“It’s crazy living this life where you need to create all the time – it’s totally frightening”

30-year-old August Rosenbaum has been a professional pianist since he was a teenager and this month he releases his third solo album 'Vista', his most original and inventive work to date. He reflects on growing up in a family that supported him every step of the way, on harnessing his self-doubt and perfectionism, and why music is the cure to the 'emotional amputation' of modern existence

August Rosenbaum is a gentle man. It’s in his voice as he speaks and in the warm, sheepish smile. He seats me at the kitchen table, and starts to clear away the clutter that amasses when you have a toddler – he and his wife Ea have a two-year-old son. Their apartment, overlooking Jagtvej in Nørrebro, is sparsely decorated, with a few nice designer pieces, lots of plants, and a cheese board that seems to live permanently on the kitchen counter.

Several weeks earlier, I heard Rosenbaum in concert at DR Koncerthuset, where he performed music from his latest album Vista, which is being released this month. It’s the 30-year-old jazz pianist’s third solo release, and it’s a rich reinvention – obscure, nostalgic and cinematic.

He took short breaks to chat with the audience during the show, and appeared confident and relaxed. Which you imagine he might be. A graduate of the Rhythmic Music Conservatory in Copenhagen, he’s been fêted as a prodigy, having started his professional career at age 13. A year later he won the Copenhagen Steinway Competition, and at 16 received the Jacob Gade Prize, a 100,000 kroner grant given annually to three of Denmark’s most promising musical talents. In 2010, at age 23, he won ‘Best New Jazz Artist’ at the Danish Music Awards following his debut release Beholder.

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It’s not a total surprise to learn that he comes from a family of musicians and actors. His mother, Ina-Miriam, and aunt, Pia, are well-known actors and stage directors, while his grandfather while his grandfather, Simon Rosenbaum, was a celebrated Danish pianist and entertainer. He began his career following the Second World War after returning from Sweden, where he had fled for protection due to his Jewish heritage. He died in 2015.

“My grandfather lived until he was 89 and played right up until the very end. I am 30, and want to sustain this interest in what I do for another 60 years. That’s a long run. It’s so crazy – how do you do that? I think a lot about it. I tell myself that what I am doing is the right thing, that I should follow my curiosity. But it’s crazy living this life, where you need to create all the time. I hope to have a long life in music, but I can’t imagine the stamina that it will take. I zoom out and think about how far I want to go. It’s totally frightening.”

Rosenbaum doesn’t need urging to talk about his worries, fears and anxieties – it almost spills out of him. But while he knows that he may have a long way to go, his career has also been decades in the making, urged to play music by his grandfather, and furnished with teachers from age six who nurtured his talent and kept him interested and challenged. As he puts it, “the chain didn’t break.” But he also had his struggles.

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“I did have ups and downs, and lost interest at times. And I have had psychological issues, like a strain that I felt in my hand as a teenager that was probably psychosomatic, since it got worse when I was stressed. I’ve had to work with that for a long time – the pressure of managing success and not feeling like an imposter. I spent a lot of time worrying about my own talent. It’s easy to be my own worst critic, and think that I haven’t deserved what’s happened. I have had a lot of that. But I’ve gotten better at managing it.”

Listeners want quality and depth
Rosenbaum’s self-doubt has clearly not inhibited him too much. He’s made three solo records, a live album with the August Rosenbaum Trio, written live arrangements for Danish popstar Mø and collaborated with the critically acclaimed duo Rhye. In between, he’s written music for movies and theatre, and produced a number of smaller jazz collaborations.

He has also toured the world with singer Coco O. and producer Robin Hannibal, who together form the group Quadron. Hannibal has been nominated for three Grammy Awards – notably through collaborations with rapper Kendrick Lamar – and shares writing and producing credits on Vista. The pair met fifteen years ago when Hannibal sold Rosenbaum a Fender Rhodes piano.

Vista was finished last year, but that doesn’t mean the work is over.

“I put in five or six years getting the music together, and then I had to build a visual identity around it. I knew that I wouldn’t get signed to a good label unless I was hyped in some way. So I had to roll up my sleeves and get to work.”

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August Rosenbaum. Photo: Rasmus Degnbol

In truth, he seems to enjoy the process and speaks eagerly about creating the album’s visual universe. In June, he released the first single, ‘Nebula’, along with a stark music video that he created in collaboration with Swedish artist Andreas Emenius and the Mercedes-Benz ‘culture laboratory’ Prxjects, which sponsors a large number of up-and-coming Danish musical acts, including Soleima and Liima.

The reality is that without corporate and state sponsors, it’s hard to make a living as a musician. Since 2010, Rosenbaum has received several hundred thousand kroner in grants from the Culture Ministry for both solo and group projects. These include funding for choirs and orchestras, as well as personal working grants.

“Grants have been a crucial part of being able to build a career, because you can’t do it from scratch – it costs money. Sure, everyone can be a producer and make music in their bedroom. But I like to record things in a studio, and that’s not free. In the US there is no support, so music is assessed much more on whether it can compete in the market, whereas that’s not the main focus in Denmark. That’s really valuable because we can just focus on being creative. This space for creativity is what everyone envies. Having the space to experiment and create something interesting.”

Rosenbaum may have done just that. In August, esteemed British DJ Mary Ann Hobbes selected the second single from Vista, ‘Credo’, for her 6 Music Recommends Show on BBC Radio 6 – a powerful digital-only station with more than two million monthly listeners.

“For me, it’s a challenge that it’s hard to get on the radio with instrumental music, but it just takes one DJ that loves the music – I was lucky that there are people like her on the airwaves,” he says.

“I think people are really good at seeing through shit and following quality and depth. I want to think that, but really I do believe it because there is space for progressive instrumental music like mine.”

Artistic neurosis
Artists and writers often talk about having to capture creativity when it arrives, and I ask whether that’s what the two small upright pianos in his living room are for. He says no – he blocks off time to write in his nearby studio instead.

“I think it would be super stressful to rehearse with my kid on the floor, thinking that I’ve got to make dinner and I want to finish an idea. That’s why I love when the work becomes more project-oriented, like with film and theatre. When we had Milo, I wrote scores for three plays, each with around ten weeks of planning and execution. Theatre is cool because you go to this beautiful room that people have created to make this illusion for the audience, and you get to create it there. It’s a perfect setting.”

Rosenbaum seems very relaxed about maintaining and cultivating his talent. He doesn’t stretch his hands or play scales, and he’s confident about his ability to perform and find creative energy when he needs to. As an example he brings up a recent performance at the Copenhagen museum Glyptoteket, in which he and Coco O. were asked to put together some music that reflected one of its installations.

“I basically had to trust that something would come, and I need to give myself more credit for that because it does take some guts to just show up and play like that. I think about that a lot – what kind of energy does it take, and what would happen if that energy were no longer there? Where does creativity come from, and what would it mean to no longer be able to access it? But I also think that sometimes you need to walk ten feet away and come back and try again. I think about that – that I trust that I have this ability that I know will come when I need it, that I always carry with me,” he says, adding that he’s still self-conscious about his abilities and tends to worry more than necessary.

“I laugh at it a little bit – I don’t try to be this way, but I feel like I’m a stereotype out of these old Woody Allen movies – typical Jewish neurosis,” he says, chuckling.

“I come with a built-in perfectionism. When you have it, it’s hard to listen to other people. I can’t be less of a perfectionist, and now that I have a kid, I have a hard time listening to other parents talk about how much they get done in such little time. I still put a lot of pressure on myself and am always thinking about the work at hand. I can’t make easy solutions for myself. It doesn’t feel right. I don’t know how.”

Bank managers and drunks
I interviewed Rosenbaum for the first time six years ago, a year after his win at the Danish Music Awards. That interview wasn’t for an article, but for the liner notes for the Live LP that he released together with his two childhood friends who make up the August Rosenbaum Trio. I also wrote a short press bio, which ended with the following passage:

“August is as happy languishing in the heavy beats of the Wu-Tang Clan as he is studying the progressions of the great Bill Evans. As he navigates the early stages of his career, the range of projects he is involved in can be interpreted as an attempt to make his classical training relevant in a modern world.”

I think this still holds true. Rosenbaum could have easily fallen into a career as a jazz pianist and built on its musical tradition. But while anyone listening to Beholder, Live LP and Heights would immediately identify them as jazz, that’s not the case with Vista. It’s something else entirely, sitting in an unresolved, remote space outside genre.

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August Rosenbaum. Photo: Rasmus Degnbol

“The main thing that I focus on is asking questions about what is easy to access and what isn’t. How do you feel invited, and not excluded, by the music? I think that’s very interesting. I want to leave a catalogue that says something about how we listen to music.”

His influences remain diverse, absorbing everything from what’s on his Spotify weekly playlist to obscure recordings from the Smithsonian archive. And he says he has always done this, storing the music away, linking it to the moment in time that he first heard it.

“I remember biking down Svanemøllevej to my friend’s house, listening to Talkie Walkieby Air for the first time. And I remember driving to Alsace in France with my school in seventh grade and listening to ‘Send It On’ from D’Angelo’s album Voodoo. My Dad and I would listen to Queen in the summer, and I can still recollect smells and imagery. And then there’s all the break up songs. It’s crazy what music can do. I think it’s impossible to put a price on that. Nowadays there are people who curate Spotify playlists with millions of subscribers because people need music to experience things. Which is important, because I think there is a danger of becoming emotionally amputated. We are so focussed on getting by, staying in shape, keeping our jobs, and living our dreams. It’s cool to have music that stabs you in the gut with feeling sometimes. I think people do that, and I don’t blame them. People are very good at tapping into something more emotional. It’s very important.”

After the interview, I kept thinking about what he said about his upbringing, that the “chain didn’t break.” It’s an insightful observation on his part, a self-awareness of the privileges that propelled his talent – the family and network that supported him the whole way and didn’t make him self-conscious about visualising a future as an artist. This instilled a confidence that begets success. Because it’s less random than we often think – who succeeds in art, and who doesn’t. And Rosenbaum, it seems, has always known this.

“I remember talking to my bank manager after I graduated from the conservatory, who said, ‘Stick with it for two years and see where you’re at, and if it’s not making any money, I would consider doing something else’. It was really cool of him, I mean you learn the ‘truth’ from drunk people and bank managers,” he says sarcastically.

“When it comes to this indefinable thing we call making art, I’m only concerned about the long run.” M


By Peter Stanners

Co-founder and Editor-in-chief. Occasional photographer.

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