Manu Delago is an internationally renown composer and handpan player. His new album Environ Me is a unique, thought-provoking album loaded with meaning. Composed using Delago’s trademark percussive skills as well as experimental electronica and field recordings of both natural and industrial sounds, the album is a dynamic and poignant exploration of the world around us, driven by Delago’s creative spirit. IG caught up with Manu after the release of Environ Me to talk music, the environment and creativity in lockdown.
How did you get into music and why the handpan?
I grew up in a musical family and already got a drumkit when I was two years old. I later tried out the accordion, piano and guitar but as a teenager returned to the drums and percussion which have stayed with me ever since. The handpan came into my life in 2003 and felt like a great combination of all the instruments mentioned above. It felt very natural to me and also provided a great opportunity to play and write new music.
Environ Me is a brilliant album that stands up on its own, but it is actually part of a larger project involving a short film for every track. What made you feel this release should be a multi-media project?
Once I established the concept of a solo album including the environment, I knew that there had to be a visual component to it. I often think about the live show quite early on in the process of creating music, and I thought it would be too boring for the audience just to look at me playing for a whole concert so I wanted to create captivating videos that support the music. The pandemic then emptied my diary so I had a lot of time to work on those little films for a whole year.
It is a rare thing musically as it strikes me as the type of record that people could dance to one day or sit and listen deeply to another day. Did you have a plan for the style of music you wanted to bring to this record?
My plan was to include a lot of different aspects of our environment. Of course that included nature, but also industrial and urban elements. Those sounds and images often influenced where the music goes. Some tracks turned out very quiet, but for example Autoshred, a very industrial track inspired by traffic noise and waste disposal, had to be quite energetic with a strong beat. I think the album turned out quite diverse but with the red thread of the environment, which goes through everything.
As you’ve just spoken about, on the second half of the record there is a mix of natural/wildlife sounds and that sound like mechanical or industrial sounds. Could you tell us a little bit about the thinking behind that contrast?
I did not think of it as different parts, but since 14 years I’ve been living in both, urban London and the rural Alps, so maybe that’s audible in my music but I leave that judgement up to the listener. I was just trying to incorporate a wide range of strong environmental sounds and images.
Did the pandemic and the time and space the lockdowns created influence the making of Environ Me at all?
I had the idea for a solo album already before the pandemic but during the first lockdown I took a lot of walks on my own and lots of ideas for Environ Me were born during those walks. I started noticing the environment more consciously, and then having a second and third lockdown was the perfect opportunity for a lot of outdoor video shoots and recordings. I guess I tried to see new opportunities in the restrictions.
You’ve used recycled materials for some of your releases and released a single called ReCycling, which also involved you and your band cycling around Central Europe giving performances without leaving a carbon footprint. How important is environmentalism to you personally, and does it inspire or have an impact on your music?
It’s been important to me personally for a long time, but it was only a few years ago that I started communicating it as an artist. Originally I just wanted the music to speak for itself but I’ve learnt that as an artist in the public, I have a responsibility to communicate important messages to my audience. With recent projects like the ‘ReCycling Tour’ or ‘Trees for the Wood’ I’ve tried to not only speak and write about environmental issues, but also take action and be an example. But it’s impossible to be perfect, especially as an internationally touring musician.
You’re music is often experimental, with an array of sounds and styles. It’s both unique but sometimes sort of familiar as well. The diversity of your sound can make it difficult to pin down your influences (not a bad thing sometimes). Can you tell us about your influences, musical and otherwise?
I’m glad to hear that. I have been lucky to collaborate with a diverse range of artists which have certainly influenced who I am today. I’m also trying to keep my music listening habits quite broad, and keep up to date with new releases (which is tricky given the amounts of music being released every day).
You’ve worked with some amazing artists such as Bjork and Anoushka Shankar. Both of those artists appear to be strong, independent minded and incredibly creative talents. What’s it like collaborating with them and what did you take away from those experiences?
I’ve learnt a lot from being a so-called sideman in various projects. Of course artistically it’s interesting watching other people’s music closely but also from a social and personal angle, it’s been great to see how they build and lead a team around them.
Obviously we’ve just talked about some of the incredible collaborations you’ve been involved in. We could add Olafur Arnalds and the London Symphony Orchestra to that list. Those artists aside, if you could collaborate with any artist or band (past or present) who would it be and why?
Oh wow, there are so many I would love to work with and I don’t know where to start. Maybe I’ll just mention some that are still alive, which could increase my chances: James Blake, Beyonce, Radiohead, Bon Iver, Daughter, Nils Frahm, Sufjan Stevens and many more…
A couple of quick fire questions for you.
Best gig you’ve any been to?
Meute at Womad Festival 2019
Favourite album of all time?
Bloodsugarsexmagik – Red Hot Chili Peppers
Favourite film of all time?
I don’t reallly have a favourite film I’m afraid
Favourite book of all time?
Sapiens – Yuval Noah Harari
Tell us something unrelated to any of the previous questions in this interview?
A day without beer is like a day without wine. But I don’t drink alcohol.