Norman Palm is a musician that plays above the standard repertoire and skillset of a musician. His mixed talents and his background as a Graphic Designer create a musical appearance of it’s own.
His melodies and songs feature an innovative fusion of music and mixed media. He has wrote and composed a number of musical pieces specifically for his diploma project, each of which were then included within a self-created, original piece of artwork: A musical book that combines Norman’s different creative disciplines.
His abilities and talents range from different aspects of music production, publishing as well as Graphic Design. He even worked as a music journalist for a while. All these influences help him today to present himself as universal person who enjoys to play and produce music for a living.
Norman Palm walks us through his journey of how he became a musician, made his way to Berlin and tells the reasons for his periodic escapes to Mexico City.
During the few hours we spent with Norman, he took us from his home in the neighbourhood close to Prenzlauer Allee to his nearby studio, where he is currently working on a new project with a friend of his. The video documenation also includes a recent live performance at Berlin’s Frannz Club and the song ‘Easy’.
We took a look at your website and it looks really well designed. Did you take care of this yourself?
Yes, I actually did. And it really wasn’t all that difficult, because it is all based on Indexhibit. I do alot myself, even some of the press picture I shot of myself. Regarding the concept, I was really trying to not have it all look like my recent album and give it more of a timeless and simple look. The web is so full of standardised layouts and frames like myspace and all that, that it is nice to have your own space which you are fully in control of.
Although we’re interviewing you in English, you are not an english native…
No, I’m from Germany. Born and raised in Niedersachsen, up in the north. I studied visual communication in Paris and Berlin-Weissensee. But besides having moved to Paris for a while, I have lived in Berlin for 10 years now, and actually 10 years in this apartment. Living in Berlin never felt too much like Germany though…
Do you keep a good relationship with Paris?
Sure, I really like the French and I especially love Paris. At first my French didn’t take me much further than ordering food in a café and reading the menue, but now it’s a lot better. Also it feels like the Frenchman is finally okay with speaking some English. Lots of my friends still live there and I pay them a visit now and then.
Having lived here for 10 years now, you probably know the city pretty well. What characteristics do you prefer about this city?
That’s always a big question here in Berlin. I guess I like that it’s cheap and relaxed otherwise I couldn’t do what I’m doing. Every city has it’s pros and cons, obviously November and December in Berlin are not that nice. But when the weather is bad outside, as a musician, you have enough time to stay at home or in the studio. For an artist coming to Berlin, it’s probably mostly economic factors in the beginning and then turns into a longer love affair. Sometimes I’m missing the feeling of a big city in Berlin, as it is very slow and you tend to see very few people out on the streets at night. No crowded and packed sidewalks like Paris or New York.
Why do you think that is?
It’s because the city has such a huge extension and the centers are widespread. There is no real center, where everything gathers. Also Berliners have nice and big apartments because the rents are so low, so they probably love beeing at home!
Do you keep good connection to other musicians/artists in Berlin?
Yeah. I once hooked up with a bunch of Finns and produced some of my songs with them. My surroundings and friends here in Berlin are quite international, not so many Germans really. I met the Finnish guys back in Paris and after a while they moved here. So we made the connection in Paris, actually. They were very much into electronic music so it was a great energy and a funny mix of musical influences that I worked with from the beginning.
How did you become a musician yourself?
There is not a long hard road I took to become a musician, it really just happened. I always played and loved music and then at some point started to produce and release some records. The first singles were pressed in a very small number, but it worked well and grew from there, I have to say. I learned to play the guitar and cello when I was a kid, but I never put much energy in perfectionizing my technical skills. After putting out the first songs and having people liking them I just kept going, like anyone would when there’s some small success to begin with, I guess.
Were your parents musically involved?
Kind of… My dad plays the guitar and I remember singing with him as a kid.
Do you write your own songs?
Yes, I basically write everything myself. Except for the two obvious cover songs, that were came out as my very first single.
In the beginning, when you started, you took care of the distribution and promotion by yourself. How did this work? Tell us a little bit about the process of getting recognition..
When I recorded the two covers songs we pressed some vinyl singles of it and I had friends who just started a record lable at the time which I joined shortly after. The biggest challenge was to finance the pressings. Basically, we threw our money together to get the first copies out and the we started to sell them on the web. But we had so few copies of the singles, that I just selected a few radio stations and sent them over. Some of them played it straight away, which was really strange for me. I think it was Motor FM, Radio Eins and Radio Fritz in Berlin, who were some of the first ones to get copies of the vinyls. And FM4 in Vienna, so I got a lot of requests from Austria all of a sudden. That was when I didn’t really consider myself a musician yet, it felt pretty funny back then. At some point there was some mini blog hype about those covers, too.
So, you already took the chance to promote and distribute your music online?
Yeah, I had a myspace profile back then, that gave me the chance to put out new tracks and make people listen to them. Obviously, today, there are many more options of promoting songs and keeping contact to your listeners, it really became quite convenient for independent music makers.
Looking back, would you have done anything different in that process?
No, not really. Of course, there were decisions that I probably shouldn’t have taken looking back. But I always regarded it as a learning process and you learn from the things that you maybe did wrong in the beginning. I did a lot of things myself, so I didn’t do everything right, of course. Now, today, I have a great lable and good people doing promotional and administrative work for me, which is great. But, as I said, in the beginning I did all that stuff like recordings, copyrights issues, royalties, pressing of vinyls etc. by myself which gave me a great insight in the different steps of the process. By now, I know what I want and how things work. After all, it’s probably easier for me today to make decisions on my own and still have the support of a music lable behind me.
Do you have day to day inspirations that help you to come up with ideas for songs?
There are not too many inspirations or influences from outside. It’s not that I read a poem or book and be like “Wow, here is a great idea for my next song”. It’s not like that, but it’s also really hard to explain. It’s pretty spontaneous. I mostly sit down on a song and work it out from beginning to end. There are not many songs that I work on for a long time.
Are you creative in terms of writing and putting words together?
I hope so. I used to write my own press releases by myself and worked as a music journalist for a little a while. Regarding the songwriting, it is important for me to accept, that English, even though it speak it more than German in my daily life, is not my native language. So, I got to know my limits as a non-native, but I figured out that simple can be charming, too.
Is Norman Palm your real name?
Oh, yes, it is. A lot of people ask me that and it’s always funny for me, because it has always been my name and it seems totally normal to me. But since I’m a musician, people tend to think I came up with that name as my artist name. Before nobody said “hey.. crazy name you have”.
You sometimes live in Mexico City. How did that come about?
My girlfriend lives there and I travel there quiet a lot. I just change my location, not only for holidays, I do quite some work there, too.
Previously, besides your own songwriting, you covered songs like “Boys don’t cry” and “Girls just wanna have fun”. How did these ideas grow and how did you approach these two cover songs?
The idea, from the beginning, was, to have both of these songs released together, because I wanted to have a record that has one side for the girls and one side for the boys. Also, if you look at the design, the one side is pink and the other one is kept in blue. Both songs have somewhat desperate lyrics, although they are happy songs that people dance and party to, which is a bit paradox. I thought the mix of genders is really interesting and for me it really was kind of a gender study in pop music to put a new face on these songs and dig out the subtext.
So you really put a deeper focus on the actual lyrics of the songs?
Well, “Boys don’t cry” deals with a guy who loses his girlfriend, because he is not allowed to show any emotions. In the song “Girls just wanna have fun”, there is this one line which says “…when the working day is done”, which along the way limits their fun quite sadly. So I picked some of these lyrics and created a general, really slow atmosphere for my covers out of this. Lots of people like them, because I ironically exaggerated the sadness of these songs to work out this melancholy I saw in them.
Covering songs is a way of curating music in a new context. What do you think about the curation of old songs that have been around for a while?
The curating part is really interesting to me, because a lot of people do covers that don’t really put the music into a new context and they rather just strap their own sound or idea over it. That’s not what curating music means to me. When you do a cover, it depends on how deep you want to involve yourself in the piece of music that has been there and in what sense can you transform the existing into a context that makes new sense and maybe expands the power of these songs and gives the audience a new experience. Of course, there is an advantage from a marketing and strategic point of view to take something that already reached a certain momentum of popularity, but at the same time, most covers I’ve listened to from pop bands are just cheap and meaningless reproductions of sounds and melodies that lack own character. Especially when the songs are that iconic like “Boys don’t cry”, it simply doesn’t make any sense to me, to just play them again with the sound they have – and been successful with – for ages.
And then you started to work on a book?
The book started when I was in artschool and it was my final project. I wanted to summarize all my creative disciplines in one piece of work. For example, I gathered experiences in drawing, typography and photography and thought it would be a good idea to put all these ideas and influences in one book. I already had some songs recorded and for these songs I came up with visual correspondents. For me, it was really a project of visual communication and I basically transposed the songs and lyrics into the visuals for the book. This book was then released by our small label.
From a perspective of a graphic designer, you basically have the ability to do all of your visuals by yourself, right?
I do a lot of my own stuff, but at some point it became a bit too easy. You easily get around all the obstacles that might be worth conquering. Also I enjoy to see what other people think and how they interpret my work. So, for one of the new songs, for example, Frank Hoehne made a video and two friends of mine from Paris came up with the art work of the record. I felt that after this mega book project someone else should do the cover…
You try to put a slightly different twist to the songs for your live shows. How do you approach these small changes and how do you prepare for these gigs?
I play my live performances with two finnish friends of mine (Janne Lounatvuori/keyboards and Obi Blanche/guitar). Janne is playing all the key instruments, he is also a big collector of old instruments especially synthesizers. When the two of us first played together, it was almost like putting a comedy show together, because I was mostly playing guitar and singing and he mixed it up with all these small instruments and weird sounds. Now we also have Obi Blanche on our band, who is an electronic musician by himself. He is an electric guitar player, but also masters all the electronic things like samplers etc. It’s kind of a weird set up of a band, but it works really well. So we started rehearsing the songs, went on tour and played gigs and we always thought it’s just more fun to approach some gigs differently than others. Sometimes we even get into kind of a rave and techno atmosphere, which is probably surprising for people, but positively, I hope.
Norman Palm as an artist is not only about music, what are your other disciplines or influences?
My visual work is my main other influence, I would say. I never found a reason of separating my music from my other activities too much. On my website you can also find photos, drawings and other work that I have done, for example. I just found it more interesting to be more of a universal person than just another perfectly genred band you can put in one of the boxes. It’s just a bigger picture of me as a person and not a classic streamlined profile of a musician.
How is the Internet and new online channels changing the way of distributing music?
It’s getting so much easier to get access music, I would say. Before all these platforms and channels on the web came up, it wouldn’t have been that easy for me to start something by myself. For example, the book I previously mentioned: I just put it out there on my website and people could see it, could even tell me their opinion about it and could eventually buy it right there. There was no company or press agency behind it. I think the internet works so much faster and you have more space to promote music and all aspects surrounding the music. It also goes on your nerves of course, because you easily discover a new good band every day, that will eat up your time.
What’s coming up for you as an artist?
The new album “Shore to Shore” that came out in Germany already and will be released internationally in Februar 2011. We’re playing shows again around that date, we will start of with Eurosonic Festival in Holland, then we’ll play at SXSW Festival in Texas and follow up with our own European tour. So that will keep me busy for a while. I also just started a new more electronic project with Ville Haimala from Renaissance Man who you can see in the video. That means a totally new way of working which i enjoyed a lot during the last months.
If you enjoy the music and appearance of Norman Palm, you should take a closer look at his website and scroll through all the other information you can find there. Make sure you visit a venue near you, when Norman is in town and maybe have a chat with him.
Interview: Tim Seifert
Photography: Philipp Langenheim
Video: Marcus Werner