We had an opportunity to chat with Kiernan Tollefson last fall. He is a thoughtful artist who tells stories through instrumental music. He has a new album coming out on May 13 – The Witching Hour. It’s haunting and beautiful. We were delighted to get insight into the album by asking him a few questions. His perspective is refreshing and the stories are at times chilling!
Q: You are an amazing musician it seems like part of the reason is that you do (almost) as much research as original playing. Last time we spoke you introduced us to Billy McLaughlin; are there any new/other influences in the current music?
Oh definitely. One player that I have been loving is Alan Gogoll. He is a Tasmanian guitarist and has been playing for years. If you go watch him, you will not believe your eyes or ears. I would have to say that he is the best acoustic guitarist in the world right now. At first, he was honestly frustrating to watch because sometimes you see someone doing something so well and it intimidates you to the point of wanting to quit. Once I got over that, I was able to analyze his playing and borrow some of his techniques. He is one of those guitarists who is the perfect blend of technical skill and inspired, unique playing. Nearly every guitarist who I see on social media these days is in it for the views with 15 seconds of percussive, technical playing. That is something I do not enjoy at all. That is music for the sake of music. I believe that music has to come from somewhere deep in your soul so it can help the people who listen to it. Alan’s music does that for me.
Another artist who I have recently gotten into goes by the pseudonym of Black Hill. This is an electric guitarist who creates more of an ethereal soundscape. That is something I am hoping to try and create if I want a change from the acoustic guitar.
As for artists who I drew a lot of inspiration for with this album, there are a few key ones. The first is the composer John Williams. Now I know he is not a guitarist, but his ability to bring exactly what is needed for a song and fit a mood or a story is impeccable. I believe he is the greatest musical mind alive. He always leaves you breathless and forces you to expect the unexpected. How he inspired me with this album was by his strong use of themes. Listening to the entire score of a movie composed by him, you find some of the same little melodies that recur. That is something I tried to emulate. My album is dark and I wanted something to be familiar and give hope.
The other artist that inspired me a lot was Andrei Krylov. He is a Russian classical guitarist. His songs are very medieval sounding and just so much fun to listen to. The mood of many of his songs were something I tried to capture. Music for longing of a time gone by that nobody alive ever knew but could only dream of.
Q: You write songs that tell stories without lyrics, which means interpretation is left to the listener. Are there stories (or even Cliff Notes or hints that you could share for some key songs) behind some of the new songs that? One I’d really like to know more about is Unborn. There is a sense of waiting, not even anticipation, but waiting as if in a waiting room, that gives way to a thunderstorm.
Like you say, most of these songs are left up to interpretation but I can give you my view on a few of my favorites.
“Unborn” is about the start of life. Before a child is born there is so much potential – for good or evil. I tried to capture the anticipation of a parent with the reality of knowing they are bringing a child in a cursed world. The thunderstorm is that realization.
“Will Tomorrow Save Me?” is another one of my favorites. It is about the monotony of daily life and how many people feel stuck. I think everyone alive at some point will face the reality that the human experience is filled with seemingly inescapable woes. These surround us so much that solace from them is not common. This song is for anyone stuck in depression or terrible circumstances hoping that tomorrow will be the day that they finally escape.
“All are Dealt” is a song about looking at your life and realizing the hand you have been dealt is the one that you are stuck with. You can still change your future, but you have to overcome your circumstances first and wrestle with your past. This is really what the album is all about. We have all been dealt the hand of living in an evil world. There are endless trials we have to face but in every experience and song there is some hope.
Q: That storm seems to resurface in Different Eternities – is there a connection?
Yeah there is definitely a connection. These two are the bookends of the album and I wanted all the other songs to be contained in them. While “Unborn” is a story about the beginning of life, “Different Eternities” is about the end of life on this earth. I believe that people go to one of two different places when they die – heaven or hell. I love this song because of the intensity of it. Eternity is permanent and not something to be taken lightly which is why I wanted this to be the last song on the album. I want people to listen and reflect on the direction of their life and who or what they trust in. I have a hard time deciding if this song sounds gloomy and sad or bright and hopeful – I suppose that is dependent on where the listener feels like they are at in life.
Q: How do you get the unique sound of Cat and Crow? It sounds like the music is being played backwards. It sounds very Old World and reminds me of a church in Ireland (Christchurch) where you can see a cat and rat mummified in the organ pipe. Obviously, the name of the songs helped with my interpretation, but there’s also sense of constrained chaos.
It was a complete accident. I was trying to get a small effect added onto my song “Stealing the Humanity” and accidentally reversed it. I thought it sounded incredibly haunting. There is not much space to catch your breath because the notes are always swelling and never soft.
As to what the song is about, it is kind of a freaky story. I live out quite a ways with nothing but woods and a few houses. About 5 years ago I was out by a frozen lake about a mile behind my house with my dog when I came across something that didn’t quite look right. I see this weird looking stick coming out of the snow and as I lift, an entire frozen, black cat comes out of the snow. I drop it and back up only to stumble across a frozen crow only a few feet away. I’m not a superstitious person but coming across two frozen animals associated with witches is something that scared me to death. I ran so fast back home. The demonic realm is real but in the western world we do not often see the physical embodiment of it. I can’t say that was something demonic, but I was not taking any chances. That unease and supernatural is what this song is about.
Q: The Witching Hour sounds like a celebration. Can you tell us more about the inspiration behind it?
It was certainly inspired by that supernatural event that I just described. More than that, it is a response to it. When faced with evil, do we cower in fear or do we overcome? This song is about the overcoming. That is another theme throughout the album. Every single song has some little glimmers of hope that are representing people facing any kind of evil in their life. They may not always be able to fully conquer that evil in this life, but looking death, the supernatural, disease, or depression, in the face and starting down that path is an incredible thing that should be celebrated. The Witching Hour is the name of the album because I feel that song is the most hopeful.
Q: Will you be playing any live shows to celebrate the new collection?
I am trying to get out this summer a lot to play some shows. Creating the album as an independent artist is a lot of fun because I have complete creative control but it is extremely time consuming. I have put so much time into recording, marketing, and networking after my 9-5 that I want to just get back to what I believe is the foundation of music – helping people by connecting with them through music. Live shows are a great way to do this.