A Sense of Place: Du Nord by Elskavon & John Hayes

As lifelong residents of Minnesota’s Twin Cities, musicians Chris Bartels, aka Elskavon, and John Hayes share a common geography, but it was their shared interest in ambient-classical composition that eventually led them to forge a connection. Having been introduced by a mutual friend, a collaborative project was probably inevitable and so it has come to pass with a new album inspired by the infamously long, cold winters of America’s Upper Midwest. Called Du Nord, the title is a nod to the Minnesota state motto, “L’Étoile du Nord (French for “the star of the north”) and sets the tone for a delicate, but starkly beautiful sonic portrait of a place they call home as well as a way of experiencing it. According to Chris, it all began when he and John got together a couple of years ago to work on a single track…

“We first got together to write a song at John’s former apartment, in around the fall of 2018, something like that. Pursuit of a collaborative single turned into a 4-song EP, which eventually turned into this full-length. We’ve just let things naturally develop. For some songs, John improvised on the piano, sent them to me, and I did some chopping and processing, and added some of the more textural layers. But the majority of the album was written together, in the same room at the same time… these were the most creatively exciting times for us.”

Chris Bartels (aka Elskavon)

The spirit of the album calls to mind references from two of my favorite books from over the years. The first is is Robert Macfarlane‘s Landmarks where the British nature writer speaks of being “north-minded”, referring of his acculturation to high places often characterized by frozen landscapes. The other is Watership Down, where novelist Richard Adams expressed that “many human beings say that they enjoy the winter, but what they really enjoy is feeling proof against it”. The former speaks to the sensory experience of winter itself to the point it influences one’s view of the world, while the latter speaks to what the album’s liner notes refer to as as the “counter-intuitive consequence” of winter and how it spurs us to seek out heat and, by extension, the comfort of human connection and camaraderie.

Links: Bandcamp | Western Vinyl | Elskavon | John Hayes

The music of Du Nord seems very much in tune with both sentiments. From a sensory perspective, the piano can be as hushed as a nocturnal snowfall or coruscate like stars flickering in the night sky while the string treatments have an icy shimmer and the more sculpted pieces at times feel as if they are coated in hoarfrost and rime. What really brings the album to life, however, is its aura of interiority and interpersonal connection. The playfully rhythmic opening track pulses with life and offers a splash of warm color to set a friendly tone from the outset and the sense of collaboration between the two musicians remains evident through melodic expression punctuated by “humanizing fourth-wall breaks” where the recording becomes part of the narrative. It is the balance of these perspectives – its dual sense of place and the warmth of personal connection – that makes Du Nord as endearing to listen to as it is beautiful.

Du Nord is released via Western Vinyl and is available for purchase and streaming on most major digital platforms as well as directly from the label.