[Cover photo credit to Amanda Gylling]
Plàsi, which is the moniker for the often reflective and atmospheric work of Mikael Bitzarakis, has recently released the LP Foreign Sea via Nettwerk Records. If you’re a Grey’s Anatomy fan, you will have recently heard one of the album’s most intricate songs, “Far From Home”. The title for the album is more than just a poetic idea, but drives the “semi concept album”, and references a conceptual space where Bitzarakis found himself working and writing during the extreme conditions of the past two years. It was the first time he’s ever needed such an imagined zone for working.
Usually one to travel extensively between his two native lands of Sweden and Greece, he found himself instead confined to his home in Copenhagen, Denmark, and like the rest of the world, forced to find new ways to keep busy and focused. Part of that meant finding ways to stay happy, too, and he found that through songwriting. The result, after severe Production challenges brought on by travel bans, has been Foreign Sea. Bitzarakis has specifically chosen to represent the moods and feelings of his experiences of 2020 and 2021 in this new collection, seeing this time as unique and unprecedented and therefore worthy of creative attention. I spoke with Mikael Bitzarakis about the development of Foreign Sea, the making of recent videos, and how his songs handle challenging themes drawn from life while still keeping us chasing the sun when we can.
Hannah Means-Shannon: When you are able to do live shows, what is your set up like?
Mikael Bitzarakis: I did a few gigs in Stockholm where I lived at the time, but back in 2018, I started doing some showcase festivals. Then I usually had my Producer with me, Linus, to play guitar with me. And I used to have my sister as a second voice, as well, because I think that’s really important to my music. Then I shifted a bit and my second Producer, Johannes, started playing keys, so we started playing venues that required a little bit more. We’ve been a trio of people playing instruments and that has taken us quite far. You can do a lot with three people. If the person who plays guitar also plays the stomp box, or a bass drum, that helps. You can experiment a lot.
Of course, traveling with a large group of people requires more of everything, so we’ve tried to keep it down to three of us. I either play that way or alone. Now, on our upcoming tour, which has been postponed due to Covid two times, I had planned to play together with an Icelandic artist, Axel Flovent, who is another Nettwerk artist. We planned to tour together and bring our bands together. Now, this tour that will happen in September will range from quite a small set up, to quite a big one, with a shared five-person band behind us. We really wanted to do something together and see what that brings, from an artistic perspective, as well as for the audience. It’s quite rare to see co-headliners. We even released a song together in 2021.
HMS: That’s a very hopeful story, since it shows that people can work together to do cool things. When you first started booking this tour, that’s been rescheduled twice, were you planning on playing your previous EP? I don’t think you’ve had a chance to play that one yet.
MB: Yes, the previous EP is an example of one that never got a chance to tour, with its merch. It’s crazy. That was the one that experienced the consequences of Covid. Where I Belong was written in a normal world, but could never tour. Foreign Sea was written and Produced during Covid, which brought different challenges.
HMS: As a sidenote, I noticed that you produced a vinyl record with an EP on each side, which I thought was a great idea.
MB: I got the idea because I had never done a vinyl for the Mystery EP, so it occurred to me to put an EP on each side. I thought, why not? But that’s one I really look forward to showing to people when we go out on tour, since it was created, but I haven’t had a chance to take it out on tour yet. The vinyl for Foreign Sea has actually been delayed, but now it will arrive in time for the September tour, which is the only positive thing I can see in the postponement. I think it makes a difference to have LPs and CDs with you on tour, and you can sell them online too. But I really hope I can get out and play, because that’s where the merch really belongs, at a live gig where people can take it home as a memory.
HMS: I know there’s a conceptual aspect to the album, Foreign Sea. Have you ever worked with a concept for an album before, or was this just something that happened naturally when working on this collection?
MB: I had not really worked with a concept in this way before. Usually, I don’t have to come up with inspirational space in this way. You felt, during this time when writing, that you didn’t have as much inspirational input from your surroundings. You kind of had to be creative with yourself to make your environment spark inspiration, and go through your own memories. I often go back in time into my memories and find stories there. I don’t always write in real time about things that are happening around me, though some people do that. But with this as a concept, I was able to find the red thread running between the tracks.
Even if they tell stories, they are often a reflection of the times including where we are now and what is happening around us. The idea behind Foreign Sea, as a title, sums things up. It sounded like an album title to me, but it also introduces the album. Lyrically, it feels like place I’ve been in during the past year. So, yes, I’ve gone into my memories before, but not for an entire album. And I’ve never written in this environment. I doubt it will ever happen again, since we’ve been living in times where we couldn’t leave our countries or even our neighborhoods. It was a unique position to be in as an artist and a songwriter, also lacking the inspiration from playing live. It was actually something special that I wanted to preserve in album-form.
HMS: It’s great that you turned those limitations into such a positive thing.
MB: Obviously, I managed to create in this environment, and I’m happy that I managed to do that. But since it was such a different environment, every moment reflected what was going on around us. It was important for me to lyrically have that there in the songs because a year from now, I wouldn’t have felt it so strongly anymore.
HMS: I can see that, as an artist, there’s something authentic about capturing it in real time. Otherwise, those impressions just wash away over time.
MB: Some people create fiction, even, but I still think that even so, your fiction is affected by the time you are living in. This album is partly fictional in its own way, but it’s still a reflection of where we have been.
HMS: From what I’ve heard on this album, there’s a lot of positivity, but there’s also a lot of empathy and outreach. There is the flavor of harsher or harder themes at times, too. You haven’t just left them out in the interest of being positive for the audience.
MB: Exactly, that’s a good summary. As I’ve said before, I think during this time without inspiration, you needed to recreate memories to make yourself happy. Many people were trying to do things to make themselves happy during lockdown, but one example from my life was to write a happy song, or even just realize how small things could make me happy. For example, “Chasing the Sun” is based on a real experience during lockdown. When you look at the lyrics, it may seem silly, but when I wrote it, I found it so fascinating that we were literally driving for an hour or two around Copenhagen just to try to find a bit of sunlight because it was the middle of the winter.
It was so dark and during lockdown. That day, we reached the sun by the end of the day, and it made us so happy. I don’t think it would have made us so happy if we weren’t in lockdown. That feeling is very common in Scandinavia because of the constant darkness in winter, but the level we felt during lockdown was insane, and it was worth a song. It was a way of trying to be positive. It reflected that feeling of happiness.
Some songs touch on harder topics, like “14 Days”. “14 Days” was a phrase that we heard many times at the beginning of the pandemic. If you had arrived somewhere, you couldn’t see anyone for 14 days. If you were coming to see family, you first had to isolate for 14 days. But I use it in the song in a symbolic way to explain that it was now so hard to meet with people, whereas before you always took for granted that you could meet. That touches upon the sad things.
It leads up to songs that question what is going on in our world, like the last track, “Until Midnight”. It talks about freedom, and the definition of freedom, as well asking who can change that and to what extent it can be changed. I’m half Greek, and when I was down in Greece, the restrictions were very different from Denmark. At some points, they couldn’t go out after 5pm. This is the country where democracy was founded. You have to wonder where the limits are. Without becoming political, I explained how I thought that had affected people in the song. It’s very broad, but I think almost every song on the album has some connection to this time when it was written.
HMS: Just so you know, “Chasing the Sun” is still happening. I can totally understand that. In the Northeastern US, we’ve had a lot of snowstorms close together. I recently went out driving for two hours just to be in the sunlight on the one clear day that come along. The lyric video for that song is actually really beautiful, too.
MB: That one turned out better than I expected, with a bit of a story to it.
HMS: Your music videos, generally, seem to tap into natural environments. Is that a choice?
MB: Almost every time, when I’m asked about visuals for my music, I seem to see nature. When I listen to my music, or perhaps any music, I see a combination of a mood and a landscape, though a landscape often creates a mood. You can find it all in nature, from mystery, to happiness, to sadness, to excitement. I think that’s why it’s so easy to describe a feeling or mood through picturing a landscape. It can mean so many things. I also don’t want to be too clear about things or push things on people. I want to keep the openness for interpretation.
HMS: You have some more formal videos out for “Foreign Sea” and “How Do You Know”. With “Foreign Sea”, we have plenty of natural elements used in a symbolic way. I think the landscape and the dancers went really well with the music. How involved were you in making it?
MB: I’m always very involved. I have an opinion and if there’s anything I don’t like, even for lyric videos, I have my own views. In this case, I was presented a few different ideas. I knew the director from making the first video, for “How Do You Know”, Maxime Beauchamp, and I knew that we worked together well. This idea felt so right when I heard about it. I wanted the sea to be there, not just because of the title, but that’s because it’s what I’d been picturing. Maxime had the idea of the rocks, and combining that with the dancers as natural elements. If you were watching from far away, it would almost look like rocks dancing with the sea. I thought this was a genius idea. This captured the idea of the foreign sea where I’d been going to create during this time. It connected with the artwork for the album, too, and things matched without pushing too hard to do that. I’m really happy with how the video came out.
HMS: I noticed that the song “Far From Home” was on television recently, for the show Grey’s Anatomy. It has a lot of layers to it and is perhaps more built-up than some of the other songs on the album. How did that song develop?
MB: That’s worth commenting on because we haven’t talked much about the Production process on the album, which was something that totally changed from what I had been planning initially. In general, the idea of the Production for this album was to take my Swedish Producers, the Hasselberg brothers, Linus and Hannes, who I’d been working very closely with in Stockholm, and bring them to Greece, and introduce them to some Greek musicians. I wanted to bring these two worlds together. But because of the pandemic, that couldn’t happen, and we needed to start Production. I had some demos and they were ready.
We had to completely change the process, and started working on an island in Sweden, Gotland, where we put together a pop-up studio. We still wanted to travel away from home in some way. On our third attempt, we did manage to get to Greece, when about 1/3 of the Production was already done. All the songs were built in layers and some we chose to hold back, Production-wise, while some we kept on building. “Far From Home” is a funny one because it’s one we had been working a lot on before we went to Greece. It was one of the first songs from Foreign Sea. It was a song that felt characteristic of what we were feeling early on in the pandemic, as did “Foreign Sea”.
I had recorded it first by myself on a guitar, and I liked that stripped down feeling, but when I went into the studio, we started to experiment with it. I was stuck on my idea of it being very stripped down, but the Producers convinced me. It wasn’t easy to take it from being very subtle into what it became, but afterwards, I think it was one of the coolest approaches to Production that we took on any of the songs. It really developed. Especially, it describes the feeling that I had for the song, which I don’t think was fully described in the original demo. My Producers managed to bring out my idea and the feeling that I wanted. It was constantly evolving during a long Production journey.