On its own, Zomes’ new album, Near Unison, is a thing of undeniable beauty, care and intelligence. Talk to band members Asa Osborne or Hanna Olivegren, though, and they’ll say it’s also an optimal representation of their unusual and evolving friendship.
He’s from Baltimore and is in his early 50s. She’s from Stockholm, Sweden, and is in her late 20s. For a long time, Zomes was his solo project. She first joined him on 2013’s Time Was, but looking back, that album was more a proof of concept — a long hello. This time around, they spent several weeks in the fall of 2014 working in a little studio in his home, melding his minimalist, electric-organ-based post-punk tracks with her well-schooled and frequently wordless melodies.
“We knew we wanted to make our own record this time, and there was no reason to do anything other than just what we wanted to do,” says Osborne, known as the guitarist for Baltimore legends Lungfish. He brings that band’s repetitive, almost meditative power into Zomes. “We felt no rush — we could have meals around recording, and step outside, and really use a clear-minded way to make music.”
The results can be instantly appealing (the odd, slightly bluesy sweetness of “Beckoning Breeze” and the more ethereal “General Wizard”), pleasantly puzzling (“Simian Mother,” where Olivegren’s vocals swerve into almost atonal improvisations) or coolly pastoral (pretty much anything she sings in Swedish). The album was released Tuesday via the duo’s Near Unison imprint, with distribution through Dischord Records. Engineer Craig Bowen helped them record it, and Heba Kedry mastered it.
Any rush to make Time Was stemmed from the way they first connected — during a chance encounter in 2012 at a music festival in Sweden — and their desire to quickly capitalize on their shared energy. For that record, she made a brief visit to the U.S.
“We talk about heavy issues, and we have things going on in our lives that are tough, but music is where there’s no reason for any strain.” —Asa Osborne of Zomes
For Near Unison, however, they were able to have far more conversations about craft and purpose. Olivegren, who studied at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm, doesn’t let her academic musical training dominate the process, Osborne says.
“In my approach, I’m definitely unschooled, I can’t read music — wish I could — but just going on feeling, I think, is where we connect,” Osborne says. “Certainly you can be so trained that maybe your feeling is constricted or something, but I think with Hanna, she has so much emotion and power, and joy with life, that I learn from her energy more than her background and training.”
Olivegren says she instantly recognized that Osborne was a “pure spirit” after first meeting him during the Perspectives Festival in 2012. She’d never heard Zomes before; he invited her to his performance.
“I had to work that night, but I got my friend to take my shift so that I could go, and I didn’t know what it was going to be at all,” she says. “And I came in and I sat down on the floor, and he played, and I was just like, ‘Wow.'”
Osborne says he’s had some similarly frictionless experiences making music in the past, but it’s generally “more scattered and loaded when you’re working with four people, and everyone’s trying to always to understand each other and appreciate where each other is coming from.”
Zomes, as a duo, is on “another level,” Osborne says.
“I don’t think you need strife and confrontation to make good work, necessarily. I mean, in my life now, I’d much rather it be pleasant — and still deep,” Osborne says. “We talk about heavy issues, and we have things going on in our lives that are tough, but music is where there’s no reason for any strain. If there were strain, we wouldn’t do it.”
“I was standing at [Penn] Station in Baltimore, and I was like, ‘OK, I’m just going to make a record with this man I’ve met two times, in a city where I’ve never been before.” —Hanna Olivegren of Zomes
Getting to this point took a leap of faith on Olivegren’s part. She looks back on the trip to the U.S. to record Time Was, and she remembers being a little disoriented.
“I was standing at [Penn] Station in Baltimore, and I was like, ‘OK, I’m just going to like, make a record with this man I’ve met two times, in a city where I’ve never been before,'” she says.
But the Charm City is now a second home not only because of her friendship with Osborne — “it feels like we must have known each other for a long time in our past lives,” she says — but also for the way she’s connected with the city.
“Stockholm is great for music, but I just think that I found persons here to collaborate with in a way that I haven’t really found there,” she says. “So it just makes sense to be closer to this … and also I went to so many schools in Sweden, and maybe felt like I got stuck in a box of what to be or not to be. It felt pretty good to get away from that.”
Baltimore seems “really refreshing” for Olivegren, Osborne says. “She came here for us to make music, but it’s grown. She just resonates here. You either like a place or you don’t, and she likes it here.”
Despite Olivegren’s status as a foreigner, listeners shouldn’t read too far into the cover image for Near Unison, say both members of the band. The photo of a person in an alien mask under a heavy cloak was just the result of some improvising, they say.
“For awhile, we were just like, ‘Are we really gonna have this as the cover?’ It’s pretty, like … it’s intense,” Olivegren says. “And then we just couldn’t go with any other idea … because we also couldn’t stop looking at it.”
Photo: Thrill Jockey