Photo by Jonathan Lorange

Interview: Musk Ox

While the first Musk Ox album was very solitary, Inheritance feels rooted in the wider human experience and all the beauty and complexity contained within it.

It’s been seven years since this Ottawa-based modern classical/neofolk/progressive trio shared their music with their fans. Then on July 9th of last year, Musk Ox released an incredible album titled Inheritance. As a fan, it was well worth the wait. I finally caught up with the band to ask them about the album, the origins of the band, and much more. The interview inspired me, I hope it will inspire you as well.

(((o))) It’s been just over half a year now since the release of Inheritance. The response to the album has been great. Congratulations!! The fans have been anticipating the new album for seven years. Did you feel the pressure of that weighing on each of you during the writing and recording process?

Nathanael: Thank you! I wouldn’t say it was pressure but we were definitely aware that there was an audience waiting to hear what we would come up with. We knew that Woodfall had been well received which worked to our advantage because we wanted to take that record’s approach and refine it. By the time we started working on the new album each of us had grown as musicians so we were confident in our ability to create something special that fans of Woodfall would enjoy.

Raphael: In retrospect, I feel that Woodfall’s unexpected success and longevity actually gave us a greater incentive and confidence to surpass ourselves and realize a worthy follow-up album with Inheritance. I think we knew we had it in us to make a better record – we just needed to take the time to do it right. I’m glad we chose to create another body of work in a similar style to Woodfall since we were able to learn from our past choices and mistakes, refining our compositions, performances, and overall sound as a band on the new album.

(((o))) How did the band get started and how did you choose the band name Musk Ox?

Nathanael: Musk Ox started unofficially as a solo project in 2006 when I released the first demo, however the name didn’t emerge until 2007 when I was in the studio recording the debut full-length. A friend of mine had created this amazing sketch of a musk ox that I decided to bring to the studio for inspiration. It was there that I realized the name would be perfect. Since I was a child I’ve always loved musk oxen but the name also resonated because it represented a connection to nature that was both ancient as well as Canadian. As much as I’ve been inspired by American and European bands, I wanted to make sure the spirit of this project maintained a uniquely Canadian sense of identity in its ability to convey the vastness of this country’s landscapes. It wasn’t until later that a friend of mine informed me that I was born in the year of the ox so that was a nice surprise.

(((o))) In the write up for the album via the Bandcamp page it states that “the original skeleton of the album was composed on guitar by Nathanael, then it was handed to Raphael for string compositions, restructuring and additional guitar arrangements. Then the three of you spent more time refining the album.” Was that all done in person or via the net? Did COVID hinder the process or was the album written by that point?

Nathanael: We actually recorded the album in fall 2019 so all of the rehearsals happened in person a few years ago. We finished recording everything by early 2020 just as the world was shutting down. I still remember being in the studio the day the WHO officially declared the situation a pandemic. It was surreal. We were supposed to mix the album with my brother Simon at his studio The Sugar Shack in London, ON but ended up spending the better part of 2020 mixing it online. Since we had nothing else going on we were able to spend much longer refining the mix.

Raphael: Most of the guitar parts for the album were completed around 2015-2016. We wrote the first piece on the album, ‘Premonition’, all together in a single day in late 2015. This is the first piece we’ve ever composed as a trio and I think that the arrangements breathe in a way that gives all of the instruments a chance to speak; the music has a very organic ebb and flow. We had tried to approach writing the cello and violin more collaboratively this time but given how detailed and specific the guitar parts were, it made the most sense to work the same way as on Woodfall. I personally always work best under pressure with tight deadlines, and in between two Leprous tours I finally sat down and wrote the string parts for the remaining four pieces, composing at the piano and then transcribing everything into notation software.

We revised the material much more this time around. ‘Weightless’ was initially supposed to be a short and gentle closer but I added the entire heavy section towards the end. I had also added a very proggy extension to ‘Memoriam’; we ended up deciding to shelve it and I rewrote the ending to make the piece more concise. We also took more time to work together as a trio and workshop all the material, which was useful in that we were able to adjust certain sections, benefitting the overall arrangement and making some of the parts more playable.

(((o))) You state that the album is a “cathartic collection where wordless hymns of worry and wonder, forming a stirring soundtrack to an uncertain age of reckoning, reflection and resilience.” It definitely reflects the sentiment felt during these uncertain times. Can you tell us more about the theme of the album, and what it meant to you to put those feelings into music, and share it with the world?

Nathanael: I love the word inheritance because it manages to capture the past, present, and future all at the same time. What we inherit from the past it impacts the present, and how we choose to incorporate this into the present eventually shapes our future. This can be applied on an individual as well as a global level. Events that happen now have their roots in the past so examining the present challenges us to follow the thread to its origins to hopefully prevent history from repeating itself. While the first Musk Ox album was very solitary, Inheritance feels rooted in the wider human experience and all the beauty and complexity contained within it.

Raphael: In contrast with our previous work which depicts nature and its awe-inspiring beauty in a relatively objective way, the focus of Inheritance is on humanity and its trajectory. I would argue that the world of this album is captured through a more subjective lens. It has the darkest tone of all three Musk Ox albums and reaches deeper on an emotional level. The music serves as a vehicle for the listener to venture into the chasms of their own emotional landscape and hopefully find some truth and catharsis within themselves. The five tracks on Inheritance provide a space for introspection but also offer glimmers of hope and salvation. The trajectory of the music from despair and mournfulness to renewal and empowerment mirrors the idea of reflecting on who we once were and who we might be. There is a sense of transcending the weight of the past and reaching weightlessness at the end – a kind of release.

The title Inheritance is also autobiographical. This album is a milestone for us as a band as it marks the ten-year anniversary of the trio lineup of Evan, Nathanael, and myself. At this point we are able to look back on the path that brought us here and learn from past experience, envisioning where we want to go next. This record marks the end of a trilogy which started with the self-titled debut, providing closure and allowing us to begin a new chapter as a band.

(((o))) The track ‘Memoriam’, I have to say that it went straight to my heart, and endeared itself to my memories of the past and those I love the most. It’s a track that’s different from the others on the album, but not so much so that it’s out of place. Was its placement in the track order done purposefully to act as a bridge between the tracks before and after it?

Nathanael: Absolutely. After the intense ending of ‘Inheritance (Part 2 – Hindsight)’ we knew the next track needed to be an appropriate response to what came before it. ‘Memoriam’ originally began with the main guitar riff but it wasn’t until we were mixing that we decided to extend Evan’s ghostly harmonics to create more breathing room between the pieces. That transition is one of my favourite moments on the album.

Raphael: ‘Memoriam’ was definitely an exercise in restraint for us, since in the past we’ve mostly written sprawling epics with a lot of dense counterpoint and insistent rhythms. Its harmonic and melodic material is very similar to the track ‘Windswept’ on the previous album but it has a much more serene and relaxing feel. It is short and concise and I think if it were any longer, it might overstay its welcome. The key with realizing ‘Memoriam’, both as a composition and as a recording, was getting the right pacing and preserving a contemplative atmosphere. It had to move in an unhurried and graceful manner while also conveying stillness and poise. While it doesn’t reach the same grandiose heights as some of the other pieces on the album, I think that it succinctly captures our sound and is a great track with which to introduce new listeners to our work.


(((o))) The album also includes beautiful poetry by Conyer Clayton. How did that collaboration come to be?

Nathanael: Conyer Clayton is my partner of many years and also happens to be a remarkable poet so I asked her if she would be interested in creating an original poem for the album layout. In 2018, we recorded a collaborative album together called If the river stood still which featured myself on classical guitar accompanying her poetry so this wasn’t our first collaboration. She is such a gifted writer that I knew she would create something incredible. The poem you see in the layout is her first draft and beautifully captures the album’s themes while adding new, deeper levels of meaning. I absolutely love it. For anyone interested, I highly recommend her debut full-length collection of poetry We Shed Our Skin Like Dynamite.

(((o))) Do you plan on doing any gigs or live stream shows in support of the album?

Nathanael: We definitely want to play live again but do not have any plans at the moment. Like many musicians, we are waiting to see how the current situation unfolds. Now that more and more people are vaccinated I’m hopeful that we can get back on stage in 2022 and finally do some proper touring for the first time in the band’s history.

Raphael: Absolutely! I’ve observed recently how the life span of albums – even from very established artists – seems to be decreasing. It is harder than ever to maintain one’s relevance and presence in the sea of content that is the internet. If we want to grow as a band and do justice to our latest record, we need to play live.

(((o))) What’s next for Musk Ox?

Nathanael: We are planning on doing some writing sessions over the winter so we’ll see what emerges. The first song on the new album was the first collaborative piece we composed as a trio so we are eager to do more focused group writing as opposed to song ideas taking years to come together. I’m also planning on finally releasing some of the early, out-of-print material in physical form.

Raphael: I’m looking forward to writing brand new material together as well as performing material from Inheritance in 2022. We have also discussed the possibility of filming some live performances of our back catalogue. With Inheritance we took the opportunity to make our first proper music videos as a band and they have been quite successful. I hope that we can create more content in this vein that showcases our musical dynamic as a trio.

(((o))) Lastly, what’s the best piece of advice another musician ever gave you and what advice would you give to an aspiring musician?

Nathanael: I’m actually going to use a quote from shred guitar legend Michael Angelo Batio who took the age-old Nike slogan and made a crucial adjustment: “Just finish it”. Whatever you are working on, whether it is a song, album or any project you find yourself immersed in, just finish it. Over the years I’ve learnt that there is no way to gain any creative perspective on work until you complete and release it so this advice always comes back to me. I’m not sure if starting or finishing work is harder but these are certainly common areas where people get stuck. As for a piece of advice I would share, I’d like to build from the previous quote by stating that writer’s block is akin to a clogged sink. It’s not that there is nothing there, it’s that there is too much. If you find yourself artistically blocked, dive into your archives and you’ll likely find a pile of unfinished work that is clogging your creative energy. Just finish it.

Raphael: Something that I think about more and more is the responsibility of being an artist. I think that being a “great” artist goes beyond simply ourselves as individuals and our creations and extends into the impact we have on those around us and the energy we put out into the world. I remember receiving a comment from one of my teachers on my final undergrad recital that has stuck with me over the years and I think it resonates with me much more now than it did eight and a half years ago:
“As you go on, you will discover that it is not about you at all. As you encounter and engage more and more the mystery of giftedness, and come to terms with its requirements and demands, you will embrace life at an ever-deepening level. You will realize more and more that the path ahead is one of responsibility, humility, leadership, and generosity to others. You have a torch to carry, and I want you to hold it high; remembering that the light it casts, that the road it illuminates is your own, for sure. But it is others who are looking to the light you carry to help them find their way as well.”

My personal advice, not only to young or aspiring musicians, but to anyone with creative goals would be the following:
If there’s something very important to you that you want to do in life, start NOW. Don’t wait until tomorrow, because that day may never come. Don’t wait until you feel ready to take on the big stuff – you will never be fully ready for it anyway. In the past, every time I’ve waited or hesitated to do something important, it was because of fear. I tend to set my expectations extremely high for everything I do and then usually become afraid that my work won’t meet those standards. You have to just jump in. Whether it’s a quick email to an important person in the industry who could help your career, or making plans to record a new album, do it now, do the best that you can do in the moment, and keep moving. Experience has shown me that the cost of inaction is greater than the cost of not being perfect.

Band Photo by Jonathan Lorange

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