“It kind of feels like I’ve been studying music my whole life,” says Marius Ziska, “but I don’t have a degree in music.” Born and based in the Faroe Islands, Ziska has traced distinctly attentive, inquisitive route maps across modern alt-folk landscapes, always with his untutored and exploratory instincts as guiding lights. Working with lyricist Hans Jacob Kollslíð and a revolving troupe of guest musicians, Ziska’s introspective and expansive music unfolds with a richly intuitive sense of space and feeling: warm and generous, melancholy and meditative, this is adventurous, inviting music to enfold and lift the spirit.
Ziska’s journey began modestly. A gift of a drumkit from his father when Marius was nine steered him towards bass, guitar and singing. His parents are “not musicians,” Marius says, “but they are very musical in some way.” His own innate musicality began to manifest most clearly at 15, the age when he started writing songs “non-stop”. As Marius elaborates, he first formed a band at 16, at a time when grunge and its progenitors spoke loudly to teenagers from Seattle to Søldarfjørður, Ziska’s birthplace. “Those bands were the bands that got me really interested in playing guitar and singing – bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden. I really learned a lot during that time, but we were just 16-year-old boys learning how to play our instruments.”
A natural drift towards folk and singer-songwriter influences ensued when Marius lived in Denmark for a while, sometime in the region of 2004. While writing songs in this vein, Marius’ thoughts turned to his father’s record collection – formative milestone works from The Beatles and Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Beach Boys and ELO. With the influence of surrounding mountain ranges also in the mix, 2013’s Recreation served up nine songs of warm, buoyant, English-language roots, rock and pop sounds. While subsequent albums would present a evolution in Ziska’s sound, the Bon Iver-ish ‘Restless Mind’, cheery blues-rock vamp ‘One in the Masses’, ghostly ‘The Middle Way’, barn-burning ‘Love’ and sweetly, weightlessly aching ‘Sound of You’ all heralded an artist of fluid melodic range, reach and sensitivity. “Pure and beautiful,” as Marius sings on the Beatles-y ‘Into the Silence’.
These reserves of zero-gravity fluency helped facilitate an organic shift on the follow-up album. Ziska’s electronic influences blossomed on Home/Heim (2015), exhibited swiftly with the treated voices and celestial soul swoon of opener ‘The House’. Elsewhere on the album, banked synths, spacious soundscapes and expansive melodies suggest gently pronounced prog-pop leanings, mounted with enough air to help Marius’ music breathe. ‘Let’s Not Fall Apart’ steers close to baroque rock, while ‘Going Home’ is a song of tender sorrow, its narrator in search of succour. Stand-outs include ‘Shades’, a tender duet with feted Faroe Islands artist and friend Eivør. “Me and Eivør are about the same age and have known each other since the age of 16,” says Marius. “I think she really is amazing. I have had the pleasure of supporting her on tour and that I am grateful for.”
On the second half of the eight-track album, Ziska shifts to songs sung in Faroese. Yet even to those not familiar with the language, the cosmic alt-rock beauty of ‘Back onto Earth’, magical flush of ‘The Phantasm’ and tender lullaby of ‘Tokan’ brim with open emotion. Meanwhile, ‘Dance in the Night’ summons intense reserves of drama. On all fronts, Ziska’s mission holds firm: to find the best way to express the feelings in Hans Jacob’s lyrics. “I like singing in Faroese because it feels real to me and there are things we can say that we don’t know how to write in another language. I want to write more in English but right now this is what we do. I want people to feel the music and I think it’s hard to write in English and say something deep and honest when you don’t have English as your first language.”
As Hans Jacob elaborates, “Most of the lyrics that I have written for Marius Ziska can be said to be concerned with some kind of modern spiritual longing. This fundamental issue, nevertheless, manifests itself in various contexts – the longing for home, love, truth.”
For his 2018 follow-up, Portur (Faroese for ‘gate’), Ziska sang all the songs in Faroese and executed another seamless leap forward. A concept album, Portur meditates on the inner and outer worlds of human existence, as mediated by our sensory receptors. The songs, meanwhile, find Ziska embracing deeper, more ambient electro-folk currents, a shift signalled by the pulsing ‘Silvurlín’, which opens the album with a teasing phrase: “Changed shape again/ And became something else.” Elsewhere, between violin-coaxed epics, politicised laments, cosmic synth-pop and psychedelic slow-burners, the heart of the matter remains in clear focus for Marius: “It’s really all about the song for me.”
Since then, Marius has been working to sustain and extend the trajectories established by Home/Heim and Portur with songs for a new EP and album. Produced by Mikael Blak, Heðin Ziska Davidsen and Marius with a sensitivity that honours both the aching humanity and cosmic reach in the songs, the new material is expansive and intimate, huge and human, forceful and fragile. The gorgeous electro-folk soul of ‘See Anew’ is exemplary, a radiant blast of hopeful light in the darkest of times issued over violins and folk arpeggios. “A good song for me almost always has some kind of hope in there,” explains Marius.
The expansive ‘Shadowplay’ and deep, dark ‘The Echo Chamber’ add potent currents of political critique. Meanwhile, ‘Fall to the Ground’ mixes far-reaching imagery (floods, new shores, the moon) with a yearning to search inside the self for anchorage and purpose, a meditative quality that Marius attributes in part to living and working in the Faroe Islands. While he says it can be difficult to play a lot of shows there, the positives of living on the island are writ large in his expressive, embracing music. “I believe the isolation creates a hunger to create and share your music and story with the world. Also, you are close to your fellow musicians and there is a lot of time to reflect. The landscape probably also helps you to be creative, as well.”
Welcoming and reflective, the depths of thought and feeling in Ziska’s music resonate in every “pure and beautiful” note. “It feels as if your heart is about to burst,” sings Marius in Faroese on ‘Fall to the Ground’. Balms for the bruised of heart, Ziska’s songs lay bare just how that feels.