’s easy to hear why the Dessner brothers got “the look”. Combining Jessica’s poetry with Karijord’s music and melodies, Complete Mountain Almanac is an intimate, immersive mix of folk, classical and chamber music. Its 12 songs, one for every month of the year, address decay and healing, both global and personal.
The project had a prolonged gestation. Friends since the 2000s, Karijord contacted Dessner in 2016 after struggling with the idea of writing “a climate change record. I thought it was going to be solely instrumental, but I felt it was too abstract, too big to grasp. I contacted Jessica and said, ‘Do you want to try to write something for this project?’ She said yes right away and we started emailing back and forth.”
Momentum then stalled while Dessner processed a breast cancer diagnosis. “Rebekka very gracefully left me alone for the most intensive part of that,” she says. “At some point, she sent me a little note to say that if I wanted to use the project to address what I was going through health-wise, she would be totally open to that. I couldn’t commit to anything, but I held that in mind.”
Eight months later, Karijord visited Dessner at her home in rural northern Italy. “Jessica handed me this 40-page manuscript called Complete Mountain Almanac and said, ‘It’s all yours.’ She was able to express exactly what I wanted to say but in a far more personal manner. There’s a synergy between the cancer in our natural world, our attack on ourselves, and the essence of a person going through a disease, the body attacking itself. She managed to tie those things together. I very freely took what stood out to me, then sent her demos.”
Once schedules aligned, the songs were recorded in Paris early in 2020, just before lockdown. Used to working alone, Karijord set aside her usual “control freakery”, apart from one rule: “I wanted that every song was made live with only me and the two brothers playing,” she says. Minimalist overdubs were added later, alongside string arrangements written by Bryce and performed by the Malmö Symphony Orchestra, “but the fundamentals should be live with all the flaws and love and edge. And I wanted to record it chronologically. ‘January’ is the first take we did in the studio together. That week was one of the most intense and inspiring I’ve ever had.”
Karijord is planning live shows with the twins, and she and Jessica are already discussing a new collaboration. “We’re talking about the next one,” says Dessner. “We need some time to let this one land, then we’ll see where we go.”
Complete Mountain Almanac is out on January 27 via Bella Union.